People, muses Sally Phillips, “often assume we are writing plays for women because there aren’t enough female roles out there. But very often the characters we create could be women or men.” It’s a conclusion she came to while putting together Talking to Strangers, the much-anticipated show she and Lily Bevan are bringing to Assembly Theatre.
Their jointly written series of comic monologues, which was previously a Radio 4 series, was born out of conversations in an office kitchen. “Lily and I were both working in the same offices in London – I was writing screenplays and she was writing for the theatre,” says Phillips. “Everyone there was working very hard and it was very quiet – so she and I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, talking about how hard it is to write stuff when you haven’t been in front of an audience for a while. So we decided to do something together.”
Phillips, one of the creators of sketch show Smack the Pony, is one of Britain’s best known comic actors, with recurring roles in I’m Alan Partridge, Miranda and Veep. She first came to the Fringe in 1990, but has not performed there since 1997, when she appeared alongside Simon Munnery, Stewart Lee and Julian Barratt in Cluub Zarathustra.
“I didn’t go to drama school – I did all my growing up in Edinburgh,” she laughs. “I used to do three or four shows a day. Now when I go back I get terrible flashbacks – thinking, ‘Oh, I think I was sick in this underpass.’”
This year will be different. She’ll be bringing her husband and children and she’ll be taking centre stage.
“In 1997 I was flying up and down to do Alan Partridge, which was filming at the same time. I’m looking forward to this being me and Lily. I was quite often the straight woman in the guys’ shows.”
In Talking to Strangers, which runs for a week at Assembly, Phillips and Bevan will be performing monologues from the Radio 4 series. The selection will vary from performance to performance and they may also bring in a couple of new characters, created just for Edinburgh.
The monologues of Alan Bennett and the sketches of Harold Pinter are among the inspirations for the piece, which is billed as theatre rather than comedy, but which will most certainly be full of laughs.
Bevan says: “It’s all funny, but there is a lot more going on. It’s more dramatic than sketch comedy.”
Phillips explains: “With sketch comedy, each line exists to get a laugh. It exists to be funny. But we don’t do ‘funny characters’; it is all about the situation. And there are no puns.”
Among the characters are a Hampton Court guide with a scant grasp of history and a marriage counsellor who struggles to talk about sex. One sketch takes place in a cancer support group, where a group of women are being “sung to death” by Bette Midler.
As Sophie the receptionist in Alan Partridge, Phillips’s speciality was the awkward silence. “My favourite thing in acting is the gap – what isn’t said,” she explains. “When I read a script where the character doesn’t say very much, I get excited. Most people don’t say very much.”
Both share a love of words, a taste for absurdity, and a willingness to appear awkward and vulnerable on stage. Bevan says: “We both have a really good ear. We’ll hear bits of conversation on buses and turn it into something else. And we are both able to draw on our own fallibility, our own quirks.”
Phillips is hugely impressed by her writing partner: “I think she is just amazing,” she says of Bevan. “She was at RADA, she’s written plays for the Royal Court, she has written with amazing people. I love her writing and she is funny in the best way. But she writes in a wordier way than I do because her background is in the theatre.”
The beauty of the monologue format is that it allows Phillips and Bevan to be thoughtful and dark without having to forego the laughs. As theatre, it can be serious and not serious at the same time.
“The idea is to address the world,” Phillips says, “but we are not going in with a mission. We’re not intending to reorder the world.”
Words: Claire Smith
Picture: Bronwen Sharp
Sally Phillips & Lily Bevan: Talking to Strangers, Assembly George Square Studios, 15-21 August, 8pm