June 14, 2024

Beauty Arts

The Arts Authority

Australian comedian Liz Kingsman skewers the One Woman Show popularised by Fleabag with her Sydney Opera House debut

Australian comedian Liz Kingsman skewers the One Woman Show popularised by Fleabag with her Sydney Opera House debut

The last decade or more has seen a glut of “messy millennial women” on screen, in books, and on stages — from Lena Dunham’s Girls to novels by Sally Rooney and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag (the play and the series).

They’re narcissistic women with self-destructive tendencies, who act out via unfulfilling casual sex, binge-drinking and inappropriate workplace behaviour. Their actions are often a response to a traumatic event; to feelings of pain, grief or guilt.

And now Liz Kingsman, the Sydney-born, UK-based comedian, is on the Sydney Opera House stage starring in her own One Woman Show, as “a woman stumbling through [her] 20s in a fiercely honest, darkly comic way”.

On stage, Kingsman shrugs: “I guess I’m just relatable.”

One Woman Show is a send-up of the slew of fourth-wall-breaking plays that followed in the wake of Waller-Bridge’s original stage production of Fleabag in 2013.

Kingsman’s unnamed character is a fame-hungry playwright who decides to write and perform her own confessional monologue, Wildfowl. She’s resolved to film the show for TV executives, hoping they’ll commission a series.

The Australian comedian wrote the play after sitting through countless one-woman fringe shows that had been described as “unflinching”, “raw” and “honest”. But rather than parroting the tropes of these shows, Kingsman is skilfully skewering them.

It’s tempting to call One Woman Show a parody of Fleabag, what with its protagonist talking proudly about having “very non-vanilla sex” or sitting perched on the edge of a red chair, looking into the middle distance.

But Kingsman stresses: “The show isn’t based off that show … There’s nothing in my show that’s from any [single] specific thing. If something cropped up in three [fringe] shows, I’d be like, ‘That can go in.’ That way it doesn’t feel like I’m punching down at something.”

One Woman Show debuted at London’s Soho Theatre in 2021, and was dubbed the best comedy show of the year by The Guardian, beating out Bo Burnham’s Netflix special Inside.

It transferred to the West End in December last year. Kingsman hopes its next stop will be Broadway.

It has scored five-star reviews, with its UK seasons sold out and extended, and was nominated for best show at Edinburgh Fringe in 2022.

Kingsman has even been crowned the “new queen of British comedy” by both The Times and Vogue.

A brunette woman, wearing overalls, bathed in red light on stage, has one hand on top of her head, the other on her cheek
Kingsman has described the excess of cynically made confessional theatre following Fleabag as a “feeding frenzy”. (Supplied: SOH/Dylan Woodley)

(She is circumspect about this kind of pronouncement; in One Woman Show, her character quips: “It’s February now. They haven’t decided which woman is going to be successful this year yet.”)

It’s a stratospheric rise for a woman who most Australians have never heard of.

Early life on stage

The Sydney Opera House is a far cry from Kingsman’s performing arts origins, learning to dance on the city’s Lower North Shore. She would spend every afternoon, from the ages of eight to 13, at her dance school in Crows Nest.

But her dance studio wasn’t like the others. Kingsman and her peers weren’t “glittery and perfect” tiny jazz dancers – instead, for eisteddfods, they were encouraged to wear whatever they wanted, as long as it matched the loose theme.

“It felt genuinely like we were in a Step Up film — obviously, we weren’t, because we were all on the Lower North Shore, but it felt like we were. We teased our hair and it was all very cool.”

It was during their end-of-year showcase that Kingsman first felt the buzz of being a performer behind the scenes: “You’ve got a quick change between your dances, and that thing of having all your stuff at the side and your hairspray,” she says.

It’s the same excitement she feels days out from her first show at the Sydney Opera House (“Oh my God. Wow.”), and that she felt in December when she debuted One Woman Show on the West End.

A brunette woman in her 30s, wearing a red vest and matching pants, sits with her legs akimbo and mouth slightly open
Kingsman grew up watching British comedies like Absolutely Fabulous and all-women sketch show Smack the Pony.(Supplied: Will Bremridge)

She describes the feeling of walking through the narrow corridors of the Ambassadors Theatre (a West End stalwart), as an announcement played over the loudspeaker backstage: “Liz Kingsman, this is your call to the stage.”

She marvels: “That’s a woman who’s been hired to say that! Whatever that feeling is, I learned it from that dance school.”

Uncomfortable wanting to be an actor

Although Kingsman has been chasing that behind-the-scenes buzz ever since, she’s never been comfortable admitting she wants to be an actor.

While she did perform in high school plays, she mostly spent her teenage years reading books, going to film clubs, and watching a friend perform with the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP), admiring the stage from afar.

“Anything to do with acting, I always was too scared to ask how one goes about it,” she says.

“In order to do it, I’d have to say aloud: ‘I’m looking to do that.’ So I just never told anyone or did anything about acting on any front.”

Kingsman began to chase her acting dream while studying English and history at Durham University in the UK, which she applied to on an impulse.

“I literally saw a picture of a castle and was like, ‘Alright,'” she says.

“I think when you’re 19, you make these decisions based on almost nothing. And when you look back, and you see the shadows that it cast across your whole life, it’s actually a bit terrifying to think about the whimsy with which you made a decision.

“But then when you get to 30, you can see the shadows of the decisions you’re currently making [and] you can see the impact that they’re going to have in the future. And that’s why people go so mad in their early 30s.”

At university, Kingsman adopted a British accent, began performing in student theatre, and met the people with whom she would start to write comedy.

These years instilled a knack for “working under pressure in last-minute situations, like when you’ve got a show to open at 8pm and you’re still halfway through your tech [rehearsal],” she says.

A brunette woman in her 30s, wearing a suit jacket and pants, sits with her head tilted to one side, hair falling in her face.
“My first year at Durham I lost a lot of my own dignity: just sort of drank a lot of beer and didn’t dress nice and didn’t have any money,” says Kingsman.(Supplied: Sequoia Ziff)

After she graduated, Kingsman settled on a different, related ambition to acting: directing. She resolved to get as much experience as she could on set, working as a runner on productions such as 2013’s Thor: The Dark World (where she was also Natalie Portman’s stand-in).

But she still wanted to be an actor and to write her own material, so she turned down a job as a runner on Paddington and took an office job, writing sketches and doing improv with her friends after-hours.

Making ‘silly, stupid stuff’

Kingsman landed her first TV role in 2015 in the Channel 4 satirical comedy Ballot Monkeys, and its sequel the following year, Power Monkeys, playing a conservative party aide.

Three middle-aged people, two men and a woman, and a young woman, in business attire, crowd around a laptop.
Episodes of Power Monkeys were written and filmed on the day they were broadcast.(Supplied: Channel 4/Tim Booth)

In 2016 and 2017, she featured in Channel 5 border force mockumentary Borderline, and in 2020, she landed a role in French comedy Parlement, a trilingual series set in the European Parliament just after the Brexit referendum.

A woman in her early 30s, with tied back brown hair, sits with a man with glasses, as they look down at typed, stapled pages
Parlement is performed in French, English and German. Kingsman doesn’t speak French.(Supplied: france.tv/Jo Voets)

As a writer, she worked on ABC TV’s Tonightly with Tom Ballard – a gig she picked up for just a month while she was on holiday in Sydney.

A friend working on the show had told her they were looking for more writers, so on the day she landed — a Friday — she sent some scripts to the show’s head writer. By Monday, she was in the writers’ room.

“I said, ‘Just so you know, I haven’t lived here for years — I’m not going to be helpful on any of the political satire stuff. What I can do is characters, sketches, silly, stupid stuff,'” Kingsman says.

And then came the 2018 Liberal leadership spill, which saw Scott Morrison replace Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister.

“They basically wiped clean the whiteboard of all the content they were gonna do and were like, ‘Right, let’s focus on this’ … I still had a lot of fun and I met people, but I was absolutely useless to the show on every front.”

Even so, one of her jokes did make it into an episode that was set 50 years into the future.

“I do remember making the joke that the ABC would’ve been privatised by then and that it was owned by Bakers Delight. They remarkably went with it,” she laughs.

The path to One Woman Show

In 2019, after a year talking about her idea for One Woman Show and poring over fringe brochures, Kingsman booked a 60-seat venue at Camden Fringe.

It was an informal deadline to write the show; when the festival emailed her two weeks out to tell her she hadn’t sold any tickets, she still hadn’t written a word.

A brunette woman in her 30s, wearing overalls, bathed in purple light on stage, stands with her mouth open, one hand on her hip
Kingsman started writing One Woman Show when she was meant to be working on a film script that she still hasn’t finished.(Supplied: SOH/Dylan Woodley)

Having recruited her improv group to perform with her to take the pressure off, she “bashed out” the entire show in just two weeks.

That Camden show was the first time Kingsman had performed live comedy on her own – having previously performed as part of improv group Sorry and sketch group Massive Dad.

In February 2020, having developed the show further with director Adam Brace (associate director at Soho Theatre), she performed a new version in a disused railway tunnel in London as part of independent theatre festival VAULT, where she constantly tried out new sections.

A few weeks later, the festival closed as the UK was plunged into lockdown.

“My show ended up being, for 60 people, the very last social thing they did that year,” she says.

She put her plans to tour One Woman Show to Edinburgh Fringe and to a larger London venue on hold.

“I just had to put my show in a drawer and move on with my life. And when I say move on with my life, obviously I mean I got a puppy [a cockapoo named Emmett, after the Back to the Future inventor],” she says.

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In May 2021, with lockdown having lifted, she performed the show for a couple of nights in north London — followed by its official debut at Soho Theatre, in October.

From there, the show snowballed, picking up accolades and rave reviews.

Not what’s trendy

Kingsman’s One Woman Show melds two different moments in comedy: the meta-comedy (or: comedy about comedy) with the silly and surreal (at one point her character drinks from progressively larger bottles of water, hidden at the side of the stage, until she’s struggling to hold up a cooler bottle).