Thursday, August 26, 2010

Interview: Jonathan Hellyer, star of Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens

Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, currently playing at the Shaw Theatre, is a tapestry of monologues and songs inspired by the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Developed in the late 1980s and originally titled, The Quilt, Elegies, as it is often shortened to, is a moving, often funny and sometimes heartbreaking collection of stories written from the perspective of characters who've died from AIDS, with the songs representing the feelings of friends and family dealing with the loss.

 Dan HG spoke to Jonathan Hellyer (who plays Brian), better known as the man behind the frock of the jaw-droppingly sharp and hysterical cult hit, The Dame Edna Experience.

Dan: Tell us about Edna, where did she come from and when did it all start…

JH: Well… 1993, Birmingham. I was a regular and a member of the Nightingale, Birmingham's big gay club – and I was always known during lock-ins for doing "voices" and things like that, and Edna, and Kenneth and all those silly people and one day they said to me, would you, if we got you some glasses, and a wig and a frock, host a charity night for Birmingham AIDS Trust as, Edna? – and I said yes, I would. And it all went rather well! We had this night, it was supposed to be an hour long show and it lasted three, funnily enough, and so the DE Experience was born. That night there was an agent in the audience who came to me after the show and said, "I could get you loads of work", and I said, "No thank you, I'm happy being a nurse", and he said, "No, I really could get you loads of work", so I thought about then I took some work and then it grew from there. In 1994 I played my first ever gig in London which was at the 2Brewers on a Sunday afternoon – rather marvelous too, and it was in the back room of the old 2Brewers, a superb cabaret venue, a real dive – print that. Now it's Costa Coffee or something. I don't know anyone who aspires to becoming a drag act – I can't imagine a more lacklustre aspiration, but apparently people do, but I didn't, I fell into it very much by accident and that's why it seems . . . a bit casual for me, nothing permanent about it – and here we are, 15 years later…

 Dan: Why do you think its so funny after so long, and why do people still come to see it, week after week after week at the Vauxhall Tavern? How do you manage to keep it funny and relevant?

 JH: Well Dan, when you finish asking the question finally, I don't write it at all, I hoof it, I make it up on the spot. That is probably a really really dangerous thing to do, unless you know what you're doing and of course I know what I'm doing with that audience – I've never written any show I've ever done, and I think that's probably what keeps it fresh, but it doesn't always work, some of the things I say just go over people's heads, which is OK, because there is a relationship between me and the audience, between the act and the audience, and when you tell someone close to you a joke, they don't always get it, but I think the thing that keeps it fresh is that it's not written, its raw, so that I'm flying by the seat of my pants!

Elegies is at the Shaw Theatre until 28 August 2010. Tuesday to Saturday at 7.45 p.m. Saturday Matinees at 4.30 p.m.

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