Fringe interview: comedian Sara Pascoe

Sara Pascoe PIC: Matt Crockett
Sara Pascoe PIC: Matt Crockett
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From breaking up with her partner to adapting Pride And Prejudice for the stage and embarking on a six-month solo hen party, Sara Pascoe admits she is having ‘a bit of a year’

Sara Pascoe is recalling her hen party. It involved life drawing, cocktail mixing classes and getting drunk. With Kenny, a stripper from Butlers With Bums.

“Except I bailed on the day,” she says. “I just thought it would be the worst three hours of both of our lives. On the online form there were so many options. But nowhere to explain that you’re the only person on the hen do.” Sympathising with a fellow performer, she reflects: “How cruel would it be to turn up at a gig and have someone tell you, ‘It’s just me. I’ve bought all the tickets’? Sorry Kenny.’”

By any measure, Pascoe is having “a bit of a year”. Returning to the Fringe with her first show since 2014’s Edinburgh Comedy Award-nominated Sara Pascoe Vs History, and with a Radio 4 series about evolutionary psychology forthcoming, she’s recently adapted Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice for the stage and will spend her days in Edinburgh writing Sex Power Money, the follow-up to her feminist treatise Animal: The Autobiography Of A Female Body, which focuses on male physiology, psychology and hormones. She’s single for the first time since 2001 too, after splitting in December from her partner, fellow comic John Robins.

Outside the cultured environs of the British Library on a sunny day, she reveals that she’s been pursuing a one-woman bachelorette binge for the past six months, visiting Paris on Valentine’s Day by herself and planning to do the same in Las Vegas. Her latest hour, LadsLadsLads, is “essentially a stag do for me marrying myself. It’s an adventure for me to work out how to be complete and not think about happiness with another person”.

Unlike Robins, who tends to draw deeply from his “shame well”, public ignominy isn’t something that especially troubles Pascoe. Because they were always open about it, even appearing on Mock The Week as a couple, she won’t be referencing their life together. Not that she has to. Mentioning only that she’d recently left a relationship at a recent preview, a woman sighed: “Oh, I really liked him!”

She wonders about “comics talking about traumatic things and it feeling healing, because you kind of fictionalise it. If you do that too early, you’re already remembering the relationship wrong, you’re making it worse or better than it was.”

Robins’ show is less circumspect. But after constructive, friendly conversations between them, “there’s nothing he could say that would hurt my feelings, honestly and truly. If he said something that wasn’t true, I’d know it was a joke. Someone who didn’t do comedy might think it was awful to have someone talking about you. But I just love the attention, even if I’m not there.”

Pascoe is something of an open book, with Animal relating her experiences of abortion, self-harm and the limits of sexual consent. After writing those passages and her exhaustively researched shows, her stand-up has necessarily become “shallower” she suggests, with LadsLadsLads likely to prompt “my agent to drop me”. It will be “my worst reviewed show ever” she anticipates. “Even though it’s my funniest. There’s no science, no education, no didacticism, no me telling you about an enriching thing I’ve learned. Anything remotely bridging has gone, it’ll be very loose, just one memory after another about relationships. People who’ve only come because of the book will hate it.”

Regardless, she says, “I’m more confident than ever, I’m flowering into the comic I always wanted to be. It’s just about delivering the funniest routines I have.”

Alienating her readership from her stand-up seems perverse, not least as she’s also planning a novel. But then she shares some of her “grim” research for Sex Power Money. Out next summer, Pascoe didn’t want to write “a really angry, upsetting book but something level-headed”. Even so, she’s struggling with the issue of sex-for-rent. “There are homeless people who other people let stay if they have sex with them” she says. “An ex-sex worker I interviewed, her situation is pretty typical, in that she’s a vulnerable person, my age, very intelligent. But after an abusive relationship, she couldn’t afford her rent, so she put an ad on Gumtree.

“There’s a whole language there, euphemisms obviously, if you know what you’re looking for. She would go to people’s houses and have sex. Or do other things like go to sex clubs. Now, I would argue that if someone’s in economic desperation, that’s not a choice.”

Clearly, sexual exploitation isn’t a new phenomenon. The sole overlap of Pascoe’s new show and book is light-hearted material about the archaic code of men paying for dinner on the first date. But bleaker parallels emerge in her disquiet about Pride And Prejudice.

Asked to deliver a funny, modern take for the Nottingham Playhouse in September, she found her “upper lip going thin” as she tried to reconcile its romantic reputation with a storyline of women facing eviction unless they marry.

“Elizabeth turning her cousin down is such an act of bravery because she’s literally making her family homeless by saying, ‘I won’t go to bed with that man, I won’t be owned by him’,” she says. “My first reading, I felt I needed to rip it to shreds. I don’t blame Austen. I blame anyone who thinks it’s romantic now. It’s Fifty Shades Of Grey with no sex in it. Why does anyone like that proposal scene? Men paying for dinner, that’s what it’s residual from.”

Some time later, after “calming down and thinking about how to actually make it a love story”, she introduced moments that “flick forward” to contemporary sensibilities, of schoolchildren studying the book; a TED talk; of the actors rehearsing, “with a modern commentary asking ‘why would they do that? Where are the zombies? When he’s going to take his shirt off?’ Little things about the adaptations. Essentially, what I’ve tried to do is make you think, ‘Oh God, this mad feminist has written a version where Elizabeth and Darcy don’t get together.’ I want audiences to reach the point where they feel like, ‘If they don’t get together I’m going to storm the stage.’”

Modern courtship is, of course, rather more direct. Among the Labour-supporting comic’s recent suitors has been Jeremy Corbyn. Although wary of the “reductive” cult of Corbynmania, she had a private chat with him on Twitter ahead of the general election, about engaging the youth vote.

“And I nearly didn’t sleep with excitement!” she exclaims, affecting an attack of the vapours. “I kept writing him message after message after message. It was just like when you fancy a boy.”

Sara Pascoe: LadsLadsLads, Pleasance Courtyard, 2-27 August