Interview: Sally Phillips, Lily Bevan and love of the everyday

One is mistress of the awkward pause, the other a word-spinning playwright. Together, Sally Phillips and Lily Bevan are hilarious, writes Claire Smith

Talking To Strangers stars Sally Phillips (left) and Lily Bevan, who both love the absurdities of everyday life. Picture: Contributed
Talking To Strangers stars Sally Phillips (left) and Lily Bevan, who both love the absurdities of everyday life. Picture: Contributed

Sometimes, when Sally Phillips is listening to Lily Bevan on stage, she can’t believe what she is hearing.

“She’s great to watch performing because she is always about to break. You go: ‘What’s she doing?’ You really can’t tell what she is going to do next.”

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“I tend to say the words quite rhythmically. She will take a vowel sound and stretch it out. Lily is like jazz.”

Phillips, of Smack the Pony, Miranda, Veep and Alan Partridge, has teamed up with comic actress and playwright Lily Bevan to create a series of comic monologues, “part theatre, part sketch show”. The duo first met in a workplace kitchen, where they were separately working on scripts.

Frustrated by the slow progress of working on film and TV projects, they decided to throw together a knockabout sketch comedy night called Dances with Dogs.

This became the Radio 4 series Talking To Strangers, which has now come full circle to become a live show again.

“It’s something we are doing just for fun, which is nice,” says Phillips, who began her comedy career as the “straight girl” working alongside Fringe comedians.

She hasn’t performed at the Fringe since 1997, when she appeared alongside Simon Munnery, Stewart Lee and Julian Barratt in Cluub Zarathustra. That year she also was flying up and down between Edinburgh and London to film with Steve Coogan.

On screen, Phillips is the queen of the awkward pause. As Sophie the Travel Lodge receptionist in Alan Partridge, she could hold an uncomfortable moment forever, while her eyes twinkled with mischief and laughter.

She tells me she loves getting hold of a script in which there are very few words.

“When I get a script and the character doesn’t say very much, I get excited. Most people don’t say very much.”

While Phillips has impeccable comedy credentials, Bevan is more grounded in the theatre scene.

Phillips says: “I think she is just amazing. She was at Rada, she’s written plays for the Royal Court, she’s 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.”

Both women share a love of the everyday absurd and the surreal and a penchant for taking inspiration from snatches of conversation overheard in the street.

The Radio 4 series on which Phillips and Bevan collaborated had a stellar cast including Emma Thompson, ­Jessica Hynes and ­Olivia Colman. For the Fringe version of Talking To Strangers, though, Phillips and Bevan take on all the roles. All the characters are female – although, say Phillips and Bevan, they don’t have to be.

Reviews have often mentioned their work as an example of women writing for women, but Bevan and Phillips say it is just the way things turned out. If they felt like it, they could write a part for a man.

The solo monologue form, inspired partly by Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, and also by the comic sketches of Harold Pinter, gives them the chance to explore each of the characters in depth.

“I like the fact it is really focused on getting to know one person for a really short amount of time,” says Bevan. “You don’t have to think about how it is going to be staged. The words are the key to everything. The language becomes very important.”

The show usually begins with a yoga session conducted by Bevan’s absurdly loquacious yoga instructor.

“I am a yoga teacher in real life and at the beginning of the show I get the audience to breathe together,” says Bevan. “I’m very physical and my theatre training is all about using your body and your breath. I try to connect with the room – people like doing the breathing, it brings the audience together and it’s also a good way for me to deal with my nerves.”

Bevan also plays a French dietician with a ridiculous theory of digestion and a Hampton Court tour guide with no knowledge of history. Phillips’ characters include a forthright Swedish academic, a shy sex therapist and a woman in a cancer support group who develops a tremendous fear of Bette Midler.

“Sally is very clever and she is very quick,” says Bevan. “She will come up with five alternative jokes in one go. She also has a great connection with the audience. She is excellent at sharing the joke. Something I love is when I leave the stage I have so much confidence in what Sally is doing, I can hear Sally’s voice and I know the audience is having a good time.”

One of the early previews was immediately after the Brexit vote. Phillips says she knew she had to acknowledge what had just happened from the stage. She says: “You feel the audience are desperate for you to say something. It doesn’t have to be jokes. But you can’t have a show without mentioning this – everyone is checking their news feeds every five minutes.”

Phillips decided her straight-talking Swedish academic should deliver an impromptu lecture on the UK’s decision to leave Europe. It gave her the opportunity to engage the audience with a withering Scandinavian stare and say to them: “Look what you’ve done.”

She wonders if the fallout will herald a rise in political comedy. “Maybe it will. But we have had charisma-free politics for 25 years.”

As well as appearing in the latest Bridget Jones movie, Phillips has also been working on a documentary about Down’s Syndrome. “It’s about prenatal screening and it’s been a labour of love because my son Ollie has Down’s Syndrome. It took me until Ollie was about five to realise – ‘Actually it isn’t really that bad’. People talk about it as if it is a disaster, but it is not as bad as people make out. It is more like a sitcom. There are so many ways it is life-improving. We are in a society which is obsessed by efficiency. But the thing about Down’s Syndrome is they do everything but they just don’t do it as quickly.

“My experience of Down’s is it releases me to interact with him more than I did with the others. In an age where everyone is frantic – the more efficient you are, the less you interact with other people.”

Phillips will be bringing Ollie and the family up to Edinburgh and looks forward to a very different kind of Fringe – although there will be plenty of old friends to catch up with.

“Edinburgh was where I grew up as a performer and a person. It was such an integral part of my comedy career. I was the straight girl feed in about three or four shows a day. One of them was Richard Herring’s Ra Ra Rasputin – which was a one-man show with about seven people in it.”

Whenever she’s back in Edinburgh she gets flashbacks to those days of changing costumes and running about town. “I keep having these moments of random shame – thinking, ‘Oh dear, I think I was sick in this alleyway.’”

• Sally Phillips and Lily Bevan: Talking to Strangers, Assembly George Square Studios, 15-21 August, 8pm