Interview by Michael Whitham. Image Simon Phipps
Lucy McCormick is a Fringe favourite, bringing her fearless blend of comedy, choreography and ketchup to a packed house every night. Her newest solo show, Lucy & Friends, leaves her trademark historical reenactments behind in favour of a raucous, solo cabaret the likes of which Pleasance Courtyard has never seen. I spoke to McCormick about arts council funding, the power of hair extensions and the secret to bravery on stage.
“When I’ve come to Edinburgh it’s always been a bit of a game for me in the sense of making some material which is quite performance arty and extreme, but performing it at the Pleasance Courtyard, for example, where there’s a lot of straight comedy going on. I’m trying to see if I can get the audience on side. Especially at the moment, I am getting a lot of people who I can tell have absolutely no idea what they’re walking into. It’s so satisfying to me to see the journey from them kind of going ‘oh my god’ to hopefully really enjoying it.”
Lucy & Friends is certainly on the extreme end of what you will find at Pleasance, but as with all her work, there are thematic underpinnings which ground McCormick’s more shocking sensibilities. “Talking upfront about not getting Arts Council funding for this show leads to a conversation between the show and the audience about who makes art and who pays for it, and who is responsible for it. The other thread that I keep coming back to is work, and people’s jobs. I talk about the weirdness of this being my job. How my mum feels about it, or the fact I’m getting older and I’m still just mucking about and throwing stuff around.”
Moments of audience interaction are carefully deployed to help weave these themes throughout the show. “I’m relying more on the audience than usual in this show, and I think that brought into the conversation ideas around the labour of putting the show on, and also the labour on this body – my body – that’s trying to get everything done. The show is made up of a series of standalone cabaret acts and I think because they all collect around me, it has this dramaturgical arc of someone trying to make something happen under very difficult circumstances.”
This perhaps makes the show sound like more of a serious experience than it is. In reality, it’s packed with laughs and it makes for an extremely enjoyable and wildly energising start to a night at the Fringe. “That is really important to me; that the show makes people laugh and that they have a good time. And that is just because it’s fun to make people laugh, but also, making people laugh is a good way of getting them on side. So then if you want to do something a bit more extreme or have a serious conversation about something, I feel like they’re much more willing to go with you. So a lot of it is really silly and really fun.”
Fans of Lucy’s unique performance style have come to recognise certain motifs in her work. Tomato ketchup comes to mind, but also the performance of certain tropes of femininity – stilettos, heavy make-up and long blonde hair extensions, albeit always in slight disarray and gradually disintegrating as her performance goes on. “Those elements feel quite honest. It’s an extension of me. I am a feminine person and I do desire all those things that are a bit old school – the long hair and the kind of Barbie thing. I desire the heels and the makeup.”
Are these accoutrements integral to the Lucy persona we see on stage? “I did this gig in Hastings and I forgot all the stuff. I didn’t have the hair extensions and the heels and all that. Walking on stage it was so hard to get the audience’s respect, I think I just looked so boring. Partly some of it, in quite a simplistic way, is just about being theatrical and looking interesting. But obviously it also proposes questions, or maybe expectations, of what this person is going to do. And is it sexy, or gross? Do we enjoy it or do we not like it?”
The disarray of the aesthetic has become part of her signature stage look, but it evolved more by chance than design. “It’s funny because sometimes I actually am trying to do these things right. Sometimes I think, in this show I actually want to look good… but there’s just no time. I’m usually so stressed and I’m so disorganised, so the aesthetic came more out of necessity than a vision. I’ve come to embrace that. Okay, I am literally wearing a dirty pair of pants out of my own washing basket. I just get so nervous and I get obsessed with thinking about what I am going to say. And the last thing I think about is what I’m going to wear or what my makeup is going to be like. I just shove it on.”
Another recurring motif is, for lack of a better term, the explicit. Nudity and the performance of sexual acts punctuate McCormick’s performances in ways that – certainly at 5.20pm at Pleasance Courtyard – can illicit gasps from the audience.
“Making a good show is really, really hard and you can’t just think, ‘well, I do nudity’. For me, it’s all about how and when it’s done and why. It has to be very, very placed. I think the work is orderly. It does play with ego, it does want to deconstruct pop culture. When I did Post Popular I put something in the blurb about it being an exploration of power and purpose. And I actually just think that that’s what all the shows are. I think the reason I’m including nudity is because it’s so easy to have so much shame around your body. And it’s such a load of fucking bullshit, but it’s very difficult to get rid of it.”
The more explicit parts of the show seem to confront what it is to be shocked, and why certain acts have that effect on an audience. “That feels exactly right to me. There’s something happening on stage and the first response is sometimes, oh no, oh my god, that can’t happen. And then… it keeps happening and it’s like, this is actually okay. And we’ve all gone through that together, including me, and we’re all okay. It was fine. I am questioning a certain kind of hysteria or taboo. I am actually trying to take the sensational element out of whatever it is.”
Without wishing to spoil the new show, some of the things McCormick does on stage every night would make even the most seasoned cabaret performer blush. So is McCormick fearless? “When you’re brave, it doesn’t mean that you don’t feel scared. It just means that you still do it. So it’s not about how to ‘not be scared’. But after you’ve done something once, it’s not as scary as before. But secondly, my most honest answer is that my performances are more like a performance of being brave. It’s so much easier to be brave in a show – I can think about what I’m going to do and choreograph it. It’s very, very different to being sort of brave in real life. So I know that the shows might look brave but I think I’m actually teaching myself a lesson – that I can be really powerful in this space, and I can be really strong and I can do things that people might question. But it’s much easier in the show than in the real world!”
Lucy and Friends is at the Pleasance Courtyard at 5.20pm until August 23rd.
For future performance dates follow @lucy_muck on Twitter and Instagram.