The star of hit Australian comedy Kath And Kim talks to Matthew Amer about returning to the stage after a decade away with her West End debut in Holding The Man.
For years British television has indulged in a love affair with Australian drama. From Sons And Daughters to The Sullivans, Neighbours, Home And Away and Heartbreak High, British audiences have lapped up portrayals of Aussie life with more vigour than Bouncer the dog attacking a spilt can of Castlemaine XXXX.
Now the West End is getting in on the act, presenting the stage adaptation of hit Australian book Holding The Man, which has already proved successful down under. Jane Turner, star and creator of hit Aussie TV comedy Kath And Kim, joins the cast of the UK premiere at the Trafalgar Studios.
“I’d rather do this today than tomorrow, just in case tomorrow’s a disaster,” Turner tells me when we chat on the phone just hours before the show’s London press night. I am a little surprised that she is willing to do an interview today; normally actors would run a mile rather than chat to a journalist this close to an opening night. “It’s probably good to talk to someone and not dwell on the horrors that can happen,” she laughs, although it is not the most convincing of full-blooded guffaws.
Turner, through sitcom Kath And Kim, which peddled the exquisite kind of excruciating humour that had audiences hiding behind their hands for the best part of a decade, is a household name in Australia, where the show regularly topped the ratings. Over here the tales of suburban Australia enjoyed a cult status among fans who revelled in the exploits of the shell-suited Kath Day-Knight and her delusional daughter.
“It’s probably good to talk to someone and not dwell on the horrors that can happen”
Holding The Man marks Turner’s return to the stage for the first time in a decade, taking on her first major professional engagement since leaving Kath’s iconic perm behind. It is also her West End debut. Understandably, she is nervous: “I do feel a little bit vulnerable,” she admits. “I hope I can do something else besides Kath… It’ll be fine. If it’s not, who cares? I’ll just run away back to Australia.” She laughs again, but again it is a laugh that masks a little fear.
There really was nothing to be worried about. The show received mostly good reviews and Turner was praised for her ability to switch between the 12 characters she plays in the course of the evening.
Holding The Man dramatises the memoirs of Australian writer, actor and activist Tim Conigrave, who, as a teenager, fell in love with the captain of the school Australian Rules Football team. While the actors playing Conigrave and lover John Caleo – Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes – stick with their characters for the entire show, the rest of the cast switch between a multitude of roles.
Among the characters Turner plays are one who does not speak a word – “It’s really hard to do everything just with your face” – a short stint as a puppeteer and a role described to her as a “cardigan gay… I’m not quite sure what I’m meant to be doing, so I just stand about looking stupid and that seems to work. That’s my career… standing around looking stupid!”
Turner also plays both boys’ mothers. It helps, of course, that Turner met Conigrave’s mum earlier in her life. In fact, Turner acted opposite Conigrave in a school production; she attended Sacre Coeur, a Catholic girl’s school that collaborated with Conigrave’s all-boys Catholic school, Xavier College. That production of Romeo And Juliet actually features in Holding The Man. “I think it is easier knowing the era and the territory,” she says. “I know the types and I know the era. I’m playing women in the 70s and 80s. I know their background, I know exactly where they live. That all helps with those characters.”
“I hope I can do something else besides Kath”
She didn’t, though, want to “dredge up” the past by speaking to either mother about their experiences, and was unsure how either would have reacted. “Tim’s family are very proud of Tim, the book and the play. They’ve been very supportive. But John’s family were always angry about it. His father isn’t depicted so well; it’s not a very flattering portrait of him.”
Born in Newcastle, Australia, in 1960, Turner always wanted to both write and perform. Despite knowing she would not be happy doing anything else, she followed the eminently sensible parental advice and ensured she had something to fall back on, studying law at university, but the draw of performance was too strong.
Turner cut her comic teeth in Melbourne’s comedy clubs and appeared in classic Australian drama Prisoner Cell Block H before writing for and starring in comedy shows including The D Generation, Fast Forward, Big Girl’s Blouse and Something Stupid. But it was the arrival of Kath And Kim on Australian television screens in 2002 that catapulted Turner to the top of the Australian comedy pile.
“It was fresh and new and people seemed to like it,” Turner very modestly says of the show that ran for four series and a TV movie, won a host of international awards and spawned an American version.
“You get so many great comments,” she explains about the joy of creating Kath And Kim. “People say it makes their day; they’ve got a really hard life, they’ve got sick children or a dying parent or depression, and they come home and put our show on and it really cheers them up. I heard loads of good stories.”
Yet every silver lining must have a cloud, and while the success of Kath And Kim provided economic stability, the chance to pick and choose jobs, and a major profile boost, it also brought with it a very real fear, for Turner, about typecasting. “I felt that happened to me a bit; people can only see me playing Kath.”
“That’s my career… standing around looking stupid!”
While she does not dwell on this, passing over it very swiftly as the only downside to the show’s success, it is clear that it is a very real worry for the actress and is maybe partly why she has so much hope invested in Holding The Man. Her first big outing since Kath And Kim has to prove she can move on from the sitcom and build on her reputation. To do that while bringing an Australian show to British soil just asks that much more of her, though she does not think there will be any problem for us Brits getting to grip with a distinctly Australian tale.
“If you’ve watched Neighbours you’ll understand the show,” she giggles. “It’s a universal story. It’s a love story mainly, a really unusual and a really honest and true love story. I think everyone relates to a love story. The fact that these two boys fell in love when they were so young, it’s very romantic and very sad in the end, but at the same time hilarious. There’s so much in it for people to enjoy.”
I must admit, my knowledge of Australia is based, for a large proportion, on those soaps shown around teatime. My school days were punctuated by weddings of people who lived in the same street, teenagers who looked rather older than their supposed years getting into all manner of scrapes and myriad shrimps being tossed on a barbeque. So it is with no small amount of pleasure that I hear that my commitment to learning about Australian culture has not been a waste, that it will aid my understanding of Holding The Man and that, in actual fact, it is not a bad representation of life down under.
“I think those shows do probably represent a big slice of what Australia is like,” Turner confirms. “It is sunny and beachy and easy-going.” Do people really call each other ‘flamin’ galahs’ when they are particularly annoyed, I ask, unable to control my Home And Away-isms. Turner pauses. “They might not say that any more… Old people do.”
Hurrah for those old people, I say, for keeping Australia the land I have grown to love from afar. The land of Vegemite, snags and drongos. The land that brought us The Flying Doctors, Fosters and Pat Cash climbing the Wimbledon stands. And now the land that has brought one of its most acclaimed dramas in recent years, and one of its most saleable comic stars, to the West End stage.