Jenny Éclair, ground-breaking comedienne, novelist and unlikely chum of Gyles Brandreth (no, really), is currently starring in Mum’s The Word at the Albery, which is rather unhelpfully described as “the show for anyone who ever had a mum.” Tom Bowtell visited her in her lovely Camberwell house to find out if she really is as terrifying as she seems.
Jenny Éclair turned 43 last week, but she doesn’t seem remotely middle aged. She dresses very funkily and her use of swearing remains more Liberal than Gladstone. She explains that she’s feeling “a little rough”, having been out with a few of the girls last night, although it “wasn’t a big one” (her big ones are legendary). The only evidence that she is half way to 86 comes from the fact that she has a husband, a house and – most pertinently for my purposes – a teenage daughter.
And I’m not being dirty; Éclair feels her 14-year brush with motherhood qualifies her to perform in Mum’s The Word. “It’s a prolapsinal look at motherhood, it’s been very much designed with a specific audience in mind, and that audience is mothers. The show evolved out of six mothers exchanging real anecdotes and it’s something I think all mothers can relate to.” Éclair plays Deborah in the play, and rarely has a part been more aptly cast: Deborah is described on the cast list as “an edgy comedienne.” Éclair admits that the role doesn’t require any huge Stanislavskian leaps on her part: “she pretty much sounds like me; it was fairly similar territory to where I’d go.” And the resemblance doesn’t end there, “I got quite a shock when I met her, because she’s ever so slightly a little bit like me – or I’m ever so slightly a little bit like her, I should say – she wears glasses and there was something oddly familiar about her face. I wasn’t at all surprised that she was her.”
“The character pretty much sounds like me; it was fairly similar territory to where I’d go”
This will be Éclair’s second foray into the West End. Last year she did a stint in The Vagina Monologues which, in as much as it is devoid of men and features monologues (of all things), has a fair amount in common with Mum’s The Word. “Both shows require the people on the stage and the audience to do a lot of listening. Each night you have to think ‘this is the first time I’ve heard this story’. If anybody lets their energy drop for a moment it can puncture the whole performance. Mum’s The Word is very much an ensemble piece, and if there was any inter-cast upset it could really wreck this play.”Éclair sits down and has a fag, something she isn’t allowed to do in Mum’s The Word…
On paper, the cast of Mum’s The Word looks like a recipe for disharmony, ranging from outrageously loud-mouthed comediennes (Éclair) to classical actresses married to Nunns (Imogen Stubbs), taking in 80s pop stars (Carol Decker) and former Eastenders (Patsy Palmer) along the way. However, as the man who first threw an orange at a duck discovered, the most unlikely combinations can turn out to be delicious and Éclair confirms that life in the cast tends to be “hilarious”. Moreover, Éclair thinks that this variety enriches the piece (she insists it isn’t a play): “Motherhood is a pretty broad brushstroke and mothers come in all shapes and sizes, so I think it’s good that we’re not all from the same school. We laugh a lot. Patsy has a personal trainer at Pineapple and she dragged Imogen and I along for a workout. She was forgetting the fact that we are both ten years older than her, and I nearly didn’t make it.”
It is for being loud and rude in her stand up gigs that Éclair is best known. Her material embraces taboos like old friends making gags about everything from smegma to smear tests. She was the first (and as she points out, thus far the only) female to win the coveted Perrier Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival: did she consider herself a pioneer at the time? “Well” (she begins seriously, before emitting a noise which she quickly says “isn’t a fart, but just a thing” before continuing) “I didn’t think that at the time, but in fact now I think I should have much more respect, because I was one of the first. So yeah, [b]uck ‘em. There weren’t any role models for me, at least none I knew off. I didn’t grow up with television because we lived abroad until I was eight and I don’t remember seeing many funny women on the telly. In fact, the first person who made me laugh was Fanny Craddock, the TV cook who was [t]ucking hideous to her husband – and that made me laugh.
“the first person who made me laugh was Fanny Craddock, the TV cook who was [t]ucking hideous to her husband”
Was this Craddock adoration the inspiration for her food-based moniker? “No! the Éclair just came about one night when I was in some club in Bristol pretending to be French, my middle name is Claire so I said, in a sultry French accent’ ‘my name is Jenny Le Claire’ and it sort of came out of that really. The funny thing is that my daughter has actually changed her surname to Éclair by deed poll.”
“I’ve got this problem with my figure, my tits just won’t get any bigger” Jenny Éclair: punk poet.
So does her onstage persona resemble her? “Not really, no, but it’s still me. I’ve said before that it’s a fairly healthy sort of schizophrenia. It’s a nice showy-offy thing to do. I enjoy it, it’s a laugh, and I’ve been lucky to have made quite a lot of money out of mucking around.” How did the outspoken “monster” of the character come about? “I didn’t really plan it, I think most of it evolved out of fear more than anything else. I would be on stage in really rough clubs as a very young woman – about 22 when I started – and people would be shouting [cl]uck off even before I’d opened my mouth so I just started shouting at them before they got a chance.” Like many stand-ups, Éclair fell into the job by accident “I trained as an actress but graduated just as all the rep theatres were closing down. Lots of the pub theatres then started to have gigs and I started by doing punk poetry!” Can she still remember any of it? She slips into an even broader Mancunian accent and chants “I’ve got this problem with my figure, my tits just won’t get any bigger” before it gets a bit unmentionable.
Éclair admits that, being one of very few female stand-ups, and with an act infamous for lambasting men, she is bound to a feminist. “Well I just am, by accident of birth more than anything else. I mean it was all done for us – we shouldn’t underestimate what went on. To be honest, I feel sorry for men now I think they’re going to have a little revolution of their own because they’re treated like such ***ts most of the time. In everyday life people treat them like idiots. It’s ridiculous and I think it’s really dangerous. Teenage boys see these foolish blokes in adverts and grow up with absolutely no idea how to behave. They don’t mature. They don’t mature as men because we’ve cut men’s balls off a bit.” I don’t really know what to say to this and rather confirm her theory by mumbling “well, err, it will be interesting to see what happens.”
“Teenagers don’t mature as men, because we’ve cut men’s balls off a bit.”
Perhaps ironically, one of the few areas of modern life where men are still dominant is in the world of comedy. It is almost impossible to name five female comedians under the age of 35 and Éclair admits that there is “a lost generation.” She isn’t sure why this is: “my generation managed to create a small dent in the rhinoceros-hide of comedy but I don’t know where the thirty-somethings are. People like me, Jo Brand and Hattie Hayridge are all beyond 40. Rhona Cameron’s a bit younger, but there isn’t anyone else who is well known. The female comics are out there, it’s just that nobody is giving them a profile.” Can she see any way around this? “Well something like Edinburgh has become so commercial, it’s impossible to get your show noticed if you’re not a big name and you certainly can’t make any money. I used to go up there with my bike and cycle around sticking up my posters with blu-tack. I suppose it’s partly my fault – it was my generation that turned the Edinburgh Arts Festival into a comedy fest, but I do feel nostalgic for the old days.”
Having done stand-up for the best part of two decades, how has she adapted to the more regimented nature of theatre: “sometimes I do feel that I’d like to change that line, I’d like to do this line, I’d like to sit down and have a fag now – but you’re not allowed. It is more disciplined – but luckily this show does allow me some interaction with the audience. I do have to be careful though, because as soon as I start talking back I know that things will quickly become very naughty. The discipline really comes in with the actual repetition of it. With stand-up you can do what you like when you like and I never gigged every night, but now I wake up in the morning and know exactly what’s going to happen – it’s almost like having a proper job!” Éclair says that she actually thinks that she’ll benefit from the added discipline before adding, with typical honesty “and I also needed some more West End on my CV.”
“I was beginning to think that I didn’t actually want my daughter to see this.”
Her recent stage sorties, combined with her novel writing (she is just starting her second) marks a distinct break from normal Éclair behaviour and she admits that, for a variety of reasons, she felt the need to have a break from stand-up. Intriguingly – particularly for somebody involved in Mum’s The Word – being a mother has made her much more aware of her on-stage antics: “I always end up in things that are going to embarrass my family. I‘ve got a 14-year old and she knows I get my tits out in this one. I’m not sure how she’ll react to it! But I started to feel that the stand-up Jenny is quite a monster and she was starting to take over and I was beginning to think that I didn’t actually want my daughter to see this.”
Éclair fans who fear that she may be going a bit soft needn’t worry however: she is adamant that she merely likes to “straddle a number of different things” – [a very Jenny phrase] – and denies that her West End reinvention is a “bid for legitimacy”. “After the run of this I’ll be ready for the stand-up again, I’ll be looking forward to it.” She also confirms that while she was never that outrageous in real life (“if I had been I wouldn’t have survived in the business for so long, I’d be lying in a ditch with needles sticking out of my arms”), she still brings her legendary “edge” to all walks of life. “I was on the tube the other day and I called this woman a bitch. I had got the wrong ticket and had my money out to buy an upgrade but she just ignored me and wandered off for about ten minutes. I was in a real hurry, I had a matinee to get to, so when she finally came back over I paid her and said ‘you’re a bitch’. Then I went really red, I always go really red and got scared that she was going to call the police, but she didn’t.”
“If I’d been really outrageous I’d be lying in a ditch with needles sticking out of me”
Jenny’s favourite joke also suggests that she isn’t about to go all PC on the world: “This man goes to see a doctor and the doctor examines him and says ‘well there’s good news and there’s bad news, which do you want first?’ The man asks for the bad news. The doctor replies ‘well the bad news is that you are going to die. In three days time and very painfully.’ ‘Oh’ says the man, ‘and what is the good news?’ ‘Well, see that pretty nurse over there?’ The man nods. ‘I’m sleeping with her.’ Except, of course, she says something much ruder than “sleeping with” – she wouldn’t be Jenny Éclair if she didn’t …