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BWW Interview: Vikki Stone and Natasha J Barnes Chat FUNNY GALS at BarnFest, Cirencester

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BWW Interview: Vikki Stone and Natasha J Barnes Chat FUNNY GALS at BarnFest, Cirencester
Natasha J Barnes (left) and
Vikki Stone (right)

Vikki Stone is an award-winning writer, composer, actor and comedian, who recently released a concept album for her new musical, #zoologicalsociety.

During lockdown, she teamed up with West End leading lady Natasha J Barnes, who's known for playing Fanny Bryce alongside Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, and who was in Falsettos at The Other Palace last year.

The pair crafted a revue of the funniest comedy songs in musical theatre for female performers, and that revue, Funny Gals, will now make its debut at the BarnFest, the Barn Theatre's premiere outdoor festival in Cirencester. We spoke to them about the show, wild swimming and returning to performing for live audiences.

How did Funny Gals come about?

Vikki: Natasha and I live near each other. As soon as we were allowed out of our house to see one other person outside during lockdown, we started seeing each other a lot. We live in a part of the country where we can go wild swimming. I like to leap into rivers; it makes me feel a lot better. I spent a good bit of lockdown persuading Natasha to jump into rivers with me. While we were swimming, I convinced her - "Natasha, I've got this idea for a show".

Natasha: Yes, she did! Now I'm obsessed with it. We've got matching hats and swimsuits! I was too cold, I couldn't say "no"! It was fate, really. We're really good friends, and we've performed together before. It was organic and it's been easy to put together. We talked about it during long walks - two metres apart of course - and now it's transformed into rehearsals in the garden.

Vikki: We're now bubbled because of the show. What was interesting about the whole process was that we were planning something, but not knowing what or when for. We talked stuff through, then as soon as we were allowed to do outdoor theatre, we thought - shall we just do it? We didn't have a show at the time. We actually put it together in two weeks.

Natasha: The show has a strong concept. It's been really easy to put it together because it's such a cool thing. You can be really passionate about it if you really like musical theatre, or if you're a woman or appreciate woman or if you're a fan of comedy in general - something for everyone.

What can we expect coming to see Funny Gals?

Vikki: It's a celebration of funny women in musicals and the songs they sang. We start with Ethel Merman in 1934 and move chronologically through time until the present day. You can trace things back further than that, as there's a big crossover in this country with the musical and variety, but we decided to start there. It's our show, we can do what we want!

Did you struggle to whittle down the setlist?

Natasha: It's quite nice actually, because we can chop and change things since it's just the two of us. We just go "OK, if you do that one, I'll do this one" etc. It's a lot easier when it's only two people.

That's quite new to me. I've really enjoyed it. I think people will get to know us really well in the hour or so that they come to spend with us at the Barn Theatre and the other dates we're doing.

Vikki: Yeah, there was loads of stuff. Last night, when we staggered through the show, I remember thinking "Oh this is missing, and this is missing!". Then I realised we're putting on a show, not doing a PhD in funny women of musical theatre, so it doesn't have to be complete. We just can't cover everything in the time we have.

With regards to negotiating songs: Natasha, you've played Fanny Bryce. Surely, that means you get to reprise that role. Or is Vikki getting a shot at a bit of Funny Girl?

Natasha: Ha, I might be! I don't want to give anything away. Fanny Bryce was one of the original female comedians, and then Barbra Streisand was pretty big too. It would be odd if a song from that wasn't there! There's actually quite a good line that Vicky came up with about "Fanny Bryce", which I'll leave to the imagination...

Vikki: I think people would be cross if they booked to see Natasha and she didn't do any of Funny Girl!

Natasha: It's more a case of, which one do you do? Which Funny Girl song is the funniest?

Vikki: We've decided not to double up. There won't be more than one song from any show. We're trying to cover a lot of material from 1934 to 2020. It's a lot of stuff!

Any other particular moments you're looking forward to performing?

Vikki: I'm wearing a tabard in one of the songs I'm doing. I felt that was needed, so I've ordered myself a tabard! We'll also do a song from the show that I've written this year, #zoologicalsociety, right up to the present.

Considering I've written funny material for women, why shouldn't that be in our show? Natasha and I sang a very funny duet on the #zoologicalsociety concept album as two giraffes. It's material that I wrote for us, so that would be a bit weird not to do that.

What do you think makes a good comedy song?

Natasha: I think the thing that makes a comedy song in a show funny is what is happening at the point where the writer has decided "We need to lighten the mood". Comedy can be used to move a show along quite significantly. There are a couple of really well-written comedic songs that feature in our show which are hilarious, but have a couple of lines that really move the plot of the musical along. They give you some interesting information that really hits you.

A character endears themselves to you when they make you laugh, as you do when they make you cry. It's been interesting for us to decide when to be Vikki and Natasha singing some funny songs from musicals that everyone knows, and when to go behind the characters. The show toes the line between being a revue, a show and a cabaret.

Normally, there's just one funny song in a show. That's your moment. It's been great fleshing out the show with all of these songs written very specifically for their own purpose.

Vikki: There are lots of different types of comedy song which we include in the show. Many start with a sincere set-up in the verse and then, bam, the chorus is the punchline.

Sometimes, the character is the comedy. We're doing some of Acorn Antiques, and the lyrics are great, but the comedy is in the character that sings it. There are loads of examples of that, like Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd.

An important thing we cover is that men write very differently for funny women than women do - particularly in the early stuff, which was pretty much entirely written by men. Men write funny best friends, kooky best friends. In the early days, it seems they had issues with the leading lady being funny. She couldn't be the funny one. It always had to be her weird mate.

You see that all through the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue, all through all those kind of shows. Then you get to the 60s, and you get characters like Fanny Bryce. The leading ladies are funny. I think we cover all the different types of musical comedy, which is really lovely.

When you put them all down in a show in chronological order, it's impossible for us, as female performers, not to notice how sexist many of them are. There are lots of female comedy characters whose comedic flaw is that they're promiscuous. "I'm funny because I'll have sex with anyone." That song constantly comes up again, and again, and again. It's weird. A woman would never write that!

And what do you think the difference is when the composer isn't a man?

Vikki: What's nice about our show is that you can see when the female writers start to come in. The topics start to change, so you can pinpoint when women were hired to write and were able to make a reasonable living from it.

I think it's so important to increase the diversity of writing teams. It's been so apparent when putting this list together. That has been extremely difficult: musicals are primarily a genre written by white men. What's nice is that as we get towards the more modern songs, the topics start to change, the feel starts to change, and the songs become less formulaic.

Natasha: You're very aware when something's been written for women to enjoy as well as the men. There's nothing more empowering than feeling heard and seen in a song. Especially a song that makes you laugh. That's where it's been an absolute joy to sing all these songs. I've realised just how well women write for other women.

Vikki: I'm still tweaking it, but we've got a final song that celebrates all the women performers. The gist of it is that we wouldn't be able to do what we're doing - the show and our jobs in general - without all these women who paved the way for us.

They stepped out from their comfort zone, from what was expected of them. Women stopped being quiet and pretty, those social expectations of women. All those women were brave. They put themselves out there.

Right now, what we're doing isn't particularly brave, but there was a time when it was. Had they not done the things they did, we would not be able to muck around on stage as a job.

How do you feel about returning to performing on a stage to an in-person audience?

Vikki: Excited. That said, I was feeling really good up until the other night. Then, when the announcements about Greater Manchester etc. were made, I suddenly thought, "Oh god, we're taking such small steps. We're trying our best emerging cautiously into the new world. All it takes is 24 hours' notice, and something can literally be gone." That's quite scary. Obviously, we lost so much the first time lockdown was announced. It's different now as we're trying to rejoin society and basically get our jobs back.

I was in a pub yesterday, and near me, there was a group of younger people who were hugging each other each time a new person joined the group. I wanted to say "Stop! I can't go back to work! It's not difficult what you're being asked to do!".

I was so anxious, which I think was caused by the combination of the Manchester news and then still seeing people hugging in the pub. You just want to go "Our whole industry is on its knees. Stay apart! It's not hard!".

Natasha: Theatre is so fragile at the moment. You can only inject so much positivity into the situation. As Vikki said, the weight of one announcement can send shockwaves that ricochet through our industry that is already so fragile.

I was thinking yesterday that it doesn't feel real that we're doing a show. I don't think it will until we are standing on that stage in front of people. I almost don't want to believe it, just in case. Anything can happen - as we've already learned.

I'm trying to be grateful for just being able to put my effort into a process of making a show which people will get to see at some point. We just have to keep going. If everybody in our industry can start creating, trusting that that process will give just as much fulfilment as a performance will, then when we really are given the green light to do things - inside, outside, wherever - there will be so much ready to go. Then we can really celebrate a boom in this industry again. It's nice to be on the tentative start line of it all.

How has the Barn Theatre been preparing for the health and safety measures?

Vikki: The Barn Theatre have really nailed the safety aspect. For our show, you buy a square of space to watch the show. You don't buy a ticket for a seat. You can have up to four people in that square.

Yes, it is weird in that if you are on your own - and I used to love going by myself to the theatre all the time - it is, unfortunately, more expensive. I suppose there's no other way of getting around that with this system.

There are temperature checks, and people will be asked to wear masks. That's going to be hard for us for the comedy aspect, but it's better than not being able to do it at all. I know that the theatre industry will do things to the letter if it means they can put on a show.

The comedy world is different, on the other hand. Shows are starting up now because all you need in a mic. I've done a few comedy gigs recently, but they haven't felt safe. I've definitely thought "This feels risky", and I haven't felt that way about this show.

Natasha: We'll ask people to project their laughter through their masks. We might pop "Please laugh loudly" at the bottom of the programme!

Why should we come to Funny Gals?

Natasha: If you've been missing musical theatre, why not come and see lots and lots of musical theatre squeezed into an hour? You get about 60 musicals for the price of one! If you're not a musicals fan, why not just come and laugh for an hour?

Funny Gals at BarnFest from 5 August

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From This Author Fiona Scott