Best known as one third of the Smack The Pony TV troupe, Fiona Allen is touring her debut standup show, On The Run, following a hit run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She talks to Billy Edwards about family, encouraging comics, and swapping screen for stage.
At once thrilled and surprised at the reception to On The Run, Fiona Allen has dived headfirst into the Fringe world this year. Each evening, she says, is “absolutely hectic”; the day she speaks to me is the first one, a few weeks in, where she’s been able to be an audience member herself.
I wondered whether Allen found her performance skills tested on stage, as a platform relatively removed from her repertoire. She’s appeared in a smattering of classic British TV shows – Skins, EastEnders, Waterloo Road – as everything from soap villains to doting mothers. She agrees that early on in the process, she became “trapped to a script – I was being very actress-y.” The whole production was under threat, yet by stepping out of her comfort zone she found a fresh realm of candid comedy.
“At one point I thought, I don’t know what the point of this is. It took me about eight months. And once I got the understanding of why I was feeling like that, it got to be so much more fun. It’s freed up a different part of my brain.”
Her jokes are reminiscent of the madcap turn-of-the-millennium Channel 4 series Smack The Pony, in which she starred alongside Doon Mackichan and Sally Phillips, yet concern domestic life – years of experience in being a mum – as a relatable springboard. “That’s my life. It’s been work, kids, work, kids, for years. It’s like that for most of us with kids out there.”
There’s an impression Allen has reflected on her parenthood yet felt comfortable enough to allow her creativity to remerge. “I think a lot of people get into their fifties and go, ‘What have I actually done for me?’ So, this is my thing that I’m doing. I would never have done it when they were small – I had three under-fives at one point. Just hectic!” Unfortunately, her children haven’t made the trip yet. “They’ve been threatening to come up! I want them to, but I’ve always got a super busy day when one of them is free…”
As to how the idea to develop a standup show came about? “I just thought it might be quite interesting to have a go in a club! So I did a year around the open mic circuit before lockdown – five minutes here, 10 minutes there. It took a couple of other comics to say to me, ‘For goodness’ sake, just write a show!’ I thought, ‘I can’t do that – I’ll never be able to do an hour.’ But here I am!”
Allen’s fizzing, give-it-a-go attitude is remarkably encouraging. It’s clear she has a goal of inspiring other comics, who might be deterred by the Fringe’s big names and stages, to attend. “I’ve been posting online about it. I thought about doing things quietly, but no one knows me as a stand-up – I had to let people know!” She’s been documenting her experiences on Twitter, posting selfies with her flyer-giver or standing beside her name on the ‘Sold Out’ blackboard.
“People do worry about negativity sometimes. ‘I might get two people to come to my show…’ I’m saying, “I’ve come up, and this is what’s happened.” Despite the pandemic creating tension by curtailing her opportunities to perform (something she dubbed “a sign” following her first 20-minute booking), Allen is clearly overjoyed to look out over an audience “sitting there, having a laugh and a nice time. I hope they think, ‘Well, I’ll do it then!’” Allen rounds off very much grateful for the great reception to On The Run. “My small show is selling out every day and I’m so happy about it.”
Fiona Allen, The Riverfront, Newport, Thurs 26 Oct
Tickets: £13. Info: here
words BILLY EDWARDS