Her humour may be clownish and uplifting, but her memorable cultural experiences have a subversive edge
Words Molly Flatt
“Despite how my work is mainly clowning, most of the things that inspire me, and excite me, are dark,” explains the London-based comedian, writer, director and actress Elf Lyons. “I suppose that is a good balance. You have all the darkness off stage, so that on stage, you are totally free to be silly or combat the darkness in a light, jovial manner.”
Combatting darkness: it’s a pretty apt slogan for the twenty-seven year old, whose latest solo show SWAN is a joyful, sassy and endearingly nerdy ride that won her nominations for both the Best Show Award and Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality. Having done the rounds of arts festivals in the UK, Europe and Australia, this month Lyons brings her kooky, sexy and playful act to London, including a four-day residency at Soho Theatre.
But what exactly are the dark inspirations that lurk beneath the clown mask? Here Lyons shares the five cultural experiences that have most strongly shaped her creative soul.
THEATRE: The Hour That We Knew Nothing of Each Other by Peter Handke
I saw this at the National when I was 17. I hadn’t seen anything like it. I distinctly remember turning to my friend Liv (another NME-reading, Smiths-loving goth), bursting out laughing and going: “Well, that was arty!” I remember an older woman who resembled Morticia Addams rolling her eyes behind me, as if I had evidently missed the point of ‘the Art’.
The Hour That We Knew Nothing of Each Other is a play by the avant-garde Austrian novelist Peter Handke. In 100 minutes, 27 actors played over 450 characters, with NO WORDS! The characters range from the normal to the insane – from a boy on a skateboard to Moses – and it all crescendos to the potential fear of an apocalypse before the fear subsides and the actors dissipate.
The lack of words, the anonymous setting (a city square that could have been anywhere in Europe), the diversity of the physicality and age of the performers… this production was very different to the theatre I had seen up to that point. It taught me how words are often the least important thing in a show. It links to the things I went on to learn at Gaulier when I was 23 [Lyons studied at the famous French theatre school L’Ecole Philippe Gaulier]. Basically: no one really cares about what you are saying – it is about what you are doing, how you interact with the audience and how you are on stage that matters.” It’s a key rule with comedy too – it’s all in the delivery.
ART: Paula Rego
My mum was an artist and she brought me up on trips to art galleries and documentaries about Georgia O’Keefe and Claude Cahun. Art was my big thing at school and I adored working in pastels. My art teacher told me I would like Paula Rego, and she was right.
Magical realism, feminism, folklore – Rego is an absolute chameleon of her craft, constantly challenging herself with form and content. Her work is truly amazing to look at, especially in terms of how she has developed over the years. When you stand close to her canvases and look at her lines it is breathtaking what she is able to do with pastel.
Content-wise, she’s not afraid to go for the darkness – from female sexuality, to grief, to her complicated relationship with her father in her Pillowmam series. She’s sort of the art equivalent of Angela Carter to me, with her fierce, dangerous female sexualty. She once said: “If you put frightening things into a picture, then they can’t harm you. In fact, you end up becoming quite fond of them”.
There’s another Rego quote that I wrote in my diary because I thought it was cool, and it’s pretty much my mantra for making work now: “I get inspiration from things that have nothing to do with painting: caricature, items from newspapers, sights in the street, proverbs, nursery-rhymes, children’s games and songs, nightmares, desires, terrors. … That question [why do you paint?] has been put to me before and my answer was, ‘To give terror a face’. But it’s more than that. I paint because I can’t help it.”
FILM: Rosemary’s Baby
Horror films were a huge impact on my developing mind – and no doubt my current romantic relationships. It’s hard to pick one film in particular as they were all so integral. I have had crippling obsessive compulsive disorder since I was child, no doubt owing to our family’s obsession with horror. My Nanny and Grandad Squeak would let me rent any horror film I wanted and every night I would often sit with my mum (who is the ultimate night owl) and we would watch film after film after film, until the sun rose and my eyes would be like two pieces of puff pastry. By the age of 11 I had seen Species, Final Destination, The Ring, Scream, Misery, Psycho, Evil Dead, The Fly, The Shining, The Hollow Man, Funny Games… to name but a few. This isn’t even counting the weird Russian and German horror films my mum would sometimes put on.
I remember watching Polanski’s 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby at 2am with my mum in her bed. Out of all the horror films I had watched at that point (I was only about 15), this was the one that awakened me to the power of silence and the ways in which psychological terror is often more powerful than gore. The mounting paranoia, the issues of power, the evil behind the smile: Polanski builds the terror in so many subtle ways in this beautiful film. And the mise en scene is delicious. There is one absolutely perfect shot, where Rosemary is talking on the phone, panicked, and in the back of the shot you silently see an imposter very quickly glide from one side of the door frame to another. My heart was in my mouth.
I have no idea how this in any way shaped the way I work as a comedian… but it is definitely the reason I chose to study film.
It’s also the reason I never want kids, or to marry an actor.
BOOKS: R. L. Stine
When I was little, dyslexia really impacted my reading. It didn’t help that I was at one of those primary schools which could easily have been run by the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal. We weren’t allowed to read American fiction because of the slang and the teachers were constantly going on about trying to get the kids into the best secondary schools – even though our real focus day to day was ‘how do I get rid of these fucking nits’.
My Nanny Squeak took me to Eltham Library and, in order to relax and destress me, said I could read any book I wanted, and for every page I read I would get a penny. My Grandad Squeak gave me a leather purse to put my pennies in.
I then found the prohibited item: an R. L. Stine book. And he became my punk reading hero. I read every single book. I liked the pacing, I loved the pull back and reveals. I loved the horror, I loved the COVERS. The shiny letters of Goosebumps. It was rebellious and fuelled my imagination. HOW COULD SOMEONE WRITE SOMETHING SO SCARY ABOUT CHILDREN?! What a genius. He is definitely the reason I became a huge Stephen King obsessive (I have a tattoo of the haiku from IT on my body. Don’t judge me).
Discovering R. L. Stine caused my reading speed to accelerate and my confidence to soar. I devoured books and I owe my voracious reading appetite to him.
The leather purse eventually exploded from all the pennies. My grandad started giving me notes.
MUSIC: Echo & The Bunnymen
I’ve seen Echo & The Bunnymen twice live – both times with my dad, the economist Gerard Lyons. The first time was at Koko, Camden and the second time at Shepherds Bush Empire in 2014, when they recorded their album live – you can even hear me whoop at one point on the recording.
They are my dad’s ultimate, favourite band – and through osmosis I too have developed an unexplainable love for this band. When their album Meteorites came out in 2014 I called my dad into my room and we sat in silence and listened to the whole thing together.
I’m rather embarrassed to admit I actually let myself get seduced by a guy at a party recently when he sang the lyrics to The Cutter at me. It was enough to leave me wondering if he was the one. In hindsight, this was quite clearly not the case, as the same guy also stated that he thought The Big Bang Theory was the best TV show ever made. Shudder.
I’m yet to utilise Echo & The Bunnymen in a show. But that time will come.