Photo: Rob Greig
Claudia O’Doherty’s on-stage persona is that of a brash, over-confident egotist – just about everything that O’Doherty herself is not. Over the course of our conversation, she’s never outright reticent, but it’s clear that interviews are uncertain territory for her: “I never know if I’m meant to try and be funny or be like a normal person?” she says, laughing, but perhaps not entirely joking. It isn’t surprising – journalists have been known to expect a meeting with O’Doherty’s stage persona, who shares her name but little else.
“There was one particular interview that was a bit nightmarish,” O’Doherty tells me. In her brilliantly innovative 2012 Edinburgh Fringe show, The Telescope, ‘Claudia’ attempted to perform a complex and pretentious one-woman play in the face of myriad technical failures. “And he conducted the interview as if, like, I was having a really hard Edinburgh because my show kept breaking? It was a really awkward interview! It is tricky because on stage I say my name is Claudia O’Doherty, and I say a combination of true things and then very very made-up things…”
But not, one feels, quite tricky enough to merit so many people taking a comedy show completely at its word. O’Doherty’s stage alter-ego spouts the most appallingly arrogant lines with a winning smile, while the whole thing is made palatable by O’Doherty’s own knowingness and charm. It’s hard to imagine meeting anyone quite like that character in real life; O’Doherty adds, with a laugh, that it would be “a bit too uncomfortable being my onstage persona anywhere apart from onstage!”
O’Doherty got into comedy while at university in Australia, where she grew up. Thinking she “just wanted to do writing”, she was later “talked into performing” at a revue she’d written for, and ended up a little unexpectedly on stage.
“I was in a sketch group after that – and then one of them decided to be a serious actor, and one decided to be a serious director, but I still wanted to do comedy! I never wanted to do it on my own at all, that wasn’t part of the plan, but I knew I didn’t want to stop – so in a panic I signed up to do the Melbourne Fringe festival and that’s where I did my first show.” Wryly, she adds, “So in a way… it happened against my will.”
O’Doherty is similarly casual about having wound up on the other side of the world. She feels there’s “definitely a bigger, stronger comedy scene” in the UK than back in Sydney, but that “when you grow up in Australia you get a sense that everything in the world is happening a very long way away, regardless of what your job is. So many people who can do it try not living there,” – so, in much the same way as her comedy act simply “happened”, O’Doherty “just ended up here.”
This isn’t quite the ruthless drive you’d expect from a performer as lauded as O’Doherty; indeed, she cuts a deeply unassuming figure all round, which makes it both unsurprising that she simply fell into experimental comedy and a little surprising that she performs under her own name in such a stylised way. She’s philosophical about it: “I guess I just thought I don’t want to play like a ‘character’ character where I had to do a voice or wear a hat,” she says, her tone the audio equivalent of a rather cheerful shrug. “I guess for me that was what was funny, the idea that I was doing it as myself but doing a show about a New York City cop… To me that was the joke, that people think I’m an idiot.”
She’ll be bringing The Claudia O’Doherty Experience to the Duchess Theatre in the West End as part of a residency by production company The Invisible Dot, alongside other Dot acts, Adam Buxton and Tim Key.
O’Doherty tends to build an unusual rapport with the audience, acting pally, making a room feel intimate; when I say that it will be interesting to see that play out in such a large, grand space, she sounds, for a moment, nervous. “Yeah, interesting,” she says. “And…terrible maybe?” She’s played big crowds before, but “you just feel like you’re performing before an intergalactic court. It’s hard to feel that it’s people rather than just a huge mass.”
It’s no surprise to find that the real Claudia O’Doherty is so different from her stage persona, but it is intriguing, in the face of such normal, human anxiety, to consider why someone might foster an alter-ego impervious to self-awareness and self-doubt.
Soon, though, she is laughing and cheerful once more, the bout of nerves swiftly put away. “There are things about it that you can’t avoid being exciting,” she says. “The huge space, lots of seats and an amazing old theatre. That’s exciting for anyone! Hopefully – I mean I can’t be sure, but hopefully it will bring a grand scale to my stupid comedy and make it even sillier.”
The Claudia O’Doherty Experience is at the Duchess Theatre, London, on 25th April 2014.