When we meet in the Assembly Rooms foyer, Joanna Neary apologises to me for still speaking in character. Which is quite understandable. She has existed as a composite version of Brief Encounter actress Celia Johnson for an hour, immersed in a universe of gobbets taken down from her presumably capacious attic, and dusted off in order to regale her newly-found audience. Neary’s version of Celia greets us with the sort of quirky enthusiasm that one might find lighting semi-posh living rooms throughout the land. Next up: a picture of a conker. They’ve probably banned them these days.
The real Celia Johnson died of a stroke while playing bridge; it would be no stretch of the imagination to think that Neary’s Celia might go the same way, such is her energy for the banal. In Celia, Neary has found a great voice for her patchwork style of comedy. She discovered the character by a fortuitous stroke of luck. Asked to do a radio voiceover as Celia Johnson for a tenner, she said yes for the money and walked around her house testing the accent. After many rollups, she sat down at three in the afternoon and started writing material in Celia’s voice:
“All I had in my head was there would be a rhythm with change, because [she’s] up bright and happy and then down and serious, and then back again, and it’s just this lovely changing rhythm. So I just sat down and I just kept writing, and I had to just get to the end, telling the story as I went. And I got to the end and I was knackered and my hand was aching and I just…and the next day I woke up and I thought, there’s something nice in my life, like Christmas day. You know that feeling, when it’s your birthday and you open one eye, and there’s this thing that hadn’t existed before. And it was the loveliest thing I ever felt from writing. I’d made something that didn’t exist before.”
Later she mentions she loves Balzac, and tells me about his 17-hour a day writing regimen, which leads her to the thought that “when you’re being creative you have to do it all the time, you can’t dabble in it, and that’s the hardest thing because I feel like I’m dabbling in it.” Neary is pleasantly self-effacing, but has no reason to be.
Her first solo show in 2004 was nominated for the Perrier Newcomer Award, and since then she’s brought her distinctive brand of character comedy to work with Armando Iannucci and Stewart Lee. Her far ranging work has included, most recently, her Edinburgh show four years ago, Youth Club. She was told while making it that “we don’t need another show about the eighties”, but it’s an assessment that entirely misses the point of the show, a personal tale about “growing up with nothing” told through the voices of 13 disparate and distinct Cornish teenagers. I mention that, even with a four year hiatus between shows, it’s quite an extreme switch from a panoply of characters to the singularity of Celia in Faceful of Issues. She replies that it’s opening up her vocabulary as a performer: the chat show premise of her new work allows her to engage with the audience more, and ad-lib. It’s a testament to her strength at the latter that one cannot tell where the script stops and improvisation begins.
My abiding memory of Joanna Neary’s performances relates to music: a strategic use of Don’t Dream It’s Over by Crowded House in Youth Club that provided a temporal break in that whirlpool of characters and came to encapsulate my memory of that show, near exactly four years ago from the point of writing. Earlier in our conversation, preceded by me going off on a rant about the need to not just go and see whoever was famous in one’s childhood, she asks me if I think Faceful of Issues is “weirdly nostalgic”. I ask her whether she thinks there’s a difference between nostalgia and memory. She doesn’t answer directly, but eventually describes what she does as “deeply uncool, deeply unfashionable”. At this my anxiety hackles rise and I leap in to defend the show’s coolness, without having yet crystallised a proper justification for this.
Towards the end of our conversation, I mention her use of that Crowded House track, and suggest reclamation is a better descriptor than nostalgia for what she does:
“You know, I never really thought about that. My background is performance art. So what I do now is kind of a miracle now that anyone understands it. Because it was so surreal and detached. You would basically stand in a thermal vest in an enormous pair of bloomers, throwing sugar at a milk bottle in front of a model of a shit and that would be the show. This is my attempt at being really mainstream.”
It’s an unlikely background for a comedian. I’m also surprised to hear her describe the show I attended as having only “one big laugh”. True, at times there were a few references to Toto that only I seemed to recognise, but there were plenty of laughs at the multiple classic rock references in the music, provided by Celia’s smiley accompanist, Centrepartin’ Martin, otherwise known as Jimi Pretendrix (who in reality is Neary’s equally cheery husband). Joanna likes to see her audience:
“It’s lovely to just be able to see people smiling. I never really expect much laughter so that’s always a bonus. Which is a bit pathetic for a comedy show isn’t it!”
Hardly pathetic, but this does beg the question. Does she consider what she does to be comedy? “It’s tiptoeing towards theatre this show, isn’t it.”
Theatre, history, and biography too. Part of Celia Johnson’s appeal as a subject is that she is wrenched out of an earlier period in history where she made more sense: a time where technology was less a part of people’s lives and people could say the word ‘gypo’ without being censored on Radio 4. Not necessarily a better time, but there’s much comedy to be had in the juxtaposition of these worlds. The same sort of humour ensues when your Granny asks you if you twit. Neary co-opts a dislocation between old and new rhythms of life and derives both humour and, at times, unease from it. So she is no purveyor of nostalgia.
Celia is partly based on the actress, and also partly based on a speaker who she saw deliver a talk about antiques at a meeting of the Women’s Institute. She tells me she bases all her characters on real-life people:
“I said to my friend, why is it that those conversations you overhear on the train are really thrilling when you write them down, but they don’t work on stage? And he said it’s because it’s only in that moment that they’re brilliant, isn’t it. But you can use them as a springboard for a character.”
Reclaim them, in other words: just as she reclaimed the memories of a Crowded House song she listened to as a teenager, and repurposed them to create a poignant and memorable moment of tranquillity in the middle of the story she told. With the character of Celia, Joanna Neary has found a perfect prism allowing her to push her writing and performance forward into new territory. She’s had a breakthrough, in any other name. Fortuitous that she received that call from the radio to do the voiceover: perhaps that tenner seems like it’s worth far, far more now.
Joanna Neary’s Faceful of Issues is at Assembly Rooms until 30th August.