Interview: Jonathan Hellyer, star of Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens

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Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, currently playing at the Shaw Theatre, is a tapestry of monologues and songs inspired by the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Developed in the late 1980s and originally titled, The Quilt, Elegies, as it is often shortened to, is a moving, often funny and sometimes heartbreaking collection of stories written from the perspective of characters who’ve died from AIDS, with the songs representing the feelings of friends and family dealing with the loss.

Dan HG spoke to Jonathan Hellyer (who plays Brian), better known as the man behind the frock of the jaw-droppingly sharp and hysterical cult hit, The Dame Edna Experience.

Dan: Tell us about your part in Elegies…

JH: I play a guy called Brian, he’s a straight man, whose involvement with AIDS comes along when he nurses the brother of his estranged wife, Ray. Brian and Ray’s friendship survives the demise of his marriage to Ray’s sister, so he nurses him until he dies. He makes his last days really really special, they goes off to a beach and he looks after him. He physically nurses him, but he also emotionally nurses him, which is probably one of the most important aspects of any kind of palliative care – he just makes it really special and he shows him a great deal of love: platonic, fatherly love, and maintains his dignity. It means the world to Ray, and Ray’s part in the show is talking about Brian’s kindness and love. He turns out to be, as Ray says in the production, his “greatest and straightest” friend ever.

Dan: Tell us about your songs?

JH: Brian has a main song, called “And the Rain Keeps Falling Down” which is a really really moving song, with beautiful lyrics. The metaphor being that the sky won’t cry itself dry, it keeps crying, whereas Brian doesn’t seem to be able to, so he’s not dealing with his grief. But also Brian lends his voice to some amazing rousing choruses during the show, songs which are comedic as well in parts, which is something I think is really important to say right now – if anyone is expecting Elegies to be a couple of hours of talking about death, its not that way. There are some moments in it that are so tongue-in-cheek, that even I, even I, thought “Oooh, that’s fruity!” and had a good giggle about it. But yeah, Brian’s singing parts are very rousing, his songs are really well written, the lyrics are beautiful and tell a story – definitely musical theatre.

Dan: Tell us about Edna, where did she come from and when did it all start…

JH: Well… 1993, Birmingham. I was a regular and a member of the Nightingale, Birmingham’s big gay club – and I was always known during lock-ins for doing “voices” and things like that, and Edna, and Kenneth and all those silly people and one day they said to me, would you, if we got you some glasses, and a wig and a frock, host a charity night for Birmingham AIDS Trust as, Edna? – and I said yes, I would.

And it all went rather well! We had this night, it was supposed to be an hour long show and it lasted three, funnily enough, and so the DE Experience was born. That night there was an agent in the audience who came to me after the show and said, “I could get you loads of work”, and I said, “No thank you, I’m happy being a nurse”, and he said, “No, I really could get you loads of work”, so I thought about then I took some work and then it grew from there. In 1994 I played my first ever gig in London which was at the 2Brewers on a Sunday afternoon – rather marvelous too, and it was in the back room of the old 2Brewers, a superb cabaret venue, a real dive – print that. Now it’s Costa Coffee or something. I don’t know anyone who aspires to becoming a drag act – I can’t imagine a more lacklustre aspiration, but apparently people do, but I didn’t, I fell into it very much by accident and that’s why it seems . . . a bit casual for me, nothing permanent about it – and here we are, 15 years later…

Dan: Why do you think its so funny after so long, and why do people still come to see it, week after week after week at the Vauxhall Tavern? How do you manage to keep it funny and relevant?

JH: Well Dan, when you finish asking the question finally, I don’t write it at all, I hoof it, I make it up on the spot. That is probably a really really dangerous thing to do, unless you know what you’re doing and of course I know what I’m doing with that audience – I’ve never written any show I’ve ever done, and I think that’s probably what keeps it fresh, but it doesn’t always work, some of the things I say just go over people’s heads, which is OK, because there is a relationship between me and the audience, between the act and the audience, and when you tell someone close to you a joke, they don’t always get it, but I think the thing that keeps it fresh is that it’s not written, its raw, so that I’m flying by the seat of my pants!

Dan: What makes you laugh, most?

JH: You’re going to love this, great answer – effortless comedy. That’s it Dan, effortless comedy. I don’t care what the subject matter is, but really, take no prisoners – within reason, there is always a border, but as long as it’s effortless. What I can’t stand, even if it’s not entertainment through comedy, if it’s singing, or acting, anybody who has to try, it just doesn’t do it for me.

Dan: Anyone in particular?

JH: People that don’t or do?

Dan: That do.

JH: Yeah, you see I’m old school – I grew up watching Kenneth Williams be who he just was and it being successful. I think comedians have got to look like what they’re saying, what they’re doing and the attitudes they’re saying and doing it with, is utterly organic. It isn’t something they’ve assumed. So, for instance, believe it or not – Jasper Carrot – a really successful comedian, I know he’s from my home town, but he’s just awful – he looks like he’s reading it from somewhere at the back of the audience. But Billy Connolly, I crack, he just lets you know how it is and it has to be bloody funny.

Dan: Any sitcoms or shows or dramas?

JH: I think modern-day sitcoms are probably the least funny thing to have occured since the shuttle crashed. But I do think there are exceptions. I think Ab Fab had its moments of brilliance, but it’s not the be all and end all, Kath and Kim I just don’t understand at all – I laugh inwardly, which actually is a way of saying I don’t laugh at all, and the Vicar of Dibley – I think Dawn French is the funniest in the Vicar of Dibley that she’s ever been, and that’s not that funny.

Dan: Gavin and Stacey?

JH: Oh, absolutely not. No, and the only reason for that is because it’s got James Corden in it. The fat guy, with the Corden around him. I can’t bare or tolerate that lard-arse, I wish he’d just go away. I see him as a little bit like syphilis, when you find out you’ve got it, you do all you can to get rid of it, and then you’ll be popular.

Elegies is at the Shaw Theatre until 28 August 2010. Tuesday to Saturday at 7.45 p.m. Saturday Matinees at 4.30 p.m.