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Girlfriend From Hell
‘I deliberately get lost somewhere. Or go and stand in really long queues’, she says. ‘And I will eavesdrop. I copy people’s mannerisms, practice their accents. When I last performed in Birmingham, I went out one night by myself, and just camped out in the women’s toilets, just listening’.
What else would make a person actively seek out queues and loos, than stand-up comedy? Repositioning her skills of perceptiveness, assimilation, and mimicry, Gabby Killick, whose comedy show Girlfriend From Hell was top ten-rated at the Edinburgh Fringe by the Edinburgh Evening News, explains how she researches her material. “Why is he not into me?” is the question she says is most common in bathroom chats. ‘Everyone always asks’.
Brought up near Slough, Killick works part-time as a nanny to supplement her relatively new career in comedy. ‘I’m a part-time nanny; part-time superstar’, she tells me, ‘and I love it. The kids’ mum watched the show for the first time a few weeks ago and I was shitting myself. The Girlfriend From Hell smokes weed and dabbles in party drugs — definitely not someone you would leave your kids with — I was just thinking, “Oh my god she’s going to fire me”.’
That she wasn’t fired is tantamount to a celebration of Killick’s infectious energy, that in youthful years may have fanned into the splendour of party drugs, but in the narrative of her new show, spilled over into obsession for an ex-.
‘Titles of tours are really important. I named my show Girlfriend From Hell, because I thought it was edgy, a little bit sexy. She was a figure I thought people would recognise. The show is based on a combination of real break-ups, of my own and those of people I know. Years ago, I broke up with this guy, and I really, genuinely was obsessed with his new girlfriend. It was ridiculous. Some people have said that the themes of the show have been done before, and the break-up is an easy thing for an audience to relate to, and I get that; but it hasn’t been done the way I’m doing it. There are lots of different ways to navigate that material.
I’ve always been an actress. After my three-year drama course at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, I was raring to go. In my time there I would look round the room and think, oh my god, everyone is so talented, good-looking, ambitious. What makes me unique? And then, when I graduated, I had the most terrible auditions. Auditions for crap ads, for Hot Girl #2 — I mean, not even #1! I hadn’t got myself into £27,000 worth of debt to be doing that. So I thought, fuck it, I’m not going to wait for a director or a script or a part in a play. I’m going to write my own show.
I love the comedy roles, and I think that is because I’ve never been embarrassed to make myself look silly. I started writing monologues that I would perform at stand-up comedy nights on the open-mic circuit. Looking back: they weren’t funny. There were silences that lasted too long. But, I honed it over a long stretch of time — very much a fake-it-till-you-make-it kind of thing — and eventually I secured myself my first ten-minute slot at a really big comedy club in the centre of Covent Garden in London’.
Two weeks after my meeting with Gabby Killick, she had scheduled a return to The Tunnel in Vienna, the venue that offered her her first thirty-minute set. Back then, initially daunted not just by the language barrier and having thus far produced only half the material she would need, she also explained that at the beginning of her career, her nerves caused her to speak at ‘one million miles-per-hour’, and that her material, concerningly, needed lots of space to breathe.
Killick’s take on storytelling is theatrical, and her ambitions to embody every character she creates (and also some of the scenery) fill this (let’s call it what it is) One Woman Show with music, soliloquies, sass, winks, hair flicks, and, quite unbelievably, a rap. ‘I mean. What is the rap?’ she said with some incredulity, after we discuss one of her better lyrics: ‘See, I never called you a washed up slag. I heard you give head like you’re taking a drag’.
‘I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I ended up in comedy. That said, I never wanted to be a comedian. The unfolding of the story is what interests me: lots of acting, lots of different characters, lots of different accents. People would argue with me that my act wasn’t stand-up, and that it shouldn’t ever be considered stand-up, that I was an actress acting a stand-up show — and more than that, that this is a bad thing. If my intention is to make someone laugh on the same platform as a stand-up act, then regardless of its form, it’s comedy.
I didn’t wake up one day thinking I wanted to be a comedian; I woke up thinking I didn’t fucking want to work in retail for the rest of my life. I have worked with brilliantly talented performers who are treading water in full-time jobs waiting for that one great agent. If you want the job, go and make the job. Comedy allowed me to write my own show, build my own parts, and perform — which is all I ever wanted to do…’
¶ There’s a real attention to stagecraft and physicality in your show. Could you talk us through your methods, how you use the stage, how you use the body?
‘I want to use every inch of the stage, no matter how small it is. I’ve always been theatrical and physical with my jokes and sketches. I’ve found It helps build an audience’s confidence in me and my material and they can relax in my company. I’ve always said I’ll perform as if I’m in Wembley Stadium (even if there’s only 5 people in the room) — Physicality, musicianship, it all plays back into my repertoire. Now it is going further and further. I’ve closed the show with a dance routine, and end the first half with a rap. It’s important to keep mixing it up. Audiences get tired, too’.
¶ I noticed the intersection of two distinct characters in your act. The graceful, confident libertine and the insular stoner. Could you tell me about how you flesh out your characters?
‘I take a certain situation or object and think “if that was talking to me right now, what would he or she be saying?” That’s how Chardonnay came about. I was doing Dry January and felt like she was flirting with me, and then trying to seduce me. The same with the Self-Service Check-Out Machine sketch: I’m looking at it thinking “you’re just enjoying this going wrong aren’t you, you smug bitch”. It’s always interesting to see what resonates with different pockets of the audience, too. Every situation, though not necessarily true or false, is heightened, exaggerated, to make it accessible. I mean, I definitely have stalked my ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. I just dramatised that impulse’.
It means a great deal to people such as myself, who cherish the work of comedians almost above all else, to see performers take the time to meet their audience after the show. Such conversations are inevitably adrenalin-egged affairs, and occur quickly and awkwardly for fear of overdoing the assumed familiarity (for we think we have learned so many secrets...) But it matters nonetheless.
Killick individually thanked everyone as they left the Frog & Bucket; then we got a pint and a glass of wine at the Gullivers pub in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. For her first trip to Manchester, it was accommodating of the city to live up to its stereotype of having absolutely moved on from the 90s. Live Forever, Roll With It, and She’s Electric all were played within the hour-long recording of our conversation. And in the ginnel outside, a bottle of Hooch clinked away from the four-man scrap.
‘This tour has taken me pretty much everywhere, and it’s been really surprising. Different places laugh at different things. I mean, up until this tour, I’d never checked with the audience if they understood what a queef was — which is pretty key to one of my big punchlines. I could never work out why sometimes the joke got a huge laugh and other times: silence. Today the woman I asked was quite confident. She was straight out with “yeah, it’s a fanny fart”. But, I really like it when people are embarrassed and I have to coax it out of them. “It’s a sound your nunny makes” was another great effort’.
This singular instance of audience interaction momentarily changes the pace of Killick’s involved monologue. Yet, it appears not to be good enough for some “pure stand-ups” (as she calls them), having been asked, on occasion: “Why are you here?”
‘It’s back-handed digs, really. Those who don’t understand that whether horror is horror, romance is romance, comedy is comedy, we’re all just entertainers. A comic who does punchy political one-liners is completely different to my characterful sketch-orientated set. It doesn’t mean one person’s way is better than another’s. Mine is an animated journey, there are jokes along the way, and everyone leaves with a big smile on their face. And if you don’t like it, like I said, don’t be a snitch’.
Despite Killick’s position of runner-up in the 2018 Funny Women Awards’ Best Show category, we discussed comedy as a medium that does not fit easily within the concept of star ratings. In Jim Hosking’s peculiar comedy film An Evening with Beverley Luff Linn (2018) (barely scraping a 50% critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes), a character coughs for such an inordinately long period of time, with such music in each whoop and crack, that the scene achieves a kind of operatic and comedic perfection. It does nothing for character, plot, anything. But comedy describes how strange it is that we should wish to transmit ourselves at all, better than any percentage score could hope to aggregate.
‘When it comes to material, for me, the oldest story in the book is always the funniest. Normal people talking about normal things — it’s the most interesting thing in the world. That’s essentially what this One Woman Show is.
With reviews, it is so subjective. I don’t understand why one viewer’s opinion should have the power to potentially ruin someone’s show. And as a performer, you can’t obsess over whatever that star rating is on your poster.
I remember reading that Dolly Parton said something like “you should never read reviews, because if you have to believe the good ones, then you have to believe the bad ones”. It would obviously be great to be critically acclaimed, and to wake up to a long and appreciative write-ups. The audience reaction is the most important thing, and everyone knows that. I will be happy so long as I am getting the numbers, people coming to see me, enjoying the show, and for an hour, people will enjoy themselves and forget their worries at work, at home. And I just hope that eventually I can do the same to bigger audiences, in bigger theatres.
The comedy industry, I think, could be way more supportive than it is. I mean that. I think when we push people, we should encourage each other’.
¶ What has your reception been like from other comics?
‘Like any industry I’ve had some bad and good experiences with colleagues. The worst has been comics implying that I only did well because of the way I looked. That was a real shame; it was clear that the comics were just jealous, and couldn’t handle that I did a good job. That was incredibly eye-opening for me. Audiences are brutal, and if you’re not funny they won’t laugh. Trust me: it’s got nothing to do with the way you look — I always thought that was pretty obvious. Clearly not.
Be funny but not too funny, we’re told. Even the way we look on stage is criticised. I remember I inexplicably didn’t get to the next round of a comedy competition, and when I messaged the organizer to ask for feedback, she genuinely said it was because I wore a belly top on-stage and she could see my midriff. I want to wear on-stage what I wear on a night out, because that’s how I feel comfortable. And when I’m on stage, if people are looking at my midriff and they find it distracting, that’s their problem. My show is about looking good, going crazy at the party, stalking your ex- and obsessing over social media, (perhaps ill-advisedly). The way I look might make it more relatable, or maybe not. Not my problem’.
¶ So what’s next for you?
‘I would love to see Girlfriend From Hell be turned into a sketch show. There are hundreds of actors and comedians who could play the parts brilliantly. At the moment I’m doing all the parts, which is cool because I’ve really fallen in love with the feeling of just me and and the audience. I will continue to try to develop the show to make it funnier, better and more experimental. The plan is to take the best bits of this show and develop it into the sequel which will be at Edinburgh this year: Girlfriend From Hell: The Bitch is Back’.