Interview: Elf Lyons

elf lyons interview

Elf Lyons is a prolific, wonderfully distinctive and hugely creative performer who was nominated for an Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2017 for her show Swan in which she delivered her personal take on the ballet Swan Lake. She has a brand new show running at the Vault Festival from February 13 - 15, Love Songs to Guinea Pigs. Buy tickets here and read more about it below. She is also performing her 2018 Edinburgh Fringe show Chiff Chaff - a musical about the economy, and you don't get many of those to the Euro – at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham from March 25 - 30. Buy tickets for that here.

This interview first appeared in the Evening Standard here. What I failed to emphasise enough in the feature at the time is that Lyons is about as unique as they come. You really have to see her onstage to appreciate this. Buy a ticket, you won't regret it.

 

 

  

Whatever 2019 brings, comedian Elf Lyons is confident that it will be less painful for her than her lowest point of 2018. That was in October and, as she explains to me over a large box of chocolates in her Oval flat, it changed her life forever.

Lyons, 27, had just finished performing a new solo work in Southampton about the mythical figure of Medusa and had returned to London. “I’d had pains on tour in Australia and then at the Edinburgh Fringe but I just rode the wave of it. When I was doing Medusa I was on diazepam and taking CBT oil, doing whatever I could to get through the show.” 

She realised she had mobility problems when the stage manager had to help her get her knickers on and off each night. “Then I finished on Friday, came back to London on Saturday and at 3am on Sunday called an ambulance. I woke up and couldn’t feel my legs or my genitals. Everything went. I’d lost control. It was very, very scary.”

At St Thomas’ Hospital doctors tried to diagnose the problem. At one point she was told that she might never walk again and that performing might be impossible. “They eventually found it was a really bad case of degenerative disc disease and prolapsed discs. I’d always had back problems as I’m tall and I never rested.” 

She is 6ft but more graceful than she is prepared to acknowledge. “I’m ungainly. My parents describe me as a really long dog.”

Looking back, she doesn’t know how she would have got through the experience without the support of the hospital, her family and friends. “I couldn’t bend over. I couldn’t do anything. My friends had to put me on and off the loo while I was crying in agony. I was completely reliant on others.”

Following spinal surgery Lyons has made a steady recovery, initially relying on crutches to get around. She can still get tired and occasionally has a limp. 

But her problems still weren’t over. “After the operation I didn’t realise the depression you get.” And she had to come to terms with the fact that her joints are at risk in the future if she exerts herself too much on stage. 

This would not be such a great problem for a conventional stand-up-at-the-microphone comedian but Lyons is anything but conventional. She studied clowning at the Philippe Gaulier school in Étampes, near Paris, whose alumni include Sacha Baron Cohen and Complicité’s Simon Mc-Burney, and in her last two full-length shows she has made her name as a hugely skilled, uninhibited absurdist par excellence. Her physicality has always been integral to her act.

In 2017’s Swan, which was nominated for an Edinburgh Comedy Award, she rebooted Swan Lake while wearing a parrot costume and speaking Franglais. In 2018’s ChiffChaff she premiered a self-penned musical about fiscal economics. Trust me, it’s funnier than it sounds. The free market was illustrated by blow-up sex dolls and inflation was compared to spinach. She presumably knew what she was talking about — her father is the economist Gerard Lyons. 

Lyons comes across as a lighthearted and whimsical in person (and very generous with chocolates) yet she is clearly intense too. “I like to just create,” she says, as if it means everything to her. Most comedians take a holiday after the Edinburgh Festival but she stripped to the waist and sang riot-girl songs as Medusa. Looking back, maybe she should have had a break. “It was fantastic to do but physically exhausting.”

She was already nurturing her next project. Love Songs to Guinea Pigs, which debuts at the Vault Festival next month, has changed since her hospitalisation. It is now inspired by that experience — and also by the two guinea pigs she has latterly acquired. She positively dotes on them. Before the interview I was ushered into Lyons’s bedroom to meet Ian and Clara, as if they were royalty rather than rodents.

Originally, the new show was going to involve tap dancing. “I have to be very aware of what I can and can’t do. I’m just going to talk about being in hospital. It will still be physical but in a different way. Every new restriction creates a way of being a better performer.” 

She is hoping to build two life-size guinea pig cages as part of the set. You could say it’s from crutches to hutches. She also plans to talk candidly on stage about relationships. “My average relationship tends to be about two years then I jump ship, so I thought guinea pigs last about two years so they would be perfect pets. Then it turns out they live for eight years. But it’s good training for more commitment. I joked to my boyfriend Rob [Kemp, the comedian who had a hit with The Elvis Dead], ‘Let’s get married and have babies,’ and he said, ‘Let’s see how you get on with the guinea pigs’.”

After the trauma of 2018 Lyons is feeling optimistic. Talk inevitably turns to Brexit. Lyons’s father supported the Leave campaign and it transpires that she voted out too. She is a fan of Europe but less enthused by the EU. “I’m pro-unions but I don’t think the European Union is a union. I don’t think it represents Europe or supports young people in Europe.”

Lyons says she has encountered opposition on the comedy circuit because of her views: “I’ve been dropped from gigs and had emails calling me racist.” But she also says various performers have confided in her privately that they also voted for Brexit. “The decision has been made. We are going to leave, everyone should focus on getting the best deal.”

Politics might be entering uncharted territory but for Lyons 2019 looks set to be productive. She has other projects on the go, including a new work with fellow clown Helen Duff about painter Leonora Carrington, and a show with Damien Warren-Smith — AKA spoof thespian Garry Starr

For someone who three months ago feared she might never be able to perform again, Lyons is certainly grabbing life and running with it as fast as she possibly can.

 

Pics © Andy Hollingworth Archive

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