Making a song and dance about economics with Lambeth’s elfin comedy star
Elf Lyons was shortlisted for the top award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer. Now she is on the brink of a return, with a show that explains money, inflation and hardship in a way you have never heard before, writes Tiernan Douieb.
Lambeth’s Elf Lyons is one of those comedians whose performances can definitely be described as hysterically funny – but move beyond that and it’s hard to know how to categorise her.
Her show at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, entitled Swan, was a mixture of clowning, stand-up, drag, cabaret and over-the-top French accents as she attempted to recreate Swan Lake, live onstage each night while dressed as a giant parrot. Oh, and sometimes as a shark.
It’s a natural product of her training at the Ecole Philip Gaulier clowning school in Paris. Elf is billed as the ‘Queen of Clown’ and last year’s show deservedly earned her a nomination for the main Edinburgh Comedy Award, putting her on a par with household names such as Adam Hills, Dave Gorman and Reginald D Hunter.
She returns to the Edinburgh Fringe this year with her show Chiff Chaff, a one-woman musical about the economy.
When I met Elf on an extremely sunny Saturday afternoon she explained why she had chosen this topic – and how putting it together had been informed by her life in Oval over the past five years.
“Lambeth is the best. I shop local, I know all of my neighbours, I go to the same café every day, Di Lieto, I’ve got pen pals in the area, old people that I meet and swap details with,” she said.
“For me it’s a community-based area but I don’t know anyone in my block of flats, not for want of trying but they’re all 9-5, young, woke, millennial workers who all leave early in the morning and come back at night.”
She is “really proud” to have joined the local branch of the Women’s Equality Party.
Her choice of political allegiance was clear to her.
“When people talk about feminism, they often mean white feminism, they’re not thinking about everybody in London, from different demographics, in different wage brackets etc, so I think that’s something we do need to fight for”, she says. She’s riled by pigeon-holing, like those who assume she is a Conservative because she went to boarding school.
Elf describes being a woman on stage as “inherently political”, putting her in a rich vein of female artists who have taken on the once all-male comedy establishment. She notes the continued double standards whereby as a woman performer “you’re either able to sexualise your body or you make fun of it, but if you jump between the two, people don’t know what to make of it”.
Comedians, and laughter, could be the driver towards a more engaged society, she muses.
“We have to think outside the box. We’re the Monster Raving Looney Party. Of course, you’d want to have a 99p coin. It doesn’t make any economic sense – but it does make common sense. It’d save so much change”.
“It’s a great way of getting kids involved in politics. You need parties like that. Also, the joy of creating inventive ways to benefit the community, not just economically, but emotionally.”
She wouldn’t call politics her creative inspiration, although in relation to Swan she says, “I think there is something very political and totally punk about refusing to acknowledge what is going on and saying I’m just going to be a complete clown for now”.
The “dismal science” of economics has really fired her new show, however.
“My belief for Chiff Chaff is I come on stage and I say, ‘Right, I think economists purposely make it too complicated, I think they use too many words, and I think economics is really fun, it’s for all of us, [so], I think economics is best communicated in song.’
“‘How do you explain the economy?’”, she asks herself. “Mime. How do you explain the economy? Hula hooping. Trying to achieve the goal with the impossible task. That’s how I make it work, it’s just a game of matching things and seeing what the fun is, what the game is, but also, with economics, it’s an emotional word for me.”
This is because her father is Gerard Lyons, a former Standard Chartered bank chief economist who went on to serve as an advisor to Boris Johnson during his time as London mayor.
“For me, when you say, ‘Economics’, I immediately think of my dad, I think of every Sunday lunch, because it’s the one conversation, it’s the subject we always talk about, so it’s a word of absolute powerful love for me.”
I put it to Elf that her show is the comedy version of Talking to My Daughter About The Economy, by rebel economist and former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis – but delivered from the daughter’s perspective.
She agrees and says that one of her next projects is a book she is writing with her father about economics.
“It’s me explaining my ideas about the economy to my dad and us arguing about them and trying to specify it – but in a fun way.”
“I see recessions as forest fires because I’m a woman of visual imagery, being dyslexic, and my dad’s a man of maths. If he quotes statistics to me, I’m not going to remember those, but if you tell me inflation’s a bit like when money turns into spinach and deflation is when it when it turns into really heavy sacks of potatoes that are a little bit mouldy, I understand that a lot more. If you say to me that stagnation is couscous, I immediately know it’s something we shouldn’t look forward to.”
Elf says that over her years of performing, she has overcome an early need to be liked on stage that her mum picked her up on. Her advice to rookie comics: “Do what makes you happy, don’t try and prove anything to anyone”.
She admits to being hooked on the buzz of doing shows, and finds watching Love Island great therapy. (“Stick 10 people in a house together and watch them night and day, you get solid entertainment. I didn’t realise how important it was for me to have that comfort”).
For those who don’t have a chance to see Elf in Edinburgh, or who don’t fancy economics, she has a play in the pipeline for the autumn – a serious horror show in which she plays Medusa in the final hour of her life. Amazing lighting and sound are promised and the director is Ian Nicholson, winner of a Stage Award at Edinburgh for a Don Quixote adaptation with the Little Soldier theatre company.
It’s typical of a young comedian whose range of reference is exceptionally broad, who vows to “play to my strengths” and whose energy and inventiveness will surely lead her to further success.
A BOROUGH RICH IN LAUGHTER
Kae Kurd (Streatham)
Kurd came to the UK at the age of 6 months as a refugee from Saddam Hussein’s persecution – his father and uncle were Peshmerga resistance fighters. Growing up in Brixton, he adopted Kae Kurd as a moniker because people struggled to pronounce his birth name, Korang Abdulla, correctly.
His quick-fire delivery comes from his early experience trying to win over big crowds on the BME comedy circuit. Kurd’s multicultural upbringing and keen observational skills allow him to be playful with ethnic and religious stereotypes without seeming scornful. He’s also a community activist, helping to launch the emergency appeal fund for Kurdish refugees displaced by the war against Isis.
Kerry Godliman (West Norwood)
Kerry has had parallel careers as an actor and a stand-up since training at Rose Bruford College and reaching the 2003 Babycham Funny Women competition final.
From 2012-4, she co-starred with Ricky Gervais on Channel 4 series Derek. She has also appeared in series including Miranda and Extras, on Netflix feature film Mascots and on Sky sitcom Carters Get Rich. She’s featured on BBC’s Mock The Week and in Live At The Apollo, is a regular on The News Quiz and The Now Show and has done two series of her own radio show, Kerry’s List. She is playing three dates in Edinburgh this summer. She describes West Norwood as “very slightly gentrified” and says the funniest heckle she ever received was a man lifting up his kilt.
Harriet Kemsley and Bobby Mair (Streatham)
A couple who mine their contrasting characters and interpersonal dynamic as a rich source of comedy, Harriet and Bobby filmed the run-up to their 2017 wedding as a reality series.
Bobby was adopted and grew up in a small town in Ontario, coming to the UK at 25 after he won $10,000 in a stand-up competition. He was hit on panel shows including 8 Out of 10 Cats and Never Mind The Buzzcocks. He successfully kicked drug addiction and stayed with Harriet after a period of lurid misdemeanours. Earlier this year he performed a national tour.
With her “honest, awkward, oversharing” stand-up, Harriet has supported the likes of Katherine Ryan and Isy Suttie and appeared on The One Show and Jo Brand’s Channel 4 show Damned. She presents podcast Why is Harriet Crying? with Sunil Patel and has performed in films including 2014’s Bonobo opposite Josie Lawrence. She has just toured her latest show Slutty Joan around the UK before taking it to the Fringe.