Russell Kane: interview
A hit on stage and TV yet haunted by fear and crippling nerves. Russell Kane tells Time Out how he got past his worries to explore his family history and his feelings.
Russell Kane whirls around the stage like a dervish. After 50 minutes of blistering stand-up he's dripping with sweat. His latest show, 'Smokescreens and Castles' is a stunning examination of the complex interactions at play within the family home he grew up in on a council estate in Enfield. It looks at the powerful impact his father had on his formative years and the sense of dislocation he felt as a bookish, slightly camp, child growing up in a tough environment.
Like many of his previous shows, he continues to deal with the themes of class, culture and semiotics. He's as much an anthropologist as he is a stand-up. However, where previously, his shows have been inspired but frenetic offerings, often dazzling the audience as he shoots concepts out wildly - like a Catherine wheel of ideas sending sparks out in every direction - this show has far more clarity and focus. It's also his most funny, honest, and poignant work to date.
Even his body language has changed. He is no less energetic or hyperactive, but it now appears that the nerves and performance anxiety - which used to contort his body - have given way to a more controlled and directed physicality. But what has caused this transformation? I meet him just minutes after the show. We make our way through the crowds of the Pleasance Courtyard, the very epicentre of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and find ourselves a quiet spot at the back of the venue beside the portable toilets.
I turn on the my Dictaphone to begin the interview just as a young man jostles past us, unzips his flies and begins to pee violently again the side of the huts. 'Sorry pal, I was busting,' he explains, mid-stream. 'What are you twos doing back here anyway?' 'I'm interviewing him for Time Out,' I say, trying not to look over at him as he hoists his manhood back into his trousers. As he walks off he winks at Russell and slaps me on the back. 'Go on, giz him the job.'
You're straight off stage - how was the show for you?
'The audience were great. I feed from whatever level of energy they give me. The second I get that applause and laughter, I bring my performance up to the next level. It was also nice that no one was too drunk or needed to go to the toilet. So I just totally relaxed into it. It does make a huge difference how a room is set out as well.'
Have you always been this obsessive about the conditions within the room?
'Maybe. But it's not in my imagination. People do respond to how they're seated. I'm so vulnerable up there, especially with this year's show and the moment I see someone doing something distracting, it can really fuck with me.'
Although you've always spoken about your family in your shows this one feels far more personal?
'It is in many ways. For a while I thought, I'm never going to have the courage to do it. But I think it works. The nice thing is that although I'm talking about my dad, most people laugh because they recognise what I'm talking about. They could come from an upper-class Belgian background but I'd still get that laughter of recognition when talking about my council-estate dad, because actually I'm looking for the universal underneath, which is normally - this sounds cheesy as fuck - love isn't it? That's what we're talking about. It's the way love transmutes into all these things that have got nothing to do with race and class and money.'
You seem much more comfortable in your skin this year?
'I got to the end of last year and - this is going to sound ridiculous because it was a very successful year for me, I got my third Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination, I co-presented
“I'm a Celebrity…” on ITV2 but for me it was one of the most unhappy years of my life. I just fell apart internally with the show last year. I was falling apart internally while the audiences were lapping it up. The reviews were good and the houses were packed - and I felt shit. I got to the end of the run and said to Sadie, my partner, “Enough is enough, because my nerves are not sorting themselves out.” I would get terrified that one day I would wake up and go, “That's it, stage fright, I can't go back on.” I mean, I'd really go through it - diarrhoea, sickness, doubt, you know, all of the psychosomatic things.'
So what did you do about it?
'I booked myself on to this thing called “The Hoffman Process” [an eight-day residential course designed to help anxiety and depression]. It fucking changed my life. It sounds horrible and all Americany but it's not anything like that. I'm a total sceptic. I could happily stamp on wanky crystals every time I see them. But at the end of this course, I finally got to the thing that was making me nervous, and it was that relationship that you've just seen explored for an hour. Not only was I suddenly free of all the nerves, I was suddenly free to go deeper and explore that. It's not like I was mentally ill or anything, it was just crippling nerves. I still get the adrenaline and the buzz but last year I would have been behind that curtain going: This could go wrong. You're going to fail. What if you die? Don't throw up. Don't shit again… Now I tell that voice to shut the fuck up! And I hope it stays shut up forever.'
Russell Kane performs 'Smokescreens and Castles' at the Bloomsbury Theatre on Oct 8 & 23.