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Liz Kingsman, 2022
Photo: Sequoia Ziff

Liz Kingsman: the reluctant comedy phenomenon

Her genius one-woman show, er, ‘One Woman Show’ is the hottest ticket of the year. But Liz Kingsman absolutely does not want to be a superstar

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Liz Kingsman is the new queen of British comedy, a former member of hip but relatively obscure sketch group Massive Dad who rocketed to solo success overnight with her merciless ‘Fleabag’ parody ‘One Woman Show’. At the start of this year, it sold out Soho Theatre for weeks on end on the back of ecstatic reviews – now it’s headed for the West End.

That’s the story that’s going round, anyway. The truth is more complicated

The bit about the meteoric success of ‘One Woman Show’ is 100 percent accurate: comedy critics went nuts for its initial Soho Theatre dates in October 2021; by the time the January enormo run came round it had turned into a genuine phenomenon. Kingsman was selling shows out in minutes and a steady stream of theatre critics were dropping by to festoon her with stars. A triumphant Edinburgh Fringe run at the prestigious Traverse Theatre followed, and now the West End beckons (Sydney Opera House is next, then hopefully Broadway). 

Over coffee in central London, the extremely low-key Kingsman wryly points out that the repeated extensions to its January run were only made possible because the Omicron surge forced pretty much every other show at Soho Theatre to cancel, meaning ‘One Woman Show’ could just nick their vacant spots. ‘I basically lived there for 26 days,’ she says of Soho, ‘that’s as long as the Edinburgh Fringe. A lot of the time we were the only show on’.

The new queen of British comedy – not my words, but those of Vogue magazine and The Times – is actually an Australian who went to university in Durham and stayed. She’s done a remarkable job of ditching the accent, although once you know to look for it, it’s suddenly glaringly obvious.

She also clearly doesn’t want to be the next Katherine Ryan or whoever. For a start, she refers to ‘One Woman Show’ as a ‘play’. For the West End run you can buy a text and everything. And she’s not exactly what you’d call desperate for fame. 

‘Everything in life that I want is the opposite of this,’ she sighs wistfully. ‘I want to quietly make work with no one looking, and I want to spend a lot of time by myself with no one knowing where I am.’

Deadpan and guarded and probably in her early thirties (she won’t say), she is happy with the success of ‘One Woman Show’, but finds the new-to-her phenomenon that is is talking about herself in public desperately awkward. 

My mum said I should just say how great the show was. I was like: Nope, I can’t do that

Anonymity is not compatible with trying to sell out a theatre twice a night for a month over Christmas. ‘It was like: Do you want to have a handshake with the devil and do some publicity? And I was like: I suppose I will, sir. I really desperately want people to see the show, so I will exchange some of the things I value dearest.’

‘My mum said I should just say how great the show was, because that’s what a man would do and I was just like: Nope, I can’t do that.’

Liz Kingsman: One Woman Show, Ambassador’s Theatre, 2022
Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Doing press does at least let her set the record straight regarding the assumption made by pretty much every single reviewer that ‘One Woman Show’ is a direct response to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ‘Fleabag’. 

It’s not unreasonable to link them: in ‘One Woman Show’, Kingsman plays a fame-hungry hack writer-performer who has decided that outrageously baring her soul in a solo piece called ‘Wildfoul’ is her ticket to the big time. When I saw it I didn’t actually think that it was sending Waller-Bridge up directly. But I did assume that it was specifically satirising performers who’ve tried to replicate the ‘Fleabag’ formula, of whom there are plenty. 

In fact, Kingsman was totally taken aback by what her rave reviews were praising her for. ‘It blindsided me,’ she says of the ‘Fleabag’ assumptions, ‘I wasn’t annoyed at the reviews, I was annoyed at myself for not seeing them coming. But I think it’s got to the point where it’s deeply unfair on her, because she’s actually successful.’

‘One Woman Show’ has its origins in Kingsman’s time spent at fringe festivals, contemplating the glut of confessional female monologues, in which ‘one-woman show’ is virtually a genre description. It’s fair to say the root of the recent boom in this sort of work is probably ‘Fleabag’. But that hadn’t been her thinking. As a publicity-shy person, she was genuinely fascinated by artists who’d bare their souls for (often bad) art.

‘I started exploring why people make these shows, trading in your… maybe not trauma, but your personal life,’ she says. ‘Because I am very private, so I would never really want to do that. And not just private, boring. It was a joke that I was going to do a one-woman show!’

A lightweight, gag-heavy first draft – she refers to it as ‘the “Airplane” version’ – was given an airing at the Camden Fringe in 2019, following which she took it to influential director Adam Brace. ‘He’s very good at being all like: What is this really about?’ she says. ‘And I was like: Well, I know what I think these shows are doing, they’re career moves, basically. But I can’t say that, because that would be a horrible thing to say. So it was about finding out whether I was actually allowed to say that.’

It turns out she was: the modified, meta-ed-up new version played a handful of well-received performances at the 2020 Vault Festival; it might have conquered that year’s Edinburgh Fringe, or the next one, only the pandemic got in the way. But when it finally got a ‘proper’ run, ‘One Woman Show’ was unstoppable.

Because there’s been so much love for the work, there’s been a rush to define Kingsman as a person. We discuss the fact that her recent Vogue profile singled out the fact she had shiny hair as if that were a personality trait, but her hair was only shiny because it had been specifically done up for the Vogue photoshoot. ‘There are worse things that can be said about you than “great hair”,’ she shrugs. ‘I don’t want to become a spokesperson for boring women.’

The most perverse part of all this is that ‘One Woman Show’ bears little relation to what she actually wants to do with her life. She actually has a successful but – in Britain – invisible parallel career as one of the stars of ‘Parlement’, a hit French TV comedy about the absurdities of the European parliament. 

‘It’s a very good show,’ she says brightly. ‘And I can say that because I’m one of about 65 people in it. It’s all about the machinations of the European parliament, how incredibly complicated it is. Nobody here has seen it. But it’s really popular in France!’

She has been commuting to France by Eurostar to film season three while preparing for her West End debut, which must be… knackering. She effectively has two parallel careers, with almost entirely separate audiences. And in fact what she really wants to do… is a third thing. ‘What I’ve wanted to do forever is make feature films,’ she says. ‘Like somebody was asking me if I’d be interested in writing another play; the play was almost a fluke: I’d like a film, please! If you follow through all the things I’ve ever done it’s always been about films, so the fact I’m in theatre is funny, this is a hilarious way to not be directing a feature film right?’

‘But I love theatre!’ she adds, just to be clear.

I don’t want to become a spokesperson for boring women

It’s worth stressing: Liz Kingsman is funny and personable and actively quite chatty. But she’s wildly self-deprecating, intensely uncomfortable sharing personal information about herself (no wonder she’s made the UK her home) and moreover somewhat freaked out that she’s being fêted as a comedy superstar for a show that she loves but doesn’t consider particularly representative of what she wants to do. 

However, I do finally manage to delight her when I ask a question that she clearly hasn’t been asked at all. Why, I query, has the name changed from its original hyphenated title ‘One-Woman Show’ to the new ‘One Woman Show’. 

‘Ah!’ For the first time in an hour, she looks like she’s not picking her way through a minefield. ‘Thank you! I love that! So the hyphen was very, very important to me. But when you’re going to do a big ten-foot billboard outside a West End theatre, the font doesn’t contain a hyphen. I’m mourning the loss of the hyphen and I’m trying to send her off with respect and dignity by doing some really good shows.’ 

I think Liz Kingsman is an introverted nerd who is also extremely funny, a potent and unpredictable combination. She seems unlikely to become a comedy superstar, simply because it seems unlikely she’ll follow up ‘One Woman Show’ with another solo show. But she is a huge talent. And if ‘One Woman Show’ is a one-off, all the more reason to catch it while it’s here.

‘One Woman Show’ is at the Ambassadors Theatre. Until Jan 21. Book tickets here.

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