Solo Suggs, soliloquising soldiers: the performers who go it alone

From Madness frontman Graham McPherson to Falklands veteran Ken Lukowiak, solo shows are all the rage right now. But what makes this the moment of the monologue?

It's often been said that everyone has a book inside them – a contention numerous publications have horribly disproved. But I came away from this year's Edinburgh festival thinking that what a surprising variety of people do seem to have inside them is a compelling autobiographical solo show.

My single most enjoyable and memorable experience at Edinburgh 2012 was Suggs: My Life Story in Words and Music, in which the artist otherwise known as Graham McPherson, frontman of Madness, alternated wildly funny anecdotes, an account of his search for the father he never met, and renditions of his hits. McPherson is an experienced musical performer, but the theatrical monologue is a new form to him – and a startlingly contrast to his performance in the Olympics closing ceremony. Nonetheless, he took to it with the charisma of an accomplished actor, and the timing and facial double-takes of a veteran standup. The result was one of the most original and engaging shows I've seen for a long time.

Flicking through my fringe notebook, I noticed three of the other stand-out shows were also monologues by performers fresh to the single spotlight. Author and agony aunt Virginia Ironside and former Falklands war paratrooper Ken Lukowiak made their stage debuts with Growing Old Disgracefully (hers) and A Soldier's Song (his); both one-hour performances drew on personal experience, to comic and tragic effect respectively.

As for actor Anthony Rapp, he has achieved a new level of attention through Without You, a one-man show with music about the grief he suffered following the deaths of his mother and his friend Jonathan Larsson, composer of the musical Rent. Rapp's show has become one of the first Edinburgh 2012 hits to transfer to London, and it is expected that Suggs will soon tour to many more venues. Ironside and Lukowiak also deserve further exposure for their pieces.

The popularity of the solo show at this year's festival is clearly due to economic constraints, at least in part: the genre has the lowest possible acting payroll and rarely involves complex sets or technical effects. Perhaps the increasing domination of the Edinburgh fringe by standup comedy may have helped to make audiences sympathetic to individual performance.

But what's striking and surprising is how natural and attractive the form has proved for theatrical novices. This is despite the fact that the prospect of being alone on stage can cause even experienced performers to hesitate. David Hayman, one of Britain's best actors, confided he had doubts about taking on Six and a Tanner by Rony Bridges – the excellent single-character play in which an abused son rants at his dead father's coffin – in Edinburgh. Hayman told me that he had asked the writer to add the coffin as a sort of silent companion because he was concerned, even with decades of stage experience, about having no one to react against on stage.

It's possible that Suggs, Ironside and Lukowiak benefited from the enthusiasm of the uninitiated. All, though, seemed to relish their interaction with a live audience and, watching their performances, it struck me that theatre has accidentally stumbled on a perfect marriage of content and form, for the stage monologue is uniquely suited to confessional or intimate memoir. The phenomenon may have begun with Ruby Wax, who recently relaunched a career that had stalled in TV with Losing It, her one-woman show about the experience of mental illness. Another inspirational example may have been the playwright David Hare, who unexpectedly turned performer in 1998 with Via Dolorosa, a one-man show reporting on a journey through the Middle East. Wax has written an autobiographical book – as have Ironside, Lukowiak and Rapp – but there's something about the soliloquy that brings particular power to personal revelation. Perhaps this is because of the overlap between the monologue and the therapeutic process on the psychiatrist's couch. I also suspect solo shows suit our current culture of social networking: they are the theatrical form that has most in common with a Facebook page or Twitter account.

Perhaps there's a risk that some impresarios will seize on the popularity of the monologue to keep production costs low, but Suggs, in particular, has shown what a rich experience it can be.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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