These days, Sally Phillips gets sent a lot of cougars. “A lot of what?” asks Lily Bevan. “Cougars,” she replies. “It used to be that you had to shag the lead guy. But now you’ve got to shag the lead guy and be ridiculous!”
Whether it’s London or LA, blockbuster movie or the National Theatre, such is the paucity of roles for female actors over the age of 40, that scripts often veer towards the sexually dominant woman who preys on younger men, or, in Meryl Streep’s experience, craggy old witches. Taking matters into their own hands, Phillips and Bevan have written themselves some better roles, in a collection of mini-plays called Talking to Strangers.
Inspired by Alan Bennett, the monologues feature a bunch of endearingly muddled modern individuals, each lost in an existential crisis, from fatalistic palm readers to hopeless yoga instructors, misguided Sloanes to frazzled mothers. “I got a bit fed up with getting asked to play Latvian prostitutes all the time,” Bevan explains.”
Phillips, best known for her roles in comedy series such as Alan Partridge, Veep and Smack the Pony (not to mention her recent stint in Miranda) met Bevan, a writer, actor and director (and part-time yoga instructor), while sharing an office in 2014. Both were enduring “development hell” on separate film projects and struggling to stay motivated.
“Your average film takes seven years from start to finish,” says Phillips pouring a cup of tea. “We were both hot-desking and had lost contact with what on earth we wanted to do in the first place, so we did a really stupid show,” she says of Dances with Dogs, the “incredibly amateurish, shabby and joyous” showcase of material they took to Leicester Square theatre last year. “We weren’t trying to sell anything. And that felt like such a relief. Lots of friends pissing about, nobody getting paid, wearing silly wigs, showing videos of people dancing with dogs. Do you take milk?”
They might not have been pitching, but a couple of BBC commissioners happened to see the show anyway and, to their surprise, landed them a Radio 4 series. Now developed into a “bastard lovechild of sketches and talking heads”, Talking to Strangers is scheduled to air in 2016, with Emma Thompson among the cast. “If you’re looking for a through line, it’s probably: why am I?” smiles Phillips. “What am I for? Why did I choose lions? Why are all my clothes so shit?”
At its core is a gentle, perceptive type of theatre. There are few neat resolutions and no punchlines – a freeform writing style Phillips considers more feminine than masculine. “I do think that men are better at one-liners and women are better at character observations. There are women who come out with excellent one-liners, but I feel let down by them. The closed structure disappoints me.”
Could the competitive, quick-fire oneupmanship of such zingers explain why comedy panel shows remain male dominated? “I do think men are much more black-and-white. They are very happy stating an opinion. David Mitchell is a very intelligent guy and is very happy to say, ‘This person is an idiot.’ But I am never happy saying that because I’m always like, ‘Well, what do I know? I don’t have all the facts.’ In fact, the less they know the more confident they are in their opinion.”
She turns to Bevan: “I am older than you, but what I found is that guys didn’t feel confident taking the piss out of girls when they are writing the parts [for TV], so we needed to show them how to write what women can do because they don’t see what women do when they’re not there.”
“It must be weird for blokes,” says Bevan, “because they watch things like those air-freshener ads and think, ‘Oh, women are insane aliens who like walking in and sniffing each others’ houses. It’s only because you are one, that you’re like, ‘No, nobody has EVER done that.’”
Until the series begins, Phillips is busy collaborating with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Amy Poehler on a new comedy venture, while Bevan not only takes her standup show Pheasant Plucker to Edinburgh this summer, but continues to work with the Bush theatre to encourage new writers – male and female – to create better characters for women.
“I’ve been working with third-years at Rada. I watched one show the other day, and one of the guys fell over a barrel and hurt his shoulder and had to go off stage. So one of the girls came on, played his part, learned all his swordfights in the interval, did them all in the second half and played her own part without batting an eyelid – while doing a massive romantic kiss with the other girl! It was just brilliant,” Bevan beams.
“You’re not glad someone’s fallen over a barrel, but it’s a very cool thing to see. It’s just so sad that then you leave and you’re offered ‘Latvian prostitute’. There should be a part for her where she goes out and swordfights and kisses a girl. Without it having to be because a bloke has fallen over.”
• Talking to Strangers is at the Little House, Latitude festival, Suffolk on 19 July. Details: latitudefestival.com