MINCE PIES AND MIDLANDS MERRIMENT
I caught this in its heartland, at the MAC in Birmingham. Half of the audience were clearly experienced followers of Janice Connolly’s creation, Mrs Barbara Nice. They required no warm-up: no sooner had the star pranced onto the stage in her bargain-shop mac (“£ 9.99, WPM- Why-Pay-More?”) than we were cheering, raring to go, more than willing to start by putting up our hands to imaginary reins and swaying right and left, up and down to Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride music, as we followed a route through Birmingham described by a briskly grabbed audience volunteer.
Within minutes it was time for the inter-row balloon-batting race, the associated festive chaos kept under control by the smiling, bespectacled diva, always with her concertina-shaped novelty handbag firmly over one arm and ragged tinsel round her neck. We swear in chorus an oath “not to moan if the games get a bit unfair”. A patter of deceptively spontaneous one-line chatter accompanies this, on topics as homely and surreal as alternative uses for Greggs’ sausage rolls, picking up the perils of high-speed hand driers or picking up 5 Live on your Copper 7 IUD on the top of the 30 bus.
If you have not yet encountered Barbara Nice on her home Midlands turf, or in lightning appearances anywhere from Aldeburgh to Edinburgh, never seen a middle-aged woman in a sensible skirt hurling herself into crowdsurfing or offering instant uplift therapy, behold her now. Part dinner-lady, part Mum, part anarchic Asda goddess of misrule, she adopts as her own every random scrap of the culture, leading sudden bursts of singalong when a phrase tips her into it – Those Were the Days, Bohemian Rhapsody, whatever. “That’s lovely, yin and yang, feng and shui, Starsky and Hutch, are we having a great time?”
We are. Even without the local guest stars – at the MAC a memorable spot from the juggler Mat Ricardo and a slightly drunk front row, and a newcomer trainee standup called Lindsay with some ripe Jeremy Kyle references. But it’s Barbara we come for, and only she can be trusted to get the volunteers through the handsfree mince-pie eating contest in good order, and all the way to the legendary Christmas Raffle (we all get free tickets). Prizes range from a Fray Bentos pie to a bottle of Dettol (“the aromatic elixir of life, a dab behind each ear and you’re on the way.” ) And we did not, she assured us sternly, need any repetition of the previous night’s “Lambrini fight”. So no scrapping over the tin of marrowfat peas.
Ironic, iconic, homely and surreal, her shows are uniquely joyful. And yes, it is theatre not just standup: because here is control, identification, mood-altering moments, human connection. And a final dancing singalong to Fairytale of New York, with and the bells all ringing out for Christmas Day. I defy you not to love it. My husband – who normally has a morbid terror of audience participation – insisted on coming when he heard it was Barbara Nice, and loved every minute.
on tour now:
Tonight Komedia, Brighton 0845 293 8480.
Monday & Tuesday, 15th & 16th
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford
£13. Tel: 01483 440000.
Dancehouse Manchester, 0161 237 1413