Interview – Jessica Ransom and the scene within a scene
Star of BBC1's Fast and Loose Jessica Ransom is leading the way in showing that live comedy isn't just all about stand-ups, there's a healthy cluster of sketch and character acts out there, too
If you don't know the name, you'll probably know the face. Character comic Jessica Ransom has been steadily on the rise for the past year or two, and she has recently found herself thrust into the limelight as one of the regulars on BBC1 improv show Fast and Loose. She's served her apprenticeship cameoing all over the Armstrong and Miller show and last year she made her Edinburgh solo debut.
And you can see her "irl", here on the live circuit, doing the same thing: flexing her improv muscles in Working Title and getting her sketch/character fix at her own monthly show the Ransom Club.
You could say she's at the centre of a scene within the comedy scene. The theatrical bit. The bit that's less about self-deprecating anecdotes and observations about tube travel, and more about acting. And it's enjoying something of a boom period, much like live comedy as a whole and other subsections such as musical comedy. If you've enjoyed Colin Hoult or Adam Riches (whom Jessica sidekicked in his acclaimed 2009 show) in the past few years, there are plenty of others following in their wake.
"I wanted to set up a place to test out new characters and new material and for others to do the same," says Jessica of the Ransom Club, "there's a lot more [sketch and character] than there used to be – I can't fit in all the [acts] I want to. It's a really nice part of the circuit to be a part of; it's a small world so we all know each other," (she is, incidentally, engaged to Ben Wilson of Idiots of Ants).
Ransom Club takes place monthly at the Leicester Square Theatre, one of the venues you ought to visit if sketch and character is your thing. In which case also check out the Canal Café, Etcetera, Hen and Chickens and Pleasance theatres, and sketch nights such as Sketchercise at the Ginglik, Triceratops at LST, Thomas Hardie and Co at the Water Poet and Aspidistras Eastside at Bar Kick.
Right now Jess is working towards a second solo Edinburgh show, titled Unsung Heroes, about "the important people we don't think about". It follows her warmly if not overwhelmingly received debut last year, Ransom's Millions, in which she adopted a number of personas who were all vying for an ill-gotten million quid.
Jessica is more at home in the world of the imaginary or the hyper-real, where she can perform at an unrecognisable distance from her own life. It's a country mile away from the approach taken by many stand-ups, who often draw on autobiography for material. Little wonder Jess tried stand-up gigs exactly twice, before deciding it wasn't for her.
"When I'm writing [a new character], I find something in me, a kernel of something and push that to the absolute extreme, or I think of something as opposite to me as possible as a starting point. Like a bounty hunter character I have called Tania, a hard-ass Geordie; with her, I love coming up with different ways to beat people up and kill people. Whereas I'm really a calm person. I like to sit down and have a cup of tea.
"Tania's probably the most different character of mine to me. She's so super-confident – when I'm Tania I go on and I'm not going to take shit from anyone because that's how the character is, not because that's how I am.
"I like being able to cover a broad spectrum of people and explore different parts of me. When you're in character you're so much less exposed than in stand-up."
Jessica, 29, from Sheffield, takes inspiration from her prefects Armstrong and Miller, largely because she is able to identify with the route they have taken ("they have the same background as other comics; they know what it's like to go to Edinburgh and have the Scotsman in [to review]. Now they have a TV show.")
Hammering the improv will only help. BBC1's Fast and Loose last year brought improv to a mainstream audience never really reached by C4's Whose Line Is It Anyway (both shows were the brainchild of PRODUCER Dan Paterson). There's nothing quite like the discipline of improv to keep a comic's tools sharpened, even if it is "terrifying" doing it in front of 400 people in F&L (the good sort of terrifying). The show is hosted by Hugh Dennis and has featured 2005 Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Laura Solon and two of the three Penny Dreadfuls: Humphrey Ker and David Reed (both of whom are working on solo Edinburgh shows, as is fellow Dreadful, Thom Tuck).
And if you enjoy F&L, get yo' ass along to Working Title at Pleasance Theatre, given it also features Ransom, Ker and Reed plus Andrew Pugsley, though it is a different kettle of comedy fish. Whereas F&L is full of short, in Working Title the comics improvise a full half-hour story. Twice. If the mushrooming success of Showstopper! the Musical (which also stars Pugsley) is anything to go by, then there is definitely an appetite for long-form improvised comedy out there.
"Improv definitely exercises a different part of your brain, it's not like getting a bowl of porridge and sitting down at a laptop. You can think for hours thinking of the structure for the joke, but the best way to do it is just to say it naturally. You get really interesting things come from not having much time to think before you speak.
"Working Title is brilliant fun to do; the audience gives us the title of a story and four or so lead characters, then one person takes the role of storyteller who weaves the rest of the play together. You don't know what you're going to come up with and in the course of the story, you create stuff that you have to resolve; you try to bring it to a satisfying conclusion. The audience enjoys it when they see us struggling and trying to find answers, but it's always doable and it's so exciting when you achieve it."