Funny Gals: An interview with Vikki Stone and Natasha Barnes
London’s Underbelly Festival is kicking off this week with plenty of fun live performances taking place in its brand new home in Cavendish Square. One of the most anticipated comedy performances at the summer pop-up festival is Vikki Stone and Natasha Barnes’s Funny Gals, a joyous and hilarious show recapitulating the history of songs written for women in musicals. Vikki Stone is the award-winning writer, composer, actor and comedian behind the Lyric Hammersmith’s Aladdin and the musical theatre concept album #zoologicalsociety. Natasha Barnes is the West End artist best known for her stellar performance as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.
We spoke to the talented duo about their upcoming show and they told us what makes them laugh, what they find most satisfying about performing, and what they feel is the main obstacle that female performers face in the entertainment industry.
How did Funny Gals come about? What was the driving force that led to its creation?
Vikki Stone: During the summer of 2020, when we were allowed out of the first lockdown, I persuaded Natasha to get in various bodies of cold water. We were both living in the Derbyshire Dales at the time, and whilst we were freezing in the River Derwent I ran this idea for a show by her…
You created this project during the pandemic. What was that like?
Natasha Barnes: It was probably the most laidback process initially. We mainly compiled a catalogue of all the funny songs musical theatre offers the female performer and then made a timeline out of them. We did it on our own schedule, which is a total rarity in “normal” times. There were some intense sessions in Vikki’s garden, to play by the guidelines at the time. I would do it again in a heartbeat – it felt good to be out of the gate, the second we were able, with something to invite audiences to.
What are the main obstacles that female comedians, or female performers in general, still face in the industry?
VS: The main obstacle is still being given the job in the first place. Or, when you do get the job, being given the trust that you know what you’re doing. There’s an assumed incompetence that is given to both female comedians and composers, we are assumed lesser practitioners because of gender, rather than being judged on our skills, as men are. I have to constantly prove my worth at work, and it’s time that nonsense stopped.
Did working on this project make you reflect about anything you hadn’t considered before? Did you learn anything new as you were researching for it?
VS: Yeah, I learnt that female composers and lyricists in musical theatre are very rare indeed. I honestly thought there would be more, but no. The stats of music written by women in British musical theatre – particularly of comedic music – are quite damning, and highlight a form that is still almost completely dominated by men. There are plenty of women composers out there, and they need to be supported by venues and organisations to make sure their work gets as many opportunities as their male counterparts’. Also, there are a lot of male writers who presume that a woman’s comic flaw is being sex-mad. There’s a surprising amount of shows with comic songs for women where the narrative focuses on only this, and you only notice that when you put all the songs side by side.
What gives you the most satisfaction as a performer?
NB: The amount of variables from performance to performance. The audiences change, something that goes spectacularly wrong on a Thursday can go spectacularly right the following Tuesday. You never know what each show will bring you, and so the variety keeps you satisfied.
Musicals are often seen as pure entertainment, but what can they express or reveal from a social perspective?
VS: Pure entertainment is not a negative or a “guilty pleasure”. The joy of the escapism of musical theatre is really necessary – particularly now. These are difficult times we’re living through, and many ways we found joy were not available to us for the best part of 18 months – weddings, parties, theatre, dancing, singing, nightclubs, choirs, live music and the rest. The way we find joy and the importance of happiness does say a lot about the health of society. It’s something we will need to work hard to find again in the time that follows all this.
What’s your favourite musical?
NB: Favourite musical is a hard one. I look at musicals the way I look at food, really: sometimes I want Mamma Mia and other times I need a heavy Sondheim. Vikki’s show The Zoological Society always makes me laugh, guaranteed. And, no, she did not slip me a tenner to say so!
What makes you laugh as a spectator?
VS: I love physical comedy and farce (and also panto). I saw a production of Noises Off at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2019 that had me in stitches because of the combination of physical comedy and farce. I like big brush strokes and bold decisions. I also love the feeling that something funny is happening “just for you”, and that’s what makes forms like cabaret, panto and stand-up so able to be in the moment.
Why should people go and watch Funny Gals?
NB: Funny Gals pays homage to so many musical eras, it also has something to say about women in musical theatre and how the place for women in it is changing, which is something we discovered whilst putting it together. It also has Vikki in a hairnet. That’s mainly why people should come.
Why is it important to support performing arts venues at this time?
VS: Arts venues tend to do much more than just put on shows, and even just popping in for a coffee can help your local venue stay on its feet. They often have a big programme of varied events – from music, cabaret, theatre and talks, as well as running classes, and community groups. There’ve been a lot of venues pushed to the absolute limit during this pandemic, and you can help protect the arts venue where you live for future generations by supporting its endeavours.
For further information about Funny Gals at Underbelly Festival and to book visit here.