The Accomplished Woman: A first-timer’s foray into stand-up comedy
The Accomplished Woman is a 12 month journey where two fearless females dedicate their time to accruing eccentric – and often superfluous – skills in a quest to reach levels of modern accomplishment to make any Austen-era debutante quiver in intimidation. From tech to treks, pottery to paint, follow Helen Cocks and Polly Stephens as they take on new challenges and experiences with varying levels of success, and no small amount of swearing.
I’m standing, dry-mouthed, in a dimly-lit room on a council estate in south London, looking at a sea of expectant faces. Many have already spoken. Now it is my turn.
I take a deep breath. “Hi, I’m Helen,” I begin. I’m slightly hesitant, but the reception is warm and almost before I know it I’m telling a roomful of strangers my life story.
I talk about growing up with an embarrassing surname and parents that didn’t believe in having fun; I tell a story about drunkenly asking for a car home in what I thought was a mini-cab office, the guy had looked up at me from the desk, confused: “I think you want next door,” he’d said. “This is a Chinese takeaway.”
Three times a week, up to 20 people take it in turns to get up on stage at the Cavendish Arms, Stockwell and try to be funny for five minutes. Comedy Virgins, styled ‘London’s best-loved amateur comedy night’, has been running since 2008 and has seen former regulars go on to glory at the Edinburgh Fringe and beyond.
It’s free and anyone can participate. The only rules are that you must bring a friend and that if you outstay your five-minute slot, Paul, the sweary host, will come at you with a cricket bat. The lively audience’s job is to shout “Buy them a drink!” to reward impressive performances. On this particular Wednesday night, my fellow comics (or otherwise) include a man in a blonde wig talking about property-development, a female improv troupe, and a disturbed-looking individual who warns that as he has left his medication at home he “might be about to start killing people.”
Alex, who’s 31, has been coming to the night on and off for years, calling it “great fun and a great atmosphere”. Her assured set about the indignities involved in breast cancer treatment (“the consultant asked how I found the lump; I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d just been touching myself up…”) draws huge laughs and warm cheers at the end. But this is an inclusive crowd. Even a nervous-looking man in a grubby tee-shirt and tracksuit trousers finds his faltering routine warmly received. He’s alone, having borrowed one of my friends to act as his obligatory plus-one as his “couldn’t make it”, but the crowd takes him to its heart.
The standard varies wildly. As well as first-timers like myself there are some remarkably proficient – and very funny – acts, who make it look easy. The more confident the performer, the bigger the laughs they can whip-up; some even go off-piste, berating their own material “well, that’s coming out then; I mean sorry, but that bit was shit, don’t know what I was thinking”.
The set list is drawn at random as we go along, from a pink cowboy hat, meaning an agonising rollercoaster of adrenaline as every five minutes the remaining performers ready themselves to jump up onto the stage. With over 20 acts, the evening could have been a bit of an endurance test, but the laughs keep coming. One of the best comics of the night, a girl with short purple hair, who talks about coming out to her parents, is drawn right at the end. She signs off saying, “You’ve all been great and I’ve been a bit gay”.
It’s towards the end of the first half when my number comes up and, with my heart in my mouth, I bound onto the stage, trying to look confident. I do get the microphone cable tangled on the stand as I come on, but in the stage lights I can’t really see the audience, so I’m not too nervous. There seem to be rather a lot of silences, but there are a few laughs too, including one for my shameless impression of my father answering the phone to a prank-caller. I over-share liberally and before I know it my five minutes is up and I’m back in the audience with a pint in my hand.
The stand-up circuit has a reputation for being cut-throat, vicious and cruel, but if Comedy Virgins is representative, this is totally unearned. As warm laughter fill the room I get a rush of adrenaline and positivity and by the end of my set I feel welcomed, encouraged and even a little bit funny. Never has possession of a ridiculous surname yielded such positive rewards.
“Thank you!” I shout. “I’ve been Helen Cocks, goodnight!”
Comedy Virgins takes place at the Cavendish Arms, Stockwell, Monday-Wednesday nights from 8pm. You can book a slot in advance by joining the mailing list, or turn up at 5pm to bag a last-minute space.
It’s free to watch or participate but all comedians must bring a plus-one.