It may seem odd that I caught stand-up Luisa Omielan’s show What would Beyonce do? at my local public library. Omeilan was appearing as part of ‘Get it Out Loud in Libraries’, an initiative which started in 2005 with support from Lancashire Council, lost its funding but has now returned after a year’s gap, courtesy of the PRS for Music Foundation.
As this signals, the primary focus of the project is on bringing live bands to play in libraries in the hope of attracting young people into the buildings and making them aware of the range of services on offer. In the past, performing amongst the books just before they had mainstream success, the scheme has featured acts such as Adele, Florence and the Machine and Jesse J .
Those running the scheme appear to be equally adept at talent spotting when it comes to the (very) occasional expansion into stand-up. Back in early 2009 it allowed Lancaster library to offer a double bill of Sarah Millican and Josie Long at a point when Millican (who now has her own television show) had just won the ‘best newcomer’ comedy prize in Edinburgh and well before Long (who remains something of a cult figure) started contributing cartoons to The Guardian.
In their very different ways both comics were on sharp witted, hysterically funny form and this event still constitutes one of the best evening of live stand up I have seen. Millican essentially offered her 2008 Edinburgh show which focussed around her (then) recent divorce and which depended on the contrast between her warm, engaging even ‘cosy’ persona and the sometimes sexually explicit and scatological nature of her material. Long’s set was far more whimsical and intellectual but if it clearly included some pre-prepared ‘set pieces’ these were framed by what appeared to be genuine and dazzlingly clever flights of improvisation responding to the specific context of the library.
Following in Millican’s footsteps , Omielan arrived in Lancaster library hotly tipped as ‘the next big thing’ in the wake of success in Edinburgh but for me she did not fare quite as well in this environment, although this was not her fault, nor necessarily that of her material.
Long and Millican had the advantage of being preceded by a local warm up act and had each other for moral support. Omielon was on her own, in what is a lovely space for a library but which doesn’t really provide the sort of atmosphere conducive to a stand-up act that occasionally makes Millican’s material seem a little prim.
Further, while on both occasions the audience was ‘select’ for Omielan it was more so, numbering only about 18 and unless they were just joking (and I’m not sure they were) four of these thought they were going to see a Beyonce tribute act. Added to this, and at the risk of sounding like a middle aged academic cliché, at least one of them (me) was not perhaps as ‘up’ on Beyonce’s ‘oeuvre’ as needed to always get the joke in an act that depends heavily on intertextual references to this star’s video performances and song lyrics.
Omielan wholeheartedly and generously gave her best shot in these less than ideal circumstances, but never entirely relaxed and looking at her watch at one point seemed just a tiny bit relieved that the one and a half hour set was nearly over. Even so, me and the ‘tribute act people’ aside, the rest of spectators who were all young or young(ish) women and the actual target audience for What would Beyonce do? loved it and two of them gave it a standing ovation.
Reflecting the interests of this demographic, the show is as Omielan put it her Adele’s 21 (yes I do know who Adele is); a ‘breakup show’ focussed on the problems and complexities of contemporary relationships. This includes some explicit material about one night stands and some especially sharp and funny observations on the etiquette of texting afterwards. However, the show is also about being an ‘independent’ women approaching the age of 30, forced by financial circumstances to return to live at the family home with her Mum and younger brother. At the risk of stating the obvious then, the running gag is the yawning gulf between Omielan’s less than glamorous lifestyle and that of her chosen ‘role model’, Beyonce.
At one point Omielan tells us that she gained a first class degree in Drama at University and suggests that in terms of her subsequent prospects for employment this was a waste of time and effort. Yet I would suggest that this experience is very evident in the structuring of the show and in her style of performing.
There is a distinct sense of the ‘dramatic’ in the way she interweaves her themes throughout the piece and above all in the for stand –up, slightly risky but beautifully timed and effective shifts in tone between comedy and serious, even painful material concerning her family. Although she hams it up, her frequent extracts from Beyonce routines reveal her as a more than usually proficient dancer and she embodies and voices the ‘characters’ in her stories (including Beyonce, her own Mum, her ex and some purely imaginary figures) in a fashion that slips between ‘impressions’ and ‘acting’.
Along with her willingness to be cheerfully and cheekily outrageous, it is these factors (which to some extent are likely to have been shaped by her studies) that actually sets her apart from many currently high profile female stand-ups and may ensure further success.
What would Beyonce Do? might also be described as a ‘postfeminist’ show. Omielan makes it clear that she has chosen the singer (who identifies herself as a feminist) as a ‘role model’ because not only is she strong, independent and fabulously wealthy and successful but has maintained a relationship, had children, is modest and as Omielan puts it, ‘ladylike’ off -stage and yet also very sexy.
I have absolutely no argument with any of this but did feel the wind blowing through a generation gap when Omielan made a comparison between Beyonce and Margaret Thatcher, accompanied by a chilling impression of the latter. In these days of cuts and recession I think Omielan might have intended to make a ‘light’ political point and I would not for a second hold up Thatcher as a ‘role model’ on any count.
Nevertheless, from a performer this intelligent, I was slightly bothered by the implied equation between political power and the power of celebrity and money. I was far more bothered that Omielan’s critique of Thatcher was not on political grounds but that she was not ‘sexy’ and (miming masturbation) Omielan made the claim that no one apart from David Cameron ever found her so. This is not true, over the course of Thatcher’s career lots of the men (and some women) went on record saying that they found her ‘sexy’ although for some this was in a masochistic fashion. Far more importantly, it makes me despair that, even as a joke, this remains a criteria when it comes judging a woman’s ‘success’- especially when this judgment is made from the perspective of a young(er) woman.
I’m over analyzing but far more than the references to Beyonce’s songs or any of the other material this part of the act made me aware that Get It Loud in Libraries is not aimed at me, in a fashion I can’t recall experiencing with Millican or Long.
Even so, as was the case with Millican, the next time I see Omielan I’m fairly certain it will be on television rather than Lancaster library. The scope and flexibility of her skills suggest that she has the potential to excel at but also move beyond stand-up, in ways that (I hope) will afford her could ensure a long and successful career. On the other hand I don’t think Beyonce needs feel too threatened…. just yet.