Comedy Interview: Petra Massey

Spymonkey returns to the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith this week with a brand new show, Oedipussy. The quirky quartet of Petra Massey, Toby Park, Aitor Basauri and Stephan Kreiss specialise in mashing theatre, comedy and cabaret into a single evening and their latest production blends Greek tragedy, sci-fi and Bond flicks.

The keen-eyed amongst you may have spotted Petra as Mandy, the pole-dancing marketing director in recent Pleasance Theatre production Office Party. We caught up with her to talk about how the latest show started, her North London neighbourhood and her days as a university protestor and, later, as a performer with Cirque de Soleil and Spymonkey.

Like all our shows, Oedipussy started brewing a couple of years before it hit the stage. Oedipussy comes from Spymonkey’s love of wanting to do a sci-fi theatre show. We were always interested in Barbarella – that really cool sci-fi James Bond look – but wanted to introduce some Greek tragedy. Our inspiration was a review in The Scotsman which said something along the lines of “watching these 40-year-olds cavorting about the stage is nothing short of depressing.” It was the most damning, damning review we had ever had. We’re sort of taking that review and bolstering it with our personal tragedies – my knees are about to go and I have to take painkillers, Stefan has lumbago and Toby worries about everything, all the time (being the actor-manager), so we are all bringing some tragedy to the show.

We didn’t realise the verbal innuendo of Oedipussy until much later – none of us did. Director Emma Rice came up with it. We spoke about doing a show Oedipus with a Barbarella/James Bond flavour and Emma Rice suggested the name and then it stuck because every time we said Oedipussy, everyone laughed. It was only a month later that I thought about what it sounded like out loud. When we were in Brooklyn, we realised that it sounds even worse in an American accent so we’ve blown our whole touring campaign for going to the States.

My neighbourhood of King’s Cross has changed hugely since I first knew it. I came back to London after Spymonkey’s stint in Las Vegas and I bought a flat in the area. When I was younger, I lived in a squat on the corner of Copenhagen Street and York Way and I wanted to show my husband Roger a local pub we used to go in. I couldn’t find it but after we moved in, we started getting post for the pub and realised that we were living on the site of the pub itself.

I love going for a walk around my area. It’s brilliant to find new roads and see the changes but also a bit sad, especially seeing pubs close. I like that the regeneration is keeping a lot of the older features – for example, the Renaissance Hotel which they are restoring to its original splendour. Despite the huge amount of regeneration around the beautiful new Kings Cross St Pancras station, the area still has an eclectic mix of buildings including council flats.

I always wanted to do theatre; it was my passion as was street performance. I used to go and see the street performers every Saturday for years and years, taking intricate notes. I ended up going  to Middlesex Poly and doing a degree in Performance Arts. I got their first ever Street Performing module going along with standup Hugh Thomas. I wanted to do my final dissertation as a street performer but they didn’t have a module which could recognise that as an artform.

I was part of an organised occupation of Middlesex Poly. It was during the education cuts (and here we are again). All the Poly’s colleges were closed and we took over the Trent Park site. For ten days, nobody could get in, not even the police. We organised cabaret nights and then one evening, everyone was in the process of rolling a great big reefer when we were carted into about twenty white police vans. They dropped us off in the middle of nowhere (Cockfosters?) and we had to walk home from there in the middle of summer. We had the best time, it was brilliant.

If I had to take the Spymonkey boys out for a day, I would take them to Covent Garden. I was a street performer for about three years. Despite having these hand warmers, we would freeze our arses off. We used to sit in an Italian restaurant, Maria’s, not eating just drinking tea until it was time to do a show and it was desperate. Sometimes when we got out there and got a crowd, it would rain or it would be so cold that people didn’t stick around for the show and you would make £20 and that would be what you had to live on. It really was the school of hard knocks and I don’t regret one single day of it. I’m glad I didn’t stay in it because I think you can get quite hardened and in a bit of a rut. If you don’t find vulnerabilities and softnesses as a performer, it can become not that interesting and not that enjoyable.

Spymonkey has Arts Council funding now but we’ve been turned down in the past. When that happened, we said “fuck it, let’s fuck off to Vegas”. It was a great thing as we then worked with Cirque De Soleil which is not what a small fringe theatre company normally does.

After four months training in Montreal, we spent two years living in Vegas working in Cirque’s Zumanity. It was an erotic burlesque show and we were a comedy element called The Porn Clowns which included a naked pompom routine. It was a love-hate relationship both with living in Vegas and working with the corporate monster that is the Cirque. I’m not good with corporate monsters. I have a hand-written letter from Cirque director Guy de Liberte telling me off for behaving badly by getting my tits out at an after-show party. I wrote back saying I would only get my tits out at work and framed his letter.

I’m not going to the Olympics. I’m renting my flat out – I was straight on the case. I like sport but I like playing it, not watching it. A lot of people I know are doing shows or leaving the city. I think the Olympics will be good for London but there are some very disgruntled business people in Stratford who are getting thrown out. I read about a flower seller who had been working in Stratford tube for years and years and now he’s been turfed out and he won’t get his job back after the Olympics.

People in that down-and-out area thought that they would be carried along with it all and that really pisses me off. I’m also annoyed that people have to walk through the Westfield mall and the biggest restaurant at the Olympics is MacDonald’s. There are lots of things that annoy me about it. It’s a big corporate monster which is more about branding than sport. I think it will help the economy but the camaraderie and team spirit that it used to have is no longer there. It’s all about money basically.

For dinner dates with my husband, I love going to the Sacre Coeur restaurant in Islington for mussels and chips followed by a film next door at the Screen On The Green. I’m a teetoller now so I don’t really go to pubs anymore but I used to go to the Lark on the Park when I was younger and do some Irish jigging; I don’t think that pub is around anymore.

When it comes to shopping, I’ve had my fill of malls from working in the US so I prefer smaller places. My manor is Upper Street so I like going up and down there. I love browsing the arty stalls in Spitalfields. One of my favourite all-time shops is a gadget shop called Space on Exmouth Market. I love gadgets, like wind-up butterflies you can put into cards ready to pop out when someone opens the card. There’s also Tatty Devine, a shop that sells necklaces in the shape of dinosaurs.  I also love walking around Parliament Hill, enjoying the sunset and watching the kiteflyers.

One of my own favourite all time theatres is the Hackney Empire. I would love to have a Spymonkey show in a West End space that could seat 400. The Lyric Hammersmith is perfect but a little out of the way. We do want to have a West End show, it’s a goal of ours. Why not?

I love London the city but I need to get away from it sometimes otherwise it would drive me mad. I need to go away to appreciate this place. When I’m away, I miss the fast and furious, sarcy, piss-taking vibe that only Londoners have. I just wish my neighbourhood had more pubs. Which I think is where we came in.

Spymonkey’s Oedipussy will be at the Lyric Hammersmith from tonight until 21 April. The show is sold out tonight and tomorrow but tickets are available for the rest of the run at £12.50-£35. The show is not recommended for those under 14.

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