I've been sitting with Matilda Wnek, one half of the London-based sketch duo Beard, for less than a minute when her comedy partner, Rosa Robson, approaches our table holding a sorry plastic stick with shrapnel from a popped balloon on the end. "I'm so sorry that that's happened, sweetheart," offers Wnek in a mothering voice. "We'll get you another one." With that, Robson's bounce is restored and she skips back into the adjacent park to continue playing with the animals and rolling in the grass. "I'm sorry, what were you saying?"
Beard began life some four years ago as a response to a "lot of dark film and literature that we liked, and us just being stupid together," Wnek explains. "We thought, What would happen if you put that together? We hadn't really seen that done before." 'Dark and stupid' is a fitting description of their work, but it's just a beginners' guide to what you get from these two unusual women.
Part of the journey to this point of uncompromising surrealness has been learning to let go of the impulse to be seen as "a fun sexy gal," as Wnek puts it, and to keep any nod to "normal culture" out of the equation. Beard's resulting show—The Grin of Love—is a haunting visual circus that makes you feel wholly interfered with.
"A dark, serious frame with moments of play" is how Wnek characterizes her and Robson's work. "There isn't very much commercial media that really makes room for play so we really wanted to try and make that work."
As masters of ceremony the two share an odd on-stage rhythm. Robson is charming and childlike, and when speaking about her work refers back more than once to being "honest" and "free" in her performance. Wnek on the other hand has a sinister and calculating glare—the sort you can imagine causing a child some kind of unseen psychological trauma.
The Grin of Love begins with two white-sheeted figures silently figuring out their audience through a series of playground games; the pair play everything from grandma's footsteps to kiss-chase. If you ever wanted to re-animate some of your most crippling childhood nightmares, just sit in a dark room with two ghosts while one forcibly French-kisses you and the other audibly giggles at you from a platform. This, presumably, is the liminal point Wnek talks about where darkness meets play. It's as funny as it is horrifying.
Beard's brand of comedy may sound unique, but they aren't alone on the London comedy circuit in their pursuit of this unusual, uncomfortable kind of performance. Letty Butler and Lucy Pearman comprise the two-piece LetLuce, and their show Sea Men (A Naval Tale) was lauded at the Edinburgh Fringe for its off-the-wall eccentricity. They, like Robson and Wnek, self-define as modern clowns, an idea that seems to be at the heart of a new female-fronted movement in British comedy.
"I don't know this for sure but I think a clown is basically an idiot," says Pearman. "Either a character or real person who isn't afraid of looking fucking stupid. I feel like a clown every day and it's not out of choice. The difference is on stage it's good when people laugh, but in real life everyone just feels embarrassed for you when you drop a jar of mustard in the street or fall off your bike."
For this type of physical comedy to succeed, a special kind of empathy has to be established with the audience, one that, as Pearman says, "doesn't lean on categories or punch-lines." It seems to be about not being afraid to look foolish, and instead to embrace that as a way of bringing an audience onside as an ally.
"When you study clowning you're told it's about freedom," says Wnek, "and recovering a lot of the sense of play that children have." At that moment Robson flutters past with a plume of pigeon feathers arranged into her hair. "No, take those out of your hair, honey. Those aren't clean." No one could accuse Beard of not being married to their art.
"It implies you have the weight of social and commercial pressures off your back," says Wnek. "The most important thing about our work is literally to clear a space in a room where you can do an hour of entertainment that people can respond to joyfully, without worrying about being part of an industry that only exists to make money.
"Sometimes you see a comedian doing a joke and it's just leaning on cultural references that form part of billion dollar enterprises, but we think that's wrong. We think you should build a joke from the bottom up."
Libby Northedge and Nina Smith, a.k.a. Twisted Loaf, tick a lot of the same boxes with their onstage personas. Theirs is another show of largely joke-free material, propped-up by frantic physical performances and bloated, absurd characters.
"Clown is a style of performance where the audience see the vulnerability of the performer and we ask them to laugh at us," says Northedge. "That is at the heart of clowning. The comedy circuit in London has really welcomed alternative acts with more nights becoming available to gig at and therefore the media has picked up on this renaissance."
This "renaissance," as Northedge puts it, almost has the feel of an underdog story about it; if being funny is fashionable then these women are finding a way of making people laugh that strips away most of what that word means, leaving behind something rebellious and defiant of the norm. It also feels quintessentially female, although of this there is no consensus among its protagonists.
"Perhaps the more traditional female comic narratives are resonating less and less with our generation," offer the young duo Roisin and Chiara. "That's probably why we are all shifting the form away from more conventional comedy incarnations like stand-up/straight-sketch, but without maybe even realizing it."
Twisted Loaf is more forceful in its rejection of the idea of a gender-driven movement.
"Funny is funny whether you have a cock, a cunt, or anything in between," says Northedge. "We are women so our experience of life is from this. If you want to intellectualize it then maybe it could be seen as a female thing, but it's not something we bother to think about."
"What it is is insignificant," argues Wnek. "I don't think we all fall under an umbrella movement at all, because we really aren't the same. There's probably some cunt booker out there who would think they couldn't have Beard and LetLuce on the same bill because we're too similar, but that doesn't matter to us."
By now Robson has tired herself out and is sitting with us, quietly fingering the boiled egg her friend has ordered for her into her smiling mouth. Looking at her there is something purely happy in her eyes, a kind of optimism about life that usually fizzles out when a person reaches five years old and realizes for the first time that the world is basically shit. As long as that continues to burn, I feel confident that British comedy will be in safe hands.
LetLuce is performing its show 'Sea Men (A Naval Tale)' at the Soho Theatre in London from October 28 to October 31.