Culture: Shappi and England’s unsung heroine

Shappi
Shappi

Star of Live At The Apollo, Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, Have I Got News for You and Q.I, Shappi Khorsandi is on the road with her new show and pops in at The Apex on May 14. Expect whip-crack jokes and razor-sharp wit delivered with mischief and endless charm

Shappi Khorsandi’s brilliant new show, Mistress and Misfit, focuses on Emma, Lady Hamilton, the mistress and misfit who lit up the life of Admiral Nelson and added to the gaiety of nations during the Georgian era.

The comedian has had a ball writing the show. One of the best-loved stand-ups in the country, Shappi affirms that: “This show has been the most fun to write. It’s about passion and tragedy. What better things are there to write comedy about?”

The terrific news is that after an acclaimed, sell-out run at the Edinburgh Festival last summer, Shappi is now about to embark on her biggest nationwide tour yet with Mistress and Misfit. And she just can’t wait.

Chatting in the run-up to the tour, Shappi underlines the sheer thrill she gets from stand-up. “It’s really amazing!” exclaims the comedian, who made a big impression when she appeared on I’m a Celebrity. . . Get Me Out of Here! before Christmas.

Shappi, who will be performing Mistress and Misfit at 50 venues around the country this spring, continues that, “It’s like skydiving. The adrenaline rush is incredible. It’s probably the only time in my day when I’m utterly focused and have no responsibility to anyone else apart from the audience.

“It’s like a lovely, warm, relaxing bath, but a very high-octane bath! You can’t reproduce that feeling. If I haven’t done stand-up for a while, I just have to get back on stage. I need it like oxygen!”

On stage, the comedian communicates her love of stand-up in the most contagious way. Shappi is an immensely entertaining performer. The critics agree. Edinburgh Festivals Magazine declares: “Mistress and Misfit is all-round entertainment that is both hilarious and enlightening”. While The List asserts: “Mistress and Misfit is a history class you shouldn’t skip. . . She has the crowd in the palm of her hand”.

The Guardian said: “She has plenty to say, and says it with pointedness and potency”, while the London Evening Standard observes Shappi “makes live comedy thrilling”.

One of the many reasons why she is such a popular comedian is that so much of her material relates to herself, and audiences can instantly identify with that.

Shappi, who is also a best-selling author having released A Beginners Guide to Acting English in 2009, followed by her fantastic, critically lauded 2016 debut novel Nina Is Not OK, reflects: “I relate Emma’s life to modern women and, like all stand-ups, I draw people into the world as I see it, so it’s still a very personal show’

“When you’re a stand-up, people have come to see you and share the experience with you. They can read a book about Emma, Lady Hamilton, but the way I tell her story draws people in to my stand-up, which I hope is why they bought a ticket in the first place!”

In Mistress and Misfit, Shappi recounts the largely untold story of England’s unsung heroine, Emma, Lady Hamilton. For too long, she has been reductively tagged as Nelson’s mistress.

She has been regarded as a bit of a harlot (you work in a brothel for one night and there goes your reputation).

Women’s lib wasn’t uppermost in people’s minds in Georgian times. Emma moved heaven and earth to drag herself from scullery maid to Lady Hamilton. So maybe she occasionally danced naked on tables to get a jump on her rivals, but who hasn’t done that? Shappi is eager to celebrate the woman England betrayed.

The comedian explains the genesis of Mistress and Misfit. “I was fascinated by Emma. She was really clever and compassionate and very hard done by. She was also a master of re-invention and a fantastically creative person.

“I initially tried to write a novel about Emma, but it was too hard, so I thought I’d do a show about it instead. That was easier and funnier.”

Shappi goes on to outline some of the similarities between Emma and herself.

“We were both artist’s models. She modelled for great artists, I modelled for GCSE students in Tower Hamlets. I have never worked in a brothel, but I have had moments that I would only tell you about on stage or when very drunk. I will be sharing some of those stories in Mistress and Misfit.”

The comedian, who since 2015 has held the role of President of Humanists UK, also sees many parallels between the attitudes towards women then and now. “Any woman who does anything seen as salacious is still demonised today. That’s a very modern theme. It’s not exclusive to Georgian times.

“In the show, I talk about Emma being married to a man 30 years older than her. If they were from a lower class, women had no financial independence and no options. That happened 200 years ago, but much more recently, my grandmother was married when she was 13 to a man in his 30s. So perhaps my gran was the Emma of her time!”

Shappi, who is also currently working on a stage adaptation of her acclaimed novel Nina Is Not OK, adds: “The term ‘gold-digger’ is still banded about willy-nilly, when we don’t know anything about that woman. Women who are viewed as marrying above their station are still derided. There are massive parallels with today.”

In addition, the show reveals tthe Establishment closed ranks against Emma after Nelson’s death. “Just before the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson wrote an add-on to his will asking that Emma and his daughter be looked after in the event of his death: ‘that is the only favour I ask of my King and country as I go to fight their battle’. They didn’t.

“Emma ended her days derelict, penniless and alcoholic in Calais. There was no monument to her. We have not been told what a massive impact Emma had on Nelson’s life. Historians have wanted to make Trafalgar about Nelson and not about ‘this harlot’.”

Mistress and Misfit is full to the brim with wonderfully offbeat facts about Emma, which make for hilarious routines. Shappi, who is also developing a new novel about adultery, said: “I did a lot of research to find quirky things that would work in stand-up.

“For instance, I discovered there was something called the Harris List, which reviewed all the prostitutes in London. It was like a TripAdvisor of its time for prostitutes. At the time, one in six women in Covent Garden worked as a prostitute. So if you were visiting Covent Garden, you would take along your Harris List to see who tickled your fancy. Crazy.”

For all that, Shappi emphasises the show is not meant to be a lecture. “Mistress and Misfit is not a history lesson. It’s about now.

“It’s not my intention to make anyone learn anything. It’s up to people if they want to take notes. But if they bring a notebook, that might put me off because

I would think they were critics and pick on them!”

Shappi’s profile was already considerable, but it has only been increased by her appearance on I’m a Celebrity. She laughs that one of the effects of the programme was: “It has made me a better driver.

“I’m not very good parallel parking. But jumping out of an aeroplane on I’m a Celebrity made me put things into perspective. Now I think, ‘What was I worried about? If someone is beeping their horn as I try to park, they can just wait’.”

She adds one of the other benefits of being on I’m a Celebrity is: “It made you really look at life from a different angle. You are too hungry to think of anything apart from what do with your life. You have time to figure that out. It made me think I really, really want to write that play.”

And I’m a Celebrity will help her achieve that goal. “Financially, it has meant I can now afford to lose money putting on my play! As a creative person, I am happy to do certain well paid jobs that fund my labours of love.”

The comedian closes by underscoring one last time her love of stand-up. “It’s a compulsion. It’s a sort of madness. Stand-ups are all mad. We are bright, and if we weren’t mad, we’d be doing something else.”

So what would Shappi be doing if she weren’t a stand-up? “I’d have my own cleaning company. I once was a cleaner. That’s another thing I have in common with Emma because she worked as a cleaner, too!”

Shappi Khorsandi – Mistress and Misfit, May 14, The Apex, Bury St Edmunds. Call 01284 758000 or visit theapex.co.uk