Sooz Kempner_0120c_photo by steve ullathorne

Games Without Frontiers: comedian Sooz Kempner comes to Komedia

When Sooz Kempner was given a PlayStation, it isn’t an exaggeration to say it changed her life. This small chunk of plastic was not only backed by a comprehensive range of titles with dizzying 3D graphics. It could also play a range of different media formats. Previously, most consoles had been considered as toys, but Sony intentionally created something for an adult audience; one comfortable with action films and rave culture. In return, almost everyone under 40 got swept away in the accompanying excitement. “Prior to that we had a Sega Master System and a Mega Drive, but the PlayStation was marketed as the first console for grown-ups,” Kempner tells me. “When I turned it on at 13, I thought: ‘This is what it’s like to be a grown-up’. I really remember that feeling.” 

Three decades on, she is trying to recreate that same euphoria for audiences. She is doing this via her first full UK comedy tour, Playstation – which sold out its Edinburgh Festival residency last year. Aside from exploring the birth of modern computer entertainment and the heady heights of adolescence, it also looks at the excitement generated by 90’s ‘Cool Britania’. “I was coming of age under new Labour. Obviously, the best music and the best films are the ones from when you’re a teenager. But I feel like I never got over that tipping over into adulthood.”

In the 20th century’s last decade, Britain was finding its feet after recession, technology was getting ever cheaper and living standards were soaring. Music, film, TV and art were getting increasingly inventive and accessible, and it felt like you could do anything. Those formative years and atmosphere of opportunity have inspired several of the multi award-winning comedian’s shows.

Kempner taps into nostalgia

Sooz Kempner photo by Steve Ullathorne

Back in 2017 Kempner staged her Sooz On Film shows, which tapped into the notion of being an adult and looking at yourself as a teenager and getting into cinema. Following that was Super Sonic 90s Kid, which delved into her fixation with Sonic The Hedgehog, how that decade continues to resonate with us and fulfilling her childhood ambitions. “It was just an excuse really. The end message was me as a teenager would still like to call in occasionally.” She’s realised her adult self’s fear of letting down that youngster and her hope for the future was unfounded. Success and happiness are measured in different ways as you get older. While Playstation, like some of her previous shows, unashamedly taps into her personal nostalgia, they still resonate on several different levels. Even if audience members are in their 60s, it will remind them of that exhilarating rush of childhood.

“It’s a bittersweet thing, because all the shows have involved looking back, and all the big dreams I had. “

“Despite what I say onstage, I am chuffed with how things have gone. But its 25 years since I got that PlayStation, so you have to fight that thing, where you wonder: ‘What if I had those last 25 years back?’ I don’t want to be 13 again. It would be awful. Nobody wants to form as a human fully again. I dunno, unless you’re a murderer. Maybe they’d do things differently. Or maybe they wouldn’t… Who knows?!”

She says she might have been quite odd at school. “Which, by most kids’ standards, says quite a lot. I was extremely loud and unfeminine, which got me in a lot of trouble. It would never be because I was horrible, just too boisterous. There was making things, and a lot of creative writing, and wanting to read that out to the class.” As soon as Kempner found she could sing, it was all she wanted to do. A teacher told her she had a good voice, and it was during a time when the Government were generous with money for art in lower-bracket schools. She’d go on to the Royal Academy Of Music, where her performance skills were rounded off with classes in acting, dance and musical theatre.

“It was a really good thing to learn how to do, as it has improved the live comedy.”

Like everyone on the live circuit, the BBC Radio 4 regular was unable to perform during the pandemic, so decided to dominate social media. Well, that’s not completely true. It was a product of her need to create some kind of content, the country’s need to be entertained during lockdowns and a feckless political class almost begging to be mocked. Kempner’s gleeful disassembling of performative stupidity from MPs like Liz Truss and Nadine Dorries, backed with thoughtful props and ludicrous wigs, turned her into an almost overnight viral sensation. 

“I was learning how to use green-screen and how to edit video, as it went on. It seems a terrible thing to say… but I was really enjoying it. Making the videos, not the pandemic. It was a really good thing to learn how to do, as it has improved the live comedy.” Some fans might expect to see the impressions filter in the onstage performances, but she says it’s not a good fit tonally. 

Sooz Kempner photo by Steve Ullathorne

#blocked

“Just as I can’t do two minutes of Playstation for Twitter, I can’t fit in a Nadine Dorries impression as part of a nostalgic look back at the 90s.” Kempner is adamant she was never unnecessarily cruel. The videos were intended to mock ridiculous policies and attitudes, rather than being direct attacks; particularly Dorries’s ludicrous appearance before the Commons’ Select Committee, when she was being questioned about Channel 4. 

“She has blocked me now, which is how I know I’ve annoyed her. I’ve never tagged her once. Just mute me! I wouldn’t know. Now you’ve blocked me, I now know it annoys you. Which just encourages me,” she admits with a wry chuckle. There’s a suggestion that we’re living in a very strange time for politics, where personalities and three-word slogans are considered more important than genuine conversation and consensus building. 

While temperatures are flaring on all sides of the aisle, Kempner’s attitude to this is exaggerate the silliness of it all by simply parroting their own words back at them.

One perfect example is reading Donald Trump speeches out verbatim, while dressed as Liza Minnelli. “It seemed to be the best way to mock him. They’re exactly the same age, and from the same part of New York, so their speech patterns are similar.” She pauses for a moment. “Look at me… trying to intellectualise what was compete nonsense!”

One knock-on from this newfound fame is her involvement in celebrations for the 60th anniversary of Doctor Who. She stars in Doom’s Day, a brand-new multi-media adventure. Her character, the Universe’s greatest assassin, embarks on a 24-hour pursuit of the Doctor. When the announcement on Twitter dropped, there were still several followers initially thinking it was another of her playful pranks.

She’s also been the co-host of the enchanting and often superbly ridiculous podcast, Mystery On The Rocks, for the last four years. Together with Chris Stokes and Masud Milas, she mixes up a few cocktails and takes on society’s unanswered questions. Previous subjects have included the end of McCarthyism, Hitler’s troublesome farts and did Michael Jackson compose the music for Sonic The Hedgehog 3? “It’s the most fun you can have and still get away with being really pissed. Or have someone say: ‘Hey! That’s unprofessional!’” While the hosts are often half-cut, and the subjects somewhat leftfield, they do delve into historical ambiguities with a level of forensic (and often hilariously irreverent) detail that you’ll never get on a TV documentary.

Kempner is a multi-media star

You’ll never get Dan Snow prefacing a discussion about the Night Of The Long Knives with concerns his latest alcoholic concoction tastes like a popular brand of cough medicine. Although we might know more about history if it wasn’t treated such gushing reverence. “Always mock the Nazis is a golden rule. And serial killers. The way I see it is, if you take the humanity of people like Ted Bundy, or Jeffery Dahmer, and show that person was actually a complete loser, it takes away some of their power.” While it sounds unlikely, Mystery On The Rocks does uncover some hidden truths on a wide range of topics. There’s a good reason for its fiercely loyal audience.

It feeds neatly into Kempner’s love of examining lived experiences and nostalgia. If she prompts a giggle along the way, then all the better. With Playstation she’s confronting her childhood dreams and hoping it will help others reconnect with their younger selves. Being a teenager is weird, but there is a simple joy In reconnecting with the way you once were. So, does she have a message for her 13-year-old self, who has yet to receive that cherished gaming console? “Everything you have worried about, is going to turn out exactly as it was always going to. And don’t worry, you will end up with big tits.”

Sooz Kempner’s Playstation comes to Crawley’s Hawth on Fri 12 May and Brighton’s Komedia on Thurs 18 May.

www.soozkempner.co.uk 

www.parkwoodtheatres.co.uk/the-hawth www.komedia.co.uk/brighton

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