The actors and actresses who want to be alone

A new season explores the highs of solo performance

Solo shows have a bad rep. When fringe theatre gets parodied, the image is often a lone actor droning on about some hobbyhorse subject. At the other end of the spectrum, are deranged, egotistical celebrities cashing in on their previous glories. Remember David Hasselhoff's one-man Edinburgh outing?

Even Simon Callow, a veteran of a dozen such solos, the latest of which, A Christmas Carol, has just finished a West End run, admits that the form is much-maligned. "People think, 'God, one-man shows, the horror, the horror,'" the sonorous actor says, "The cliché is some actor letting off steam, showing off and strutting around, but it doesn't have to be anything like that at all."

Ben Monks and Will Young, creative producers at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London, certainly hope not. This month, they're hosting First: A Season of Solo Performances, the line-up for which spans comedy, cabaret, dance and horror, as well as biographical and autobiographical shows.

"We wanted to explore whether, in addition to belonging to those individual genres, solo performance can be considered a genre in its own right," explains Monks, "and if it can, what are its rules and how does it work?" That question has two sides: artistic and practical. Monks believes the form is undervalued, and says many of the First shows would struggle to fill a three-week run alone, even in a small theatre like the Tristan Bates. "A number of these pieces simply couldn't survive without a framework within which to operate. It's about trying to find a model for bringing all that work together."

As a result, First's programme is gloriously diverse. Rebecca Peyton's Sometimes I Laugh Like My Sister is an account of her sister's work – and death – in Somalia, while Tayo Aluko's Call Mr Robeson charts the life of the black actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson and Lucy Roslyn's The State vs John Hayes is based on experiences of real Death Row inmates. At the other end of the spectrum are Pete Searles, a comedy storyteller, and Charlie Dupré's rap tour of Shakespeare's plays.

Monks is adamant that the "historical perception that solo shows are safe or uninteresting" holds no truck, pointing to Callow and the polymath comedian Daniel Kitson, both of whom "appeal to mass audiences, as well as fringe shows, where the integrity of the ideas and artistic intent is no less than any ensemble production".

Callow goes further, arguing that solo shows have their own particular attraction. "Rightly or wrongly, it's very impressive to many audience members that one can stand onstage for two hours alone. It isn't, but people think that's a bit astonishing in itself."

Tim Etchells, who has made several solo shows alongside company work with Forced Entertainment, believes that's fair. When you're performing alone, he says, "the pressure is never off. Nobody else can mess it up for you, which is a good thing, but nobody else can rescue it either."

"You have to latch onto the very particular quality that performer has. In a sense, they're your material. As much as what they're saying or doing, the presence of that person is something you have to articulate." Here, virtuosity can play its part, but for Callow that's "not just about being very brilliant. It's a question of subtle changes, instantaneous changes. Solo performance celebrates the art of acting. It takes you into the key aspect: shape-shifting. You've got no make-up, no costume, only your imagination and your sense of playfulness to create a character."

It's no coincidence that First is on at the Tristan Bates Theatre, given its attachment to the Actors Centre. In a notoriously precarious industry, it can empower actors to take control of their own careers. As Callow puts it, "No matter how smart the design or how sharp the writing, it's all down to the actor communicating with an audience. Without that, there's nothing."

'First: A Season of Solo Performance', Tristan Bates Theatre, London WC2 (020 7240 6283; tristanbatestheatre.co.uk) 9-26 January

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence