The Odyssey of a true stand-up hero: Adam Riches turns to the Classics

How to follow an Edinburgh comedy award? With some Greek tragedy, as Adam Riches tells Holly Williams

If you’ve ever seen Adam Riches live, he probably made you wheeze with laughter – shot through with a prayer of “please, not me!” The comedian, who netted the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2011, is gloriously, bellowingly anarchic, and no audience member is safe from absurd audience participation.

You might not want to get up onstage and do a Daniel Day Lewis-style snog, regurgitate food like a starling or partake in a horizontal lizard skateboard race, but you have no choice. Not that he humiliates you: audience members are “always the heroes”, he insists.

So the news that this brash, brilliant comedian is about to appear in a Greek tragedy is, well, unexpected. Our Ajax is playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new version of Sophocles’ Ajax, which uses the myth as a framework within which to explore masculinity, post-traumatic stress syndrome and the politics of war. “The story’s been updated from the Trojan war to Afghanistan – perhaps, it’s never specified,” explains Riches. “I play Odysseus, Ajax’s rival for promotion. When Ajax discovers he’s lost out to Odysseus, he goes berserk ….”

As with any Greek tragedy, there are meaty speeches, meddling gods, moralising and death. There are not, however, many chances for skateboard racing. So how did this over-the-top character comedian come to take on the role of Odysseus, a figure legendary for his strategic mindset and cool intelligence?

“The casting director had cast me in something at the beginning of the year – another ‘straight’ play, A Thousand Miles of History, where I played Andy Warhol. There was opportunity for a little bit of comedy, and I was given license by the director to ad lib. So that felt like a nice step into serious acting, but using the skills I’d got before. But this ... they don’t want any comedy!” says Riches, who off-stage is surprisingly softly spoken.

If Riches the stand-up knows how to manipulate an audience’s fear for maximum comedy value, then maybe it’s because he’s adept at handling his own. “I got the script [for Our Ajax], and the thing that appealed was that I had no clue what to do with it. A sense of fear is a healthy thing to have as a performer. I’ve always been drawn to the thought of bombing royally,” he says with a grin.

He claims being a comic was an accident, anyway. “It wasn’t something that I particularly wanted to be, it’s just the way my career unfolded.” While studying performance at Manchester University, Riches was more focused on playwriting, scribbling away with a frenzied zeal. “I must have written 60 one-act plays; some of them were really ropey,” he says. “But we just chucked them on. I was getting more and more bold: site-specific stuff, big casts in tiny venues, playing all around the audience. And actually, [the] stuff that was just me chatting [to] the audience was far funnier than [the] stuff I’d slaved over.”

He subsequently began using characters from those plays as short comedic turns at open mic nights, which led to performing at the Edinburgh Fringe. Then, after a few years of positive word-of-mouth, he crashed into the public consciousness in 2011 when he won the industry’s biggest award.

Panel show offers and big tour invites followed. But that wasn’t Riches’ route: “I would get eaten alive on a panel show,” he says. “I was asked to go on as a character and I thought that could be the worst thing I ever saw in my life! I’m not really chasing money or fame, I just want to do work that I like, as corny as it sounds, and that I’m proud of.”

Which is why instead of Mocking the Week, he’s now treading the boards. Although Riches is still writing comedy for radio, television and the stage, the move towards serious acting was a reaction to his stand-up success. Was there pressure in winning the comedy award? “I didn’t think there was at the time, but thinking about [doing] Edinburgh this year, it did slip into my mind: what would I do now? Boredom and repetition is the enemy.”

There were several things that attracted Riches to Our Ajax. “My brother was in the army; if there’s anything I saw instantly in the play, it was him in the character of Ajax,” explains Riches. “Ajax is a warrior; Odysseus is more of a thinker. And that’s similar to our relationship – he was more physical and out there, and I was more sat at home, writing stories and being a nerd.” He’s been discussing army life with his brother during rehearsals, while other soldiers have come in to talk to the cast.

And Riches’ love of Greek myths stretches back to childhood. “I used to get sent out of class for being left-handed – I hold a pen a very strange way, and my teacher thought I was messing around. Outside her office was a bookcase that had all the school’s mythology [books] on it, so after a while I was quite glad to get sent out just so I could read. And Odysseus was my favourite character.” Softly-spoken and studious, then? Just as Riches is creating myths, it seems, so he is destroying them too.

‘Our Ajax’ is at the Southwark Playhouse from Weds to 30 Nov