Comedian and actor ED COLEMAN (as seen in Steptoe & Son, and SPY) is taking a true story theatre piece to Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year. LEAVE A MESSAGE is a powerfully poignant and candid comedy about the detritus of a life, death, family secrets, alcoholism, our legacies and loneliness, set in Ed’s recently deceased alcoholic father’s wretched bedsit. He tells us about the collaborative process of creating the show.
It began with a late-night conversation in a kitchen. I was, as happens from time to time, at a house party. Having just put in a dominant display at a word-guessing parlour game (which is what happens at house parties in your thirties), I found myself in the aforementioned kitchen, talking to my recently vanquished opponent - a man called James. Rather than gloat (again, I’m in my thirties now) or even make small talk, I decided the sensible option would be to regale this relative stranger with intimate details of my private life.
I told him how a few weeks previously my father had passed away. How he had lain dead and alone on the floor of his bedsit for nearly a week before anyone found the body. How he had lost a thirty-year battle with alcoholism whilst not once admitting he was in a battle at all. How being an only child, I would have had to face that room on my own had it not been for an amazing friend, Sarah, who volunteered to go with me. How I listened to an answerphone full of messages left between his death and his being discovered - none of which were from me. How in clearing out the flat I discovered more secrecy and sadness than I could have ever imagined. How amongst the dozen or so attendees of his funeral only four had ever met him; the rest were my friends who had come there for me.
I told him I wanted to write about my experiences. About the sadness, the anger, and the futility of it all. Of the extraordinary guilt I felt, and the intense fear of making the same mistakes. But also, of the comedy. Of the gallows humour and the embarrassment that comes from rifling through anyone’s private possessions and of the love and hope I had found in the support of my friends. I wasn’t sure what form I wanted the writing to take, but since I was an actor, I thought it should probably be a play. Having listened to me patiently for a good twenty minutes, James informed me he was a playwright, and asked if I would like help in telling the story. I said yes and we arranged to meet up in a couple of weeks’ time.
To our mutual surprise we both showed up. And continued to show up. Over the best part of a year, once every week or so we would get together and work on turning what I had experienced into a show. It was tough to begin with; my memories were like a balled fist which James had to gently prise apart - finger by finger. As I eased my grip on the reality of what happened, I felt increasingly able to infuse the truth with our imaginations, filling out characters, structure and plot. Anecdote gave way to narrative. A snapshot became a story.
The result is Leave A Message. It began as my story but is now James’ story too. It is about what happened, but also what may have happened. And what might yet happen. There are also jokes. It is an expression of what I have lost, but also what I have gained; in a new creative partnership and friendship. Not bad, given that I only went into the kitchen to eat some hummus.
Ed Coleman performs in ‘Leave a Message’ which is at Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 31st July – 26th August (not 12th). Tickets and more information: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/leave-a-message