By Lord Neville Charles Randolph-Gladstone III
The reviews have been staggering: “The Pathological Upstagers follow the formal conventions of traditional comedy, only to degenerate into artful anarchy” (The London Telegraph). “Never have what is best about comedy and what is worst about acting been combined so successfully. Most actor/comedians lapse into the ridiculous…The Upstagers leap into it whole-heartedly” (The Washington Post). “We transcribe and print every one of the Upstagers’ improvisational acts. Their work may not be poetry, but it is some funny s***!” (The New Yorker). “If I ever see the Upstagers’ work, I will love it!” (The New York Times). Amongst the accolades, one question emerges: Who in the hell are the Pathological Upstagers?
As those in the London theatre scene already know—and audiences worldwide will soon discover—The Pathological Upstagers are an improvisational comedy duo comprised of Vee Levene, often called the love child of Jennifer Saunders and Henry Rollins, and Jill Summerville, often called the love child of Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde. Sitting on the cardboard box in their London flat that serves as a sofa, the two seem too reserved to be associated with the absurdist comedy for which they are known. However, they have what has been referred to as an “inner flamboyance.” After about five minutes in their company, the charisma that underlies their shyness like the crimson lining on a black satin cloak begins to emerge.
“Vee and I met when I was begging on the streets of London. I was in London because I thought that I had been cast as The Little Match.com Girl in Jill Does London. Unfortunately, I had actually been cast as the Little Match Girl in a miniseries entitled Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairytales. Of course, I turned it down. Me, play a beggar? I have morals…So I had to beg for a job. I knocked on the door of Jennifer Saunders’ (of Absolutely Fabulous fame) house, where Vee was staying at the time.” Adds Levene: “The randomness of our meeting is what inspired us to form The Pathological Upstagers. We realised that people do not embrace the random events in life. Our comedy is founded on the idea that order breeds chaos, and chaos creates truth, and all of the humour and brutal honesty that truth allows…That is really confusing! We put the “and” in random, okay?”
The line between order and chaos that intrigues the Upstagers is explored within their sketches, most notably Bus Stop and Confessions of a Fantasexual. The latter—for which the two donned lingerie—brought them to the attention of their idols, Jennifer Saunders and Rupert Everett. While smoking a cigarette outside of the Upstagers’ flat after one of her weekly half-hour meetings with Levene, Saunders expresses her admiration of the group. “Vee has such an amazing physicality. Her limbs are so flexible. Supple. That is the only way that I can describe them. She is a fledgling contortionist, and she has a move called…” Just then, she is interrupted by Rupert Everett. The notoriously aloof film actor is impressed by the group’s dedication. “Jill is always pulling all-nighters. And her tongue is so…Sharp. She is so quick-witted. She does wonders with her mouth…With words, I mean.”
Although their supple tongues, limbs, and wit are partially responsible for their success, Levene and Summerville both agree that the heart of The Pathological Upstagers is their partnership with each other. “We make each other laugh,” says Summerville. We could never entertain an audience if we did not amuse each other.” Levene agrees. “We may upstage each other—pathologically—but even our most caustic remarks come out of love.”
THE PATHOLOGICAL UPSTAGERS will be appearing as part of the Open Stage Night at Antioch College on November 18, 2005. For more information about this, and future engagements, visit their website.
This is LORD NEVILLE CHARLES RANDOLPH-GLADSTONE’S first article for The Independent. He was a member of the House of Lords until October of 2005, when he resigned his seat in Parliament in order to follow the Pathological Upstagers.