Kate Copstick meets the couples unafraid of putting their relationships on stage – infidelity, brain tumours and all
Bobby Mair and Harriet Kemsley are fabulous together. Albeit the pairing is, on the face of it, a bit Twilight Saga. “My dad always described my boyfriends as ‘Harriet’s wasters to try and fix’” says Kemsley. Mair nods. “Harriet likes people who look like they are two weeks away from the streets..”
“We met at a party – it was love at first sight,” says Kemsley, “except that we had actually met twice before only Bobby didn’t remember.”
Mair shrugs his wishbone-like shoulders. “Well, she didn’t leave an impression… if she would have done something memorable…” he says. “Like a handstand?” suggests Kemsley. “Yeah… well… something,” Bobby retires gracefully.
Martha McBrier and Matt Price have been together for ten years this Fringe and it is impossible to imagine a more perfect match. “What drew us? Can I say… ” says McBrier. “It was the lentils,” says Price. “It was the lentils,” says McBrier. Two bowls of lentil soup, “with wisps… ” says Price, “… ‘wusps’ of carrot,” says McBrier.
“Said in a Glaswegian accent it is… arousing, isn’t it…” explains Price.
“I never thought I’d say that out loud.”
They bonded over mutual careers in telephone helplines, and “the comedic mentality”.
“We saw each other every day, we were like bookends,” says McBrier. “And comics that saw us would ask, ‘Are you two writing a double act?’ It didn’t occur to them that two people might be doing something else entirely.”
Jessie Cave – Lavender Brown in the Harry Potter films – is adorable. Which makes her a seemingly unlikely match for Alfie Brown.
Their paths crossed when they shared a venue and dressing room at the Underbelly in 2012. “I was in awe of him,” says Cave. She entered the room with her mum and her little sister, “and the first thing we saw were these two massive black dildos which he was using as props. At the end of month we went to see his show and mum was clearly entranced by him.”
Brown nods: “My first impression was coming offstage and Debbie – Jessie’s Mum – saying [he adopts a ‘laydee’ voice] ‘We all think you’re completely gorgeous!’ I remember quite fancying Debbie…”
Mair and Kemsley are both heavy on autobiography as comedy. His shows are something of a walk on life’s wild side.
“Its not like I tell the audience everything,” he says. “I just tell them the same amount as other comics; it’s just that my honesty involves awful things.”
Kemsley is more of a “comedy as therapy” stand-up. “My first set was all about worrying about being kidnapped and carrying a rape alarm. After a few months someone said to me, ‘Harriet, you do say rape quite a few times within the first two minutes of your set’… but through comedy I’ve been able to express a lot of my fears and talking about it has made it a lot better. If people laugh it’s like, ‘Oh I’m not alone’.”
When Mair got wrecked one night and nearly took the whole relationship down with him, it could not help but affect their Edinburgh shows.
“I touch on it briefly,” he says. “Harriet touches on it extensively.”
“It” involved Mair, a prostitute and a crazy night in Geneva.
“I don’t think I had sex with anyone to be honest,” says Mair. “They gave me a beer with rohypnol and then I blacked out for ten hours and woke up on the streets of Geneva at 1:30am the next day.”
“They stole €5,000 from him,” adds Kemsley. “Yeah, they drugged me and made me put my number into a debit machine – they were very organised ladies. But then the Nationwide gave me the money back.”
“Including the fee that he spent on the prostitute in the first place,” adds Kemsley. “Which went directly to Harriet,” says Mair, “and she bought a bike. I am not saying you can buy love… but it helps.”
He still had to move out of the house for six weeks.
“It” had an immediate effect on their material.
“I was a bit of a mess,” says Kemsley, “and I had a preview the week afterwards and I was thinking, my whole show is just a lie because it’s about my relationship. I felt like I had to talk about it because I talk about everything.
“So I did, although at first I didn’t really have any jokes about it but now I have jokes and I can see the funny side and it has actually been really good.”
“I tried to give her jokes… ” says Mair. “It was like I was digging my own grave… giving her jokes about the awful thing I’d done to make the piece better so it gets more press and I become the pariah of the Edinburgh festival.”
“He is being so nice to me, it’s going to get to a few months’ time and I’m going to be thinking… do I want him to sleep with another prostitute?”
“I don’t want to do that!” says Mair, eyes widening, “You’ll have to entrap me.”
Kemsley giggles: “I’ll be the prostitute.” I wind up the interview in case they need a moment.
“In my show I am always talking about my fears and planning for what I’ll do if the worst thing happens and it sort of did and I am fine,” says Kemsley. And I believe her. “I am better at
everything – so there is some sort of weird message to it.”
“The message is, don’t sleep with prostitutes,” says Mair quickly. “Well, don’t sleep with prostitutes and hope you have the same experience as Harriet and Bobby… or just don’t sleep with prostitutes. It might not work out for everyone.”
“Each of us thinks the other is better than they think themselves,” explains McBrier of her relationship.
In 2006 they went through what must be one of the most stressful experiences a comedy couple can have.
Out of nowhere, McBrier became the toast of the Fringe – five-star reviews, big-time producers wanting to manage her, venue crammed past capacity. Price had just got himself an agent and was on the up, but pootling around Edinburgh doing spots on other people’s shows.
“We didn’t really know what hit us,” says McBrier, who still refers to herself as a “fly-by-night” in contrast to Price who, she says, is “a real comic”.
“I didn’t realise the enormity of it because she is so blasé,” says Price, who, when fans clustered round, told them he worked in admin “so as not to distract”.
While Price had been working the circuit and building himself up as a comic, McBrier had won the first ever So You Think You’re Funny, and then disappeared, popping up occasionally to win a competition or captivate an audience.
“I just didn’t know how to be a comedian. But when I did it went quite well,” she says.
“As amazing as I think you are,” Price says, addressing first McBrier then me, “she has no self-awareness. She will rip a gig apart and then say ‘was that alright?’”
“What was much, much harder was watching her go from five stars to one star the next year – it ripped my heart out,” says Price. “Aye… I felt a bit shite,” says McBrier.
That year she developed a brain tumour, went partially deaf and was the victim of a brutal attack. Her Edinburgh show was less than well-received. It was not a happy time.
“The Boss has a brain tumour and I’m going to gigs and crying my eyes out,” says Price. He felt guilty when gigs went well. “I’m getting better… and the genius that I love got the shit kicked out of her.”
“Was I a pain in the arse about it?” asks McBrier, genuinely concerned.
Price was doing a package show that year with Tom Craine, Elis James and Josh Widdicombe. The show’s producer took it upon himself to tell Price that it was “all over” for McBrier. “On the last day I did ten minutes – I had the whole room crying their eyes out – about this cesspool of an industry,” he says. “I am a gentle man and I had to watch the woman I love have the dignity drained from her. Then I did a great callback… and got a massive laugh.”
In her “wilderness years” McBrier did some fairly well-received children’s shows and ventured into drag kingdom with I’m Eric Barthram. Meanwhile, Price had developed into a phenomenal storyteller, got his own five-star reviews and started a storytelling club in Camden – at which he finally managed to persuade McBrier to perform.
“People were clutching their sides, laughing their heads off…” he says.
“It was about domestic violence,” points out McBrier.
“They were roaring with laughter,” continues Price, “she was mobbed… I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you could do that?’ and she just said ‘It’s a Glasgow thing’.”
So now they are both up at the Fringe and “on a par” as Price puts it – both have storytelling shows, in the same venue, one after the other.
“I tidy up after him…” says McBrier. “And then we’ll go home and cook. I cooked a vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie the other day. We called it Silence of the Lambs.” Like Price says, genius.
Two years after sharing a dressing room with his dildo collection, Cave and Brown met again, by chance.
“Alfie went on a massive sex spree before I trapped him,” Cave says, sweetly. “He slept with about 60 girls…” – here, Brown looks at his knees – “I was part of the spree.”
“In the last show I told the story of the one night stand,” he says, “and how on 8 April I found out by text message that you were pregnant.”
“And then we started dating throughout the pregnancy,” picks up Cave, “so it was slightly untraditional but now we are very traditional.”
“Very traditional now,” agrees Brown, who is cradling their positively cherubic son Donnie as we speak.
“Someone was surprised that I was never angry with you,” he says, his eyebrows knitting, “Why? Angry that you didn’t have an abortion? I am – you’ve got to be a bit careful here – I am in terms of the law, pro-choice, but in terms of my feelings, anti-abortion. I would never want anyone who was pregnant because of me to have an abortion.” I feel I am seeing a very different Alfie Brown. “Although I am glad it was you and not…” (Here Brown names another, well known, member of the Spree Club.)
“We are slightly different – well, like opposites,” says Cave, taking over the baby-cradling. “He seems quite wild and dirty… like a bad boy, and I’m a good girl. Actually he is a really…” “Sensitive lover?” suggests Brown. “Nice guy,” says Cave. In their approach to comedy they have come from opposite ends of the spectrum.
“Alfie is actually noble in his attempts to talk about things that he has learned about, important things, and I am in awe of that,” says Cave.
“The incredible thing about Jessie is how she is prepared to put her gaping soul in front of a room full of people. I’ve never seen anyone be so natural and giving onstage. She is so brave,” says Brown.
Donnie now goes for a ride on Brown’s shoulders. “I think that the wonderful thing about the way we got together is that nowadays, especially with things like online dating… well, to my shame, if I had seen your dating profile… ”
Brown’s voice is slightly muffled by having his baby’s foot in his mouth, “You like The One Show, you like star signs… you’re out.”
“And if I had seen his,” says Cave, “I would have thought I can make this guy want me.
“We are very different,” – and here they glance at each other fondly – “but then there is a real human connection in which we are quite similar… really very similar actually. I feel so lucky to have found someone that appreciates sitting and trying to write all day is a thing to do.”
Bobby Mair: Filthy Immigrant is at Heroes @ The Hive, until 31 August, 8:50pm / listings
Harriet Kemsley: Puppy Fat is at Pleasance Courtyard, until 31 August, 5:45pm / listings
Martha McBrier: Pigeon Puncher is at Laughing Horse @ Finnegan’s Wake, until 29 August, 5pm / listings
Matt Price: The Boy With Cake on his Face is at Laughing Horse @ Finnegan’s Wake, until 29 August, 6:15pm / listings
Jessie Cave: I Loved Her is at Underbelly, until 30 August, 5:30pm / listings
Alfie Brown: – ism is at Assembly George Square Theatre, until 31 August, 7:20pm / listings
Published in The Scotsman on 8 August
Follow our Edinburgh Festival coverage
• Follow our social accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram
• Get everything on our Festivals homepage – on desktop, mobile or tablet
• Join the conversation with the hashtags #WOWfest and #WOWwagon
• Watch all the latest videos