In 2004, character comedian Jo Neary was nominated for the Perrier Best Newcomer Award. That same year she qualified as a teacher and started work as an art teacher in a secondary school. “I’d get calls saying, ‘Can you go and audition for Matt Lucas’s new thing?’ and I’d say, ‘I can’t actually; I’ve got an inset day’.”
She stuck with the teaching for a year, but ultimately gave it up for a busy schedule of solo shows interspersed with acting and comedy gigs for TV and radio, plus collaborations with the visual and performance artist Mel Brimfield. This year though, Neary is drawing on that experience working with young people to create a new set of characters alongside the clown Jody Kamali for The Topsy-Turvy Hotel, a version of Kamali’s Hotel Yes Please for younger audiences (both shows are playing at Sweet Grassmarket). While she’s worked in youth theatre before, and acted in children’s TV and theatre, this is the first time the comic is adapting her characters for kids.
“I’m really enjoying doing a children’s show because it’s quite different. When they’re up for it and they go with you, it’s just fantastic. But you have to get them and that’s quite a fun challenge. Having a five-year-old is really useful because I can research on him. I know what gets his attention and what works.”
Neary’s own Celia Johnson character—an uncanny and very funny take on the protagonist of the 1945 film Brief Encounter—is being repurposed as Peggy Pillow the new chambermaid, while her Peg Bird character appears as Brenda Bagshot, an inspector trying to shut down the hotel. Most intriguing of all is Jackie Potato the waitress: “So far that’s just a massive potato costume. I haven’t yet worked out the voice of a potato.
“I’ve used my characters as a starting block and I’ve made them a little more absurd or sweet or whatever it is,” she explains. “When you’ve got a character already it’s much easier to build on that.”
The show is being devised for a broad range of ages, so that parents and carers can bring the whole family and know they’ll all get something out of it. “It’s a really lovely show,” says Neary. “It’s not too CBeebies. They’re not stereotypical characters; they’re really quite elegantly drawn. I only say that because I keep suggesting things that aren’t very subtle and Jody’s eyes fill with disdain.”