On Record: An Interview with Sophie Willan

Steve Ullathorne

Sophie Willan is a rising star in British comedy, and her first solo stand-up show, On Record, has been making waves across the country. After becoming one of the breakthrough stars of the Edinburgh festival, Willan has had a sold-out run of shows and has received substantial critical acclaim. In this hour-long show, Sophie tells her story of growing up in care, critiquing some of the language surrounding mental health through the lens of her own experiences. At times both hilarious and harrowing, On Record’s discussion of mental health and social services comes at a time when the dialogue around mental health is ever expanding. We spoke to Sophie about the show and the process of reclaiming the narrative around some of her most difficult childhood experiences.

Culture Calling: Tell us a little more about how On Record came about.

Sophie Willan: I started writing it in 2015, and I was inspired by the negative representations of welfare in the media and cuts on social services, and I wanted to do something that addressed that and humanised people, but by exploring that through my own personal experiences.

CC: In On Record, you deal with topics that certainly aren’t traditionally comedic. Was that ever a challenge for you or does it feel quite natural just to talk about your own experiences?

SW: Yeah, because it’s funny and optimistic. I explore a lot of dark themes, but the execution and the pathos makes it funny.

CC: I’m really interested in the idea of personal records that you speak about in the show. With On Record, did it feel like you were reclaiming and retelling your story from all those records of your childhood?

SW: It’s about the reclaiming of negative language used on mental health, social services and welfare recipients. And through that I explore the language used about me in my personal records and my mother. There’s a bit where I talk about the fact my mum never worked, and the response I got from people. There’s a lot of looking at negative viewpoints and flipping them on the head, and looking systemically at how we can change our attitudes.

What I didn’t want to do was another depressing story about care, and I didn’t want to be a sort of role model. It was just about being honest about my experiences, which I think is ultimately more inspiring for people really.

Sophie Willan

Sophie Willan

CC: Mental health is quite a prevalent topic at the moment. Did you feel that, despite it being your own story, you had a responsibility to cover it sensitively?

SW: What I was really determined to do was create a show free of blame. I didn’t want the narrative to be ‘well this is a show where Sophie gets back at social workers’. Lots of social workers come to the show, so it’s a collaborative thing. This show, for me, is a conversation between myself and my experiences. I’m not here to tell anybody how it is, as every child in the care system has a very different experience.

CC: On Record sounds like it’s a rollercoaster of emotions. How have audiences been reacting to the show thus far?

SW: I’m very proud of it to be honest! I think they either feel empowered or ready to have a conversation about it. And I think people feel that they’ve made a connection with me too, and the audience have been so positive so far - it’s been wonderful!

CC: You only started performing stand-up fairly recently. What drew you to start, and does it still feel like a relatively new thing for you?

SW: I’ve been doing theatre for years, so I kind of look at things from the perspective of a wider narrative. I like the structure of writing jokes, and I think it suits my personality because I’m optimistic, yet also quite blunt! With standup, you’re very economical with your words, you get to your point quickly so that’s it funnier, I like that outlet.

CC: What’s next for you, are you planning more shows like this?

SW: I’m working on my second show, and I’ll be taking that up to Edinburgh this Summer. I’ll be continuing to explore the sort of things I looked at in On Record, particularly the idea of how people often get put into boxes, and what that means for identity. My book will be published in July, so there’s a lot of work on that too!

Sophie Willan performs On Record at Marlborough Theatre in Brighton on 31 March and 1 April. Find out more and book tickets here.