Sophie Willan: Novice Detective

Tue 5th – Sun 24th August 2014


Freya Judd

at 05:21 on 16th Aug 2014



I don’t know what I was expecting from Sophie Willan. I’m still not quite sure what I watched – was it spoken word, or theatre, or interactive, or cabaret? Despite this confusion, I had a very enjoyable morning at ZOO, although I suspect that the show wasn’t quite geared towards a teenage/twenty-something audience.

Willan was an engaging performer who seemed to be willing to lay everything she’s got out onto the line. She got the audience going, asking questions, remembering names, and generally being warm and approachable.

One of the risks of Willan’s performance was her reliance on choosing a good sidekick from the audience. The sidekick played a fairly significant role throughout the performance, and her choice could easily go either way – a reticent, shy volunteer would hamper the quick action of the piece, whilst someone with am-dram aspirations could detract from Willan herself. When I went, the choice tended towards the latter, with ‘Frank’ (a sprightly older gentleman) pulling faces and cracking jokes alongside Sophie herself. Despite this, I found Frank’s charm added to the whole performance, whilst Sophie dealt admirably with ensuring that all eyes stayed on her.

The performance followed Willan as she narrated her early search for her long-lost father. A madcap conviction that Richard Ashcroft (frontman of 90s band The Verve) was indeed her dad led to all sorts of hi-jinks. Along the way, Willan took time to ‘search for clues’, display ‘evidence’, and overall demonstrate the touching vulnerability and hope of a none year old orphan girl. Undoubtedly my favourite moment was Willan’s astonishingly enthusiastic dance around the room about halfway through. This woman seemed like the kind of woman I’d like to hang out with. Plus she wore a really great dress.

Honestly, the show wasn’t my favourite show that I’ve seen at the Fringe: but I really do think that that might be something to do with my age. The vast majority of the rest of the audience were older individuals who seemed to enjoy Willan’s energy, but also her more gentle moments. It was a gently enjoyable hour that made us all think about what family means to us, and the lengths that we go to to find a sense of belonging.


Ben Hickey

at 10:20 on 16th Aug 2014



In perhaps the first detective-noir story ever to be set in Bolton, Sophie Willan explores the imperfections of our fantasises and life’s refusal to be just like the movies. Drawing on a long-held fascination with the detective genre, Willan fashions an example of what you might describe as situation stand-up in which she must locate her long-last father with the help of some (mostly) willing audience members, an impressive array of props and more than a few takes on Ingrid Bergman.

The story itself isn’t that convincing; after some time it is revealed that Willan’s father may in fact be a certain British music icon from the 90s but audiences who enjoy references to Casablanca and Poirot are unlikely to get the same from allusions to one of the central players in the Britpop movement. In the end, jokes relating to the former go down well while those concerning the latter fail to land.

The story is lacking but the show’s other elements, from the homages to the detective genre’s recurring tropes to the frequent instances of audience participation, are far funnier. Willan enlists the help of an audience member to be her faithful sidekick throughout the show and, while this entails handing over a dangerously large amount of control to a potentially rogue element, Willan is able to control proceedings while keeping the laughs flowing with her frank and at times combative humour.

The relationship with her volunteer assistant, which on this occasion shares a similar dynamic to that of a bickering married couple, allows Willan to showcase her brusque Northern humour and her ability to deviate successfully from a carefully scripted storyline. There is also a strange moment where, for reasons that are no longer entirely clear to me, Willan has three men doing a gorilla impression catwalk in an attempt to win a banana. Thankfully, she does not take her meta-commentary of detective stories too seriously so as not to allow for a little levity, or indeed a little calculated silliness.

There are frequently moments in which Willan is able to do a lot with precious little; a long strip of black cloth serves as a waitresses’ skirt, a funeral veil and a shroud in the space of just five minutes. This is typical of the show’s energy; it isn’t frenzied and frenetic but rather bubbles away, slowly reaching a slightly sentimental but ultimately winning finale. It is not a show that is particularly technically accomplished but it undoubtedly has a good heart and while that doesn’t tend to get audiences rolling in the aisles, Willan’s colloquial and effervescent charisma keeps the show on course.


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