Jill ta
Jill takes on a cheesecake in Vanity Bites Back. Photograph: Impressive PR

Some subjects are more irresistibly comic than others (whoopee cushions, hairpieces …) though the best comedy is always found in unexpected places. For her one woman show Vanity Bites Back, Helen Duff chose a subject that few talk, let alone make comedy about: anorexia.

Duff, a trained actor, comedian and clown, plays Jill, a genteel 1950s-style Stepford wife who wants nothing more than to host her own television cookery show. Her big moment arrives and the audience joins her for the pilot episode. “It’s going to be the best bloody cookery show you’ve ever seen,” she confides in deadly seriousness.

As well it might be, though not in the way she intends. Instead Jill, an eccentric described as a cross between Alan Partridge and Margaret Thatcher, makes a comically epic mess. As her dream unravels the mask slips; her practically perfect persona gives way and a person suffering with anorexia is revealed.

“Stories keep cropping up that are not really part of the cookery show,” explains Stoke Newington resident Duff. “It’s not about eating so much as little moments of vulnerability and fears, and feelings that you haven’t lived up to expectations. They keep coming out no matter how hard she tries to keep this perfect persona up.”

Vanity Bites Back premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, where it was warmly received, and this month the show returns to London for Vault festival in Waterloo. It’s the 27-year-old’s debut show, and stems from her own experience with anorexia as a teenager.

“One of the reasons that I made the show is that when you have anorexia people don’t ever talk about it. Even family members and friends. They don’t want to say the wrong thing or isolate anybody so people don’t talk about anything. So coming out and saying that I’m suffering with anorexia is a really intimidating thing to do.”
The title of the show was inspired by a conversation Duff had with a friend who didn’t yet know about her anorexia.

“I realised they knew other people who’d suffered and they essentially said to me that everyone says it’s this or that but really I know it’s just attention seeking, she’s always been vain and she just cares about what she looks like.

“I felt so deeply that that was wrong and wanted to be able to correct that view and wanted to be able to explore that view and why I disagreed with it. But I couldn’t because at the time I was so vulnerable.”

Duff started a blog and called it Vanity Bites Back, about the idea of whether anorexia really was attention seeking. If so, says Duff, it is rooted in something other than vanity, which is a sense of pride in what you look like.

“Anorexia is just the opposite, it’s about a complete lack of self-worth as opposed to a sense of everyone look at me.”

The blog was well received, and writing about the illness gave Duff confidence. She was also gaining confidence as a theatre maker following a spell studying clown at the École Philippe Gaulier in Paris. The two things converged and the character of Jill was born.

Learning clown, such an intensely physical art form, might not be the obvious choice for someone who has experienced an illness linked to body image. However, Duff refutes this, saying that anorexia is less about body image than it is a physical manifestation of needing control and feelings of inadequacy. Clowning, she explains, provided a freedom that was the perfect tonic.

“Clown is about accepting yourself and your audience in the space in the moment. It’s about happy accidents and really allowing yourself to be open to what happens. So it’s the opposite of anorexia which very much about controlling, about not allowing yourself to be spontaneous or to divert from the plan.”

Improvisation is a big part of the show, and there’s also plenty of direct contact with the audience. For that reason Duff is keen to build in new jokes and frivolity to keep the show fresh. “I have to be sharp to what’s happening in the room,” she explains.

Jill can suddenly shift from profound silliness, singing about Hobnobs or covering herself with butter, to moments of genuine pathos. Some audiences apparently laugh all the way through; at a recent performance in Bristol some people were still laughing whilst others were crying by the end.

“Generally I use comedy to puncture moments and to make them almost more moving because that’s a better way of approaching a difficult subject matter. I think people receive information and open their minds more when they feel comfortable and are having a good time, rather than receiving a sort of lecture.”

Duff tells me that one of the most enjoyable processes was using her own fears as someone who has had anorexia to construct the form of the play. I ask if she was ever afraid that the play would be perceived as insensitive.

“I’m always in the character who’s obviously suffered with the illness,” she replies. “I’m never making jokes about not eating. It’s never that explicit or that cheap.”

Duff plans to take Vanity Bites Back to Australia to comedy festivals in Melbourne and Adelaide this year, as well as develop something new for next year’s Edinburgh Free Fringe. Her days of striving for perfection are over, but the best is yet to come.

Vanity Bites Back is at London Vault Festival from 28 January –1 February at The Pit, Leake Street, SE1 7NN

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