“I bow to you” is a rather unusual greeting to receive as we all filter into the Hen and Chickens Theatre. Making that unusual greeting is our host for tonight, Gilllian Beak; the wonderful comic creation of Sarah Thom. Gillian is an acting legend, up there with all the greats. Or at least, that’s how she sees herself, maybe because she has clearly given her whole life over to the stage, at huge personal costs.
So convinced of her own greatness, and with a need to impart her wisdom, she is now running masterclasses for us mere mortals, gracing us with her immense knowledge. Here she can tell us about her stellar career and allow us to learn how we too could reach such dizzy heights, appearing at the local town hall and even a Girl Scouts event. But to get there we need her guidance, often with the assistance of a volunteer from the audience. Behind her, the screen introduces each segment of her lesson, as she imparts such gold as always try to avoid playing a pig, and absolutely do not use your fake orgasm techniques in real life. There are also plenty of Beakisms to be shared, because we should all do as Beak says, surely?
Of course, whilst Gillian presents as someone sure about herself and her life choices, there are moments when the mask drops and we learn more about her personal life. It’s here that we see the person beneath the makeup, and come to recognise that she truly believes what she is doing is of the utmost importance; her life calling. She is the Mother Teresa of the stage.
Thom presents Gillian Beak without a trace of irony. It’s absolutely impossible to separate actor from character. From that opening “I bow to you” through to when she departs in a rush, she is immersed fully in Gillian, and we really are her students. It would be all too easy to believe Thom is in reality a slightly deluded and sorry middle-aged woman who has allowed herself to become convinced of her own abilities. She appears totally unaware that the laughter is at her and not with her. Yet perhaps the real skill is that our laughter is slowly turned to sympathy, even tinged with a slight guilt that we judged her too soon. Because beneath this persona of a woman in love with her art there is also a woman for whom life has passed her by, a life that has failed to deliver the promised fame she clearly craves.
Whilst Gillian may not be quite the acting great she believes she is, Thom herself absolutely is. Her physical comedy is presented to perfection, and her obsession with her lower body a sight no one really needs to see this close up! She owns the stage as she runs through each lesson, knowing how to draw our attention from her to the display screen behind so we don’t miss any of the smutty acronyms.
Gillian Beak is a creation you could easily imagine as a series of TV shorts, the kind of programme slotted into BBC2’s schedule at 9.50 just ahead of a comedy quiz show. She has a depth which allows Thom to explore her character and deliver up a show full of humour and gentle innuendo that surely goes right over Gillian’s own head. It’s a comic creation that deserves the audiences Gillian could only dream of playing before. And hopefully this won’t be the last we see of Gillian Beak: there is surely much more to be mined from this creation.
Written by: Sarah Thom
Tehcnican: Izzie Purcell
Original production produced by: Jimmy Jewell
Beak Speaks plays at Hen and Chickens Theatre until 13 May. Further information and bookings can be found here.