Five women breathing life back into alternative comedy theatre

A common reaction from audience members watching a show by Figs in Wigs is, “I don’t know what I just watched but I loved it”.

Figs in Wigs is the theatrical collaboration of Ray Gammon, Suzanna Hurst, Sarah Moore, Rachel Porter and Alice Roots. For 15 years they have collectively devised, produced and performed 10 original shows. 

On stage they become five brightly coloured performers – who market themselves towards audiences who “get bored of conventional theatre” – creating a surreal production of dance and comedy.

Ms Porter, who lives in New Cross, said: “We love comedy and we love working together on stage.

“No one ever really knows what they can expect from us, which is the great part. It’s about entertaining people in the midst of all the gloom. Our performances become a way for us to say ‘we’re all feeling this’, a bit like a collective scream.”

The group first met whilst studying drama at Queen Mary University of the Arts London in 2009.

Ms Porter said: “On our course, we were taken to experimental performance art often with nudity, really out there stuff. Our work isn’t as extreme but we were influenced by it.

Cast of Figs in Wigs in their tartan stewardess outfits for a production AstrologyBingo (Picture: Rosie Collins)

“We always felt a little bit too silly to go into traditional theatre, we found it quite boring.”

Early on in their Figs In Wigs career, the group put on cabaret shows – dancing in unison in identical outfits for 10 minute performances. Their usual scene included Duckie – formerly based at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, now based at The Eagle – a LGBTQ+ night bar in Kennington Lane.

This wasn’t your usual cabaret performance. The Figs would create their own form of dance, acting, comedy and impersonations all intertwined into a show like no other.

Today they feel the most at home presenting long form ‘theatre’ shows in big venues where they can control every element of the production. 

But there is still a mischievous energy fitting for a dive bar or sweaty nightclub. 

Their latest performance, Big Finish, will be on at Battersea Arts Centre, in Lavender Hill, Battersea, from March 14 to 27.

Ms Porter said: “When we started putting Big Finish together it combined ideas of the world coming to an end as well as the dying arts scene.

“Then Covid hit and we thought we had actually manifested the end of the world.”

Figs in Wigs beekeeper outfits for their latest show Big Finish (Picture: Kate Bones)

Covid-19 restrictions led to 55 per cent of jobs being furloughed in the sector – the second highest sector in the UK behind the accommodation and food sector – and was well above the national average of 16 per cent, according to a report by Sheffield University.

More than 80,000 claims were made under the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) by people in the arts, culture and heritage sector – 68 per cent of the eligible population in the UK. 

Ms Porter said: “Coming back after Covid it seemed like theatre was booming – all the shows that had been cancelled came all at once.

“But there was a delayed effect and it all dried up quickly. Our Government isn’t subsidising the arts, it’s very difficult to get funding. The Arts Council has been amazing but things are still tough especially for groups like us who aren’t in the conventional line of theatre.”

This struggle features prominently in Big Finish – even down to the costumes.

Ms Porter said: “We have these beekeeper outfits we brought online for Big Finish

‘Fig Maestros’ for Big Finish (Picture: Kate Bones)

“The outfits reminded us of space costumes but also like hazmat suits. It also made me think of what people always say – if there were no bees left the world would end. 

“We also have these bedraggled musician costumes. A big theme is the titanic – our characters take on the roles of the ships string quintet – but we’re untrained. It’s meant to represent the arts scene as a sinking ship.”

A show within a show, Big Finish parodies human nature’s desire to bury our heads in the sand in the face of peril.

It comments on the predicament theatre faces in the wake of funding cuts and losing audiences to its cultural rival – the television. 

Fundamentally, these women act with the conviction that they can live inside a world they have created for themselves, and that maybe their audience can too.

Pictured top: Across 15 years Figs in Wigs have collectively devised, produced and performed 10 original shows (Picture: Rosie Collins)

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