It was the first of times, it was the worst of times. And what a tumultuous time Ben Target had making LORENZO, one of the best-reviewed shows at this year's Edinburgh Fringe, and now preparing to make a similar splosh - little easter egg there for Target fans - at London's Soho Theatre, from September 27.
"It's a tribute to two men I loved," Target explains, "my honorary uncle Lorenzo, who cared for me when I was a child. And my recently departed director, Adam Brace, who I began making this show with before his sudden death in April.
"The show tells the story of the time I spent as Lorenzo's live-in carer during the Global Pandemic Lockdowns. It looks at the twilight of our friendship - our mutual love of mischief, his peripatetic life and the hardships we faced as our caregiving roles were reversed.
"The show also includes shadow puppetry and live carpentry. The shadow puppetry is a link to Lorenzo's cultural heritage and the woodwork is both a reference to the time I've spent working as a carpenter - building stage sets - and Lorenzo's love of craft, which he carried throughout his career as an architect."
As Target suggests, the actual making of LORENZO had a dramatic arc all of its own: did it ever seem destined not to happen?
"This has been one of the hardest shows to make that I've worked on and also one of the most satisfying to share with an audience," he admits. "It has always felt like it wasn't going to happen from the very beginning of its journey - I feel like every step has been an accident, certainly no one could have predicted how it's come about.
"In August 2022, I was happily working with one of my longtime collaborators, Joz Norris, on his excellent comedy show Blink. I wasn't interested in returning to solo show-making for myself because I was enjoying my work as a director, but then something random happened: Adam Brace came into my life.
"Initially, he'd come to see me doing some stand-up at the Machynlleth Comedy Festival but only because the other shows in my time slot had sold out. He then approached me whilst I was at the Fringe with Joz and said he'd adored the stories I had shared about Lorenzo and that he'd love to make a show with me. I was grateful for his compliments but had no interest in going any further down the rabbit hole.
"Adam then spent three months convincing me - through increasingly luxurious lunches - that I had to return to the stage and that audiences would relish hearing about my time working as a carer for the elderly (which I began doing when I was 15 years-old) and that Lorenzo had been such an extraordinary person that he deserved a faithful tribute.
"I finally agreed over onion soup at The French House in Soho, which is also where Adam taught me to eat oysters. Initially I refused because they looked like sea snot but were actually quite nice. Turns out, when Adam suggested I do something for my own good, he was right. I wrote Adam a draft for the VAULT Festival and then we began rehearsing together."
"I loved working with him. We'd pace about in a circle in the basement of the Soho Theatre and I'd tell him stories; when he heard one he liked, I'd write it down and then we would arrange the stories into sections, trying to find the most exciting order. After the VAULT Festival shows, he said he was pumped for where it was all heading, but at the last rehearsal we had together, he said he felt really ill, so I suggested he head home early. I never saw him again."
The acclaimed playwright and director died in April this year, aged 43. "I got the call as I stepped off stage at the Machynlleth Comedy Festival, exactly a year to the day he'd first seen me talk about Lorenzo. I was numb for about two months. During which time the remarkable Lee Griffiths approached me and asked if there was anything he could do to help me finish the work.
"I had helped him with a show a few years before at a point of crisis in his life and he initially wanted to repay the favour, but my trust in him as the kind-hearted creator that he is blossomed throughout our creative process, and so I asked him if he'd co-direct the show (with a now dead man).
"He then became Director 2.0 and has been nothing short of astonishing. He's held me together and kept this train on the tracks, all whilst mourning the friend and colleague he too had in Adam. I owe this show to both of them: Adam's nurturing and Lee's commitment. So, if you enjoy this show, send them both an abundance of blessings."
Agreed. Now let's tackle some previous performance ups and downs, as Target takes on First Gig Worst Gig 2.
When and where was your first full solo set - and how did it go?
I first performed a 39 minute solo show in the misty realms of 2011. I started with a 39 minute show because I'd heard if you did a 40 minute show it would make you eligible for awards at festivals and I didn't want to encourage that sort of thing until I felt like I was ready for one.
The show was at the Hen & Chickens Theatre [in Islington], where the mighty The Mighty Boosh made their shows way back in the day. About a month before, I'd won the - dare I say it - prestigious, national stand-up competition: the Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year. This momentarily filled me with the swagger of self-assurance and the conviction that I was actually funny, at least, to a room of three hundred Chisits.
And what are Chisits?
Chisits is a word I've just learnt, apparently it's the name people from Skegness call people from Leicester due to their expression for "How much is it?" when asking for a punnet of chips (it sounds cute to me, so I'm hoping it's not derogatory).
The problem was, my set for the Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year was 10 minutes long and had taken me about a year to write. Now I had the challenge of writing 29 minutes of extra material in a month. I failed. The show was a disaster. All my friends came and for many of them this was the first time they saw me perform. What they saw was a grown man, dressed like a rabbit, crumple into a heap of shame. Some of those friendships have not recovered, even though I bought a ruinously expensive round of drinks after the show.
Anyway, I picked myself up, dusted off my bunny suit and later that summer did a ten-day work-in-progress run of that same 39-minute solo show in Edinburgh on the Free Fringe. It accidentally became a word-of-mouth hit, later being included in the Guardian's best of the festival round-up.
This gave me the courage to turn the show into a 53 minute one (because 53 minutes is the absolute sweet spot, as far as minutes go) and it became my debut, which was nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award - Best Newcomer award. It lost to my friend Daniel Simonsen's show, which was in part about the day job we both shared: flyering for a dentist whilst dressed as teeth outside the tube stations of South East London.
The worst stage you've ever played on?
My first gig back in December 2021, after almost two years away from writing and performing, was on the side of a canal in East London (of course). It was freezing cold. There was a river boat behind me with a band on. No one wanted to listen to me prattle on, they wanted more music, obviously.
People kept passing by on the other side of the canal and would yell enlightened things like: "Fuck off twat!" etc. Pretty sure the canal contained Weil's disease too. Outdoor gigs. Remember them from The Pandemic era? Nightmare...
Is there one joke/routine/bit that worked a lot better than you expected?
The bits audiences seem to love most about my work tend to be the things that I've put the least effort into - the ideas, jokes or observations that seemingly arrive in my brain, appearing out of the ether, fully formed. I tend not to think much of these things personally, sometimes I even feel they're tacky and a bit shit but you gotta give the people what they want and if they want shit then I've got plenty of it.
The stuff I work really hard on because I think it's interesting, smart or revealing of character, well, audiences tend to overlook this; but when I perform it, it makes me feel something and keeps me rooted in the moment, so it probably works well alongside the more throw-away stuff. A good show is probably somewhere between what the performer feels they have to say and how an audience wants it to be said.
What's the best advice you've ever received about making shows?
I'm not sure why yet, but I find making solo shows painful. And yet I still do it, because I haven't found anything else in life so fulfilling a process for transformation.
As I make a show, I tend to experience bouts of depression, insomnia and near-constant doubt and anxiety. Maybe these things are normal when anyone ever makes art. What often begins as a bit of fun for me, at some point swerves into examining a challenge in my life that I've yet been able to make sense of - be it the nagging sadness that I didn't always do my best to care for an old friend or the horror at the consequences of growing up in a hyper-competitive community.
If I'm able to take these experiences, try to understand them and somehow transform that learning into a piece of art that serves its audience through entertainment, then I feel like some sort of deep, communal magic has been worked on all of us. The result being momentary togetherness, and in that togetherness, I feel at peace with myself.
What I love about making a solo show is working for that point of connection that can be formed through a live performance between a room full of strangers. That's the reason I still perform, to find that special clarity of connection, for when it comes, it's like no other.
There have been many many wonderful people I've met over the 12 years I've been doing this, some of whom I've had the pleasure to work with. They've given me good advice, encouraged me to find a way to stick at it when the going has been really tough and perhaps most importantly, nurtured me as a person outside of making shows. The people I consider as my two long-term, unofficial, mentors are Adam Riches and Josie Long.
Josie taught me to be disciplined in my approach: to turn up to work every day, respect the work with a singular focus and to also take plenty of breaks to lead a life of adventure outside the work because it enriches it. Adam has taught me about the balance between writing for the self but performing for the audience and how in that, ultimately, our job is to serve the audience by lifting them up with robustly formed manifestations of our ideas, whether the ideas are rooted in wonder, horror or ridiculousness.
The oddest audience member?
I did a gig in a brewery. I was two minutes into my set, which was going better than expected given how drunk the audience was, when a man in the front row stood up and said: "I love you!". What made it odd was what happened next: he crawled across the floor like a large baby and then slithered onto the stage and bearhugged my leg.
He refused to let go, so I just said: "Well, this is strange but only because he usually hugs my other leg." The audience seemed to like this, so I just did the rest of my set with this human limpet clutching my gams. I found out afterwards that he'd been drinking some sort of acid-infused IPA. Makes sense.
Your worst gig-travel experience?
In 2014 I got arrested by New Zealand's (very polite) anti-terrorism police squad as I boarded a plane from Wellington to London. It was the last day of my six month tour of the Australian and New Zealand comedy festivals, where I'd been invited to perform my debut comedy show. The police didn't care about this when I (very politely) explained that to them. Instead, they took me to a concrete holding cell underneath the airport, which is where I saw my prop trunk on a stainless steel table top.
These armed police strongly suggested I carefully open the prop trunk whilst they remained behind a section of bombproof glass. I thought: "Jesus, has someone put something lethal in my trunk that I don't know about?!" The flight was leaving in 20 minutes, so I complied. I opened the trunk and it was just full of my usual stage props: fake flowers, beachballs, flutes - a weird collection of stuff, yes, but none of it was dangerous.
It turned out they were just fucking confused as to why anyone was about to travel halfway across the world with this undefinable collection of junk, and they assumed it could only be the choice of someone trying to transport something illegal. To try and smooth things over, I explained that I was a Prop Comedian. They had no idea what that was, so I said it was like being a shit magician with jokes.
Who would join you on your dream line-up (dead or alive)?
I used to play in a band with three other wonderful comedians, namely, Sam Nicoresti (vocals and guitar), Aniruddh Ojha (guitar and vocals), Andy Barr (bass guitar and vocals) and me (drums and vocals). We were good. We played these fun dance-punk songs about riding horses, finding the perfect donut and time mismanagement (think DEVO meets Mac DeMarco with a slice of Vulfpeck thrown in) - the usual stuff.
We had a residency at Battersea Arts Centre and had started to play shows around London, always changing our name, which can't have helped when it came to building up a fan club (names included: Gump, Salarymen, Supply Teachers, Eldest Child and The Hades Members Only Club).
We jammed every Sunday and it was one of the most rewarding projects I've been involved in. The pandemic battered it into submission, and we've all been so busy on our separate projects since to revive it, though I hope someday we do.
So, until then, my dream bill would be a live jam session with the following good people: Prince on lead guitar, Nile Rodgers on rhythm guitar, Nina Simone and Elton John sharing lead vocals - ideally on dueling pianos, facing each other, centre stage. In the rhythm section, I'd want the versatile, groove-laden Topper Headon from The Clash on drums and the cornerstone of the Talking Heads, Tina Weymouth on Bass.
I'll be playing tambourine, fiercely, whilst dressed as a morris dancing bear, throwing shapes and keeping the vibes topped up. Essentially, the Bez of the ultimate supergroup.