One of the interesting thing about interviews now largely being conducted by Zoom is that little insight you get into the person you’re talking to and the space they live in. Sometimes it’s a plain wall or a strategic piece of artwork, sometimes a bookshelf with all the very clever titles on display.
As is befitting for the co-host of QueenPod, Sooz Kempner is speaking to me from in front of a giant, wall-spanning flag depicting Freddie Mercury in his classic ‘fist raised to the audience’ pose.
The last episode of Sooz latest project is due to drop on Thursday 27 May. The Ballad of Anne and Mary (from Longcat Media) is a narrative musical podcast that takes real life female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read and builds up from the little we know of their stories.
“for two such famous women, so little is known about them. So Lindsay (Sharman) and Laurence (Owen) [the driving forces behind Longcat Media] were able to go in loads of directions with them.”
“With the character of Read, who I am playing, it’s been a case of putting on their character how I would feel in the situation. They had to live undercover for their whole life, hiding that they born female in order to be in the army and lead men who would not have respected Read as a woman.”
When I described Read as “a tough bugger” Sooz agreed laughing that “She’s much tougher than me! She’s got a real air of vulnerability, but also is a hard bastard and that’s really fun to play. She doesn’t fear death which I find fascinating.”
“It’s a good old fashioned, swashbuckling adventure” says Kempner, “but there is so much scope to go fresh and contemporary with it.”
“It’s a female-led love story… It’s about women having to scrap and fight to find their place in an incredibly male-dominated world. There are modern issues at the heart of what is a historical drama set hundreds of years ago.”
Podcasting is an unusual format for this kind of scripted work. You would normally expect to find this as a Radio Four drama. “It’s kind of the first wave of these fictional podcasts. And to do a musical one is just a masterstroke, because you can do it all for less than 5% of the budget you would need to have it be visual.”
Kempner started doing stand-up comedy in 2009. She had been trying to break into musical theatre with limited success before then. She describes now as “naive” her belief that “This will be somewhere where I won’t get judged for being a woman or how I look.”
Sooz has also had a run of successful Edinburgh shows. And while she has achieved a great deal of critical acclaim, financially she hasn’t a lot to show for it. “I worked out how much I’ve spent on [my] seven Edinburghs (and I do them on the ‘cheap’)… I worked out I could have had a deposit for a house.” This is despite these shows receiving rave reviews and healthy ticket sales. “I was thinking ‘why am I always poor, when I’ve done seven Edinburgh fringes?’ that will be why!”
She describes her stand up as “super-personal nostalgia” using “genuine incidents from Year three – 28 years ago.” But she has found that despite these stories being personal to her, this connects with audiences. “People project onto that their own feelings of something that was vaguely similar.” She is also fascinated by what we remember and if in the age of Google, we still will “we don’t have to retain anything. There was one point where I wondered if I was losing my memory. But it’s not that, were just so used to looking everything up.”
When asked about what’s next for The Ballad of Anne and Mary, Kempner reveals that she and co-star Christina Bianco would love to do a stage version when and if circumstance allow.
In July and August, she is doing a show with Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer the Opera) called Wrong Songs at The Glory in East London. Kempner describes it as “a journey through every single subject with songs that are just a bit ‘wrong’.” Anyone familier with Thomas’ work will know what to expect.
From wedding singer to award winning stand-up to finally achieving her original dream of musical theatre star in the guise of a “hard bastard” pirate, Sooz Kempner may delight in the nostalgia of the everyday, but she still keeps us guessing.
All episodes of the Ballad of Anne and Mary can be found here.
Emma Burnell is a freelance journalist, political consultant and playwright. If you want to contribute to helping her stage her first play, No Cure for Love, details are here.