Comedy cabaret performer Tracey Collins was packing out free fringe venue Frankenstein’s last year with her foursome of fabulous, flirty characters. She’s back at the same place this year with more of the same, including the tea-toting, stocking-stroking Tina T’Urner Tea Lady. Get ready for conga lines and a flash of the fishnets! We spoke to Tracey to find out a bit more about the woman behind the characters.
What’s your background and how did you come to be doing this?
I started performing in youth theatre in my hometown of Leicester and ending up being signed by a record label in London. After making a pop album in Norway, I sang in various bands and started getting into the Electroklash music scene. Watching people merge character, costume and music together really appealed to me.
I knew I wanted to perform as a solo artist after seeing Peaches play live at The Astoria. She was anarchic and looked like she was having an absolute blast.
So I started performing a comedy piano sprawler act on the cabaret scene and then I wrote Tina T’urner Tea Lady. She became the platform for other characters such as Audrey Heartburn, Flo, Ed Cheerup and Fanny Legup.
Where did the idea of Tina T’urner originally come from?
My best mate and I were booked to play old tea ladies for a promo gig at a national newspaper. The assembled hacks loved watching us frisk the editor and play with his tie.
It was such fun, it stayed with me. Then one day I was writing ideas of how to create a new act and I thought of Tina T’urner Tea Lady.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do exactly, but I started with a foldaway tea trolley, a very limp wig and a few songs.
Were you already a big fan or did you have to immerse yourself in Tina world?
My mum was a huge Tina fan and it rubbed off on me. We would watch her performances together in awe. When creating Tina T’urner Tea Lady I immersed myself in her music but not in Tina’s world. I was experimenting playing her in an absurd way, rather than a tribute or impersonation.
As the character has developed, I have come to see her more as a deluded Yorkshire tea lady who finds joy in performing Tina Turner songs and seducing men with her tea.
I performed in Switzerland last year, and heard a story about a local man who walks around Zurich singing the opening line of Lionel Ritchie’s Hello. He only knows that first line and I thought yes, that’s what my character is like!
Tina T’urner Tea Lady doesn’t know the correct words to the songs, she mumbles. Her stories of the 80s are ridiculous, but she loves showbiz and glamour. I think that joy for life is infectious.
What characters are making an appearance with her this year?
This year’s show is much more darkly comic and explores the theme of “freaks”. The characters are a celebration of showbiz and the surreal.
Tina T’urner Tea Lady will get things off to a steamy start with her famous hot brew. Tina is followed by Ed Cheerup – my drag king version of Ed Sheeran. Cheerup is a tortured artist and “misunderstood genius”. He is, in his own words, the Shakespeare of pop.
Audrey Heartburn will be making a return appearance with new tragic stories of online dating and her fruitless search for love in the real world.
Bringing up the rear is obnoxious self-made billionaire Fanny Legup, who will close the show with a grotesque motivational seminar.
What are you looking for when you create a new character?
I’m drawn to larger than life characters. I look for the tragedy and vulnerability within them – the need to be loved or the illusion of power. I start with a bizarre idea which I can play with, then try to make it emotionally relatable.
I love interacting with the audience and getting them to play along. I look for devices (cups of tea, hair brushing, dating advice) to get them directly involved.
How pernickerty are you with your characters? Take Audrey Heartburn – do you want to learn all the finer details about her and her life or are you more casual about it, just aiming for a vaguely Hepburn vibe?
With Audrey I haven’t spent lots of time researching her life. But I have learnt about women in the Golden Age of Hollywood and all the pressure put on leading actresses of that time to be pretty and demure.
While I mimic Audrey’s on-screen voice and mannerisms, it’s not a straight impersonation. I heighten her behaviours to challenge traditional perceptions of the Holly Golightly archetype. I want her to come across as a flawed human being.
With a character like Ed Cheerup, I’m creating a ridiculous parody – an angst ridden caricature version of him.
The same is true of Tina as well.
What’s it like channelling these people? Can you switch them off easily or do you find them constantly invading your normal life?
It’s wonderful. I can be really daft and connect with strangers. My characters allow me to be free, whether that’s rolling around on the floor, belting out my favourite songs or being brutally honest. I’m happiest when I really know the character and can improvise around the structure of the set.
I love that I can switch my characters off easily, and don’t find them invading my normal life at all. But in a way, I wish they did.
If Simply The Best comes on in a pub nowadays, what’s your reaction?
My muscle memory kicks in and I long to start a conga line (wherever I am).