Comedy star Karen Dunbar is playing Lady Bracknell in a new stage production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at Perth Theatre. Gayle Ritchie meets the funnygirl between rehearsals…
Karen Dunbar bounces down two flights of Perth Theatre’s stairs dressed like some kind of hip-hop band member.
Her hair curls rebelliously from under a baseball cap while a low-necked black T-shirt shows off the 48-year-old’s svelte physique.
This relaxed, make-up-free, about-the-town look is completed with a pair of baggy tracksuit bottoms and green trainers with red laces.
“I’m right into rap music,” Karen tells me as we order coffee from the theatre bar. “I listen to it to unwind or when I’m cutting about the place.”
Originally from Ayr, the place that the celebrated actor and comedian is cutting about for the foreseeable future is Perth.
That’s because she’s taking on the iconic role of Lady Bracknell in a Perth Theatre production of the Oscar Wilde play, The Importance of Being Earnest.
Karen is a huge fan of the Fair City, having lived in it for a brief period in her early 20s.
“I’ve got really fond memories of living here, aye,” she muses, her thick West Coast accent kicking in.
What prompted the move here, I ask? “Love”, she proclaims, with a wink. But it’s not a subject she wants to linger over.
“That’s plenty,” she tells me, when I attempt to probe for juicy details. “Love’s all you’re getting.”
Most folk will recognise Karen from the legendary 90s Scottish sketch show Chewin’ the Fat.
Among Karen’s characters – most of which featured her trademark bulging eyes and flaring nostrils – were the lonely shopkeeper, Auld Betty and the biology teacher.
Having had, in her own words, “nae training”, Chewin’ the Fat was where Karen got her first big break.
“I went to The Comedy Unit’s auditions in 1997 as a wee old wumman called Agnes,” she recalls.
“I’d never been to an audition. I thought I’d never hear from them again, but they phoned me the next day saying they wanted to try me on this radio show called Chewin’ the Fat. I was on the radio the following week. Then we started making the characters for TV.”
The show, which also starred Ford Kiernan, Greg Hemphill, Julie Wilson Nimmo and Tom Urie, was not only Karen’s springboard to fame but also led to the phenomenally popular Still Game series, and, of course, The Karen Dunbar Show.
How did someone with no formal training achieve such epic success? The secret perhaps lies in Karen’s inherent comic ability and as a result of years spent working in the entertainment industry.
She loved school, although she says she wasn’t “extremely academic” and was often thrown out of classes because she was a “nuisance”.
“If I thought there was something funny, I felt compelled to say it,” she admits.
“I’ve always been a mimic of people; I think I’m a better mimic than actor. I’m inspired by people I see – it might be an auld wifie on a bus, or sitting on a bench, blethering. Part of my character is playing other characters.”
Karen started running karaoke nights at Bonkers, a “fun pub” in Ayr when she was 19, and soon after, moved to Glasgow where she did more of the same but on a bigger scale.
“For eight years, five nights a week, I hosted karaoke and pub quizzes, did a bit of singing and DJing and stuff like that – it was all pub entertainment,” she says. “There was a lot of telling big long stories, putting on different voices and creating characters. I suppose it was essentially stand-up comedy. That was my training.”
Anyone who attended the opening night of Perth nightclub, the Ice Factory, in 1994, might recall seeing Karen on the decks.
Sadly, her performance didn’t go down too well, and she was given the boot.
“I was a club DJ, mixing tunes like M People’s Moving On Up and Robert Miles’ Children,” she explains. “It was pretty commercial dance but I wisnae playing Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep or anything. I didn’t use the mic to say, ‘and this one’s for Betty’ and all that.
“I’d been DJing in clubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh and brought my elite skills to Perth. I think the Ice Factory thought I was too ‘clubby’ and they sacked me a week later.”
Before she headed back to the Central Belt, Karen spent a few months at Perth Rock School.
“There’s nothing on it online, so it sounds like a bit of a fable! It was a great place, like a Scottish ‘Kids from Fame’. At 22, I was the oldest person in the class. I got singing lessons. I didn’t last long there either ‘cos I got a job in a nightclub in Edinburgh and couldn’t make morning classes.”
Karen learned to drive in Perth and explored the surrounding countryside on days off.
“I’d just go oot in the car and discover or get lost a lot of the time. There was no GPS,” she laughs.
Rather than commuting to rehearsals, Karen’s staying in Perth until the show finishes its run at the end of March.
She’s loving rediscovering the area. “I’m daft aboot that wee vegan cafe (269 Vegan) round the corner,” she chirps.
“And Kinnoull Hill is one of my favourite views in Scotland, especially in autumn. There’s this vast carpet of stunning colours. You know how they talk about autumn in New York or Hampshire? Folk want to see Kinnoull Hill.”
So to The Importance of Being Earnest. What can people who come to watch the Perth Theatre production expect?
“It’s one of the best plays of the last 100ish years,” muses Karen. “It’s a story about four young folk in a love quadrangle and a snobby auntie who winds them up. That’s the gist of it. Oh, and they all live happily ever after!
“There’s a great sense of fun about it and it’s fast-paced, but not speedy. It’s clever but there’s great slapstick in it. There are so many different types of comedy in it, and a huge amount of warmth. It’s a latter day rom-com, really.”
Taking on the role of Lady Bracknell means stepping into some big shoes as the iconic character, who utters the famous line, “A handbag?”, has been played by such diverse talents as Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Geoffrey Rush and even David Suchet.
“Ah yes, a handbag!” beams Karen. “It’s been done so many different ways. I’ve been saying ‘a handbag’ for years and I didnae even know where it came fae! “It’s usually said in the big Edith Evans 1950s version where she almost sings it out operatically.
“I don’t know how I’ll say it yet, and I like not knowing. It’s got to be about who I think Lady Bracknell is, as opposed to how she would say it. It’ll possibly come out different every night.”
It’s been widely reported that Karen is pitching her Lady Bracknell somewhere between Ena Sharples and Mary Berry.
“I use that as a rough frame of reference to the character,” she nods. “But I cannae get too locked down on the voice yet. It changes all the time. To an extent, you’ve got to let it come out naturally.”
Learning the lines is full-on as much of it the script is dense dialogue, “like learning tongue twisters”, says Karen.
Any examples? Karen takes a deep breath, and then, in a rather posh accent, spouts the following line: “More than usually lengthy lecture by the university extension scheme and the influence of a permanent income and thought.”
Then she looks at me, wide-eyed, and exclaims this is just a “tiny chunk” of the script.
“To say ‘more than lengthy lecture’, you’ve got to work for about 20 minutes on those few words, but once you get it, it’s a brilliant buzz.”
After the success of Chewin’ the Fat, Karen was offered the starring role in her own show, The Karen Dunbar Show which ran for four series on BBC Scotland from 2003 to 2006.
Since then, Karen has become a mainstay of theatre, starring in a variety of stage roles from Shakespeare to panto.
Last year she toured the UK with Calendar Girls The Musical, whipping her kit off in front of packed audiences.
“I came off no bad in it!” she laughs. “I was the only one completely naked but also, the one that was least exposed. I had nothing on, but I was sitting on a piano stool with my back to the audience.”
What she found hardest was the relentless nature of touring for months on end.
“It took me about six weeks to get used to continually moving. To start with, I had a big suitcase filled with photos and stuff but I got fed up of unpacking. Within a month, I was going about with two Morrisons bags. I was like, ‘Where’s the theatre? Where’s the shops? What time are we on? Where am I staying?’ I was knackered.”
One of the biggest moments in Karen’s career was playing God to 10,000 people in the live Still Game finale at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro last year.
“I’ll never experience anything like that again,” she says. “It was possibly the best job I’ve ever had. The show finished at 10.15pm and I was in my bed at 10.30pm watching Gilmore Girls.
“The response from the audience was unreal. My pal videoed the first night and without being all arty farty, I still feel quite emotional watching it.
“It was all geared towards me coming on – towards meeting God. When it turned out to be Betty, a hugely popular character in Chewin’ the Fat, the roar of recognition and affection was overwhelming.
“Everything about it was brilliant. Even the catering was brilliant. It was like, oh my God, have you tasted this macaroni cheese?!”
Having played so many unique characters, I wonder if Karen has a soft spot for one in particular? She doesn’t hesitate: “The teacher! She’s based on Mrs Munro, an old biology teacher at school. I used to do impersonations of her at lunchtime, out the back, having a fag.
“We had a love/hate relationship. I drove her up the wall, but eventually, I managed to wrap her round my finger.”
Sadly Mrs Munro is long dead but Karen reckons she would have recognised herself in the old-fashioned character.
“Aye, she would’ve!” she beams. “I’ve had people come up to me in the street say, ‘see the teacher, it is Mrs Munro?’, ‘cos she was at Ayr Academy for decades. She was a lovely wumman but she couldn’t handle sex education! When we asked her things, she told us just to look at the book! She was very buttoned-down.”
HUMOUR AS A TOOL…OR A WEAPON
It’s sobering to think that in 1991, Karen’s cat was drowned and left in a bag with a note saying “you f*****g lesbian”.
Bricks were thrown threw her windows and she experienced homophobic slurs walking down the street.
“When Chewin’ the Fat came on telly…it was more a case of ‘there’s that wummin aff the telly’ than ‘there’s that lesbian.’”she told a national newspaper.
Growing up, Karen felt disconnected, but discovering her talent for making people laugh gave her some sense of connection.
In a TED Talk in 2016, she revealed that when her career took off, she “became arrogant” and started caring less about others.
“It came out in brutal, offensive comedy, but it wasn’t OK and neither was I,” she stated.
“Thanks to a fan letter [which pointed this out], I looked at my abusive humour and realised it was hurting everyone. When people are ridiculed in public, everyone suffers. When I shamed others, I shamed myself. I realised humour can be used as a tool to heal, or a weapon to harm.”
Reflecting on this now, in 2020, Karen reiterates: “Humour can be intoxicating. Getting a laugh can be a huge buzz. When everybody’s laughing together, there’s nothing like it; money cannae buy it.
“But when a lot of people are laughing at one person, or a group, that makes it something different.”
Karen, who got hitched to her partner Linda in 2016, believes social media can be a great tool but also a weapon.
“If you’ve got a loud voice and a sense of humour, there’s a real power in that. And like anything, it can be used to bring folk together or ostracize people. There’s definitely jokes that come into my head now, and I think, no, I’m not going to use that.”
The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Lu Kemp, is at Perth Theatre from March 5 to 21. While Karen takes on the role of Lady Bracknell, other cast members include Grant O’Rourke as Algernon, Amy Kennedy as Cecily, Caroline Deyga as Gwendolin and Daniel Cahill as Jack. horsecross.co.uk