Suchandrika Chakrabarti, a 2020 Funny Women Stage Awards semi-finalist, is bringing her debut comedy show “I Miss Amy Winehouse” to this year’s Camden Fringe. The show promises to take audiences back in time to the end of an era, and is set to play the Etcetera Theatre on August 13th, 14th and 29th. Here, Suchandrika chats about influences and her comedy style, life in Camden in the early 00’s and of course, the lasting appeal of the iconic Amy Winehouse…
It’s interesting to learn that you have a background in journalism and you’re quite new to the comedy scene, having taken the leap in January 2020. What drew you to the comedy scene – and at such a time?
I couldn’t have predicted that live comedy would cease to exist in March 2020! I was very lucky that we just got in our end-of-course show for the fab stand-up classes I’d been taking for six weeks at The Bill Murray in Islington. The video of my set during that show really helped my comedy career during lockdown.
I’ve always loved watching comedy and making people laugh. When I was younger, I didn’t really know that I could try comedy, how to practically go about doing it, and how it would fit into my life. I worked a lot of shifts and overtime in journalism, so it was tough to commit to much outside of that. It was only after going freelance in 2018 – and spending a couple of years making that work – that I thought I could try comedy.
Well I think we can say it seems to be going very well so far then! So this show is reflective of your own life in the early 2000’s, with Amy Winehouse used as a significant reference point. What prompted you to write about your life for the stage and when did the penny drop that Winehouse would be an effective focal point?
I lost two close family members in quick succession in my late teens, back in the early 2000’s. Those experiences shaped me and changed the direction of my life, so it’s natural that, eventually, I would want to examine that time in writing. In late 2018, I added to my freelance journalism work by writing personal essays about grief. Those have now led me to teach a three-hour masterclass on writing personal essays every other month, for the London Writer’s Salon. I’ve taught before, and it’s a performance. Dissecting my essays about grief in front of a class to teach them how to do that with their own lives is not so different from performing a show.
I’d also been trying to write a novel about that time of my life during lockdown, and despite encouragement from an agent, the story wasn’t flowing. I took another look at my personal essays class and wondered if I had material for an hour-long show. Then one day, “Back to Black” popped up on my Spotify. Listening to that album reminded me that there was another side to my 20s: yes, I was grieving, but it was also a time of meeting new people, partying hard and having a lot of fun. I used to run around Camden with my friends, drunk, in the early hours, joking that we were going to run into Amy Winehouse. We never did… but what if we had? The show started from there.
That’s quite a journey to this piece then – certainly one of the more unique arrivals at a new show I’ve heard about. Can you remember when you first heard Amy Winehouse and what your initial impressions were?
It must’ve been with the single Rehab, so 2006. She really exploded into the public consciousness with that one. I find that song problematic now, but at the time, she came across as someone completely in control, bringing out this brilliantly different Motown kind of sound, and it was just such a joy to hear on the dancefloor. The kind of defiance she displays in the song is so very teenage / early-20-something – it made sense to me.
Why do you think people were, and still are, so drawn to Winehouse?
The music and that voice for sure – the pure talent on show. She was very funny in interviews and TV appearances. She managed to retain this quality of being somewhat normal, despite the superstardom. For me, Amy and I were born in the same year, and I was fascinated to watch this person who’d had the same amount of time as me on the planet, but had done so much more with it.
As I started making my way through the various documentaries on Winehouse during lockdown, I have to ask: as a loyal fan, what’s your take on the various documentaries – do you rate any of them?
I’ve seen Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015) and the recent Reclaiming Amy doc on the BBC. I think they’re both really good. In my opinion, they do different things: Amy shows us footage of Amy as a teenager, as the person she was before fame hit; Reclaiming Amy shows us how her family are doing, ten years on. They’re both fascinating. To lose her so young, and to a complex mix of conditions, must be incredibly tough for her loved ones. To have to grieve for her in full view of the world, with an ongoing media narrative that wants to pin the blame on someone, somehow, is horrible. Amy’s story feels unfinished. It’s too easy to project our own storylines onto hers, to come to our own conclusions. The far harder, but much healthier, thing to do is to accept that there is no answer, no one thing that could have saved her.
While doing research for my show, I came across Roger Ebert’s review of the Russian film Solaris (1972), which was remade with George Clooney in 2002. Essentially, it’s about grief. Ebert wrote: “That is a peculiarity of humans: We feel the same emotions for our ideas as we do for the real world, which is why we can cry while reading a book, or fall in love with movie stars. Our idea of humanity bewitches us.” I really wanted to shoehorn this quote into the show but I couldn’t get it to work. There are endless fans and voyeurs out there who want to make sense of their own emotions for their own version of Amy Winehouse. I happened to write a show about mine.
That’s a brilliant quote – completely spot on I think. So I Miss Amy Winehouse is billed as looking at everything from grief and parents to the concept of celebrity, as well as looking back at “Camden in its heyday”. Overall, would you say this show celebrates Camden and 00’s culture just as much as Winehouse?
Camden in the 00s was a brilliant place to party, but now a lot of late-night licences have gone, and the party’s kind of over – which is better for the residents who want to get some sleep. So maybe it’s a nicer place to live these days? That’s a good thing for certain people. Plus, there’s much less of a drinking culture among 20-somethings these days, so the fact that they can’t stay out drinking in Marathon Bar’s secret backroom until sunrise doesn’t really matter to them. But I have fond memories of that time and those all-nighters, and I wonder if they helped or hindered me in processing my grief. Probably both.
I have to say that I don’t really celebrate 00’s culture in the show. We’re definitely going through a period of looking back at that time and reassessing it. Journalism was far harsher then. Mental health was a taboo subject. Female celebrities were held to impossible standards. When I was 20, I thought I lived in a wonderful post-ladette world in which women could do anything! Now I’m not so sure it was that great.
How would you characterise your style of comedy and performance?
I take something real – a detail, a conversation, a situation – and push it and push it until it becomes ridiculous. I like the big subjects, love, grief, death, parenthood – but I approach them sideways. Absurdity is usually my way in. My current 10-minute set is about a stripper sent to a Zoom hen do and a dead father resurrected as a hologram. Also, I like to talk about my three-year-old niece. My onstage persona has Big Aunt Energy.
Sounds pretty fab to me! Who would you say your own comedy heroes or influences are?
Bill Bailey, French & Saunders, The Young Ones, Whoopi Goldberg, the ‘Going for an English’ sketch from Goodness Gracious Me
That’s a cracking list! So the show has been well-received so far. What have been the highlights up to this point, as you prepare for another outing of I Miss Amy Winehouse, this time at the Camden Fringe?
Selling out 75% of my tickets at Brighton Fringe for my first and second ever performance of the show was amazing. I’ve got a few quizzes in the hour – I like audiences to speak to me – and they tend to get really cheeky answering those. After a long period of being locked down, it was so nice to stand on a stage and make people feel things, but most of all, to hear their laughter.
And what are you most looking forward to now that the Camden Fringe run is just around the corner?
Getting to perform the show in Camden, one street away from Amy’s local The Hawley Arms, is pretty special. I dropped some flyers there the other day and it was so nice to have little chats with Amy fans having a drink. Also, the show is still growing and changing and I’m finding new connections within it, plus I’m a bit of an improviser who doesn’t stick to my own script, so seeing what the show becomes over the next few weeks is exciting!
Finally then, in just one sentence only, why should audiences come to see I Miss Amy Winehouse?
If you know that grief is sad as well as kind of funny – and if you didn’t know that but want to find out how – come and miss Amy with me!
So there you have it! Remember: “I Miss Amy Winehouse” plays the Etcetera Theatre on August 13th, 14th and 29th 2021, and you can find your tickets here.