John-Paul Stephenson

Laughing for a Change: Stand-up tour raises mental health awareness

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Audiences are in for “a really good night of comedy”, says Janice Connolly (aka Mrs Barbara Nice), as she embarks on a national tour to promote awareness of mental illness.

Featuring comedians including Rob Deering, Seymour Mace, Karen Bayley, Matt Hollins, and Susan Murray, the tour begins at The Stand in Newcastle, before travelling to Brighton, Wolverhampton, Bromsgrove, Manchester, and Huddersfield.

All of the shows will be compered by Connolly in her guise as Mrs Barbara Nice, a Stockport housewife who has appeared in the television programmes That Peter Kay Thing and Phoenix Nights.

Connolly, who is the artistic director of the Women & Theatre group, has been running community comedy courses to give people, she says, “a sense of wellbeing and to give them a platform.”

In addition to the community courses, professional comedians with experiences of mental health problems convened for residential workshops to develop new material focussing upon mental health.

The goal is that the comedians will feel able to integrate the new material into their standard club sets, so that it has a life after the Laughing for a Change tour and encourage more people to perform material about mental health.

With a similar remit to BBC Radio Berkshire’s Warning: May Contain Nuts project in 2010, Laughing for A Change aims to bring people who don’t have mental health problems into social contact with those who do; about half of those who have attended the courses have had lived experience of mental health problems.

And, the Newcastle Stand released a book of short stories to support an addiction charity at Christmas.

The project is funded by Time to Change, an organisation established to tackle discrimination and stereotypes surrounding mental health problem, and is run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness and funded by the Department of Health and Comic Relief.

Despite the remit of the project and tour, not all of the material will be about mental health, with some of the comedians performing their standard club sets.

Acknowledging the tightrope of needing to address the subject while not putting audiences off from coming, Connolly is eager to emphasise that audiences won’t be intimidated, saying that Time for Change are trying to get in “touch with the general public – a diverse range – to get them to think about mental health.”

“They are actually very joyous occasions where people feel very free, I think, and can be themselves and have a good laugh.”

“Unconventionality is definitely something that there is room for in comedy, which has a history of left thinking, and I think it’s really important that it remains there as well.

“Live comedy is particularly a place where that can thrive, although it is great to see Vic and Bob back on the telly with House of Fools – daft is quite a timelessness thing.”

Connolly says that the intervals will offer opportunities to discuss issues raised in the show with Time to Change’s “champions”, who are volunteers in local cities.

However, she is keen to emphasise that the evening will ultimately be “a really good night of comedy”.

The tour comes soon after the publication of findings in the British Journal of Psychiatry that comedians are able to make people laugh because they often possess characteristics often found in those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, allowing them to “think outside of the box”.

However, Connolly shares the view of the mental health charity Mind, who responded to the research by emphasising that mental health affects everyone.

She goes further, saying: “I think if we don’t feel unhealthy sometimes, then we’re not truly alive.”

Laughing for a Change is at the Newcastle Stand on 25 February, Brighton Komedia on 5 March, Wolverhampton Light House on 11 March, Bromsgrove Artrix on 18 March, Manchester Frog and Bucket on 19 March, and concludes at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre on 26 March.