'Staircase wit' from Australian comic

She was the first female stand-up nominated for the Perrier Award in nine years, and now Sarah Kendall is touring with a new show with which we should all be able to identify. The highly acclaimed Australian comic spoke to KEIRON PIM before her appearance in Norwich on March 1.

Have you ever had a confrontation with someone, been lost for words and only later thought of exactly what you should have said?

The French have a phrase for it - l'esprit de l'escalier, literally meaning 'staircase wit', as in the clever retorts that come to us once we've left the scene and are walking down the stairs. We have all been there at some time, so comedienne Sarah Kendall's stand up show in Norwich on March 1 is sure to have a broad appeal.

The London-based Australian comic's show, titled Attention Seeker, sees her lament all her missed verbal opportunities during run-ins with everyone from her school geography teacher to a group of terrifying youngsters on a London bus.

“It's one of those comedy concepts that has always appealed to me - speaking as someone who has had a lot of moments where they haven't had the right word to say. I also like to do stuff I think the audience will identify with,” she says, speaking on the phone while recovering from a bout of bronchitis.

“It seems to strike a chord with people, especially as we're living in an era where in films and TV people always say the right thing.”

It's described as “a painful, hysterical, bittersweet journey” that takes in racist karaoke, blasphemous detentions and includes a list of masochistic activities she would choose to indulge in rather than listen to a Paris Hilton single. All of which we can surely identify with… well, perhaps not all - but the important thing is that punters and critics alike have found her show extremely funny.

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Sarah first tried stand-up comedy in her second year at Sydney University.

“I was doing an arts degree, majoring in history, or was it English literature? That gives you an idea how committed I was to the course,” she says.

“There was a student comedy hour and I had seen some of the shows and thought they were funny.”

Early in her career she suffered badly from nerves, but in the past decade she has developed into one of the most acclaimed stand-ups on the circuit, selling-out around the world. After breaking through at the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, she became a must-see ticket in places as far away as Singapore, Berlin, Montreal, Norway, Johannesburg and New York.

“I didn't really enjoy it at first - I wasn't a natural,” she says.

“Some people get up and they are free of any inhibitions. I got quite bad stage-fright. It just takes years of being on stage, and I now feel very comfortable talking to the audience.”

The Sunday Times has said she is “like an Australian, female Seinfeld”, while The Observer said her material was “worthy of Larry David”, which is praise indeed for anyone who looks to mine the same seam of awkward comedy.

“I'm hugely flattered that those comparisons have been drawn. But it's not that I set out to imitate them. It's really that the stuff that's really going to get the best laughs touches on the same vein.” She pauses. “Can you actually touch on a vein? I've just woken up from a nap. Sorry if I'm not making any sense.”

Sarah's self-deprecating manner quickly makes you warm towards her, and as well as charming the critics in the press, she impressed the judges of the 2004 Perrier Award sufficiently to become the first woman nominated in nine years.

“I think that says more about the sexism of the panel than that I was the best woman for nine years,” she says. The comedy business can still be pretty sexist but it is better than it once was, she believes, arguing that women can now find success through just being themselves rather than having to adopt an aggressive stage persona, as they often did in the 1980s.

“But there are still comedy reviewers who will physically describe a woman's appearance in a way that they wouldn't with a man,” she adds. You can imagine that the softly spoken, sharply intelligent Kendall would have no trouble finding the words to describe anyone who judged her gig in Norwich on her looks rather than her undoubted talent.

Sarah Kendall is at Norwich Arts Centre on Thursday, March 1. Tickets cost £10 or £8 for concessions. Box office: 01603 660352. Website: www.norwichartscentre.co.uk

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