Performer Raelene Isbester looks a lot like Nigella Lawson. She may not bake, or be a foodie, but she has cooked up a bitingly funny, and incredibly sweet cabaret Nigella - Love Bites, winning Best Cabaret and Best Performer at the 2016 Melbourne Short & Sweet Festival, and selling out a season at Melbourne’s Butterfly Club.
Tania: Tell me about Nigella; how did it come to be?
Rae: I wanted to create my own cabaret show or a performance opportunity I could control, work around other parts of my life and be able to accept or not accept gigs. I was mind mapping all these ideas and a friend said “I’ve never said this to you but you look like Nigella Lawson.” And she suggested I do a cabaret as her. A few people had said that to me when I was living in London and I was like, who is this person? Then at a dinner with the same friend and other performers, they were like ‘yes! Oh my god yes! You have to.’ With that encouragement I looked her up and saw that she had a new book coming out and all of a sudden on bus shelters there were all these images of Nigella and I’m like, now is the time to do it before someone else does. So I did some research thinking surely someone has because it’s a great idea. It is great material. She’s so sassy; men and women love her. No one had and I thought, well all right lets see what I can do. First let’s see if I can look like her.
Tania: That was the first thing?
Rae: Yes, so I got some photos taken as her and showed people and they were like “oh my god, you look just like her”. I also saw Short and Sweet was coming up and I thought well, ten minutes. I could work with my friend to create ten minutes of material and then see if people buy the concept, if they actually want to see more.
I wanted it be based on articles I had read about her, so we came up with 10 minutes of material and I performed that for Short and Sweet and everyone loved it. I’d come out on stage and I start saying “no” and do the voice, and people were pissing themselves laughing and I’m like ok this is working well. I’d never done anything where I’d been so relaxed on stage and could take my time. I could just stop and get some wine and people loved that. We won Short and Sweet Cabaret and I won Best Performer and everyone saying ‘when are you doing the next version’?
The prize was a week at the Butterfly Club, so I chose some dates and I was like ‘I’m not a writer but ok, I’ll come up with something and see where we can take it for 50 minutes’, and it went from there.
Tania: You said you’re not a writer, how did you get over that initial hurdle of the blank page and actually get started?
Rae: I knew from my experience as an actor, that everything has a beginning, middle and an end. There's a turning point in there. So I thought I’ll just look at character and structure and see what I can come up with because we know this little bit works.
What people love about Nigella is that she’s a little bit naughty, a real sensual human, although she doesn’t see herself like that. She’s also really warm and friendly and people are attracted to her. I looked at her mannerisms, and all the things that have happened in her life recently. She’s had a really hard time but she’s bounced back. It takes a really strong woman to be able to do that. This woman is incredible!
What I ended up doing was more a character exploration really. It’s quite episodic. You see her as we know her on TV, and then you see this woman who has been through huge upheaval in her life and she’s struggling to deal with that, and she’s like, ‘I’m taking control of this now. Life is better with pleasure and this is what I’m doing. I hope you enjoy it, and if you don’t that’s fine’. And you see her strength, I hope that came across in the story?
Tania: Yes, it’s very inspiring.
Rae: Oh good. Great, because I see her as inspiring, it is amazing to see such a strong female role model come back like that.
Tania: So what’s been the most difficult part of this whole journey taking Nigella onto stage?
Rae: I’d mention to people in London that I was doing a show on Nigella and the most common response I got was I hope you aren’t taking the piss out of her as a person; she’s been through a really hard time. People were really really protective of her. They want to see you do the sexy stuff you see on TV and accentuate it because there’s already parodies out there, but at the same time people do want to see the human behind the story, so for me it was kind of hard catering to both audiences. It needed to have that comedy without going into bawdy humour and taking the piss out of an incredible woman.
Tania: And sensitivity.
Tania: There was real sensitivity there, to her struggles I thought.
Rae: Oh good because she’s just been through the wringer. To go through domestic violence and divorce so publicly, and then there’s her first husband dying of cancer and drug allegations, there’s a lot of heavy stuff that she’s had to deal with. How do you put that in a Cabaret that’s supposed to be light-hearted without trivialising those things? I thought I had to handle them but do it with strength. The through line is a woman getting her mojo back, this has happened and now I’m moving on. It’s all about how I handle it from here and I’m choosing to live life with pleasure. Life is better with pleasure.
Tania: On pleasure, what do you love most about doing what you do?
Rae: Right now I’m loving being in someone else’s skin. She is so delicious. She enjoys everything. I am not a foodie. I’m a terrible cook which my friends will attest to. So I started trying to cook things and I thought Ill take myself to the supermarket as Nigella and explore how she would shop. I thought she’s going to enjoy every bit of this. She’ll pick up food and go ‘mmm lovely, I’m going to enjoy that’. She just loves it; she loves everything she does. There’s so much pleasure in it. Living a life like that is amazing. Focusing on what you love is a really nice way of living.
Tania: What’s you inner critic like?
Rae: It was pretty strong. Stream of consciousness writing, getting all the ideas on paper really helped because I had all these ideas that I was struggling to manifest into anything. What I really learnt from this whole thing is to trust my instincts, to disregard the voice that says that’s a crazy, crappy idea, and explore things before I wipe them away.
Tania: What keeps you going when it gets really tough?
Rae: I step back. When I was writing and felt I didn’t know what I was doing and was feeling frustrated and wondering why I was doing this I’d go for a walk. Then I’d allocate an amount of time and just sit and write without judgement or ego, because that’s what was blocking me. Just keep writing anything, stupid ideas, whatever. Everyone hits those blocks and you just have to push through and keep writing anything. That really helped me because then I could go back through it and go that as crap, that was crap, but that little bit, that’s really good.
Tania: There’s gold in there
Rae: Exactly, yes! Creative gold.
Tania: Last book you read that inspired you?
Rae: I haven’t read it yet, but I purchased it off the back of a Ted talk, which was inspiring. Amy Cuddy’s Presence. It’s about faking it till you make it using body language, and how it can help you when preparing for an audition or a job interview.
Don’t miss seeing the incredibly talented Rae Isbester perform her delicious cabaret, Nigella – Love Bites at Fringe World in Perth, from the 14th to the 18th February, and Adelaide Fringe from the 25th February to the 19th March.