Fascinating Aïda return to Portsmouth: 'The Kings is where I fell in love with theatre' | Big Interview
Comedy cabaret trio Fascinating Aïda are back out on the road for the first time since their spring 2019 tour was cut short by you-know-what.
But there is one date on the tour which is particularly special for the group's founder Dillie Keane, and that’s The Kings Theatre, in Southsea.
A Portsmouth native, she is also a patron of the esteemed Albert Road establishment. When she was growing up, it was home from home.
‘It's the first theatre I ever worked in,’ she tells The Guide from her home in north Oxfordshire, ‘around the corner from where I lived.
‘I went to Portsmouth High until I was 12, then my parents sent me away to a horrible convent, which I've regretted all my life because I lived Portsmouth High.
‘But I've never lost my links with the city – my parents lived there until they died, I've still got a few friends in the area, and of course I'm a patron of The Kings, and all that jazz.
‘It's terribly special to be coming back to The Kings. We're apt to be gushing, us thesps, but it really is very special.
‘I feel very emotional about that building because it's where I fell in love with theatre. As soon as I was old enough to go around the corner to the shops, I went around the corner to The Kings and I used to hang around the stage door with my autograph book.
‘Mum would take me to anything musical because I was a musical child and I just loved the theatre, and then as soon as I was old enough I started haunting them saying: “Can I work here please?”’
Her first job was selling tickets for the theatre from a seafront booth, but she soon graduated to selling ice creams and programmes at show time, then working in the bars and the box office.
’Then one fine day I was round the corner – there used to be a little cafe where we went for egg and chips – and I heard them say: “I don't know what to do about such-and-such, Ellie had to go home, her father's died, and she's ASM (assistant stage manager) on the panto...’
‘I went up to them and said: “Look, I don't go back to university until January, I could step in – I've done lots backstage and lots on stage in school and college shows, I know my way around a stage. And they went: “Yes!” So I was ASM for about three weeks on panto with Ted Rogers.
‘I went home and I remember jumping up and down on mum's bed and going: “I'm working backstage!” I remember the thrill and the great excitement.
‘Then whenever I came back from university I would turn up and they would be: “Oh, um, yes, could you run the pit bar?” Or “Could you run the stalls bar?”
Dillie founded Fascinating Aïda in 1983, and was joined by Adèle Anderson the following year. Liza Pullman has been with them since 2004.
There have been international tours, residencies in Singapore, Antibes, New York and more, nine albums, and their wickedly funny songs have racked up millions of YouTube hits.
When we spoke, their tour, which has 40 dates this side of Christmas, was about to start, and Dillie was keen to get back on the road, but acknowledged things will be a bit different.
‘Our last show was on March 15th, I think. We lost 13 dates off the end of our tour – which is a lot of money down the wazoo, I'm afraid.
‘It will be strange because we've got to have tests every two days.
‘And one of the things we have always done at the end of our shows is to exit through the audience and stand in the foyer, where we’ll stay and talk to the audience. Obviously it helps sell merchandise, but it’s also a part of the show for us.
‘We feel we've always had a very strong connection to our audience and we're going to miss that a lot – that’s going to be sad. Someone inevitably pops their head up to say “hello”, and you haven't seen them school days, reunions happen and things like that.
‘I'm going to really miss that. It will feel disappointing to go straight back to the dressing room every night.’
But Dillie knows all too well how important it is to take the threat of Covid seriously, even now. She had her own brush with it, but her partner’s brother also died from it.
‘It's been ghastly. My partner's brother who lived in the village – he was the sweetest man, he had COPD, and so when he got Covid he didn't stand a chance.
‘He rang us and said: “I can't breathe!” We rushed around there and the ambulance had just arrived.
He was just panicked – but that was the last we saw of him, it was very hard, particularly for my partner (John) because they always worked together or lived near one another – they were inseparable friends.’
One unexpected effect of this is that Dillie has found herself as a landlady in the village pub.
‘Since my brother-in-law went, we had quite a bit of clearing up to do, but he also ran the local pub. A big question to ourselves was what we were going to do with it?
‘If we hand the keys back to the brewery, no one in the village will ever own it again, so we decided to open it while we're waiting for probate – so I've been running the pub.
‘We've got a lovely big beer garden and I've put on a couple of concerts there with friends of mine.
‘Kit Hesketh-Harvey – who used to be in (musical comedy double-act) Kit and The Widow – he now works as Kit and McConnel and they did a show here just last night, which is why I sound rather hoarse because we were up carousing afterwards – it was such a big success.
‘I've quite enjoyed my new career as a part-time promoter and publican. We have quite a good team in the pub and I'll be back every few days to swing my weight around.’
Of course with the pandemic putting restrictions on movement, Dillie hasn’t seen much of Liza and Adele, but she says: ‘I saw Liza when we went down to Cornwall last summer – John and I went down to an AirBnB and saw her there.
‘And then this year, we've just spent a week in Cornwall, all three of us at Liza's. We had the most lovely time rewriting the show and updating it.
‘We put the show together for that (2019) tour, so we don't want to unpick too much of it, but we do need to update it. Covid will get a bit of a reference, but not too depressingly so…
‘We've got one sad song in there - we always have one song that makes people go: “Oh god, I thought you were just funny,” she chuckles, 'but you made me cry!”’
One song that’s getting a bit of an update is Suddenly New Zealand, which was on their 2003 album One Last Flutter. Originally written as a response to the threat of terrorism, it hymned the sudden appeal of New Zealand.
‘We have just rewritten it completely – we've updated the verses, because suddenly New Zealand seems incredibly attractive – and run by somebody competent!
‘Although of course since the collapse of Aghanistan the threat of terrorism is looming, but thankfully it hasn't really been the major problem for quite a long time it was, so we've completely rewritten.
‘You'll have to come see the show to hear it... It's going to storm, we're very pleased with it!’
Fascinating Aïda are at The Kings Theatre, Southsea on Tuesday, September 21. Doors 7.30pm. Tickets from £20. Go to kingsportsmouth.co.uk.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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