Portsmouth’s musical comedy duo Flo and Joan prepare for their first hometown show
In the past couple of years musical comedy duo Flo and Joan have been racking up the awards – Chortle’s Best Music and Variety Act 2018, Leicester Comedy Festival’s Best Musical Act 2018, Montreal Sketchfest Best of the Fest Selection 2017 and Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival’s Now Magazine Audience Choice Award and Best of the Fest Selection 2017.
Their stock-in-trade is clever, catchy, and obviously very funny songs. And given the nature of some of those awards you’d be forgiven for thinking that they hail from Canada.
But Nicola and Rosie Dempsey, to give them their real names, grew up in this part of the world – they went to St Paul’s Primary School in Paulsgrove, and then on to Oaklands Catholic School in Waterlooville.
It is while at school that they developed their love of music.
‘Doing comedy came much later when we were adults,’ explains Nicola, ‘but when we were at school, both St Paul’s and Oaklands had amazing music departments so from the age of five or six we were playing in assemblies – I don’t think we were given an option – you sang in the school choir, and that was the deal, and we did the school shows and stuff.
‘Neither of them were music schools but there was such an importance played on music, that it for sure had an effect on us.’
It was when the pair moved to Toronto that they started to hone their comedic chops.
‘Nicola went there first,’ says Rosie. ‘There’s a comedy training centre called The Second City, and there’s been some really big comedians come out of it and it does lots of improv and sketch. Nicola found it and wanted to try some courses there so she went out and did it. She looked like she was having a great time so I went out and joined her. Whether she wanted me to or not is another matter...
‘We ended up really falling in love with Toronto. We wanted to try musical comedy and it felt like a safe space to do that – if it didn’t work out no-one back here would know if it went terribly wrong!’
The name they have taken for their act – it’s not character-based – turns out to have been a bit of a last minute decision.
Nicola explains: ‘The first show we ever did, a friend had a little monthly show in a theatre to about 10 people, and we’d been there before to watch and it was always nice and supportive, we figured that would be a good place to try it – very low stakes.
‘But for that first show we didn’t have a name, so just before we went on they said: “What do you want to be called?” So we went: “Erm, Flo and Joan?”
‘It was the name of our grandmother and her sister, and they used to come and stay with us from Liverpool. You never heard of them separately – it was always “Flo and Joan”.
‘We did that first show and it seemed to go okay, and there were loads of shows like that that you could just pop up on. You’d send them an email and a sound clip or whatever and ask if you could have a spot and then the more you do they start asking if you want a spot. We just started doing more and more and as many as we could. We did it alongside our jobs, we’d work during the days and then do a show in the evening for a couple of hours and it came from there.’
It was The 2016 Song that first raised the pair’s profile – a densely packed, massively verbose ode to how terrible the year was – when it went viral online. It has notched up 47m views online.
Nicola recalls: ‘That was crazy. We had to turn our phones off and go back to work, we were getting so many message. It was getting all of this huge traction online and then the next day we went and did a gig to like four or five people!
‘The internet is very different from human reality, but it was mad. The fortunate thing for us was that it grew our online profile, so that now if we advertise our live shows we hopefully get a few more people buy tickets to come see our real show and our real faces, so that’s the positive side.
‘The amazing thing about that song is that it’s really difficult to learn, we never did “know” it – there’s too many words in it! So performing it live would be a bit of a struggle. We released it in mid-November 2016, and I think we played it maybe twice live. It’s a song of it time – it’s three years ago now, and you can see it online still if you want.’
You may also recognise the sisters from a series of TV adverts they did for Nationwide last year – adverts which fans loved, but also attracted some unpleasant trolling, even death threats. It was enough for Nationwide to step in and condemn the ‘vile, abusive and misogynistic comments.’
’Like with the viral 2016 song, you turn your phone off and you don’t have to read it,’ says Nicola.
‘We’re very aware of the reality of the internet, and on our part it was overwhelmingly well received but there were things that got the attention.
‘We knew what the deal is, and that negative stuff happens, the campaign was pretty huge and got a lot of attention, but we survived – we’re still here.’
The show they’re bringing here is part of their first ever UK tour. Called Alive on Stage, the first, longer half, is all-new material, while a shorter second half will see them playing older material.
‘It’s quite nice to be able to do old things in perhaps a way that other comics can’t do their old jokes. Maybe they do, I don’t know,’ laughs Rosie.
‘But this is our first tour, so people are seeing us live for the first time and people are wanting to hear songs they’ve heard on our albums or seen on clips.’
What about all those awards? Has it gone to their heads?
‘It is cool,’ admits Rosie, ‘because it was our first year playing shows in the UK. We were quite worried coming back, because we didn’t know if it would translate, or if we could make a career out of it. When we first came home we did have to work day jobs alongside the shows, so it’s nice to get the awards - it’s like: “Oh, we might be doing ok!”
‘But you don’t get them and relax – you know that everyone is trying to do this and everyone is trying to do it well, so it’s nice to get these little bits of acknowledgement. But you get them and you start again the next day, you don’t rely on them or lean on them.’
And it will also be their first ever hometown gig. So will their family be out in force for it?
‘We’re assuming they’re coming, but we haven’t actually asked,’ says Nicola as they both chuckle.
‘It’s really cool to come back here. Like I was saying, we used to sing in our school choir, so we’d sing at Portsmouth Guildhall and go sing Christmas carols at The Cascades and things like that as little kids, so there’s a cool thing to come home – stressful as well, it’s like: “Look at this thing we do now!” But if we come and do it here and people don’t like it and tell us to stop saying we’re from Portsmouth, like: “Ugh, we don’t want to be associated with that.”
‘We used to go and watch gigs at The Wedgewood Rooms, so it’s funny that now we’re going to come back and do our show there.’
Flo and Joan are at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea on Monday, May 12, doors 7.30pm. Tickets £12. Go to wedgewood-rooms.co.uk.