When Karen Dunbar steps onstage wearing a pink Stetson and full drop-dead hen night regalia, you fear the worst. Such a larger than life entrance comes at the start of A Drunk Woman Looks At The Thistle, Denise Mina’s one-woman dissection of Scottish identity, which reinvented poet Hugh MacDiarmid’s own thorny poetics for the 21st century. Through this gallus besom’s hungover eyes and mouth is observed a relentless litany of binge-drinkers, little Scotlanders and other n’er-do-wells, all over a lunch designed with a nation in mind as part of Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie And A Pint season of lunchtime theatre.
Fortunately, the day we meet to talk about the play’s late night revival as part of The Assembly Rooms Edinburgh Festival Fringe season, Dunbar isn’t looking quite so full on. Caught in transit a few days before jetting off for a series of warm-up dates for her stand-up show in New York, if there’s any similarities between Dunbar and her and Mina’s creation, it’s their ability to talk. None stop.
“I think it’s brilliant, she says of A Drunk Woman. “Let’s make it clear here. I’m talking about the play. Denise is a friend of mine, and when she first approached me with the idea, to be honest I wasn’t sure. But then I read it and I thought if I’m going to do it, I have to just really go for it. The way I write stand-up, I sort of know where I’m going with things, and not everything’s fixed, but doing a fifty minute monologue I knew I had to nail; it. But it was so easy to learn, because it’s so well written.”
And so Dunbar goes on, about how she arranged her living room, working on the script every night, about how a hundred people were turned away from the theatre two days into its run because it was popular, and about how she wasn’t sure why that was, but knew they might just have something. Which, given the play’s triple whammy demographic of Dunbar fans, Denise Mina literary groupies and keepers of Hugh MacDiarmid’s heritage, proved to be correct.
Even so, Dunbar is a revelation. Without wishing to decry her TV archetypes, the best thing about her Drunk Woman is her multi-dimensional subtlety. Sure, there’s laughs aplenty, but the broad hen-night strokes at the start of the play soon give way to something both more questioning and more troubled.
“It was weird,” Dunbar says of the Oran or run. “Because there was one day when the audience were really quiet, and I wasn’t sure what was going on, or whether they were getting it. But afterwards someone says to me, naw, they were listening.”
Dunbar arrived at where she’s at by accident. Originally from Ayr, she worked in bars before a chance meeting with an old school pal led to an audition with The Comedy Unit. She then wrote out her CV as a script, and performed it at what was her first ever audition. She heard back the next day, and bit parts in the radio version of Chewin’ The Fat began the rollercoaster ride of a very funny woman who is also very much about now.
“I had every intention of doing it since I was four years old,” Dunbar says. “Though how it was gonnae happen I wasn’t quite sure.”
As a child, Dunbar lived next door to the local Labour club. It was at the club’s regular Sunday sing-songs that an underage Dunbar’s showbusiness career began.
“One of my earliest memories,” she says, “are of my Dad and my sister taking me into the club when I was four, five, six years old, and me standing up on the stage singing. People used to say to me, what do you want to be when you grow up, and I used to say I want to be a singer. If you want the psycho-analysis of it, I used to say I’m a consummate attention-seeker. Of course, there’s that element, but it’s more than that. It’s about being told you’re good. I vividly remember one of the neighbours sitting in the corner, clapping and clapping, and me being confused because I thought she was saying ‘go.’ But she was actually saying ‘more.’
“The feeling of that, the acceptance that’s involved in that, the positivity that’s involved, the esteem of that, building confidence in a kid. It was a big big thing to me, because here was something maybe I was good at, because loads and loads of people were telling me I was good at it. My sister was happy. My dad was happy. My mother wasn’t so happy, because the wean was getting taken into the Labour club on a Sunday afternoon. But all of that was very seductive.”
Dunbar was smitten. How to do it professionally, however, was a mystery.
“I had a lot of misconceptions struggling alongside my ambition,” she says now. “I thought to be on the telly you needed to be rich, posh, smart and have been to drama school. I was none of the above, so I don’t know how I thought I was going to do it working in the post office, which is where I ended up.”
Inbetween shifts behind the counter, Dunbar was asked to take charge of a new bar-room phenomenon imported from Japan to beef up the pub trade’s social side. It was called karaoke.
“I was on £2.10 an hour before tax,” Dunbar remembers, “and I would’ve done it for nothing. The karaoke in the bar went from zero to hero in weeks, but the manager didn’t think it was going to last.”
It did, and Dunbar followed it into the mainstream, hosting nights in Edinburgh and Glasgow where she unconsciously honed a repartee with an often unruly crowd.
“More than anything,” she says, “I think I’ve got a talent for talking to people. Communicating. Aries with Gemini rising, so what d’you expect,” she says in a rare moment of other earthliness. “It didn’t matter where I was doing it. In fact, my boss in the post office took me aside and says, ‘you’re dead great, Karen, but would you mind no’ talking to the people for so long. There’s a big queue there, it’s double money day and we’re trying to close for lunch.”
It was the karaoke, though, that was her real apprenticeship.
“It was the communal aspect of it,” she implores, acknowledging how an imported form of light relief for business men to unwind to has become part of a popular tradition. “Everybody’s involved in it. It’s a community event. It’s story-telling. It’s sing-songs round the fire. It’s what we’re largely known for in Scotland, but for a technical age.”
Dunbar’s speak-easy empathy has recognisably fed into her work, both in her stand-up material and her character studies. A Drunk Woman Looks At The Thistle takes it to another level.
“It’ll be scary doing it in a wee room,” she says, “but I’ve just got to remember to try and not be funny. Everything’s already in that script, and me just milking laughs that aren’t there, that would be too easy.”
A Drunk Woman Looks At The Thistle, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, Thu-Aug 24, 10.10-11.10pm
The Herald, July 29th 2008