The Only Casualty May Be The Dog

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'You don't know where it is on the spectrum of disaster.'

Two Edinburgh fringe shows, over two weeks, bringing two kids, plus the dog. For most people, this combination would, at best, conjure a headache if not a complete breakdown. Not even your arch-nemesis would advise it. But for Rob Rouse and Helen Rutter, breaking all the rules seems par for the course. "You don't have to do the whole festival," says Rob matter-of-factly. "You can do what you want; the main thing is that you're happy."

The pair exude an enviable confidence, a hallmark of a successful fifteen-year marriage. Ironically, their show, 'The Ladder' focuses on one of the tenser moments in their relationship: "Helen got her finger stuck in a decorating ladder." What sounds like a sitcom set-up turned out to be fairly traumatic. "I must have been stuck up the ladder about thirty minutes," Helen intones. "It was extremely painful. I mean, I've given birth twice and that felt right up there." 

In hindsight, the experience was a comedy goldmine, complete with caveats ("We had to check with Helen's dad before we did anything drastic because they were his ladders," remembers Rob) and lexical confusion – ladder terminology is rarely on the tip of anyone's tongue. For Helen, it bordered on surreal: "You don't know where it is on the spectrum of disaster." Eventually, with Rob's encouragement, she decided to work these basic elements into a narrative.

The act of fictionalizing the incident has thrown it into relief. "It's been a long process," admits Helen. "It feels now that it's taken on its own life as a story. I've shifted personalities to make the dynamic more interesting. You have to take those raw elements and push them to a bolder place." Still, unexpected truths have a habit of bubbling to the surface. Says Rob, "Sometimes you read a bit of it and think, that was a bit close."

Initially written as a solo piece, Helen found her first audiences unanimous in their opinion: "They were sympathetic towards my character, and really disliked Rob, who never appeared [onstage]." Unsatisfied with this appraisal, she decided to turn the play into a two-hander. Surprisingly, this didn't quite have the desired effect – audiences instead favoured Rob and were harsher towards Helen, even though her character remained fundamentally the same. "Society is how it is," she shrugs. "A woman in control of the situation, she's seen as domineering." Further tweaks were needed before the couple felt that the play ready for mass consumption; a run at this year's Buxton Fringe saw it nominated for a theatre award.

Even so, performing it has been a challenge, particularly for Rob, a veteran stand up of 20 years and no stranger to television (The Friday Night Project; 8 Out of 10 Cats; Upstart Crow). He draws a distinct line between comedy and "straight" acting: "I’ve found it quite uncomfortable. A lot of the writing is hewn from real life, it brings up real things you have to reckon with. As a straight actor, I find Helen kind of a weird species. She finds the shouting cathartic. I’m left with the feeling, This is my wife, I’ve been shouting at her all afternoon." (Incidentally, their dog Ronnie has found the apparent turbulence in their relationship disturbing. "The dog's been terribly upset", says Helen. "He looks really miserable. That's been a worry.") At the same time, the role has been revelatory: "It’s made me think about my stand up. It’s made me think about the three sides of every story, each perspective and the truth, and every variation in between. Stand up is so rhetorical; a lot of stand up doesn’t engage with that truth."

For Helen, there is a sense of empowerment in being able to create parts for herself that reject the industry norms of 'mother-figure' or 'love-interest', a feeling that has developed since becoming a mother. "[Before], I don't think I would've told my own stories. Being a mum unlocked a creativity in me. It gives you a sense of independence."

In fact, it seems that the necessities of family life have, counter-intuitively, relieved some of the pressures of simultaneously bringing "The Ladder" and Rob's self-titled stand up show to the festival. "If Rob was doing Edinburgh alone, then there would be a distance [between us] because there has to be." Instead, the couple will be (figuratively) hitching up the wagon and bringing their son and daughter along for the ride. A limited, ten-day run will allow them to keep their family a priority: "We can have a holiday with the kids afterwards, and the whole summer isn’t taken up [by the Fringe]."

So how do the kids feel about taking part in Edinburgh? "They're very excited to hold the bucket to collect money at the end of Rob's show," says Helen. Are they set to follow their parents into entertainment? There's silence as the pair consider the prospect. "They've grown up with this, so for them, it's normal." Rob brightens up. "Or they might completely rebel and become accountants. That's a very distinct possibility."

And what's next for the couple, after the Fringe is over? "We've got to be getting back to the podcast", says Rob, referring their (almost) weekly comedy show 'Rob and Helen's Date Night', hosted on PodBean. And in between Rob's comedy gigs, the two will be cultivating new ideas. "Yesterday, I had the first moments of what could our next story be?" says Helen. "What that is, I don’t know."

The Ladder is on at Gilded Balloon Teviot, Aug 2-12.
Rob Rouse is performing at Just The Tonic at La Belle Angele, Aug 2-12.