Twenty years ago, a 30-something Ursula Martinez sat on a sofa with her parents and argued for an hour.
A regular Tuesday night? Not exactly. They were on stage at the Edinburgh Fringe performing in Martinez’s theatrical debut, Family Outing. Admittedly, only a handful of people showed up to start with, but one of them was a theatre critic whose five-star review catapulted London-based Martinez into a new league. The show toured on and off for eight years; a funny, poignant, slightly shambolic reflection on family relationships and life in general.
Two decades on, the sequel is making its world premiere at Perth Festival 2019. Family Outing: 20 Years On – a Perth Festival co-commission – revives the family dynamic, minus one parent and with two decades of water under the bridge.
“Some moments will be heart-wrenching, and others will be heart-warming,” says Martinez, whose father died in 2009 and whose mother has early stage dementia.
“Mum can’t remember her lines like she could 20 years ago. That will be present on some level because we will contrive it to be present, and it will be present in other ways because she just can’t remember her lines.”
Mum Mila, a stylish Spaniard, is nevertheless completely “up for it”, according to Martinez, who characterises the inevitable unpredictability of the show as “loosely scripted, but tightly structured.”
“The point of the show is to say something about real life,” says Martinez, now 51. “Over the course of 20 years, what will happen to a person? Best-case scenario: you’ll get older. Less-best case, your health will deteriorate. Worst-case scenario, you will be dead.
“We have all three of those examples. We’re going to make a show that reflects life in the most universal way. Me and Mum will sit on a sofa for an hour. Sometimes we’ll argue, sometimes we’ll reminisce, sometimes we’ll try something spontaneous. There’ll be a dance routine, some fun moments, some surreal moments and some quiet, poignant moments. At the core of it is an exploration of being a human being in our contemporary world.”
Martinez is often described as a provocateur (she’s best known for pulling a red hanky from her privates as part of her routine with cabaret act La Soiree) but she prefers “playful”. “I seek to entertain. Humour is very important to me,” she says. “Laughter is a provocation that I look for, but if someone’s moved to reflect on their own life, I’m happy about that.”
Martinez certainly plunders her own life for material. As artist in residence at Perth Festival, she’ll also present a confessional solo show, Free Admission, during which she freely admits things about herself – all while building a real bricks and mortar wall in front of her on stage (she took a bricklaying course to convincingly pull this off).
“The only thing I’m an expert in is my own life, so I stick to what I know,” she says. “I use autobiography to find ways to talk about universal themes and observations. I have a knack for making the personal universal.”
Writers, performers, dancers, take note. Martinez will present a five-day workshop on that very theme – using personal experience as the starting point for making work – as part of her residency.
“I like to establish from day one that there are no taboos,” she says. “It has to be a very open space where people feel free to talk about themselves. If you’re going to hold back, then that’s a shame.”
It’s hard to imagine being able to shock the woman the internet knows best for nuding up and “disappearing” a red silk handkerchief into unlikely places. She owns the claim to fame (her twitter handle is @redhankylady) and the artlessness of the act.
“It’s the first magic trick I learned at the age of 13, and it’s the only one I know,” she says. “I’m not really a magician but I’ve made a little bit of talent go a long way. And that’s a talent in itself.”
Family Outing: 20 Years On runs February 7 to 12. Free Admission runs February 14 to 18. The Be Yourself with Ursula Martinez workshop runs February 20 to 24.