Ruby Wax talks to Roz Laws about the stigma of mental illness as she prepares for a gig at The Priory.
Ruby Wax is deadly serious when she says: “Laughter really is the best medicine. The ultimate, in fact.”
She has to admit, though, that she wouldn’t be able to make people chuckle if she wasn’t benefiting from conventional medication herself.
Thanks to anti-depressant drugs, she is able to live with an illness which has plagued her since she was ten.
Now she is trying to help lift the stigma of mental illness by taking her stand-up comedy show on a tour of psychiatric hospitals.
Live From The Priory deals with her own clinical depression, though she hopes to strike a chord with everyone who has ever felt unable to cope with modern life.
Ruby, 56, has twice been a patient of The Priory, the famous London clinic and celebrity haunt. She had post-natal depression, which she calls “a tsunami of darkness”, after the birth of her third child, Marina, in 1993, then she spent five days there after a nervous breakdown at the height of her career at the end of the 1990s.
Ruby returned to The Priory last July to perform her comedy routine, “playing to my people” in a show to raise money for the charity Depression Alliance.
Now she’s taking it on the road to seven Priory hospitals around the country, including Woodbourne Priory in Edgbaston, Birmingham, on Monday and Tuesday (February 15 and 16). The audiences will be made up of staff, out-patients and the public, with proceeds going to Comic Relief.
Then the American comic hopes to widen the show’s appeal with a 40-date tour of conventional theatres in April followed, she hopes, by a West End run.
Ruby says: “Then it will be called Losing It, because it’s not exclusively about mental illness. It starts with the idea that none of us know what we are supposed to be doing and that universal confusion reigns. That’s funny. It becomes serious when we consider why many of us have lost track and how we are supposed to get through life.
“In this climate, the number of people going under is going up.
“The show is uplifting and honest, rather painfully so at times. At the end we’ve had people crying because they just get it, but they’re still laughing.
“That’s what I am trying to do, to make something serious and funny, which is hard.
“I’d like to play prisons, too. That would be another place where they would get what I’m talking about.”
Ruby isn’t on stage alone – supporting her is her friend Judith Owen, a singer who will perform songs about her own experiences of depression. They don’t just share a mental illness, as they were introduced by the man they have in common. Before her marriage to TV producer Ed Bye, the father of her three children, Ruby dated comic actor Harry Shearer. He’s the man behind many of the voices on The Simpsons and has been married to Judith for 17 years.
“He’s a genius but he’s not as good as we are,” smiles Ruby.
But isn’t it strange for him that his wife and his ex-girlfriend are now working together?
“He’s very threatened by us as we both know everything about him, but I think he’s proud that we’re his bitches! He’s always been my friend, but I like Judith more than him now.”
Ruby talks of her excitement at going on tour, her first in a decade.
“I haven’t had anything to say for ten years,” she says. “Now it’s like I have a barrage of ideas.”
Ruby is one of several comedians, including Stephen Fry, Paul Merton, Lenny Henry, Caroline Aherne, Jack Dee and Hugh Laurie, who have revealed they have battled depression.
Yet despite the fact that depression can affect as many as one in five people in Britain, it still takes a lot to admit to having a mental illness.
“That’s the problem, people still don’t talk enough about it,” says Ruby. “It was hard for me to come out and admit it, but I hope to lessen the stigma surrounding it.”
She confesses that depression ran in her family and that she was a troubled teenager, thanks to a violent father and a mother with obsessive compulsive disorder who wrapped everything in the house in plastic. “No wonder I went loopy,” she says.
Ruby is still best known for her celebrity TV interviews, which saw her rummaging through the Duchess of York’s underwear drawer, raiding Imelda Marcos’s shoe cupboard and helping Jim Carrey trash a hotel room.
In recent years she’s popped up on programmes like The Apprentice for Comic Relief, Gok’s Fashion Fix and Celebrity Shark Bait, but Ruby took time out from her comedy career to qualify as a psychotherapist and now spends most of her time coaching executives in management workshops.
“What I’m interested in has shifted and doesn’t fit on television,” she says. “You can’t be this honest on TV. Too bad!”
* Tickets for the Woodbourne Priory show are selling fast. For details contact firstname.lastname@example.org or ring 0121 434 4343.