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The grande dame of cabaret and comedy

Copenhagen can't call it Christmas without her Crazy Cabaret - just like Vivienne McKee couldn't imagine her life without creating connections with her theatre audience.

Photographs: Laura Voinescu - Copenhagen Photo Experience

Text: Michaela Medveďová

Forget learning how to pronounce rødgrød med fløde or driving your kids on a Christiania bike. The real benchmark of becoming at home in Denmark is seeing the Crazy Christmas Cabaret show in wintertime.

Without the production Vivienne McKee and her London Toast Theatre put on every year since 1982, it's simply not a good Christmas for many.

Just like without this British actress, the theatre world of Denmark wouldn't be as good, either.

No need for backup

"I decided I wanted to be an actress, and my mother said I had to go to university first. She was unequivocal: 'There's no money in acting, you need a backup'," says Vivienne. So while studying French and theatre studies, she acted in all the plays. Then, setting her sights on a high goal, she invited the principal of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, one of the most-renowned drama schools in Britain, to her university play. "And he came. Normally, you have to audition to get into these schools. But he said that I've got a place."

Focusing on Shakespeare and the classical type of theatre, the school was an excellent launchpad for her career, giving her access to a lot of work. But Vivienne could also sing and dance, so she was successfully starring in theatre productions and cabaret shows, in TV series and feature films. "I could have stayed in England and continued the career. But then one of the plays I was in took me on tour to Denmark - and I met a Dane."

Copenhagen fate

A hotel booking mishap led the play producers to search for their actors' accommodations elsewhere. "We all stayed with different teachers, and I stayed with a very nice family, but they lived miles away from Copenhagen." Then, the next day, one of the other actors said she stayed with a great guy who took her to all the clubs in Copenhagen." Needless to say, Vivienne was jealous - but luckily, the proclaimed great guy was invited to see the show, and she met him anyway.

The pair exchanged telephone numbers since the production was leaving Copenhagen the following day. "I never thought I would come back to Copenhagen, but by chance or fate, two months later, I did, with another cabaret show. And I called him up, telling him he could take me to the clubs now. He couldn't - he'd broken his leg in three places. But we still saw each other, kept in touch - and got married six months later." He offered to move to England so that Vivienne could continue her successful career, but soon she was pregnant, so they decided to have their child in Denmark.

But no standing ovation awaited there. "I didn't know anybody, I didn't speak the language, I had no friends. I felt very isolated, and everything was new to me." She was alone in their apartment with a baby while her husband worked all day. All of her friends in England were asking - what are you doing? Come back!

There were some options to act in English in Copenhagen. One of Vivienne's contacts introduced her to an English theatre, but she simply longed to work on a higher standard with her background. "I told my husband: I need to go back to England and do my theatre work. He replied: Well, why don't we start a theatre company so you can do the standard you want?"

Too English for Danish hygge

So after having a baby in 1981, Vivienne and her husband founded London Toast Theatre in 1982. It came with warning signs from all around them, saying that Danes will never accept her crazy comedy kind of humour. It's too English.

But despite the differences, the theatre reached its Danish audience and got them involved. Producing shows from Shakespeare to cabaret, the theatre celebrates its 40th birthday this year. The company's staple is the Crazy Christmas Cabaret, a Christmas tradition of many Danes, now performed in Tivoli's Glassalen, playing for 60 thousand people every year. But it did not start off with such a grandiose vision. "When we finished the first show in 1982, people were asking what we will do with the show next. I thought it was just one show, but people said - you've got to do it again!"

And they did - Vivienne has been writing the show for the past four decades. Each year is different: in terms of subject matter, feel, or historical period - from 18th century France to sunny, gangster Florida in the 80s. Already now, Vivienne knows what the show will look like next year. Crazy Christmas has taken up permanent residence in her mind.

Vivienne promotes the feeling of teamwork among her cast, working together, getting everyone involved.

A team on the same wavelength

As the show has got more prominent over the years - both in terms of theatre space and fan base - Vivienne's fame in Denmark rose alongside it. In the 1980s, Denmark only had one TV channel. There was a two-hour live TV program with singers and comedians on Saturdays - and Vivienne, doing comedy in English. "Once you've been on TV with only one channel which everybody in the country watches, you become very famous very quickly."

Despite featuring on Saturday night TV, her focus remained on her own theatre where she writes, directs the shows, produces them with her husband - and stars in them. "I'm the artistic director, and my husband is the administrative director. I say I want to do a Shakespeare production with ten actors, and he says that ten is too expensive and asks if I can do the show with six." The company started in a tiny theatre with about 70 seats, so Vivienne had to think small. When they progressed to Tivoli in 1990, suddenly, she could think big. "Now, we have a big show - we could take it to West End in London."

There are a lot of reasons why London Toast Theatre became a success. Danes and their fascination with English is one thing - without them speaking the language so well, Vivienne would have a tough time winning her audience over. The second main reason, though, is found within the theatre. "I married a man who is extraordinarily good at leaving the focus for the actors and being very supportive behind the scenes. I have no sense of business at all, but he has." The successful teamwork transcends the couple - they've had the same personal assistant for the past 38 years, handling PR, press, and other connections. "The combination of the three of us has been able to sustain this unusual phenomenon that is London Toast Theatre. I would never have been able to keep going without that support behind me. We're like a little family."

Vivienne promotes the feeling of teamwork among her cast, working together, getting everyone involved. "Of course, they get a script. But if someone wants to change a line, we can do it if it fits. Normally, you can't do it if you buy a script written by Tennessee Williams or Harold Pinter."

Having worked with many of the actors for years, she knows where their strengths lie and can write for their talents and capabilities. Having the director and writer on the show is also efficient. "My Christmas show is very topical. When a news item comes up in the newspaper today, which I want to throw in, I can go to the theatre tonight and say we're going to say this line and get a laugh from the joke. No other theatre can do that because no other theatre has the writer in the show."

Vivienne simply wants to make shows that will make people say - I need to go to the theatre more often.

Feeling alive with a live audience

With so much responsibility, it's no wonder Vivienne needed to take a break a couple of years ago. She still wrote and directed the Christmas show, but she wasn't in it - instead, she went to India and did her solo Stand Up show in Calcutta on New Year's Eve!

She returned before the show finished and found out that the audience was missing her recurrent role as Dr Van Helsingør from Elsinore, a crazy male character she plays every year who jokes about the Danes. "But then someone said - why don't you dress up as the character and do a spontaneous bit? So I did. I walked onstage with the beard and hat, and the effect was extraordinary - I felt a bit like a rockstar."

Despite appreciating TV and films, it's this connection that makes her feel alive. "I'm a performer. I enjoy the feeling of performing live to an audience, to feel the immediate response - mostly comedy, because when you say a funny line, you hear the laughter and know if it has worked." With comedy films, there is none of that. Vivienne also finds TV and movies to be a director's medium. No matter how brilliantly an actor acts in a scene, the director might put the camera on someone else or cut the scene entirely. "But when you're on stage, the audience is looking at what they want. It's their choice, not the directors. It's so much more about feeling a connection with the audience."

The soul of a performer has always been there - already at six, Vivienne was putting on dresses and acting out minor roles. The all-girls school she attended held a drama competition. "I thought that if we win, it's a sign that I should be a professional actor. And we won." Around the same time, another fateful occurrence happened. Young Vivienne saw a production of Hamlet made at the Kronborg Castle in the Danish city of Helsingør and was simply charmed. "I thought one day, I wanted to go there. And you know what? I played Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, three years ago at the Helsingør Castle. To me, that was a dream come true." However, the past two years have been a little more of a nightmare, sadly.

Christmas without a dose of crazy

"We completely cancelled last year's Christmas show. It was terrible - I had a show ready to put on, and we just couldn't do it." COVID hit the entertainment industry hard, so when the company gathered in October to start rehearsals on this year's Crazy Christmas, they were giddy like little kids at Christmas - so excited to be creating something together. "Isolation was horrible. I learned to cook! I never cooked in my life - only fried egg or spaghetti. Suddenly, I was making big meals and had no one to give them to."

This season looked more promising. Everyone was vaccinated and careful. But before the opening performance with critics, VIPs, and Danish politicians set to attend, one of the actors got COVID, and they had to cancel the first week of the show.

When they started performing, the reviews were fantastic. But in the middle of December, the government announced they were to close all theatres; they just hadn't decided when. In an attempt to keep going, the show had to be re-written as actors dropped out, and a new actor was flown in from London. Finally, the axe fell on December 19th, and the theatre shut down. The company had sold thousands of tickets they had to refund.

Moments of joy in the theatre seat

But the audience appreciated this year's show. It offered an escape and much-needed laughter, joy, and inspiration. That's what Vivienne, who prefers comedy above all, wants to bring her audience.

Vivienne simply wants to make shows that will make people say - I need to go to the theatre more often. "I want them to understand the feeling you get when you're sitting in the audience, looking at the stage, and you feel part of something for a few hours, which takes you away from all the problems of everyday life. A good laugh is the best medicine!"

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