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Shappi stands up for Emma, Lady Hamilton

Friday night is Corn Exchange comedy night

Trish Lee

Trish Lee


01635 886663

Shappi stands up for Emma, Lady Hamilton

Picture: Matt Crockett

After a sell-out run at last year's Edinburgh Fringe, Shappi Khorsandi brings her Mistress and Misfit Tour to the Corn Exchange on Friday. Her new show focuses on Emma, Lady Hamilton, the mistress and misfit who lit up the life of Admiral Nelson and added to the gaiety of nations during the Georgian era.

The comedian has had a ball writing the show. "It’s about passion and tragedy. What better things are there to write comedy about?” Absolutely...

Shappi underlines the sheer thrill she gets from stand-up. “It’s a compulsion. It’s a sort of madness. Stand-ups are all mad. We are bright, and if we weren’t mad, we'd be doing something else. It’s like skydiving. The adrenaline rush is incredible. It’s probably the only time in my day when I’m utterly focused and have no responsibility to anyone else apart from the audience. It’s like a lovely, warm, relaxing bath, but a very high-octane bath! You can’t reproduce that feeling. If I haven’t done stand-up for a while, I just have to get back on stage. I need it like oxygen.”

One of the many reasons she's such a popular comedian is that so much of her material relates to herself and audiences can instantly identify with that. Shappi, who is also a best-selling author, having released A Beginners Guide to Acting English in 2009, followed by her fantastic, critically lauded 2016 debut novel Nina Is Not OK, reflects that, “I relate Emma’s life to modern women and, like all stand ups, I draw people into the world as I see it so it’s still a very personal show.

“When you’re a stand-up, people have come to see you and share the experience with you. They can read a book about Emma, Lady Hamilton, but the way I tell her story draws people in to my stand-up, which I hope is why they bought a ticket in the first place!”

In Mistress and Misfit, Shappi recounts the largely untold story of England's unsung heroine, Emma, Lady Hamilton. For too long, she has been reductively tagged as Nelson's mistress. She has been regarded as a bit of a harlot (you work in a brothel for one night and there goes your reputation).

Women's lib wasn't uppermost in people’s minds in Georgian times. Emma moved heaven and earth to drag herself from scullery maid to Lady Hamilton. So maybe she occasionally danced naked on tables to get a jump on her rivals, but who hasn't done that? As a fellow naked dancer on tables, Shappi is eager to celebrate the woman England betrayed. 

Shappi explains the genesis of Mistress and Misfit: “I was fascinated by Emma. She was really clever and compassionate and very hard done by. She was also a master of re-invention and a fantastically creative person.

“I initially tried to write a novel about Emma, but it was too hard, so I thought I’d do a show about it instead. That was easier and funnier. I relate Emma’s life to modern women and, like all stand ups, I draw people into the world as I see it so it’s still a very personal show.”

Shappi, who has notched up numerous high-profile television appearances including I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, Live At The Apollo (BBC ONE), Channel 4’s Comedy Gala At The O2 (Channel 4, 2010 – 2016), Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow (BBC ONE), The Graham Norton Show (BBC ONE), Have I Got News For You (BBC ONE) and her own Comedy Store Special for Comedy Central, sees some of the similarities between Emma and herself.

“We were both artist’s models. She modelled for great artists, I modelled for GCSE students in Tower Hamlets. I have never worked in a brothel, but I have had moments that I would only tell you about on stage or when very drunk. I will be sharing some of those stories in ‘Mistress and Misfit’.”

The show reveals that the Establishment closed ranks against Emma after Nelson’s death. Shappi discloses that: “Just before the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson wrote an add-on to his will asking that Emma and his daughter be looked after in the event of his death: ‘that is the only favour I ask of my King and country as I go to fight their battle’. They didn’t.

“Emma ended her days derelict, penniless and alcoholic in Calais. There was no monument to her. We have not been told what a massive impact Emma had on Nelson’s life. Historians have wanted to make Trafalgar about Nelson and not about ‘this harlot’.”

Mistress and Misfit is also full to the brim with wonderfully offbeat facts about Emma, which make for hilarious routines. Shappi, who is also developing a new novel about adultery, says: “I did a lot of research to find quirky things that would work in stand-up. For instance, I discovered that there was something called the Harris List, which reviewed all the prostitutes in London. It was like a Trip Adviser of its time for prostitutes. At the time, one in six women in Covent Garden worked as a prostitute. So if you were visiting Covent Garden, you would take along your Harris List to see who tickled your fancy. Crazy.”

For all that, Shappi emphasises that the show is not meant to be a lecture: "Mistress and Misfit is not a history lesson. It’s about now."

Visit for booking details

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