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Kevin Bishop on returning to the stage, working in Pizza Express and his hero Robin Williams

The comedy star has swapped LA for the London stage in a tenth anniversary revival of Fully Committed at the Menier Chocolate Factory

'Acting's like playing the lottery' - Kevin Bishop in rehearsals for Fully Committed
© Catherine Ashmore

Fully Committed is returning to the Chocolate Factory, where it helped put the venue on the map ten years ago. Could you tell us more about it?
It's a one man show, written by Becky Mode, about a guy called Sam who is a struggling actor working in a restaurant in New York. He's answering the phone, taking bookings, and he encounters all sorts of crazy people throughout this one particular day when he's left by himself. It's all about the people he has to deal with, egotistical people who think they are more important than they are and name dropping in order to get a table at this coveted restaurant. I play all the characters at rapid fire speed.

Is it intimidating being directed by Mark Setlock, knowing he played the role originally?
I was intimidated when I found out the guy who was directing me had played it before, both at the Menier and in New York. But then I met Mark and he's just been so supportive; it's brilliant having someone who knows the beats of comedy in the play to such a degree.

Is doing 'odd jobs' like Sam something you can relate to?
Absolutely. There are so many parallels to my own life. When I was about 20 I worked in a restaurant as a chef and a waiter. It was one of many 'filling' jobs while I was in between my acting jobs, before I started to live off my acting. It was such an awful job that I still sit there and think 'my God, what if I had to go back there and work there again, what would that be like?'

What sorts of jobs did you do?
I worked as a chef for three years, including at Pizza Express. That was particularly stressful because in some of the branches we were completely on display to the whole restaurant. So if anything went wrong customers would look at the chefs as if to say 'where is my pizza?!' People think making pizza is easy, which it is in theory, but it's actually very difficult. I also worked as a labourer on a building site, and I was a barrister's clerk for a short period of time. But despite all that, I still love cooking and my favourite food is still pizza!

How different is it to do a dramatic monologue as opposed to straight comedy?
It's completely different to anything I've ever done, especially because I've never done stand-up. I'm far too terrified to even approach that. Theatre I'm very comfortable with, I've done a lot of it in the past, but I've never done a one man show before. It's very rare that I perform something where I'm switching from one character to the next so quickly, so this is a very, very new challenge for me.

Were you ever tempted to do a solo show based on your TV show?
We used to talk about converting The Kevin Bishop Show into a live format. But it was something that seemed very difficult because I played so many people in that show who all required make-up and wigs and stuff. On average there were about 42 sketches per episode, so it was a very daunting thought to take that to a live audience. But Fully Committed is kind of like The Kevin Bishop Show in the way the characters change so often, so it's done the job for me.

I'd imagine it's quite a feat of memory
Oh it's ridiculous. Usually if I've got lines to learn I can run them with someone, but with this there's no one to run them with, it's just me. I'm very aware I'm running my lines by myself on the train and people get up and move away. They probably think 'oh that Kevin Bishop, he's lost it! It's so sad, now he's just jabbering away to himself on the train!'

Who are your comedy heroes?
I have to say Robin Williams. The news of his death really hit me. I was actually very fortunate that, when I was in LA, our shows were being made at the same studio. He had a show called The Crazy Ones and my show Super Fun Night was filming the same night, so we were sort of in competition with each other, but he was just the loveliest guy, so professional and never ever starry. He was a very humble guy and everybody who came across him said he was just wonderful. I certainly never saw his darker side.

He was the latest in a long line of comedians to suffer from depression - can you understand the connection?
I can completely understand it. Our job is to make people laugh, and that's it. So your job is quite perverse in a sense. It's like being an actor doing auditions - you have to walk into rooms of people you have never met before and win them over. And then when you get the part, you need to make the audience like you and win them over, so the whole thing is built on insecurity. I also think that comedians in particular do tend to have a dark side - after all, where does the comedy come from? Comedy is largely built on surprise, and you have to go to darker places to find stuff that will surprise people and make them laugh. I think in many ways that by making jokes out of everything, comedians don't really get to process the sadness and pain they're going through.

Does Fully Committed touch on these issues, considering its central character is an out-of-work actor?
Absolutely. The thing with acting is that it's essentially like playing the lottery. It's not necessarily gauged on how talented you are. Obviously talented people do get through but it's all about those breaks and connections, it's about being in the right place at the right time. People would say this to me when I was younger and I used to think 'that's ridiculous, it's about talent, that's just something talentless people say'. But now I'm 34 I think they were absolutely right.

What's next for you - could this herald the start of more theatre performances?
I don't know really. I think if you ask most actors which direction they're going in, they may say something but in truth they have no idea. Maybe by doing this play I'm subconsciously saying that I want to get back into performing for live audiences. I find that, certainly in terms of comedy, it's far more rewarding when you're making people laugh directly. That's the reason I wanted to do comedy in the first place, I just love making people laugh. Making a TV series in LA is brilliant in many ways, and obviously the money is fantastic, but there's something missing. That's the real buzz of comedy; to get people rolling in the aisles. So that's why I'm doing this really, I just want to make people laugh again.

Fully Committed continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 15 November