Five Star Comedy! PLANET EARTH III opens tonight at Soho Theatre. I catch up with its star, Luke Rollason

LUKE ROLLASON in Planet Earth III. Photo courtesy Steve Ullathorne

One man plus lots of obsolete office supplies equals the weirdest (un)natural history show that Attenborough never thought of. You won’t find a more hilarious, joyously surprising and creative hour than five-starred Luke Rollason’s hugely-popular show PLANET EARTH III , which returns to London after success around the world. It’s a gleefully low-budget, one-man nature documentary set in a future where our worst predictions came true.

Following ecological collapse, thousands of endangered species are extinct, including the BBC. But one plucky (and unpaid) intern isn’t giving up, and right on programming schedule, we’re getting series three. Armed with only obsolete office supplies, an Attenborough voiceover and a surreal imagination, nature’s weirdest creatures are brought back to life by the ‘hugely entertaining’ (Chortle website) Luke Rollason. There is a wonderful inspired lunacy to his edgy creativity that often reminds me of the best early work of Complicite. Do treat yourself and go – I promise you’ll never look at a paper clip the same way again! At the Soho Theatre from 3 to 6 April.

Here’s our chat. Enjoy!

What sparked the idea for Planet Earth III?

The idea for the show all started because of some poor preparation. I think as a result this has become a key feature of my work ever since. I had my very first gig, after I’d spent a week at Clown Camp in a forest in Wales, and I was planning to do this really complicated idea – I was going to be a relay runner in a tiny 9 year-old sized tracksuit and people were going to have to chase me. I bought the tracksuit and that was pretty much as far as I got. I had nothing. All I had was a lamp, which I put on my head, and then made stupid noises whilst I turned it on and off in the dark. I performed under the name Luke Attenborough because I thought I could then disappear forever if it was terrible. I think I owe everything I’ve done since to the fact that it wasn’t. That night, someone suggested I do a whole show of animals. I laughed in their face. And then several months later Planet Earth III was born.

You have been doing this show for sometime now. How has it grown and developed along the way?

Definitely! With performing something so responsive to the audience, there’s an extent to which the show mutates performance by performance. Audience members give me the best ideas. There was a time once in Edinburgh when one audience member was determined to stick up a sign with sellotape that had lost its stick. We all sat there and watched glue dry. I didn’t do anything. That was my potentially my favourite time onstage ever. The audience can take the show into strange places. 

“I was challenged to become invisible. I left the stage. This was depressingly popular.”

The show has been very successful around the world. What next for it?

At some point the show is going to have to wind down – but it’s hard because it’s what people keeping asking us to come and perform! But I need to move on onto new shows which have to learn to stand on their own two feet. After SOHO, we’re performing Planet Earth III at a couple of music festivals and then to some schools – and then taking it and a couple of other shows to America in the Autumn. A friend of ours has opened a comedy theatre in Georgia and is bringing performers from around the world there. 

Photo courtesy Steve Ullathorne

You are back to London for these Soho Theatre dates. How are you feeling about these?

Nervous! But this has very much been what we’ve been working so hard for – so it feels strange to feel nervous for what is meant to be the victory lap. Plus it’s THE place to perform for comedy fans.  I like the edginess of an unpredictable audience – in Edinburgh, because everyone has heard of Attenborough we’d get some beautifully eclectic audiences – half of one of the last shows was a school trip of teenagers! They were brilliant. 

“The audience can take the show into strange places”

Your Attenborough voice over, Luke, is very good at timing his interjections, and there is an edginess to your interplay. Does he occasionally throw you a curve ball?

All the time! We have two Attenboroughs – Luke Howarth (who directed the show, and who hates performing but I managed to drag him into it because he loves doing the impression) and Christian Brighty (a fellow clown who does the family version of the show – Blue Planet III – with me). The show claims to be a one-man nature documentary but it only really exists because of the live conflict between me and the voice of Attenborough. Regarding curve balls – there’s a section of the show where I have to perform suggestions from the audience. I often have absolutely no idea what they are, and I’ve seen Luke desperately Google some from the tech box before. The finest of these was the cuttlefish, where Christian challenged me to turn invisible. I left the stage. This was depressingly popular. 

Photo courtesy Steve Ullathorne

You have spent quite a lot of time at the legendary Gaulier clown school in Paris. How have you found it, and how has it has impacted your work?
Gaulier, and clown workshops in general, gave me back stage fright. A teacher of mine used to point out that for many people, their greatest fear is going on stage. So if you’re not terrified, there’s something wrong. 

I hear you are very busy developing a new show for the Edinburgh Festival which is about….sperm?

That’s right! I’m bringing two new shows to the Fringe this year – a new solo hour about technology, distraction and our brains which I’m billing as a slapstick Black Mirror – which, ironically, I’m finding hard to make as I keep getting distracted! And then me, Christian and Tom Curzon are making a physical comedy called Privates where we play three sperm. We did our very first preview at a comedy night in Norwich this week which was a good learning curve, and we’re developing it further as we speak.

PLANET EARTH III is at Soho Theatre, London from 3 to 6 April. Information and tickets here

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