When the BBC first approached Katherine Parkinson about starring in the TV adaptation of her own stage play, Sitting, she said “no”.
Parkinson (The IT Crowd; Defending the Guilty) made her debut as a playwright with Sitting at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, before it transferred to London’s Arcola Theatre in 2019; and in both productions, the role of former punk and single mum ‘Mary’ was played by another actress, Hayley Jayne Standing.
“I initially said ‘no’,” Parkinson tells me via Zoom, “and not least because Hayley Jayne Standing was so wonderful, but also because I had just learned a monologue for something else, and I didn’t want to learn another one!”
Then the pandemic struck: overnight, work projects “disappeared”. And Parkinson also couldn’t stop thinking about the role.
“I sort of felt like I was maybe copping out because it’s obviously something I’ve written with my voice in mind. I think that was clear. And I sort of started – when I was writing it – with that particular character, and just wrote it in a sort of, very personal piece of writing. And Hayley actually said it’d be quite cathartic to do it. So I decided to do it. And I am pleased I did it because I really enjoyed it.”
Mary (whom Parkinson plays) is one of three characters in the hour-long comedy-drama. Mary, Cassandra, and Luke are all very different people, but they’re connected by the unseen portrait painter John, and the attic studio where he paints each person separately.
At the end of the BBC Four adaptation, we see the three finished portraits (painted by Roxana Halls), but Parkinson bursts out laughing when I ask if she kept her’s. “Oh, God no! Above my bed, on the ceiling?” she jokes, before adding: “No, I could never: I could never have a massive painting of me in my house. I think if I became that person it would be time to have a chat with myself.”
Later in the interview, she also jokes about seeing herself on-screen: “I have been unable to be anything other than healthily repulsed by my own performance.”
But when it came to the scripts for Sitting, Parkinson couldn’t afford to be self-conscious: she describes the show as deeply personal, as all three characters were inspired by aspects of her own life. Later in our interview, she compares playwriting to tearing “out your heart and put[ting] it onstage unprotected”.
When you think of recent televised monologues, like Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, there’s no real reason why the characters are spilling their innermost thoughts. But in Sitting, the characters are addressing the silent painter: as the title suggests, it’s the act of sitting still – and sitting with one’s thoughts – that prompts the stream of consciousness.
The play’s format was also inspired by real-life experience. “I had sat for a painter when I was a student,” Parkinson says. “And so it was that that made me think, ‘Oh, yes, because I can remember being embarrassed, self conscious, then quite enjoying being looked at, then talking a lot, then being very quiet, then talking a bit more, then him playing music’.”
How old was Parkinson when she modelled for an artist? “I would have been about 21. And I was approached in the streets like Luke is in the play, and he [the painter] actually lived next door to my student digs, my student house that I was sharing. And he said, ‘Are you Jewish?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ll paint you anyway.’ I think he had a Jewish wife and he was sure I was Jewish so I was terribly flattered anyway, to be asked to be painted. But then I sat, he used to give me £12, and I sat for him for weeks and weeks and weeks.”
In the end, the painter never finished the portrait of Parkinson. “Either way, it was a really lovely, ruminative, nice experience just sitting for him in the middle of my very busy student life, and I really found it quite a memorable time,” she says.
In another crossover between the play and Parkinson’s past experiences, the character Cassandra (played by Alex Jarrett) is also an aspiring actress in her early 20s when she sits down for her portrait.
“I realised when you write something, everything is kind of personal,” Parkinson says. “All of the things that are experienced by characters in play I have personal experience of, but the details have changed. I mean, I didn’t sleep with a man that was painting me, for instance!”
Parkinson is best known for her comedic roles, like Jen in The IT Crowd or recent roles in Pandemonium, Defending the Guilty, and as herself on Taskmaster. In person she’s constantly giggling and cracking off-beat jokes, describing her interview set-up at home as strewn with chocolate. But the play’s funniest character, expectant dad Luke (who mistakenly enters the art studio completely starkers), was actually inspired by Parkinson’s husband.
“The voice of Luke is very much – I just sort of had my husband’s voice, when I met him when he was 25, in my head, and I suppose [Cassandra] was a younger version of myself. And there was a lot of fun and creating the connections, a story that connects them.”
Those connections are initially born out of the three, interweaving monologues, which often overlap, keywords simultaneously uttered by different characters; and also the “timeless” artist studio space the characters all separately visit, right down to the same chair.
Following the global lockdown, the theme of connection is more timely than ever.
“I hope it is quite timely, yeah,” Parkinson says. “Because obviously, it’s been a strange time where we’re not allowed to meet and hug each other. But oddly, I have found that I’ve got more in touch, I’ve had more time and more impulse to get in touch with people recently than in the kind of rush of normal life that came before it.” She adds: “Sometimes relationships aren’t straightforward, and they’re awkward and they’re jagged and difficult. And it’s always better to kind of persist rather than walk away. I think that’s probably the main message of it, because otherwise you’re left with an emptiness and guilt and all the rest of it.”
Mental health is also addressed in Sitting (Parkinson has said in previous interviews that there was a death by suicide in her family but she isn’t ready to discuss it.) The topic, like person-to-person connection, seems equally as timely.
“I suppose there’s also a theme of mental health, which is, unfortunately, more relevant than ever, as well,” she tells me. “It’s more specifically about the impact of somebody’s mental – [of] suicide on on another family member.” However, she adds, even though the characters are isolated through space and time, in the final tableau featuring the finished portraits, “there they are together”.
Lockdown has yielded more parallels between Parkinson and her Sitting character, Mary, including stabs at painting (“Even though I’m absolutely rubbish”). However, it also highlighted personal parallels with The IT Crowd’s resident technophobe Jen, as virtual acting jobs forced Parkinson to get better acquainted with online technology.
“It’s funny, because I’m, you know, I’m not a very technical person. I think Jen and me were sort of, you know, rolled into one little bit, and I used to be quite wilful about it, but since lockdown, of course, it was like, ‘Well, you know, if you’re not going to get on top of it, then you can’t do any of these [acting jobs]’.”
And outside of the home, tech issues can also spark The IT Crowd jokes. “I could really do with my own IT guy. But you can imagine when I go into Apple with a problem, people think it’s a set-up. I’ve had, like, everyone gathering around going, ‘Oh my God, somebody must be filming this’.”
Parkinson found watching her debut play “much harder” than any acting job she’d ever done. She had been performing on the West End during the original Edinburgh run, so it wasn’t until Sitting transferred to London’s Arcola that she managed to see it performed live.
“I saw it at the Arcola when I finished my West End run of Home, I’m Darling. And, I mean, it was pretty embarrassing because it’s so personal. It’s really intense, really intense watching your own – yeah. I’ve realised now how writers basically have got it so much harder, I think, than actors or anything or directors in production, because it’s, it’s sort of like, you’ve torn out your heart and put it sort of onstage unprotected. And so yeah, I was [embarrassed] but I was made up when I watched both runs and wept. Embarrassingly.”
From purely a viewer’s perspective, I completely understand the impulse to tear up watching Sitting. Even though there were lines in the TV version that made me burst out laughing, Sitting still feels deeply touching and intimate.
“I did kind of start with the jokes if I’m honest,” Parkinson says of her writing process, “and so I surprised myself really [with] how wistful it became. But I sort of wrote it in that kind of inspired rush and that’s where I ended up I suppose. I’m definitely somebody who leads with the jokes… but I think it probably became more wistful and ruminative.”
I’ve no doubt that Parkinson wasn’t the only audience member weeping during Sitting – and she wasn’t the last.
Katherine Parkinson’s Sitting is directed by Jeremy Herrin, and airs on Wednesday 7th April at 10.30pm on BBC Four. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide
Sitting is presented as part of BBC Lights Up; a major festival of UK theatre adapted for TV and radio at a time when theatres throughout the UK are closed.