Sophie Willan
On record

Sophie Willan grew up in care and now makes light of it on stage, and is hoping her show will provide an alternative narrative

Hero image

Sophie Willan is a warm and exuberant figure on stage, painting glorious mental images of her life. It’s a delivery that is in stark contrast to her difficult upbringing.

The Bolton comedian was brought up by a combination of care services and her grandma while her mother fought a battle with drug addiction. Her latest comedy show, On Record, is structured by, and takes its name from, the care records that Willan received from the state when she was 23. But the seed of an idea was already there – she was already concerned by the demonising of benefit claimants in the media and the final straw was when she saw a brutal interview on Loose Women with Josie Cunningham, the woman notorious for her “boob job on the NHS”.

“She’d been abused, beaten and bullied in her past,” notes Willan. “And three attractive middle-class women with good lives were interrogating her. This is what daytime telly is – a shaming of welfare recipients, a shaming of the working people. It was horrible.”

At the time Willan was putting together an application for funding for a project, Stories of Care, in which she hoped to empower care leavers to tell their stories in an anthology of work, which will be launched at Manchester Book Festival in June. Also included in the bid was On Record. Willan wanted to tell a different story to the one sections of the media like to peddle. She tells her own story in and out of care and gives voice to her mother – seeing beyond her illness, “to make something that was empowering and optimistic, and not depressing.”

Though Willan had received her care records a few years earlier, when she began writing the show she realised they would be the perfect framing device for her story. It was a more practical choice than a cathartic one, as she’d already worked through a lot of issues beforehand. “I’d done quite a lot of therapy. That always helps, doesn’t it?” she laughs.

An aspect of the project that has proved cathartic, however, has been leaving tickets aside for fellow care leavers and homeless people. “A lot are heroin addicts, a lot have kids they don’t see. They loved the show. It made them laugh. That was really emotional. They understood it and they felt like they could see their own children in it.”

Sadly her own mother hasn’t seen the show as Willan doesn’t know where she is. “If I find her I’ll invite her. It’s very loving. I’m not angry with her or anything. I wanted to humanise, make it clear that it wasn’t a blaming thing.”

Nor does Willan put any blame at the feet of social services. “I did a Q&A at the Lowry in Salford and a lot of people said: ‘Oh, every social worker in the country should see this show and make their practice better.’ But I don’t think that’s fair really. I didn’t make that show to have go at social workers. I think they’re brilliant. It’s not about challenging anyone – it’s about being honest about my experience.”

On Record is at Manchester’s Contact Theatre, 13&17 Feb, then heads to Leeds’ Trouble at Mill, 25 Feb, before visiting Bradford, Salford, Kendal, Millom and Doncaster (

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Preview:
Sophie Willan
On record

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.