True character so unreal it’s funny

Marea Colombo plays the eponymous Baroness of theatrical company Late Bloomers’ Dunedin Fringe...
Marea Colombo plays the eponymous Baroness of theatrical company Late Bloomers’ Dunedin Fringe 2024 show, based on historical figure Angela Burdett-Coutts. Photo: Late Bloomers
A show about "the greatest baroness you have never heard of" features in this year’s Dunedin Fringe Festival. Paul Gorman talks to the writers.

We know everything when we’re teenagers. Only with increasing maturity do we grasp how ignorant we really are.

That same sense of "how did we not know that" accompanied Late Bloomers theatre company members Marea Colombo and Bronwyn Wallace as the Ōtepoti duo stumbled on an ideal topic for their latest Dunedin Fringe Festival comedy show, Baroness.

Imagine waking up discovering overnight you had become the richest woman in the world? As the festival blurb says, audiences will hear the tale of Angela Burdett-Coutts, "the greatest baroness you’ve never heard of".

Briefly, Burdett-Coutts lived in England from 1814 to 1906 and received a peerage from Queen Victoria for her philanthropy. After inheriting about £1.8 million from her grandfather in 1837, she was co-founder of the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and a pioneer of social housing in London’s East End.

At 67, she married her 29-year-old American secretary, causing much fluttering amid the tea cups. A good friend of Charles Dickens, who dedicated Martin Chuzzlewit to her, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts co-founded with him a home for young women who had fallen into crime and prostitution.

Hands up those who knew of her? Be honest. Colombo and Wallace are among the hordes who didn’t.

"Angela is one of those people that you don't know about," Colombo says.

"And then once you do, you feel silly for not having known about her. And it's actually really hard to get good pithy information about her, which is part of the problem. And totally what inspired us to write the show, to be honest."

Wallace discovered Burdett-Coutts online.

"That was me and one of my, how do you put it, special interests, with just getting into a bit of a weird research wormhole that I tend to sometimes."

Once she read about her during a search of royal and noble titles, she got "completely sucked in".

"I went to Marea and was like, I'm obsessed with this woman. But actually, there's a lot of comedy in her. It’s so funny. This string of events that happened to her and all of her interests are really just kind of out of the box. So she really lends herself to comedy, but not mockery."

Photo: Walsh and Beck
Photo: Walsh and Beck
Colombo says what amuses them both most is "life in general".

"Just trying to get through a day is what is funny, no matter who the person is.

"Angela is the only person to be made a baroness in her own right, and yet she still felt the same things, in the 1800s, that we feel in the 21st century, in terms of feeling she couldn't talk about people she really loved or that she felt people picked on her or treated her badly because they wanted things from her.

"She owned a bank and wasn't allowed to work at it. That's funny."

Burdett-Coutts’ legacy is the equivalent of about £193m today, Wallace says.

"She felt bored with the same things as we did, but she also was the richest woman in the country. That's insane. If we could put ourselves in her shoes, what would we do if we got that amount of money?"

Colombo interjects: "That’d be so handy. We’re waiting. We don’t know who’s going to give us the money, but someone will be."

The two writers of Baroness are understandably coy about details of the show, which runs on four nights later in March, other than to guarantee each performance will be different.

Colombo will be on stage improvising and judging where the audience wants to take things. Wallace, as Late Bloomers’ director and producer, will be "tecchie" or stage manager in the background.

First though, amid Baroness rehearsals, are appearances at the Adelaide Fringe Festival earlier in March to perform their hit show Gaslight Me.

Baroness writers Bronwyn Wallace, left, and Marea Colombo. Photo: Katy Lockwood
Baroness writers Bronwyn Wallace, left, and Marea Colombo. Photo: Katy Lockwood
Wallace says stand-up comedy is always scripted, even if it may appear off-the-cuff.

Colombo says stand-up offers real challenges to the performer and always a freshness for the audience.

With Baroness, they have tried to cater for all audiences.

"Whether you're into slapstick, or you're into deep political comedy or whatever it is, we've tried to go there.

"It's a risk. Improv is all about holding one thing in your head while going down another path. I don't mind being, you know, derailed by the audience and finding some way back to my point."


Wed 20, Thu 21, Fri 22, Sat 23 March


Te Whare o Rukutia, 60min

$25, $22, 13 years plus