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Heard the one about the 80 banana skins? The chaotic world of comedy props

<span>Photograph: Van Corona</span>
Photograph: Van Corona

‘I have this illusion that I’m in charge of what’s going on, but there are all these bananas on stage, and they’re sort of landmines, waiting,” says Bill O’Neill, whose solo show The Amazing Banana Brothers chronicles the poignant attempt of two stuntman brothers to slip on the most banana peels. “I’ve gotten good at throwing myself around, but every once in a while, one of these suckers sends me crashing to the ground.”

Each show requires 80 fresh skins – for a month-long Edinburgh fringe run this summer, that added up to a lot of peeling. And cleaning. Weeks after doing the show at London’s Soho theatre, staff found an errant banana lodged in the ceiling.

Most comedy requires only you and a microphone, so why do O’Neill and others decide to complicate things? “There’s something visceral about the use of props on stage and seeing the scenery collapse,” O’Neill says. “You feel behind the scenes of the show … you’re going to be part of everything that happens tonight. It makes people feel more invested. Either that, or they think: Jesus Christ, that could’ve used more planning!”

It’s been a vintage year for messy shows. In Lucy McCormick’s, the stage is so submerged in tomato puree, confetti and wine, the audience helps her clean up. Chaotic characters from Alice Cockayne to Rosalie Minnitt use props and mess to build little worlds – a weird office and anachronistic period drama, respectively. Minnitt floods the stage with letters and slathers herself in paint. Cockayne anxiously flings out her handbag’s contents and scatters crumbs as she desperately offers us biscuits.

In the debut show by sketch duo Grubby Little Mitts (Rosie Nicholls and Sullivan Brown) a thousand ping-pong eyeballs rained down on the audience. “We want our show to be on the line between theatre and comedy,” says Nicholls. “Props play a really big part in that.” All their props are red and, fittingly, a little bit grubby. The eyeballs took so long to paint, they implored audiences not to steal any. Actor Brian Cox attended and at the end revealed his hand, containing two eyeballs. “He’s the only person who was allowed,” Brown says.

The trickiest part of working with props can be the trial and error from imagination to execution. “Sullivan came to me and said: ‘I want to flood the stage with piss’,” says Nicholls. Brown set the scene: “We’re dancing, then I start pissing, then you start pissing, and we’re just dancing in the piss.” But was it possible?

Nicholls works in TV prop departments, giving her ample experience fashioning unique objects. They wanted to avoid the theatre trick of popping plastic bags (too much waste), so tested contraptions. “We had to work out how to get a steady stream,” Nicholls says. They settled on a camelback rucksack with a sports-bottle opener. When they finally tested it with an audience: “It got exactly the reaction we wanted,” Nicholls says. That was “Victorian-esque shock,” says Brown, “then people just howling with laughter”.

There are risks, says Ella Golt, who combines clowning, physical comedy and circus skills in live shows where she plays characters including hapless magician Ella the Great and Richard Melanin the Third, her drag king persona. “There always has to be a bit of a risk,” Golt says. “[That] keeps it alive.” When something goes awry – like her magician’s suitcase bursting open at the wrong moment, “there are two choices: admit it’s gone wrong or try to cover it.” A character-specific cover – such as miming drawing a curtain across the scene, then despairing behind it, before opening the curtains and resuming – can even elevate the comedy.

Golt often performs without words. “Objects tell their own stories,” she says. With a background in fine art sculpture, she makes many of her own props, but also has circus artefacts including a brown suitcase and an umbrella that doubles as a plate-spinning pole. Used well, “the audience can be truly transported into a different universe.”

For O’Neill, the risks were twofold: procuring bananas and physical injury. Beth Reardon, part of the Soho theatre team that brought the show to the Edinburgh fringe, had an unusual brief: find 2,000 bananas, peel them, and dispose of the innards sustainably. “It affectionately became known as ‘banadmin’,” Reardon says. “We did get to a point where we were concerned by the volume.” She contacted Edinburgh Zoo, but they couldn’t take them. Eventually, she found local businesses making smoothies and deep-friend bananas.

On stage, O’Neill had to perfect stunt falls while negotiating the accumulating slippery mess. “I was getting pretty bruised,” he says. “There were shows where my shoulder would pop out and I was writhing around trying to pop it back in. Just another thing that keeps it exciting.”

O’Neill credits his director, fellow American clown Natalie Palamides, known for her own messy shows Laid and Nate, for helping him “find meaning in chaos”. Their efforts were rewarded with an Edinburgh Comedy award nomination. O’Neill says: “If there’s a dimension of the universe where I don’t have to hurl bananas at the audience and throw myself on the floor for people to enjoy themselves, I don’t want to live in it.”