An Interview with Thomas Manson
The riotous Riddlestick Theatre are winging into Brighton…
Hello Tom, so where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
I’m was born and brought up in and around Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire. I am now based in Bristol.
When did you first develop a passion for theatre?
I first developed a passion for theatre when I was about seventeen whilst studying Theatre Studies at A-Level. I had always loved performing and when I was ten years old I had the illuminating experience of playing the crocodile in a local production of Peter Pan which was great fun. But I only really fell in love with it once a dog-eared copy of Equus was thrust into my unworldly hands.
Can you tell us about your training?
I studied Drama: Theatre, Film, Television at the University of Bristol. There was a great balance there between practical work and theory. You’re making theatre and films, but also thinking critically about the craft. I enjoyed studying everything from documentaries to Jacobean tragedies, and of course all of these things inform one another in very exciting, inspiring ways. The fact that Bristol is such a wonderful city also helps. Most of the Riddlestick troupe met whilst studying there.
In a world where you can get entertainment ‘on demand’, what makes theatre special?
I think the act of physically travelling to a space to watch something is very important in this day and age. It reframes and disrupts the pattern of everything being at our fingertips. And of course the inherent liveness of theatre is one of the things that makes it so magical. I remember hearing Complicite Artistic Director Simon McBurney quote Blaise Pascal in an interview with the Edinburgh International Festival: “The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.” McBurney applies this rather sombre observation to the theatre by arguing that “in a way, the intensity of the moment of theatre in the present is about living.” It is a rare moment where, if the performance engages us, we collectively live in the present. These days, we need as much of that as we can get!
What does your perfect Sunday afternoon look like?
Beer in hand, looking at the Championship league table and seeing Leeds United in the top two.
You are a co-founder of Riddlestick Theatre; where, when & with whom was the company founded?
I founded the company with Kate Stokes back in 2016 in Bristol. However, the idea came a couple of years earlier when we were still at university. Kate and I write the shows together and Kate also plays the enchanting Madame Fanny. She is the company mastermind.
What kind of atmosphere are you trying to create?
That’s an important question, because creating an atmosphere is such a vital part of what we do on stage with Riddlestick. Echoing the minstrels and performers of bygone eras, we want to revitalise the tradition of travelling actor/musicians popping up in all sorts of different spaces and entertaining all sorts of diverse audiences. In a Riddlestick show, music fills the space. Stepping into a room with us should be like stepping into a secret carnivalesque party full of friends. A bit like in the film Titanic when Jack takes Rose down to the Irish party in third class. There’s a real sense of fun. There can be a lot of pretentiousness and snobbery in theatre. Shows that aim to make people laugh and have a good time are sometimes dismissed as being silly and somehow worth less. We’re certainly trying to cut through that. The simple act of bringing people together to share a story is hugely valuable in its own right.
You know a good show when its happened, what are the special ingredients?
As I’ve just mentioned, atmosphere is a really important part of it. There’s an elusive, ineffable aura that comes with some shows. Sometimes it hits you immediately, and sometimes it crawls up on you weeks later. Fascination. I like to feel fascinated. Whether it be a West End musical or a verbatim play about toxic masculinity, it’s always nice to be left with a mind full of fascination. In the immortal words of Danish pop group Alphabeat: “we live on fascination.”
Can you tell us about The Cabinet of Madame Fanny Du Thé?
The Cabinet of Madame Fanny Du Thé invites the audience to meet the eccentric 18th century explorer, Madame Fanny, and to take their pick from her cabinet of curiosities. For whichever curio they choose, we perform the elaborate tale behind it. Amongst other crazy events, she battles with pirates and parties with Marie Antoinette. But while we’re all revelling in her outrageous stories, somebody far more serious is on the way to bring her down to earth. It’s a celebration of curiosity and story-telling, with lots of live original music, and we allow the audience to hand-pick the tall tales they are told.
Can you tell us about the musical side of ‘The Cabinet’.
Music is a huge part of the show! For starters, there are lots of songs. We draw inspiration from a different genre for each of the different stories we tell, Django Reinhardt hot jazz and Kraftwerk-inspired surreal techno to name but a couple; all woven together with our folky sound. Pretty much the entire show is underscored. I guess if I had to pick one primary influence, it would be Balkan folk music. You can head to our Spotify and Vimeo pages to get a taste of the music we like listening to. On stage with us we have a guitar, cello, piano-accordion and six voices that help conjure up Fanny’s world of adventure. Most of the time, we’re performing in very intimate spaces which really allows us to fill the room with sound whilst creating a real spectacle in the process.
Being a pop-up theatre, you must have to make certain sacrifices in stagecraft – can you give us an example or two of what is affected, & how as a troupe you adapt to the situation?
We love it! Aside from making technical rehearsals a hell of a lot easier, it is actually very freeing. It’s about stripping theatre back to its storytelling essence. There’s no hiding place. We create this array of worlds on stage with only our words, bodies, instruments and a little basket of props. And most importantly, it means we can be truly accessible and take the show everywhere and anywhere. One of my favourite memories of doing this show was when we performed it in a forest at Brainchild Festival (just up the road from Brighton), peeping out from behind trees, the audience all huddled together in blankets, the sun peeking through the branches, with only the distant sound of kids wailing at the nearby Go Ape to compete with.
You are bringing ‘The Cabinet’ to this year’s Brighton Fringe, what are your thoughts on that romantic, seagirt city?
I love coming to Brighton (usually on a replacement bus). It’s an incredibly vibrant, welcoming and creative place. Plus it’s often sunny when I’ve been there. Long may that continue.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the play to somebody in the streets of Brighton, what would you say?
Come to our riotous musical comedy and choose the curious tales we tell! Action, romance, comedy, tragedy, brilliant live music, a fabulous and fierce leading lady and a bunch of men in dresses. One of the Guardian’s Best Shows at the Edinburgh Fringe 2018!
What will you be doing for the rest of 2019?
We have a couple of other festival dates cropping up later this year, and I’m delighted to say that Fanny will be going on another summertime jaunt to the Scottish capital in August. Beyond that, there may well be a new show lurking up our collective sleeves.