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Who are the people behind the mask of ‘Absolutely Reliable’
The Mumble tracked down one of them to find out
Hello Ralf, first things first, where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
Hi Mumble, I am German, living in Brussels, Belgium.
Can you tell us about your training?
My training? Throughout the last 5 years, I went through a heck of different trainings in Clown & Mask work, improvisation theatre and acting. My main teachers have been Keith Johnstone (CA), Lee Delong (F), Shawn Kinley (CA), John Turner (CA), Inbal Lori (IR) and Kelly Agathos (GR) & Ben Hartwig (D). Aside of that I am a trained electrician and I have a PhD in Organization Theory.
What is it about performing in front of other people that makes you tick?
It’s a moment of intense connection. Especially clown work made me aware of how thrilling being totally in the moment and drawing a strong connection between the emotionality of the audience and my own can be. Your body is ‘on’ with every cell. It’s addictive.
Can you tell us about your day job?
I am a Professor of Applied Arts at Vlerick Business School, Belgium. I teach topics like leadership, communication skills, change management and Design Thinking. All of that I teach on the pillars of Applied Improvisation, Clowning, enriched by the experiences I made with Social Dance like Lindy Hop and Argentine Tango. I discovered the power of Performing Arts for non-artistic environments like business or politics around 5 years ago. And since then, I took mind-sets, methodologies and exercises from Performing Arts and employed it in my classroom and with my clients. With mind-boggling results and impact. In that sense, I have the immense privilege to do Arts every day. And given my originally rather technical engineering background, its sheer fun, exiting, transforming and fulfilling. Today I am someone very different compared to 5 years ago.
What does your perfect Sunday afternoon look like?
Oh. Having a cup of tea on my lap and staring out of the window for hours is all I need.
You’re performing at this year’s Brighton Fringe; can you tell us about the show?
“Absolutely Reliable!” is a solo mask show, in which George, a middle aged, middle class and middle manager, desperately longs for love, attention, confirmation and proximity by his beloved girlfriend Josephine. He is just not prepared to deal with it when it materializes. He realizes that he has to invest, commit and display himself with his own emotions, and that’s not what he is remotely capable of. So, his demons take over and throw him into a roller-coaster of love, desire, lust, fear, loss and death. It’s a mirror to modern day’s masculinity.
George, is a version of a prototypical western man based on … the traumas that alpha males face in a business world now shaped by the need to diversify workforces and for managers to be more empathetic. The character of George, a white, middle-aged, middle-class, middle manager [is] desperate for both promotion in his company and for a relationship in his personal life – a confronting experience Jonathan Moules, Financial Times
Where, when & why was “Absolutely Reliable” created?
It was actually created out of frustration. I was looking for improv and/or clown peers to start a troupe in Brussels and nothing was materializing. So I asked my clown teacher, award winning director and actress Lee Delong (Molieres 2019), whether she could imagine creating a solo clown show with me. And she could 😊 It all started when the mask which I am wearing in the show, hit me in one of her workshops. ‘You don’t choose a mask, the mask chooses you’ (Lee Delong), and that is what happened. As quick as I had it on my face, my full physicality changed, Ralf disappeared and someone else took stage. That was the moment when we said ‘okay’, let’s find out who this is. And so George appeared. Lee and myself worked several days together to get going. She provoked the mask and the character responded and revealed himself through my physicality. The scenes as they are appearing in the show are substantially based on those initial improvisations. The text I narrate is actually the slightly edited note of those improvisations. The show was produced through my body in combination with the mask, driven by the provocations and side-coaching of Lee.
What is the underlying message behind your show?
Ha! That’s difficult to say, since we didn’t sit down and said ‘Let’s do a show about XYZ’. We had the mask, we had the response of the character, my body and the improvised scenes. Lee then connected the different scenes and directed me in playing them. The mask certainly gave me permission to release deeply rooted inner fears and traumas as much as dreams and desires, that George displays and struggles with. But George is not me. The mask evokes things that are not me. And so the visible result is a meltdown of something which is me and something which is not. And mostly, I struggle with what is actually what. Given the topics of toxic masculinity and #metoo, George becomes a prototypical modern westernized man who is incapable to manage his emotions, to substantially open up to others, to make himself vulnerable. But overall, the message of the play is driven by the context in which you watch it. If you put the show into a different perspective, you see something different. We discovered that it’s like a prism. It will break light accordingly to how it is projected onto it. Masculinity is one angle, femininity might be another.
How are you finding working with director and co-writer Lee Delong?
It’s an experience that changed my life. Lee is extraordinary in how she sees the gold in the dust, she recognizes them in the smallest cues. She looks through your levels of fear and all your shields of protection, in a loving way. With decades of experience as actress, director and teacher, she challenges you to the bones and kicks your ass hard. But she knows exactly where your boundaries are, how far she can push. I feel challenged but safe in her hands at the same time. That allowed me a developmental journey throughout the last years far beyond my imagination. I had no idea how far that would go. And The result is amazing to me, every day.
George is the prototype of a modern man….an example of a man who may have conquered the universe but lost the battle against himself. And we cannot laugh at such a character, even when he is funny. Olga Vujovic (Kritikaz.com)
Its been 3 years since you performed the show at the Edinburgh Fringe. How has it evolved in that time?
After the strikingly positive reviews from the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Lee has mainly refined the existing play. We polished the story arc, brought in more tension and escalation and worked on the characters in the play. Especially Josephine, George’s subject of desire, has turned out to be much stronger than before.
In between, of course, was the Age of Covid. How did the pandemic affect as you as both an individual & a performer?
To me personally, it’s been a time of paralysis, anger and of being lost. Before, I have been overloading myself with work and extensive traveling. When travel and social contact was taken away, I had to realize that both, overwork and travel were just escape mechanisms of not facing myself being frustrated and unable to hold myself. So being trapped inside my 4 walls was dammed confronting. George, the character from the show, appeared several times in front of my inward eye and was waving from afar … Then my mother passed away, being isolated in lockdown herself, which just pushed me over the cliff. It took me months to reground, re-stabilize. With the clear decision of working and traveling less. Let’s see how long that holds ;). Lee and I continued working during the Covid lockdowns on-line to develop our new collaboration, The Heist, which we have now been able to complete in person and will open in the 2022 Zagreb Clown Festival.
Are you looking forward to visiting Brighton – any tourist plans while you are in the city?
Oh, you know, I am a sea ghost. I missed being on an ocean all the way through the pandemic and just being close to the water turns me into another human being. I can’t wait to have sea salt on my tongue and beach pebbles beneath my feet. I have wonderful improv friends in Brighton, who have been close to me during the pandemic and reuniting with them will be nourishing.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the “Absolutely Reliable” to somebody in the streets of Brighton, what would you say?
“Absolutely Reliable!” is a surreal show about how fucked up modern men are. It displays the deep anxieties and despair of male, in a funny, off beat, striking and tender way. Those anxieties have hardly been displayed that openly.”
Sweet @ The Poets
May 27-30 (16:15 – 17:30)
“It’s about feeling alive”. Music is a great many things to different people. For two aging and forgotten rockstars, it’s a chance at redemption, to set their lives back on the right track. Venture Wolf’s third production at the fringe finds the special effect that music has, and runs with the idea, allowing for some pretty strong emotions to surface. But with a confused script that feels more like a clash of ideas than a successful jam session, Vinyl Encore misses that special connection it was aiming for.
One morning, a guitarist for a modern hit-making band, Kieran Kurtz, finds himself in the house of 70’s cult rocker King A. The previous evening, the two had come together on a night out, both trying to chat up a record producer. As the haze of the morning clears, the producer’s promise is revealed – he’ll release a record for both of them, so long as they record it together. Instantly the battle of age and style is clear.
Playing King, AW King is completely believable as a rock star. He is a punk rocker whose lyrics are like psychedelic poetry. Kurtz, played more straight laced by Paul Vitty, is insecure about his talent as a guitarist, keen to play far more than just three chords in a song. The dream to work together is about as madcap as they come, but as the jamming begins the possibility starts to look quite attractive. Competent musicians, at first King’s lyrics don’t quite fit Vitty’s improv guitar, but there is a spark of something. Aping the heavy guitar rock sound of the White Stripes, and highly reminiscent of DIY punk, there’s potential here for excellence with some polish.
The problem with Vinyl Encore’s production is that it promises the two will get over their differences and end up creating something harmonious and unique, but they never do. The music never quite reaches brilliance, and the other elements of the script echo this. Unstructured, the dialogue can feel a little too improvisational sometimes, meaning that the lines crash into each other as much as the characters. Both musicians are clearly going through more personally than just a career slump, but the story beats don’t combine in such a way that the emotion can be felt. It’s not that they are unlikeable characters, in fact, they are quite relatable. It’s just that the convoluted and sometimes absurd nature of the script doesn’t allow for sufficient empathy to build.
An ominous knock at the door propels this production towards its conclusion, with a sense that something more slick could have achieved a far greater effect. Both Vitty and King bring the required emotion to their respective roles, and their passion for music is so clear. But in the end, they don’t quite manage to articulate why the music made them feel so alive.
theSpace @ Surgeons’ Hall
12th-17th August 18:05
19th-24th August 19:05
Despite the rather over-gratuitous flyer, there is a lot more going on to B’Witches than a plastic doll with a big penis. The appendage has only a small part to play in what is in effect a four-way exhibition of dazzling acting & sparkling chemistry. The story is simple; there are three witches, one of whom has been turned into a Barbie doll by another, who was jealous about her seeing her ex. Its time to find a reversal spell, but just like Getafix in Asterix & the Magic Potion, there was a hitch. Camilla came back from her ‘plastic prison cell’ as a man. No better, then, than the deliciously camp Eden McDougall to play her. He was a total comedy trooper, as if the young Andy Bell had taken up acting instead of forming Erasure.
My favourite bit is when Camilla discovers she has a penis! We went charity shop hunting for my costumes and scared off a few of their customers with our in-shop catwalk display. Eden McDougall
Read the full interview…
The other two witches are Pili Vergara & Hannah Hughes, whose own cheeky personalities flourish through their parts of Rosa & D’Arcy, bringing levels of fresh reality to the play. Then there is Jack Thomas, who plays something of a narrator/master of ceremonies with a certain stylish dash. Their arena is the Outhouse, who have set up a gorgeous & intimate ’round’ of a space, & B’Witches use it superbly; flitting in & out of the seats, scurrying up onto perches – proper rubber balls of fun bounding through modern colloquialisms.
B’Witches is as jolly as a Restoration masque, & pleasantly short at about 40 minutes, while at all times they looked pure fabulous in their joyishly garish costumes straight out of the 1980s. Along the way we get to giggle off a carousel of alliances, killer-lines & cherry blossoms of the eponymous bitchiness. A lovely, fluffy affair, B’Witches will have you in stitches!
Damian Beeson Bullen
The Outhouse Bar
Aug 15-25 (14.00)
Assembly Rooms – Front Room
Aug 9-13, 15-24 (17:10)
William Hartley has drifted from the Clever Peter troupe into the legendary life of a cowboy called Roscoe ‘Blackjack’ Porter. It is time for a daring full-length celebration of Hartley’s talents as he conjures twenty-five characters & every western catchphrase in the lexicon to shine a light on Roscoe’s flailing world. The main character, it seems, has been dragged through the cacti backwards, oppressed by desperate thoughts, but is still smiling. From him, like kaleidoscopic shards of light, the other 24 parts are played through accent deviations, slight costume changes, & a puppet shaped like a cactus. Of the many parts, Roscoe’s brother, John, is the most important figure for the plot, a plainly noble family-man sheriff, whose polar opposite Roscoe tells us; ‘Its funny how you can have the same ma, the same pa, & more or less the same upbringing, but one of you turns out to be a prissy dic£head.”
A lot of the familiarity-friendly action takes place in the Mucky Donkey salon, where its, ‘outside for shooting, inside for drinking,’ with a brothel upstairs. When Roscoe frequents the brothel later in the play, the results are quite eye-opening to say the least. On another occasion the gatling gun turns up one of its first ever historical outings to the line, ‘there are a million ways to die in the West, but this one is best,’ which was actually a brilliant, out-of-the-box inclusion, I loved that. As for the rest, yeah, its good, proper buzzin’ in places, but the speed of character changes & the minimum of trappings which Hartley uses to blur our receptors is just a tad tricky to follow at times. Gun is, in all essence, a western comic strip for adults, brought to life with a gallop like a cowboy chasing a prize steer.
Damian Beeson Bullen
The Mumble remain dedicated to their role as
The most progressive publication at the Fringe
Every Sunday I like to go to Stockbridge & buy a couple of pounds of my favorite grapes, which arrive there from Mauritius that morning. Chomping on a juicy handful last Sunday, I began making my way up through the New Town, arriving in the York Place area where the trams are. This is Stand country, & a few years ago was the epicentre of laughter in the Fringe. These days its all a bit like a weekday wake & might as well be out in Fife, for there has been a seismic shift to one Edinburgh street in particular – the sloping, cobbled thoroughfare between the Cowgate & the Bridges that is Blair Street. This is the real epicentre of Fringe comedy these days; where comedians, punters & flyerers mingle in a smiling Sunset Strip.
Things evolve, & the stranglehold The Stand had on making people pay for ‘safe’ mainstream comedy has been utterly smashed by the innovations of the Free Fringe & its quality, liberty-laden shows. All things change – I mean I’m actually writing this article on a speech-to-text app walking through Holyrood Park on the way into town. So if Fringe comedy can evolve, what about the ancient art of reviewing. Think of those Greeks who first stepped down from the Dionysis theatre during the reign of Pesistratus, who had just observed the very first play there from its seats, who have been babbling opinions & critiques to each other as soon as they left the hilltop. Criticism is as old as the performance art it observes, so how does its own evolution fare in 2019?
Well, not that much really. Beyond the windows of Mumble Towers, the Fringe Press of 2019 seems an archaic institution – chained to amateur rules dished out by a hereditary feudal demense, & a narrow luddite marking system which, even if the stars are split into halves, can only ever give a ‘marks out of ten’ assessment. But half-stars are an ugly aesthetic, a deformed evolution of the species. Like Darwin says, it’s not the biggest or the fastest that survives, but the one that adapts. If the five-star marking system is not to go extinct, it must evolve from its primitive 5-point Ape, through the Homo Erectus 10-point system of halves, & into something more suitable for an increasingly sophisticated modern world.
The trained reviewer can actually feel a show’s quality as 1,2,3,4,5 within moments of the start. So what are the intangible spirits that provide such an esoteric sensastion. Since 2016, the Mumble had identified three factors in each of its genres. For Comedy, we had Material, Delivery & Laughs; while for Theatre we had Stagecraft, Script & Performance. This was an improvement on the old system, where now in essence a score was obtained between 1 and 15, the Neanderthal if you will. As the Mumble went into the 2019 Fringe, we were still using this system, but have finally recognized there was still a certain imprecision to the scoring.
Under our old system, to obtain four stars, for example, a show needed to score 3.66 – which is simply closer to 4 than 3. The overall marks would then be described as a low four, a natural four or a high four. The eureka moment came the other day while sitting in two comedy shows. On one occasion I was the only one laughing, while at the other show the room was in uproar & I was sat stony-gilled. It was time to add that factor into the marking mix, the Room… how does a comedian play their audience, do they keep tickling funny bones like a comedy octopus, or is each viewer sat there playing on their phones.
Material: Delivery: Laughs: Room:
The Room category in Comedy has a natural cousin in Theatre. I have called it S.O.D, with the first review to use it being published yesterday (before this article). Quick off the mark, the company sent me this email;
We have asked our wonderful PR company; we have asked the amazing Pleasance Press Office; we have asked the astonishing Head of Programming at The Pleasance – no one can help.
We are delighted by our review by the excellent Daniel Donnelly, but no one seems to know what S.O.D. stands for!
Please can you elucidate?
(and I’ll get the prize for the first one home with the answer!)
The answer is, of course, Suspension of Disbelief. I know my poetry, & within Coleridge’s wonderful Biographia Literia, he elucidated on the driving phantasian spirit behind his co-creation of the Lyrical Ballads with Wordsworth. Its essence is the state of mind reached where there is, ‘a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith… awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us.’ In modern lay terms its like switching off reality & becoming immersed in the production. Is that your mate Nigel before you? Do you see them behind the make-up, or are you lost in the drama & believe this drag-queen before you is the fabulous Nigella?
The introduction of another genome into the star system, the aforetitled Expansion of the Mumbleverse, seems wholly natural. Our planet is divided into four seasons, the main elements are still earth, fire, air & water. The four bodily humors were part of Shakespearean cosmology, inherited from the ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses divided the Ages into Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron. Now the reviewing star system can also be divided into four harmonious parts. Marking-wise, to obtain those 4 stars, a show must now be awarded at least 3.75 points as opposed to 3.66. The overall marking goes like this
19-20 = 5 stars
15-18 = 4 stars
11-14 = 3 stars
7-10 = 2 stars
1-6 = 1 star
As cultural surveyors, The Mumble can now give a more detailed account of a show for both artist & potential audience member – its now a case of, “you need to sort your tiles out, pal, and there’s a bit of damp in your back bedroom – you’re wirings seen better days and of course you’re gonna have to update your boiler system, it’ll never pass the new laws.”
Damian Beeson Bullen
The Last King of Porn is a play full of ambition. We are landed upon the set of a snuff porn film production. Tragedy, incest, lingerie and shadows are our themes. An Italian Stallion makes his final film, employing a hundred porn stars engaging in what they do behind a curtain, painting the action as silhouettes. Meanwhile, female porn stars wait for their number to be called for their turn.
This is where the drama unfolds, in the waiting room. The youngest of the cast discovers she had been conceived on the set of a vintage porno, back in the olden days when porn stars had a full bush. The film had starred tonight’s Italian stallion, who she was just about to be filmed being with! Her Dad! The plan is too snuff him out with a cyanide pill, and just for good measure finish the job with a pair of scissors – presumably to save the severed member as a token of a job well done.
Such a crazy story could live only in the world of porn. I tried to do it in the least aggressive way as possible. The play is for a mature public Alessandro Onorato
Read the full interview
With English not being the mother tongue of the cast members present, one cannot help thinking that the script would have been better portrayed in Italian with English subtitles. On second thoughts, one can only wonder what inspired such a sick & twisted concept of endemic violence. OK, we do have Oedipus, but that incest was done much more tastefully. But then again, is it even possible to approach the subject of porn, especially snuff porn, in a sensitive way? Maybe as an opera. Operas are full of this kind of tragedy.
Mark ‘Divine’ Calvert
Greenside @ Infirmary Street
Aug 2-17 (21:50)
Each Fringe the Bedlam Theatre display top quality drama. Mark ‘Divine’ Calvert went along to see just what this season holds…
Tonight I attended a press launch for a Fringe venue called Bedlam. The Theatre itself is a neogothic church, built in 1840 by one of The New Town’s chief architects, pon the site of the Old Town poorhouse, deriving its name from a nearby asylum for people with mental health issues. It is the oldest Fringe Venue in Edinburgh and, interestingly, the first production performed in its spooky holy enclaves was by a company that came from Bradford that was in 1970. This made me feel right at home. Divine’s from Bradford. A good bit of Yorkshireness never goes amiss. I settled in straight away with a few complementary gins and started to mingle with the excited thespians. The press-pack that I received revealed all the performances that are to be held at The Bedlam Theatre this Fringe.
We were called into the auditorium for a snapshot of a few of the performances being held there – a common theme being the reasons that people would have been incarcerated into the mental health system of the 1840s. Mental Health, Homosexuality, Transgender and Lesbian action. This made me feel even more at home. Divine’s always been a transgender bender. A gay girl trapped in a man’s body with no gender issues, a chick with a dick that has never had the op.
There was a lot to take in. An hour that tempted the audience with the smorgasbord of delights, my fave being a production called Splintered – A Queer Caribbean carnival. Sprinkled with sad truths and joyful lies and based on interviews with queer women in Trinidad and Tobago. Firmly on Divine’s review list. Then the director and host of the Late Night Sessions arrived, a very fetching performer herself. Mirroring the ethos of the main programme, Taliah has aimed to use Late Night to provide a platform for disempowered voices. I couldn’t have felt more at home. Then there was a comedian that was genuinely funny, called Ken Cheng, who is running a show called “To All The Racists I’ve Blocked Before.”
I didn’t expect to be touched as deeply as I was tonight. The Bedlam revealed just how progressive theatre has become. All the subject matters were relevant to me and my experience through life. Bradford was just as homophobic in the 80s as I could imagine the Caribbean is today. The Bedlam Theatre offers a safe place for people to be real. If you want to Come Out and play, The Bedlam Theatre is calling you. Divine’s Top Pick and The fringe hasnae started yet. ❤
Good Time Divinexxx
Sex, Love, Comedy, Drama & of course, Annie Lennox, all meet in a magical play from Death & the Dominatrix
Hello Chris, first things first, where are you & Karen from, & where are you at, geographically speaking?
It’s a long-distance working relationship – Karen’s in Huddersfield, I’m in London.
What for you makes a good piece of theatre?
I want to think, but not to think I’m thinking. Not to be told to think. I want the author and the actors to slide in bits of thinking under my consicousness without me realising it.
I go to the theatre to be entertained, really.
Can you tell us about your experiences at last year’s Global Motion Picture Awards?
Surreal! I entered two screenplay competitions – I got to the quarter finals of the PAGE International Sceenplay, which is a biggie, and randomly entered another one for no reason I could think of. Then I got the email saying I’d won both Best Screenplay and Best Character Development. That was it. No Business Class flight to Los Angeles, no ticker-tape parade down Hollywood Boulevard – just the email. It’s great to have the recognition. Any writer will tell you how painful it can be to keep writing, not knowing whether anyone really rates or appreciates it. I could still have done with meeting Susan Sarandon, though.
Can you tell us about Two Foolish Productions & your role?
We put together Two Foolish Productions just as an experiment to take a play to the Edinburgh Fringe and three years on we’re still experimenting. I’ve got this not-so-guilty passion for the music of the 80s and I wanted to know whether I could write plays that would incorporate that. Get Fit With Bruce Willis was a title that randomly leapt into my mind one day. So far the plays have used the music of Jimmy Somerville, Marc Almond and Annie Lennox. We both like comedies that have a heart. Something that makes you care for the characters even as you’re laughing at them. We like our characters vulnerable. Karen’s a fabulous director and slave-driver, and she also has a great mind for plotting. I always say these plays are co-written but she doesn’t see that, as she never actually puts any words down on the page. She’s the organ grinder. I’m just the monkey.
You’re bringing a new play to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe – can you tell us about it?
It’s a play about power and sex and love and disappointment. Karen plays an ageing Dominatrix who’s summoned to the afterlife by Death. But not death as we know it… he’s had a rebranding, now he’s more touchy-feely, more user-friendly. She’s a hard-nosed businesswoman, he’s a corporate suit. Turns out both these are just shells for the real person underneath.
What is it about being performing in front of other people that makes you tick?
I don’t think it’s about being ‘in front’ of people – the great thing about live theatre is that you’re in the room with them. We’re on a journey together and even though I’ve been through this journey many times – performances and rehearsals – I still want to make it fresh and real. That’s the challenge, and it’s great…
Comedy-drama is a difficult theatrical genre – what are the secret ingredients behind a good mix?
When we find out, we’ll let you know! You have to believe the characters. You have to believe that they’re always doing what they think is right, even if it’s a stupid idea. You know that cliché ‘act 1, force your character up a tree; act 2, throw stones at them; act 3, get them down’? That still holds, you just have to make the stones ridiculous and the tree preposterous. I really admire Richard Curtis (‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, ‘Love, Actually’ etc) even though I hate myself for admiring him. Every character has a gaping wound that he remorselessly exploits for drama. Comedy drama does that but just adds… err… comedy.
How much of the play’s main character, Maggie Taylor, is drawn from your own life?
Ha! How is a mini-skirted, thigh-length booted, corset-suited woman based on my life? Well… Karen and myself both enjoy talking about sex and we get an especial kick when we talk about it with younger people who seem to think that we should have forgotten about That Sort Of Thing since we’re both So Close To Death. So the fact that Maggie is unapologetic about being a Dominatrix and regards it as a perfectly valid career choice works for us. The relationship between Maggie and her impending death is also a chance to riff on existentialist themes. I like to think of myself as the Camus of BDSM. Sisyphus in high heels.
You premiered at this year’s Brighton Fringe – how did it go & have you tweaked the show since?
It went really well. We did small modifications during the run, but the time since then has allowed us to do bigger tweaks. Sadly our strongest discovery – that the title sucks – came too late to do anything about it for Edinburgh. We were already committed.
What is the biggest obstacle you overcame while putting your show together?
Quite often we’ve been in different continents. That’s quite challenging. Rehearsing by Skype doesn’t really allow you to practise prop setting (Karen’s biggest bugbear) though we got the lines crafted. The other big obstacle is common to every comedy writer – you never know whether a joke’s funny until the audience laughs. I’m devastated to have had to cut the original opening, which I loved… but nobody laughed. They were intrigued, but that’s not good enough at the start of a comedy.
How are you finding working with Karen Kirkup?
You call it ‘working with’, I call it ‘doing what I’m told’… It’s fab. She’s got such a good eye for structure, staging and plotting that I know I can come up with any idea, no matter how difficult to stage, and she’ll find a way round it. In Get Fit With Bruce Willis I wrote a nightmare scene in which she played four different characters all torturing my character. I think the script said ‘different hats, or whatever’, and I had absolute confidence that she’d either sort it out, or tell me why it was a bad idea dramatically.
Why are you using the songs of Annie Lennox and Eurythmics?
Get Fit With Bruce Willis was based around the songs of Jimmy Somerville and the groups he’s been in, because I look vaguely like him and I have a similar singing voice. Painted Love took on the songs of Marc Almond because I’ve always been a massive fan. That’s two male singers, time for a female one – and who is more iconic and evocative of 80s music than Annie Lennox? What a voice. What a stage presence.
We knew we’d got it right when almost everyone we mentioned it to had the same ‘ooh….’ reaction. We don’t try to imitate Annie (who could?), but the themes of her songs – empowerment, sexuality, love, vulnerability – all hit the dramatic spot.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the play to somebody in the streets of Edinburgh, what would you say?
It’ll make you laugh. It’ll break your heart. How often do you get whips, wit and existentialism in the same play? It’s sexy and it’s got a fabulous Annie Lennox soundtrack. Death goes management-speak – ‘it’s not death, it’s a negative lifestyle outcome’. Where else can you get all that at 1pm?
What will you be doing for the rest of 2019?
Writing the next play! Provisional title is ‘Hit Me, Baby’ (guess where we’re going musically with that one…) and Karen plays a woman who decides to take up boxing in later life but gets mistaken for a hit-woman. She finds herself unexpectedly contracted to take out a hit on a man’s wife…
Aug 19-25 (13:00)
On Thursday evening last week, James Brining, artistic director, Robin Hawke, Executive Director, Amy Leach, Associate Director and whole array of writers, directors and performers presented the autumn and winter season announcement for Leeds Playhouse, running through their upcoming attractions. This year, however, the announcement was coupled with something even more exciting.
Last year, James Brining, announced an extensive £15.8 million redevelopment programme to what was formerly West Yorkshire Playhouse. Alongside this, he announced a name change to Leeds Playhouse alongside. This is a dishearteningly separationist world that we currently find ourselves in, a world of Donald Tump’s oft-threatened country dividing wall, a world of that business around leaving the EU. Against this backdrop, this name change could be interpreted as something of an isolating move, of a theatre extricating itself from the rest of West Yorkshire and becoming solely a theatre for Leeds. However, from the content of Thursday’s showcase, it is quite clear that is not the case. Not only is the theatre firmly rooting itself in all things Yorkshire, providing a voice to established and upcoming voices, as well as reaching out to the rest of the UK and the world beyond. The Leeds in its name is more of a doubling down on its identity, a reaffirming of itself as an important part of the city of Leeds, imbuing its new walls with the character of the city around itself.
West Yorkshire Playhouse closed its doors on June 23rd 2018, and since that date has held performances in a converted set workshop, dubbed the Pop Up Theatre. This performance space has seen many superb performances. Over the past 9 months there have been performances of 14 shows and over 50, 000 audience members have attended these performances. There was an air of regret at having to leave this temporary performance space behind – its longer stage and more intimate feel has offered new ways perform and the team have clearly felt at home within its walls. However, this sadness is now tempered with the anticipation of what is to come. What was originally intended to be a quiet year for Leeds Playhouse whilst development works took place, has become one of great creativity and activity.
The revamped Leeds Playhouse will offer two rejuvenated performance spaces in the Quarry and Courtyard theatres as well as one exciting new performance space – the Bramall Rock Void: a performance space that has been created below the theatre’s old box office, developed in the ground of Leeds’ Quarry Hill itself. The old theatre, while of great significance to Leeds’ cultural backdrop, did not command much awe as a building. However this new building will be much grander in both height and scale, offering a greater connection to the city itself with new entrances opposite Leeds Bus Station and a short distance from the heart of Leeds city centre. The expanded building will offer new routes through its spaces and new ways for the public to engage within – with bars and cafes sitting alongside the Quarry, Courtyard and Rock Void. The team’s excitement was palpable, and they were very much looking forward to waiting in the theatre’s entrances and witnessing the public’s reactions on their opening weekend.
A challenge that the team faced as work continued deep down into Quarry Hill, was the surprise discovery of bodies buried beneath the theatre. Historically, there have been three churches situated on Quarry Hill – from the Old Boggart House Methodist Chapel, to St Mary’s Church. It is likely that these churches had burial grounds on site, hence the discovery. With a wry smile, it was noted that many established theatres have their own ghosts that lend them a mystery and charm, so with any luck their very modern building may inherit its own ghost. What better a symbol of a strong link to the area and to local history than a ghost, with echoes of the past overlaid on the present?
Another fantastic symbol of the link to place and past is the new performance space, the Bramall Rock Void. This is named after the Liz and Terry Bramall Foundation, who have supported the Playhouse over the years and have donated significant amounts of money to facilitate this new development. This underground theatre features exposed red brick walls that echo the sarchitecture of Leeds, filling it with local spirit and character. It also has exposed rock in the floor to connect it with the very foundations of the city. From 11th – October to 2nd of November, the Bramall Rock Void will feature its inaugural performance – There are No Beginnings by local writer Charley Miles, who has found her home at the Playhouse. Set at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper murders from the discovery of the first body to the eventual arrest of Peter Sutcliffe, the play follows the lives of four individual women as they deal with curfews and a time that gave birth to the Reclaim the Night movement. Charley Miles firmly insists that this is most certainly not a story about the Yorkshire Ripper, but one about female resilience; it is a positive affirmation of a dark time. The Rock Void is a flexible space that allows for many different seating arrangements and this play will be performed in traverse, with the audience seated at either side of the performers, in an intimate and atmospheric production. Miles is thrilled about having her work performed here and describes the Bramall Rock Void as “an unearthed heartbeat that was hidden under our theatre all along”.
As building work continues on Leeds Playhouse, so does work on Leeds City College’s new Quarry Hill Campus next door. This new neighbour has provided fresh opportunities and a new production signals the burgeoning connections between the playhouse and Leeds City College. Leeds Playhouse’s Youth Theatre will be performing Influence, a new play by Andy McGregor at Leeds City College’s new campus from 31stOctober to 2nd November. Directed by Gemma Woffinden and taking inspiration from modern TV shows such as Stranger Things, Influence presents a lively comedic adventure full of explosive action as a group of teenagers embark on a search for a missing local boy. This new partnership is one of many that extends and deepens the Playhouse’s connections to the wider communities across Leeds and Yorkshire as a whole. The team remain dedicated to supporting developing talent in the area, and then showing this off across the county.
One such production is Trojan Horse (3rd – 5th October) by Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead, a multi award winning play award winning play that will begin a national tour at Leeds Playhouse’s Courtyard theatre in advance of the full opening festivities. Originally developed through the playhouse’s Furnace programme, the play won the Scotsman Fringe First award in 2018. It deals with the allegations of Muslim teachers plotting extremism in Birmingham schools and is built around real life testimonies of people from Bradford, Birmingham and London. Many theatres and institutions were reluctant to get involved with this project and the company themselves were very concerned that the sensitive nature of their work could ruin the reputations of those involved. However, the Playhouse was supportive in this venture and are proud to place this performance at the very beginning of their opening celebrations.
Other planned performances are: Northern Ballet’s Dracula at the Courtyard Theatre (29th October – 2nd November), a performance that is due to be broadcast live to cinemas across the world; A new production of Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Launderette, running for two weeks (15th – 26th October) after the theatre’s opening weekend; Mushy: Lyrically Speaking (8th – 12th October), a true story about Musharaf Asghar from TV’s Educating Yorkshire;Barber Shop Chronicles, returning to Leeds after a sell out world tour. Additionally, there is a whole raft of performances aimed at a younger audience, designed to introduce them to theatre. In the run up to Christmas, they will be staging The Night Before Christmas, a play about language barriers that incorporating sign language into D/deaf friendly performances. This certainly highlights the theatre’s dedication to inclusive performance and its drive to create a fully accessible theatre experience.
Finally, we were treated to a snippet of the play Dinner 18:55, a play that was originally performed in February 2019, in advance of its UK tour. This is an intergenerational production born out the theatre’s Creative Engagement programme and features a cast of young people aged 18 to 21 and adults over 55. The play itself presents a moment in which two generations take time over a meal to converse and tell their stories. We got to hear two of the characters tell their stories: a young man mused on the nature of “success” in the age of social media and how he struggled to measure his own success against high profile success stories. Next, a retired social worker told his own life story and measured his experiences against this young man’s definitions of success, highlighting its truths and lies. Two cast members, Pat & Wisdom, spoke of their involvement in show, of bridging the generational divide and the opportunities presented that slowed them to tell their own personal stories as they improvised and collaborated on the writing of this production. This show, along with all of the others listed above, show exactly how much the Playhouse desires to reach out to the communities that surround it, to showcase local talent and develop their involvement in theatre.
Following a series of stress tests to ensure that the building is ready, along with the one coordinated toilet flush to ensure that the building can cope with its new influx of visitors, Leeds Playhouse will be ready to open its doors to the public.
Opening weekend will take place from 11th – 13th October, deliberately timed to coincide with Leeds’ hugely popular Light Night on 11th October. It presents a wonderful chance to explore the theatre’s new performance spaces, restaurants and bars, along with pop up performances in the atrium, tours and theatre workshops. The team have opted for a gradual opening, with each space having its own opening performance rather than one big bang event, and are very much looking forward to meeting their future audiences.
May 18 – June 1, 2019
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Be My Baby is a subtly gripping history lesson about an underexposed and somewhat shameful aspect of our collective past. Set in a home for unwed mothers it centers on the lives of a small group of young women from very different backgrounds who never the less find themselves in the same predicament: being single and pregnant at a time ( the early 1960’s) when to be so was tantamount to social suicide.
At the very heart of the play is Mary (Simona Bitmate), a young woman from a comfortable middle class background whose disapproving mother (played brilliantly by Jo Mousley – all brittle anxiety and superiority) is conflicted about leaving her in such a place.However under the firm hand of Matron, the head of austere St Saviours Mary begins to find her feet. She befriends the other girls, sassy, hardbitten Queenie ( Crystal Condie ), giddy, naive Dolores ( Tessa Parr )and serious, self-contained Norma ( Anna Gray) as they bond over their mutual incarceration and their shared love of soulful pop.
All have their individual fantasies of boyfriends, jobs and escape which they begin to reveal to each other, all in different levels of denial about their situation. The play started slowly creating a sense of time and place before gradually drawing the characters out (none of whom are entirely what they seem). I found the dialogue with its flashes of humour and underplayed emotion very naturalistic. The script relied as much on what was not said as what was. There was a sense that things were hinted at and suggested which made the gradual revelations both believable and all the more affecting. The potential heaviness of the subject matter too was handled in such a way that it seemed to gradually seep into the play almost imperceptibly until the quietly devastating final act.
At first we are encouraged to view matron as being a negative figure, the girls jailer a prudish and stern disciplinarian but such is the depth of the play that Matron is shown to have great empathy for the girls. There is a tenderness and care beneath her stiff exterior. Even during a deeply uncomfortable scene in which she forces Mary to understand how the world outside might view her we don’t doubt that this is done for the best intentions. Susan Twist’s performance as Matron is a masterclass in restraint, with tenderness and deep feeling glimpsed beneath her character’s stiff exterior.
In fact the script encourages the audience to empathise with all the differing perspectives of the characters to the extent that we can see how everyone is equally struggling with social rules they had no say in making. For though this is a play about women men still act as a shadowy presence off stage, their actions pushing the events of the story as much as the women on it. In this way the play shows how all the women are contained and restrained by the expectations and desires of the men around them. Even the sassy Queenie appears to ultimately accept that to imagine another way is nothing but a pipe dream.
The play has something to say about class too as it looks at the different expectations the girls and others have of them. The interplay between Queenie and Mary, showing how the former’s inverted snobbery stops her from seeing they are both equally trapped. The actors all have good material to work with and all manage to create fully realised nuanced performances. No-one here is a cliché or cypher yet through them the show explores issues as varied as back-street abortions, rape and forced adoption. I found the relationship between Queenie, the tough cynic with dreams of pop stardom and Mary, the naive girl from the genteel background with the steely resolve particularly finely drawn. It felt like we were watching the growth, blossoming and wilting of a friendship before our very eyes.Although both the script and performances are uniformly excellent some of the credit for making the play a success must go to the overall design, sound and lighting.
The costumes of the characters were cleverly used in a symbolic way. . The pastel pinks,purples and blues of the parental figures denoting a faded authority, the grey pinafores of the girls seeming to suggest a desire to turn back them back into little girls, whilst also implying the dull uniformity of the prison yard. The overall use of a limited palette in terms of costume and set allowed the performances themselves the space to breathe which they needed. The set which could – given the time period of the play – have been used in a more hackneyed way was used to convey a sense of sterility, it’s minimalist grey cabinets, shelves and boxes evoking more the furnishing department of a high street department store than the swinging 60’sof lore.
The only element which did place us in a particular time-frame was the play’s imaginative use of music. Between each scene change we hear and see the girls sing along to 60’s pop which wittily expressed their situation. Towards the beginning when a moment of romantic pop segued and merged with a hymn and later as the music overlapped a wistful monologue this was handled in such a masterful way as to really hit me in the gut. The lighting, subdued throughout was particularly effective during the spotlit birthing scene. This created a real sense of wonder as the actress performed in a kind of flowing, slow-moving mime the act of her baby bulge becoming a living, breathing child.
I found the play to be unexpectedly moving as I found myself drawn into the lives of these young women journeying with them through their excitements, fears, frustrations and disappointments. It was all the more emotionally rich for being performed by all with such obvious care and empathy. Ultimately it was a fitting tribute to the lives of all those young women whose unknown story it now told so well.