Not out of laughs

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Drama doesn’t have to mean serious, comedy doesn’t have to mean stand-up… we take a look at some comedy-dramas coming to our theatre this season.


It probably started as a bit of mischief… Mischief Theatre that is, the creators of the all-conquering The Play That Goes Wrong. The comedy that started as a very small scale production by a group of drama school graduates, performed in a room over a pub, grew into an Olivier Award-winning, West End conquering phenomenon. They followed it up with the equally successful Peter Pan Goes Wrong (televised over Christmas) and The Comedy About A Bank Robbery.

Now, Mischief’s first success, The Play That Goes Wrong, is once again touring the UK (it’s also heading to Broadway) giving audiences the chance to laugh themselves silly all over again. It’s with us in August, but you don’t have to wait until then for a funny night out at the theatre. Inspired by Mischief Theatre’s success (and also that of plays like the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guv’nors, producers are showing more interest in comedy-drama, meaning we have some very funny things to offer you in the coming months.

First up is Out Of Order, which comes to us at the end of March. This is a tale of confusion and misbehaviour in the corridors of power (surely not! ), which begins when a junior government minister begins a relationship with a young lady working for the Opposition… The play, which is written and directed by Ray Cooney, ‘the king of comedy’ was first performed under the title Whose Wife Is It Anyway? before being revived under its current name in 1990. This revival will star Shaun Williamson, best known for playing Barry in EastEnders, but who recently showed off his comedy chops during a guest appearance in our Marlowe 5 Gala Performance. He’ll be joined by Susie Amy (Footballers’ Wives) and Sue Holderness (Only Fools And Horses, Green Green Grass).

As if this wasn’t enough, we’ll also be bringing you Don’t Dress For Dinner, a side-splitting comedy of duplicity, which stars Marlowe pantomime favourite Ben Roddy – not as ‘a fat bloke in a dress’ as we’re used to seeing him, but in his ‘day job’ as a proper actor. He’s taking on the lead role of  Bernard, who is looking forward to a weekend with his Parisian mistress while his wife is away (men behaving badly is a theme of comedy drama). He’s invited his best friend along as an alibi. What could possibly go wrong? Well, pretty much everything, which is of course where the fun begins…

So if you need a laugh in these troubled times, you know where we are…

 Out Of Order: Monday 27 March to Saturday 1 April. Book here.

Don’t Dress For Dinner: Monday 8 & Tuesday 9 May. Book here.

The Play That Goes Wrong: Monday 31 July to Saturday 5 August. Book here.

Curious: meet the director

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Marianne Elliott on the set of Curious

We speak to Marianne Elliott, the director of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, about the process of bringing the novel to the screen.


Were you a fan of Mark Haddon’s book before you started working on The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time?
Yes I was a real fan of the book. I read it when it first came out and absolutely loved it. I never thought in a million years that it would be adapted for the stage. In fact I thought it was a book you couldn’t really adapt.

How did you feel when you got the script from Simon Stephens?
Simon asked me to read a script that he’d spent some time on as a favour. I realised it was an adaptation of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. I had absolutely no expectation and thought it’s really impossible to adapt. I had no idea that he was asking me to direct it, although he’s just told me recently that it was his secret plan. It was quite good actually because I read it with an open mind. I wasn’t worried about how I was going to stage it or thinking ‘is this ever going to work?’ You often read scripts you think you’re going to direct and think what on earth is going to happen? I saw it as a film at first. I read it a couple of times and I knew I loved it. I thought it was very visceral and incredibly emotional. I had no idea how you’d do it, absolutely none. At that time there wasn’t much help in the stage directions for things like Christopher’s journey London. I just thought it’s an amazing story and he’s found a way to make it work, with lots of voices rather than just Christopher.

How did you come up with the idea that the whole stage was Christopher’s mind?
That was a long, long process. For a long time, we were going along the route of it being a play within a play and if it was that, who are the performers? Are they his teachers? Are they his school friends? If they’re his teachers – where are they doing the play? Then we thought it could be in a school hall. So the play was going to be set in a school hall for a really long time. Eventually through lots of conversations, lots of meetings and lots of playing with the model box Bunny said she thought it should be more magical than that. I was really keen that it shouldn’t be too high tech; that it wasn’t some great big illusion; that it had to look like it was all created by people on stage – humans making the story. But between us we eventually came to a happy place that it should be his brain and that it should be a box, and that in the box there are lots of magic tricks. But the magic tricks aren’t down to incredible moving digital scenery, it’s to do with seeing how the humans create the magic.

Do you think the role of Christopher is a challenging one to play for the actor?
It’s a really, really difficult role and difficult to cast actually because he has to be young but, inevitably, young usually means inexperienced and the actor has to be on stage the whole time. He has to drive every scene and he’s always the focal point. There are a lot of words to say and on top of that he has to understand what it is to be this kid. He has to understand what it is to feel emotions and to feel them very intensely but not be able to identify or channel or articulate them. He’s got to be highly traumatised on the journey to London and he’s got to be quite obstreperous as a character but yet you’ve got to like him. He’s got to be really very adept physically. High demands on all levels and therefore a very difficult part to play.

That’s why there are two Christophers – it’s too physically demanding to do eight shows a week because it is such an incredibly demanding role.

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time has received many awards and plaudits, and has played to hundreds of thousands of people world-wide. What do you think it is about the play that resonates with audiences?
Lots of people relate to having a really inspirational teacher who, amongst the midst of disappointment that every other adult gives you, can see potential in a child. Also, it’s about parenting and about families – parents who are flawed but desperately trying to do their best. They’re really trying to put Christopher first in everything, they just get it wrong. It’s also about Christopher – he’s highly vulnerable and highly limited in some ways yet manages to triumph and succeed in a way that’s beyond even his dreams.

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time: Monday 6 to Saturday 11 March. Book here.

A curious adaptor

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Simon Stephens on the set of Curious

We speak to Simon Stephens, the award-winning playwright who adapted Mark Haddon’s hugely successful novel, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, for the stage.


How did you go about adapting Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, which Mark himself had described as unstageable.
The innate dramatic charge of his dialogue means his work is eminently stageable. I spent some time trying to separate the narrative from the prose of the book. I worked through it listing all the events that happened in the story. I then spent some time transcribing the direct speech. I had the hunch that in the direct speech there would be clues as to the books dramatic heart. It was through this that I came up with the idea of using Siobhan as a narrator. She is one of only three people who read Christopher’s book in the novel and her view point is so much like the novel’s readers. I also think that the idea of a favourite teacher is one many people can relate to. She’s a peripheral character in the novel but central to the play.

What do you think the story is about and why does it appeal to readers and theatre-goers?
I think it’s a story about family. I think it’s about what it’s like to raise a child or be raised; to parent or have parents. I think it’s a celebration of the capacity for bravery in the most unlikely of environments. Stories of bravery resonate. Stories of families resonate.

Can you tell us something about the staging and why you think Marianne Elliott was the right choice to direct the play.
Marianne has an innate sense of democracy. She combines a fearlessly and ferociously theatrical imagination with a real concern for her audience. She and designer Bunny Christie and the rest of the artistic team committed completely to trying to get into Christopher’s head and dramatise his world from within. That’s what watching the play feels like. It feels like you’re in Christopher’s brain.

How involved were you with the creative process?
I was at a fair few rehearsals – mainly to offer occasional re-writes and a very few insights into the progression. But Marianne and her team were so robust that they didn’t need me too much. I mainly turned up late and tried to make everybody a cup of tea.

I understand you were a teacher. How did that inform your writing and how did you make the leap from teaching to become a playwright?
I think both writing and teaching operate from the same optimism. The writer and the teacher work from the assumption that they can make the world better and they can change people. I loved teaching and the kids I taught continue to live with me in my imagination and inspire my work. I never stopped writing while I was teaching and after a while Ian Rickson at the Royal Court Theatre read my plays and asked me to be his resident dramatist. On the 1 January 2000 I started as Resident Dramatist at the Royal Court. I still see some of the teachers I worked with and occasionally some of the kids I taught.

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time: Monday 6 to Saturday 11 March. Book here.

 

 

 

 

House call

 

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A House Repeated, photo (c) Alex Brenner  

A House Repeated is a fascinating new show coming to our studio next month. Its drawn praise for its unique mix of storytelling and interactive theatre. We spoke to its creator, Seth Kriebel, about how the show works.


A House Repeated seems to be a bit unusual for a theatre show.  How do you describe it to new audiences?
Essentially, it’s storytelling, but storytelling where the audience is in control. It’s not improv… I’ve written a world – a building – for the audience to explore and they decide what they want to do. It’s very much influenced by computer games and it’s similar to immersive theatre, but it’s completely low-tech and the audience explores without leaving their seats. So perhaps interactive storytelling is the best description.

‘Interactive’ can be a scary word! How do you deal with audiences who might be put off by that part of the show?
I think people realise very quickly that the whole point is to have fun, and their curiosity gets the better of them. No one is put on the spot or made to feel uncomfortable… quite the opposite! The audience works together and they usually bond quite quickly, helping each other to figure out what to do and where to go. One of the best bits for me, as a performer, is listening to the audience talk with each other about what’s happening and what they want to do next.

How does it work?
It’s very easy. I describe a place, so I might say something like “You’re in a room. There is a torch on a table, there is a staircase leading up and there is a door to the north.” …but usually more detailed than that! Then I ask what they would like to do. If they go up the stairs, I describe the room they enter. If they go through the door, I describe the place on the other side. If they pick up the torch, maybe it will come in handy later…

It sounds a bit like those choose-your-path books you read when you’re a kid.
It’s definitely inspired by that sort of thing, but I promise there are no goblins or dwarves!  I used to read those books and play games in the very early days of computers and I never forgot the feeling of exploring an imaginary world. There was such excitement in the possibility that anything might be behind the next door.

So it’s more like a game?
Very much like a game, in that it’s meant to be fun. And because it really only works if you have someone to play with, someone to explore with. That’s why I made it an interactive show, so the audience might have that same feeling of exploration and excitement. And, because everything takes place in the audience’s imagination, it can be very absorbing. It’s like reading a book versus going to the cinema. In the cinema, you see the director’s vision on the screen in front of you. In a book, you collaborate with the author to bring the world to life, in your imagination… so it can feel very real. In the show, the audience and I work together to create a world to explore. We work together to find out what’s behind that next door.

A House Repeated: The Marlowe Studio, Friday 17 February. Book here.

Latin spirit

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The extraordinary Danza Contemporánea de Cuba are heading to our theatre soon, so we thought you might like to know a little more about them.


The company were founded in 1959 – as history experts will no doubt already have noticed, this was the same year that saw the Cuban Revolution, which swept the Communist Fidel Castro to power. Dance was important to the Castro regime – in fact the government funded 14 dance schools built throughout the history of the revolution. Danza Contemporánea (then known as Conjunto Nacional de Danza Moderna) was one of the most important.

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Whilst the blockade that followed the revolution meant a loss of USA ties, Danza Contemporánea performed at the Festival of Theater of Nations in 1961 at Olympia in Paris, followed that year by a tour to various socialist countries. And even then, the company’s international development did not stop, with visits to Spain, France, Canada, Belgium, almost all of Asia, much of Africa and Latin America from 1961 to the 1990s.

They exploded onto the UK dance scene in 2010, bringing with them their own unique style of dance – described as a blend of “Afro Caribbean rhythms, jazzy American modernism and inflections from European ballet”, which reflects the mixed heritage of Cuba and its people. And the UK fell in love with them. They sold out from Newcastle to Brighton, with The Telegraph saying of them: “Facially and physically, they are as drop-dead gorgeous a clutch of people as you are ever likely to see in any one place at any one time. But, above all, it is the quality of their movement – a seamless and urgent fusion of Afro-Caribbean, Latin and modern-American – that holds the attention like glue.”

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They returned to the UK with further acclaim in 2012 and they make their debut at our theatre this spring. The Telegraph ended their review: “Whatever they’re dancing, you’ll find them a very welcome ray of tropical sunshine.” In these dark and cold days of winter, a little sunshine to look forward to is surely what we all need.

Danza Contemporánea de Cuba: Friday 17 & Saturday 18 March. Book here.

The godfather of rock’n’roll

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Jason Donovan as Sam Phillips

We look at the story of Sam Phillips and the Million Dollar Quartet.


“One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready…”, as rock’n’roll is coming to our theatre, in the form of Million Dollar Quartet, the story of four iconic musicians and the man who brought them together for one amazing session.

The four musicians in question are Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, and the night was December 4, 1956, when all four played together at Sun Records in Memphis. The four musicians need very little introduction, but who was Sam Phillips, the man who brought them all together?

Samuel Cornelius Philips (who will be played by Jason Donovan in Million Dollar Quartet) was born in Alabama in 1923, to poor tenant farmers – so poor that the young Sam sometimes picked cotton alongside his parents. Listening to the songs sung by black workers in the same fields left a deep impression on young Sam, and helped cement his love of music.

Forced to abandon plans to go to college after his father’s death left the family in poverty, Sam worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet, before finding work with various radio stations. This led to him starting Sun Records, his own recording studio and record label. Sam was the first man to discover and record rock’n’roll artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Although Carl is now probably the least known of the Million Dollar Quartet, he was the man who wrote and first recorded the song Blue Suede Shoes, and a major star in his day.

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Two years after the foundation of Sun Records, Sam launched the career of Elvis Presley, who recorded his first song, That’s All Right, at the studio. This became a local hit, but it would take until 1956 for Elvis to have his first country-wide number one with Heartbreak Hotel. By December 1956, when Million Dollar Quartet is set, Elvis was a chart-topping artist, but also embroiled in controversy over the style of his music and – most famously – his dancing.

The way in which the Million Dollar Quartet came together illustrates how closely involved Sam Phillips was with the birth of rock’n’roll. Jerry Lee Lewis had been hired to play piano at a Carl Perkins recording session at Sun Records, when Elvis happened to stop by to talk to Phillips. Some accounts claim that Sam hit on the idea of calling Johnny Cash and asking him to join them, while other versions say Cash was in fact the first to arrive, and hung around in order to hear Perkins’ recording session. Either way, having all four under the same roof led to a jam session featuring the four musicians. During the session, Phillips issued a challenge to the four men, promising a cadillac to the first of them to achieve gold record sales (Carl Perkins went on to win).

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Although music from the session wasn’t released officially until 1981, the next day, a local newspaper ran a story about the session, with the headline ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ – thus a legend was born.

Million Dollar Quartet: Tuesday 28 February – Saturday 4 March. Book here.

The guts of the story

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Gutted, written by Marlowe Supported Artist Sharon Byrne (pictured above) will have its premiere in The Marlowe Studio next month. It’s a funny and poignant black comedy set in a fish factory in 1980s Dublin. We asked Sharon, who lives in Whitstable but grew up in Dublin, to tell us more about how the play came about.



When did the idea for Gutted come to you?
Gutted, previously entitled The Blue Coats, had its humble beginnings in a little house by the sea in Whitstable, Kent. The germ of the idea for Gutted came from my childhood growing up in Dublin in the 1980s. I was a 1960s baby; growing up in the 1970s had its challenges. My parents separated when I was about 11, after which I moved to Finglas, North Dublin, to my grandparents’ house, along with my two brothers and my mother.

While living there, I came across young women who were working hard for a living in the local fish factory. I didn’t know it then, but these women had a huge impact on my life. I’d see them every day walking by my grandparents’ house, and tried to imagine what it would be like to be them. They’d walk by my window wearing plastic caps (shower caps), blue coats and Wellington boots, smoking roll-ups and chatting about their day. It was usually early morning, so either they were on their way home from working all night, or they were on their way back to the factory. God only knows. But they never stopped chatting and laughing. They were aged between 16 and 50 or more – some just kids themselves, and some women who had worked in a fish factory half of their lives.

Why did these women mean so much to you?
The women were the impetus for me to strive for more in my life and the inspiration for Gutted. Not that there was anything wrong with working in a fish factory. I had the utmost respect for these women. Fair play to them. They worked hard and played hard; they were providing for their families. They were tough hard-working women and I admired them. But they were stuck in many ways too and seemed contented with the cards that life had dealt them. I wasn’t. I wanted more! I had bigger dreams and ambitions. I didn’t know then that I was going to be a writer. Nor, was I aware I would one day write a play about them.

When did you become a playwright?
I wrote my first play in 2001. Charlie’s Wake played at the Finborough Theatre in Earls Court for a month and was directed by Anne O’Leary and received good reviews. So I had a great start as a playwright. A year later though, I moved out of London to Whitstable with my then-husband (divorced now – that went well) to begin a family. This part of my life was a disaster really. One IVF treatment after the other and no baby, takes its toll even on the strongest woman and the closest relationship.

While going through fertility treatment, I needed an outlet. And I found one. I wrote the first draft of The Blue Coats (Gutted). I couldn’t believe I could actually write while going through this awful time, but it was an escape for me. I loved plays. I had been hugely influenced by Martin McDonough, (The Trilogy Of Leenane), Connor McPherson (The Weir and Port Authority), and other new writers in the late 1990s. I admired theatres and writers who pushed the boundaries in new writing; Paines Plough, with writers such as Sarah Kane (Crave) and Mark Ravenhill, influenced my work as a playwright. It was okay to swear, to let the angst out, write about controversial subjects. Okay to talk about issues through my writing. I was trying to find my voice and that was difficult. I am Irish, brought up Catholic, and I lived in the UK. I had lived here for a long time.

What did you want to say with your writing?
I was influenced by a great many things. I went back to the drawing board with Gutted. I thought about the women in the fish factory and how hard it was being a girl/woman growing up in the 1980s in Ireland. Nothing wrong with setting a play in the 1980s in Dublin, I thought. So I went for it. There were issues that needed exploring. And this gave me an opportunity to unleash them.

In Ireland, girls still knew very little about contraception; we couldn’t just go and get the Pill, or condoms from the doctor. We had to have permission, they were generally frowned upon. They were not sold over the counter at Boots or a local chemist. If you went into a chemist asking for anything like that, you were scorned upon, you were filth – sure you may as well have had sex right there on the chemist floor, in front of the pharmacist. She’d give you the most horrifying look. And if you couldn’t get contraception you certainly couldn’t get an abortion. Jesus, you’d be crucified. Women still can’t get an abortion in Ireland, yet there is now gay marriage.

Womens’ rights were not on the top of the agenda. Although women now have more choices, they still have to travel to England for an abortion. Young girls were getting pregnant. One of the other stories that influenced Gutted was the true story about a young girl who got pregnant by a member of the family. She was unable to have an abortion. Catastrophic. So she had to go through with the birth. I think the child was put up for adoption. I once worked with an adorable young girl from the south of Ireland, in the same situation. She was forced to give up her baby and that was in the 1980s. It would shame her and her family. Issues such as these hadn’t moved forward very much.

Women also worked very hard and for little pay. These particular women in Gutted, were harassed because of what they did for a living. Some of them were still teenagers. So for them, a night out was a release. It is where the drama unfolded. Gutted touches upon all these issues. What kept them going was their sense of humour about life. That is why I wrote Gutted with a sense of humour: humour got them through the tough times in their lives. Even the most unbelievable times!

How did your association with The Marlowe begin?
In January last year I sent Gutted to The Marlowe, hoping it would be taken up as part of their Roar! project for new writing. Although it was a developed and finished play, and didn’t fall into the category of a work in progress for Roar!, The Marlowe loved it – half of the office read it! After several meetings, The Marlowe offered to support me and to put it on at The Marlowe Studio.

Gutted: The Marlowe Studio, Tuesday 21-Saturday 25 February. Book here.