Interview: Tim McArthur, Into The Woods

Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods gets a 21st century makeover this week at the Cockpit Theatre, as All Star Productions join forces with Trilby Productions to revive Tim McArthur’s adaptation of the popular musical. First seen in 2014, the show returns with an ensemble of seventeen larger-than-life characters, all drawn from modern day Britain.

“By transporting the traditional fairy tales into the 21st century, the story resonates with and reflects society as it is now,” explains Tim, who both directs and performs as the Baker in the new production. “The characters will be familiar to reality TV viewers of shows ranging from Jeremy Kyle to TOWIE and Made in Chelsea. Another unique quality is that it’s staged in the round – I want the audience to feel they are part of the story. This also gives scope within the staging to convey better the sense of journey.”

Into The Woods draws on popular fairy tales including Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Red Riding Hood to tell a cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for. “Into the Woods is about loss, wanting things that you maybe shouldn’t want, taking things for granted, wanting to be happy, realising that maybe what you have is better than wishing for more,” says Tim. “It’s about dysfunctional families and more importantly how an action you make may have consequences on someone else. This is of course all told through the traditional format of well-known fairy tales, which are interwoven with each other into the simple main story of a baker and his wife. They’re desperate for a child but the witch has put them under a curse, preventing them from having a baby unless they find unique and unusual items which will reverse the witch’s curse. Their future happiness depends on their search.”

Tim directed the show on its initial run in 2014, and says he’s thrilled to return four years later in the role of the Baker. “In 2014, the producers originally asked me to direct the piece and play the part of the Baker, but because I wanted to create a new fresh vision for the show I knew it would be a challenge to both direct and perform. So, I decided to just focus my attention on the direction. Now we have in a way tested the look and feel of the show, I know it works. I have loved and known this show for nearly 30 years, so it’s a dream come true to play the Baker – one of the best male roles in musical theatre.”

The show’s cast also includes Jo Wickham, who was a member of the 2014 company and reprises her role as the Baker’s Wife, alongside several new faces. “About 80% of the cast are new and weren’t in the 2014 production, so it’s exciting to create the characters with the new actors’ energy and ideas and see how that dynamic interacts with the interpretations of the returning actors,” says Tim. “The main factor for me as a director when casting is to bring together a group of actors who are comfortable with who they are, so we can create a safe space in rehearsal to be able to play and experiment. Particularly with an ensemble piece it’s vital that there are no dominant egos. The show is the ego and that’s it. This cast are nice and talented people who care about the production and are excited to be in the rehearsal room.

“They are a mix of performers with whom I have worked as a director and/or fellow actor plus new people, so we have a creative blend of familiarity and new impetus as we come together as a group for the first time and go ‘into the woods’. Our ensemble includes a range of ages and diversity of background and experience – performers with extensive West End pedigrees, including the Rapunzel from the original London production of Into the Woods (Mary Lincoln) who returns as Cinderella’s stepmother, to performers early in their careers.”

But the cast isn’t all that’s new this time around: “Both personally and as a director, my life has changed a lot in the past four years. I very much believe that we continue to learn, grow and develop as people and you naturally bring those life experiences into the creation of the show. One of the greatest aspects of Stephen Sondheim’s work is that you continually find new meanings and emotions within both the text and music of the story.

“My first Sondheim show was a production of Follies at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1988. I instantly fell in love with his music and lyrics, and the love affair began. Into the Woods was the third Sondheim show I saw; I was 15 years old and I saw it three times. The structure of the show is so clever, and the story is so relevant in today’s world where commerciality drives everything and encourages us to always want more and to never be happy with what we have.”

Tim isn’t only an actor and director; he’s also a singer and presenter, who can currently be heard every Friday presenting The Curtain Up Show on Resonance 104.4 FM. With so many strings to his bow, choosing highlights proves a tough challenge: “That is a really difficult question. I trained to be an actor, and since leaving drama school I have been given so many wonderful opportunities in so many different areas of the entertainment industry. I never originally wanted to be a director or a producer, or perform my solo show or even be a TV/radio presenter. But highlights are probably performing my solo show Mountains in New York at Feinstein’s 54 Below earlier this year, and playing Sam Byck in a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins a few years back – and of course the chance to revisit this fabulous show.”

Book now for Into The Woods at the Cockpit Theatre from 23rd May to 24th June.

Review: In the Shadow of the Mountain at the Old Red Lion Theatre

There is no one size fits all when it comes to mental illness, and in Felicity Huxley-Miners’ In the Shadow of the Mountain we see two very different manifestations in the story of one extremely dysfunctional relationship. First, we meet Rob, who’s just found out his girlfriend slept with his best mate and is so devastated he’s thinking about throwing himself under a train – until Ellie explodes into his life and makes it her mission to save him. One thing leads to another, and Rob ends up back at her place… but Ellie has problems of her own, and as her behaviour becomes more and more erratic Rob starts to wonder what he’s got himself into.

Photo credit: Harry Richards

On an otherwise fairly minimal set from Emily Megson, low-hanging “clouds” made out of crumpled paper covered in scrawled handwriting are an early clue that all is not well – and it rapidly becomes clear that Rob and Ellie’s relationship isn’t a healthy one, although it’s not initially obvious exactly why. The play is clever in the way it tackles our assumptions, and it’s only as it comes to an end that we begin to appreciate why Ellie behaves the way she does, and that her mood swings and manipulative behaviour aren’t something she can control. The seemingly unrealistic intensity of the relationship – eight days in the two are already talking love and marriage – also makes more sense with the benefit of hindsight, although it’s still never quite explained why Rob stays as long as he does, when he’s clearly uncomfortable with the speed at which things are moving and his increasing isolation from friends and family.

It’s interesting to note that although the play does make it clear Ellie isn’t well, the only way we know the exact cause – Borderline Personality Disorder – is through the notes in the programme; her diagnosis is never given in the play itself. This is obviously a deliberate decision, since Rob asks outright and Ellie declines to answer, and in some ways it feels right to avoid sticking a label on her. That said, the play’s final scene feels underdeveloped, and perhaps misses an opportunity to raise awareness of a condition that can so easily be misinterpreted.

Photo credit: Harry Richards

There’s also an issue with balance in the story, which becomes increasingly focused on Ellie, leaving Rob and his problems rather out in the cold. Both Felicity Huxley-Miners and David Shears give good performances, and it’s refreshing to see a play about a toxic relationship where the male character doesn’t have the upper hand. But with Ellie stealing pretty much every scene as everyone waits to see what she’ll do next, we get to know little about Rob as a character – which is perhaps why it’s so difficult to put a finger on why he sticks around as long as he does.

In the Shadow of the Mountain takes important steps towards raising awareness of the broad spectrum of mental illness, and Borderline Personality Disorder in particular, and Richard Elson’s production does a good job of capturing, at different moments, the emotional turmoil experienced by both Rob and Ellie. There are areas of the play that could benefit from some more development, but the potential is clearly already there for a powerful and challenging piece of theatre.

In the Shadow of the Mountain is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 2nd June.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Before 30 at Theatre N16

Yesterday, someone I know helpfully pointed out that in a few weeks I’ll be closer to 40 than 30. And just like that, I went from looking forward to my 36th birthday to panicking about how quickly the years are flying past, when there are so many things I haven’t done yet. It’s not the first time this has bothered me, and it undoubtedly won’t be the last – which is why it’s reassuring to go and see a show like Before 30, and realise that I’m not the only one who’s freaking out.

Written and performed by Tom Hartwell and directed by Phil Croft, Before 30 is a one-man show about a Londoner called Chris. Chris has just turned 29. He’s single, living in a tent in someone’s garage, and the closest he’s got to his dream of being a chef is working for Deliveroo, which would be so much easier (and cheaper) if people didn’t keep nicking his Boris bike. Meanwhile it seems like everyone around him is getting married, getting jobs, having babies and buying houses, and his proudest achievement is – well, he’s not quite sure, to be honest.

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

As Chris veers wildly (and in some cases literally) from one hilarious mishap to another on the road to his 30th birthday, his panic begins to give way to a much more profound feeling of despair. And it’s here that the play really hits home as it examines the damaging expectations imposed on us by society, family, friends – but most of all by ourselves. At the same time, it also makes the very valid point that success is a relative term; someone who appears to have it all according to my world view might be struggling to live up to their own very different ideal, and it’s not for me to judge how happy and fulfilled that person should be.

As in previous plays Flood, Contactless and You Tweet My Face Space, Tom Hartwell demonstrates his exceptional ability to take the 21st century millennial experience and portray it on stage in a way that’s both relatable and very funny. (There’s even a Friends reference; this is a writer who really knows his audience.) As a performer, too, he wastes no time building a rapport with his audience; he has us on side pretty much from the moment he climbs out of his tent wearing a pink Hello Kitty bicycle helmet and tries to sing Happy Birthday to himself. From here, the laughs come thick and fast as we get to know Chris and the array of colourful characters that make up his story – and consequently when events take a more serious turn, we’re sufficiently invested in both story and character to really listen to what he has to say.

Anyone who’s ever had one of those “why God why?!” moments – which I’m willing to bet is most, if not all of us at some point – will find something that speaks to them in Before 30, even if it’s just the comforting knowledge that it’s totally okay to not always feel completely in control of where your life is going. With that knowledge, too, comes the understanding – appropriately timed for Mental Health Awareness Week – that those around us might be dealing with their own issues, even if their Instagram suggests they’ve got it all worked out. 

Yet again, Tom Hartwell has produced a play that delivers on several levels – it’s thoroughly entertaining, frighteningly relatable, and has already inspired a lengthy workplace discussion about the horrors of getting older. Let’s hope the show gets a longer run in the future; it certainly deserves it.

This run of Before 30 is now over 😦 but keep an eye on or follow @TomHartwell88 for details of future work.

Review: H.R.Haitch at the Union Theatre

Reading the papers this week – or indeed most weeks – you have to wonder how being a princess could ever be considered a fairy tale ending. Sure, you might bag yourself a handsome prince, but I think Meghan Markle would confirm by now that marrying into royalty also brings its fair share of trauma.

Spare a thought then for poor Chelsea in Maz Evans and Luke Bateman’s royal romcom H.R.Haitch, who’s about to discover her posh but dim boyfriend Bertie is actually Prince Albert, and second in line to the throne. Bertie’s been sheltered from public attention for the last 20 years, but his identity is about to be revealed and he wants Chelsea at his side when the big moment arrives. Which is all well and good, except she’s not exactly a believer in the merits of the monarchy, and is more than happy to rant about that fact to anyone who’ll listen. Meanwhile the new prime minister wants a referendum on the future of the royal family, Chelsea’s dad’s East End pub’s about to be shut down, and Bertie’s scheming older sister Victoria is tired of being spare to the heir just because she had the bad luck to be born female.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

That’s a lot to get through in a couple of hours, but somehow it all comes together in this by-the-book romantic comedy about an unlikely couple who somehow overcome what would in real life certainly be insurmountable obstacles to find happiness. H.R.Haitch is enjoyably silly and entirely predictable, but there’s nothing wrong with that; so are most romantic comedies, after all. And because it’s set in the infinitely simpler time that was 2011, there are plenty of opportunities for humour at 2018’s expense. Granted some of these are rather over-milked (the Uber gag in particular gets old fast), and others feel ill-timed (wishing Ant and Dec a speedy recovery is a bit close to the bone) but there are enough genuine laughs in between to ensure the audience is kept entertained. Daniel Winder’s production also makes use of seamlessly integrated multimedia content, as a reminder that just outside the doors of the pub/palace, the world’s media lies in wait…

Likeable leads Tori Allen-Martin and Christian James lead a universally strong cast of six, three of whom – Andrea Miller, Christopher Lyne and Prince Plockey – appear in comically opposite dual roles that further highlight the vastly different worlds in which Chelsea and Bertie live. Meanwhile Emily Jane Kerr quite literally sneers for England in a brilliant stand-out performance as the villain of the piece, Princess Victoria.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

The songs are pleasantly catchy and for the most part keep the action moving along, with a repertoire that includes everything from heartfelt ballads to lively East End knees-ups. This varied musical menu allows the cast to showcase some impressive vocal talents, accompanied by musical director Oli George Rew, who’s discreetly installed on a piano in endangered Barking boozer the Dog and Duck.

Much like Chelsea and Bertie’s romance, H.R.Haitch might not always be particularly elegant, but it’s good fun, and its heart is in the right place. And if nothing else, it gives us a couple of hours’ escape from wondering who’s going to walk Meghan down the aisle.

H.R. Haitch is at the Union Theatre until 2nd June.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Jennifer Davis, Adam and Eve

Following its critically acclaimed debut last year at the Brockley Jack, Broken Silence Theatre’s Adam and Eve returns next week for a longer run at Islington’s Hope Theatre, now with new director Jennifer Davis at the helm.

Adam and Eve is about a young couple who have moved to the country in search of a better life,” explains Jennifer, who takes over from the show’s previous director Paul Macauley. “Everything’s going pretty perfectly until one day Adam is sent home from school following accusations made by a student… It’s a story about truth, lies, temptation and sin.”

Tim Cook’s play was a five-star hit last year, with reviewers describing it as “utterly phenomenal” and “absolutely chilling”. Unsurprisingly, Jennifer is pretty excited to be involved in its revival. “The writing is exceptional. In just 60 minutes Tim has managed to create a gripping, relatable experience that will leave an audience really questioning which version of the truth they believe. I’ve wanted to work with Broken Silence since seeing their production of Crushed at the King’s Head Theatre in 2015; I really admire their commitment to supporting regional writers and new work.”

Some might be daunted by the prospect of taking over such a critically acclaimed play, but Jennifer is looking forward to putting her own stamp on the show and exploring the opportunities that come with a new cast and venue: “I was honoured to be asked, and fingers crossed I create something that will do the previous production justice. We have two new wonderful cast members in Lee Knight and Melissa Parker – not forgetting the brilliant Jeannie Dickinson who was in the original run. There’ll also be a new set design and perhaps a few surprises…

“I’m excited about exploring the Hope’s space, too. It’s such an intimate venue and I can’t wait to see how the play develops when the audience are quite literally eyeball to eyeball with the actors.”

Jennifer studied Drama and Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham, graduating in 2013. “Originally I wanted to be an actor but at university quite quickly realised that wasn’t for me,” she explains. “I’ve been freelancing as a director for five years now and have really found my happy place – working with new writing!”

Those five years have kept her busy; she’s now a Junior Associate at the King’s Head Theatre and an Associate Artist with Theatre Absolute, and she also founded Shoot Festival, which supports emerging artists in Coventry and Warwickshire. “I’ve been very lucky to work on some incredible projects, so highlights are hard to choose! But if I had to… I’d probably say directing (sorry) by Susie Sillett at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. It’s a one woman show that explores what it’s like to grow up as a millennial and the pressures we face in today’s current economic, social and cultural climate.”

Book now to see Jennifer work her magic on Adam and Eve, which runs at The Hope Theatre from 22nd May to 9th June.