Interview: Sam Elwin and Tom Shah, One Last Thing (For Now)

After more than two years in the making, Althea Theatre’s One Last Thing (For Now) has its world premiere at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre next month. Conceived by director Lilac Yosiphon, this ambitious project has been developed by the internationally diverse company, including cast members Tom Shah and Sam Elwin, and offers “a universal look at the language of love, the wounds of war and everything in between”.

The play’s creation was inspired by love letters from times of conflict in different cultures and languages. “The concept came from our director, Lilac, whose first instruction was to start reading,” says Tom. “Often they were the letters that were only intended to be read ‘should the worst happen’, and what is important to people in those situations – the words that they can’t leave unsaid – is more than enough inspiration.”

Photo credit: Laurie Field
Photo credit: Laurie Field

“Alongside discussing the letters’ common themes, we began to develop a physical language for the show,” continues Sam. “We then attempted writing our own letters and began writing scenes inspired by the stories that had stood out to us. We selected and adapted from this pool of scenes to create a number of more cohesive storylines, which we then overlapped with each other, using the physical language to bind them together and enhance the storytelling.”

The development process began in September 2014, when the basis for most of the storylines was formed. Sam explains: “The process is still ongoing; since the initial development process we’ve had a rehearsed reading of a full length version of the script and we have two more days of R&D (research and development) before rehearsals start, during which we’ll finalise the script. Moreover, rehearsals themselves are a process of devising and discovery, so the show will continue to develop and change during the rehearsal weeks.”

“Initially, it was about using the fact that we were a group of people of different ages, genders, and nationalities with different experiences to draw us to as wide and varied subjects as possible,” says Tom. “Since then we have periodically come back to One Last Thing (For Now) to get it to the point it’s at now. That said, we still have one more story to write; Islington will be our home for the duration of the show’s run, and we’ll be creating an entirely new scene based on letters sourced from the Islington borough.

“One of the themes of the show is that for all our differences, we have the fundamentals in common. We’re asking for letters from Islington that we will workshop with people from the borough to help create this brand new scene for the show. We want to make our show part of the local community, because with such a global spread of stories, we don’t want it to feel like it’s about other people.”

This additional scene is a crucial part of the audience experience, wherever the show is being performed. “We believe that everyone has a story that needs to be heard,” explains Sam. “The intention is to use the letters to inspire a new storyline or scene which is specific to the Islington area and will only be performed while the show is at the Old Red Lion – a new venue would result in a new scene being devised; again inspired by letters, emails, texts etc from the local area. We also wanted to create a direct link with the local community in the performance they would see. To give the audience a sense of ownership and participation – these stories belong to all of us in that they have shaped and continue to shape the world we live in.”

Dealing with such universal issues as love and war, the company hope that the show has something for everyone. “We can certainly all learn something from it, and indeed, since one if its primary themes is cross-cultural understanding, we hope everyone would,” says Sam. “That said, the people most likely to want to see it are those who are interested in stories from around the world; those who have experienced war, either through family and friends or directly; people with an interest in the history; and people who enjoy visually arresting theatre.”

Tom agrees, and adds, “I do think anyone would take something away from seeing the show, but it will probably resonate most with people who at one time or another have felt cut-off from the people they love. I hope audiences will leave with a better idea of what it is that’s important to them.”

The show brings together stories from several different conflicts across the world – stories that the cast have come to know well during the development process. “One of my favourites follows a Colombian woman as she travels the world in search of someone she loves,” says Tom. “Even though she’s from a country most of us have never been to (and probably couldn’t name the capital of), speaks another language, and the ‘foreign’ environment she finds herself in is London, our connection to her is almost instantaneous.”

Sam has a few favourites: “That’s a really tough question to answer, all of the stories are so special. I think three in particular stand out. One is a letter conversation between an American soldier in Vietnam and his wife at home in the US, because it highlights the gap between what is written home and what is experienced and the couple’s struggle to deal with that.

The second is a storyline concerning a French resistance fighter, because it asks how much can love forgive and can we escape the roles we have chosen for ourselves? Thirdly, the story about a woman who sends her touch, because it’s in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm and Struwwelpeter – full of the fantastical and the macabre.”

Photo credit: Laurie Field
Photo credit: Laurie Field

The fact that the different stories cross so many historical and geographical borders inevitably presents some challenges: “First, with so many of the storylines featuring non-British characters we had to devise ways of translating or having enough English to be understood by English speakers without repeating ourselves,” explains Tom. “Second, was to have some form of connection between what could otherwise be unconnected stories from different times and places.”

“As part of this some of us have to learn new languages and accents,” adds Sam. “Russian and Hebrew were a particular challenge…”

He concludes: “I hope our audiences will go away with an empathy for people from countries other than their own, an insight into the effects of war after the shooting stops, a remembrance of those who have died on all sides, and a hope that these three things can reduce conflict.”

One Last Thing (For Now) is at the Old Red Lion Theatre from 7th-25th March.

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