Arrows & Traps – The Story So Far

Over the last five years, thirteen-time Offie-nominated Arrows & Traps have become a regular fixture both on the London fringe scene and on this blog. And the good news is they’re not going anywhere; the future looks bright as they prepare to launch their Renegade season with a new comedy, One Giant Leap, opening next month at the Brockley Jack, followed later this year by a national tour of The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde.

The tour marks a new chapter for the company, and there’s a lot to talk about – but first, here’s what Arrows Artistic Director Ross McGregor had to say about where it all began…

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

What was your vision when you established Arrows and Traps and how has that evolved over the years?

Originally, back in 2014, I was contacted by Simon James Collier, a writer/producer/director who was then based at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre, to produce a season of six Shakespeare shows over two years. Unfortunately we only got to perform two of these – Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale – before there was a management change at the L&U, which left me with a half-finished set of ideas and four more plays that I was expecting to do, but then suddenly wasn’t. So rather than give up and go back to my day job with a sour taste in my mouth, I decided to take the rest of the season on as an independent venture. Thus Arrows & Traps was born, and this is also why in the first two years our focus was on Shakespeare – as we went on to do Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Othello, which completed the set I had planned, and then opened the door to that big question: “What next?”

Right from the beginning of the venture, even before Much Ado, even before we were called “Arrows & Traps”, I knew I wanted to work with Will Pinchin, our resident movement director, as we’d worked together before and I really appreciate what he brings to the room, and how devoted he is to taking my big ideas and making them a reality. One particular moment always sticks with me, that during the tech for Winter’s Tale, I brought in some fabric and some sticks and told him “Right so yeah, we need to build an airship” – and in six hours’ time Will had made one! This is such an over-used phrase in this industry, but Will is genuinely the kindest, most generous person I’ve ever met, and it’s been an honour to have him work with me on so many shows – and it’s such a privilege to have him now acting on stage in our current season of shows, after his Offie-nominated turn as the Creature in Frankenstein, and playing Hans Scholl in The White Rose.

As well as moving away from Shakespeare (for now), we’ve taken on more literary adaptation work, with Frankenstein, Dracula, Crime & Punishment and Anna Karenina – and started to make a series of historical new writing that has been female-led in terms of narratives, about the lives of Sophie Scholl, Anne Lister, and Gerda Taro. It is with these two strains in mind that we move into our new Renegade season.

As the various phases of company cast configurations have come and gone, we now have a full creative team in place that work on each show, and last year we were appointed as the official associate company of the Brockley Jack Theatre, which was a great honour. In terms of the dynamic and company ethos and staging approach, I think our style has remained constant throughout, although perhaps we’ve consolidated it over the years, and since 2017 I’ve been the lead writer for all productions, which has helped us to zone in on precisely what kind of theatre we want to make, what kind of stories we want to tell.

Frankenstein, 2017. Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

If you could do it all again would you do anything differently?

I’d think twice before working with a certain well-known theatre corporation again, that’s for certain. I’m sure they’re very good with their large spaces but with their studios, they’re all about the hire fees, and not at all about supporting or caring for the shows that they get into their spaces. On the other side of the spectrum, the Brockley Jack is run by Kate Bannister and Karl Swinyard, two creatives who care greatly about every show that’s on at the Jack, they go out of the way to help you and make you feel welcome. Having been at the Jack now since 2016, I can safely say they put some other venue managers to shame, they’re incredibly skilled at their jobs, know their audience and their space, there’s nothing they wouldn’t do for you, so we’re really happy there and feel like it’s a theatrical home for us. But that kind of relationship we have with them is rare, and we certainly kissed a few frogs before that, venue-wise.

Other than that, there’s been a few difficult moments, and at times I think I took on too much, or had too many projects on in too short a space of time, and there’s a couple of moments that I look back on and wish I’d been able to see the good from the bad, focused on the strengths of the work, and not dwelt on the stresses, and tiredness, and anxieties that go with self-producing your own fringe theatre work, but it’s often really hard to do that when you’re in the throes of a production.

I’m very proud of the work we’ve made, and the recognition that it’s got, particularly recently, and I do believe that most failures contain a lesson if you look hard enough. I’ve certainly made a fair few mistakes since I started in 2014, but I feel like I’ve learned from each of them, and am looking forward to what the future holds.

Oh, and I wouldn’t do Titus Andronicus again. That show was probably our weakest for many, many reasons, and I think Shakespeare has got better options in the canon. I think I was lured by the fun of the violence and madness and darkness, but lacked the resources to do it properly. But I think that’s the only production I would retract, if I had my time again.

Anna Karenina, 2016. Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

What have been the biggest highlights and challenges – for you as a director and writer, and for the company as a whole? Any favourite productions?

In terms of highlights, both as a director and writer, it would have to be The White Rose. That was the first original piece I wrote, that didn’t have a novel or source text behind it. Being based on a true story, I knew what characters I had to use, what the remit of the story was that I wanted to tell, and where it would ultimately end up – but the beats, scenes and characterisations were all original and written from scratch, which was quite challenging. I was really proud of that show and what it accomplished. To choose a story that not many people in England knew about (Scholl is incredibly well-known in Germany), and to produce it in a summer period (a natural low point in the year for most theatres), and to get 8 five-star reviews, and 4 four-star reviews, as well as an Off West End Award Nomination for Best Production and sell out 96% of the run – it was an incredible experience, and so gratifying. The cast for that one was phenomenal as well, absolutely no weak links, everyone was on their top game and cared so much about telling the story as best we could, and honouring the memories of the real people they were portraying.

Other favourite productions for me have to be Anna Karenina – that was so beautiful, such a good script by Helen Edmundson – and I enjoyed the scale, challenge and detail of Three Sisters, I loved the style and poetry of TARO, and the ferocity and scope of Frankenstein. A personal highlight for me was to get an Off West End Award Nomination for Best New Play, and another for Best Director, both for Gentleman Jack, which I wrote and directed. That was so lovely to hear, I was so honoured, as I’ve sort of fallen into writing plays almost by accident, mainly because I struggled so much with getting the rights to the things I wanted to direct, or found a distinct lack of scripts available on the subjects I wanted to focus on. I just started writing as a sort of solution to the problem of producing the work, not really thinking about what that meant, and how that sort of made me a writer. I sometimes struggle to consider myself as a playwright – but really – I’ve written six now, and nothing’s been dreadful yet, so maybe I should work on changing my self-perception a little.

In terms of challenges, one of the biggest recently was writing Gentleman Jack and TARO both at the same time in six weeks. That was a nightmare. Such a stupid amount of time pressure. I mean, I usually like time pressure, in moderation. I have an odd process for writing as I usually book the slot first, design the posters, write the copy, put the show on sale, then write the script. I know that’s probably sounding like an insane way to do it, but I have a problem with self-discipline, so if I know there’s a date by which I have to get the script done by, no excuses, otherwise I’m going to let my company and the venue down, then that forces me to write it in time. And once I get going, it’s normally quite a quick process, as the characters start to find their voices relatively early on. It’s normally just a case of getting a first draft done in a few weeks, realising where it’s overwritten, and then taking four or five runs at it to edit it down. Most of my stuff has the framework of an adaptation or a true story, so there’s always a narrative structure preset for me. It becomes largely about working out how to tell the story, rather than working out what the story is. So yes, that seems to work normally, but having to do two plays at once for our recent Female Firsts season was an absolute nightmare of a task, and not one I’d volunteer for again any time soon. You may have wondered why those two plays were a little shorter than our usual fare, it’s because there was literally no more time to add any more pages.

TARO, 2019. Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

In recent years Arrows have won critical acclaim for your portrayals of female figures from history. As an AD what made you decide to take the company in that direction, and why is it important to you to tell these stories?

Yes, I suppose it has worked out like that. For the most part, it was unintentional or based primarily on practical concerns. I always felt actresses got short shrift when it comes to drama, particularly in classical texts, which seems maddening to me, particularly when you consider the ratio of women to men working in the acting field is about ten to one. I’d done Frankenstein and Dracula, two novels largely about men, or where the women were sidelined to supporting roles, and whilst I did what I could to minimise that – making Renfield and De Lacey female or giving Mina, Elizabeth and Lucy a bit more agency, etc – I thought it was time to even the balance and make a season of shows that had female characters as the central focus.

Because whilst I appreciate those productions which take something like Richard II or Henry V and turn it all female – those sort of things just always seem like experiments to me, and always jar a little. Gender is wound into the writing for me, King Lear and Prospero react like fathers with daughters, not mothers with sons, Benedick and Mercutio’s immaturity seems inherently male, as does Othello’s jealousy, and Lord of the Flies is a depiction of what happens to a group of boys, not girls. Changing the gender would change the characters, and most likely alter the plotlines – if a plane of school girls crashed on an island and were left for an extended period of time unsupervised, of course there would be conflict and shocking behaviour and extreme actions, but not in the same way that it occurs with the boys in the novel. So I preferred to write all new original roles that favoured female casting. Sophie Scholl, Anne Lister and Gerda Taro took centre stage, and in the case of the latter, we even divided the roles between younger and older, present and past, to further the opportunities for casting more women, giving more opportunities.

I don’t necessarily see the fact that these heroines were female as a reason to tell their stories, in and of itself. I chose to tell these stories because they’re great stories. If they happen to be about women, then great, but that in and of itself isn’t a validation of their need to be told.  Certainly in terms of their time periods (1942, 1810 and 1935), the fact that the protagonists were female and trying to do something not readily expected of them raises the conflict and drama of the narratives, but what interested me more about Scholl, Lister and Taro was their strengths, their mistakes, their vulnerability, their stubbornness, their kindness, their sense of self, their passion, their ambitions, their cruelty, their moments of realisation. That’s the reason I told their stories.

Check back soon to hear more from Ross about what the future has in store for Arrows & Traps… but in the meantime, tickets are on sale now for One Giant Leap (2nd-27th July) and The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde (from 3rd September – check the website for full dates and venues).

Review: Precious Little at Brockley Jack Theatre

A short play with a lot to talk about, Madeleine George’s Precious Little places language and communication under the microscope. Brodie (Jenny Delisle) is a linguistics researcher who’s expecting her first child, but when the amniocentesis test reveals there might be a problem, she’s faced with a difficult choice. Her much younger girlfriend Dre (Jessica Kinsey) – who can’t understand why Brodie, now 42, wants a baby in the first place – offers little comfort, so Brodie looks for answers from two unlikely sources: Cleva, an elderly research subject whose language is on the verge of dying out, and the Ape, a famous talking gorilla at the local zoo (both Deborah Maclaren).

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

The various elements of the story at first don’t seem to quite knit together and the end comes as a bit of a surprise, offering the audience little in the way of closure. But when you look back on it, language is the constant in every encounter within the play – whether it’s the gabbling tourists from whom 100 words carry less value than the Ape’s dignified silence, or the unfortunate choice of language from Brodie’s well-meaning doctor, which immediately put her on the defensive. Cleva’s revival of a language she hasn’t spoken for years brings back memories of another life, to the alarm of her overprotective daughter, and Brodie’s choice boils down to a simple question: can she live with a child who might not have the ability to communicate?

Under the direction of Kate Bannister, all three actors give excellent performances. As Brodie, Jenny Delisle succeeds in the difficult job of turning a woman who often seems cold, scientific and verging on arrogant into a sympathetic character whose dilemma the audience can sympathise with. Jessica Kinsey gives a masterclass in multi-roling, playing no less than five characters (many more if you count each of the zoogoers separately), each of them with a lot of lines – if not always a huge amount to say. This abundance of roles means she’s on stage for pretty much the whole play, with little time for significant costume changes, and yet every character she plays is completely distinct from the rest. Deborah Maclaren, in contrast, has relatively few lines, but makes every single one of them count. As the Ape she gives a meticulously observed physical performance; it really is like watching a gorilla at the zoo. Hearing her inner monologue means we can’t help but feel sympathy for this dignified, intelligent creature who’s expected to perform day in day out for the entertainment of impatient and insensitive humans.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

The production’s set and lighting design (Karl Swinyard and Ben Jacobs) skilfully contrast the clinical surroundings of Brodie’s office and various medical appointments with the artificial natural environment of the Ape’s zoo enclosure. Despite frequently involving a change of costume and setting the scene changes never feel overly long, due largely to Julian Starr’s increasingly urgent music, which helps maintain the pace and atmosphere of the production throughout.

At one point in the play, Brodie is offended when her doctor tactlessly suggests that linguistics isn’t a science – but it’s an easy mistake to make. We don’t tend to give the words we use every day as much thought as we should, and this play highlights how crucial language is not only in our interactions but also in our identities. It may be called Precious Little, but this thought-provoking play has plenty to say.

Precious Little is at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 15th June.

Review: Kill Climate Deniers at the Pleasance

It’s a bold move to stand on stage in front of a room full of press, among them several bloggers taking notes for a forthcoming review, and declare repeatedly that “if you are a blogger, you do not count”. Similarly, it’s not often you see an actor point a gun directly into an audience member’s face, because it is – as the writer himself acknowledges – “a huge breach of performer / audience trust”.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Then again, would we expect anything less from a play with the deliberately provocative title of Kill Climate Deniers? Written by David Finnigan as a cry of frustration, this riotous Australian satire takes a unique and fearless approach to the bitterly divisive issue of climate change. Australia’s Environment Minister Gwen Malkin (Felicity Ward) is having a terrible day – she’s caused outrage on national radio by clumsily announcing that the government’s new strategy to tackle global warming is to “block out the sun”, she’s become a laughing stock on Twitter, and now she’s on the verge of getting fired. Then to make matters even worse, the Fleetwood Mac concert she’s attending at Parliament House is invaded by a ruthless gang of eco-terrorists, intent on killing everyone in the building unless climate change is stopped right now. Malkin’s not taking that lying down, though, and together with her trusty press advisor Georgina Bekken (Kelly Paterniti), she sets out to take on the terrorists and restore her honour in the eyes of the nation.

In the wake of the recent Extinction Rebellion protests and youth climate strikes, Kill Climate Deniers is a very timely production – though funnily enough it’s not really about climate change per se. The writer’s stance is clear from the play’s title; it would be a waste of everyone’s time to spend more than a couple of minutes explaining the subject to an audience who, presumably, are already very much on board. Despite this, there are no good guys in this story – and nor can there ultimately be any winners, whatever the outcome of the siege. The enmity between the two sides might make for good entertainment, but as the writer himself acknowledges over the course of the play, it’s also a dangerous distraction from the real fight to save the planet. (Side note: if you can, I recommend getting a copy of the play text, which includes a lot of extra notes and information from the playwright.)

When the outlook is this bleak, you might as well have some fun with it, and there’s little doubt that Nic Connaughton’s fast-paced, highly physical production is an absolute blast from start to finish. Felicity Ward and Kelly Paterniti make a hilarious if slightly dysfunctional double act as Malkin and Bekken, taking down terrorists in slow motion action movie style to a soundtrack of 90s techno classics. Hannah Ellis Ryan delivers two of the play’s most compelling monologues so persuasively that even Bec Hill’s cynical chief terrorist Catch is forced to admit she’s “hella eloquent” (well, in one case; in the other, unable to find any holes in her argument, she just shoots her in the stomach). Meanwhile as a counterpoint to the drama on stage, Nathan Coenen provides something approaching a voice of reason as the play’s writer, Finig, who attempts to explain why the two sides of the argument may actually have more in common than we like to think.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Though it might be preaching to the choir on the dangers of climate change, any smugness we may feel over being on “the right side” doesn’t last very long once the play gets going. Action-packed, irreverent and hilariously weird, Kill Climate Deniers nonetheless still succeeds in making a serious and important point, and provides more than enough food for thought to give you nightmares for weeks.

Kill Climate Deniers is at the Pleasance until 28th June.

Review: J’Ouvert at Theatre503

It may only just be June, but the carnival spirit is already very much alive at Theatre503. Yasmin Joseph’s debut play takes us to Notting Hill in August 2017, just in time to witness J’Ouvert – the official start of carnival, at dawn – through the eyes of three friends: Nadine (Sharla Smith), Jade (Sapphire Joy) and Nisha (Annice Boparai), each of them trying in their own way to reclaim the annual event for the community that created it. As the day passes, the three make their way through the crowds, dancing and drinking, dodging rain showers and disapproving family members – only to be faced with overpriced food, judgmental locals, and the realisation that even in the heart of the world they thought was theirs, they’re still not safe from misogyny, slut-shaming or the threat of physical and sexual violence.

J'Ouvert at Theatre503
Photo credit: Helen Murray

It’s quickly obvious this is a play that knows who it’s speaking to, and the frequent audible and unanimous responses from the majority of the audience to the characters’ experiences and observations confirm that it does so very well. As for those of us who don’t share those experiences, Joseph makes few concessions, instead challenging us to go away and make the effort to plug the gaps in our own understanding. This means the play doesn’t resonate in the same way for everyone, but it also makes perfect sense – in a play about giving Black British people back their voice, it would serve little purpose to keep interrupting the flow to make sure the minority were all keeping up.

The production, directed by Nine Night actor Rebekah Murrell, has had a bit of a bumpy road to the stage, with two cast members having to be replaced just a few days before opening night. Considering the circumstances, Sapphire Joy and Sharla Smith do an amazing job as best friends Jade and Nadine, with a very natural and believable closeness between them. Joining them is Annice Boparai as Nisha, an overenthusiastic activist of Indian descent and privileged upbringing, whose clumsy attempts to fit in with the others are often the cause of both tension and hilarity.

Sandra Falase’s flag-adorned set and sensational costumes bring the Notting Hill Carnival to vibrant life, with each of the women bringing her own interpretation to her outfit for the day. An irresistible soundtrack completes the picture, and there’s a constant sensation of movement and sound throughout, so that even in a pub theatre in Battersea you can feel the thronging crowds and lively atmosphere. The only moment where everything stops is the minute’s silence at 3pm for the victims of Grenfell Tower – a poignant moment of stillness and solidarity amidst the hubbub.

J'Ouvert at Theatre503
Photo credit: Helen Murray

Media coverage of the Notting Hill Carnival tends to focus on increased police presence and the amount of violent crimes committed during the three-day celebration. One such crime – committed by two men against the women who dared to say no – is a pivotal event in J’Ouvert. But the response to that event, and the play as a whole, demonstrate that there’s a lot more to carnival than the grim statistics that get splashed across the papers every summer. The image we’re left with is not one of violence, but of pride, friendship and resilience, and a community that’s prepared to keep fighting for as long as it takes to reclaim its voice and heritage.

J’Ouvert is at Theatre503 until 22nd 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: Country Music at Omnibus Theatre

This Dartford resident felt very much at home last night watching Simon Stephens’ Country Music, in a new production directed by Scott Le Crass. Set against the symbolic backdrop of the QEII bridge connecting Essex and Kent, the play follows central character Jamie across two decades and four significant encounters, exploring along the way the lasting impact of one bad decision on his life and relationships.

Country Music at Omnibus Theatre
Photo credit: Bonnie Britain

We first meet Jamie (Cary Crankson) in 1983 as a troubled eighteen-year-old, on the run after committing a vicious assault back home in Gravesend. With him is his almost-girlfriend Lynsey (Rebecca Stone), who’s torn between excitement and anxiety over what lies ahead. Ten years later, Jamie’s doing time for an even more serious crime, and receives a tense visit from his younger brother Matty (Dario Coates). And another decade after that, he’s travelled up north to visit his teenage daughter Emma (Frances Knight) – but it’s not quite the joyous reunion he’d hoped for.

The play’s biggest weakness lies in its failure to make the exact timeline and details of Jamie’s misdemeanours completely clear, but what is very apparent is that the split-second choice he made just prior to his escape across the river with Lynsey has gone on to direct the disappointing course of the rest of his life. A short but powerful final scene brings us back to the start of the story, offering a glimpse of what could have been that also feels like a long overdue opportunity for redemption.

Given the subject matter, it’s to be expected that the play makes for a fairly intense 80 minutes, but director Scott Le Crass and a really excellent cast succeed in wringing every last drop of tension and significance out of both Stephens’ words and, just as importantly, the silences between them. Such is the quality of all four actors’ performances that these – often quite lengthy – pauses in the dialogue are enthralling to watch; I don’t think I’ve ever been so fascinated by two people sitting and eating crisps in complete silence. Cary Crankson in particular gives an outstanding performance as Jamie, his every gesture and expression conveying what the character’s immaturity and intellectual limitations often prevent him being able to put into words.

Though little of the action actually takes place there, Jamie’s home town of Gravesend is crucial to the story; even two decades later, he still speaks of it with a kind of pride, despite the fact it’s the place where his life took such a dramatically wrong turn. He seems particularly fascinated by the QEII bridge, and mentions it often – though when his story begins, it’s little more than an idea (it was built during the 1980s, and didn’t open until 1991). Liam Shea’s striking set also takes inspiration from the bridge’s towering and architecturally impressive structure, with ropes that converge on a simple raised platform in the centre where the action unfolds.

Country Music at Omnibus Theatre
Photo credit: Bonnie Britain

The tragedy of Country Music is that while it’s all too easy for a life to go off course, getting it back on track can be an impossible struggle. The Jamie who meets his seventeen-year-old daughter is an entirely different man to the volatile teenager who went on the run all those years before – yet he’s still forced to live with the consequences of that boy’s mistakes, however desperately he wishes he could undo them. The plot may at times be slightly muddled, but the sense of waste and irretrievable loss at its heart comes through powerfully in this excellent revival.

Country Music is at the Omnibus Theatre until 23rd June.