Interview: Jon Tozzi, Section 2

Paper Creatures Theatre was founded by actors Nathan Coenen and Jon Tozzi on a mutual love of new writing, truthful storytelling and innovative theatre. Their mission is to tell simple, compelling and bold stories that hold up a mirror to the millennial generation.

“The media often portrays millennials as social media-fixated, self-involved and careless of the society in which we find ourselves,” explains Jon. “Paper Creatures is committed to making theatre that breaks away from that stereotype and digs deeper. Good theatre for us is about storytelling. We lead with the idea that the story should be the primary focus from which everything else springs. Our shows aim to provoke, engage and encourage discussion after having left the auditorium.”

And they’re hoping to do just that with their second show, Section 2, which explores the often sensitive subject of mental health, and in particular aims to shine a light on the topic of sectioning. “Mental health is thankfully an issue that is gaining a brighter spotlight and focus in recent years, especially with depression and anxiety,” says Jon. “However, not much is said about sectioning, a treatment that is increasingly required, particularly among those aged 18 – 35, not to mention those who work in the arts.

Section 2 is a part verbatim story about a young man named Cam, the golden-boy in high school, who is sectioned under the mental health act, but no one can figure out why. Taking place in real time on potentially the final day of his sectioning, we follow a glaringly insightful truth into the process, challenges and effects of sectioning, on the patient but also his key worker, girlfriend and best friend.

“Sectioning is a subject that is rarely talked about in theatre, and definitely not in such an honest and revealing way. When Peter Imms, the writer, approached us with the initial story, we felt it important to take the opportunity to shed some light on the subject and tackle its effects head on. The fact that this piece was inspired by a personal encounter of our playwright means the approach to the text is much more truthful and raw in comparison to many other mental health plays. Section 2 is told in real-time, allowing audience members to experience every joy, hope, silence and heartbreak right there along with the characters – as if they were in the room with them. The play oozes subtext and Pete’s writing style allows for lots of exploration for the director and actors to explore this in various ways through each performance.”

Photo credit: Monika Jastrzebska

The production began life in September 2017 as ten pages of script and a short verbatim piece from a personal experience Peter had with sectioning. “Since then, we’ve done what we do best: given Pete the time and creative support necessary to write the play Section 2 has become,” says Jon. “This included several read throughs with different actors and creatives listening in, an R&D week away in Wittering, and taking part in A Pleasance Scratch at the Pleasance Theatre to gain some useful feedback. We work extremely collaboratively and have given the piece the time and dedication it needs to be performance ready. The key for us was to approach this play and the subject matter with sensitivity and a clear understanding, so lots of research was undertaken and it has been invaluable; we hope that comes across after having watched the play.

“In today’s day and age, it’s important, particularly as millennials, that we continue to open our minds and expand our knowledge of a lot of key issues that affect many people in our society, such as mental health. What Section 2 will give you is a brave and truthful insight into the world of sectioning, at the same time as letting you come away with a hopeful outlook on how we as humans can help break the stigma attached to mental health and how we as a theatre community can help support this. What makes this piece so special is that we have had support from MIND, the mental health charity during the script development stages, so what we are bringing to The Bunker is a play that accurately depicts the inner workings of a mental health hospital and the emotional journey of those that are a part of it.

“We want our audiences to leave with a greater awareness and knowledge of sectioning and, with that, the ability and willingness to reach out to those in their lives who suffer from mental health conditions and become a part of their support network. Something as simple as an informed conversation can help sufferers immensely.

“Good theatre is about connection and we hope that there will be at least one moment in the piece which the audience is able to connect and empathise with. We also strongly encourage audiences to stick around after to discuss the play with us so we can begin the conversation regarding mental health.”

Following the success last year of their debut production, Flood, Paper Creatures are excited to be bringing their new project to The Bunker as part of the Breaking out season. “The Bunker has been attracting a young, vibrant and, most importantly, diverse crowd since their debut show which we saw back in 2016,” says Jon. “Just sitting in the space, there is a distinct buzz and community feel. Having the opportunity to share our stories with this kind of audience is an incredibly exciting opportunity for us. The performance space itself will lend itself perfectly to the production as the audience will be looking in on the action of the play, giving a fly on the wall type feel.

“To be in repertory theatre for a month with five other emerging new-writing theatre companies is also an absolute privilege for us here at Paper Creatures Theatre. The chance to meet and work alongside these different creatives, each with their unique approach to their craft, has taught us a lot and given us the opportunity to expand our audience. We hugely appreciate and champion The Bunker Theatre’s efforts to make this happen – more needs to be done to support new companies and this is one hell of a start.”

Get your tickets now for Section 2 at The Bunker Theatre, on Tuesdays and Fridays at 8.30pm from 11th June to 7th July.

Interview: Leoe Mercer, GUY

Leoe & Hyde are a musical theatre duo from Manchester, whose previous collaborations include immersive pop-musical Queueue: A Coffee Shop Musical and genre-bending mashup The Marriage of Kim K, which toured the UK last summer to widespread critical acclaim. Now they’re preparing for the world premiere of their latest show GUY, a new gay rom-com about the hook-ups and downs of 21st-century dating, at The Bunker Theatre as part of the Breaking Out season.

Writer and producer Leoe Mercer explains, “GUY is about modern dating. Our whole generation has a shared experience of using apps like Tinder and, in the gay community, Grindr. The show is a diverse, body-positive rom-com about love in the gay community, but at the same time Guy, the protagonist, swings back and forth between the highs and lows of these apps in such a way that resonates, regardless of sexuality.”

Leoe & Hyde was set up in late 2016, but the creative partnership between Leoe and composer Stephen Hyde actually began a couple of years earlier. “We met in 2014, and decided to start writing musicals, with Stephen writing and producing the music and me writing the story and lyrics. Soon after, we decided to produce our own shows too – mainly because we were impatient to see them performed! With an eye for real life characters, an ear for fresh pop sounds, and a taste for the sexier side of the zeitgeist, we want to create a sophisticated language for 21st century musical theatre.

“We grow up hearing stories from previous generations about how musicals like Hair in the 60s and Rent in the 90s captured the music and attitude of a generation. We have a hunch that millennials want something similar for ourselves, a musical which honestly captures the unique post-internet variant of life and love using the electronic/pop soundworld we listen to normally.”

Following the success of The Marriage of Kim K, a 72-minute musical/opera about Kim Kardashian’s infamous 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries, Leoe & Hyde were keen to try something different – and GUY was the result. “GUY came out of nowhere for us,” says Leoe. “In October 2017 we sat down to write some pop songs for the fun of it. A few weeks later, we realised that they actually formed the skeleton of a story, which over the next six months we developed into GUY. We’ve actually grown a lot from this process: the music style is very fresh because we were trying to write pop music instead of musicals, and the show is more unique because of it.”

Leoe believes there are three key things that make GUY unique: “First, the music. Musicals tend to sound quite like musicals, but the soundworld for GUY is more like you may hear if you switch on the radio in 2018. Second, the story. It’s a feel-good gay rom-com, but at the same time it challenges stereotypes and undermines clichés from start to end. I recently saw Love, Simon, which has the perfect tagline: ‘Everyone deserves a great love story.’ I’d hope that comes across strongly too: telling a gay love story isn’t enough, it’s important that the gay world you’re representing is full of variety and honesty.”

“And last but not least, the cast. We have a cast of four, with remarkable voices, including X Factor finalist Seann Miley Moore, who was a favourite to win the show in 2015 and has since notched up millions of views on YouTube.”

The show opens next week as part of the Bunker Theatre’s Breaking Out season, a festival of world premiere shows from six emerging theatre companies over four weeks. “Having people who get behind your work is a huge confidence boost, so being selected for a festival is great,” says Leoe. “It’s also exciting because this musical draws from so much of our actual experience – beginning writing only six months ago, it’s great to see that it can be on so soon.

“When you normally watch a musical, the stage and the singers are miles away. Doing a musical at The Bunker with four incredibly powerful singers and a huge electronic score will create a level of intimacy and immersion that will be quite overwhelming. Come along so you can say ‘I saw it first!’”

Book now for GUY at The Bunker Theatre on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 8.30pm from 11th June to 7th July.

Interview: Hannah Samuels, Kiss Chase

Formed in 2017, Second Circle Theatre is an emerging theatre company of three core members and five associate artists, including street performers, musicians, visual artists and devisors. Last year they were finalists of the Pleasance Charlie Hartill Special Reserve, alongside emerging companies Unpolished Theatre and ThisEgg, and their debut show Meeting at 33 premiered to five-star reviews and a sell-out run. This month they’re bringing their second show, Kiss Chase, to The Bunker Theatre as part of the Breaking Out season.

“Our company aims to challenge what a night at the theatre looks like and how it is experienced, and put real people and stories at the heart of our work,” says artistic director Hannah Samuels, who founded Second Circle along with Topher Collins and Zoe Gibbons. “We want to encourage communities to feel connected to each other and individuals to feel less alone, and to create honest, visceral theatre in unique and intimate spaces. We aim to make work that can be and should be experienced by everyone. As a company, by revealing our hopes, fears, obsessions, anxieties and secrets, we strive to make work about the people we care about and the issues we want to scream about.”

Kiss Chase is a part-interactive, part-verbatim speed dating event, which explores the barriers we face when forming relationships, both in and out of love. “Audiences will be taken through a series of interactive tasks/games to develop their intimacy skills – as participants – as well as watching the narrative,” explains Hannah. “We’re inviting them into a world where they are immediately congratulated for taking the leap and entering the unknown. In keeping with our company style, minimal tech requirements and a reduced audience capacity will create an intimate experience for individuals as well as the collective group.

“During the event, the audience will go on dates, talk to characters and listen to songs, as we invite them to look up from their phones and to find commonality in shared experience. The original inspiration for the show sprung from the question: what is it about the pursuit of love that allows us to sometimes be treated badly in order to find it? As the show progressed we came across research calling London the ‘loneliness capital of Europe’ and we wanted to explore why this was and how/if this could be changed. With the rise of online dating, self-help books and the emergence of the Instagram filter, now feels an important time to look one another in the face.

“We’d like our audiences to feel changed in some way by the performance and connected to those they’ve only just met, having been through the experience together, and also to leave questioning what of Kiss Chase was performance and which parts were real. We want to celebrate a world where interactions happen face-to-face, drawing similarities between the ‘live-ness’ of seeing a theatrical event rather than something filmed. We hope to champion the forming of friendships as much as romantic relationships and to challenge who our significant other might be, and to create a shared audience experience celebrating similarities not differences.”

Kiss Chase has been in development since the beginning of 2018, and was still at a very early stage when it was selected for the Breaking Out season. “As with our first show, we always start developing a seed of an idea by doing lots of research,” explains Hannah. “The company have been out and about interviewing people across the country who have shared their stories of love, loss and friendship with us. We have also been going speed dating… a lot. Our associate artists have been involved in the development phase of the process, which is a really collaborative and fulfilling way of working. We’ve been building character through the verbatim interviews and experimenting with the game format of the show, and we’ve worked with Rich Maskey at Potential Difference, looking at ways to integrate technology into the show or to form part of our marketing campaign.

“The Breaking Out programme has quite literally helped us to ‘break out’ and launch ourselves into the industry with our second show, granting us the professional support to secure further funding and exposure as we strive to make life-changing theatre. Having worked alongside other emerging companies through the Pleasance Charlie Hartill tryouts 2017, we were delighted to be offered this opportunity to continue to learn from and support our peers. We are incredibly excited to develop our work with support from such an incredible and intimate venue, and we have already learned so much from the mentorship that’s been offered to us as part of the program. We love how The Bunker encourages shows and companies they work with to take risks and push the boundaries of conventional theatre. It has an incredible reputation for producing a hugely diverse programme and we share a passion for engaging the local community to tackle pressing personal/collective issues, with a unique approach.

“The Bunker is a perfect venue for Kiss Chase, local to us in East London, with a uniqueness and site-specific edge. The intimacy the space invites is amazing – it’s like watching a show in your lounge! Our first show was site-specific in a non-traditional theatre space, so we want to use the environment of The Bunker and all its various nooks and crannies when creating the work specifically for this venue. The mentorship we have already received from David and Josh has been invaluable at this early stage of the company’s growth, and we are really excited about continuing this relationship long after Breaking Out season is complete.”

Book now for Kiss Chase at The Bunker Theatre, on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 7pm from 11th June to 7th July.

Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Drayton Arms Theatre

Fun fact: yesterday was the final of the US National Spelling Bee in Maryland. The 14-year-old winner, Karthik Nemmani, triumphed by correctly spelling “koinonia” – which means Christian fellowship or communion – after his opponent, aged 12, stumbled on her own word, “Bewusstseinslage” (a state of consciousness or a feeling devoid of sensory components). Afterwards, reports the Guardian, the generous champion took no pleasure in beating his rival, saying, “We weren’t against each other. We were against the dictionary.”

There’s little sign of such magnanimity at the start of MKEC Productions’ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. We arrive to find the contestants and organisers milling about the theatre, chatting to the audience and bickering amongst themselves, before the show begins and battle commences. Somehow I’d never seen William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s Tony award-winning musical before – which is ironic considering I seem to be the only person in the world who thinks a show about spelling actually does sound like fun – but I’m now officially a convert. What starts as a hilariously silly comedy about six misfits who love to spell unexpectedly turns into an emotional rollercoaster, as we get to know the contestants and understand the backstories that have brought them to the bee. Unlike most rollercoasters, however, this is one I’d happily get back on and do it all over again. And then again after that.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown at Savannah Photographic

This is partly because bits of the show have an improvised feel – specifically those involving members of the audience (nothing too scary and all voluntary, although I’m still glad it wasn’t me up there) and a few pointed one-liners referencing current events – and it would be fascinating to see what goes differently on a second viewing. But it’s mostly because the story, characters and music are all genuinely delightful, despite also being “the slightest bit bizarre” in their own special ways.

There’s last year’s winner Chip Tolentino (Aaron Jenson), who’s doing fine until he spots a pretty girl in the front row and all the blood rushes from his brain to – well, somewhere else. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Lottie Johnson) is desperate to make her two dads proud, while Marcy Park (Jeannie May) knows that whatever she achieves it’ll never be enough for her parents. William Barfee – excuse me, Barfée (TJ Lloyd) – has a magic foot that helps him spell (yes, really), and Leaf Coneybear (Danny Whelan) is beginning to realise that he might actually be quite smart after all, despite what his family keep telling him. And finally there’s Olive Ostrovsky (Thea Jo Wolfe), who before the show even started, slipped a piece of paper on to the empty seat beside me and whispered, “It’s for my dad.” The obvious and tragic fact that the seat was guaranteed to remain empty made Olive my immediate and enduring favourite.

Trying to keep some kind of order amidst all this pandemonium are former champion Rona Lisa Peretti (Elizabeth Chadwick), vice principal Douglas Panch (Michael Watson-Gray), and bizarrely, Mitch Mahoney (Inti Conde), who’s doing his community service consoling defeated spellers. As you do.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown at Savannah Photographic

Because there can be only one winner at the spelling bee. As we get to know more about the contestants and what drives them, it becomes obvious this is much more than just a game to our six young spellers, and the final round is surprisingly tense as we wait to see who’ll crack first under the pressure. But although each elimination is a sad moment, the show ends on an upbeat note with the realisation that winning isn’t necessarily everything. Sure it’s a cliché, but when you’re having this much fun, who cares?

A seemingly casual joke about the show’s brief rehearsal time highlights what a polished production this is in spite of that. A brilliant cast excel both individually and as an ensemble, hitting all the right comic notes but also giving emotional depth to characters who at first glance appear to be no more than stereotypes. Director and choreographer Adam Haigh makes full and effective use of the intimate space, setting the tone of the production with the pre-show activities to ensure the audience – who are cast early on as proud parents watching the bee – always feel involved and connected to what’s going on.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is brilliantly bonkers, and proves what I knew all along – that spelling really is fun. But the show also champions those who dare to be different, and reminds us that sometimes it really is the taking part that counts. This little gem of a production is a feel-good treat and guaranteed to put a smile on your face; don’t miss it.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is at the Drayton Arms Theatre until 16th 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: Into The Woods at the Cockpit Theatre

Once upon a time… Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine got together to write a musical based on classic fairy tales, including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood. But there’s a twist to this tale: the happy ending comes halfway through, and on reflection in Act 2 turns out to be not quite so happy after all – mostly because none of the characters is satisfied even after they get their wish. A lot of the show’s appeal lies in that simple fact: after listening to their stories all our lives, it’s oddly comforting to discover our favourite fairy tale characters are just as flawed as the rest of us.

In this revival of his 2014 adaptation, Tim McArthur takes that idea one step further, bringing the characters out of their fairy tales altogether and into a world inspired by 21st century reality TV. TOWIE, Jeremy Kyle and Made in Chelsea are all recognisable influences – although interestingly, the Baker and his Wife seem to hail more from Greggs than from Bake Off.

Photo credit: David Ovenden

It’s a clever concept, and works reasonably well in terms of entertainment value as the various characters are introduced, although it doesn’t really go anywhere after that. The story – and some of the characters – remain very much rooted in a world of myth and magic, where it jars slightly that even these very modern characters can’t just whip out their phones and Google how to get what they want.

For lovers of fairy tales, the musical itself is an enchanting blend of familiar and original. The story centres around a childless Baker (Tim McArthur) and his Wife (Jo Wickham), who have to collect four obscure items to break the curse put on them by the Witch (Michele Moran) so they can have a baby. Into the woods they go, where they stumble into the paths of Jack (Jamie O’Donnell), Cinderella (Abigail Carter-Simpson), Rapunzel (Louise Olley) and Red Riding Hood (Florence Odumosu) – who just happen to have all the things they need. All seems well, until in a considerably darker Act 2, a giant starts terrorising their village and the characters are forced back into the woods to fight for survival.

This production is staged in the round, which both works and at the same time, really doesn’t. On the plus side, it does mean that the audience feels surrounded by the action; you never quite know where an actor is going to pop out of next. On the other, even from my relatively high vantage point, I couldn’t see or hear much of what was happening on the other side of Joana Dias’ impressive but complicated set of many ladders, and consequently felt like I was missing out on half the action. This wasn’t helped by the score, which frequently has actors speaking or singing over each other, and to make matters worse, there were also a few technical problems with the sound system at this particular performance.

Photo credit: David Ovenden

In spite of these issues, the cast are generally very good, with standout vocal performances from Michele Moran and Abigail Carter-Simpson as the Witch and Cinderella respectively. Meanwhile Ashley Daniels and Michael Duke bring the house down with their hilariously posh rendition of Agony (yah), and Jamie O’Donnell and Madeleine MacMahon are good fun as Glaswegian Jack and his chain-smoking, beer-swigging Mother – although their accents are at times so thick, particularly in the musical numbers, that it can become tricky to make out what they’re saying.

Though not without some problems, Into The Woods is nonetheless an ambitious and entertaining show, which puts an interesting new spin on a classic whilst retaining the wit and charm of the original. Worth a visit for fairy tale family fun.

Into The Woods is at the Cockpit Theatre until 24th June.