Interview: Liam Ashmead and Laura Shoebottom, Blue Tights, Red Knickers and an ‘S’ on Her Vest

Liam Ashmead and Laura Shoebottom are the co-founders of Thematic Theatre, a company they set up last year to specialise in new writing. Next week they’ll open their debut production, Blue Tights, Red Knickers and an ‘S’ on Her Vest, at the Bread and Roses Theatre in Clapham. Written by Laura and directed by Liam, the play follows the effects of anxiety and workplace bullying on the central character, Jenna, and the toll it ultimately takes on her health.

Laura, who also plays Jenna, has previously had work performed at Theatre 503, The Churchill Theatre and The Tabard Theatre. Blue Tights, Red Knickers and an ‘S’ on Her Vest is her first full production, and was inspired by a conversation with her mum: “Around a particularly stressful exam period, she told me it was ok to ‘take the superwoman outfit off once in a while’ and look after myself rather than trying to be all things to all people. It’s always stayed with me and the message is the essence of the show really, that it’s impossible to be everything to everyone.”

As a new company making their debut, Laura and Liam are looking forward to sharing their show with audiences within their local area, and taking the opportunity to start a conversation about mental health. “We hope that audiences will empathise with Jenna, but mostly it’s about raising awareness for mental health. We’re so happy that we’re fundraising for Mind because it’s a charity that’s very close to both our hearts.

The two friends graduated last year from Italia Conti, where they decided to set up their own company – and Thematic Theatre was born. “We knew that we enjoyed working together as creatives and we were both passionate about creating new work for ourselves, so we thought a theatre company would be a great route to go down.

“We want to collaborate with as many people as we can and make contacts with others who share the same passion as us. We’ve both been involved in many scratch nights and new writing festivals and we believe they are great platforms for creatives. We want to offer these same opportunities to others and we aim to do this through our own new writing event ‘Box of Themes’, where we pick out a theme and then get writers/ directors and actors to create a short piece based around it.”

Both founders agree that starting their own company has been both exciting and challenging: “The biggest challenge has been trusting our work and making sure it’s sensitive to the subject matter. We’re very excited about it but as it’s our first time producing we naturally have moments of doubt. It’s also very expensive putting on a show so there’s always money to consider, and balancing rehearsals and promotion alongside our other jobs.

“Creatively, though, it’s been amazing. We both work well together and we’ve enjoyed the freedom and fun we’ve had in the rehearsal room – there’s equal control and it’s relaxed since we’re good friends. There’s always been that mutual trust and respect there so we’ve been able to be totally honest about whether something works or not from the get go; that’s something we’re both really thankful for.”

Following next week’s short run at the Bread and Roses, Laura and Liam are looking ahead to the show’s future. “We plan to take it to The Vaults and the Edinburgh fringe next year. We’re really happy with where the play is at the moment and we want to use this run in London to get an idea of how audiences react and develop it even more.”

Catch Blue Tights, Red Knickers and an ‘S’ on Her Vest at The Bread and Roses Theatre from 10th-14th July.

Interview: Roman Berry and Natali Servat, Little Did I Know

Written by Doc Andersen-Bloomfield, Little Did I Know is the story of a young girl, Aaneseh, who escapes from war-torn Syria by pretending to be a boy, and sets out for England. From Yarl’s Wood Detention and Removal Centre, she recounts her journey and the people she met along the way. The play, voted one of the top 3 in The Bread and Roses Theatre Playwriting Award 2016/2017, opens this week and runs until Saturday.

Little did I Know is a beautifully written piece, full of compassion and humour,” says director Roman Berry. “The Syrian Civil War started eight years ago and it has created this ongoing humanitarian disaster and there doesn’t seem to be an end to it. I hope that by telling Aaneseh’s narrative, it sheds a light on the current issue of the refugee crisis. Little Did I Know‘s themes of innocence, identity, humanity and survival reflect the refugees’ plight, and it needs to be shared and talked about. Theatre, after all, acts as a cultural space where society examines itself in a mirror and all of us certainly need to reflect and further act on this humanitarian disaster.”

Photo credit: Izzy Romilly

For Natali Servat, who plays Aaneseh in the one-woman show, her story also resonates on a personal level. “I am the child of refugees, so it’s a subject matter that has always affected me and meant a great deal to me,” she says. “It’s such an important story to tell for obvious reasons. People are dying every day as a result of a war that is incredibly hard to fully understand, and that has spiraled out of control. It’s important to remind people that Aaneseh’s story and the journey she is on is not by any means a rarity, it’s one which thousands of people go through each day, not only from Syria.

“I hope people will come out of Little Did I Know having a better understanding of the situation and recognising themselves in Aaneseh. It feels like such a stupid thing to say because it’s so obvious in a way, but these people are not any different to us and if we were faced with the same decisions to make, our choices wouldn’t be much different. We would all want to be met by support and love on the other side, especially after having lost everything and endured trauma that will follow you forever.”

The play charts Aanaseh’s journey as she sets out in search of safety, freedom and independence, growing along the way into a courageous young woman. “I love playing Aaneseh because she is such a complex and varied character to play,” says Natali. “We follow her during different stages of her early life, at first when she’s still a teenage girl living in Syria with a lot of her childlike innocence still intact. Later on, as she’s pretending to be a boy, something that she has to try and completely immerse herself into due to the fear of what might happen if the young men in the lorry she’s traveling in ever find out that she’s a girl. And ultimately, as the strong young woman she becomes, who has endured far more than she could have ever imagined. I love her strength, her determination, her ability to adapt, her generosity, and humanity. And the fact that she never gives up on her dreams. She fights till the very end and she never takes the easy way out, even though ‘easier’ paths present themselves during the journey. She is someone I would aspire to be.

“It’s a very interesting and emotionally complex journey to go on as an actor, not to mention physically as well. It’s also interesting to see the dichotomy between how she interacts with her family and later on in a collective of boys. It’s during this transition that she starts to understand that there are differences, some unfair ones, between boys and girls that she hadn’t fully realised before.”

Photo credit: Izzy Romilly

“I admire Aaneseh’s wit, defiance and survival instinct,” adds Roman. “Don’t mess with Aaneseh, I say.”

As difficult as the subject matter undoubtedly is, Roman has found working on the play a rewarding and eye-opening experience. “A lot of our primary research is in the writing itself,” he explains. “Doc Andersen-Bloomfield’s play has specified links to media footage and news articles, so it was a good place to start. Doc’s writing also allowed us to try out different forms. There are elements in the piece to try out music, movement and mix media to challenge our creative minds. Also collaborating with wonderful designers, like original music composed solely for Little Did I Know by Elliot Clay and other wonderful creatives. And with Natali’s ‘no fuss, focused, head down, let’s just do it’ approach to negotiating scenes, I definitely learnt a lot about the current refugee crisis and had so much fun throughout developing this challenging play on its feet.”

He’s honoured, too, to be directing one of the top 3 plays in last year’s Bread and Roses Theatre Playwriting Award: “The Award is such a great vehicle for any writers who wants to have their stories developed and shown as a professional production. Directing a piece from the Top 3 play has been a wonderful experience. Kudos to The Bread and Roses Theatre for this opportunity.”

Little Did I Know is at the Bread and Roses Theatre until 10th February.

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Review: Scratch the Surface: The Female Playwright at The Bread and Roses Theatre

The third Scratch the Surface event from Instinct Theatre produced a collection of five very different pieces, with one thing in common: they were all created by women. Covering a range of themes from mental illness to manspreading, the evening brought together an enjoyable and innovative showcase of new writing talent.

Written and performed by Amelia Sweetland, Sharp Edges (directed by Nathan Theys) got the ball rolling with a portrayal of anxiety that’s all too recognisable. Sophie’s having a party, even though she doesn’t really want to – but she’s invited her boss and can’t back down now, despite being almost paralysed by anxiety. And the only person she can talk to about it all… is herself. Gentle humour and extreme Britishness collide with the desperate poignancy of a young woman who knows her irrational fears and lifelong need for perfection are holding her back, but is powerless to get past them.

The second piece, #iAmResilient by Lucrezia Pollice, was easily the most ambitious, combining theatre with audiovisual content to paint a picture of millennial life. Using a screen to show us text, Tinder and Facebook conversations is an inspired touch, given that most of us probably have more interactions on screen than in person these days. That said, future performances could definitely benefit from a bigger screen, to allow everyone to see what’s happening. The piece covers several themes but its main focus falls on Maria, and an honest exploration of the impact of her mental health issues on her relationship with her housemates. #iAmResilient has some interesting ideas, but definitely feels like a snippet of a longer piece, so it will be interesting to see how it develops from here.

Maternity by Stephanie Silver is a comedy, but even this very funny piece has a sting in the tail. Laura’s about to leave work to have a baby, but is anxious that she won’t make a good mum. Even so, her well-intentioned friend Kate is determined to give her a good send-off, whether she wants one or not. In a clever twist, the play sets up the two characters then, without warning, turns our opinions of them on their head. We’re still laughing, but now it’s tinged with a hint of sadness on one hand, and shock on the other. Even so, Laura’s honesty about her fears – however exaggerated in this case – is actually quite refreshing in a world that constantly sells the idea all women are natural mothers.

Saturday Night (directed by Laura Clifford), one of six monologues from Francesca Mepham’s collection No One Wants a Pretty Girl, finds Amber sitting alone at home watching Doctor Who. She’s just split up from her boyfriend (again) and can’t seem to connect with her friends, who just want to go out every weekend rather than catch up with her. A short but heartfelt monologue about loneliness and not quite fitting in, this is a piece of writing that reaches out to anyone who’s ever found themselves in Amber’s shoes – getting pulled back into an unhealthy relationship just for the sake of feeling loved.

And finally, the evening ended on a raucous note with Manspreading by Laura Hall (directed by Niamh Handley-Vaughan), in which the drunken conversation of three young women on a night out turns to the antisocial habit that is manspreading. More specifically, they’re outraged by the fact that it should be the exclusive domain of men – like Yorkie bars all over again, as one of them points out. It’s all very lighthearted and over-the-top, but the play does raise some interesting discussion points about gender roles and differing social interpretations of male and female body language, which seem particularly relevant in light of recent media events.

It’s always interesting to see new writing at such an early stage in its development, and on this occasion particularly exciting to see it all coming from female playwrights. Once again, Instinct Theatre have put together an  evening that provided its audience with plenty of food for thought, but also five talented writers to keep our eye on in the future.

For future Scratch the Surface events, follow @InstinctTheatre on Twitter.


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Review: No One Wants A Pretty Girl at the Bread and Roses Theatre

At a time when the theatre is crying out for more female representation, Francesca Mepham and Femm Theatre are doing their best to oblige. No One Wants A Pretty Girl – written, directed and performed by women – is a collection of six monologues, which take us on a short but powerful rollercoaster ride through different aspects of female life, touching along the way on heartbreak, humour and even horror.

Though each one of the six can and does stand alone as an independent story, under Laura Clifford’s direction they also fit cohesively together as a collection, overlapping just enough to allow a brief moment of interaction between performers as they enter or exit the stage. This is a nice touch that gives the piece a feeling of collaboration, even though the individual stories are very different.

In the first, Should, Tayo Elesin has just watched the man she loves get married to someone else. A short but captivating piece, it’s full of pain and futile rage – not against the man in question, but against herself for having lost him in the first place. Things then take a decidedly more upbeat turn in Jade Jacket and Trousers, a story of success against the odds that almost feels like a motivational TED talk. Antonia Kleopa is funny and likeable, and not afraid to directly address members of the audience in order to get her point across. The same goes for Charlotte Hunt’s vain blonde in Side B*tch – except her intention is to make her chosen audience members uncomfortable, and she definitely doesn’t care if we like her. She’s pretty, after all…

Arguably the most powerful of the pieces is My Daddy is Mexican, heartbreakingly performed by Felicity Huxley-Miners. She plays a young blind American whose family has been devastated as a result of racism against her father. As horrific as the story is, particularly in light of recent events in the USA, the end is oddly touching, because despite everything she’s gone through, this young woman refuses to be beaten.

In No Shame, Naina Kohli reminisces about falling for her boyfriend’s sister – but somehow it’s the boyfriend who ends up dominating the narrative, by complaining that he feels ashamed of her new relationship – though she herself knows she’s done nothing wrong. Similarly, in Saturday Night, Farran Mitchell finds herself sitting at home alone watching Doctor Who, waiting for the boyfriend she just dumped to call and beg her to come back. She knows he will, because he’s done it before – and she’s too lonely to resist, even though she knows being with him won’t make her happy.

All six pieces are beautifully written, and resonate with warmth, humour and above all, authenticity; each of the women feels like someone you might actually meet – or maybe even already know. Some you’d want to go for a drink with; others not so much. Some have been defeated by their stories, while others refuse to give in. It’s not always pretty, but that’s exactly the point – women are more than just ornaments, and this enjoyable showcase of female talent does a great job of going beneath the surface to find the individuals underneath.

Follow @FemmTheatre on Twitter for news about future performances.


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Interview: Francesca Mepham, FEMM Theatre

FEMM Theatre is a new company producing fresh and exciting theatre by female artists, whose debut production comes to the Bread and Roses Theatre next month. No One Wants A Pretty Girl is a collection of six contemporary female monologues, written by FEMM Theatre’s founder Francesca Mepham.

“It was such a spontaneous decision; I knew I wanted to produce my new play and thought it was time I created my own theatre company,” explains Fran. “The initials of my full name happen to be FEMM, so it was fate that I wanted the theatre company to be one that supports and promotes female creatives. This isn’t to say we are not supporting male creatives, quite the opposite; we want to promote equality and diversity in the arts. I want to support other females, as in this industry that is so important – females showing solidarity to fellow females. You can never have too much kindness!”

Although she’s new to running a theatre company, the multitalented Fran is certainly no stranger to working in the arts: “Well my career’s definitely been varied, which I absolutely love. It’s involved performing, writing, reviewing and PRing! Performing began when I was very young; I was a member of Beck Youth Theatre, who were so supportive of what I wanted to do, which was to simply be creative. I graduated with a BMus Hons degree and I’ve been very fortunate and performed as an events/session vocalist ever since.

“I’ve always written, but it wasn’t until I started reviewing theatre productions a couple of years ago, that I realised I wanted to explore theatre writing and acting again. You could say I just dived straight in and went for it, producing my own plays and now I have my own theatre company! Also, I have a blog called Frantastic View, that aims to inspire other creatives and give an honest look at life in the arts. And I’m Press Manager for Orzu Arts, Britain’s first Central Asian Theatre Company, so I’m always immersing myself in the arts industry somehow!”

Unsurprisingly in such a long and varied career, there have been a lot of highlights. “I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful creatives want to work with me as a writer and a performer,” says Fran. “Performing at Edinburgh is a real highlight, and I’ve recently been chosen for a night of female playwrights produced by Instinct Theatre at The Bread and Roses Theatre. The support for FEMM Theatre has been a huge highlight of 2017. I’ve also recently written for NewsRevue which has been a lot of fun. In the last few weeks I’ve signed to Helen McWilliams Management Agency which has been wonderful, to have that faith in me as an artist.”

No One Wants A Pretty Girl – written by Fran and directed by Laura Clifford – will be performed in its entirety for the first time at the Bread and Roses in Clapham on 16th October. “It’s a collection of six monologues – Should, Jade Jacket and Trousers, Side B*tch, My Daddy Is Mexican, No Shame and Saturday Night – each performed by one of the six-strong female cast,” says Fran. “Each monologue explores the theme of having a secret behind the smile, an inner sadness which we can all identify. There are themes of heartbreak, loneliness, prejudice, to name just a few; there is no sugar coating, just a rawness from each character. This is life and even in sadness there is beauty.

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“I wrote Should for Theatrefullstop in late 2015 at 2am for their Monologue Monday, which they were filming for their blog, and I continued writing monologues for the collection – initially three, those being Jade Jacket and Trousers and Side B*tch which they recorded for their podcast late last year, with actress Charlotte Hunt. It was actually Charlotte who said how much her friends she worked with at a call centre, who were also actresses, had enjoyed reading the monologues, as there aren’t that many contemporary monologues for women in their 20s-30s that are relatable out there.

“Then in March of this year, Should was performed at Instinct Theatre’s Scratch The Surface at The Hen and Chickens Theatre, directed by Laura Clifford and performed by Tayo Elesin. I realised that from its warm reaction, I had to write more and make the monologue collection into a full length show, with Laura’s amazing direction. Big thanks to Theatrefullstop and Instinct Theatre, two female-led theatre tour de forces, who have been so supportive of No One Wants A Pretty Girl.”

One of Fran’s primary goals with FEMM Theatre is to promote diversity of all kinds in theatre and the arts. “It’s so important as diversity equals equality; theatre needs to give all creatives equal opportunities,” she says. “Glass ceilings need to be shattered and the industry needs to be aware of theatre makers that need that extra encouragement and support. We all need to support each other in theatre. With FEMM, we put our ethos in to action and cast BAME actors as a priority. That’s what needs to be done – a little less conversation and more positive action in the arts. We also want to address the problem of ageism, especially towards actresses in theatre.”

And finally, to anyone – particularly women – thinking about getting into playwriting, Fran has a few words of advice: “Do it! Literally go for it, be bold, be brave and just be yourself.”

Book now for No One Wants A Pretty Girl at the Bread and Roses on 16th October.