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.

Review: Window at the Bread and Roses Theatre

In a world of reality TV and social media, it’s all too easy to fall into the habit of obsessively observing other people’s lives, and then comparing them to our own. In Ron Elisha’s Window, this voyeurism reaches new heights when married couple Grace and Jimmy spot their neighbours having sex, seemingly at all hours of the day and night.

It all begins as a bit of slightly naughty fun, even helping to rekindle the dormant sex life of the exhausted new parents. But when Grace falls pregnant with their second child, her interest in the young, beautiful couple across the way – in her mind, an earlier version of herself and Jimmy – starts to develop into an unhealthy obsession that affects her work, health and family life.

Photo credit: Greg Goodale

The two-hander play deals sensitively with issues of pre- and post-natal depression, with Idgie Beau giving a strong performance as an increasingly distressed Grace. Charles Warner is equally impressive as Jimmy, whose initial amusement soon gives way to concern for the wellbeing of his wife and baby, balanced against his frustration over her neglect of their family. Although there are moments in the story of their relationship that feel unlikely, the actors’ portrayal of it is entirely convincing.

Covering five years without ever leaving the couple’s bedroom, it would have been easy for scenes to run together, but director Dave Spencer breaks up the action with costume changes and brief musical interludes, while references in the script keep us up to speed on how much time has passed. Even so, things do start to slow ever so slightly towards the end, as the subjects of Grace’s obsession go through a personal crisis, and she dissolves again and again into panicked tears on their behalf while Jimmy tries to console her. It’s only when she finally takes action that the cycle is broken, and Grace’s recovery can begin – a moment that’s beautifully played by the actors but in terms of plot development feels a bit too neat, given all that’s gone before.

There are a few other moments where we’re required to suspend our disbelief in order to make the story work: the fact that the neighbours would never, in five years, consider closing the curtains or turning the light off, for instance; or that given the ever more blatant gawking from Grace and Jimmy, who can clearly see every detail, the other couple would never notice them. But that’s what makes the play such a perfect metaphor for social media – by putting our lives on display, we effectively open the curtains and allow anyone to see in. We know they’re there, and we kind of like it that way… but providing others with free access to our everyday lives means they inevitably see the bad as well as the good.

Photo credit: Greg Goodale

The situation in which Grace and Jimmy find themselves is one that the vast majority of us will never need to deal with (or let’s hope not, anyway) – but that doesn’t stop Window being highly relevant to a generation that’s as addicted to sharing as we are to observing. Although it could use a little more pace towards the end, this is an entertaining and unsettling new play that will definitely make you think twice about leaving the curtains open.


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Interview: Dave Spencer and Ron Elisha, Window

“It’s a dramatic exploration of the nature of intimacy. What constitutes a relationship? How great is the distance between two people before they no longer matter to one another? Does it indeed take two to tango?”

Window is a new play by four-time Australian Writers’ Guild Award winner Ron Elisha, opening at the Bread and Roses on 29th August in a co-production from The So & So Arts Club and Another Soup.

“The two characters, Grace and Jimmy, appear to be living a normal life, and then suddenly, without warning, their lives are turned upside down – but not in the way you’d expect,” director Dave Spencer explains. “Ron has written a wonderful treatment of the trials of suffering with pre- and post-natal depression, and the possibility that it can become a form of psychosis.”

The play’s very loosely based on a true story Ron heard on a podcast: “I’ve made significant changes in order to render the story as a drama rather than narrative – including significant changes in the narrative itself – but the whole notion of the space between people has always fascinated me, and this scenario struck me as the ideal vehicle through which to explore the various facets of the issue.

“If you’re interested in human relationships, meaning, and notions of moral accountability, then this is the play for you. The play is a fine balance between humour and the whiff of tragedy, and will send audiences out thinking. And talking. Lots to talk about.”

Window tackles the insipid social media addiction of the modern age, the narcissism inherent in our everyday lives, in that we can no longer look at ourselves without looking at others,” says Dave. “We see our own reflection in the window that is supposed to show us the world. What is private and public has become so blurred that we no longer have any idea who we are. This is such an important issue in today’s society, where everything is played out behind a screen, be it on the telly, in the cinema, or from behind a computer. More and more, our lives are not our own, and it’s so important that we don’t lose the importance of real human connection and intimacy, and that’s what this play demonstrates and challenges so well – it’s about the need for connection when there really is none and cannot be.”

It’s not the first time Dave and Ron have worked together, and they’re both thrilled to be teaming up again on Window. “Dave’s a young director with a very clear vision, not only for the sort of work that interests him, but also for the means through which to express it best,” says Ron. “His choices are unerring, and he makes it all seem so effortless – though I’m sure it’s not. He has a great understanding of and feeling for human relationships – frightening for someone of his relatively tender years! – and makes it all happen with a minimum of fuss. I’d work with him again in a heartbeat. In fact, we will be working on a return season of The Soul Of Wittgenstein early in 2018, as well as other projects in the future.”

Dave’s equally effusive in his praise for Ron and the rest of the team: “I just think Ron is an incredible writer – he is so sensitive to the audience and the director, and really, the plays direct themselves. Although I do hope that I’ve had some part in putting it together…

“I’ve known our actors Idgie Beau and Charles Warner since university, and they have both since completed degrees at drama school, RADA and Oxford respectively. They are phenomenal actors and also theatre makers in general. They have such great chemistry as well, which, given the subject matter, is vitally important!

“I’m also so pleased to be working with Sam Pope on the trailer, as he has done a few of our trailers in the past; and Jo Turner, who is a long time collaborator, has come back to compose a wonderful track ‘Beyond Our Walls’, which is available to buy online, and is featured in both the teaser and the full trailers. And finally, it’s so exciting to have Clancy Flynn back as my go-to lighting designer. We share a real working language and she just lights things absolutely beautifully. I cannot wait to see what she does with the text!”

As well as Window, both Ron and Dave have plenty of other projects to keep them busy. “Personally, I’m always working,” says Ron. “Right now, I’m working on a play – Left Bank Waltz – about a journalist trying to get an interview with a famous actress. It was inspired by the famous Esquire article entitled ‘Sinatra has a Cold’, a brilliant long form piece born of the journalist’s inability to get to talk to the great man himself. It’s about the nature of identity and, in a strange, tangential way, is almost a modern reworking of Citizen Kane. I’m very excited about it.”

Dave’s Artistic Director of Another Soup, which was formed in 2010 when he was at university in Durham. “We were a small group of students who wanted to put on shows that were a little out of the ordinary, and so we did just that, utilising non-traditional spaces. We did two sell-out promenade covered market performances of a new musical version of Sweeney Todd, a dance-theatre piece based on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and a puppetry piece based on The Jungle Book, among Edinburgh Fringe productions and others. Then we moved to London and have continued to work with each other since, at the King’s Head and The Hope Theatres.

“And my full-time job is as Co-Producer at The So & So Arts Club, which is a 1,300-strong members organisation, bringing together artists from nine countries over paid work. And apart from that, as Ron mentioned, we are remounting Wittgenstein, and there are some other things that are very exciting in the offing. But in the meantime, I hope people will come and see Window, which is going to be hugely exciting.”

Book now for Window at the Bread and Roses from 29th August-16th September. You can also support the production’s Kickstarter campaign, which closes on Friday 4th August.

Review: Necessity at the Bread and Roses Theatre

Brighton-based Broken Silence Theatre bring their latest production, Necessity, to Clapham’s Bread and Roses following a sell-out run at last year’s Brighton Fringe. Inspired by a real event, Paul Macauley’s play tells the story of Patrick and Mish, a young couple faced with an impossible decision when a letter intended for their next door neighbour is delivered to their flat in error. Their ensuing struggle to decide what to do with its potentially explosive contents, whilst carefully observing – and judging – their neighbours’ troubled marriage, reveals hidden tensions in their own relationship that they might have preferred to keep buried.

This suburban drama is quietly intense, with a few surprises along the way and a twist ending that simultaneously brings the story back to where it started and leaves us dangling off a cliff. It’s a story about appearance versus reality – both couples are doing what they think society expects of them: buy a house; get a job; have a family. But it turns out doing what’s expected isn’t always the secret to happiness, and both relationships bear cracks hidden only just beneath the surface, waiting to be uncovered by something as seemingly innocuous as a letter.

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The characters are complex and surprising; there’s nothing predictable about this play. Alex Reynolds makes a brief but memorable appearance as the letter-writer, a vital role that lights the touch paper and leaves it to burn. Will Anderson, a new addition to the established cast as Stephen, captures the weary resignation of the henpecked husband – but our sympathetic view of him is marred by the early revelation of his secret past. And Vicky Winning is easy to hate as the stuck-up Veronika, although she too catches us off guard early on with a moment of kindness that doesn’t quite gel with the thoroughly nasty piece of work she ultimately turns out to be.

Mish and Patrick seem like a happy enough couple as they share relaxed, light-hearted banter after a long day – but it doesn’t take long for old tensions to resurface. Aspiring jewellery maker Mish wears her heart on her sleeve, and is easily the most likeable of the four main characters because of that; Cerys Knighton slips from joking around to anger to total heartbreak without hesitation. But perhaps the most intriguing performance comes from Tim Cook as Patrick, simply because it’s impossible to tell from one moment to the next if he’s a loving husband or a bit of a psycho. Or maybe both.

One little niggle: it was sometimes hard to keep track of the story’s timeframe. There’s a suggestion that the action’s taking place over a matter of weeks, but that’s hard to process when one minute the neighbours are enjoying a summer barbecue, wearing shades and complaining about the heat, and the next they’re wrapped up in jumpers and winter coats. It’s a small detail, but noticeable enough to be distracting (to me, anyway; these are the sorts of things I worry about).

Simply staged and sensitively written, Necessity is a play that touches several pressure points about modern life (career, family, class, the awkwardness of socialising with your neighbours) while still keeping us entertained and in suspense until the end. And while most of us will never find ourselves facing this particular scenario, the play nonetheless leaves its audience with plenty to think about.


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Review: Day Job at the Bread and Roses Theatre

Guest review by Ross McGregor

Written and directed by Evi Stamatiou, this is the first production from Fanny Pack Theatre, an all-female collective founded by Rachel Scurlock and Maria Alexe. Their company seeks to produce “contemporary stories about contemporary women”, and has been set up to tackle theatrical gender inequality. In a recent interview with The Stage, the co-founders said they wished to focus on working with women who are “outside the industry norm”, and although this is perhaps a lofty way of saying “give character actors a chance”, Day Job proves that the actresses in this project should be anything but overlooked.

Photo credit: Minglu Wang
Photo credit: Minglu Wang

Constructed as a series of interlocking tales about the lives of four female artists struggling to make ends meet in modern day London, Fanny Pack Theatre have created an energised, vibrant, engaging and at times hilarious piece of new writing. The device that links the narratives is the fact that all four women share the same bus journey to work, and scenes switch and intersect with ease thanks to Minglu Wang’s simple yet effective (and entirely blood-red) set. There is a degree of physical theatre and symbolised movement that is incorporated more or less well into the piece and melds fluidly with the more script-based moments.

Of the three stories, Maria Alexe’s songstress French teacher stands out as the highlight. The tale of a woman needing to get to a potentially life-changing audition whilst being stuck between a gaggle of remedial students and an overbearing teaching supervisor was played to perfection by Maria Alexe, and the fact that it involved a degree of comfortable audience participation made it all the more enjoyable. As Alexe’s frustration and desperation with her predicament grew, so in turn did the hilarity of the scene, and for me it was the highlight of the production. 

Because unfortunately the other tales, one of baby-stealing escort service and a receptionist-murdering Devil Wears Prada rip-off were far too absurd and long-winded to maintain the laughter. With the French Class tale, it seemed obvious what we were in for: an hour of semi-autobiographical tales of the plight of being a part-time actress/full-time barmaid, but then shortly afterwards the subsequent stories descend into surreal tales from the underworld, with an infernal and demonic escort agency (with their contact phone number even ending in 666 we wave goodbye to subtlety) owning the rights to every baby their escorts produce, and a team of receptionists for “Dirty Business Inc.” (a company along the lines of Enron one assumes) being slaughtered by their line manager as the police break down the doors. The jokes started to flag here, and the characters, whilst ably held up by the talented cast, are just too two-dimensional and grotesque to warrant concern.  It’s also a shame that the writer/director/devisers picked sex worker as a generic female job – surely this experience is not as widespread and relatable as teaching, bus driving or receptionist? This decision is so clichéd that it feels like Fanny Pack are actually promoting the theatrical views their company attests to strive against. A misstep here, to my mind.

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Photo credit: Minglu Wang

These script qualms aside, it is the cast that deserve the highest praises. Switching from role to role in a matter of seconds, handling pathos and comedy with a clear aptitude, this quartet of actress prove that they’re a force to be reckoned with. Rachel Scurlock chews the scenery in every role she assumes, and is a complete delight to watch – she steals every scene and comes complete with an electricity in her eyes that makes her almost impossible to stop watching. Maria Alexe has a sultry, captivating and vivacious presence on stage, as well as a truly beautiful singing voice. Clare Langford is perhaps the most introverted and demure of the group, though this may be due to the selection of roles she’s given, and thrives when she is given the opportunity. Out of the four, Langford is the most underused, and this is a shame as she seems capable of tackling so much more than the material she was given. Stephanie Merulla as the enigmatic bus driver is the heart of the piece and holds the shows thematically together with a wry and knowing delivery, knowing how to hold back when needed and sharply point every punchline she’s given. 

Day Job is an entertaining night out held together by four very talented young women. The script needs work in terms of its focus, but the performers deal with this ably, allowing their natural talent and creativity shine through.

Find out more about Fanny Pack Theatre on their website.


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