Interview: Elliot Clay, The State of Things

The State of Things is a new British musical, written by The AC Group’s artistic directors Elliot Clay and Thomas Attwood. Inspired by their own schooldays nostalgia and the current political situation, it’s the story of a high school band who find out the school is being forced to cut its music course. The show follows the young people’s fight to save their course, as they learn to live and love in austerity Britain.

“Myself and Thomas – the show’s book writer and director – grew up together, so The State of Things is semi-autobiographical, based on our own experiences and encounters with austerity both at school and at home,” explains Elliot. “Arts funding, both in schools and in general, seems to be falling every day the current government is in power. I’ve had people contacting me on Twitter, some of them music teachers, expressing their dismay at the effects of austerity on funding in schools, particularly in creative subjects.

“It’s also a musical about young people in the north, written by young people from the north – it’s these stories that need to be voiced. I hope that the story we tell will, at the very least, open up a discussion with members of our audience, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum. Theatre alone can’t change the world, but it can affect the way people think, talk and vote.”

As composer and lyricist, Elliot’s been enjoying the chance to work with different musical styles: “In terms of musical inspiration, it was a chance to write in styles that you usually wouldn’t find work in a musical. Because all the songs in the show are the songs that the ‘band’ have written, it allowed me to draw on inspiration from The Rolling Stones, Adele, The Beatles, Coldplay, and of course put in some crazy guitar solos!”

Following The AC Group’s acclaimed productions of Macbeth and Side By Side By Sondheim, the company are looking forward – with a little trepidation – to returning to the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, this time with an original piece: “In the words of Stephen Sondheim – ‘excited and scared’!” admits Elliot. “It’s a real privilege to shape every artistic detail of the production, but we couldn’t do it without the brilliance of our creative team and cast.

“I’m incredibly lucky to be working with a supremely talented cast of young actors, all of whom play multiple instruments live on stage every night. It’s such a joy telling this story and sharing the stage with them.”

Surprisingly, the show has only been in development for three months. “Kate Bannister, the artistic director of the Jack Studio let us know in May that there was potentially a free slot for a production in September, and we instantly knew we wanted to write and stage The State of Things,” says Elliot. “Since then the ensuing three months have been a wonderful, crazy and thrilling blur.”

The AC Group was founded by Elliot and Thomas in 2014, when they staged a sell-out musical theatre concert in Covent Garden, with a cast and orchestra of over 50. “Since then we’ve been lucky enough to stage revivals such as the 40th anniversary production of Side By Side By Sondheim at the Jack Studio and Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and Macbeth, which was nominated for 2 off-West End awards – alongside developing our new writing. It’s been an exciting journey so far and we’d love to see you at the premiere of The State of Things.”

Book now for The State of Things at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 7th-23rd September.

Review: Handbagged at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Not having really lived through the Thatcher years, I’ve never been able to fully appreciate why’s there such an intensity of emotion – positive or negative – among the older generation each time her name comes up. In Handbagged, Moira Buffini attempts to shed some light for the “young people”, by pitting The Iron Lady against another iconic British woman – Queen Elizabeth.

Beginning at the newly elected prime minister’s first audience with the Queen in 1979, the play imagines what might have taken place at their weekly meetings over the next eleven years. It’s a political satire, charting key events including the Falklands, the Brighton hotel bombing and the Miners’ Strike, but ultimately focusing on the human relationship between the two women. The Queen’s baffled by Thatcher’s coldness and lack of humour, while the Prime Minister fails to understand her monarch’s love of the outdoors, and fears Her Majesty may secretly be a socialist. The stage is set for an epic clash of personalities, and that’s exactly what we get in the Tower Theatre’s production.

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Photo credit: Ruth Anthony

An easily recognisable older and younger version of each leader – playfully referred to in the programme as Q and T, Liz and Mags respectively – look back on events over tea and cake, bickering about what did and didn’t happen, while two increasingly dissatisfied (and disruptive) actors fill in all the other parts in the story, from Denis Thatcher to Nancy Reagan. Directed by Martin Mulgrew, Helen McCormack and Alison Liney’s Queen is warm and personable, with an occasional mischievous streak, and an urgent desire to be ‘useful’ to her country and people. In contrast, Anne Connell and Julie Arrowsmith both nail Margaret Thatcher’s icy facade, practised speech patterns and frozen facial expression – but not to such an extent that we can fail to see the vulnerability beneath, particularly towards the end of the play.

While the conversations between prime minister and monarch are often loaded with quiet sarcasm, Ian Recordon and Jonathan Wober provide much of the laugh out loud humour as they scramble to fill in all the other roles, adopting an impressive array of costumes and accents along the way and occasionally falling out over who gets the best parts. The fact that they’re hired actors in someone else’s narrative is openly acknowledged from the start, becoming increasingly significant as the play goes on, and they struggle to keep quiet about the conveniently gaping omissions.

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Photo credit: Ruth Anthony

For those of us born in the early 80s or later, Handbagged certainly fills in a few gaps in terms of British history and politics. Yet it never becomes dry or boring, and at times even feels surprisingly current; the description of how divided the country became over Thatcher, for instance, is very reminiscent of present tensions over Brexit. The play also helps explain some of the strong public feeling that still lingers today. The script quotes several of Margaret Thatcher’s most well-known and controversial statements, and even hearing them spoken by an actor, you can’t fail to pick up on the ruthlessness behind them (for good or evil, depending on your politics).

Don’t be fooled by the description of Handbagged as an amateur production – the Tower Theatre Company have done a fantastic job yet again on an enlightening, intelligent and, above all, thoroughly entertaining play.

Handbagged is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 15th October.