Review: Kes at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

At just under 70 minutes, Kes – adapted by Robert Alan Evans from Barry Hines’ 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave – isn’t a long play, but in the hands of director Kate Bannister and the dream team at the Brockley Jack, even that brief amount of time flies by. The theatre’s latest in-house production is, in fact, something of a masterclass in every sense: performance, design and direction all come together to tell a great story really, really well.

That story is all about Billy Casper, who at 15 years old already knows he’s unlikely to ever get out of the northern mining town he calls home. Bullied by his older brother Jud, ignored by his mother (except when she can steal the wages from his paper round) and victimised by most of the teachers at his school, Billy’s life offers very little to look forward to, until the day he finds a wild kestrel and decides to raise and train her. Through Kes he discovers a freedom, friendship and passion that he’s never known before – but all it takes is one bad decision to put his precarious new happiness in jeopardy.

Photo credit: Timothy Stubbs Hughes

We never actually see Kes, obviously (bird of prey plus small pub theatre would probably be a bad idea; you certainly wouldn’t get me in there), but her presence is very powerfully felt, thanks to two spellbinding performances from Simon Stallard and Rob Pomfret, who both interact with the young kestrel as if she were right in front of them, and to some wonderfully evocative sound design by Jack Barton. And it’s not only the bird who’s conjured into life by the production’s design; Karl Swinyard’s set perfectly encapsulates  each aspect of Billy’s uninspiring everyday world down at floor level, but opens up on higher ground – with the help of some beautiful lighting from Ben Jacobs – to reveal the vast rural landscape where Kes flies free. When she soars through the air, it’s not only Billy’s heart that lifts.

In a production that clearly doesn’t believe in limits, perhaps it should come as no surprise that two actors doesn’t equate to only two characters. Alongside Simon Stallard’s sympathetic and touchingly innocent Billy, Rob Pomfret plays a dizzying array of other roles, from a bullying headmaster to Billy’s mum, slipping from one to the other with ease. Perhaps most interestingly, though, he also plays Billy: an older, wiser version, who tries to protect his younger self from the heartbreak he knows is to come. It works both ways, however, and in looking back and confronting the pain he felt all those years before, the older Billy is also reminded of the joy that came before it – and it’s this emotion that lingers longest as the play comes to an end.

Photo credit: Timothy Stubbs Hughes

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Barry Hines’ novel, and I can think of no better way to mark the occasion than with this exquisite production. For some, Kes will bring back memories of the book; for others, it offers an introduction to this timeless story. Either way, it’s a must see.

Kes is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 19th May.


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… 😉

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.

Interview: Ross McGregor, Crime and Punishment

Next month, the Brockley Jack Studio will play host once again to Offie-nominated Arrows and Traps for their tenth production. Following the company’s critically acclaimed Anna Karenina in 2016, director Ross McGregor is taking on another Russian classic in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, adapted by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus.

Crime and Punishment is the story of Raskolnikov, a young law student who commits a double murder, and the effect that this act has on him,” explains Ross. “But it’s also the story of the police detective trying to catch him, and the woman trying to save him. It’s very psychological, and in modern terms comes across as a crime thriller. What makes it different is that we see almost everything from the perspective of the murderer, as opposed to the policeman. So a nice inversion on the Agatha Christie formula. It’s not really a whodunnit’, but a ‘willhegetawaywithit’.

“To sum up, it’s an engrossing psychological journey into the mind of a killer, adapted from a book that you’ve heard of but never read, thus enabling you to sound clever afterwards with your friends whilst still being done and dusted by 9:15pm.”

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The fact that the Arrows’ first show of 2017 is based on a Russian novel isn’t a coincidence: “This year is the centenary of the Russian Revolution, so Russian literature and drama is going to be big this year. We thought we’d get in early before you’re all drowning in Sisters, Seagulls and Orchards. I had such immense joy doing another Russian adaptation last year, with our Anna Karenina, and this is very much in a similar style, to suit the space and aid with telling a massive story in a short space of time.

“There’s something wonderfully captivating about Russian literature. It’s so passionate and tense, everyone’s got these huge sweeping emotions, men fight duels and go to war rather than apologise, it’s all hubris and unrequited loves, and illicit passions, outbreaks of sudden war, and wounded egos, and lost fortunes, it all makes for wonderful drama. You open a Russian novel, and you can almost immediately taste the snowflakes and vodka.”

Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus’ award-winning adaptation condenses Dostoyevsky’s 600-page novel into a 90-minute three-hander. “This adaptation is impeccably strong, and was very striking back at the first read, so that’s really why I wanted to do it,” says Ross. “It’s an incredible take on an iconic piece of literature. It’s won various new writing awards in New York, and been performed all over the world. With so many play adaptations of famous novels – and I’ve read a lot – they try to cram the novel into a play format, writing countless little quick scenes that do little more than capture the plot, but rarely the nuance of the authorial voice or even the characters themselves. This adaptation, similar to the Anna Karenina we did last year, takes the novel as a starting point but constructs something new that is inherently theatrical. It uses devices that wouldn’t work in a novel, and stands on its own two feet. You don’t need to have read the book to enjoy this. In fact, it manages to capture the main character Raskolnikov, at times, dare I say it, better than Dostoyevsky did.”

This production has plenty to look forward to for the Arrows’ devoted fanbase – and it also has a few surprises in store: “It’s an entirely new cast, primarily,” reveals Ross. “They’re all stunning additions to the Arrows team. I still adore the established Arrows team, they feel like my family, but I thought it was important to keep things fresh – and particularly since last year was so busy for our core members, it’s good to change things up from time to time.

“Returning audience members will be greeted with some familiar touches, however. It’s still an Arrows show, so I like to include some Easter eggs for the fans of previous productions. Ten shows in, and I think we have a certain in-house style when it comes to theatre, that will still be there, of course.”

Working with a cast that’s not only much smaller than on previous productions, but also entirely new, presents Ross with an exciting challenge – but it’s not without its risks. “It’s incredibly scary. And exciting. I think those are very symbiotic sensations,” he admits. “After the rep season at the end of last year, I felt I’d painted myself into a bit of an artistic corner. We’d done two massive Shakespeare shows (Othello and Twelfth Night) in rep with the same cast on alternate nights and received a lot of critical success for the project, and so for me the answer to ‘What next?’ didn’t come easily.

“In some ways, we’d grown too big, or were in danger of being ‘that company known for the spectacle Shakespeares’. Which is lovely, and fine, but I realised that I had to change tack quickly if I was going to keep things interesting for audiences and for myself. I had to step away from my Shakespeare comfort blanket, I had to strip away all the history and artifice and just have three actors in a room with a table for 90 minutes – and see if I could still make it interesting, could I still make the old Arrows magic without all my usual tricks. I wanted to get back to a theatre that was more raw, more honest.

“So what a challenge it’s going to be. It’s one of the most famous books of all time. It’s a massive story. The adaptation is blisteringly unforgiving on its performers. As an actor there’s nowhere to hide. As a director there’s no safety net. This is our tenth production in three years, and I think it’s going to be the hardest one yet. I’m honoured to be a part of it.”

Book now for Crime and Punishment at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 7th-25th February.

Interview: Arrows & Traps, The Gospel According to Philip

“It’s a modern Life Of Brian, but with sharper knives,” explains Ross McGregor, Director of Arrows & Traps. Following their recent critically acclaimed production of Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio, the company are turning their attention to something very different for their next project.

“The Gospel According To Philip is the story of a young man, Philip, who decides to join the Apostles, a secret club of men, and follow a new messiah called Jesus. The story is told from his perspective as it charts Jesus’s final weeks on earth, running to his crucifixion.”

The production began with an approach from one of the writers, Richard Melchior. “I’ve known Richard for about 10 years; we worked together early in our careers doing regional tours in East Anglia. He brought this script to me just after his co-writer, Heidi Svoboda, tragically passed away, and asked me if there was any way to get this performed, as he was really proud of it. Initially I was just interested in it from a personal level, as I’ve always been a fan of Richard’s work, but when I started to actually read it, I was blown away. The satire is wonderfully drawn and subtle enough to make you think, and these iconic, almost mythical people are so recognisable but also feel completely fresh.

“You have the different character dynamics at work in terms of the apostles, and what Richard and Heidi have done, in a stroke of genius, is to transform Jesus and his disciples into a weary primary school teacher trope trying to control a group of unruly children, which gives it so much life. You have Peter as the teacher’s pet, the smart alec filled with impossible questions in Matthew, Judas as the cool kid smoking at the back of the classroom, the remedial dunce in James, the closeted gay man in Paul, and Philip as the new kid at school. It’s a fantastic re-imagining of how the Bible should have gone.

“I was so impressed with the quality of the writing and the machine-gun-like frequency of the punchlines. It’s one of the best comedies I’ve read in quite a while – but then when the ending comes, the poignancy and sense of loss is devastating. When I realised this ending reflected Richard’s loss of Heidi after she died, and that this might be the only chance of her work being performed now – I knew I had to take it on myself.”

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Offie-nominated Arrows & Traps are known for their productions of classics, particularly Shakespeare, so the new show marks quite a departure from tradition. “This isn’t an Arrows show in the expected sense – it isn’t Shakespeare, there are no extended movement pieces, we’re not subverting a classic or switching genders – but hopefully we will retain enough of what has made the last six shows so successful and bring you a recognisable Arrows-shaped piece of entertainment – which I think means that I want to take characters that you think you know, and show you their humanity and vulnerability in a new way, whilst entertaining you senseless.

“In Arrows shows we normally try to take an old story and tell it in a new way, but with this, that exact action has already been performed by the writers before we got our hands on it. They took the Bible, spun it on its head and created The Gospel According To Philip. So the Arrows spin is done without an Arrow having to lift a finger. All we have to do now is bring it to life in the most fair and honest way possible. And make sure it’s funny, of course. Has to be funny.”

Staging a piece of new writing for the first time brings with it a new kind of pressure: “I’m wary of doing this one justice, as it’s the first time the script has ever been performed, and whilst we don’t have the shadows of hundreds of other past productions looming over us like we usually do with Shakespeare, this one seems even more important to get right because I really want this little show to have a great future, and go from strength to strength in years to come, whatever shape that might take. It’s a great piece, and deserves a long life.

“On the other hand, there might be less pressure in terms of reviews and audiences, because with Shakespeare that’s always massive. On our last show, Macbeth, the vision and direction that the witches would take absolutely plagued me in the preparation stages, because they’re so iconic, everyone has their version of what they should be like… it was very hard to try to honour those views, honour the world of our play, serve the narratives that the text has, and also show something new with them. Lots of pressure. So Philip doesn’t have that. Or perhaps it does! I mean, doesn’t everyone kind of have a preconceived notion of what Jesus looks like? In the west, he’s a Brad Pitt-esque, blue-eyed, golden-haired white man. So I guess there’s always pressure.”

Arrows & Traps’ fanbase of “devoted trappers” will, as always, spot some familiar faces in the cast. “A massive part of what makes an Arrows & Traps show so special is the people in it. We are a repertory company in the sense that there’s a core base of people involved, but we always try to mix it up with new actors, so it stays fresh.

“We have Pearce Sampson playing Jesus, a very talented funny actor whom people may recognise as our Porter and Lennox from Macbeth, and bright young star Alex Stevens playing Paul – he was our Malcolm in Macbeth and our Demetrius in Titus Andronicus. The deliciously watchable Adam Elliott plays Judas; audiences at the Jack will remember him as Karenin, the husband in our Anna Karenina, and in the title role of Philip we have Will Mytum, a great actor renowned on the Off West End circuit, who previously played Vronsky in our Anna Karenina, and Chiron in Titus Andronicus. We have Elle Banstead-Salim playing Mary Magdalene, coming hot off of finishing her brilliant turn as Lady Macduff and Witch in Macbeth, and Gareth Kearns playing Matthew. Gareth has been involved in every Arrows show so far, and recently it was my honour to watch his 100th performance with us. There’s no-one I’d rather have on this project than Gareth, as he’s perfectly suited for it.

“And then lastly we have three new actors, Tom Telford, Matthew Harrison-James, and Olivia Hanrahan-Barnes, all of whom I’ve auditioned in the past and was impressed by – it was just about getting the right role at the right time, which we’ve now found. I guess that’s a lesson in perseverance for any actor out there feeling like it’s too tough in the industry right now. We do listen, and we do remember, and we always come back to you when the time is right. So really, this amalgamation of both old and new faces is perhaps the thing about the show that I’m most looking forward to, because there is literally no weak link in these guys.”

Why should audiences come and see The Gospel According to Philip? “A brilliant tagline a friend used when I told her about the show was Passion Of The Christ With Jokes. If that doesn’t make you want to buy a ticket, then you’re dead inside. Also, supporting brilliant and passionate fringe venues like the Brockley Jack and Theatre N16 is so important if we want places like this to keep offering their communities such diverse and arresting art on their doorsteps.

“The play might make you think, but it will definitely make you laugh. It’s a great night out at the theatre. And the themes that it raises are exactly the things that we should be talking about right now. The world is a scary place, and terrible machinations are threatening to pull us apart as a human race. Faith is often held up as a banner or scapegoat for cruelty and hatred, and really, for things as old as religion, we need to go back to the start and look at what happened and learn from it. There’s something terrifying about the way that all the different religions have become so ingrained in our culture, our faiths, and yet really – every single one of them started as a flawed, wobbly cult, a series of men meeting in dark rooms telling stories and writing down rules for life. I think this play has a lot to say about our modern world, about those of us who are lost, and about where we should draw our strength from.

“Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a night of theological debate – there’s too many cock jokes in it for that. But as with the best of our satire, and I think Terry Pratchett may hold that crown for me, beneath the jokes and laughter there’s always a question, a poke in the ribs, something to argue about on the way home.”

Looking ahead, the rest of the season marks a return to more traditional fare, with the unique Arrows flavour that audiences have come to know and love. “The Broken Crown Season is epic. It’s massive. And it’s going to be the best work we’ve ever done. For me, the Broken Crown symbolises not just the fall of a king, but the breakdown and hollowness of responsibility, power and promise. It’s about ambition and the price that comes with it. It’s about kings, and gods, and leaders, but also relationships and trust. We’ve started things off with Macbeth, an obvious choice to get things rolling, now we’re tackling Jesus and the birth of Christianity, and after that we open our first true repertory double bill with Twelfth Night and Othello, performed simultaneously at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, on alternate nights over three weeks in November by the same cast. It’s going to be amazing fun, particularly on double show days where we do both texts.

“In the new year, we bring a modern horror-story vision of Frankenstein set in two different time periods, flicking in and out of a pair of narratives, and we finish with a thriller award-winning adaptation of Crime & Punishment, which has been boiled down into an action-packed, edge of your seat, 90-minute, three-hander, which I cannot wait to do, personally, as the script is electric. After that… watch this space.  The Arrows have plenty more stories to tell.”

Catch The Gospel According to Philip at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 30th August-3rd September, and Theatre N16 from 4th-8th September.