Review: The State of Things at Jack Studio Theatre

My theatregoing habit began, more years ago than I like to admit, with a love of musicals – and even now if you put a gun to my head and made me choose a favourite type of theatre, they’d probably still come out on top. So it’s no great surprise that the words “a new musical” always give me a little bit of a thrill – especially when said new musical is coming from The AC Group, whose previous productions have earned widespread acclaim.

So, did The State of Things live up to expectations? Absolutely. It’s got everything – catchy songs, talented actor-musicians, and a story that’s easily relatable for anyone who’s ever felt frustrated by politics (or indeed ever been a teenager).

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

Written by Thomas Attwood and Elliot Clay, The State of Things is about seven friends who discover the A Level Music class they were all planning to take next year is being axed because of lack of funds. Unable to convince their headteacher (“Maggie”) to reinstate the course, they decide to take matters into their own hands and raise the issue with their local MP. But unfortunately they’re teenagers, so not only is their political experience and knowledge a bit sketchy, but other things keep getting in the way, like exam revision, raging hormones and, in one case, a serious family situation.

Ultimately, though, it all circles back to politics, and that’s the core of the story: the frustration of young people who have the necessary understanding but zero power to influence decisions about the future they’ll have to live with. While some of the friends know little about politics (“I looked it up, the Tories are the ones in power”), others are surprisingly knowledgable and passionate about issues affecting not just their school but the local area as a whole. If anything at times they’re a bit too eloquent to be believable – but the show has a point to make, and in the absence of any grownups on stage, it has to fall to the teenagers, however unlikely this might feel.

As if to balance this out, the exceptional cast of actor-musicians bring their teenage characters to well-rounded life, with all the confusion and embarrassment that’s a painful but inevitable part of growing up. There’s a lot of humour, particularly in their various romantic fumblings – Jaz (Rosa Lukacs) gets jealous when boyfriend Beefy (Toby Lee) talks to his French teacher; Adam (Elliot Clay) can barely bring himself to say a word to his crush Ruth (Hana Stewart), and then when he does he says all the wrong things. Class clown Will (James William-Pattison) is secretly totally confused about whether he’s gay or not, while laid back Aussie Sam (Peter Cerlienco) barely notices gender at all. And then there’s Kat (Nell Hardy), the only member of the group who remains single-mindedly focused on their cause – largely because she has nowhere else to go to pursue her passion.

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

The score features a nice mix of upbeat toe-tappers and stirring ballads, all apparently written by the young musicians. Perhaps because of this, they all fit very naturally within the flow of the production (directed by writer Thomas Attwood), and fulfil the dual purpose of driving the story forward and showcasing the talent that could be squandered as a result of cancelling the music course.

If you love a good musical and want to be entertained for an evening, I recommend The State of Things. If you’re interested in the uncertain future of arts education, I recommend The State of Things. If you’re a young person frustrated by the decisions made for you by older generations… well, you get the idea. Basically, this is a thoroughly enjoyable new musical from a talented team – but with an important point to make as well. What’s not to love?

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: Michelle Payne, The Staff Room

They’re teaching our children, but are they teaching the right things…?

Michelle Payne’s The Staff Room started life as a 15-minute piece, written for an Actor Awareness scratch night. Now a one-act play, the show is all set for its first Edinburgh preview tomorrow at The Bunker, followed by a second at Barons Court Theatre on Saturday, before heading to the Fringe.

The Staff Room follows three young teachers on their breaks through an academic year,” Michelle explains. “You can expect to see a slice of life; an insight into what our teachers get up to in state schools.”

The play was inspired by Michelle’s own experience as a freelance dance teacher. “I was working in a lot of different schools for a really long time, so I sat in a lot of staff rooms,” she says. “I found the dynamics really interesting, and often very comical. I wanted to praise our hard working, state school teachers and give them an up to date voice in the theatre!”

While the play is a must for anyone who’s ever wondered what goes on behind the staffroom door (which, let’s be honest, is all of us when we were at school), Michelle hopes it’ll also be enjoyed by those within the profession: “Definitely teachers! And I also hope it appeals to young, working class people. Hopefully it’ll make our audiences laugh, and provoke discussion about political topics.”

Joining The Staff Room‘s all female creative team are cast members Faye Derham, Hilary Murnane and Craig Webb – who audiences might recognise from a recent high-profile TV appearance. Michelle explains, “Craig, who plays our Geography teacher Hugo, was a finalist singing with Neon Panda on Gary Barlow’s Let it Shine on BBC One. Which was very exciting for us – seeing him on the telly!”

The Actor Awareness campaign, founded by Tom Stocks, has played a key role in the play’s development. “I wrote the first draft of the play especially for an Actor Awareness health themed scratch night,” says Michelle. “This was chosen and performed at Theatre N16 last year. From this we were offered a full show at N16 if I could extend the play to one act for the summer. So Actor Awareness definitely supplied me with that initial opportunity!”

Following the show’s two London previews, Michelle and the team will be heading north for a run at Edinburgh’s theSpace @ Surgeons Hall from 21st-26th August. “I’ve visited the Fringe every year for the past six years and have supported friends’ shows, so I’m glad it’s finally my turn to have a show up there!” she says. “We’re looking forward to getting some feedback and hopefully making people laugh.”

Catch The Staff Room at The Bunker on 18th July, Barons Court Theatre on 22nd July or in Edinburgh at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall, 21st-26th August.

Interview: Joe Bromley and Willow Nash, Really Big Pants Theatre

“There’s just the two of us, and we came together after years of knowing each other as friends, then working together in a sketch show and various acting jobs. And then we thought, shall we bring all our vast experience together – of writing, performing, working with children (and having them) – and see what happens? And we decided our shows would all have themes that we both cared deeply about: literacy, the environment and a healthy body image.” 

Joe Bromley and Willow Nash are co-founders of the Really Big Pants Theatre Company, creating shows that celebrate and encourage literacy for primary age children. “We encourage children to learn to read through our love of stories. A character in SUDDENLY…! doesn’t want to do his story homework at the beginning because he thinks he’s no good at them, but by the end he’s got a great idea for a story and can’t wait to write it down. We believe storytelling is an excellent gateway into encouraging reluctant children to learn to read.” But the shows aren’t just fun for kids: “We’ve had wonderful feedback from parents and teachers alike, telling us how much they enjoyed the show alongside the children, and appreciated the morals.”

Photo credit: ID Photography
Photo credit: ID Photography

They’re performing their latest show, SUDDENLY…! at schools, arts centres and community venues, and describe it as “a story within a bedtime story, twisting traditional tales and featuring fairy tale characters as you’ve never seen them before. It’s an interactive adventure full of excitement, danger, friendship, forestry and the perils of bad manners and too much stuff!”

SUDDENLY…! has also been adapted as an audiobook, recorded by Joe and Willow, and described by the Kentish Towner as “non-stop adventure featuring delicious wordplay”. The ladies explain, “We were approached by a publisher and jumped at the opportunity to expand the world of the show, where it’s just the two of us playing all the characters with minimal props, and to bring in more descriptive language as well as the original dialogue. Audiobooks are becoming increasingly popular as a great way to enjoy a story as a whole family, and are inclusive for children who are struggling to read. We’re writing two new adventures for Grandma and Red, and hoping there will be print versions soon too.”

Illustration by Rosie Alabaster

With World Book Day coming up next week, Joe and Willow are looking forward to taking SUDDENLY…! into three primary schools to celebrate. “We love introducing children to the power of theatre and for some of them in schools, this will be the only chance they get to see a play. So our priority is making sure we provide great entertainment. And then we would like them to think about the messages in the play, such as being kind, trying your best, and friendship being more important than having lots of stuff. But we definitely want them to say afterwards, ‘I’m now going to read/write/make up my own story!’ and many of them do tell us that on their way out! We were beyond proud when, after seeing our show at his school, an eight-year-old boy went home and wrote his own book – complete with illustrations of us! – where our characters met the characters from the book he’d been reading. How brilliant!

“Another great moment was when we performed in a library for the Summer Reading Challenge, and a mother had brought her reluctant son to see the show, telling us he was not a keen reader at all. We kept an eye on him throughout – he started off with defensive body language, sitting slightly apart from the other children, but we watched him grow and grow in enthusiasm and join in and really get involved, and at the end he came up to us and said he wanted to take a book out of the library and try and read it. Hugely rewarding. We also love it when children in schools line up to fist bump us before heading off to their classrooms and ask us when we’ll be back! So many highlights, and always a joy to be on stage and see a sea of happy faces.”

Photo credit: ID Photography
Photo credit: ID Photography

And where do pants fit into all this?! “During rehearsals for PLUNDERED!, our show about the environment, we were working on a scene where our characters have to disguise themselves as pirates, and we decided they would rummage through a trunk of old clothes and find some really big pants. Hysteria kicked in and we rolled about laughing, like the true professionals we are. After months of formal deliberation over what we should call the company, the name finally came from that daft moment. But we use the pants in all our shows in one way or another – look out for them!”

To find out about future performances of SUDDENLY…! or to book Really Big Pants for a show, visit their website:

The SUDDENLY…! audiobook is available from Waterstones and The Owl Bookshop.