Interview: Matthew Parker, Brimstone and Treacle

The Hope Theatre in Islington has been quietly building a reputation for excellence over the last couple of years, collecting rave reviews and countless award nominations, including one for Fringe Theatre of the Year at The Stage Awards. Much of this success must be attributed to the theatre’s artistic director Matthew Parker, who came on board in late 2014 and was recently named Best Artistic Director at the Off West End Awards.

Next month The Hope kicks off its 2017 in-house season with a 40th anniversary revival of Dennis Potter’s controversial Brimstone and Treacle, directed by Matthew and starring Olivia Beardsley, Stephanie Beattie, Fergus Leathem and Paul Clayton. Originally written as a BBC Play for Today in 1976, it was banned for its disturbing content, and wasn’t performed until the following year at the Sheffield Crucible. A film version starring Sting followed in 1982, but it wasn’t until 1987 that the BBC finally allowed the play to be transmitted.

Brimstone and Treacle is about a young man who thinks he’s the devil, and visits a middle class, middle aged couple who are caring for their vulnerable daughter,” explains Matthew, who admits he’s been longing to tackle this particular play for years. “It’s darkly funny, frightening and shocking, a controversial masterpiece about good and evil, identity, religion and what it means to be British. Who wouldn’t want to tackle a one act play that explores all of those monumental themes? Plus, and crucially for me and the Hope, it is a gender balanced cast – two women and two men – with roles for two actors over 50.”

40 years after it was written, Potter’s play remains just as relevant in 2017 – though that’s hardly something to celebrate. “It’s about racism, the horror that lies behind the twitching floral curtains of middle England homes,” says Matthew. “It attacks what it means to be British and the lengths people will go to inside their own heads to ‘reclaim their country’. Coming off the back of 2016’s Brexit vote it really couldn’t be more timely if it tried! It’s the 40th anniversary this year and I am always fascinated to look at these 20th century classics with a 21st century audience and ask ourselves, ‘What has changed?’ It’s scary to see just how little matters have actually changed in terms of attitudes to race, gender and religious tolerance.”

The play contains scenes that were deemed too offensive to be shown in the 1970s, but does it still have the same shock value today? Matthew believes it does: “In a word, yes. It contains scenes of sexual violence against someone in a vulnerable position and it really doesn’t shy away from showing evil, both in a physical and mental way. It’s very important to me that our production is not exploitative with the scenes of sexual violence. But nor should it be sugar-coated. We are dealing with pure evil here. The darkness of humanity. The piece examines the nature of good and evil, and asks whether miracles can occur from an act of evil – from the visitation of the devil rather than an angel.

“And it is funny – and the fact that it is funny as well as violent is shocking in itself. Even at our first read through some of the team were laughing away whilst some others were staring at them in horror, thinking ‘how can you be laughing at that?’ As a director, work that creates different reactions within audiences has always attracted me.”

Matthew’s delighted with his cast for the show. “Well, they’re bloody brilliant. Stephanie Beattie was in my production of Steel Magnolias last year and blew everyone away with her astonishingly heartbreaking performance as M’Lynn. Joining her as her on stage hubby is Paul Clayton, an actor with an amazing career spanning TV (Peep Show, Him and Her, Coronation Street) and theatre including RSC, Chichester, Royal Exchange, West End. They are joined by two graduates of Drama Studio London: Fergus Leathem, who last year appeared in Game of Thrones, and Olivia Beardsley joins us less than a year from graduating and I’m super-excited to get to work with her at this early stage of her career. She’s definitely one to watch!”

As disturbing as the play undoubtedly is, there is some good news. “I’d like our audiences to take away the comfort that good will always triumph over evil,” says Matthew. “And knowing that The Hope takes risks with its programming, and that you can see theatre here that is bold, theatrical and stunningly performed.”

So what makes The Hope different from other fringe theatres? “Little room – BIG ideas. Small space – HUGE ambition. Minimal money – MASSIVE passion,” summarises Matthew. “And every piece is theatrical. It’s not kitchen sink dramas. It’s not really naturalism. Everything has a little sprinkle of magical theatricality.”

Not surprisingly, when it comes to choosing which productions go into a season at The Hope, Matthew and his team operate a careful, thorough selection process: “I have a brilliant team of people who read all the plays that get submitted. If they like them then I read them, then I meet with the company and chat though the unique way in which we collaborate with people at The Hope. Not everyone is the right ‘fit’ and I won’t just take anyone or any show.

“It’s super important to me that everything that takes place in that lovely little space is brilliant. I take risks but I take them on people who enter into the collaboration with honesty, and with joy and passion. It really is fantastic to see that this approach has paid off with a Stage Award nomination as Fringe Theatre of the Year and my recent success at the Off West End Awards as Best Artistic Director 2016.”

Catch Brimstone and Treacle at The Hope Theatre from 2nd-20th May – and why not check the theatre’s website to see what else is coming up?

Interview: Sam Elwin and Tom Shah, One Last Thing (For Now)

After more than two years in the making, Althea Theatre’s One Last Thing (For Now) has its world premiere at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre next month. Conceived by director Lilac Yosiphon, this ambitious project has been developed by the internationally diverse company, including cast members Tom Shah and Sam Elwin, and offers “a universal look at the language of love, the wounds of war and everything in between”.

The play’s creation was inspired by love letters from times of conflict in different cultures and languages. “The concept came from our director, Lilac, whose first instruction was to start reading,” says Tom. “Often they were the letters that were only intended to be read ‘should the worst happen’, and what is important to people in those situations – the words that they can’t leave unsaid – is more than enough inspiration.”

Photo credit: Laurie Field
Photo credit: Laurie Field

“Alongside discussing the letters’ common themes, we began to develop a physical language for the show,” continues Sam. “We then attempted writing our own letters and began writing scenes inspired by the stories that had stood out to us. We selected and adapted from this pool of scenes to create a number of more cohesive storylines, which we then overlapped with each other, using the physical language to bind them together and enhance the storytelling.”

The development process began in September 2014, when the basis for most of the storylines was formed. Sam explains: “The process is still ongoing; since the initial development process we’ve had a rehearsed reading of a full length version of the script and we have two more days of R&D (research and development) before rehearsals start, during which we’ll finalise the script. Moreover, rehearsals themselves are a process of devising and discovery, so the show will continue to develop and change during the rehearsal weeks.”

“Initially, it was about using the fact that we were a group of people of different ages, genders, and nationalities with different experiences to draw us to as wide and varied subjects as possible,” says Tom. “Since then we have periodically come back to One Last Thing (For Now) to get it to the point it’s at now. That said, we still have one more story to write; Islington will be our home for the duration of the show’s run, and we’ll be creating an entirely new scene based on letters sourced from the Islington borough.

“One of the themes of the show is that for all our differences, we have the fundamentals in common. We’re asking for letters from Islington that we will workshop with people from the borough to help create this brand new scene for the show. We want to make our show part of the local community, because with such a global spread of stories, we don’t want it to feel like it’s about other people.”

This additional scene is a crucial part of the audience experience, wherever the show is being performed. “We believe that everyone has a story that needs to be heard,” explains Sam. “The intention is to use the letters to inspire a new storyline or scene which is specific to the Islington area and will only be performed while the show is at the Old Red Lion – a new venue would result in a new scene being devised; again inspired by letters, emails, texts etc from the local area. We also wanted to create a direct link with the local community in the performance they would see. To give the audience a sense of ownership and participation – these stories belong to all of us in that they have shaped and continue to shape the world we live in.”

Dealing with such universal issues as love and war, the company hope that the show has something for everyone. “We can certainly all learn something from it, and indeed, since one if its primary themes is cross-cultural understanding, we hope everyone would,” says Sam. “That said, the people most likely to want to see it are those who are interested in stories from around the world; those who have experienced war, either through family and friends or directly; people with an interest in the history; and people who enjoy visually arresting theatre.”

Tom agrees, and adds, “I do think anyone would take something away from seeing the show, but it will probably resonate most with people who at one time or another have felt cut-off from the people they love. I hope audiences will leave with a better idea of what it is that’s important to them.”

The show brings together stories from several different conflicts across the world – stories that the cast have come to know well during the development process. “One of my favourites follows a Colombian woman as she travels the world in search of someone she loves,” says Tom. “Even though she’s from a country most of us have never been to (and probably couldn’t name the capital of), speaks another language, and the ‘foreign’ environment she finds herself in is London, our connection to her is almost instantaneous.”

Sam has a few favourites: “That’s a really tough question to answer, all of the stories are so special. I think three in particular stand out. One is a letter conversation between an American soldier in Vietnam and his wife at home in the US, because it highlights the gap between what is written home and what is experienced and the couple’s struggle to deal with that.

The second is a storyline concerning a French resistance fighter, because it asks how much can love forgive and can we escape the roles we have chosen for ourselves? Thirdly, the story about a woman who sends her touch, because it’s in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm and Struwwelpeter – full of the fantastical and the macabre.”

Photo credit: Laurie Field
Photo credit: Laurie Field

The fact that the different stories cross so many historical and geographical borders inevitably presents some challenges: “First, with so many of the storylines featuring non-British characters we had to devise ways of translating or having enough English to be understood by English speakers without repeating ourselves,” explains Tom. “Second, was to have some form of connection between what could otherwise be unconnected stories from different times and places.”

“As part of this some of us have to learn new languages and accents,” adds Sam. “Russian and Hebrew were a particular challenge…”

He concludes: “I hope our audiences will go away with an empathy for people from countries other than their own, an insight into the effects of war after the shooting stops, a remembrance of those who have died on all sides, and a hope that these three things can reduce conflict.”

One Last Thing (For Now) is at the Old Red Lion Theatre from 7th-25th March.

Review: Her Aching Heart at the Hope Theatre

Her Aching Heart is the Hope Theatre’s third and final in-house production of 2016, billed as “a bodice-ripping musical full of gothic silliness and sapphic tomfoolery!” Who could say no to that?

Well not me, as it turns out, because I loved it. Bryony Lavery’s lively comedy, in the expert hands of the Hope’s Artistic Director Matthew Parker, transports us into the pages of a gothic romance novel – with all the flowery language, heaving bosoms and melodramatic sighs you might expect.

Photo credit: Roy Tan
Photo credit: Roy Tan

In modern day London, Harriet and Molly are taking their first tentative, awkward steps into a relationship, while simultaneously in 18th century Cornwall, the fictional Lady Harriet Helstone, an aristocrat with an unfortunate habit of killing innocent wildlife, meets Molly Penhallow, a kind-hearted country girl who wouldn’t look out of place in a Disney movie. Despite having nothing in common, not to mention clashing on their first encounter over the grisly fate of one of Molly’s fox friends, the two women find themselves unexpectedly drawn together, in an irresistible love story guaranteed to warm the cockles of your heart.

From the moment the first chapter, “A Nun has a Nightmare”, is introduced, we know we’re in for a fun evening. Collette Eaton and Naomi Todd throw themselves into their roles with infectious enthusiasm, not only playing both versions of Harriet and Molly but an assortment of other characters too, and doing it all to perfection. Making creative use of a cramped space that offers barely enough room to swing a – er – fox, the two performers manage to wring every last drop of comic potential out of the most unlikely scenes – who would have thought a roe deer being trampled by a horse could result in such howls of laughter?

That said, there’s also a genuine chemistry between the two that makes the fledgling relationship of their modern counterparts both moving and believable. The present day story of Harriet and Molly, to which we return at various points throughout the evening, marks a clear and occasionally jarring change in tone that takes a bit of getting used to. Each time the red velvet curtain swishes closed and the actors break into one of Ian Brandon’s musical numbers, we’re thrown into an altogether more contemplative mood, and reminded that love is far more complex than cheesy romance novels would have us believe. These scenes, though they may seem like an afterthought to the comedy action, we ultimately realise are the true emotional heart of the show. Real life can be painful and difficult – but it can also at times be infinitely more rewarding than fiction.

Photo credit: Roy Tan
Photo credit: Roy Tan

Her Aching Heart is a laugh out loud comedy and touching romance, which simultaneously pays tribute to and affectionately pokes fun at the Mills and Boon genre by which it’s inspired. An unexpected delight, in which all the elements – great writing, fantastic performances and quality production – come together to produce a magnificent whole, it’s impossible not to fall in love with this show.

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… 😉