Interview: Liam Ashmead and Laura Shoebottom, Blue Tights, Red Knickers and an ‘S’ on Her Vest

Liam Ashmead and Laura Shoebottom are the co-founders of Thematic Theatre, a company they set up last year to specialise in new writing. Next week they’ll open their debut production, Blue Tights, Red Knickers and an ‘S’ on Her Vest, at the Bread and Roses Theatre in Clapham. Written by Laura and directed by Liam, the play follows the effects of anxiety and workplace bullying on the central character, Jenna, and the toll it ultimately takes on her health.

Laura, who also plays Jenna, has previously had work performed at Theatre 503, The Churchill Theatre and The Tabard Theatre. Blue Tights, Red Knickers and an ‘S’ on Her Vest is her first full production, and was inspired by a conversation with her mum: “Around a particularly stressful exam period, she told me it was ok to ‘take the superwoman outfit off once in a while’ and look after myself rather than trying to be all things to all people. It’s always stayed with me and the message is the essence of the show really, that it’s impossible to be everything to everyone.”

As a new company making their debut, Laura and Liam are looking forward to sharing their show with audiences within their local area, and taking the opportunity to start a conversation about mental health. “We hope that audiences will empathise with Jenna, but mostly it’s about raising awareness for mental health. We’re so happy that we’re fundraising for Mind because it’s a charity that’s very close to both our hearts.

The two friends graduated last year from Italia Conti, where they decided to set up their own company – and Thematic Theatre was born. “We knew that we enjoyed working together as creatives and we were both passionate about creating new work for ourselves, so we thought a theatre company would be a great route to go down.

“We want to collaborate with as many people as we can and make contacts with others who share the same passion as us. We’ve both been involved in many scratch nights and new writing festivals and we believe they are great platforms for creatives. We want to offer these same opportunities to others and we aim to do this through our own new writing event ‘Box of Themes’, where we pick out a theme and then get writers/ directors and actors to create a short piece based around it.”

Both founders agree that starting their own company has been both exciting and challenging: “The biggest challenge has been trusting our work and making sure it’s sensitive to the subject matter. We’re very excited about it but as it’s our first time producing we naturally have moments of doubt. It’s also very expensive putting on a show so there’s always money to consider, and balancing rehearsals and promotion alongside our other jobs.

“Creatively, though, it’s been amazing. We both work well together and we’ve enjoyed the freedom and fun we’ve had in the rehearsal room – there’s equal control and it’s relaxed since we’re good friends. There’s always been that mutual trust and respect there so we’ve been able to be totally honest about whether something works or not from the get go; that’s something we’re both really thankful for.”

Following next week’s short run at the Bread and Roses, Laura and Liam are looking ahead to the show’s future. “We plan to take it to The Vaults and the Edinburgh fringe next year. We’re really happy with where the play is at the moment and we want to use this run in London to get an idea of how audiences react and develop it even more.”

Catch Blue Tights, Red Knickers and an ‘S’ on Her Vest at The Bread and Roses Theatre from 10th-14th July.

Review: Monolog at Chickenshed

The first time I went to Chickenshed was just over a month ago, to see a cast of hundreds in their Christmas show, Rapunzel. My second visit, in dramatic contrast, was an altogether quieter affair: Monolog, as the name suggests, is an evening of solo performances in the intimate Chickenshed studio. Artistic Director Lou Stein has put together a programme that simultaneously celebrates two of the nation’s favourite writers – Alan Bennett and Diane Samuels – and showcases original work from new voices within the Chickenshed community.

In a twist to the format, every audience will see a slightly different show; there are six new plays altogether, but only two will be performed on any given evening. In addition, the second monologue of the night, Diane Samuels’ This Is Me, will be performed on alternate days by 15-year-old Lucy-Mae Beacock and the “somewhat older” Belinda McGuirk (I’m not being rude, that’s what it says in the programme) – who also performs the first piece, Alan Bennett’s Her Big Chance. Got all that?

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Our particular programme began with Belinda McGuirk as Lesley in Alan Bennett’s Her Big Chance. She’s a likeable but naive actress who thinks she’s got her big break in a movie, but can’t see how she’s being manipulated into doing everything she always swore she’d never do. This is a well-timed revival of Bennett’s brilliantly written monologue – originally performed by Julie Walters for TV’s Talking Heads – which shines a light on the treatment of women in the showbiz industry, while also addressing the question (one we’re all getting far too used to hearing these days) of why any self-respecting woman would possibly choose to go along with such behaviour.

The evening continued with Lucy-Mae Beacock in Diane Samuels’ This Is Me. Less a play, more a series of snapshots, the piece is made up of snippets from Samuels’ unpublished autobiography. But – once again – there’s a twist; each memory is written on a piece of cloth and handed out to the audience, thus giving us the power to decide which stories we hear and in what order. Far from appearing daunted by the prospect of a constantly changing script, however, teenager Lucy-Mae Beacock gives an impressively assured and engaging performance. She never once hesitates or stumbles, and brings a youthful innocence to the words and memories of a woman more than three times her age.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Of the six pieces of new writing commissioned, we were treated first to Last Piece of the Sun, created by Alesha Bhakoo, Dave Carey and Milly Rolle. A deceptively light-hearted opening leads us quickly into rather more serious territory, as a young woman in her 20s reflects on the life-changing consequences of a one night stand. The short piece is beautifully performed by Alesha Bhakoo, and packs quite the emotional punch just when we least expect it.

The final piece of this particular evening was the intriguing I Find Love in a Bin, written by Peter Dowse and directed by Tiia Mäkinen. The short piece features Sarah Connolly as a woman who has, quite literally, just found love in a bin at Waterloo Station. The discovery both delights and troubles her, and sparks a flurry of questions and emotions; she has no idea whose love it is, and knows only that it doesn’t belong to her – however much she might want it to.

Both of these new pieces will be performed again – though not necessarily together – as the run continues. The only downside of the mix and match format is that we don’t get to see all six, although hopefully there’ll be further opportunities in the future to see the ones we missed: Dinner With My Dead Dad, Sands of Time, The Creature in the Dark and Walls Like Paper.

Where Rapunzel was big, loud and colourful, Monolog proves that a good story well told by a single voice can have just as big an impact as a stage full of people. More than that, though, the show is an exciting opportunity to see the talent being nurtured within the Chickenshed community. A thoroughly entertaining – and unique – evening.

Monolog is at Chickenshed until 3rd March.


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Review: Actor Awareness Best of Scratch 2017

The Actor Awareness campaign, founded by Tom Stocks two years ago to fight for more equality, diversity and working class talent in the arts, has continued to go from strength to strength this year. Alongside regular scratch nights and the return of their annual new writing festival, the team have also found time to make an award-winning documentary, The Acting Class, which features the likes of Maxine Peake, Christopher Eccleston and Julie Hesmondhalgh. Needless to say, they have a lot to look back on as the year comes to an end, and they chose to mark the occasion by revisiting four of the best new plays performed at Actor Awareness scratch nights during 2017, in a best of evening hosted by actor and singer Stephanie Houtman.

The first of the four plays, selected from the Women’s Night back in March, was Come Die With Me by Vicki Connerty, directed by Shaadi Rad. Newly widowed Helen (Stella Ross) has decided to get her husband embalmed and keep him in her living room until the funeral, much to the dismay of daughter Rachel (Charlotte East) and morbid fascination of son David (Jack Spencer). This thoroughly enjoyable extract from the now 60-minute play is laugh-out-loud funny but somehow still feels very grounded in reality, touching on the fears and worries that all of us face when we lose a loved one.

Next was the altogether more sinister 2022, a dystopian drama written and directed by Colleen Prendergast, about a post-Brexit British Muslim ban.  Selected from the Race, Religion and Culture night, the play sees young mother Selwa (Lauren Santana) trying to convince border guards Colquhoun (Deborah Wastell) and Gower (Richard Innocent) to let her and her baby cross – before events take an unforeseen turn. It’s a very timely piece that, given recent events here and in the States, feels frighteningly probable and challenges us to question our own assumptions. That said, the play is also very funny – Richard Innocent and his ever more depressed facial expressions are particularly fun to watch.

Assumptions are also challenged in the pick from Political Night, Stephanie Silver’s Our Big Love Story, a tale of four teenagers (Holly Ashman, Maria Kolandawel, Alex Britt and Emelia Marshall Lovsey) and a teacher (Arjun Bhullar) affected by the 2005 London bombings. Directed by Calum Robshaw, the play explores various themes including faith, prejudice, love and the radicalisation of young people – which is a lot to try and squeeze into a fifteen-minute extract. The full-length piece is set for a run at The Hope Theatre next March, and it will be interesting to see how all the different stories and ideas come together given more time.

Last but by no means least Michelle Payne’s Full Circle, which was first performed at the Mental Health Night, presents a movingly honest account of living with depression. Nicole (Elicia Moon Murphy) starts a peer support group in the hope of making some friends, but gets a little more – or should that be less – than she bargained for when just two people show up: Amy (Kate Kelly), who’s always angry, and Skye (Lucy Gape), who treats everything as a big joke. The play combines humour and tragedy as the three very different women begin to build a tentative friendship, with each sharing her own unique experience with depression – a useful reminder that mental illness can affect everyone differently, and that it isn’t always obvious to the outside world.

The four plays were sandwiched between two new comedy sketches from Brittle Britain by Tom Stocks, which takes a sharply satirical swipe at the sorry state of our nation. From a general election campaign featuring the WGAF party (I’ll let you figure that one out) to playing the Immigration Game to avoid deportation, it’s all quite surreal but – depressingly – very much inspired by actual events.

The fact that most, if not all, of the plays showcased during the evening have gone on to be developed into full-length work and performed elsewhere is a good indication of the quality on display. This evening of strong performances and thought-provoking writing is a fitting round-up of a successful year for Actor Awareness; I look forward to seeing what 2018 has in store.

To find out more, visit the Actor Awareness website or follow @actorawareness.

Review: Voices From Home at The Old Red Lion

The inaugural Voices From Home event from Brighton-based Broken Silence Theatre brought together writers from the Home Counties and beyond to showcase new work from outside the capital. Four thought-provoking short plays all started from the theme of “trust” before heading off in a variety of directions to bring us an evening populated by outspoken refugees, dodgy psychics, estranged sisters and reluctant lovers.

The latter feature in Love Me Tinder, written by James McDermott from Norfolk and directed by Roman Berry. Emma Zadow and Mauricia Lewis prove that opposites do (eventually) attract, as spiky Tina and sweet-natured Ellie cautiously embark on a Tinder-based romance beset by false starts and misunderstandings. It’s a funny and very relatable piece about the many ways we self-sabotage whilst dating out of fear of getting hurt, but it also explores the unexpected and touching ways in which new love can change us for the better.

There’s a similar blend of laugh out loud humour and human vulnerability in Danielle Pearson’s The History Club, set in the writer’s home county of Berkshire, which examines how grief can make us do extraordinary things. In this case, three women engage the services of a less than convincing psychic to put them in touch with their lost loved ones. Directed by Jennifer Davis, the play sees Vicky Winning clearly enjoying herself as Florence, with moving performances from Anne Rosenfeld, Helen Belbin, and particularly Dominique Moutia as a teenager struggling to come to terms with the death of a schoolfriend.

The heartbreaking Trust, written by Sussex-based Ella Dorman-Gajic and directed by Raymond Waring, shows us the awkward reunion of two sisters, played by Alex Reynolds and Abbi Douetil. From a close childhood relationship, marked by a shared love of S Club 7 and a wall chart plotting their heights over the years, Sarah and Lotty become increasingly estranged as their gran’s health deteriorates. It becomes obvious that she effectively raised them in their mum’s frequent absence, and the play ends on a hesitatingly uplifting note as the two attempt to build bridges and come to terms with their loss.

Each Voices From Home event will also feature a Headline Playwright; the first of these is Sevan K. Greene, whose play Asylum – directed by Tim Cook – opened the evening with an alternative and eye-opening view on the first world response to refugees. Lynn (Rosalind Adler) has got an empty house and a kind heart, but never really expected to be taken up on her offer of taking in a Syrian refugee – and when Mohammed (James Hameed) is sprung on her by his caseworker Mike (Matt Kyle), he’s not quite as gushingly grateful as she’d expected. As with all the other plays, Asylum offers lots of laughs, but they grow increasingly uncomfortable as the piece goes on, and we’re forced to examine our own motives, assumptions and reactions to those less fortunate than ourselves.

With so much theatre going on in London every day, it’s easy to forget that there’s plenty to enjoy elsewhere too. Voices From Home co-producers Tim Cook and Katharina Rodda have assembled a strong line-up for their first showcase, bringing a little piece of the Home Counties into the capital and proving to any sceptics out there that good theatre can and does exist outside the M25. Here’s hoping we don’t have too long to wait for the next evening; I’m looking forward to seeing what my home county of Kent has to offer…

For more details about Voices From Home and Broken Silence Theatre, visit brokensilencetheatre.com.


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Review: Scratch the Surface: The Female Playwright at The Bread and Roses Theatre

The third Scratch the Surface event from Instinct Theatre produced a collection of five very different pieces, with one thing in common: they were all created by women. Covering a range of themes from mental illness to manspreading, the evening brought together an enjoyable and innovative showcase of new writing talent.

Written and performed by Amelia Sweetland, Sharp Edges (directed by Nathan Theys) got the ball rolling with a portrayal of anxiety that’s all too recognisable. Sophie’s having a party, even though she doesn’t really want to – but she’s invited her boss and can’t back down now, despite being almost paralysed by anxiety. And the only person she can talk to about it all… is herself. Gentle humour and extreme Britishness collide with the desperate poignancy of a young woman who knows her irrational fears and lifelong need for perfection are holding her back, but is powerless to get past them.

The second piece, #iAmResilient by Lucrezia Pollice, was easily the most ambitious, combining theatre with audiovisual content to paint a picture of millennial life. Using a screen to show us text, Tinder and Facebook conversations is an inspired touch, given that most of us probably have more interactions on screen than in person these days. That said, future performances could definitely benefit from a bigger screen, to allow everyone to see what’s happening. The piece covers several themes but its main focus falls on Maria, and an honest exploration of the impact of her mental health issues on her relationship with her housemates. #iAmResilient has some interesting ideas, but definitely feels like a snippet of a longer piece, so it will be interesting to see how it develops from here.

Maternity by Stephanie Silver is a comedy, but even this very funny piece has a sting in the tail. Laura’s about to leave work to have a baby, but is anxious that she won’t make a good mum. Even so, her well-intentioned friend Kate is determined to give her a good send-off, whether she wants one or not. In a clever twist, the play sets up the two characters then, without warning, turns our opinions of them on their head. We’re still laughing, but now it’s tinged with a hint of sadness on one hand, and shock on the other. Even so, Laura’s honesty about her fears – however exaggerated in this case – is actually quite refreshing in a world that constantly sells the idea all women are natural mothers.

Saturday Night (directed by Laura Clifford), one of six monologues from Francesca Mepham’s collection No One Wants a Pretty Girl, finds Amber sitting alone at home watching Doctor Who. She’s just split up from her boyfriend (again) and can’t seem to connect with her friends, who just want to go out every weekend rather than catch up with her. A short but heartfelt monologue about loneliness and not quite fitting in, this is a piece of writing that reaches out to anyone who’s ever found themselves in Amber’s shoes – getting pulled back into an unhealthy relationship just for the sake of feeling loved.

And finally, the evening ended on a raucous note with Manspreading by Laura Hall (directed by Niamh Handley-Vaughan), in which the drunken conversation of three young women on a night out turns to the antisocial habit that is manspreading. More specifically, they’re outraged by the fact that it should be the exclusive domain of men – like Yorkie bars all over again, as one of them points out. It’s all very lighthearted and over-the-top, but the play does raise some interesting discussion points about gender roles and differing social interpretations of male and female body language, which seem particularly relevant in light of recent media events.

It’s always interesting to see new writing at such an early stage in its development, and on this occasion particularly exciting to see it all coming from female playwrights. Once again, Instinct Theatre have put together an  evening that provided its audience with plenty of food for thought, but also five talented writers to keep our eye on in the future.

For future Scratch the Surface events, follow @InstinctTheatre on Twitter.


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… 😉