Interview: Instinct Theatre, Tea and Good Intentions

Lily Driver and Felicity Huxley-Miners co-run Instinct Theatre, whose original play, Tea and Good Intentions, comes to the Kings Head, Islington, for two performances in February. The play, written by Felicity, continues the company’s theme of topical and powerful theatre, with a look at the very first meeting between Adar, a Syrian migrant, and Margaret, a middle-aged housewife who has tentatively opened her home to him.


“Felicity and I met at drama school, Italia Conti, aged 18, on the acting course,” says Lily. “We started Instinct Theatre to create our own work and hoped for exposure, but we were surprised by the vast number of roles we ended up playing within the company. However the business, social, IT, writing and marketing skills that have developed as a product of running Instinct Theatre have been a happy bonus!

“I directed our first play, Sartre’s No Exit, in a small venue in Surrey in mid-2015. Felicity played one of the female leads. We had no budget and no real expectations of how it would go, but it was a sell-out run and we received great reviews. We decided to make Instinct Theatre official, and it bloomed from mostly passion, and trial and error.

No Exit was set in the round and the idea was to draw the audience in and make for a thought-provoking piece. This idea of wanting to affect the audience is how we reached our ethos of creating powerful and relevant theatre, addressing topics that are featured highly in current media. I don’t believe that the media has the best impact on people’s education on topics such as the Syrian migrant crisis; however this is where the vast majority receive their information. We wanted to create an entertaining, moving and informative play to give a wider view on the topic.”

In light of recent events, this is more important than ever. “Although President Trump’s drastic decision to ban seven nationalities from entering the US has faced a massive backlash from all over the world, there are vast amounts of people that would argue this is the correct decision – and this is due to manipulation by the media,” argues Lily. “However, last year there were 372 mass shootings caused by Americans in the US, killing 475 people. The recent list of nationalities banned from entering the US have caused zero fatal attacks. Two attacks were carried out by individuals with ties to the seven countries: the 2006 UNC SUV attack, and the 2016 Ohio State University attack. Neither of those plots resulted in American deaths.

“You can’t get more current than Tea and Good Intentions. A Syrian refugee is rehoused by a middle aged northern lady in a village in the north of England. It’s a touching and affective comedy that’s been featured in several new writing scratch nights in London, with wonderful reviews and comments such as, ‘All the components are there for a classic comedy.’ The first time a scene from the play was included in a new writing scratch night, the audience found it hilarious and really soaked up the details and characters of the play. And that’s when we realised that even when exploring serious issues, people are most perceptive when being entertained – which is the reason why the play was written in full as a comedy.”

Since the new writing scratch nights, there have been some changes: “We have a whole new experienced cast, and have also had the pleasure of working with a Syrian who came to England as a refugee and will now be performing in Tea and Good Intentions,” says Lily. “We were thrilled when Baraa Halabieh got in contact with us and said he wanted to be involved. Little did we know at this stage, Baraa had been very busy in the acting world since he arrived only nine months ago. And although he had no previous acting experience we learned quickly that he was very talented and an incredible asset to us.

“We’re also very excited to be working with director Adam Morley. Adam is an award-winning film and theatre director who’s worked extensively touring in the UK, on the West End and for Baroque Theatre Company. We met about a year ago at a workshop he was doing for Actor Awareness, and will also be co-producing a Greek comedy, Lysistrata, with him in autumn of this year.”

Book now for Tea and Good Intentions on 11th and 24th February at the King’s Head Theatre.

To find out more about Instinct Theatre, visit their website, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

Review: Cargo at Arcola Theatre

We’re all used to hearing about refugees by now. A bit too used to it, actually; we hear the word so often these days that it’s begun to lose all meaning. It’s a sad but undeniable fact that the sight of terrified people risking everything to flee their homes has become ordinary, everyday… and with the click of a remote, even the most compassionate among us have the power to change the channel and dismiss the pictures from our minds. It’s something that happens to other people, from countries far away, so it’s easy to distance ourselves from the situation.

Tess Berry-Hart’s Cargo offers its audience no such luxury. For 80 gruelling minutes, we’re trapped in the dark, claustrophobic belly of a ship with four terrified refugees: Iz (Jack Gouldbourne) and his big sister Joey (Milly Thomas), Sarah (Debbie Korley) and Kayffe (John Schwab). We don’t – at least initially – know where they’ve come from, or what’s led them to leave behind everything they know and love and embark on such a dangerous journey. All we know is that they’re headed for Europe, the promised land where a golden future awaits them… if they can only get there.

Photo credit: Mark Douet
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Director David Mercatali and designer Max Dorey pull no punches in their efforts to give us an authentic experience. Seated on wooden crates and plunged more than once into prolonged and total darkness, we’re kept in a state of constant, deliberate discomfort, and spared nothing; even the loo bucket is only inches from the audience (and yes, it does get used – more than once). As the journey unfolds in real time, the four characters form – and just as quickly break – alliances, swap stories, and try to decide who they can trust. And gradually, a truth begins to emerge that suddenly puts a very different complexion on our understanding of what – and who – a ‘refugee’ is.

In the tiny, cramped space, we’re treated to four exquisite performances from Cargo’s actors. Each of these characters has lived through horrors we can’t even imagine, and it’s affected them all in different ways. John Schwab is excellent as Kayffe, a mysterious American who constantly rewrites his own history until we can no longer tell truth from lies, and Debbie Korley gives a haunting performance as the fragile Sarah – even as she makes plans for a new life in Scandinavia, she can’t quite leave behind the things she’s had to do to get this far. In contrast, Jack Gouldbourne is almost puppy-like as Iz, full of innocent and heart-breaking optimism about the future, while Milly Thomas’ Joey is hardened and cautious, forced to take on the role of mother to her little brother, knowing deep down that she won’t always be able to keep him safe.

Photo credit: Mark Douet
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Don’t expect an easy ride with Cargo; it’s almost unbearably tense from the moment you step inside the dingy, cramped space, and it forces its audience to confront two very uncomfortable truths: first, this is happening right now to unimaginable numbers of people, and will continue whether or not we turn off the TV. And second, it might not be happening to us – but that doesn’t mean it never could.

Devastating and unsettling it may be, but this timely and compelling piece of theatre is nonetheless essential viewing.

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… 😉

Review: Transports at the Pleasance

Pipeline Theatre’s Transports, first performed in 2013, has been revived for a national tour, and the timing couldn’t be more appropriate. Though the play never makes any explicit reference to the current refugee crisis, it nonetheless offers a fascinating and intensely powerful insight into the emotional impact of being forced from one’s home and into a strange, and sometimes hostile, environment.

Transports is the story of two teenage girls. Lotte, the quiet, polite daughter of a rich Jewish family in Germany, gets on a train for England in 1939, not realising that she’s saying goodbye to her loving parents for the final time. Years later, Lotte waits anxiously for the arrival of her first foster child, a sullen fifteen-year-old named Dinah, who never knew her parents and likes to boast about the time a doctor said she had psychopathic tendencies. The two girls couldn’t be more different – and yet their lives end up on parallel tracks, as both struggle to adapt to the new home they never asked to be sent to, and to cope with the traumas of their past.

Transports at Pleasance Theatre

The girls’ interlocking stories are seamlessly presented in flawless performances from its cast of two. Juliet Welch plays the older Lotte – kind-hearted, anxious, who swears by her weekly routine and talks too much when she’s nervous – and Mrs Weston, who takes in the teenaged Lotte on her arrival in England and soon grows to love her. (She also, briefly, plays Lotte’s mother.) Hannah Stephens, meanwhile, takes on the challenge of playing the hugely contrasting roles of the two teenagers. It’s incredible to watch the chemistry between the two actors, and how they’re transformed in every way – clothes, voice, body language – as they switch from one character to the other and back again.

Alan Munden’s set is simple and effective, dominated by two huge train tracks that run from floor to ceiling and frame the action. Everything we don’t see is brought to life by sound effects: passing traffic, the sounds of the school playground, and even Lotte’s cat, Oskar, feel as real as if they were right in front of us. During the opening scene, as Lotte and Dinah stood by the side of the road, I swear I could smell petrol fumes, and have no idea if this was an extraordinary attention to detail or just my imagination.

Transports, Pleasance Theatre

Unsurprisingly for a story that deals with the Holocaust and childhood trauma, Transports packs quite a punch, particularly in the second act (one scene drew an audible gasp from the audience; another had us all in floods of tears). The addition of poetry, in a surprising twist that makes us view Dinah’s character in a whole new way, only increases the emotional intensity – not to mention the revelation that Lotte’s story is based on that of a real person – designer Alan Munden’s mother, Liesl.

On the way out, someone asked me if I’d enjoyed the play, and I wasn’t sure how to respond, because I’m not sure this is the kind of story that you can enjoy. It’s intense, and shocking, and it made me feel very, very sad – not just for Lotte, Dinah and Liesl, but because now, all these years later, there are still people going through this kind of trauma every single day.

But was it brilliant? Absolutely. Transports is probably one of the most original and interesting pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year. Beautifully performed and lovingly produced, it’s a hugely important play that deserves to be seen.

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… 😉