Interview: Sleeping Trees, Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves

Sleeping Trees are “comthreedians” Joshua George Smith, John Woodburn and James Dunnell-Smith. Known for their surreal, physical and fast-paced comedy, the guys’ 2016 pantomime, Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves, is currently going down a storm with audiences of all ages at Battersea’s Theatre503 (check out my rave review to find out more).

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

“This show does to Scrooge what Pop Stars: The Rivals did to Nadine Coyle,” is the Sleeping Trees’ concise and typically unpredictable summary of their panto. After the Wicked Witch steals all the Christmas spirit, Santa’s forced to turn to an unlikely hero, Ebenezer Scrooge, to save the day. Needless to say, he doesn’t exactly co-operate willingly… can an unexpected journey to Fairytale Land change his mind?

The show is a unique and hilarious mashup of several classic stories – so where did the idea come from? The guys explain: “We’ve always enjoyed playing with well-known pieces of literature. We’d wanted to adapt Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for ages, and when the opportunity came along to write another Christmas show we thought there’s no time like the [insert joke about ghost of Christmas Past] present [insert joke about Christmas future].

“It began with just a title that we thought sounded funny, and then we ran with it. Once we had a rough script – which was about 150 pages too long – we started the editing process. We have an absolutely brilliant team that helped us get it to the show it is today. Ben Hales came in first with the music and composition of all the songs and lyrics etc. Then the excellent director, Simon Evans, came on board as we continuously read from start to finish, cutting, changing and shaping as we went. All the while our costume and set designer Zahra Mansouri would be a fly on the wall and each day come in with ideas and examples that were simply mind blowing. Finally our stage, lighting and production management team brought it all to life.”

All the characters in the story are played by Josh, John and James, which unsurprisingly makes for a fast-paced and fairly chaotic two hours. “We have 18 ‘main characters’ that we visit throughout the show, plus an array – or rather an onslaught – of about 30 other pantomime and fairytale characters that make an appearance for one-off jokes or theatrical devices. It’s a lot of fun playing all of them. Tiny Tim probably wins the Sleeping Trees’ favourite – either him or a prehistoric cameo… no spoilers!”

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

Let’s not forget that this is a pantomime, so audiences should be prepared to get involved in all the usual – and some not so usual – ways, much to Sleeping Trees’ glee. “Oh yes, we are thrilled with the participation we’ve created for this show. It will certainly be a unique experience for every audience member coming to see it. Nothing too stressful – just a lot, a lot of fun. After all, pantomimes remind everyone it’s Christmas, and who doesn’t like Christmas? Apart from Ebenezer, but trust us, we’re working on it!”

Sleeping Trees have now been together for seven years, and are looking forward to a bright (and busy) future. “We’ve been together since 2009, making theatrical comedy shows whilst collaborating with artists, comedians and musicians, and now have nine full length productions that we tour. It started once we got a taste of the Edinburgh fringe and have been a growing brand ever since. 

“The company aims to continue making comedy for stage and hopes to adapt our comedy for radio and television. We’re looking to begin touring internationally from 2017 onwards, with our latest trilogy of live action movies, Mafia? Western? and Sci-Fi? as well as writing a brand new Edinburgh Fringe show. We’re going to go back to our roots and write a stripped back show with just the three of us on stage. So the future is exciting for the entire team, and it will be our biggest tour to date, so we hope you can all come along and experience the journey with us. Merry Christmas folks.”

Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves is at Theatre503 until 7th January.

Review: Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves at Theatre503

I’ll be honest; I wasn’t really feeling the Christmas love when I arrived at Theatre503 last night; even being handed a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie didn’t quite do the job. Lucky then that the Sleeping Trees were more than up to the challenge of unearthing my festive spirit.

In this year’s pantomime, Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves, the comedy trio made up of Joshua George Smith, John Woodburn and James Dunnell-Smith, are determined to make good on last year’s fiasco, when they forgot to book their 30-strong cast of actors. Surely something that disastrous couldn’t possibly happen again…?

You see where this is going.

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Over the course of the next two hours, this hilarious tale brings to life a mash-up of Dickens and Disney, with Santa thrown in for good measure. Unlikely hero Ebenezer Scrooge is transported to Fairytale Land by Santa’s mother, charged with saving the day after the Wicked Witch steals all the Christmas spirit. I could tell you more – but I don’t want to ruin it, because it’s the twists and turns that make this story so fabulous; you literally never know (and it often feels entirely possible that the actors don’t either) what’s going to happen or who’s going to appear next.

I also fear I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the unique genius of Sleeping Trees’ creations, which include a depressed Mary Poppins, a gurning Wicked Witch and an overenthusiastic Broomstick, accompanied from a corner by composer and musician Ben Hales, who besides being a brilliant and versatile performer, also carries off a series of ridiculous hats (and an even more ridiculous Act 2 costume) with effortless style.

Scrooge is a family show, and although the audience last night was largely composed of grown-ups (in age, at least), I can imagine children adoring it – not least because they get to throw stuff, sing songs and join in with all the usual pantomime madness. In the intimate space at Theatre503, the banter flows easily and naturally between audience and actors, with the front row being particularly hot seats in that department…

Though the attention to detail and comic timing are second to none, like all the funniest comedy it’s not always clear what’s planned and what just sort of happens in the moment. The actors, who are clearly having a blast, seem frequently as amused as the audience, but also have the quick instincts of true comedians, enabling them to respond to whatever mayhem goes on (last night’s show, for instance, featured an incident which, if it was in fact unplanned, was the best example of falling with style I’ve ever seen).

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
This is my first pantomime of the season, and while the others may enjoy bigger budgets and household names, they already have a huge standard to live up to. Face-achingly funny, with an imaginative and endearing story and songs that are far too catchy (24 hours later, I’m still singing the closing number), this is an absolute must-see that I shall be recommending repeatedly to anyone who’ll listen for the rest of the holiday season. Merry Christmas…


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