Review: Before 30 at Theatre N16

Yesterday, someone I know helpfully pointed out that in a few weeks I’ll be closer to 40 than 30. And just like that, I went from looking forward to my 36th birthday to panicking about how quickly the years are flying past, when there are so many things I haven’t done yet. It’s not the first time this has bothered me, and it undoubtedly won’t be the last – which is why it’s reassuring to go and see a show like Before 30, and realise that I’m not the only one who’s freaking out.

Written and performed by Tom Hartwell and directed by Phil Croft, Before 30 is a one-man show about a Londoner called Chris. Chris has just turned 29. He’s single, living in a tent in someone’s garage, and the closest he’s got to his dream of being a chef is working for Deliveroo, which would be so much easier (and cheaper) if people didn’t keep nicking his Boris bike. Meanwhile it seems like everyone around him is getting married, getting jobs, having babies and buying houses, and his proudest achievement is – well, he’s not quite sure, to be honest.

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

As Chris veers wildly (and in some cases literally) from one hilarious mishap to another on the road to his 30th birthday, his panic begins to give way to a much more profound feeling of despair. And it’s here that the play really hits home as it examines the damaging expectations imposed on us by society, family, friends – but most of all by ourselves. At the same time, it also makes the very valid point that success is a relative term; someone who appears to have it all according to my world view might be struggling to live up to their own very different ideal, and it’s not for me to judge how happy and fulfilled that person should be.

As in previous plays Flood, Contactless and You Tweet My Face Space, Tom Hartwell demonstrates his exceptional ability to take the 21st century millennial experience and portray it on stage in a way that’s both relatable and very funny. (There’s even a Friends reference; this is a writer who really knows his audience.) As a performer, too, he wastes no time building a rapport with his audience; he has us on side pretty much from the moment he climbs out of his tent wearing a pink Hello Kitty bicycle helmet and tries to sing Happy Birthday to himself. From here, the laughs come thick and fast as we get to know Chris and the array of colourful characters that make up his story – and consequently when events take a more serious turn, we’re sufficiently invested in both story and character to really listen to what he has to say.

Anyone who’s ever had one of those “why God why?!” moments – which I’m willing to bet is most, if not all of us at some point – will find something that speaks to them in Before 30, even if it’s just the comforting knowledge that it’s totally okay to not always feel completely in control of where your life is going. With that knowledge, too, comes the understanding – appropriately timed for Mental Health Awareness Week – that those around us might be dealing with their own issues, even if their Instagram suggests they’ve got it all worked out. 

Yet again, Tom Hartwell has produced a play that delivers on several levels – it’s thoroughly entertaining, frighteningly relatable, and has already inspired a lengthy workplace discussion about the horrors of getting older. Let’s hope the show gets a longer run in the future; it certainly deserves it.

This run of Before 30 is now over 😦 but keep an eye on or follow @TomHartwell88 for details of future work.

Review: Flood at Tristan Bates Theatre

Funny, heartwarming and a little bit damp (though not, to the bizarre disappointment of one of my friends, actually flooded), Tom Hartwell’s Flood is the first outing for newly formed Paper Creatures – and it’s fair to say they’re off to a flying start.

Set in a remote rural town, Flood is the story of Adam, who’s having a really bad day. It’s the morning of his mum’s funeral, his house is flooded, and he’s just found out his sister and best friend are having a baby (not to mention driving a Skoda), and that his ex-girlfriend’s now dating a guy who used to stab people with protractors. Anyone could be forgiven for hitting the secret whisky in those circumstances; the only problem is that Adam, like his mum before him, has been doing a bit too much of that just lately…

Photo credit: Toby Lee

Though this is a story about five characters and the various directions their lives have taken, Jon Tozzi’s Adam naturally takes centre stage as the one character who stayed at home, and now becomes the focal point for their return. Effortlessly charismatic, with a dry wit and an appealing vulnerability, it’s easy to root for him despite a frustrating refusal to address his various issues. Nathan Coenen and Emily Céline Thomson are perhaps the most relatable as Jess and Michael, a young couple taking their first clumsy steps into responsible adulthood, while Molly McGeachin makes a relatively brief but highly significant appearance as Adam’s ex Laura, who may have moved on physically, but has left a little of herself behind nonetheless. Finally, you get the feeling writer Tom Hartwell might be venting a few frustrations in his role as Ben, whose six-month stay in London has apparently converted him into a vegetarian, gluten-free, green tea drinker with a posh accent, but quickly reverts to type when he returns home.

In Flood, as in his previous plays, Hartwell demonstrates a talent for zeroing in on human experiences we can all relate to, and tackling them with humour and empathy. Moving away from home, leaving behind – or being left by – friends and family, and then attempting to reignite those relationships later as different people is something almost all of us have gone through, and the play is marked by a recognisable blend of tension and nostalgia between the five old friends. Under the expert direction of Georgie Staight, it’s easy to believe the five actors really have known each other all their lives, and to get caught up in the familiar struggles that form an inevitable part of growing up.

Photo credit: Toby Lee

Although much of the flood water exists only in our imaginations, the underwater theme is subtly present in the production’s design: characters who’ve been out in the rain actually look wet; dripping sound effects remind us that the waters are still rising; even the choreographed set changes include slow-mo moments where the characters appear to be floating across the stage. It’s clear that a great deal of care has gone into the production, and proves yet again that big budgets and fancy effects aren’t always necessary to create something special.

Paper Creatures’ focus is on making theatre for and about millennials; as a member of that demographic (just…) who’s still figuring out how to be a grown-up, it’s perhaps not surprising that I really related to and enjoyed Flood. It’s a shame that the play has such a short run this time, but hopefully it’s not the last we’ll see of this excellent production – and if you can get there before Saturday, it’s well worth a visit.

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: Jon Tozzi and Nathan Coenen, Paper Creatures

Paper Creatures is a new London-based theatre company founded by Jon Tozzi and Nathan Coenen. The company’s debut production, Flood, which opens at Tristan Bates Theatre on 31st July, is a comedy drama written by Tom Hartwell (known for recent hits You Tweet My Face Space and Contactless), which shines a light on the millennial generation while examining themes of grief, nostalgia and what it means to leave home – and come back again.

“The play centres around the day’s events in this village at two of the characters’ mother’s funeral, and friends coming back,” says Jon. “We have one character, Adam, who’s never left the hometown and everyone else has, so it looks at the effect that’s had on him and them. We were just fascinated with this idea of why everyone wants to move away from home, where does this come from? But it’s a comedy drama – we wouldn’t get Tom Hartnell on board if it wasn’t going to have its light moments!

“Tom was in the year below me at drama school and I remember having a drink with him and I told him about the potential of this company and how we wanted to look at certain themes. And then he went on tour for a month to a place called Tenbury Wells, where every year it gets flooded and the government has deemed it too small a place to do anything about it. And he was really interested in how that affects the people living there, and especially the millennial demographic – so he wrote Flood.”

While Jon is “a London boy, born and bred”, Nathan knows all too well what it’s like to move away from home. “I’m from Perth, Western Australia – as south as you can get, almost! So there are definitely themes in the play that are very strong for me, and in the rare times I’m able to get home there are scenes that happen in this play, which Tom wrote of his own accord, that have exactly happened to me. I wanted to leave in order to achieve the things I wanted to do with my life – I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that in Perth – but it’s fascinating to me to think about identity and where you relate to. Would I call myself a Londoner now? I’ve only lived here five years. It’s an interesting question.”

The decision to focus on the millennial generation was made early on: “We’re very intrigued by this term,” explains Jon. “There’s almost this association now with the millennial generation that we’re addicted to phones, and disconnected from people because we’re so invested in the technologies that are around us. There’s a reason for that – because our lives are on phones and laptops and emailing – but at the end of the day we’re human beings and we still feel, and I think the way we’re portrayed sometimes in the media is that we don’t have those feelings. We wanted to dig deeper and prove that we still grieve, we still laugh, love, we still have secrets.

“But we didn’t want a gimmick with the company either. From the get go we believed that the story should be enough and you should take something away from it – regardless of what the play’s about, there’ll be a moment there. It’s all about the story for us; that’s our USP, I think. I reference theatre to history as well, and the reason we have history is to learn from it. Theatre’s the exact same thing – so we can with new writing tell these stories now so in the future people can look back and see what we were like.”

“I think we’re lucky to have access to so much amazing classical theatre, but I also think classical plays get put on all the time, and it’s incredibly important to continue to create a platform for new writers to come forward,” adds Nathan. “There are never enough new voices and we just wanted to not do anything special or different, but just provide another platform for new writers to have a voice and share their stories.”

Jon and Nathan met on a five-month tour of Much Ado About Nothing with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and bonded over a mutual love of the NBC show Friday Night Lights. “We absolutely adored the show because of the simple storytelling of these country people’s lives in Texas, where their whole lives revolved around their Friday night football game,” says Nathan. “To them it was the be all and end all. And we’d watch it and see a really honest portrayal of people caring about something so much. Then we’d chat about theatre, and when the tour finished we went and saw a lot of theatre together – Chekov, Yerma, Groundhog Day. We started going to some of the fringe theatres and we really got excited there.

“We’re really inspired by other new writing companies like Falling Pennies and Flux, and we wanted to create a place in which creatives and artists from all different aspects of the theatre community – lighting designers, actors, directors, writers, sound designers – could come together and invent. And particularly focusing that on the millennial generation; everyone we’re working with is a young, emerging artist, that’s really exciting for us.”

Jon adds, “And everyone helps each other out. We met up with so many people that we really admire – because we’re still learning every day, it’s not something you can get a degree in, you just have to crack on with it. We kept having these meetings and they were so helpful and honest with us so we could take what we wanted and put our spin on it. So we’re not just mimicking, we’re utilising what we’ve learnt.”

Photo credit: Benjamin Cooper

Even so, starting a theatre company is not without its challenges: “We’re trying our best to make it feel really professional,” says Jon. “It’s that feeling of making our team feel safe so they can just show up and enjoy themselves. And we’re learning about other elements of being in the theatre world like marketing, doing interviews – these are all new to us. I think it’s a really admirable thing when actors do decide to set their own companies up because you’re taking a massive risk.”

“I’ve been fascinated by the learning process of having to trust our own instincts about things,” agrees Nathan. “Things that I didn’t think I’d ever have to worry about as an actor, like designing posters, and then standing by your decisions. If you’re an actor in a play you have a director to guide you, but as the producers and the artistic directors we’re the ones calling the shots. It’s very rewarding but also you just have to click and hope – ‘I don’t know if this is right but let’s go for it’! And it’s been really gratifying to have to learn to trust our instincts on that.”

One of the biggest hurdles proved to be deciding on the company’s name, and it took about a month to finally settle on Paper Creatures. “We used to sit and just crack names out; we wanted to make it personal to us,” Jon explains. “The idea behind the name is: the paper is the script, and the creatures are the characters that come from that, the storytelling, and theatre is where we show you that. So the more you think about it, the more it makes sense – instead of thinking about an origami tiger or a swan, it makes so much more sense if you think about story, characters and theatre – just in a more poetic way. So that’s how it came about, but not without a lot of trial and error!”

Finding the right cast and creatives to work on Flood was another new experience, but Jon and Nathan are thrilled with the team they’ve assembled. “Our lighting, sound designer and set designers we’d never met before, so we found them essentially by just talking to people. Georgie Staight is the director – I did a scratch night with her last year, and she was great, then she directed Dubailand at the Finborough and we saw that she really gets a lot out of her actors, so we approached her and she thankfully said yes because she liked the play.”

The cast of five, which includes Nathan, Jon and Tom, is completed by Emily Céline Thomson, who was at drama school with Nathan, and Molly McGeachin, who was introduced by another friend. “That’s a nice element as well, meeting new people – we’ve never met some of them before but already have a great relationship,” says Jon. “It’s quite nice now to let the creatives get on with things and trust that they’ll do a great job, which they will, and we can concentrate on learning our lines!

“We want this to go really well. We want to learn a lot from it and make sure we’re doing it right, so we’re taking our time with it and not rushing into things, we’re making careful decisions – which venue we go for, what time slot, what kind of show we want to put on, what ideas we want for the poster… We’re making sure it’s done in the right amount of time, because the last thing you want when you’re putting on your first show is for it to be stressful and horrible. We want it to be a great experience for everyone involved.”

Nathan adds: “We want it to be fun, not one of those really stressful fringe productions where everybody’s tearing their hair out. We want them to want to do another play with us and be a part of it – that’s the kind of atmosphere we want to create. And we adore people getting in touch with us – actors, all different creatives; we want to create a community, so get in touch with us!”

Finally, why should we come and see Flood? “It’s a world premiere!” says Jon. “I think that’s exciting. So it’s a new piece of writing full of heart and humour, set in a flooded Somerset village, from a new emerging writer and company – what else could you want?”

“I think that theatre is something that’s a bit of a mirror. We go to the theatre to see ourselves or see something new, and I think that Flood will have moments we can relate to, and you’ll learn new things about people you might know,” concludes Nathan. “There will 100% be at least one moment where everybody will sit back and smile and say ‘I totally get that’. And that’s why we go to the theatre.”

Book now for Flood at Tristan Bates Theatre from 31st July-5th August.

Review: Contactless at The Hen and Chickens

Nothing sums up the British quite like our relationship with public transport. It’s a world full of unspoken rules, which we like, and we reserve the right to be furious – silently, because we’re British – when those rules are not observed. Because there’s no chance of escape, the most insignificant moment becomes a massive deal, whether it’s the person next to us having a loud phone conversation, the cute stranger opposite catching our eye for the briefest of seconds, or the agony of trying to figure out if someone’s pregnant or not.

These are all moments anyone who spends any time on the London Underground can relate to, and they make up the backdrop to Tom Hartwell’s new comedy, Contactless, which takes us inside the world of the Tube to meet annoying passengers, overenthusiastic station announcers and even the original voice of “Mind the Gap”, Peter Lodge. These characters appear in a series of sketches that take recognisable situations and stereotypes to comical extremes (one of my favourites was the night tube, where passengers are tucked in with a blanket and hot chocolate while the driver reluctantly reads them a bedtime story).

While these characters are familiar to us, they’re all fictional – but Contactless also draws on historical fact and current affairs in the development of its main plot threads. Besides Peter Lodge, the sound engineer who inadvertently became the voice of the Underground, we also meet Emma Clarke, the voiceover artist who eventually replaced him, only to be sacked for comments that appeared to criticise the Underground. Meanwhile, a hapless union rep tries to reach an agreement in the tube strikes over ticket office closures and night working, and Peter’s widow Susan – who still works at Embankment 30 years later – struggles to keep up in a constantly changing world of progress and technology.

Directed by Phil Croft and performed by a versatile cast of six (Adam Elliot, Rosie Edwards, Hannah Jay, Jeryl Burgess, Stanton Cambridge and Will Hartley), the show’s style is reminiscent of spoof documentaries like Twenty Twelve, affectionately poking fun at a British institution that we love to complain about, but also wouldn’t want any other way (I kept half expecting David Tennant’s voiceover to start). The scenes referencing the strikes, while undoubtedly some of the funniest, also make a sharp political point; as union rep Rachel faces off against an army of incompetent and – in one case – sleazy civil servants, there’s never any doubt whose side we’re meant to be on, even before the hilarious first date scene in which a striking tube driver hammers home the main points of their argument.

There’s a further case against progress for the sake of it in the story of Susan, an unexpectedly poignant diversion inspired in part by Margaret McCollum, the widow whose pleas saw her late husband’s voiceover reinstated at Embankment. Ultimately, Hartwell’s message seems to be that the Tube is about people far more than processes. Drivers, passengers, station staff and yes, even the voiceover guys and girls come together to form a tapestry that’s rich with comic potential, and makes this cherished British institution what it is, in a way iPads and driverless trains never will.

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… 😉