Interview: Emma Bentley, What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors

Emma Bentley is co-artistic director of Joue le Genre, an emerging theatre company based in London and Lille. Her last show, one-woman play To She Or Not To She, addressed gender equality within the theatre; her latest project, What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors, addresses a different but equally weighty topic: homelessness. Following a successful run in Edinburgh last summer, in February the show embarks on a spring tour that will take it to venues including Yvonne Arnaud Theatre’s Mill Studio and the King’s Head in Islington.

Closed Doors is about Molly Brentwood, a young woman who is feisty and argumentative and gets on better with boys than girls,” explains Emma, who plays Molly. “We meet her in her bedroom in a homeless hostel, and she tells us about all the moments that she thinks might have led her to that point. That’s what she’s trying to figure out, anyway.”

 

The play, written by Calum Finlay, began life as a small scratch piece for Pleasance in June 2016. “Calum and I wanted to tell the story of how homelessness can happen to anyone – although I’m very cautious about using the word ‘homeless’ when talking about the show, because I think people get a very specific vision of the type of scenes it’s going to explore,” says Emma. “So that’s why it was important to show it from the perspective of a young woman. To break that expectation. Plus because that makes me happy as an artist and a feminist to make work about women. And women in situations that we don’t get to see very often on stage – not being glamorous, not in a relationship, from a working class background.

“Since I moved to London, homelessness has been on the forefront of my brain and I would always try to learn more about people’s stories. Then in 2016 I started volunteering at St Mungo’s. The amazing work they do to give people a home inspires me a lot. People that come and see the play will probably have an interest in the homelessness sector, but if they’ve been dragged along and they don’t, I hope that it allows them to empathise more with people living on the streets. The way that people who beg or sleep rough are treated is horrendous and people don’t realise you don’t have to give money every time – just say ‘Sorry I don’t have anything,’ instead of just ignoring them or getting angry. People complain that they’ll just spend it on drugs when they don’t know the first thing about being an addict; it makes me really angry. Although I think part of it is fear as well.”

Emma wrote a first draft of the script, which was staged at Pleasance in February 2017. “Then after that Calum said, ‘I’ve got this idea for the script,’ and he sent me the first couple of pages in this new style – a lot more lyrical, weird and mysterious and I said ‘I love it, do it to the whole thing please.’ So he did and it’s a beautiful, haunting script.

“We’ve worked with Anna Beecher on the dramaturgy of the piece, and for Edinburgh Anna Souter did our set design. For this spring tour of the show I’m working with Katharina Reinthaller, who directed me in To She Or Not To She for the Lyric Hammersmith, and a designer she works with called Rasa Selemonavičiūtė. It’s fantastic to work with Katharina again because we have a shared language, and I think Calum and I both knew that we needed someone’s fresh perspective on the script. Plus Calum is in Mary Stuart at the mo so he’s a bit busy!”

Closed Doors has been significantly re-worked since Emma last performed it in Edinburgh in 2017 – though she admits it can be difficult to make big changes to material she’s personally invested in: “When you change things you think, ‘Hold on wait, was there anything wrong with it in the first place? I can’t even remember now’, and that’s why it’s useful to work with a bigger team.

“We started with the script. We didn’t have a video of the show post Edinburgh so we couldn’t look back on it. I’d like to say we went on gut feelings. We met up and talked a lot about the main framing device, which now we’ve completely changed. As it’s such a tech heavy show this framing device needed to be simplified so that the complexity could lie in the language and images on stage.”

With this new tour, Emma’s looking forward to meeting more audiences, hopefully sharing the play with some young people who have or are experiencing homelessness themselves, and hearing what they think about it. “In Edinburgh, quite a lot of people who I spoke to after the show thought it was about me, which I guess is a massive compliment – it was also sad though as they looked worried about saying goodbye at the end. The best response though was that some teenagers were heard on a bus in Edinburgh talking about the show and about what they could do individually to help people who are homeless.

“The dream would be if someone came after seeing the show on tour and said something like, ‘I never really thought about how it actually could happen to someone – I thought they were just lazy, and now I realise they’ve just taken a few wrong turns.’

“Maybe the show will even help people from ever getting into a situation like Molly’s themselves. Through making the show, I’ve learnt what to do if I were to ever be in that position; if I didn’t have a supportive group of family and friends to help me, then I would know where to look for help. It’s useful information. We’re all only a few steps away from homelessness, especially in the theatre industry. Who knows if it might help someone spot the signs, before they or a friend become close to sleeping rough.”

What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors opens at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, on 9th February. For full tour dates and venues, visit the Joue le Genre website.

Review: Flashdance at the Orchard Theatre

80s kids rejoice – another classic movie from our youth is back on stage. Flashdance, as most of us know, is the heartwarming tale of feisty young welder Alex, who longs to be a dancer, and finally achieves her dream after an iconic audition routine (if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably at least seen that bit). Naturally, she also meets a nice man, and after a few bumps along the way, in the end everything works out fine.

Unsurprisingly, the show is a feast of 80s cheese, with leg warmers and leotards aplenty. And while Robbie Roth’s original songs are enjoyable but not particularly memorable, the score is lifted by several classic hits that guarantee a feel-good finale. The story could use a bit more pace at times, and there’s a side plot involving Alex’s friend that seems to directly contradict the show’s message about believing in your dreams – but let’s face it, how many people are really there for the plot?

Photo credit: Brian Hartley

Where the show does come up trumps is in its performances – particularly from leading lady and reigning Strictly Come Dancing champ, Joanne Clifton. It might have been her brother who did Flashdance on last year’s series, but here she claims it firmly for her own with a show-stealing turn as Alex. We knew she could dance, but now we know she can act and sing too, and – maybe most impressive – apparently do it all without breaking a sweat.

She’s joined by Ben Adams, whose former boy band credentials (he was in A1 back in the day) stand him in good stead as the charming Nick Hurley. While his vocals may not always be quite as strong as his co-stars’, and he obviously has a pretty limited repertoire of dance moves, his acting is good – and he certainly looks the part of Alex’s handsome love interest.

In fact it’s a particularly fit (in every sense) cast all round, with more than enough visual talent to keep the whole audience happy, and some astonishingly acrobatic dance moves that you wish you could pause and watch again in slow motion. Several of the musical numbers serve little purpose in terms of plot development, but give this talented cast a multitude of opportunities to show what they can do.

Photo credit: Brian Hartley

Not altogether surprisingly, there’s a lot more dancing than welding in the show – but a versatile steel set designed by Takis helps to keep the Pittsburgh setting in mind throughout, and strikes a nice contrast against the colour and vivacity of the show.

It might not be highbrow, but Flashdance is certainly high energy – and ultimately wins everyone over with the sheer joy shown by everyone on stage. With some great performances and a heartwarming message about believing in yourself against all odds, the show is a definite crowd pleaser, and its standing ovation well deserved.

Flashdance is at the Orchard Theatre until 14th October.

Interview: Jemma McDonnell, Mobile

The Paper Birds are a devising theatre company with a political agenda, currently touring the country with Mobile, the second show in a trilogy about social class. Staged in a caravan for audiences of up to eight people at a time, the show is an intimate piece of verbatim theatre based on personal testimonies, and will be popping up at the seaside, on high streets, at schools, and in arts centres and theatres all over the UK until October.

“We want people to think about social class and social mobility,” says The Paper Birds’ Artistic Director, Jemma McDonnell. “Who are you and how do you experience the world? Did the start in life that your parents gave you determine who you would be? Is the society we live in one that gives everyone an equal opportunity? And if not, is this important?

“We were keen to make a trilogy about class because it is so complex in the way it shadows who we are and what we do in the world. We began by collaborating with a sociologist, Dr Sam Friedman from London School of Economics, who shared a range of verbatim interviews with us that he had undertaken as part of his research. This led us to talking to more communities and beginning to shape a show that really explored ideas around social mobility.”

Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

While it’s undoubtedly a unique and fascinating choice of setting, staging a show in a caravan is not without its equally unique challenges: “The caravan is very intimate and this allowed us to use theatrical images and trickery that would not be impactful in a larger traditional theatre space,” explains Jemma. “But the caravan’s size was also its downfall, as limited space meant we had to be creative with the ways we created our characters. Luckily, we managed to come up with a few tricks!

“The show is made to be highly accessible. It can travel, it is only 40 minutes long and there is a cap on ticket prices. We want people to take a risk on the show, to be brave and step inside the caravan with us!”

And people, it seems, are happy to take that risk; having already been on tour since May, the company have found audiences very receptive to the unusual format of the show. “Overwhelmingly so,” confirms Jemma. “Audience feedback and responses have been fantastic. People love to try something different and whilst the caravan looks ordinary from the outside, it has many unexpected surprises inside that the audiences have loved.”

Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

The Paper Birds are an established company aiming to inspire, educate, and make big socio-political subjects accessible. “We met whilst at Bretton Hall, Leeds University studying,” explains Jemma. “We graduated in 2003 and have been making work together since. As a company, we make political work that gives people a voice. Sometimes it is our voice, more often the shows are based on people we meet around the UK. We want to make work that has an impact socially.”

Intrigued? Catch Mobile on tour – visit thepaperbirds.com for all dates and venues.

Interview: Daniel Foxsmith, BLUSH

In April 2015, legislation was passed that made revenge pornography – sharing a private sexual photo or film of someone without their consent – a criminal act. This became the catalyst for BLUSH from Snuff Box Theatre, which tells five stories about image-based sexual abuse, and went on to an award-winning run in Edinburgh. Next month the play will transfer to Soho Theatre, before embarking on a national tour.

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

“It’s a bit of a bloody rollercoaster!” says Daniel Foxsmith, who appears in BLUSH alongside writer Charlotte Josephine. “It’s a blisteringly beautiful look at how we behave online, the rules we have or haven’t made for ourselves on there, a look at gender, our modern attitude to sex, promiscuity, sex education, the shame associated with sex and how our understanding of ourselves is shaping technology now.”

Described as “a slap in the face and a call to arms”, BLUSH fearlessly tackles a difficult subject, and encourages its audience to do the same. “We need to look at all of the above with both eyes wide open,” says Daniel, “so if we can get audiences to confront some ‘digital gremlins’ that are now firmly part of our online culture that’d be great. Beyond that, hopefully they’re engaged, entertained and there’s space for reflection and empathy after the show.”

BLUSH is the third play from Charlotte Josephine, who’s co-founder of Snuff Box Theatre along with Daniel and Bryony Shanahan. The show’s been in development since 2015: “After a lot of research by Charlotte Josephine, the piece, as far as I’m aware, found its current form early on in December 2015 after some research and development at Camden People’s Theatre, where Bryony Shanahan floated the idea of the five voices being played by two performers,” explains Daniel.

“It’s grown again from there; with director Edward Stambollouian making his deft mark on it on its way to Edinburgh last summer. I think now, post-Edinburgh, the show’s current form is a robust and direct piece of storytelling, which has been reflected in some lovely thoughts from reviewers and – most importantly – audiences alike, with Charlotte winning a Stage Award for Acting Excellence whilst sweating away in the depths of Underbelly!”

Daniel believes that research is the key to BLUSH‘s success. “I think the amount carried out before, during and beyond the writing of the show makes the content well thought-out and crucially well balanced. This isn’t a two-dimensional ear bashing for a particular section of society. Also Ed’s fine touch and James’s design have created a beautifully intense and sparse atmosphere for the stories to unfold.”

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Though the play was inspired by the concept of revenge porn, the true focus of the work is shame, which allows the show to speak to a much broader audience. “I’d say the show speaks to wider themes,” says Daniel. “It’s not just about digital sexual abuse. All of the things I mentioned in summing up the show are universal themes that I’d hazard to say everyone has brushed up against in one way or another at some point.”

After its run at Soho, BLUSH goes on tour throughout the summer around the UK. “I think touring outside of London is really important, but it feels especially relevant for BLUSH, because it can be harder to escape the digital pillory that online shaming can sometimes become in communities in smaller towns and cities.”

Daniel, Charlotte and Bryony founded Snuff Box in 2011 after graduating, inspired by one simple goal: “We wanted to work!” says Daniel. “The three of us trained as performers on the East 15 CT course, and had stories to tell by the end of it. No-one was waiting for us to tell them, so forming Snuff Box was a way for us to get our work made. With the addition of Jake Orr driving us on as producer, the team is aiming to keep telling stories that are full of heart and grit, in ways that provoke today’s audience.”

BLUSH is at Soho Theatre from 16th May-3rd June, then on tour until 24th June.

Interview: Ffion Jones, Merely Theatre

Merely Theatre has just embarked on a new national tour with productions of Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night in repertory. But there’s a twist in these tales, as company member Ffion Jones explains:

“Each character, or set of characters, is played by both a male and female actor from the full company of ten. Each male-female pairing will play the same parts as each other across both shows.

“All of the actors are off-script before we begin and we rehearse very quickly but precisely, applying what we call our ‘Merely Principles’ from the get-go. The principles are a set of rules we all abide by in rehearsal to create exciting and audience focussed work. They include things like striving to tell the story at all costs and never looking out into the middle distance when we speak. Each actor within the male-female pairings gets tagged in and out whilst rehearsing scenes; this rotation process means that we get used to listening and responding to whichever actor happens to be in front of us, because we can perform with any combination of actors from the other four pairs.”

This unique approach to rehearsal and performance presents a number of challenges. “For example, I am playing only male characters in both plays, purely by chance,” says Ffion. “I can’t help but think about how an audience might receive or judge my performance in comparison to men in other productions. However, because I’ve been with the company for three years now, I have learned to embrace the freedom this can give me as a performer. I don’t really feel inhibited at all and I enjoy bringing the essential humanity to each part that I play and representing the character regardless of gender.”

Merely Theatre was founded in 2010 by Artistic Director Scott Ellis to perform stripped back productions of Shakespeare’s work, and evolved over time to become the first fully gender blind Shakespeare company. “I think that Scott and Merely Theatre are leading the way with gender-blind casting in such a humble, experimental and joyous way that I am so proud to be a part of,” says Ffion. “I was inspired by Scott and Simon’s vision to strip away the unnecessary in Shakespeare and present the heart of the matter. During 2014, Merely produced a season of Shakespeare with no props, no set and no costume. I think our company’s gender-blind ethos goes hand-in-hand so simply with this attitude and it also means that I don’t have to think twice about my gender limitations, which is so liberating and enriching for an actor.”

Following the success of last year’s rep productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry V, Merely Theatre’s 2017 tour brings us another double bill of classic Shakespeare. “Romeo & Juliet is arguably the most famous Shakespeare play,” says Ffion. “It’s renowned for its love story, but with our simplistic style and raw energy we also hope that we can depict the friendship, familial love and ultimate tragedy found within its poetry. It pairs itself beautifully with Twelfth Night, which showcases Merely’s humour and mischievous nature. It’s a raucous comedy of errors that allows us to really show our silly side as well as remaining true to the compassion of the characters.”

As a repertory company, Ffion explains,  the team have been growing and progressing together as performers for a number of years. “Scott Ellis and Tatty Hennessey, who have co-directed on both tours, have developed their ideas on how to create great Shakespeare and we have all been working on our craft as actors from vocal technique to text work. All of this groundwork serves as the foundation for these shows which, hopefully, will be felt by our audiences in even slicker, more accessible shows. Interestingly enough last year was also the first time in quite a while that Merely weren’t working in-the-round. It may seem rather backward to any other theatre company that we had to work hard to adjust our style to end-on and proscenium arch spaces. Our aim is to create the audience feeling of involvement that in-the-round or outdoor theatre gives and bring that magic to the theatre royals.”

There’s been much debate in recent years about the decline of repertory theatre, but Ffion believes it still has much to offer, for both actors and audience. “Rep theatre allows a company of actors to expand their skills. It has allowed us to take risks, which has led to some great discoveries. Because we continue to make work with the same company of actors it means that we know each other really well and it creates short cuts in the rehearsal room. There’s no awkward ‘getting to know each other’, we know each other’s skills and talents and we know how to encourage each other to make the best work possible. If audiences like our work then they know that they are guaranteed a good show every time they come to see us, and they too can see us grow and continually surprise.”

The 2017 tour is giving Merely the chance to return to some familiar venues: “The joy of the tour is that we can travel the length and breadth of the UK, hopefully entertaining fellow Shakespeare-fans, inspiring the next generation of theatre-goers and introducing Shakespeare to people that may not have engaged with it thus far. I am particularly looking forward to a week touring Northern Ireland at the end of March; we are returning to a number of venues where the company had an incredibly warm welcome and an overwhelming and kind response to the shows. My male acting ‘twin’, Robert, was lucky enough to take that leg of the tour last year, so I can’t wait to see what all the fuss was about!”

So what can we expect from the tour? “You can expect to see a fresh and rarely seen approach to Shakespeare,” concludes Ffion. “Merely Theatre provides simple, energetic and accessible performances of the bard’s best works, affirming that he is indeed a writer that transcends the ages.”

Merely Theatre perform Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night on tour until 25th May. Visit their website for dates and venues.