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.

Review: Frankenstein at Greenwich Theatre

200 years after Mary Shelley wrote her classic gothic novel, Frankenstein returns to the stage in the skilled hands of Blackeyed Theatre. Adapted by John Ginman, this concise, two-hour retelling is suitably chilling and atmospheric while remaining family friendly, and is executed to perfection by a multi-talented cast of five… or should that be six?

Keeping true to the “story within a story within a story” format of Shelley’s novel, Eliot Giuralarocca’s production is set on the ship of Robert Walton, an explorer to the North Pole, who rescues the exhausted Victor Frankenstein from the ice. Walton becomes fascinated by the mysterious stranger’s story of how, driven by crazed ambition, he built and gave life to a Creature, only to reject it and in doing so, drive it into a destructive cycle of loneliness and despair that ended up costing him everything.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown
Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The story, spanning several years, moves quickly – from Geneva to Ingolstadt to London to Scotland, and far beyond – and the cast do likewise. While Ben Warwick is on stage throughout as the wild-eyed, fast-talking, increasingly dishevelled Frankenstein, his fellow cast members are scarcely less busy. Each takes on multiple roles within the story, while still finding time to pop round the back of the stage and bring Ron McAllister’s dramatic soundtrack to life on timpani, cymbals and a variety of other ingenious, home-made instruments.

Act 1 is largely there to set up the story, and is quite science-heavy as Frankenstein describes his studies and his urgent desire to create life. But it’s in Act 2 that the production becomes truly electrifying, with the first real appearance of Yvonne Stone’s life-size Bunraku style puppet. Built from rope and cloth, with blank, staring eyes, the Creature is manipulated so skilfully by the cast, and voiced so perfectly by Louis Labovitch, that it’s genuinely possible to forget the actors are there at all, and to think of Frankenstein’s creation as entirely separate from the other characters they play: kind, beautiful Elizabeth (Lara Cowin), Victor’s supportive friend Henry (Max Gallagher), Walton, the explorer hanging on his every word, but not necessarily for the right reasons (Ashley Sean-Cook), and a multitude of cameo appearances as other minor characters. This is a production that’s about so much more than the impressive individual performances; it’s a seamless ensemble effort that requires everyone to be in exactly the right place at the right time.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown
Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

Victoria Spearing’s set takes inspiration from the ship on which the story begins and ends, and as Frankenstein narrates his tale, it springs to life from the materials around him. So the sail becomes a river; the Creature is formed from bundles and sacks of old rope and rags; more ropes are transformed into the electric wires that finally give it life. It’s testament both to the actors’ performance and the simple, descriptive style of John Ginman’s script, that without ever leaving the ship’s deck, we find ourselves transported to workshops, stormy mountaintops, courtrooms and even looking out over the quiet beauty of Lake Geneva.

I remember being a bit surprised the first time I read Frankenstein, because it felt a bit tame, not the out-and-out horror I’d been expecting. Similarly, Blackeyed Theatre’s excellent production doesn’t set out to shock us, but instead to send us home with a creeping unease as we contemplate the dangerous implications of arrogant human ambition. Though there’s certainly an element of suspense, the Creature’s crimes (most of which we don’t even see committed) provoke more sadness than fear, while he himself is so human that it’s harder to shrug his deeds off as merely the work of the supernatural – and so ironically it’s humanity, rather than monstrosity, that’s most likely to keep us awake at night.


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: John Risebero, Henry V

John Risebero is co-director and designer of award-winning theatre company Antic Disposition, along with co-founder and director Ben Horslen. Next month they’ll be reviving their acclaimed production of Henry V; previously performed in France, with two London runs and a 2016 national tour, the show is taking to the road once more, giving audiences another chance to see what British Theatre called “one of the most impressive revivals of a Shakespeare play that I have seen in recent years”.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Founded in 2005, Antic Disposition have become known for their innovative interpretations of classic texts, particularly the works of Shakespeare – and the timing of this particular production was no accident. John explains: “We’d wanted to stage Henry V for several years but because we always tour our Shakespeare plays in France, we could never see a way to do it without being insensitive to our French hosts. But then we realised that not only was 2015 the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, it was also the centenary of the Great War, which gave us the opportunity to create a production that reflected on the change in the relationship between England and France in those five centuries – from mortal enemies to loyal allies. So our production is set in a military hospital in France, where wounded British and French soldiers work together to stage their own production of Henry V. It’s really a play within a play – Henry V meets Oh, What a Lovely War.

In addition to Shakespeare’s text, the play also includes original songs and live music inspired by the poetry of A E Housman. “We knew we wanted to include music in the show but using period songs seemed too obvious and we weren’t comfortable writing new ones,” says John. “Then we discovered George Butterworth’s musical setting of ‘The Lads in Their Hundreds’ from A Shropshire Lad and found that Housman had acknowledged he was inspired by Shakespeare. Although Housman’s work predates the Great War, so much of it reads like he knew what was coming. Our brilliant composer, Christopher Peake, set six more poems to original music for our show but we still use Butterworth’s version of ‘The Lads in Their Hundreds’ – it’s our tribute to him, as he died on the Somme in 1916.

“The music is completely integral. Soldiers have always used song to lift spirits or celebrate victory. As well as poetry, the Great War gave us so much music that’s still with us, songs like ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-bag’. In our production, we use music at key moments to bring the two sides together and remind the audience that war is a shared experience. It’s emotional shorthand.”

Photo credit: Scott Rylander
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Although the play may be set in the past, John believes it still has a powerful message to share with a modern day audience: “Absolutely. War is a huge gamble, often taken too lightly. The French massively outnumbered the English at Agincourt but still lost the battle. In 1914, everyone thought the Great War would be over by Christmas, but it turned into one of the most destructive conflicts in history. It’s easy to open Pandora’s box, but the consequences can never be fully foreseen.”

Antic Disposition have also developed a reputation for staging productions in historic buildings and unusual non-theatre spaces, and this tour is no exception; Henry V will visit eight cathedrals around the UK, including Ripon, Lincoln, Peterborough, Ely, Norwich and Southwark. “We started out working in theatres but haven’t staged a play on a conventional stage for six years now,” John explains. “We find working in unusual buildings more exciting. There’s a special kind of magic when you are performing Henry V with the tomb of King John in the front row of the audience, as we did at Worcester Cathedral. It can be challenging from an acoustic perspective – many of our venues weren’t designed for this kind of performance, but we feel that those challenges are more than made up for by an atmosphere you can’t get in a regular auditorium.”

The 2017 tour of Henry V opens at Southwark Cathedral on 2nd February – and it’s not only audiences who are looking forward to its return. “We had a wonderful experience touring cathedrals last spring and wanted to bring the show to new venues and new audiences,” concludes John. “We think it’s the best work we’ve done as a company, and we’re very proud of it.”

Antic Disposition’s Henry V visits eight cathedrals around the UK from 2nd to 22nd February.

Review: Blood Brothers at the Orchard Theatre

Willy Russell’s classic musical Blood Brothers finally closed at the Phoenix Theatre in 2012 after 24 years, but the show’s extraordinary sell-out success on tour proves there’s plenty of life still in it – and judging by the packed auditorium at the Orchard Theatre last night, that’s not about to change any time soon. A story that seamlessly slips from laugh-out-loud humour to devastating tragedy in the blink of an eye, Blood Brothers never fails to grip the audience firmly by the heartstrings and pull us, sobbing, to our feet for a protracted standing ovation.

Set in Liverpool, the show explores a nature versus nurture debate through the story of the Johnstone twins, Mickey and Eddie (Sean Jones and Mark Hutchinson). With one too many mouths to feed and a husband who’s run for the hills, their mother (Lyn Paul) agrees to give one of her unborn sons away to her wealthy employer (Sarah Jane Buckley), who can’t have children of her own. Raised in very different homes, the brothers grow up knowing nothing of each other, but fate intervenes to repeatedly bring them together, with dramatic consequences that ultimately prove tragic for everyone.

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There’s not a huge amount I can say about Blood Brothers that I haven’t said before; this was my fourth visit and not much has changed in terms of the staging or design in Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright’s production, which gives the show a comforting familiarity (also, why mess with a winning formula?). This even includes the cast; Blood Brothers is a show that seems to have an incredible power to retain cast members, and it’s a pleasure to see veterans Lyn Paul, often described as the definitive Mrs Johnstone, and Sean Jones, who’s rapidly becoming – for me at least – the definitive Mickey, reprising their roles. Both continue to display the necessary energy, both physical and emotional, to make their characters and their journey compelling, and are complemented by equally strong performances from Dean Chisnall as the Narrator, Mark Hutchinson as Mickey’s charming, well-spoken twin Eddie, and Alison Crawford as Linda, the girl who inadvertently comes between the brothers.

Perhaps one of the secrets of Blood Brothers‘ success is that it’s not your typical musical. With the exception of the well-known finale, Tell Me It’s Not True, in which a mother’s heartbreak routinely reduces most of the audience to a weeping mess, there aren’t really any dramatic “belt out the big solo” numbers, and instead each of the characters gets their own signature theme, which recurs throughout the show – most notably Shoes Upon the Table, the Narrator’s ominous warning, which returns no fewer than six times. As a result, the music feels like a much more natural part of the story, and the action can continue uninterrupted without pausing to make way for big showpieces.

The other unique thing about Blood Brothers is that it’s very funny, which is surprising considering our looming knowledge from the very beginning of the tragedy to come. The enjoyable sight of adults playing mischievous children and awkward teenagers guarantees a lot of laughs, and the whole script is shot through with a cheeky Scouse humour that constantly catches us unawares, so when things suddenly turn serious in Act 2, it’s all the more shocking.

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The show might leave us a bit emotionally battered, but it’s worth it, and obviously I’m not alone in thinking this; Blood Brothers has a loyal following who willingly return to have our hearts broken again and again for the sheer pleasure of watching the story and its characters develop. This production doesn’t add anything new, but why mess with something that’s already perfect as it is?

Blood Brothers is at the Orchard Theatre until 26th November.

Interview: The Two Bit Classics, Pride and Prejudice

It’s one of the world’s most popular love stories, the ultimate boy meets girl romantic comedy. Pride and Prejudice, written by Jane Austen in the early 19th century, has been adapted countless times for stage and screen, in many different ways – but perhaps never quite like The Two Bit Classics’ production, which is about to return for a second UK tour from October. Joannah Tincey’s adaptation features just two performers: Jo herself, and her husband, Nick Underwood.

Pride and Prejudice - UK Tour

The unique production was last staged in 2014, when it was described by A Younger Theatre as “a delightful little gem of theatre that pulses with comedy and energy”. As the company prepares to tour again, Nick explains, “We decided to bring the show back because people enjoyed it so much the first time! We had so many wonderful emails from people, many of whom wanted to see it again. We love playing the show, we enjoy working together. It’s a great fit all round.”

Pride and Prejudice has brought us some of literature’s most iconic characters, from the romantic to the ridiculous. “The characters are immediately recognisable, fallible, funny and engaging,” says Jo. “Austen creates these fully fleshed characters, full of strengths and weaknesses. We recognise ourselves in there somewhere, I think.”

But does a cast of just two actors mean we only get to enjoy two of these brilliant creations? “Definitely not!” says Jo. “21, in fact,” clarifies Nick.

Jo explains what inspired her unique adaptation: “I’d been doing a lot of work as an actor on various multi-role style productions – including some Shakespeare and Dickens. Each time I was involved in one, it struck me how clear the language becomes when you have to use it to tell an audience who you are and what you want (when you’re changing characters from moment to moment, that’s important!). I love Austen’s wonderful language and wit and it struck me that here was a way to bring it to life theatrically.

Pride and Prejudice is such a wonderful story and there are so many double-acts within it: Jane and Lizzy, Darcy and Lizzy, Mr and Mrs Bennet, Lydia and Kitty, Bingley and Darcy…”

“All the words we say are ones that Austen wrote herself,” adds Nick. “Jo didn’t need to invent dialogue. Characters use Austen’s text, we talk to the audience in character, and our job is to grow that relationship each night. It’s a really immediate and exciting way to work.”

Bringing to life so many characters with just two performers naturally presents quite a challenge. “An actor’s job is to find the truth in every character, otherwise we’re wasting an audience’s time,” Nick explains. “That doesn’t mean characters can’t be funny, but we aren’t sending them up in any way. If this was two hours of silliness, people would get bored. This is two hours of pure Austen. As for other challenges, well, you need to be pretty fit to play 21 characters between the two of you…”

Photo credit: Carrie Johnson
Photo credit: Carrie Johnson

Unique it may be, but die-hard fans of the novel need not fear – The Two Bit Classics’ production remains completely faithful to Austen’s original. “The straightest form of the story is the novel of course, and any adaptation will offer a different experience from that,” says Jo. “Screen adaptations or more traditional stage adaptations usually need to invent dialogue – because Austen didn’t write a script! There’s always something new in there. Our take is two actors, but our language is as pure as it gets.”

Both Jo and Nick agree what excites them most about this second tour is new audiences for their show, and a fresh chance to play the story each night. “The audience are a part of the show, as it’s their imagination and response to our story-telling that brings the show alive,” says Jo. “We want them to go away having actively experienced the story of Darcy and Lizzy, having heard and felt the brilliance of Austen’s writing in a way that is really immersive.”

Nick concludes, “I hope they go away having laughed and having been moved by the brilliance of Austen’s story and characters.”

Pride and Prejudice opens at Preston Guild Hall from 6th-8th October and all tour dates can be found at www.pandptour.com.