Ovid, romcoms and the magic of being a teenager

credit: The Other Richard

Rhys Isaac-Jones and Nicola Coughlan in Jess and Joe Forever. Photography credit: The Other Richard


Jess and Joe Forever, a recent co-production between Farnham Maltings and Orange Tree Theatre, is currently on tour. When the company was in Richmond, Orange Tree Theatre’s Literary Associate Guy Jones talked with writer, Zoe Cooper, and director, Derek Bond, about romcoms, Ovid and the magic of being a teenager.

Guy Jones: Zoe, could you tell me a bit about why you wanted to tell this story?

Zoe Cooper: I was really interested in Ovid and magic and the power to transform. In Ovid women turn into birds, and trees; people shapeshift. At times he employs a mode of writing called free indirect speech, which he uses for female voices. Women and queer characters (although he wouldn’t have called them queer) don’t get a voice in work by his contemporaries. And then I was thinking about Norfolk, and that there would be something great about creating magic in landscape that was very flat, and grey, and isn’t cute or dramatic. And finally there was the magic of teenage-hood – the edge place, the last time you can really believe in magic.

Derek Bond: Also that’s when magic happens. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager knows that the transition from child to adult is seismic. Your body changes, your perspective, the loss of innocence. You become aware of your body in a way that’s about fitting in and social norms, and people feel a growing anxiety about how their bodies are different to other people’s bodies. A lot of times it’s horrible and upsetting, but it could be magical.

GJ: As well as being about moments of change and transition, it also feels to me like you’re exploring what it is to be on the fringes of things in so many ways – in terms of your class, or geography, or sexual identity.

ZC: One of the things I wanted to do was write absolutely in my own voice. I live in  Newcastle and I love writing for those theatres and those audiences. But with this play I wanted write a character that had my accent and was from my part of the world, which is Twickenham. Jess arrives in the play with a sense of her own superiority as a sophisticated London child but as she’s launched into this world in Norfolk she has to face up to the fact that she doesn’t know everything, and that in many ways she has had a very sheltered middle class upbringing. In a way Joe has a lot of authority – he knows how the countryside works. But in another way – because of his identity – he’s definitely on the fringes.

GJ: And for this play to have come to life and have a long run in London, followed by a regional tour – does that feel curiously appropriate for a play which explores the  relationship between the centre and edge?

ZC: We talked about the Orange Tree from the start. We felt that it would be great for this.

DB: And we also said wouldn’t it be great to take it to rural communities. I grew up in a tiny village in Worcestershire. The idea that there are venues now which thanks to organisations like house and Farnham Maltings, can get theatre like this, is really exciting. We can take the play to places which wouldn’t normally get new writing.

ZC: It’s not just about good quality work. It’s about work which honours the fact that rural communities are not necessarily conservative.

GJ: The mode of storytelling in the play is distinctive. Where did that come from?

ZC: Jess and Joe was commissioned by Old Vic New Voices originally, and they had quite a clear brief for it: they wanted it to be an hour long or a bit over, and they wanted it to be for a younger audience. It coincided with what I wanted to do next. I’d started to employ direct address in my plays because I was a bit bored with the fourth wall and this felt like a play where the characters absolutely had to tell their story themselves.

DB: I’ve also become a bit bored of the fourth wall. I’m doing three shows this year, and they’re all in the round. I’ve found myself finding ways to break the fourth wall in all of them.

GJ: What is that a response to?

ZC: I wanted to write plays that acknowledged the audience. Because I don’t live in London, and a lot of my friends don’t work in theatre – or necessarily go to the theatre as much – I am always particularly interested to hear what they think of the plays we see together. One of the things they always seem to comment on is how strange and old fashioned it seems to perform whole plays without ever allowing the characters to acknowledge that they are being watched. I was also really encouraged by the work of other writers that have broken the fourth wall, like Caroline Horton, Charlotte Josephine and Lucy Kirkwood.

GJ: What were the challenges of this kind of writing?

ZC: Trying to create drama. With the direct address you have to make sure they don’t just say all their feelings. How do you create unreliable narrators in a way that’s interesting? I’ve wanted to write queer characters for a really long time, but the plays that I’ve seen are issue-driven plays – you have the monologue where a character says ‘I feel so alone, I just want to come out, transition’. I hate that, but with direct address you can very easily back yourself into that corner.

DB: What I love about a play where there’s direct address is that it makes the audience a character. They’re an actual part of the experience, a participant in what’s going on, not just a spectator. It makes me think of Daniel Kitson, who went from a world of stand up where you’re directly addressing an audience, to the work he’s been doing recently where he blurs the line between standup and theatre. There’s something really very pure about someone standing on a stage and telling you a story.

GJ: You mentioned romcoms. How much are each of you aware of genre when you work?

ZC: There’s something familiar about genre: the coming of age genre. Poets have it easy because they have, say, a sonnet, and that’s the shape of the poem. They can pour everything into it but there are limits. Young writers really need those limits. But in theatre we’re not always great at putting limits on things because we don’t do genre. Lots of writers have got rid of the three-act structure, but it’s really useful to have that shape.

DB: It’s useful to identify the form of the story: it’s a mystery. There is something that these characters are not telling us, and as the play goes on we get closer and closer to finding out what that might be. So it’s a murder mystery, but with something in the will-they-won’t they of a romcom.

ZC: I had felt that I wanted to be taken seriously and so I shouldn’t write jokes. But I like romcoms more than I like any other kind of film. There was a chasm between that and the kind of things that I was writing. So I was creating work, not that I wouldn’t choose to go and see, but that wouldn’t necessarily make me go ‘Oh brilliant’.

DB: I think there’s a similar thing with directors. Up until a few years ago I was doing a lot of new plays in which dead children featured largely – abuse, grief. And then when I started to do some comedy, I found that I really enjoyed it. I realised that was okay. It didn’t make you less of a director if you didn’t reduce everyone to tears.


See Jess and Joe Forever at Farnham Maltings on Thursday 3 November. Read the 4* review (The Stage).Originally commissioned by Old Vic New Voices.

new play launched at the maltings

Launch Party, a co-production by Launch Party and Bucket Club

Launch Party, a co-production by Bucket Club and Farnham Maltings. Photography credit: Bucket Club

Bucket Club, emerging theatre company and the inaugural recipients of the Farnham Maltings Fellowship Award, are currently working on their newest show: Launch Party. We’ve loved having the Buckets in the building over recent weeks, so had a chat to writer, director and founder-member Nel Crouch in advance of next week’s.


It’s clear that you all love making theatre and performing together; but how did Bucket Club come to be a theatre company?

Bucket Club met at Bristol University where we all worked together on theatre and comedy, but never as a company. After graduating we all knew we wanted to make theatre, but weren’t sure where to start. We applied for an emerging artist’s residency at the Lyric Hammersmith, where we were able to start work on our first show, Lorraine & Alan.

It was through making that first show that we met Farnham Maltings, when pitching for their No Strings Attached fund for early career theatre makers. Amazingly, they made us an associate company and have steered us through making our other two shows – Fossils, which was at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, and now Launch Party.

Alongside Bucket Club, we all work with other companies and theatres as individual artists – I’ve just finished up a BBC Performing Arts Fund fellowship at Tobacco Factory Theatres in Bristol, and certainly wouldn’t have had that opportunity without the work I’ve made with the company. But it’s always my favourite thing to come back and make stuff with the Buckets.

What style of theatre would you say Bucket Club specialises in?

Bucket Club’s work is all about storytelling. We use a lot of narration, which allows us to talk directly to our audiences and play with different ways of telling a story. It lets us use a lot of comedy but also to create really beautiful images and have moments of poetry.

Music is also really important to how we work. Our composer, David Ridley, who also performs in our shows writes beautiful original songs and uses innovative technology to build up soundscapes and music that respond to and support our stories. Expect a lot of singing in Launch Party!

Why did you decide to base your new show, Launch Party, all around space exploration?

When we were coming up with ideas, our friend Emily taught us about the 1970s Voyager 1 craft. Launched by NASA, it’s a spacecraft traveling indefinitely through interstellar space – it left the solar system a few years ago. When it was being made, the scientists working on it realised that, if it was going to go through space for potentially billions of years, there was a chance it might be found by alien life. They decided to tell those aliens something about Earth.

A gold-plated record was attached to the craft, containing sounds from earth including greetings, whale song and music – from ancient tribal singing to Chuck Berry. On the record was written “to the makers of music – all worlds, all times”. We thought this was a lovely leap of imagination, and an interesting idea to explore as a company that works with music. Once we were thinking about space, it started popping up everywhere – at the time there was a lot in the news about the proposed Mars One mission. With all this in mind, we started cooking up a story.

After performing at the Maltings, Launch Party’s touring to rural venues. Why were you interested in making a show for rural touring?

We’ve never made work for rural touring before! It’s great to be working with Farnham Maltings who have so much expertise in this area, as booking and organising a tour is a huge puzzle. Whenever we’ve told people about Launch Party they’ve said how rural touring audiences are always their favourite, so we’re really looking forward to it. We’re also excited to visit some really beautiful parts of the country, and getting to know lots of different communities.


Launch Party opens in the Tindle Studio on Thursday 13 October, before touring to rural venues in the UK throughout October & November.

Take On Me makes a big splash in Surrey leisure centres

Dante or Die in Take On Me

Dante or Die in Take On Me. Photography credit: Justin Jones

Take On Me has been created by Dante or Die, a company who make theatre in unusual spaces, working with writer Andrew Muir. The piece came about through a commission by Arts Partnership Surrey and Farnham Maltings, called ‘not for the likes of me’, to enable a performance for people who might not normally go to the theatre. We caught up with co-creator and Take On Me lifeguard, Terry O’Donovan to find out more.


What originally drew you to the idea of working with local authorities across Surrey?

We had been dreaming of a show in sports & leisure centres since visiting one that was about to be demolished. We were excited about the very fact that these buildings are places where everyone ends up at some point in their life – from children learning to swim, to gym buffs, to older people in rehabilitation. When Arts Partnership Surrey put their call out for ‘not for the likes of me’ commission we immediately recognised that their ambitions for the project fit perfectly with our ideas to create a theatre project that would allow people to bump into a show – or the creation of a show – somewhere unexpected.

So, what’s the play about?

At the heart of the play it’s about self-esteem, body image and how that connects to our psyche; as well as human connection. The story itself is modelled on 80s film plots – with lots of references to movies like The Karate Kid, Dirty Dancing and Top Gun – the underdog going on an inner journey to success! We follow a lifeguard who has never saved anyone and a woman in her 50s who is grieving. Their stories intertwine over the 70 minutes via encounters in the changing rooms, the gym, a Jane Fonda-inspired aerobics class and the pool.

Your productions tend to treat the audience as a fly-on-the-wall, so what should people coming to see the show expect?

You get up close-and-personal to the actors in our shows – it’s always exciting to us to create very intimate situations so that you feel like you’re literally in the world of the characters. But as you said, you’re a fly-on-the-wall, so you’re safe in the knowledge that you can be right next to the actor at a very personal moment but you’re a voyeur. Which is a lot of fun!

For this show we have two incredibly talented musicians who lead you on the journey from one space to another – you’re in safe hands with them. We’ve re-interpreted some classic pop hits like Flashdance, Faith and of course Take On Me so as you’re wandering the corridors of the leisure centre you’ll hopefully hear the lyrics and the emotional drive behind these songs in new ways.

You’re not only performing in leisure centres, but also did most of the writing, creating and rehearsing in them; I imagine that’s been great fun, but not without its challenges. How have you found working in such an unconventional space?

It has been a huge challenge. We’ve made shows in working hotels and self-storage buildings before but most of the time that’s meant we’re in spaces to ourselves. Rehearsing this show has meant trying to create it around people working out and having showers. The trickiest things have been trying to create the scenes in changing rooms – the director, Daphna, is female, and one of the musicians in the male changing room scene is a woman. So it was like guerilla theatre-making. I’d jump in, check there were no men and say GO! We’d rehearse for 5 minutes and then a guy would come in and need to get changed so we’d have to leave. Although some guys didn’t mind – we did a whole scene with The Karate Kid popping up and Ellie singing and playing her keytar as an older gent had his shower and got dressed around us. It was brilliant.

Alongside the professional actors, musicians and directors, you’ve also got community cast from Surrey. How did you get different groups involved and how does the piece benefit from having them involved?

Our participation cast are amazing. We ran workshops at all of the partner leisure centres inviting people to learn about the show and the different ways to be involved – a core participation cast rehearsed with us and perform at every venue. We also have different people from each centre in the aerobics scene every week and members of a choir that change weekly as well. We worked with Farnham Maltings’ associate producer Christine Lee to get word out to as many people as possible, popped into Legs, Bums and Tums groups – I ended up doing a Clubercise class in de Stafford Sports Centre (Caterham) having chatted to the ladies about the show.

The show has always been inspired the community aspect of leisure centres – unexpected friendships growing. When we finished our first performance and almost 30 people took a bow together – a choir, some aerobics members we’d only met the day before, and the cast of people who had invested in our crazy idea it really did feel like a celebration of taking a leap into the unknown. It’s what the show is all about.


You can catch Take On Me at Farnham Leisure Centre on Saturday 8 October, and on tour in Surrey throughout October. Read the 4* review (The Stage).

The Iranian Feast takes a bow

Mick 1
Mick Strobel as Abbas

The Iranian Feast, written by Kevin Dyer, closed on 24 April having toured to 30 rural village halls and arts centres up and down the country. The play originally toured in 2013 and was remounted this year due to the feedback from those audiences, promoter demand and its continued relevance of subject matter in today’s world. The Aash-e- Reshte (the delicious, velvety Persian soup served to audience members) is worth a revival alone. A play text of the script has been published and can be purchased online.

We received positive feedback from audiences, who were able to enjoy this unique experience with their neighbours, keeping alive a community spirit:

Continue reading →

A Nation’s Theatre Debate: ‘I liked it but I couldn’t book it’ – by Thomas Thomasson

Following on from the latest A Nation’s Theatre live debate (held here last week), guest writer Thomas Thomasson shares the key points of the discussion in his first blog for Farnham Maltings.

Thomas is a freelance performer, previously working with The Graeae Theatre Company and StopGap Dance Company. He is a newly appointed associate artist for the Mercury Theatre in Colchester. He is currently developing his first play Tent  in collaboration with Helen Bendell from StopGap.

‘I liked it but I couldn’t book it’ – an afternoon conversation about the future of contemporary theatre in rural England was held at Farnham Maltings on 03 March, presented by Battersea Arts Centre and the Guardian.

This work may not include radishes (or tractors)

If you were to wake up tomorrow as the producer of a great new rural show: Seven sonnets in six and a half supermarkets (yes, I made the title up), what would you need to consider to ensure that your excellent production continues to be seen? Last week’s conversation held at Farnham Maltings offered a host of valuable questions for producers, directors, artists and promoters alike. These questions all stemmed from a central one:

How can we ensure that the very best theatre is being made and shown across the country?

Continue reading →

Hair Peace – 15 minutes with the inimitable, Victoria Melody

Victoria Melody and Farnham Maltings present:

Hair Peace

Hair Peace is an experimental show that is political, ethical and very relevant to many social and global issues today.  Touring nationally between March and June 2016, reaching Oxford, Brighton, Leeds, Cambridge and London.

One of the UK’s most entertaining actors and genuinely funny girl Victoria Melody loves to go on a quest. She has morphed into a beauty queen previously and gone undercover in the world of dog shows.  Her boundless curiosity takes Hair Peace’s live audience from the temples of India to the shopping malls of Russia, via hair salons and forensics labs on a humorous, moving and serendipitous journey around the world.

With dramaturgy from Obie Award winner Rachel Chavkin (The TEAM) and directed by Paul Hodson, Hair Peace is a comedic exploration from an unlikely sleuth whose personal odyssey provides astonishing insights into ethics, diverse cultures and the personal realities of the global economy.



Continue reading →

It’s A Wonderful Life blog – Natalia Campbell

Hi All,

Natalia here – for the penultimate week of our It’s A Wonderful Life tour.

What a week!

Now as you know, we take our show to communities all over England and Wales.  The show has been designed specifically with local communities in mind, and therefore our venues are picked accordingly. This week however was quite varied in terms of the type of venues visited.

On Wednesday we performed in a school, Thursday a village hall, Friday an arts centre, Saturday an old town hall (which was actually an old court room), and then yesterday back to the familiar setting of another village hall.

David in the old court room
Continue reading →

It’s A Wonderful Life blog – Natalia Campbell

Happy New Year to All! Natalia here, back for blog duty.

I hope everyone had a great Christmas.

There’s a lot to catch up on as we were performing right up until Christmas, during the Christmas holidays and just before and after the New Year.

Firstly, the good news: our production of It’s A Wonderful Life featured in Lyn Gardner’s top theatre picks in the Guardian this week.

Now, where have we been? Oh Yes, Kent: Faversham to be exact.

What a great place! We were greeted by the lovely Alison, promoter of the venue who made us feel very welcome. It was quite a big space so no problems with our tall lamp, but we did have some issues with our other lighting fixtures. I don’t want to give too much away for those yet to have seen the show but put it this way: they add a little special something that makes for a very realistic Bedford Falls setting.
For our lighting to work effectively we need lower ceilings and more importantly, places where we can actually hang the lights. We needed a bit of creative thinking to get around this and fortunately, the venue had some similar lighting we could use.

I have previously mentioned the individual characters we play but I haven’t as yet mentioned the other non-acting roles of the show. On a tour like this, everyone is hands-on. In practical terms this means that all company members assist in all get-ins (removing from the touring van all pieces of the set and going on to build the set in the space – putting up lights, placing props, costumes, chairs etc.), followed by the get-out at the end of the performance (dismantling the set and placing it all back inside the van.)
Continue reading →

It’s A Wonderful Life blog – Natalia Campbell

Hello All! It’s Natalia here, reporting for duty on another week of the It’s a Wonderful Life tour.

You’ll be glad to hear that this week has been a bit calmer on the tour front, as we performed mostly at home (aka Farnham Maltings). After having a lovely two days off we were back in Farnham, all of us well rested and very much ready for the next week.

Now then, I must apologise to you lovely readers as I haven’t yet introduced the rest of the company:
We have Jack Reid, who is playing George Bailey, Mick Strobel, David Matthews and of course, Silki Morrison – our Stage Manager who looks after us with the patience of a Saint.

So this week we kicked off in St. Leonards near Hastings. It’s quite a long drive from Farnham. There was a terrible accident on the way up which unfortunately made us quite late for the get-in. The venue is a new space for the company; and a new venture for the promoters too.

The venue was a bit kooky in the sense that the space had previously been a large garage. Remodelled, it now works as an incredible playing space. The distinctiveness of the space created a very unique playing area which included a bar and a much lower ceiling. Unfortunately, we had to sacrifice one of our lamps from the show and re-block one part due to the specific layout of the venue. On the bright side, the space made for a very intimate atmosphere for the audience, capturing a whole new level of closeness that added a special dynamic to the show.
We stayed local, and by the time we left there was a strong wind blowing through the streets. We were staying right on the sea front where we were able to enjoy the relaxing sounds of crashing waves.

Continue reading →

It’s A Wonderful Life blog – Natalia Campbell

Here I am, Natalia Campbell reporting for duty.

Well, what a first week on tour.  Talk about hitting the ground running!

The time we spent at Farnham Maltings rehearsing was a real pleasure – straight forward, easy and fun.  After building the set and it fitting neatly into the space, we were able to get on with developing the piece without any technical glitches slowing us down.  We also had the good fortune of performing our dress rehearsal in front of the UCA Acting and Performance students, who were a terrific first audience and provided invaluable feedback.

Our tour consists mainly of one night performances – meaning we have to do a get in and a get out at every venue, and rest our weary heads at different hotels each night.   The majority of venues we are performing in are village halls and a few art spaces.  The real magic of the show comes from the fact that we are performing a show about a small community within a setting of a real small community; exposing the effects of one person’s actions upon his/her community.  The whole show acts as a virtual mirror for the audience, which makes for very shiny eyes at the curtain call.

Continue reading →