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Feature: Spotlight on Adam Penford

Posted on 15 April 2014 by Tom Powell

You probably won’t know the name of the director Adam Penford. But it’s pretty likely you or someone you know will see something of his work this year. Because Penford’s productions have that highly coveted attribute – they’re being seen by thousands upon thousands of people. As we speak, his revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 hit A Small Family Business is running on the National’s cavernous Olivier stage, and he’s about to commence rehearsing a touring version of One Man Two Guv’nors. Not bad, especially as his route to the metaphorical director’s chair started seemingly by accident: “I’d applied to five English courses, and on a bit of a last minute whim applied to LIPA, the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. I got a place to study acting but as soon as I got there I realised I didn’t want to be an actor.”

We speak on the phone, and he’s unrelentingly warm, personable, and sincerely tries to answer each question. It’s easy to imagine him in a rehearsal room, speaking in the same considered manner. “I knew I wanted to work in theatre, but I didn’t know in what capacity – I knew I didn’t want to work on the technical side, so I suppose that meant I assumed I’d be an actor…” He laughs gently. “I must have been a very very naive 18-year-old because I didn’t really think about what other artistic roles there are.”

Two contrasting experiences of working with professional directors at LIPA – one incredible, one, erm, a bit less so – ignited and then sustained his desire to direct. Which has taken him to where he is now, overseeing Ayckbourn’s ASFB . What’s it like working with the most popular living British playwright?

Penford hesitates for a second. “You get summoned up to Scarborough, where Alan lives, to have lunch – I think all directors who do his work in the UK have to do that – and it’s basically a getting to know you lunch, but you suspect there’s a little bit of sussing out involved.” Enthusiasm gushes from his voice. “But he’s lovely, really lovely.”

It was intimidating, too, to be working on the infamous “arena stage” of the Olivier. “It’s an incredibly hard space to work in. The one thing I held on to was that Alan had specifically written it for the Olivier in 1986/87 so we knew that it had worked. But for a long time I wasn’t sure how. For a time the temptation would be for the actors to play it out – like you would if you’re in the cast of King Lear  – but what we discovered once we’d got on stage with the design was that Alan had been incredibly clever – what he’d essentially done was divided that huge space into little boxes, i.e. rooms in the house and that allows you to play it much more intimately. It took me and the creatives and the actors until we did the tech with the actual set to realise that, of course, Alan knew what he was doing.”

The play is arguably more than a domestic drama – perhaps more than other Ayckbourn plays, ASFB is steeped in its own history. It’s a play about an honest man’s choice between his integrity and protecting his family. The family, of course, are up to their eyeballs in furniture retail – a small family business. Mark Ravenhill called it the most important political play of the 1980s, and as I saw Ayckbourn interviewed on stage at the NT Platform before ASFB, the night before this interview, he’s aware and more than a little proud of how it’s been seen as a response to Thatcherism – to a culture of unfettered greed, selfishness and individualism.

Surely this resonates with the current social and political climate? “I think when Nick [Hytner] programmed it, he was certainly aware of that. You could argue that socially it’s deteriorated or that it’s just become the norm. But more than the sort of headline grabbing stuff, it’s the little things that during rehearsals kind of popped out at us – just on a very personal level – it’s…” Penford pauses to grasp for words, and then gives us his own take: “We’re all primarily programmed to be selfish, because we’re all programmed to survive, and so I think even on a personal level rather than on a big headline level, it remains relevant.”

“But I think, as with most Morality Plays, the issues it raises are timeless. Jack’s choice is between leaving his family vulnerable or taking action, he opts for the latter as I think most people would in theory. And whilst most people would condemn murder or drugs smuggling, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when you as an audience member would have made the opposite choice to Jack. The message of the play is deliberately not as straightforward as some commentators think it is and that is still the case today.”

Depending on where you stand – the stalls or the gods – Ayckbourn is viewed as a national treasure or as a purveyor of middle-brow, middle-class stuff. Penford is firmly in the former camp, and explains the latter as because, “Alan’s work, even the darker stuff, is effortlessly amusing and usually about ordinary people and there is a snobbery around that. Also, there is an idea of tortured artists slaving away for years to achieve their single masterpiece and Alan’s quantity of work (70 something plays) doesn’t fit that image.” He acknowledges that bad productions have taken their toll as well.

His advice for young directors draws directly from his own experience. “The first thing is that there is no set route. Look at any successful director, and they will have a different route.” His own breakthrough came in doing a course at the National Theatre Studio in 2009 – I get the impression that since then he’s been under the wing of Nick Hytner. Penford speaks incredibly warmly of Nick, and of Alan, with much more sincerity than someone who simply knows which way their bread is buttered.

Our time’s up. He’s off. To direct yet another massive play.

Adam Penford will be talking about A Small Family Business at the National Theatre on 15 April at 6pm. A Small Family Business plays at the National Theatre until 27 August. One Man, Two Guv’nors will be touring to over 30 cities in the UK and Ireland and opens in Sheffield in 12 May.

Tom Powell

Tom Powell

Tom's dramatic writing has won the National Radio Drama Award, and the Cambridge Footlights' Harry Porter Prize. He is a co-founder of PinchVanishProductions and an Associate Director of Dippermouth. He is currently enrolled in the Writing for Performance MA at Goldsmiths.

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Review: Chewing Gum Dreams, NT Shed

Posted on 24 March 2014 by Lisa Carroll

Chewing Gum Dreams

Tracy is a 14-year-old with an eclectic bunch of friends, a passion for Craig David and a crush on a blue-eyed sixth-former, Conor Jones. She’s the type you might see on top floor of the bus dishing out insults, or sitting at the back of the classroom with a comeback or quip for any question her teacher asks. “I ain’t smart enough to be someone,” she tells us, as she takes us on a journey through the peaks and perils of being young, falling in love and falling out with friends: “I’m just smart enough to know I’m no one.” If she’s anything at all, though, she’s funny and fascinating, with Chewing Gum Dreams offering audiences a rollercoaster ride of a story, with plenty of laughs and even more heart.

Writer and performer, Michaela Coel draws on her own school experiences to weave this tale of tragedy mixed with hope and its honesty shows: Chewing Gum Dreams is often scarily close to the bone, incredibly well drawn and vivid, and really packs a punch by the end. Coel’s energetic and detailed performance not only offers a lesson in great character acting, but gives us a glimpse into an all-too familiar world where adults don’t listen, and Tracy is powerless to help herself or her friends. Indeed, Coel’s bang-on-the-mark impersonation of an unimpressed school teacher, and later a judgemental pharmacist, hit home with everyone in the theatre; Chewing Gum Dreams has something which speaks to everyone’s experience, and has you laughing (and at the same time embarrassed) at how much you share with Tracy – regardless of the age gap.

Sugar-coated with searing wit and brilliant comic timing at first, the more we get to know Tracy the more we see how tragically early in her life she experiences bitter disappointment and heartbreak. And this is the beauty of Coel’s writing: it moves so fast that you can barely catch your breath before you’re laughing again. Coel has struck the perfect balance between light and dark. Tracy’s moments of empathy are suddenly contrasted by her brazen behaviour, creating a brilliant ambiguity which reminds us that people are never wholly good nor bad: an ambiguity which certainly keeps the audience on their toes, on Tracy’s side, and wanting to know more.

And while it is noteworthy that Coel does a magnificent job of holding the stage on her own throughout with such an engaging performance – her only set piece a chair which sits centre stage throughout – she is backed by a strong creative team. Jamie Spirito’s lighting design is brilliantly subtle yet detailed, really bringing to life the world of the play and immense clarity to the story as we journey with Tracy. Equally, Chewing Gum Dreams, as a whole, is beautifully brought together by director, Nadia Fall, who never lets it err on the side of caricature or stereotype, so that the play feels shaded, nuanced and intensely personal.

This is a simple show with huge imagination and an incredibly strong heart beating through it, with Coel proving that if you can boast a strong script, truthful characters like Tracy, and charismatic performances, then you don’t need huge sets, flashy costumes or big budgets to make theatre which can really capture and astound audiences.  

Chewing Gum Dreams is playing at the National Theatre Shed until 5 April. For more information and tickets, see the NT Shed website.


Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll graduated from University College Dublin in 2012 with a B.A International in English. She is also a playwright, script reader and director. @lisa_carroll46

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Review: Riverrun, National Theatre, NT Shed

Posted on 16 March 2014 by Camilla Gurtler


Inspired by Finnegans Wake, the book by Irish writer James Joyce that is more like a stream-of-consciousness linguistic experiment than prose, Riverrun explores the novel’s ‘voice of the river’ section, a fragmentary collection of made-up words, phrases and sounds.

Riverrun has no characters, plot or clear vision – it’s a stimulating journey of voice, movement and maddening babble performed by Olwen Fouéré. Using a beautifully sculptured microphone for voicing the river and the myriads of life around it, she manipulates it as she pleases; she morphs her body in various ways and teases her audiences with changes of pace and attitude, as if she were a simple cell evolving by the second, always becoming something new and unrestricted.

Olwen Fouéré has incredible presence and an ear for words. In this babble of nonsense she hits every note, colours every word whether imaginary or factual and, although the audience is completely lost to whatever she’s saying, it’s quite clear she knows every intention, every tiny fraction of the life of the text. She is intriguing to watch, and the way she creates a soundscape of the sea is mesmerising. However, the text is extremely difficult to grasp – for an hour the jargon spirals into a myriad of sounds, impressions and words that make our brains ache as they desperately try to make sense of what is being said. It’s like Konstantin’s play in The Seagull, exploring new forms and ways of using text, theatrically exposing the audience to a character that’s not a character in itself but a life form – something so abstract that our factual minds can’t grasp it.

It’s an artistic experiment, and for me it is too abstract: too much of a jargon to comprehend and fully enjoy. A half-hour experience of the voice of the river would be compelling to watch, but an hour left me slightly frustrated, in want of some sort of change in either narrative or setting.

Riverrun is really a matter of taste – in the artistic world I can see it thriving, challenging the minds of critics and experimental artists. With people like me who don’t live off searching their soul for new art forms? Not so sure. One thing is non-negotiable though: Olwen Fouéré is a fantastic performer and is worth the watch, even if the jargon frustrates you and you have to force your inner factual critic to shut up.

Riverrun plays at the NT Shed until 22 March. For more information and tickets, see the NT Shed website.

Camilla Gurtler

Camilla Gurtler

Camilla is currently training as a director on the Young Directors’ Programme with StoneCrabs Theatre Company. Camilla has worked as a director, actress and writer in Denmark and London, and loves Shakespeare, greek tragedies and children’s theatre. She’s obsessed with coffee, dislikes ranting on stage and hates the colour yellow. Especially mustard-yellow.

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Feature: Michaela Coel – a powerhouse

Posted on 07 March 2014 by Lisa Carroll


Playwright, actress, singer and poet, Michaela Coel is a busy woman, I learn, as I manage to grab a few minutes with her on a two-show day: she’s currently performing in Blurred Lines at the National Theatre Shed, while simultaneously preparing for her upcoming solo show, Chewing Gum Dreams, which will play the same venue in March. “I’m a Jack of all trades,” she jokes, “but average at all of them.” Her modesty only adds to her list of enviable qualities and talents. And indeed, the longer we chat, I soon see that her comment couldn’t be further from the truth: Coel really is a powerhouse.

Coel only graduated from Guildhall in 2012 but in her time since has had some formidable achievements. Believing that “unless you’re very, very lucky, there aren’t enough opportunities being blown in your face. You just have to get up and do it yourself – you have to,” she decided to develop a short solo piece she’d written while at Guildhall, which formed the basis of Chewing Gum Dreams. Following persistent phone calls to Jay Miller, Artistic Director of The Yard Theatre, Hackney, he agreed to put the play on and Coel set to work; “I designed the flyers, I designed the set, I built the set, I produced the show and was standing on the street handing out flyers. It was on for four days and every night was sold out.” Now the play has been published, she is on commission with the Bush Theatre and has projects coming up with the Almeida and the Royal Court, on top of which, the show opens at the Shed in March. Talk about being proactive, or as she humbly describes it, “just working hard and trying to put stuff out there”.

The play draws inspiration from Coel’s own school days in the early noughties, (“it’s literally like a tribute to Craig David,” she tells me) and it explores the tipping point between innocence and adulthood – that moment where “suddenly life isn’t full of laughter and it’s not easy anymore – you start to realise there’s a life that I’m going to come to know which includes a bit of hardship, which includes struggle”. While some people realise this young, she goes on, others hit might hit that point at 40 – but when it comes down to it the play is for “anyone who went to school, basically,” with audiences from their early teens to their sixties responding incredibly positively to its original run at The Yard, with Coel hopeful for more of the same when it opens at the Shed.

With Chewing Gum Dreams being set in an all-girls school and exploring relationships, early sexual experiences and violence, Coel agrees that writing from a female perspective does inevitably inform the tone of her work: “I think naturally being a woman I find it quite hard to escape writing something that did have women’s issues. I think it’s impossible.” That said, it was her role in Blurred Lines which really opened her eyes to gender issues; “it has sort of changed my life in that sense,” she tells me, “I don’t think I even realised that I was particularly a girl until I did Blurred Lines.” Working with Director Carrie Cracknell and Playwright Nick Payne in devising Blurred Lines gave Coel the chance not only to examine those issues but also to contribute to the debate, as Payne was keen to include some of Coel’s own poetry in the play.

Nonetheless, Coel is the first to admit that she struggled a bit when rehearsing Blurred Lines, as she began to wonder if she was right to prioritise gender over other issues such as class or race: “I’ll be honest, I started thinking there’s so many other things going on in the world – there are worse things going on in the world– I’d just be like – I’m a bit busy being black at the moment.” In hindsight, however, Coel has come to believe that “if something is wrong, then no matter the scale of the wrongness it should be addressed”. And, though it also touches on ‘women’s issues’, Coel tells me that class is much more central to Chewing Gum Dreams, with the play taking a look at the young people who populated her school and whose voice she feels is not so often heard on the stage or beyond.

As a result, with her future work, Coel is keen to keep telling unheard stories and examining life from different perspectives: “I rarely see an Indian girl or a Bangladeshi girl in a play that isn’t about India or Bamgladesh – you never see that girl in the theatre. I love the idea of just writing Sunita,” she explains. “I feel like I do have a voice that I don’t hear – I think everybody has a voice that they don’t hear, though – and it’s about expressing that voice in whatever way you can.” And doubtless, with so many opportunities coming her way thanks to the her hard work on Chewing Gum Dreams, it seems certain we’ll be hearing more of Coel’s voice soon.

Chewing Gum Dreams is at The Shed at the National Theatre from 17 March to 5 April. For more information and tickets, visit the NT’s website.

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll graduated from University College Dublin in 2012 with a B.A International in English. She is also a playwright, script reader and director. @lisa_carroll46

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