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Feature: Bitch Boxer – “I just wanted to know what it was like. To hit and be hit.”

Posted on 09 April 2014 by Lee Anderson

When I ask Charlotte Josephine how she began writing for the stage, she tells me her primary motivation was one of frustration. While auditioning for drama schools, she became increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of monologues available for women and decided to do something about it: “I used to write my own and say that someone else had written them. I’d go into an audition, nervous, and I’d get this little buzz when I’d say a fake name of a play. The panel would pretend to know who I was talking about, so I’d lie and say someone else had written it.”

This pugnacious and spirited drive manifests itself in Josephine’s debut play, Bitch Boxer; this one woman monologue, about a young boxer training for the Olympics, delivered a volley of knockout blows to audiences and critics when it bounded onto the stage more than a year ago. But as Josephine explains, those early forays into writing were crucial in exploring the kind of ‘voices’ so often lacking on stage and in the pages of anthologies: “I’d try and pick something really gutsy and strong, but I couldn’t find any contemporary monologues. So I wanted to write myself a really good part, as a woman, because I didn’t feel like I was getting them.”

Josephine began developing Bitch Boxer during a spell at the Soho Theatre Young Writers Lab. At the same time, she started training at the Islington Boxing Club and this was instrumental to the evolution of her writing, in allowing her to capture an atmosphere of authenticity: “I just wanted to know what it was like. To hit and be hit. It was so invaluable for the writing. The lingo and the language, the smells and the whole soundscape.”

Bitch Boxer went on to win the Soho Young Writers Award in 2012 and was produced as part of the Old Vic New Voices season in Edinburgh. Since then, the play has enjoyed success overseas, packing out the stalls down under when it performed at Australia’s Adelaide Fringe earlier this year. The furore of the Olympic games and the triumph of boxer Nicola Addams – who won the Gold Medal for Boxing – may have provided some context for the surge of interest the play received early on. Yet as Josephine explains, the play is about far more than boxing: “I don’t think I had realised quite how zeitgeisty and current it was going to be. I hadn’t realised it was going to be quite so popular as a theme. In lots of ways, it’s not really about boxing. It’s about someone’s struggle, the human heart and about fighting for what you want. It’s a really human story”.

For its debut production at the Soho Theatre, Josphine took on the role of Chloe herself. She continued to perform the role for the play’s national tour, garnering acclaim for her performance, as well as her writing. When it became apparent that the play would continue to tour, Josephine and Director Bryony Shanahan decided to audition new actresses for the role of Chloe: “Bryony was really keen to find the geekiness of Chloe. She’s very witty and self-deprecating, and we wanted to find that… As soon as Holly walked in, I was like, ‘that’s our girl!’. Because she had this natural clout that we really wanted to find.”

Holly Augustine had recently graduated from drama school when she auditioned for the role of Chloe: “I’d been warned that the first few jobs you get are going to be rubbish scripts. Then I was handed this beautiful 14-page gem of a job, and started training.” Augustine threw herself into the role with the determination and energy of a prize-fighting athlete, and as she explains, the physical dimension of the character was an essential element to tap into: “For me, it really came together when I started training properly and going to the club three times a week. Because the absolute core of steel it takes for someone to do that for a living – you can’t really put that into words.”

This muscular approach to inhabiting Chloe’s world meant undertaking an intensive, physical routine that recreated what it felt like to train as a boxer. The endurance, stamina and unbending discipline of an athlete – as they push themselves harder and further – underpinned Augustine’s preparation for the role. It was also a source of renewed energy and focus for every performance: “In a run, when you get to week three and you’re tired and your body hurts and for whatever reason you’re not feeling 100% raring to go – you have to find it in yourself. You have to dig deep.

In Chloe, we’re confronted by an unyielding resilience and fierce determination. Yet, as well as demonstrating physical and mental strength, she speaks to the audience with an expansive, emotional truthfulness. She is an athlete with tremendous heart, warmth and intelligence. As Augustine explains, this compassionate side is actually closer to reality then many might think: “Boxers are really nice. They’re a really chilled out breed and you don’t initially expect that because you’re used to seeing them so ferocious.”

On the other hand, there is never any sense with Chloe that she is waiting for a Romeo to turn up and save her. “It’s a female character that is strong, gutsy, competitive and aggressive in both the physical sense and in the ‘I wanna do something’ sense,” insists Josephine. When watching Bitch Boxer, it occurred to me that as a culture we seem perfectly comfortable with the idea of ‘gutsiness’ and ‘competiveness’ as aspects of male behaviour, but feel compelled to treat such traits as remarkable or unique when identified in women. In light of this, does Josephine consider Bitch Boxer to be a feminist play? “Those traits aren’t seen as ladylike in society. In order to be attractive I’m supposed to be passive, I’m supposed to look pretty and I’m supposed to be polite. Sorry, but I’m not going to be! It is bold and it is ballsy. So in that sense, it is a feminist play.”

Bitch Boxer is at Soho Theatre until 13 April. For more information and tickets, visit Soho Theatre’s website

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Review: Riding The Midnight Express, Soho Theatre

Posted on 08 April 2014 by Hannah Tookey

Midnight ExpressIt’s almost 40 years since Billy Hayes endured a gruelling and anxiety-inducing escape from Turkey’s Imrali Island Prison. Yet even long after having successfully reclaimed his own freedom, in the Downstairs of Soho Theatre tears spring to Hayes’s eyes as he tells of the searing moment when he came to appreciate the harsh consequences of his decisions.

As a young man in 1970, Hayes regularly walked a fine line between harmless fun and criminal activity. He flew back and forth from the USA to Turkey where he would seek out cheap and readily available hash, cunningly hide it in self-made casts around his legs and traffic it back home hassle-free. It was an incredibly lucky spell, and Hayes regrettably tried his luck a few too many times because, as he tells us “when you’re young you think you’re invincible”. In a crackdown on airport security by the Turks, in a bid to demonstrate their allegiance to the war on drugs to the Nixon administration, Hayes was sentenced to five years behind bars – a ruling which was later increased to 30 years. Hearing this mere weeks before his initial release date, Hayes was instilled with an unrivaled determination to leave his life behind bars, and so his midnight escapade began.

Fast forward a few decades and Hayes stands centre on an unadorned stage. It’s a tale that’s been told many a time, first in Hayes’s book, Midnight Express, then adapted for Alan Parker’s Oscar-winning film – which he points out differs vastly from the true events of his escape – and was later even developed into a ballet. Now it’s brought to us in its rawest form yet. Live on stage, Hayes’s retelling is a vivid and affecting performance. He is unreservedly animated throughout, drawing us right into the action. Leaping fluidly from one event to another he presents us with a rapid and engrossing account. It’s a perfected act of storytelling: Hayes navigates the tale slickly, making sure to pause and clarify cultural references for us, whilst indulging us with sudden exhilarating twists.

Hayes’s performance is littered with humour and filled with near-misses that make it easy to forget that this isn’t a blockbuster plot, but rather a young man’s life laid out before us. Through it all though is an organic and ingrained reaction to his own retelling that snaps us back to reality. At points he wells up, visibly choked by the memory of his harrowing experiences in prison. There’s a lot more to it all than can be crammed into a 70 minute performance, Hayes notes. What we are given is remarkable nonetheless and it’s told with a unique sense of wisdom and vulnerability that will be difficult to forget.

Riding The Midnight Express is playing at the Soho Theatre until 13 April. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.

Hannah Tookey

Hannah Tookey

Hannah is a freelance theatre and film producer with a slightly worrying addiction to coffee and travel. A graduate of Warwick University, she's worked with the RSC, NYT, and Many Rivers Productions, amongst others.

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Feature: Captain Amazing: Dusting off the Cape

Posted on 03 April 2014 by Tom Powell

Captain AmazingWhen Captain Amazing strides onto the Soho stage later this month, cape aflutter, it will be the latest step in a heroically long journey. The one-man, multi-character show is the story of Mark becoming a dad, and wanting to imagine himself as the titular superhero.

Director Clive Judd gives me his elevator pitch: “he’s an everyday person, but when life throws Mark a curveball in the form of a young daughter it hugely changes what’s in his head.” And who he wants to be. Mark Weinman, who plays Mark,  chimes in: “it’s about the difference in a person once their imagination is unlocked, and the possibilities of the imagination.”

It’s the fourth day of their 2014 rehearsals when I speak to Judd and Weinman, whose voices boom down a phone line that sounds as if it’s lodged deep within a wind tunnel. Judd recalls Captain Amazing’s genesis as being back in 2009, but on the other (far less windy) phone line, writer Alistair McDowall remembers first having the idea when the three were at Manchester University together. When he first tried to write it, a development supported by Live Theatre’s Empty Space bursary, he tried “to write it as stand-up, as observational jokes about being a superhero. But it wasn’t the right form for it, for the character – it wasn’t funny and it didn’t really work. So as a response I started writing lots and lots of conversations between the main character and his daughter. They just streamed out of me.”

The combination of that and a fortunate coincidence gave the play its shape. “Just before, around 2012, Mark did a monologue of mine for a Halloween show (it was called Mr. Noodle, this werewolf story) and there were long sections where he stopped directly addressing the audience and was just having a conversation with the other characters – with himself, as he was performing all the roles. He seemed so compelling that the next logical step was to write an entire play like that.”

Perhaps surprisingly for a one-person show, Judd and Weinman spend a huge amount of time doing character work. Every role that Weinman plays gets worked on as if it were an independent character played by another actor – as McDowall confides, “even though it’s a one-man show, a monologue really, formally it’s written like a straightforward play with scenes and with different characters. Theoretically you could perform it with multiple actors, but it wouldn’t be as interesting, really.”

Two years later they ended up in Edinburgh, for a two-week run as part of Northern Stage at St. Stephen’s. The Captain Amazing team are all in their mid-to-late twenties, and after reflecting on their success Judd reckons the Edinburgh experience is “invaluable for a young company.” Weinman says there’s something special about having work playing in the same environment as accomplished artists, “being exposed to the brilliant work out there, and being in the company of great practitioners.”

Last year was the first time Judd had been to Edinburgh, and he sees it as a test of a young company’s mettle. “If you come away having done a whole month on the street, flyering and shamelessly self-promoting in whatever way possible, it might be the best, or the hardest, or the worst thing you’ve ever done, but I think it will give any young performer or producer or director or writer a hell of a good basis to see whether they want to pursue this as a career.”

It’ll give them a taste of a business where money is always an issue. Captain Amazing has been developed with the support of Newcastle’s Live Theatre, and McDowall himself was finally able to give up the day job by winning a Bruntwood Prize in 2011 for his play (and Live Theatre co-production) Brilliant Adventures. The win couldn’t have been more timely.

“I lost my job on 14 November and, err… I  won the prize on 15 November. It was really very well-timed. And it enabled me to go full-time, which I’d nearly been able to do beforehand, but it was a kickstarter to that.”

Which is good, because McDowall was never going to stop.  He speaks in a quick, impassioned torrent: “for me, writing is a compulsion. If I wasn’t getting paid for it, if it wasn’t getting put on, I’d still do it. I obsessively collect stories, I watch a vast number of films and I read a huge amount, and so it’s also a sense of thinking “I wish I could see that” or “I wish that existed” – and it doesn’t, so I make it. I want to see things that don’t quite exist yet, and so I write them.” For his money, aspiring writers should read as much and as broadly as possible, “and then don’t think about it too much and just write. Write because you have to.”

Weinman’s advice for actors is based on the holy trinity of preparation, self-confidence, and preparation again. “There’s a huge difference between self-confidence and arrogance, but as an actor you have to believe you can bring something to the role. I probably wasted a lot of my younger years wasting auditions because I wasn’t preparing properly.” And, equally as important, “be brave. Make brave choices.” If you haven’t already, Weinman recommends you check out the Monobox, a company that helps young actors to find new monologues and get some audition technique.

Judd’s advice echoes Weinman’s in that your ethos is key. “In terms of directing, you need to forge the strongest possible relationships you can with your team – because without them you don’t have a production. To do that, trust them. I would also say you have to be strong-minded: being strong about your decision making, I think, gains you respect – knowing what you need to create the best piece of work you can.”

Back to Captain Amazing, they couldn’t be more excited to bring him to new audiences in the capital. And if you’re not in London? Well, Judd says, “Captain Amazing’s cape keeps getting dusted off, and you never know – he might be flying to a venue near you soon.”

Captain Amazing is playing at the Soho Theatre from 16 April to 9 May. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.

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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Competition: Win tickets to Never Try This At Home at Soho Theatre

Posted on 27 March 2014 by A Younger Theatre

Want to win tickets to Told By An Idiot’s newest theatre piece Never Try This At Home at Soho Theatre? Well, you can with this AYT competition. Skip below the blurb to find out how to enter for 2 tickets.

Never Try This At Home

By Carl Grose and Told By An Idiot
2 – 27 April
Soho Theatre

Tickets from £10

A darkly funny satire looking back at 1970s kid TV shows.

Custard pies and forced smiles. Welcome to Saturday morning TV… that means pie fights, buckets of water, casual sexism and thoughtless misogyny!

Never Try This At Home is an uncomfortably funny and shockingly ludicrous comedy which transports you back to 70s kids TV show Shushi. After an obsessive fan took desperate measures, celebs went missing and presenters reached breaking point, Shushi was cancelled and taken off air. Acclaimed theatre company Told by an Idiot dare to look back at exactly what went wrong…

Raucous energy, a live band, playful nostalgia, unbelievable characters… and a free protective plastic mac if you dare to sit in the front row.

Ages 15+, strong language and possible nudity*

*(you just can’t trust what celebrities will do when they’re pushed to the edge)

Running time: 90 minutes no interval
Directed by Paul Hunter
Designed by Michael Vale

More information and tickets via the Soho Theatre website.

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Tickets are subject to availability. Competition closes 8 April at 5pm. By Entering this competition you agree to be added to the A Younger Theatre E-Newsletter list.

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre (AYT) is a platform for young people to express their views on theatre and performance. The site is maintained, edited and published by under 26 year olds who all have a passion for theatre.

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