Kill the Beast burst onto the fringe theatre scene last year with a spatter of blood and a porcine squeal. Its debut show, The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, based on Tom Baker’s novella of the same name, was met with much enthusiasm and not a little repulsion – and nothing could have delighted them more.
“First and foremost we want to make people laugh,” writer/performer Natasha Hodgson tells me. Her co-writer/performer Zoe Roberts adds, “And slightly nauseous.” “Slightly nauseous and, yes, covered in something. We want to stain our audiences emotionally and also physically.”
I meet Hodgson and Roberts, two fifths of Kill the Beast, in a cafe round the corner from the Soho Theatre, where they have just finished a read-through of the forthcoming werewolf-mystery show (yes, really), He Had Hairy Hands. The company will be back at the Pleasance this Edinburgh Fringe, in an early evening time slot that pits them against some of the venue’s bigger name comics (“it’s comedians versus wolves,”) – but before all that, they’ll be performing at A Younger Theatre’s very own Incoming Festival at the New Diorama.
“It feels like we’re the right kind of company and at the right stage of our development for this festival,” says Roberts. For her, part of the attraction is the feeling that “each of us is made stronger by being in that pool, each of us is selling the others. You know, the people on Monday, if they do a cracking job, then sales will rise for everyone; it’s kind of amazing to all bundle in together.” Both are grateful for the vote of confidence, too. As Roberts points out, “So many theatres are amazingly supportive of emerging companies, but it can be so hard to force yourselves to the top of the pack.”
“We tried to book tours for The Boy Who Kicked Pigs,” adds Hodgson, “which ostensibly has done well and got reviewed well, but even trying to do that was really hard. Most venues don’t want to take the risk on a company or a play that’s not really well known.” It may not yet be ‘well known’, but Kill the Beast’s star is certainly on the rise, thanks to its distinctive and stylised writing, design and performance.
The Boy Who Kicked Pigs was a grisly, darkly funny delight, and beautiful to look at, too. The company has carved itself out a niche it isn’t keen to relinquish anytime soon: “We’re always slightly scared of people going, look, are you comedy or are you theatre?” says Hodgson. “It’s important to us to keep that grey area.” Though they want their audiences to laugh, they also “want the visuals and the striking-ness and beauty that we can hide behind of the theatre world.”
Hodgson and Roberts talk with passion and affection about Kill the Beast’s influences, their “stupidly talented” creative team (the costume designers, according to Hodgson, “know how to make clothes funny. That’s not even a thing!”) and the organisations from whose experience and encouragement they have benefited. Not only Incoming Festival and the New Diorama, but also the Lowry’s In Development scheme, “that basically commissioned Kicked Pigs”. “Having an institution invest in you, whether it’s the Lowry, whether it’s the New Diorama or A Younger Theatre – yeah, it just feels like you’ve got a bit of an ally,” says Roberts. “Somebody with a bit of experience fighting your corner.”
Though keen not to give too much away about He Had Hairy Hands, they do confirm that it’s “a werewolf story, a 70s story, a detective story, but we didn’t want it to be a pastiche”. What they’ve ended up with is a kind of horror mystery piece – not so much Hammer Horror as inspired by “the sort of folksy, weird town” feeling of films like American Werewolf in London and The Wicker Man – in which they are attempting to balance their initial success with the need to progress and develop. “You want to keep doing what you’re doing because it’s working well,” says Hodgson, “and you also want to heighten it, without completely losing your identity.”
Both are keen to create more rounded characters this time, that the audience can be more emotionally invested in. “It felt a bit like the last show happened to the audience, they’d just get pounded with the comedy and with the insanity and kind of left a bit shell-shocked by the ending, whereas with this one we want to have an emotional reaction as well as our usual horror and disgust,” explains Hodgson. “That’s why we love things like The League of Gentlemen, The Penny Dreadfuls, Max and Ivan… You care. Because they’re such good actors and they write so well, and having that sort of copper wire running through the whole thing means that if it’s sad or it’s dark it’s because it’s real.”
So is He Had Hairy Hands a difficult second album? Well, not really: Kill the Beast is clearly having far too much fun, and seems mostly unfazed by the difference between adapting Kicked Pigs and working completely from scratch this time. Though Hodgson says they do feel “a lot more responsible” for these characters – “in a way you can just do anything with them, you can just destroy them in the most horrendous ways, which is obviously all we want to do with any characters at any given time.” Roberts nods sagely. “Our characters tend to die,” she affirms.
The creative process is apparently little changed: they like to start with names and/or “silly voices”, and Roberts extols the virtues of director Clem Garritty’s concept sketches. “Basically in my head the characters are those cartoons,” she says. Though one thing will definitely be different this time around: the company will be employing a little less make-up than they wore for their last show. “There’ll still be make-up but hopefully it won’t be covering our entire bodies,” says Hodgson. “It was like paint, like polyfiller.”
“I’m sure it’s taken years off our lives. But only the shit years. The ones where you’re just sort of crapping yourself and crying.”
Roberts grins wickedly. “What, 23 to 24?”
He Had Hairy Hands will be at New Diorama Theatre on 23 May as part of AYT’s INCOMING Festival. For more information and tickets, visit NDT’s website.