Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Mike Yeaman: Frank Sumatra

By | Published on Wednesday 4 May 2016


I am always up for a bit of surreal comedy, and ‘Frank Sumatra’ definitely sounds like it would fall into that category; luckily for me (and you), the play heads to Theatre N16 next week.
The play, which features an orangutan (not a real one) and radio-play-style staging, is the work of writer Mike Yeaman. I put some questions to him, ahead of the upcoming run.

CM: The play sounds a bit surreal. Can you tell us a bit about the story (without giving too much away!)?
MY: The play is about a young couple who like to do their bit for the environment and pay a few quid a month to sponsor an orphaned orangutan in a sanctuary. They’re also trying for a baby but find themselves parents to a hairy delinquent teenager when their orangutan turns up to live with them.

CM: Obviously, it’s a comedy, but are there any serious points to be made?
MY: Yes, it’s a comedy foremost. But it is about what happens when environmental destruction is brought to your doorstep. We’d rethink the palm oil if we had an angry ape wrecking our living room.

CM: What gave you the idea for this?
MY: Many years ago, I adopted an orangutan through the World Wildlife Fund but then bought a mahogany bed. Afterwards, I realised I’d be mortified if he turned up and saw it.

CM: What made you decide that it would work best in this ‘radio recording’ style?
MY: I went for the ‘live radio recording’ idea as I like the play-within-a–play element. The conceit works great for comedy. Also it’s been funnier to create an orangutan in the imagination than have someone in an orange hairy suit.

CM: How involved have you been with the production? Are you the kind of writer who steps back, or sticks around?
MY: With UK productions, I’m pretty much involved right from casting. With a fringe show like this one even more so, but I quite like all the running around and sorting stuff so the director can focus on their job. I’ve spent a lot of time at car boot sales for Frank – squeezing dolls and rattling toasters to see if they make the right noise. It’s led to some interesting conversations: “It’s for an orangutan”. But you do feel completely redundant once a show is up and running. You feel like you should apologise for even turning up.

I do some directing as well, but don’t think it’s a good idea to direct your own work. I don’t know – maybe one day. I have lots of productions overseas that I have nothing to do with – but I do go out to see them. Watching your play in something like Swedish is very surreal – but some of them have been brilliantly funny.

CM: You began your career as an actor, didn’t you? What made you turn to writing? Who or what has influenced you?
MY: I did a fair bit of TV stuff when I was younger, usually playing Geordie thugs, which was fun, but I dropped out and did other things for a while. I’ve written plays for Radio 4 and TV sketch shows but it’s only a few years ago that I started writing for theatre. I won a £2000 prize for my first play and so fell in love with the stage again – mainly because I almost make a living from it. I also do a lot of role-play work, so I act now more than I ever did.

I don’t think there’s a writer who’s been a major influence on me. Stylistically, I think I’ve picked up stuff from people like Orton. I’m never quite sure where my work sits but maybe that’s a good thing. Creating a successful comedy is hard. Theatres and producers take risks with new drama but when it comes to comedy they do ‘Noises Off’ again. It’s been great to see things like ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ do so well.

CM: Of all the plays you’ve written, do you have a favourite?
MY: So far, ‘Canoeing For Beginners’ is my favourite. It’s a farce but has a ‘play within a play’ element that involves lots of toying with the audience’s expectations. There’s an Estonian version, bizarrely, that’s been touring for two years.

CM: What’s next for this production? Are further touring dates planned?
MY: I’m hoping this version of Frank will have a future – if I find another producer who wants to pick it up. It’s an ideal festival show. I love it that my plays get more than one production – it means I can keep tweaking them. A live audience is your best teacher.

CM: What’s next for you?
MY: I am just finishing a two act version of Frank that isn’t done as a radio play. After that, I think it’s time to write something that isn’t physical comedy focused. I want to go back to Square One and see where that takes me – maybe somewhere a lot darker. I’d like to write something based on my role-play work – now that’s a rich seam.

‘Frank Sumatra’ is on at Theatre N16 from 9-18 May. See the venue website here for booking info.

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