Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Oli Forsyth: Kings

By | Published on Thursday 28 September 2017

If you’re a fan of fringe theatre (and I’m presuming that a good proportion of readers are) then you’ve probably come across the work of Smoke & Oakum Theatre, whose past productions include the likes of ‘Happy Dave’, ‘Cornermen’, and ‘The Cow Play’. Their latest production ‘Kings’ debuted at Vault Festival earlier this year, and shortly begins a longer run at the New Diorama.
The play is by Smoke & Oakum Theatre’s founder, Oli Forsyth, who also directs. I put some questions to him, to find out more about the show, and the company.

CM: Can you start by giving us an idea of what to expect from the play – what story does it tell?
OF: ‘Kings’ is the story of Bess, Hannah and Ebi, a small community of homeless people who have built a makeshift shelter under the railway arches. The sudden arrival of Caz sees their lives upended, as her magic tricks and easy charm convinces them to stop asking for help, and start taking.

The play looks at the power struggle that takes place in the group and the change this has on their outlook on life and their position in society.

CM: Are there specific themes you wanted to address through it?
OF: I was interested in creating at a story about people who happen to be homeless, rather than a play about homelessness. I didn’t want to put characters on a soapbox and lecture the audience, so the themes of the play are more jealousy, power and family. Obviously the fact that they live in this appalling situation is a key part of the story and influences how the characters behave, but it’s not the focusing theme of the show.

CM: Who are the characters in the play, and who plays them?
OF: The matriarch of the camp, Bess, is arguably our most central character and is played by Johanna Allitt. Alongside Bess is Ebi, a former electrician in his 30s played by Andy McLeod, and Hannah, a young woman from an abusive family whose vulnerability and trusting nature is often taken advantage of, played by Emma James. Bess and Ebi are taking care of Hannah in an attempt to piggyback into any emergency accommodation she might get which Caz, played by Madeleine MacMahon, quickly sees through.

CM: What made you want to write this story? What was your inspiration?
OF: I may just be speaking for myself, but usually stories come from many different ideas merging together rather than one central inspiration.

In this case I’d been volunteering at a couple of homeless shelters while trying to write a play about the power that can come from disenfranchisement, or how being left out of society might also afford you the right not to play by its rules. At the same time I was really interested in the idea of makeshift families, or groups that spring up to fill the void of an absent family. The final strand was that our last few shows had involved large, epic stories which spanned over many years and I was quite curious to write something that felt grounded and claustrophobic. All of these things came together to form ‘Kings’.

CM: Did you intend to highlight the homelessness issue? In what ways do you think artistic endeavours can have an impact on real world issues?
OF: I tried to stay away from writing what might be called an ‘issues play’, mostly because I couldn’t believe there was anyone out there who didn’t know that homelessness is a problem and one that needs fixing. What I got through my research was an understanding of how difficult the tiny bits of day-to-day life are when sleeping rough. From head lice to cleaning teeth, right up to how maddeningly complex it is to get on the housing list and avoid slipping into a cycle of homelessness. Those details are littered throughout the play, but I think those facts work much better when they are realities the characters have to live with, rather than issues to be raised.

To highlight the issue of homelessness we’ve partnered with the excellent charity, Centrepoint, who will be collecting after every performance and holding a post show Q+A on the 12th. They’re the experts, and in terms of making an impact on real world issues we’re hoping that the play drives more people to volunteer and donate to organizations like Centrepoint, who are making a massive difference on a daily basis.

CM: The play made an appearance at Vault Festival earlier in the year, didn’t it? How did that go? Have you made any changes to it since?
OF: VAULT Festival is always a great experience; they give you a platform to try new work and ideas in a space that feels supportive and exciting. When we arrived at the festival this year we’d only had 6 days rehearsal and weren’t expecting too much but after 5 performances we’d won the ‘Show of the Week’ Award, been reviewed as “a sterling example of political theatre done right” and been named Exeunt Magazine’s ‘Pick of the Festival’. We were also lucky enough to have Sir David Bell, former director of Crisis, in for one of the shows and he described it as “as close to the real thing as I have seen in all my time with Crisis”, which was great to hear.

At that point it was 55-minutes, but since then it’s been taken on for this 3-week run at New Diorama Theatre and grown into a much bigger play, running at 85 minutes and being published by Methuen Drama.

CM: What made you want to direct the play yourself, rather than handing it over to someone else to direct?
OF: In the past I’ve often given shows over to other directors and have been lucky enough to work with some excellent people who really brought the best out of the scripts. This time around it just felt different, we’ve been given 3 weeks at arguably the best fringe theatre in London, brought in a phenomenal set designer in Erin Green, had the play published and put together an exceptional cast. With all those amazing things going on it felt like a project I wanted to be as closely involved with as possible, so I took on the director role.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your company, Smoke & Oakum Theatre? How was it formed, and what are its aims?
OF: I set up Smoke & Oakum in 2013 to produce a show called ‘The Cow Play’ by Ed Harris, a great show by a brilliant writer. We took the play to Brighton, London and Edinburgh, got the script published and had a brilliant time. One of the things we found excited audiences the most about the play was the quality of the story, and no matter how many theatrical bells and whistles we stuck on it, the story was what shone through. Since then we’ve produced 6 plays, which have gone on in front of thousands of people all over the UK. Of the scripts we’ve created all have received great critical acclaim and 4 have been published. I think the lesson we learnt during ‘The Cow Play’, of the story being paramount, has influenced all our work to date and is what led David Byrne, Artistic Director of New Diorama Theatre, to describe us as “one of the best new companies around”.

CM: What’s coming up next for the company, and for you?
OF: The next few months are set to be hugely exciting for us. Obviously ‘Kings’ is an amazing opportunity to give one of our plays a full length London run and bring in a new audience to see our work. It also represents a shift in the company’s focus away from fringe festivals towards a more established base in London.

At the same time as we’re putting down roots in the capital, we’re also developing the touring side of Smoke & Oakum and are really excited to be taking an earlier show of ours, ‘Cornermen’, on a national tour in Spring 2018. We’re currently booked at 15 venues including The Unity, The Bikeshed and York Theatre Royal which hopefully lays the groundwork for taking more of our plays on the road in the future.

Alongside those two projects I’ve just started work on a new play and completed a TV script which we’re just starting to send out. It’s an exciting time!

‘Kings’ by Smoke & Oakum runs at New Diorama Theatre from 3-21 October. See the venue website here for more information.

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