Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Simon Evans: Scrooge And The Seven Dwarves

By | Published on Thursday 24 November 2016


We are long term fans of Sleeping Trees, here at ThisWeek, so it was great to hear that the three man troupe – aka Joshua George Smith, John Woodburn and James Dunnell-Smith – would be back at Theatre503 this winter with another cracking, mashed-up pantomime.
I spoke to Simon Evans, who is directing this year’s show, to find out more about ‘Scrooge And The Seven Dwarves’ and how he got involved with it.

CM: Presumably this show is kind of a cross between A Christmas Carol and Snow White…? Or is it? What’s the story?
SE: That’s exactly what it is. We start in snow-and-soot covered Victorian London, with Charles Dickens’ famous character Ebenezer Scrooge turning down mince pies and muttering ‘Bah, Humbug’ at everyone; but then, instead of Marley’s ghost paying him a visit, it’s Father Christmas, and instead of learning the value and joy of Christmas in the past, present and future… he does it in Fairytale Land.

I would tell you more, but playing with the narrative like this means we’ve been able to put in myriad little surprises and twists. I’d hate to spoil them for you.

CM: What kind of performance can we expect? How would you describe the Sleeping Trees style?
SE: I’m jealous of you if you’ve not yet had a chance to see the Sleeping Trees! My first experience of them was so joyous. They’re an outstandingly talented three-man comedy troupe, with a particular knack for physical comedy, so what you can expect is an hilarious, high energy, flying-by-the-seats-of-their-pants quality to their telling of these stories.

In addition to that, they’ve known each other and worked together for years now, so there’s also the kind of camaraderie you can’t fake. They are so quick witted with each other, trading new little improvisations back and forth in the moment and helping each other out at every corner. We’ve played on that strongly this time, allowing them to talk to the audience as themselves (rather than just as characters) in a few careful moments.

I’ve never seen anything like it.

CM: Which characters make an appearance? How many are there? How did they get divided up amongst the cast?
SE: Well that’s an another important part of their style – they’re a three man troupe trying to present a story with a cast of well over fifty characters. That’s where the energy comes from: there’s no down time, if they’re not on stage they’re changing costume.

Again, I’m hesitant to spoil the surprises but, needless to say, you’ve got your crucial ‘Christmas Carol’ characters making an appearance, and some of those you might associate with Father Christmas and his North Pole residence. Then we head to Fairytale Land and all bets are off!

When it comes to the division of characters, we try to make decisions based on who’s the most suitable for the role. That said, the three of them are such talented performers that although their individual takes on Father Christmas (for example) would be wildly different, they’d all be exciting to watch. In truth then, it usually comes down to the practicality of who is free to play the role (if Scrooge is talking to Bob Cratchit in one scene, then neither of those actors can play the Wicked Witch in the next scene…)

The real challenge comes when we have to show seven dwarves… but I’ll leave that one to your imagination for now.

CM: The live music seems to be an important element of Sleeping Trees shows. Can you tell us about who created it for this show, and why it’s important?
SE: You’re absolutely right, it’s a vital element. Music and dance are obviously integral parts of the pantomime tradition, and we were never going to shy away from that. We have the wonderful Ben Hayles composing our songs, and working with the Sleeping Trees on the lyrics. Then we added Oliver Kaderbhai (Artistic Director of Delirium) who’s worked with me as a Movement Director many times before.

The live element of the whole thing takes on an added importance for the Sleeping Trees approach though. The quality of their shows is ‘We’re going to make it work…’ and, within that, there’s an invitation to the audience that says ‘We know that telling a story of this complexity with only three actors will only work if you (the audience) come along for the ride, and play along with the game.’ We make a deal with the audience, so to speak, setting up a collaborative relationship that adds a spontaneity to the whole thing.

That wouldn’t work at all if the music was then all pre-recorded and played by stage management at the push of a button. Rather we have Ben on stage, with the rest of the cast, playing the music live for them to sing along to and, even, using those instruments to create sound effects for the rest of the show wherever possible. It gives the whole thing a rough theatre quality which suits the storytelling perfectly.

And the songs are absolutely cracking. You’ll be humming them on the way home.

CM: It seems as though the company offer something of a reinvention of pantomime, but what sets it apart? Are you a fan of panto in its more traditional form?
SE: I think their clever combinations of different narratives sets them apart and makes for a really engaging and surprising evening.

I’m a huge fan of anything that gets audiences (especially young ones) into theatres, and pantomime (in its traditional form) certainly does this; but I’ll admit to a waning of interest myself because there’s only so many times you can watch the same story played out by the same cast of characters. You know you’ll see Widow Twanky or Buttons or the Ugly Stepsisters, and you know what direction the story will take at those points.

There’s a great line from Tim Burton’s film Big Fish: “Have you ever heard a joke so many times you’ve forgotten why it’s funny? And then you hear it again and suddenly it’s new. You remember why you loved it in the first place.”

By combining narratives and keeping you (as an audience) slightly off balance the whole time, feeling a sense of familiarity but not really knowing what’s coming next, this company allow you to see these stories for first time again. It’s a rare gift.

CM: How did you get involved with the show? What attracted you to this project?
SE: My sister first introduced me to the Sleeping Trees (conceptually) when she was involved in a series of short films with them a few years ago, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. A friend of mine, the brilliant director Tom Attenborough, worked with them on their last pantomime and when his schedule meant he couldn’t be involved this year they came to me.

The chance to work with them was incentive enough to come on board, but it also happens that I’ve had a year of directing ‘heavy’ theatre (for want of a better word). ‘The Dazzle’ charted the doomed relationship between two brothers as they shut themselves off from society; ‘Bug’ charted the doomed relationship between a man and woman on account of his schizophrenic personality; ‘Alligators’ charted the doomed relationship for a husband and wife in the face of accusations of statutory rape… There’s only so much doom a man can take before he makes the decision that he wants to end the year on a happier note!

CM: What drew you to a career in the theatre, and how did you begin it?
SE: Oh goodness. It was all I ever wanted to do. At this point I can answer loftily and retrospectively, saying that “There are fewer and fewer communal (or even ‘forum’) experiences these days, everyone’s becoming more and more isolated. Theatre offers one of those few opportunities to get people together in a room and ask them to actively engage with something collectively. It’s always been vital, but it’s becoming ever more so.”

In my early twenties though, it was more that I liked telling stories. I’d been involved in theatre (as actor and magician) at school, before moving slowly into directing (starting with Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’). I didn’t go to any drama school, but used that time to get a degree under my belt instead, then moved to London. Once there I got involved with the Old Vic New Voices, then put on a show at the White Bear and off I went.

CM: Where do you see yourself going in the future? What unfulfilled ambitions do you have?
SE: Too many to possibly list here. It’s a strange industry to make plans in, because your progress through it is always such a random combination of chance and hard work. I hope to be happy and reasonably financially solvent.

CM: What’s coming up next for you?
SE: I’m touring a show I co-wrote, co-directed and co-star in called ‘The Vanishing Man’ in January and February, then I’m heading to the Donmar Warehouse to direct The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

‘Scrooge And The Seven Dwarves’ is on at Theatre503 until 7 Jan. See the venue website here for info and more specific performance times.

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Photo: Scott Barnett