Caro Meets Music Interview Musicals & Opera Interview

Stef O’Driscoll: Brassic FM

By | Published on Monday 4 September 2023

Fans of gig theatre are definitely in for a treat when it comes to ‘Brassic FM’, a collaboration from poet Zia Ahmed and Stef O’Driscoll that begins a run at the Gate Theatre this week. 

Set at the hub of a pirate radio station, it takes a look at inner city, working class lives, tackling myriad themes, but primarily the relationship between work and class. 

I was intrigued by the show and wanted to know more about what to expect from it. I spoke to co-creator and director Stef O’Driscoll. 

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the content of ‘Brassic FM’? Does it tell a story? Who is it about?
SO’D: So ‘Brassic FM’ tells many people’s stories, it’s not a linear narrative, and it doesn’t just follow one person’s story with a beginning, middle and end – it’s many snapshots of different lives from inner-city working-class London.

It’s about centring and celebrating the characters that cross paths through the hub of Brassic FM, and how pirate radio stations act as accessible radical spaces for working class communities.

CM: What themes are explored through the show?
SO’D: Many things are explored through this show, but most prominently the relationship between work and class.

The show explores the themes of workers’ rights, undocumented workers, immigration and the policing of culture.

Historically, music and musical gatherings – particularly black music – and the culture around it, has been heavily policed and suppressed.

So, we wanted to use music and pirate radio as a way to explore the parallels between policing culture and policing people.

CM: What inspired you to create a piece of work tackling these themes?
SO’D: For us it was a real opportunity: in theatre there are a lot of shows that say this is a play about race, or class, or faith, but this show is about the intersections between those identities.

We felt like the only way to speak to these intersections was to create a world of characters whose voices are as diverse as the intersections they experience. Class is something that so often intersects with other marginalised identities but is not really talked about as often.

CM: What message does it have? Would you say it’s political?
SO’D: It’s a deeply political show, and it’s everything that Zia and I want to say about what is happening in the world now.

The show really draws on references to current political issues such as the Illegal Migration Act and the Public Order Bill, alongside Rishi Sunak on TV talking about having ‘working class friends’ but not actually having any working-class friends.

The show looks at how decades of governments have policed and criminalised working-class culture, from how we express joy through to how we protest and everything in between.

CM: What made you decide to present it as gig-theatre? Why this format?
SO’D: Actually, the show has evolved from the gig-theatre format. Originally the idea was to have as much live music in it as possible, however as it’s grown it has become more about recorded music that is played on the radio station and speaks to the themes in the play.

However, I am obsessed with live music in theatre, it’s a way of breaking the traditional theatre etiquette that elite theatre reinforces.

Because you are in a more relaxed environment – you can leave when you want, dress how you want – gig-theatre doesn’t live by the rules that mainstream theatre has adopted.

And this show still captures that energy – there is even a live phone number you can use to text in shoutouts during the show.

CM: Can you tell us more about the music elements? How would you describe the music in terms of style or genre?
SO’D: The music is a core part of the show, that is what any radio station’s primary function is – to share the sounds of the city.

Because Brassic FM is a pirate radio station, the music in the show is more underground – tracks that you wouldn’t hear on the mainstream channels – jungle, drum and bass, garage etc. It’s all music that has its roots in bass culture and Soundsystem culture.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your cast?
SO’D: Our cast are incredible, we have a brilliant mixture of skillsets and experiences. And while we have been working with a core script, the cast have all had a hand in crafting some of the snapshots in the play, writing and devising in rehearsals.

We are working with Zainab Hasan, who recently starred in the titular role of Antigone at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.

That was shortly after a run at the Hampstead Theatre in ‘Lotus Beauty’, as well as ‘Chasing Hares’ at the Young Vic. She is a seasoned performer and an incredible multi-roler who has taken on an immense challenge embodying the voices of countless characters in the show.

Jonny Britcher has extensive experience of performing as part of a music group, went on to study acting, and is making his theatre debut in ‘Brassic FM’. It’s been incredible to have a real MC in the show, he is the host and heart of Brassic FM.

And last but by no means least, Zakiyyah Deen, who is also making her London theatre debut in this show. She worked with academy award winning director Steve McQueen on his anthology series ‘Small Axe’ and has appeared as a series regular on ‘Enterprice’, created by Kayode Ewumi.

She is also an incredible playwright and spoken word artist, which has brought so much richness to her roles in this show.

CM: And now, can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you come to be working in the arts and how did your career begin?
SO’D: I started to work in the arts because I went to a youth theatre, run by an incredible human called Nicholai LaBarrie, who was able to nurture and support young people early on to try out a range of things and really figure out what they were good at.

I really buzzed off making theatre, I was never really good at being directed and was always telling other people what to do, so I naturally leant into being a director.

Because of Nicholai I was inspired to go to uni and do a drama degree. The truth is I was a minority in regard to my class background at uni, but I discovered a show called ‘Yard Gal’ by Rebecca Prichard, which was a show I directed as part of my degree almost in protest.

I used that show to say ‘this is a world I know and where I am from’. That really started my journey as a director.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
SO’D: I would say directing a gig-theatre show called ‘A Little Bit Of Luck’, which I made with Sabrina Mafouz, was a big career highlight.

It was created because we wanted to make a show that people we raved with would come to and vibe with. And that was a really beautiful experience, when people we knew from a different world who would never normally come to the theatre could see themselves reflected on stage.

Doing that at the main space at the Roundhouse, followed by DJ Luck and MC Neat doing a set, was definitely a highlight.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
SO’D: I am writing something currently, another gig-theatre piece called ‘Last Night An MC Saved My Life’, which is the first thing that I have written by myself, so I am excited to develop that, and build a creative team to take it onto its next steps.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
SO’D: The honest truth is more freelance hustling – getting some of the incredible plays that I am currently sitting on or talking about with collaborators programmed and on. 

‘Brassic FM’ is on at the Gate Theatre from 4-30 Sep, see the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.