Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Tom Ratcliffe: Velvet

By | Published on Friday 27 September 2019

We first heard about ‘Velvet’ – a highly regarded one man show written and performed by Tom Ratcliffe – when it was on at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe back in 2018. Since then it’s been on tour and now heads to London for a nearly-four-week run at Above The Stag.

The show is about a young actor with a #metoo style story to tell, and it’s in part based on its creator’s own experiences. To find out more about the play, and about Tom himself, I arranged a quick chat ahead of opening night.

CM: Can you start by telling is what the play is about? What story does it tell?
TR: The play is a semi-autobiographical story of a young actor who entertains an inappropriate relationship with a senior industry figure. As this ‘relationship’ gets further and further out of his control, we see how this affects his personal life and ultimately his career. It delves into what we know as #metoo but from a gay male perspective.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
TR: The play explores abuse of power in the entertainment industry. More specifically how that manifests itself between two men. ‘Velvet’ also comments on the nuances of how actors with lesser profile are treated, the financial implications of being an actor, and managing the expectations and hopes that come from those closest to you.

CM: To what extent is it autobiographical? Do you play yourself or a fictional character?
TR: I’ve always described the play as semi-autobiographical. This is because there are lots of elements of the play that are true, but I didn’t want to write a docu-drama or an autobiographical presentation; I wanted to write a play. I have therefore taken key events that have happened to me and worked them into a plot line with a beginning, middle, and an end which hopefully gets across the point I want to make! The character is called Tom in the play, not because it’s such a popular name, but to bring myself to it. That said, because I see it as a play, as opposed to performance art, I do see it as – and therefore approach it as – a character.

CM: You mentioned #metoo. To what extent did that movement inspire or influence the piece?
TR: Interestingly, I started writing this play whilst performing at the Fringe in 2017, so moments before the modern #metoo movement – and more specifically the Harvey Weinstein revelations – started happening. The movement naturally directly influenced the play but initially my motivation to write it was based on my own experiences as a young actor.

CM: Do you think the telling of stories like these is likely to bring about change?
TR: Romantically and on a small scale, yes. I do. Obviously, the scale depends on the size of the show and the way that any message is picked up and projected through the media. In terms of shows the size of ‘Velvet’, I think if someone in a position of power comes to see this play, maybe someone who works in the entertainment industry – though I think any industry can be applied – and learns a thing or two about how their actions in that position can be perceived and therefore affect people – and then this alters how they go about their day to day – then hey! I’ve done a great job. Equally, if an actor, regardless of gender or sexuality, comes to see the show and recognises themselves in the story to the extent that they take away some sort of self-empowerment, then again – this is enough for me.

CM: How did you go about creating this? Was it written, devised, both…?
TR: So, this is the first time I plucked up the courage to put myself into one of my plays! I therefore was acutely aware from day dot that I had two separate jobs on this show. The first part was as a writer working on a dramaturgical level with Andy – who is our director. Then, once we were happy with the script, I went into rehearsals as an actor. If ever there was a moment writer Tom needed to be in the rehearsal room, we did the changes we needed and then actor Tom was back and ready to go.

CM: You performed the play at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018 to much acclaim, and I think it has been on tour in the meantime. Has it changed or developed since then?
TR: Yes, we’ve picked up ‘Velvet’ a couple of times since our run out in Edinburgh 2018. Firstly, at Vault and then for a UK and Ireland tour this summer. The scale of the show certainly changed. The show ran in a 55-seat shipping container in the Pleasance Courtyard last year and on tour we were in regional playhouse studios which seat up to 150 people. Naturally we had to upsize.

Script wise, there is the odd thing that has changed as the political landscape of the issue has evolved but on the whole, changes to the text are very minimal. That said, I think the performance has grown with the amount of times the show has been done.

CM: What led you to a career in the arts? Is this what child-you wanted to do when they grew up?
TR: Up to when I was five I wanted to be a vet, but then I saw my cat, Pinky, get put down and realised swiftly that I was not about that life. There was the odd flirtation with the falsehood that I was a good enough footballer or swimmer to pursue one of the two, but I soon learned that I had a loving mother who told me white lies. Realistically, as soon as I started acting when I got to secondary school, there was no other career for me. Although I did actually want to be an author first! Fun fact.

CM: What steps did you take to begin your career and how has it progressed?
TR: I trained as an actor at The Oxford School Of Drama, knowing that I wanted to be an actor but also a playwright. It was whilst I was at drama school that I started writing my first play ‘Circa’ and I was lucky enough to be mentored on this by the brilliant Rikki Beadle-Blair and John Russell Gordon. There is definitely a culture of creating your own work amongst Oxford graduates – which I had no idea about before I went there – and this has led me to producing my own work as a writer, whilst working and gigging separately as an actor.

CM: What aims or ambitions do you have for the future?
TR: For me the goal is longevity. I want to be happily working in this industry sustainably for a long time. Creating work that I’m proud of.

CM: Are there any further plans for ‘Velvet’, after the run at Above The Stag?
TR: In its current form, I doubt it, as we have done so much with the play already. I think if there’s the demand then that’s another conversation. I guess, who knows what the future holds until you get there?

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
TR: I’ve had a really fun couple of years bouncing from production to production of my plays. So, after ‘Velvet’ I have to remember that plays don’t write themselves and that I had better get back to work on some more!

‘Velvet’ is on at Above The Stag theatre from 2-27 Oct. For tickets and more information, see this page here.

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Photo: Lidia Crisafulli