Riverscape

Greenwich: How Greenwich Theatre is hosting four blockbuster shows in 2024

Artistic director James Haddrell talks Frozen, Beauty And The Beast and why there’s no rent to be paid for 24 years

Kerrie Taylor will play the mother in Frozen

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There’s a bit of a buzz at Greenwich Theatre right now.

Arts funding across the country is being cut, companies and institutions are under increasing financial pressure.

So it’s heartening to hear the venue has signed a long lease agreement with the Royal Borough Of Greenwich that will allow it to keep hosting and producing work for another 24 years.

“It’s astonishing that we’ve got this kind of security now,” said James Haddrell, the theatre’s artistic director.

“It doesn’t come with a grant, but it does come with a rent-free commitment from the council, which we reckon is worth about £2million.

Greenwich Theatre artistic director James Haddrell

“The only conditions in the lease are that we look after the building and we continue doing what we’re doing.

“It means we can plan much further into the future and build relationships with funders and sponsors who know we’re going to be there for the long term.”

It’s a deal that’s vital to the venue’s future, especially as the  creative landscape has changed a great deal in the time that James has been at theatre.

“I came to Greenwich as press officer in 2001 and back then, it was very much a place where people who were 50 and over would come,” he said.

“They were regular theatregoers for whom it was automatic to think about seeing a show, going to a concert or visiting the cinema at the end of the week.

“The changes here have been quite heartening as our average audience is now under 40 and for some shows it’s mid-20s.

“Theatre had to be brave and acknowledge that the older audience was going to disappear and to explore whether theatre was going to disappear with it – it hasn’t.

Paul McGann will play the man with no name in The River

“I wonder whether, as more and more things become digital experiences, theatre will survive because it isn’t like them and will stand out as the exception.

“We have also seen a huge change in theatre landscape, which has been challenging.

“Go back 20 years and there was a thriving touring circuit of companies in this country working on the 400-seat scale we are.

“They were able to do it because they were well funded.

“If you want to present a show with high commercial production values, you need financial support and there was a lot more of it about back then.

“Companies have had to be brave and grow – or disappear.

“That means we have to fill Greenwich Theatre either with our own shows, which are devised for the scale of the venue, or with smaller shows that are full of aspiration and come here to grow.

“We’ve always been excited about the fact we occupy that sort of position in the theatre ecology. 

“We’re not a tiny 40-seater – we attract audiences, press coverage and commercial partners – but if you want to come and try out an idea, you’re not going to lose everything if it doesn’t sell.

“It’s exciting to see companies, who do a show, maybe once or twice, by themselves on a shoestring, grow and develop.”

James Bradshaw will play the murderer in Frozen

As part of that change and, bolstered by its agreement with the council, the venue has announced four landmark productions set to take place over the course of 2024.

This quartet of productions made for Greenwich are all to be directed by James and feature well-known names including Kerrie Taylor (Hollyoaks and Where The Heart Is), Paul McGann (Withnail And I and Doctor Who), James Bradshaw (Endeavour and Hollyoaks) and Indra Ové (Sex Education and Holby City)

At first glance, a programme including Frozen and Beauty And The Beast might raise eyebrows about the Disneyfication of the venue’s offering, but nothing could be further from the truth.

“I’ve wanted to direct Frozen – which is by Bryony Lavery and quite a different prospect from the Disney show – for years,” said James.

“It’s a three-hander about a woman whose child has been abducted and murdered.

“The mother will be played by Kerrie.

“Indra will take the role of the New York academic who wants to study the murderer, who will be played by James.

“It’s a stunning cast and a tough piece of work but it’s not a show that’s depressing – it’s beautiful in its truth.

“It explores nature and nurture, but whichever side of the argument you fall on, it will challenge you.

Beauty And The Beast also isn’t Disney. It’s a very joyful actor-musician show – a folk music-infused hoe-down retelling of the story. 

“There’s a cast of six and it features music from David Haller who has worked on several of our summer shows.

Indra Ové will play the New York academic in Frozen

“It’s incredibly exciting and really fun – there’s just something amazing about watching a brilliant actor pick up an instrument and perform.

“With The River, 2024 is very much a year where I’m achieving my ambitions.

“I’d wanted to do Frozen for a long time and that’s true of The River as well. 

“It was originally performed at the Royal Court in 2012 and is Jez Butterworth’s first play after Jerusalem.

“It’s very different to that, though and has astonishing writing in it.

“It’s about an unnamed man, who will be played by Paul McGann, who takes his girlfriend fishing and camping in the woods.

“Something has happened in the past – but what was it and to whom?

“All I can say is there are more than two people in the cast. It’s brilliant to have Paul coming back.

“There’s something about the atmosphere and the environment at Greenwich Theatre – that applies to the staff and to the performers – people love being in the venue, so they return.

“For an actor like Paul to come to this size venue is a testament to that.

“It’s about the history and you can feel it when you’re in the auditorium. It’s something really special.”

Speaking of which, the final production confirmed will be the latest Greenwich Theatre panto.

Dick Whittington And His Cat will see Anthony Spargo back as writer and villain and Uncle Steve Marwick returning as musical director,” said James.

“We won best design at the Offie Awards for last year’s so this will be about being better and bigger.

“That’s a challenge when we had seven dwarves and a plane in 2023.” 

  • key dates 

Frozen will run from April 26-May 19

Beauty And The Beast from August 2-25

The River from October 1-27

Dick Whittington And His Cat from November 22-January 5.

For more about Greenwich Theatre, go here

Anthony Spargo returns as writer and villain in Dick Whittington And His Cat

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Greenwich: How Anthony Spargo and the team are set to take on Snow White

Greenwich Theatre pantomime eschews a dame in favour of a dragged-up villain and a cast of puppets

Anthony Spargo has written this year’s Greenwich Theatre panto, Snow White, and will star in at as the Evil Queen

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I‘m delighted to find Anthony Spargo walking when he arrives for our interview.

The last time I saw him, on stage as the Sheriff Of Nottingham at Greenwich Theatre, I feared the machinations of one scene in particular might have caused irreparable damage to his lower half.

But the intervening months have been kind and there’s a distinct bounce in his gait as he strides into the Arcola – the Dalston venue where rehearsals are being held for this year’s pantomime.

For 2023, writer and actor Anthony has penned a version of Snow White, set to run at Greenwich Theatre from November 23 until January 7, 2024.

It’s the second work he’s written for the venue, following on from Robin Hood last year, but his 12th as the villain, who this year doubles as the dame.

“It’s a bit like the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella, where there’s no dame character,” said Anthony.

“I knew I was playing the Evil Queen and I did write an early version with a dame as the queen’s beautician and Snow White’s nanny, but I was struggling with the material.

“The problem was when Snow White escapes to the wood, the nanny doesn’t have anything to do.

“So instead it’ll be me dragging-up and encompassing both roles in a single part.

“It’s the same team as last year – ‘Uncle’ Steve Marwick as musical director, James Haddrell directing and me – and we decided to tackle Snow White because none of us could remember the theatre putting it on before and we wanted to have a female-focused story after Robin Hood

Anthony in a more troubling pose as the Sheriff Of Nottingham in Robin Hood

“Next year, who knows – maybe the hero will be a trans person. Pantomime has always been a bit gender-neutral – guys dressing as dames and women dressing as male heroes.” 

Also returning alongside Anthony will be Martin Johnson as Herman The Huntsman (previously Friar Tuck) and Louise Cielecki as Muddles (formerly Mutley).

Other lead roles are taken by Katie Tomkinson as Snow White, Tom Bales as Prince Charming and DeeArna McLean as the Magic Mirror.

“When writing a show, you take the essence of the story and use that as a kind of chassis – a foundation,” said Anthony. 

“But it wouldn’t be a Greenwich panto without a nice twist. There are stand-out plot points and, if I went to see a version that didn’t have some of them, I would be disappointed – so we’ve got the poisoned apple, and the dwarves are obviously in there.

“Then there’s the queen ordering the huntsman to kill Snow White, and he can’t quite bring himself to do it – so the big iconic moments are present.

“In fact, Act One is pretty packed with story, story, story. It moves fast, with lots to set up – the stories of all the characters, for example, which is a panto staple.

“As an audience member though, you could be forgiven for thinking that pretty much all of the story is wrapped up by the interval – that’s where the twist comes in.

“In Act Two you can get away with having a bit of fun and silly surprises – taking people to places they least expect and climaxing in the destruction of the villain. 

Louise Cielecki, seen here as Mutley in Robin Hood, is set to return as Muddles

“In Sleeping Beauty we went to the moon and in Robinson Crusoe we went to the Wild West.

“This year we’re not travelling to different destinations, but I don’t want to give too much away – you’ll just have to come and see.”

Anthony said the thrill and unpredictability of the show was the main draw, with people able to step outside their lives for a few hours and revel in some proper, carefully crafted nonsense. 

“With any show, it’s escapism – a chance to get away from whatever’s going on in the world and let it go,” he said.

“People should come to have fun and be a kid again – shouting out at the villain and cheering the goodies.

“The first read-through is when I get to hear it out loud.

“What I secretly love, is the way a whole gang of people take the inane, stupid, silly nonsense that I have written, completely seriously, and have the most intense and serious conversations about the most stupid things.

“For example, there have been lengthy discussions about how a machine that sticks labels on boxes in this year’s show works, even though it doesn’t actually have to really operate at any point on stage.

“One of the joys of working with a brilliant cast is that while I might have written the lines, other actors may come up with stuff I hadn’t even thought of and deliver it in a way I hadn’t expected.

“When that happens, it’s amazing. 

Long-standing panto player Martin Johnson, seen here as Friar Tuck, is also set to return as the Huntsman

“The dwarves in the story will be played by the cast, our two ensemble members and stage management using puppets and we have a couple of really lovely sequences with them because you can’t do Snow White without that.

“We’ll also be bringing back the revolve on stage this year so we can change scene.

“We have a great new designer – Emily Bestow – who’s been absolutely brilliant.

“Last year it was realism in Sherwood Forest, but this year it feels like we’re back in panto-land. It’s bright, colourful and there’s loud glitter everywhere.

“As for next year, we have started to have conversations about it but haven’t decided what it will be yet.

“With this one I started getting ideas for it while performing Robin Hood and then began writing the show in January last year.

“You start off setting out a plot scene-by-scene and things slowly start merging and coming together.

“I’d love to do Peter Pan again, because selfishly I’d like to play Captain Hook.

“We did it about eight years ago and it’s a great show – audiences love it, there’s flying and also, THERE’S NO BETTER VILLAIN IN PANTO.”

…must resist. Ok, fine. OH YES THERE IS… (suggestions on a postcard to info@wharf-life.com)    

  • Tickets for Snow White cost £33 (£16.50 concessions), with performances running Tuesday-Sunday at various times.  

Find out more about Snow White at Greenwich Theatre here

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Greenwich: How Greenwich Theatre’s Pinter double-bill is exactingly realised

Pitch-perfect performances in The Dumb Waiter + A Slight Ache maximum oxygen for audiences

Jude Akuwidike and Kerrie Taylor in A Slight Ache -image Danny Kaan

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THEATRE REVIEW

The Dumb Waiter + A Slight Ache, Greenwich Theatre, Until June 3, 2023

On the face of it, The Dumb Waiter is a play about a pair of hapless, ground down hitmen awaiting their next job in a dingy basement in Birmingham.

This has little to do with the subject of A Slight Ache, which follows the musings of a couple whose relationship becomes increasingly pressured by the presence of a mysterious match-seller.

But Harold Pinter’s tragi-comic short plays sit surprisingly well together on stage at Greenwich Theatre, especially when – pause for dramatic effect – presented by an overlapping cast.

The double bill, which runs until June 3, 2023, is everything live theatre ought to be.

Despite a cast of only three actors and a spare, minimal set, the production is a sharp, lean sliver of a thing, twisting and turning as the characters wrestle with their precarious situations.

The performances that director James Haddrell has coaxed from his cast are exactly right for the material.

Tony Mooney and Kerrie Taylor in A Slight Ache -image Danny Kaan

Jude Akuwudike, Kerrie Taylor and Tony Mooney each breathe rich, believable life into the five characters we meet across the two plays, in a way that effortlessly lets the audience focus on the ideas and topics teased and hinted at.

These are skilled professionals laying bare the strangeness of Pinter’s plots, making them whole with flesh and blood people.

A Slight Ache, has Edward (Akuwudike) and Flora (Taylor) incarcerated in the claustrophobic existence of their brittle relationship.

Much remains unsaid. Instead, the horror is all in the detail – the brutal execution of a wasp trapped in marmalade using boiling water is juxtaposed with cheerful chit chat about the various plants in the garden.

But what are we to make of the mysterious figure of a match seller just outside their tranquil oasis?

A brooding, constant presence that Edward is both terrified of and obsessed by.

Made flesh by a completely impassive Mooney, this figure is the impervious rock against which main characters pound themselves to wreckage – a study of buried truths, fantasy, repression, fear and desire – both sexual and maternal.

While all three are powerful – notably Mooney’s ability to convey a completely leaden, static presence – it’s Akuwudike who shines.

With much of the play in monologue, his depiction of Edward finds layers in a proper man confronted with the unknown – a breakdown inevitable as he wears himself down against the granite face of the totally unresponsive match seller.

Mooney, left, and Akuwudike in The Dumb Waiter – image Danny Kaan

The switch to The Dumb Waiter comes as something of a shock as Akuwudike is transformed from arch middle class essayist to a working class football fan and hitman. 

Along with Ben (a much more active Mooney) the pair are found in a claustrophobic basement bedsit as they grapple with boredom and the expectation of the next job.

While Pinter’s twist is over-telegraphed, the pressure-cooker atmosphere acts as an ideal counterpoint to A Slight Ache.

Here the unknown isn’t a character, but a series of mysterious messages via envelope under the door and what appear to be kitchen orders from an unseen and possibly defunct cafe above.

More dynamic than the first play, it casts its two characters as treading a fine line between the rational and irrational as they attempt to make sense of their lives, the dreadful murders they commit and the significance of why their boss hasn’t laid on any gas to make the tea. 

This play too is a tense portrait of two people struggling and, along with its companion, makes for a refreshing, thought-provoking night out at the theatre. 

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Greenwich: How serial villain Anthony Spargo brings joy to Greenwich Theatre

The serial villain has written panto Robin Hood and will fill the theatre full of silliness and disguise

Anthony Spargo will play the Sheriff Of Nottingham in Robin Hood at Greenwich Theatre

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My interview with actor, playwright, author and star of this year’s Greenwich Theatre panto, Anthony Spargo, begins with farce.

I dial the number I think I’ve been given. There’s no reply. Eventually following an answerphone message a woman answers.

“Is this Anthony?” No, it’s Jane. I suppress an urge to shout “Oh no it isn’t”, and accept I’ve got the number wrong.

Time is short, I’m on a deadline.

Flustered, I check my handwriting and discover a four should be a nine. I can’t get through on this number either. 

Then my phone rings. It’s Jane. Oh yes it is! She’s confused and baffled by the number of missed calls and we exchange embarrassed pleasantries.

Meanwhile, my phone fields another call. 

This time it is Anthony, now available and ready to chat.

I hardly know who’s who and certainly not whether my contact with Jane is behind me or if there’s more to come. 

Fortunately this all turns out to be excellent preparation for an interview about a show that’s full of top notch deception and cunning.

“One of the central themes in Robin Hood is disguise,” said Anthony, not Jane.

“Pretty much everyone is pretending to be someone who they’re not at some point.

“Robin gets to wear three or four disguises over the course of the panto.

“You can imagine the over-the-top, ridiculous costumes we have, including for some of the band – but we don’t want to reveal too much at this stage.”

A veteran panto villain – having spent 11 years on the Greenwich stage soaking up the boos and hisses of exercised audiences – Anthony has taken on a bigger role in 2022.

This is the first year he’s both written and appeared in the theatre’s festive production – taking on the mantle from Andrew Pollard who has left the team after a celebrated 15-year run as writer and dame.

While Anthony said he would undoubtedly miss acting opposite his old friend, audiences could expect the new show to be a descendant of their decade-long collaboration.

“It’s the same but different,” said Anthony.

“My main influence is, of course, 10 years of Greenwich pantos and I’ll miss Andy on stage.

“We remain really good friends and have a great chemistry – it’s rare to find someone you can bounce off – but he’d done 15 years here and that’s a long time.

“Writing and producing a panto really lasts a whole year. I started writing this one in March and had a draft by July – nice and early so the theatre could get on with designing and building the set and all the rest of it. 

“Now the theatre’s artistic director, James Haddrell, is already talking to me about what we’re going to do next year and we haven’t even started the 2022 run yet.”

Martin Johnson will also return to Greenwich as Friar Tuck

Anthony is set to play the dastardly Sheriff Of Nottingham alongside David Breeds as Robin and Amy Bastani as Maid Marian. 

Martin Johnson will return to panto in Greenwich as Friar Tuck, while long-serving musical director Steve Marwick is also back to handle the songs.

Dame duties will be the responsibility of Phil Sealey.

“I’ve worked with Phil in the past and he’s also damed before, up and down the country,” said Anthony.

“He’s great – I think audiences will take to him because he’s such a warm person. He’s larger than life and he’s going to be amazing.

“We have a fantastic cast this year, we’re getting on like a house on fire. There are some great singers and we’re really gelling.

“As for the show itself, it’s quite anarchic.

“What I’ve always liked about the pantos here is that they build and build until the climax at the end, which is often utterly ridiculous, overblown and as silly as panto should be. 

“There’s a little bit of everything. Some comedy, some music, puppetry and a bit of magic. We’ve gone for a late medieval, ‘hey nonny-nonny’ vibe.

“Personally I love playing the villain. It’s the best part, you can get away with murder.

“I’ve always played my villains slightly unhinged, which allows you to have fun with the part and muck about – there’s a lot of eyebrow acting.”

Having discovered acting at school as a teenager before going to drama school, Anthony developed his writing in tandem, starting with sketches and skits and going on to take shows to Edinburgh and write more immersive pieces for Les Enfants Terribles. 

With politics and current affairs fluid, the exact content of the show will remain in development until the curtain goes up, but its universal themes of greed, taxes and money – as well as people coming together to help each other – are already set in stone.

“Dare I say it, I think I enjoy the writing more than the acting these days,” said Anthony. “There’s something really special and exciting about creating a show from scratch.

“But when the audience is clapping and laughing it feels fantastic to be on stage. It’s a feeling like no other.

“There’s great warmth and joy when you’ve been able to make something that people are able to lose themselves in.

“People can come to the theatre, forget about what’s happening in the wider world, let go and have fun for a couple of hours.

“For me, the louder they boo, the better I’m doing my job. I’m really looking forward to it – I can’t wait to get going – and all we need now is the audience, the final cast member, to do that.”

  • Robin Hood runs at Greenwich Theatre from November 24 until January 8 with plenty of matinees and evening performances scheduled. Tickets cost £31.

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Greenwich: How It’s A Motherf**cking Pleasure puts blindness centre stage

FlawBored’s Greenwich Theatre show employs satire and glittered-up canes to explore its topic

Image of FlawBored standing against a colourful wall, from left to right, Aarian Mehrabani,(6ft middle eastern man with thick black hair and a shaved face) Chloe Palmer (5ft 8” white woman with blonde hair, blue eyes and freckles.) and Sam Brewer (6ft 1” white man with a shaved head and a short ginger beard)
FlawBored are, from left, Aarian Mehrabani, Chloe Palmer and Sam Brewer

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“I think there needs to be a big shift in theatre to consider disabled audiences, and how you can make work that aims to be more inclusive,” said Chloe Palmer.

“No show is ever going to be 100% accessible, but having companies that are evaluating what they can do and how they can support people with disabilities has been a catapult for us.”

Actors and devisers Chloe, Sam Brewer and Aarian Mehrabani make up FlawBored – an emerging, disabled-led company – that’s set to stage three performances of its debut production at Greenwich Theatre in September, 2022.

A work in progress, It’s A Motherf**cking Pleasure is a satire encompassing blindness, influencer culture and non-disabled anxiety about trying to get things right and do the correct thing.

“It’s really good fun, not harsh and nasty,” said director Josh Roche.

“It’s about the way some people presume to know what is good or useful for those with disabilities and gently mocks that anxiety.

“It’s very funny,  very fast-paced, very playful, and it tends to let you know where the floorboards are and then unsettles you and turns things on their head. 

“It’s also about how disabled identities talk to each other and how they’re competing for space. 

“It focuses on a young influencer who is trying to give disability a social cachet and the compromises they have to make, just like other social justice movements at the moment.”

The hour-long show follows “megalomaniac blind talent manager” Tim who’s on a mission to rebrand disability with “ambitious but naïve” blind influencer Ross as his possible golden ticket.

Audiences can expect glittered-up canes, blind TV spin-offs and hijacked political causes in the mix. It’s fair to say there’s a lot going on, with accessible layers to match.

An image of Sam (left), wearing a pink floral suit jacket, holding Aarian (right), wearing a mustard jumper and blue dungarees both on stage. A photo of Baker Street tube platform projected behind
Sam and Aarian on stage

“This is a piece we’ve worked on for a year,” said Chloe.

“Sam came up with the original concept and approached Aarian and me to ask what we could do to explore how blindness could become dramatised?

“We then spiralled from that. A lot of our process is based on doing research and focusing on ideas we want to explore within the theatre world.

“We go away and explore a question and, because access is so important to us as a theatre company, we also make sure that every idea we come up with can be made accessible.

“Alongside the devising, we have an access language and we look at how captioning and audio descriptions can be integrated into the script and scene – it’s not something we do at the end with limited time.

“Sometimes in theatre the audio descriptions are done by companies who don’t have much to do with the production process, but we say that you should start with access in the forefront of your mind and it should be turning in your head while you create work, which will be enriched because of it.

“You think about the language you can use in a play and the form it can take, and access is just another language, which allows the audience another way to experience your work. 

“For example, captions can add an extra layer of experience for anyone who can read them and you can use them however you want.

“I think the support we’ve had for this project is a testament to the fact that a lot of theatre is still inaccessible. 

“You’ve got people exploring these languages but not necessarily the know-how to use them.”

In some senses that’s less of an issue for FlawBored because Sam and Aarian are blind.

Having graduated from the Royal Central School Of Speech And Drama in 2020, the three actors teamed up with the idea of making a show together, before finding support and funding in the form of a company.

One of the missions of that company is to put blind characters on stage that don’t conform to tired stereotypes.

Sam said: “I’m blind and so is Aarian, but we are very different people. We simply find ourselves lumped together by the happenstance that we are blind.

“This is one of the things we’re trying to find our way around.

“There are a lot of tropes around vision-impaired characters, historically – oracles in Greek tragedies, soothsayers, characters  who see the world differently – that’s all rather boring.”

A photo of Aarian (left) and Chloe (right) on stage. Chloe (wearing a blue and white stripy jumper with blue jeans) extends her hand to Aarian (wearing blue denim dungarees and a mustard yellow jumper) A projection of Baker Street Tube Station in the background

Aarian added: “We’re trying to show that people are an amalgamation of many identities – our gender, class and nationality, for example – blindness is just another one of those differences.

“Sam and I are both visually impaired but that’s just where our similarities cross – we’ve got completely different life experiences.

“All of the characters in It’s A Motherf**cking Pleasure are fully rounded and deep. Inherently they all have loveable and likeable characteristics, but are also deeply flawed.

“It’s a complicated relationship between the characters and the audience and we never want to be saying: ‘These are the blind characters – and you know how to treat them’.”

Josh said: “You always know which identities on stage are allowed to be themselves and which are treated with kid gloves.

“Visually impaired people are typically clairvoyant or see life in a deeper way than those around them. 

“When you allow them to be just as flawed as all of the other characters in a play, you’re understanding that visually impaired people are just people – they’re as good or as bad as anyone else.”

Having won support from Arts Council England, Greenwich Theatre (which presented FlawBored with its 2022 LET Greenwich Theatre Award), Theatre Deli, Camden People’s Theatre, Les Enfants Terribles, Wildcard Theatre, Watermill Theatre and Extant, there’s clearly an appetite in the industry for the company’s work.

Sam said: “I think theatre can be really good at doing moments, but it’s about how those artists can then be developed.”

Josh added: “I think there’s a difference at the moment in the way arts funding is focusing towards different identity groups and the way they’re perceived in wider culture.

“I think there’s a reverence about the way funding operates, which can be incredibly useful but can also be quite restrictive – it’s not always as playful or bold as it could be.

“There’s a distinction between this and, for example, the way social media represents different identities.

“The hope is that others will find it easier to develop work in these areas and these ways if people have already done it.”

  • Performances of It’s A Motherf**cking Pleasure are set to take place at 7.30pm on September 14, 2022, and 7.30pm and 2pm on September 15, 2022. Tickets cost £15.

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Greenwich: How the all-female cast of Notflix create musicals from scratch

One of the stars of the improvised show explains the joy of making it all up as you go along

Notflix create the show based on suggestions from the audience
Notflix create the show based on suggestions from the audience

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Power will be in the hands of the audience when they arrive at Notflix: The Improvised Musical at Greenwich Theatre.

Spectators will vie to have their favourite film chosen as the inspiration for the show on June 11, 2022, at the venue and then watch as the cast members leap into action.

But once the performance gets rolling, the power will shift as the all-female improv group creates scenes, songs and vocals with a new narrative, all from their imaginations.

We sat down with one of the stars, Emma Read, to find out more.

how did the group start?
Our amazing director, Sarah Spencer, had this inkling she could make something really great and different.

She put together a mixed gender improv group called Waiting For The Call, and was exploring ideas.

Then she came up with the idea of creating a musical improv show based on a movie suggestion. 

when did you join?
At the end of 2017 and, by then, it was already all female. That’s actually the thing that really drew me to the group. We cannot have enough all female things. 

In improv and comedy, which is such a male-dominated place, it’s important that women feel they can be funny and masculine and feminine, or a penguin or whatever and that they’re not being predetermined by their gender. In our show, we don’t have any limits. 

Notflix’s Emma Read in full flow

how did you learn to do improv?
I was training for about three months. I had done it at drama school but never stepped on stage with improv being the premise of a show – that was really scary. 

I had to learn how to create music from improv and learn about song structure, rhyming, and rapping. It took a lot of time to get right. 

But that’s the thing that makes the audience feel like it’s magic and that it’s coming alive.

It’s a very difficult skill to learn – how to relax on stage when you’re just making up stuff. You have to unlock a weird part of your brain. 

was there a moment it clicked?
My first show was in 2018. I think we did X-Men but I sort of blanked it out because I was so nervous.

Then we did Silence Of The Lambs in Yorkshire and I decided to play a completely made up character who was the weird sidekick of the baddie. 

I just found a physicality that I thought was funny and remember hearing the audience react to that. 

If I don’t over think it and try and be funny or formulate a joke, but just come forward with something that feels honest and natural, that’s when the audience really connects with you.

In that moment I thought: ‘Oh, this is what it is. This is true improv’.

The cast make up the musical from scratch
The cast make up the musical from scratch

how do you know when to sing?
There’s a lot of eyeballing each other. We don’t start a song unless there’s an impetus. It usually starts with just one person and then, because we’re so versed in song structure, we’ll get the idea of what someone is going for. 

Or, if we don’t, we might have a moment to negotiate, which is fun too because a lot of songs have a sort of slow-paced start and then they rev up.

what do you love about it?
I think it keeps me on my toes as an actor – there’s nothing scarier than the show I’m in. Auditions can now be a time of play because if they give me a script I’m like, perfect. 

As an actor, there’s so much fear going into a room of people that could give you a job. If you can get rid of that desperation, that’s a step towards getting the role. 

Improv is magical. When you see the greats perform, it feels incredible, so organic, alive and present. It’s also scary because you’re watching, knowing that they’re making it up. 

So there’s a sort of fun and very intense energy between the cast and the audience, which is so different from a normal West End show.  

If you walk into The Book Of Mormon, you know they’ve rehearsed it for months and there’s not going to be a hair out of place.

In improv you could slip up at any time and that scary energy is something I’ve really come to love. 

what’s your favourite type of role?
Recently, I’ve loved playing the young ingenue sort of Spiderman vibe.

There’s a lot of heart to them – I love playing the Smee characters – grizzled, second in command but so pathetic with a kind of grotesque physicality.

have you had any disasters?
There are no mistakes in improv. If you’re a good improviser, you make that disaster into a joke, you make it the whole reason the show exists and it becomes the best thing in the show. 

People have come to see it because they know that there’ll be mistakes, and it’s what you do with that mistakes that’s key. I have frozen up, but you just make your character have a stutter or be lost for words because they’re so in love or they’re been poisoned. 

why are women good at improv?
Because we’re amazing. I think to be a good improviser is to be a good actor and women have an incredible ability to connect and empathise.

We are able to empathize with villains, which makes them more interesting, and create stories based on our own trauma which fleshes out a character.

As a cast, we’re incredibly supportive. We now have two members with little babies and there are not a lot of shows that might be able to support them the way we are. 

Because we’re all women, we just decided we would make it work. This is our life. 

We all have other jobs and projects – we fit this around that and some people will want to get married and have kids and we’ll make it part of our experience. We want everyone to succeed. 

We’re there for each other on stage as well. In improv, if you’re in a bad place, it’s really tough. 

We have the ability to recognize when someone is not feeling good, and take them out of it, and use it as part of the show. 

As a cast, we will huddle around, take that energy, adrenaline or sadness and use it to create something beautiful. 

what musical would your life be?
A woman dog-walking nine-to-five, making up musicals and watching lots of films in her spare time and listening to old R’n’B. 

Notflix comes to Greenwich Theatre on June 11, 2022
Notflix comes to Greenwich Theatre on June 11, 2022

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 

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