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Rotherhithe: How Rotherhithe Playhouse is embracing new traditions this Christmas

Founder Phil Willmott is putting on The Christmas Wife and the Wizard Of Oz at theatre’s new home at The Hithe

Rotherhithe Playhouse’s Phil Willmott – image by Matt Grayson

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Declarations that it is “The most wonderful time of the year” are being blasted at us from all angles.

That perfectly trimmed TV turkey, the handmade centrepiece online, families decorating in matching Christmas jumpers.

Fomo is more rampant than ever, but with the shadow of Covid just over our shoulders and the cost of living crisis in our faces, do we really need to embrace it?

Phil Willmott from Rotherhithe Playhouse knows no-one wants to be Scrooge, but thinks it’s important to highlight that we don’t have to be Stacey Solomon either.

The theatre, which launched in summer 2020, is marking its second festive season with The Christmas Wife – a dark comedy offering couples the chance to pause and reflect.

Showing from December 15-30 at the theatre’s new home in The Hithe, it is an adaptation of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, which tells the story of a wife whose perfect Christmas starts to unravel due to one bad decision.

It will be tempered against family favourite The Wizard Of Oz, also showing December 15-30, 2022, which launches a new scheme offering up to four free childrens’ tickets with a paying adult.

I sat down with Phil to find out more about the plays and the theatre’s plans for 2023.

The Christmas Wife is set to play at Rotherhithe Playhouse

why this play for Christmas?

We’re all about getting people to go to the theatre who haven’t been much.

There’s a great tradition in this country of doing theatre for families and children at Christmas and I wondered if it might be possible to present slightly intelligent plays that could be a Christmas night out for adults. 

I looked for something that would be thrilling and entertaining and The Doll’s House is one everyone has heard of, but not many people have seen.

why rename it?

The original is set during Christmas and I have upped the ante slightly on the angle of providing the perfect Christmas and how the pressure makes the wife start to buckle.

Often men don’t take responsibility for the perfect Christmas, they just expect it to be there and don’t see the hard work. 

I had seen The Doll’s House and liked it, but when I read it again, I realised there was so much more to it.

It’s extraordinary how this was written about a Victorian couple but we could so easily be eavesdropping on any modern house.

There are the same kind of money worries, the same stresses and strains that come about when a family is thrown together so intensely in the festive period.

what’s the aim?

It shows that the struggle to get through Christmas is a sort of universal thing. It pulls on your heartstrings and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. 

Perhaps if we opened up the discussion a bit more there wouldn’t be the pressure to recreate the mystique of the perfect family Christmas with an elaborate dinner and a beautifully decorated house.

If it was more collaborative, there would be a shared responsibility for it.

what happens in the play?

The character is the perfect housewife, during the perfect Christmas. She’s got the perfect husband – he’s just been promoted – and perfect children. 

They are having a party and the house looks gorgeous, but to pay for it, she gets the equivalent of a payday loan. 

She didn’t quite make the payments back and due to a series of coincidences, the guy who organised the loan ends up at their house.

She becomes terrified her husband will find out and about the repercussions. Will he stand by her and be sympathetic? 

We see what she decides to do and what that says about their marriage.

is that a common scenario today?

I did some research and the main reason people divorce is money.

The main time the cracks begin to show is at Christmas.

So there’s a sort of double whammy of creating this amazing time, not spending too much, but also not being a Scrooge.

is it more stressful this year?

Yes. We are in the middle of an economic downturn and there is still the pressure to create the perfect Christmas.

You’re also worried about whether you’ve had the heating on too long. 

My elderly parents are certainly thinking twice about it.

The pressure has doubled down and you find yourself thinking: ‘What if it isn’t a great Christmas?‘ or ‘What’s wrong with me?

Why aren’t I happy like the rest of the world?’. In fact, the rest of the world is thinking the same.

The festive season is very strange like that. Coming in, you should be happy and making a fresh start. Also, 10 years ago who knew we all had a credit rating?

Suddenly it’s something you have to worry about. We are confined by something that’s almost entirely artificial and has been sort of forced on us.

what are you like at Christmas?

I’m a gay man in a relationship, so we don’t really have those same pressures, and we’ve often just taken ourselves off for a nice weekend or something. 

But I remember seeing it in my parents when I was growing up and looking back, I see things I didn’t understand as a kid. 

My grandma had quite severe, MS and my granddad was her main carer, but somehow on Christmas Day, he produced dinner for 12. That must have created a great amount of stress.

As kids we took it for granted.

what causes the stress?

Everyone wants their children to have the most magical Christmas.

Then there’s the pressure for the extended family to come together and siblings might not get on, but because its Christmas, you have to.

Very few people are motivated by just pleasing themselves at Christmas.

how has the Playhouse evolved?

After last Christmas, we took a break to think about how to do things better.

We used to set up a theatre in a different venue for each production, but decided it would be good to have a home, so people know where we are.

This is the second production in our new home at The Hithe. It’s a hub for startup businesses  and we’ve got one of the biggest studios upstairs.

We wouldn’t normally be able to afford it, but I approached them and made the case – because the owners are tuned into our philosophy of lifelong learning and trying to keep theatre alive, they have let us have it for just under market rent.

Rotherhithe Playhouse’s home at The Hithe

why did you want a home?

We used to move around because, as Covid lost its grip, there were lots of institutions and buildings, which needed to show the public they had opened again – a play was a good way of getting people through the doors.

That’s become less useful now and it’s more useful for the community to know there’s a place where every school holiday, there’ll be something for kids for free.

If people choose, they can come back and see some of the greatest plays ever written with tickets you can afford.

does the future feel more secure?

I think so. We’re very reliant on people’s goodwill and it’s taken a little while to build that up. We had a good momentum but then disappeared for six months so we need to build up the audience members again. 

This project is not entirely make-or-break, but if we can’t turn the corner with a production of The Wizard of Oz, then we are doing something wrong.

We’ll sit down at the end of this and look very carefully at the box office figures and hopefully, the books will tell us people are enjoying coming and we should continue. 

I suspect we will carry on. There’s enough interest in the project that we can keep building it. The ultimate goal is to get everyone paid properly and make it sustainable.

is The Christmas Wife a gamble?

Yes. Will people exhausted from work want to see it? I don’t know. The other reason I decided on The Wizard of Oz is that’s such a well-known title and hopefully, the 50 seats will fill themselves. 

It will be an added bonus if people come back for the drama, which will have 30 seats.

is it still a minimalist set?

Yes. I don’t want to do those great, long lumbering, stodgy productions with bits of scenery cranking about.

At its heart, this is about an audience sat around in a semicircle, with very good actors telling a story very clearly and carrying people along with it. 

is it hard to find actors these days?

The arts are still decimated after Covid, so many people have left the profession because there was no work and a lot of them have stayed in permanent jobs. 

There’s a shortage of actors who want to give up long-term stable employment to take a short-term contract.

We try to keep rehearsals and performances outside of office hours so it’s possible to maintain your survival job and also practice your craft.

do you still have a day job?

Yes, I’m still also a professional journalist, but this has become more my main job, although it doesn’t pay like it.

It wouldn’t operate without a high level of focus on my part. 

I’d like to delegate more, but you need a certain calibre of person that you are happy to leave things to.

We are so open to anyone getting involved. Even if you don’t have any experience and would like to volunteer,  we will teach you.

plans for 2023?

It is quite dependent on how people react to these plays. 

The only thing I’m absolutely sure of is that every holiday and half-term I want to do a piece of kids theatre where the tickets are free for kids so that they don’t just go to the theatre a couple of times during their childhood. 

I want it to be something they can do regularly so that it demystifies the process and it makes it feel natural and comfortable.

Read more: Greenwich Theatre villain takes the panto reins

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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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Rotherhithe: How Phil Willmott’s Rotherhithe Playhouse delivers classics

Born in lockdown the theatre company is currently staging its fifth production and looking to the future

Phil Willmott of Rotherhithe Playhouse
Phil Willmott of Rotherhithe Playhouse – image Matt Grayson

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When life fell apart, Phil Willmott found himself broke and bored.

The Rotherhithe resident went from being one of the most commissioned theatre writers in the UK as well as a director, artistic director, composer, librettist, teacher, arts journalist and actor to, well, a man sat in a room.

As he has done since childhood, the 55-year-old turned to theatre, launching Rotherhithe Playhouse just after the first lockdown.

It started with Hamlet on the riverside and progressed to A Christmas Carol, the Rotherhithe Gospels and Great Expectations, each performed in a different open air location with sets built from recycled and found materials.

Current production The Macbeths runs until November 6 in the courtyard of The Ship in Rotherhithe with three shows planned for the Christmas period.

We sat down to find out more about the man behind the company.

How did Rotherhithe Playhouse start?

As a kid, theatre was really important to me. I didn’t go to a particularly good school so I would take myself off on Saturday afternoons to see plays and musicals at Bristol Old Vic. 

It was how I learnt about the world. When Covid closed all the theatres, I realised there was a real danger of a whole generation of kids never being taken to the theatre, who will have never seen the plays they are studying. 

I felt the longer the pandemic went on, the more people would get out of the habit of going to the theatre, so an entire art form could die away. 

There is a beautiful riverfront outside my window so I thought I would get some actors together and we would go and do Hamlet down there.

It was very simply staged and the audience was really transported by it. I just thought we had to keep it going.

What makes it different from a conventional theatre?

Each production is in a different venue in Rotherhithe to help bring them to a wider public. I don’t think I would be interested in the nuts and bolts of running a permanent venue but each month we build a new theatre from scratch – it’s very exciting and you can adapt the performance to the site you are in and make it very special.

Tickets are free if you access food banks or subsidised school meals and for everyone else we run the Pay What You Can scheme. That way I hope it will always be affordable for people to take their kids to see a magnificent piece of literature, which is really life enhancing.

The other innovative thing we do is with the creatives. Because of the pandemic, lots of them took proper full-time jobs and now they find it impossible to give them up for short-term theatre commitments. So we only work outside of office hours so they can participate.

Phil’s interest in theatre was sparked by pantomime – image Matt Grayson

What sparked your interest in theatre?

Pantomime. I was taken as an annual treat and I used to sit there intently watching it so that for months, as I fell asleep, I could run it in my mind. 

I came from quite a working class background in Bristol so there was no-one to explain theatre to me. I assumed it was just the actors. It didn’t occur to me that someone wrote and directed and designed it.

I thought I wanted to be an actor and trained for three years and was relatively successful playing, ironically, upper class twits in light entertainment and ended up in a Science Fiction soap opera Jupiter Moon that they used to launch Sky. 

It was a fantastic cast with people like Anna Chancellor and Jamie Glover. I have never laughed so much and made lifelong friends. But after that, I realised acting wasn’t for me.

I started writing plays and sent one in a brown envelope literally addressed to The BBC, London and a fantastic producer picked it up and they did it on Radio 4. One day I wanted someone to direct a version of it and I decided to have a go myself. Ever since I have had this three-pronged career.

I prefer theatre, as being on TV is more like being in a factory. Theatre is a knife edge and I still feel that now times ten because every day is fighting fires. I just wish I could make a living at it on its own.

How did lockdown affect you?

It was truly shocking and even now I’m struggling to acclimatise. I hadn’t been unemployed for 30 years. Suddenly it all stopped and, from an incredibly busy, stressful life there was just me, sat in a room. I was forced to say: “I’m not my career. Who am I? What do I believe in? What do I want to happen?”.

I discovered I had to make theatre because it was in my blood but I had to find a new way of doing it for life, during and after this wretched pandemic.

Before, I was glued to my diary and didn’t know who I was. Now, ironically, because of this project, I’m still a person rushing around putting on plays but I know why. It was a chance to throw it all up in the air and decide what I wanted to take from my old life into my new life. 

Also, for the first time in my life, I became penniless. I wasn’t wealthy before but never in my life, even as a student, had I had to stop and think: “Can I afford a coffee?”.

That was very sobering and fuelled me to think about how I could help other people in this situation. There are many wonderful people running food banks but I think as humans we have to be a bit more than that.

Why did you choose to perform classics?

I always assume people will be sick of things like Macbeth or Great Expectations and know them inside and backwards. 

But people come who have no idea of the story and who have never heard them and it’s so exciting to give people their first experience of these incredible pieces of work.

Shakespeare is this miraculous, ridiculous phenomenon because there are these words and every time you go back to them they mean something different. It’s endlessly rich and rewarding. 

Have you discovered any parallels between your latest production and your present situation?

Completely. Macbeth starts off with a very certain trajectory and then everything falls apart and it comes from an unexpected quarter, his encounter with the three witches, which feels a bit like our encounter with this strange disease which came out of nowhere.

He’s ruthless and violent and I’m not those things but we were all brought up to think about career and how we advance and get a better job.

Then, suddenly that rug is pulled away and we are in the situation that Macbeth is in. What does he pursue and what feels wrong? Of course he makes all the wrong choices, but watching him do that tells us a lot about our lives and our choices.

Are you happy with your choices?

I’m making the best choices I can and struggling every day to do it better. When we started, nobody showed up and now it has a little fanbase, so I’m sure there is a need for it. But it is endlessly exhausting not having any money.

Everything has to be found on the street or bought in the pound shop. There’s no way it can make money, unless it’s very heavily subsidised, because the pop-up theatres we make seat a maximum of 60 people. 

I haven’t taken another job so far, but will have to change that because it’s impossible to keep living on £20 a week. I just know we have to always be there for our community. So, no matter what, they can go to the theatre and see something fantastic.

How has the community responded?

It’s very difficult to get places to perform. I’m quite cross with some people who won’t let me put our theatre up in their forecourt. It’s troubling and has been a bit of an eye-opener.

Organisations that you think would go out of their way to help you find all sorts of by-laws and nonsense in order to justify saying no. But we are winning people over.

We need about 5m by 9m for our marquee and, if you give us that, we will create something magical for your part of the community. We don’t even need your electricity supply as we run everything on batteries.

What other help do you need?

We had a fantastic general manager, who has now moved on, so I’m looking. I feel there might be recent retirees out there who’d like to learn to project manage one show a year.

My absolute dream would be just to worry about what happened on stage. Also, if anyone has any money and would like to sponsor us, they would be contributing to something wonderful.

Will you perform any new plays?

I only want people who come to see masterpieces – nothing second rate because a bad theatre experience can mean you don’t go for the next 10 years.

I might write something about Doctor Salter and his wife who have statues on the riverbank because not many people know about them. They really suffered for what they believed but stayed and improved the area for everyone. 

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