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Stratford: Discover Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World

New show at Theatre Royal Stratford East hails female role-models and stars Christina Modestou

Christina Modeastou as Jane Austen, right
Christina Modestou as Jane Austen, right

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

The 1990s may be back in style, but thankfully Girl Power never went out of fashion.

It has been given an empowering new spin in musical Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, which is set to run at Theatre Royal Stratford East from June 15-July 17, 2022.

Based on a book by Suffragette descendant Kate Pankhurst, it celebrates often forgotten women from history such as Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, Jane Austen and Pankhurst’s own relative Emmeline, all seen through the eyes of inquisitive schoolgirl Jade.

They are brought to life by an all-female cast and a creative crew who have worked with the likes of Girls Aloud, Kylie Minogue,  Miley Cyrus and Beverley Knight.

We asked part-Welsh, part-Greek star of the show Christina Modestou to tell us about the fantastic women who have inspired her.

the matriarch

My mum Lula is one of the biggest role models in my life. She has always been 100% behind me with anything I wanted to try as a child and critiqued me in a healthy way. 

My mum was a hairdresser and she loved her job – having a parent who loves what they do really rubbed off on me.

I used to go and help on a Saturday and witness it first-hand. Looking back, I see how everyone there encouraged me.

I used to write stories and act things out as customers were waiting for their perms to set. It was one of the customers who said I should go to a drama class as it made me really happy.

the teachers

I started classes with Irene Hopkins when I was five. She was my first singing teacher and had a massive impact on me. 

She had this wonderful knack for bringing out your best qualities and encouraging you to flourish in what you were good at.

I never liked classical music, I always found passion in pop and jazzy sounds. 

Instead of putting me in a box I didn’t want to be in, she stretched me, found my flair and leaned into that. She didn’t try to mould me into anyone else. 

She still comes to see every show I do and will send me a card. There’s still that level of support.

My dance teacher Jackie Bristow was also pivotal. I honestly don’t think I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for her

Star Christina Modeastou
Star Christina Modestou


the character

My claim to fame is being in the choir scene in Love Actually and the year I graduated I did We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre. 

But the pivotal role in my career was playing Nina in In The Heights at Southwark Playhouse.

That was an experience I still hold very dear. She comes from a working-class community and goes away to university but, in trying to work and learn, she has to drop out because her grades are slipping and she has to go home and tell her family she has failed. 

It’s something quite common in our industry. People say you’ve got talent and put you on a bit of a pedestal and the thought that going home is a failure is hard. Exploring that was really exciting.

the fantastic women

This show has a really special place in my heart because I wish I had seen something like this growing up. 

In musicals there are historically four types of women – the unrequited love interest, the princess, the matriarch and the whore. Even in Les Miserables, that’s how women are portrayed. 

In our musical, we get to show who women are without men and be silly and funny, serious, loud, quiet, sensitive and strong – so many different things. I was asked to audition after I played Anne Boleyn in the original cast of Six.

I have been involved since the original workshops and it’s been amazing to see how it has snowballed. It’s a very physical show and you are representing real women.

Christina as Gertrude Ederle, in red
Christina as Gertrude Ederle, in red


the brawn

I play Gertrude Ederle, who was the first woman to swim the English Channel and broke the world record. I didn’t know her story but she is incredible. She had measles as a child and by her 40s was almost deaf. 

She taught swimming to deaf children and, when she noticed people were drowning, she helped open pools in poor areas so people could learn to swim.

She was as strong as a man, won gold at the Olympics as part of the first female swimming team and invented the two-piece bathing suit.

I admire her strength and resilience and warmth. She was unapologetic about what she could achieve and was always helping others.

the wit

Most people know Jane Austen. I love playing her in this show because she comes back around the age she died, in her early 40s and befriends Frida Kahlo. 

They are chalk and cheese but give each other a wonderful platform. The thing that impresses me most is her wit. She was such an observer and wrote characters and comedy so well.

the intellect

Mary Anning was an English fossil collector and palaeontologist who discovered the ichthyosaur when she was twelve years old and uncovered skeletons of the plesiosaur, pterosaur and lots of other key things. 

I get the impression she lived a very hard life. She got struck by lightning as a baby and everyone else near her died.

She was one of 10 children, but only she and one other made it to maturity. She also lost her work to men, who didn’t give her credit for her discoveries. 

There is a real isolated sadness to her, which I find fascinating.

I think she homed in on the joy in her work. In the musical, we meet her with Mary Seacole and Marie Curie and they become this superhero trio.

So she has learnt how to work as a team in our world, which has a magical vibe as if all these women had come back to life.

Christina as Mary Anning, left
Christina as Mary Anning, left

the co-stars

I have never been in a rehearsal room with so many women. Doing this show has been a real collaboration and we have had some amazing discussions about gender, diversity, and disabilities. 

I’ve never experienced a room as open as this and it has opened my eyes to a lot of bias I didn’t know about. 

It is also about the fact feminism isn’t about women being better than men, it’s about being fair.

We don’t want the young men in the audience to feel they should be controlled by women. We want them to be inspired by these women. Feminism isn’t about vengeance. 

Shows like Emilia, with an all-female cast, have paved the way for this. In that, women play men, which is something we rarely see. It’s bonkers, because men play women all the time – in panto and on stage. 

In Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World, we see these icons through the eyes of a young woman of colour and that is wonderful.

We wanted to make sure there was diversity – as we tour the show we want to make sure as many children are represented as possible.

the body

It’s not just about representing ethnicity, it’s about body shape. The first time I saw a body I recognised as being like mine was in Mad Men. I saw Christina Hendricks and was like: “Oh my god, finally, a curvy woman”.

I have to wear a unitard in this show, which was quite exposing for me, but the power of going out there knowing I can be a size 12 or 14 and be proud of it and hopefully inspire others, is unexplainable.

Often I get told I don’t look Welsh enough. I sit right in the middle of a lot of categories. I’m Welsh but with a Greek Cypriot background.

I’m not young, old, tall, short, thin or fat. I once got told I wouldn’t have a career until I’m older as I didn’t fit a category and I thought: “Screw that”.

the stars

I would love to work with Olivia Colman, Phoebe Waller-Bridge or Emma Thompson. Jenna Russell is amazing and I would work with her again and again. 

We did Urinetown together at The Apollo and then I managed to put on a cabaret at Southwark Playhouse during the pandemic and she did that with me too.

She is a class act. I admire people who put the work first and are selfless enough to tell the story which sometimes means giving up your moment to shine. That’s what inspires me.

herself

Someone asked us in a Q&A who we would be if we could be any women for a day and my colleague, Jade, said: “I would be me”. What a cool thing to feel – that you just want to be you and no-one else.

Read more: Discover the denim-based art of Poplar’s Ian Berry

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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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Hackney Wick: How An Unfinished Man explores spirituality and mental health

Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s play tells two truths and is set to be performed at The Yard theatre in Hackney Wick

An Unfinished Man is set to play at The Yard theatre

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On a chilly January morning, playwright, poet and filmmaker Dipo Baruwa-Etti stands on a boundary in Southwark.

Two things are true. He is standing in front of a red wall. He is standing in front of a blue wall. Neither statement tells the whole story, but neither is false.

To his right the property is painted a vibrant scarlet. To his left, an expanse of eggshell stretches away. He’s on a line between two places, two different ways of looking at the world.

His positioning is fortunate because his latest play – An Unfinished Man, set to run for a month at The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick – is an attempt to explore how conflicting viewpoints can coexist and be equally valid, and his physical positioning in front of the camera is a convenient visual metaphor.

Audiences going to see his work may wish to reflect that the theatre is also close to a divide – the line between Tower Hamlets and Newham, the borough where Dipo was born and grew up, living first in North Woolwich and then in Stratford where he’s based today.

“The play is about a man called Kayode who’s been unemployed for seven years, and his mum and a pastor come in and tell him he was cursed as a child, and that’s why he’s unemployed, so they set about reversing the curse through a prayer ceremony,” said Dipo. 

“His wife thinks he’s just going through a mental breakdown and that the ceremony is going to make it worse.

“So it becomes a clash between Western and West African views on his mental health and his situation and, in the middle is Kayode, who’s trying to find out what the truth is and what his path forward should be.

“I have Nigerian heritage and in Yoruba culture if there’s something wrong or not happening in your life, you pray or sometimes have dreams about it and I found that spirituality really interesting.

“I believe in it, but to what extent is there still truth in it? How much is it society and how much is it a spiritual battle?

“Everyone around Kayode has all these answers about what he should be doing and what he’s going through. I guess the question I’m asking is whether there’s a true answer when it comes to mental health, unemployment, faith, spirituality, visions and witchcraft in particular?

“That’s what prompted me when I spoke to Jay Miller (artistic director at The Yard) about the idea in 2018 and I’ve been working on it since then.”

Dipo is a playwright, director and poet
Dipo is a playwright, director and poet – image Matt Grayson

An Unfinished Man was originally scheduled for performance in 2020, but the pandemic delayed things. On the morning we meet, Dipo tells me rehearsals, which are now in full swing at the Jerwood Space, should have started 665 days ago.

In the meantime however, he’s been busy, working as Channel 4 Playwright on attachment to the Almeida Theatre and, more recently, seeing his work The Sun, The Moon, And The Stars performed at Theatre Royal Stratford East in June last year.  

Softly spoken, with a wellspring of considered, creative energy bubbling through him, he said he wasn’t one for detailed plot planning. I tend to go straight into the writing process – I don’t research around what I’m writing until after a first draft,”  he said.

“For An Unfinished Man, what I did immediately was write something based on instinct, on who I knew these characters to be and the situation.

“Then, after that I started having conversations with people who are working on it with me, through a series of workshops with actors, bringing people in to talk about the idea, about the concept and the questions they may have.

“All those questions and thoughts continue to challenge my perspective on what I think the story is.

“Not many people read the first draft – just Jay at The Yard and two friends. I think now rehearsals have begun we’re on draft 12.

“So I’m constantly letting the story evolve, based on questions I’ve had and thoughts that people have given me.

“That might be from comments that actors have made even if they don’t know they’re making them, if it triggers me to have a new thought.

“Because there has been this two-year gap, we’ve had the chance to interrogate and live with the material for a bit longer than usual.

“Mostly in this case that’s about making cuts – we’re in a good place with it. The play hasn’t changed that much since 2020, but it’s got tighter and tighter and that’s been great.”

Dipo is prolific, regularly working on multiple projects at once.

As a writer-director his film The Last Days (BFI Network/BBC/Tannahill Productions) starring Adjoa Andoh and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn had its UK premiere in August and he has projects in development with Blueprint Pictures, ITV Studios and Duck Soup Films.

“There was one day when I said I was going to be a writer, – my mum asked: ‘Why?’.” he said. “I was 15, I hadn’t written anything, but I loved reading stuff and watching TV and films, although I hadn’t seen that much.

“But that’s what I said I was going to do. I was part of a drama club in secondary school, so I was always aligned with creative theatre, but I performed in stuff rather than wrote it, because you don’t really do that then.

“The first thing I wrote was a TV script. I got my mum to buy me a bunch of screenwriting books, read them all and then I wrote 12 episodes of a show, called Secrets, Lies And Deceit – a drama, set in London, about a group of teenagers.

“My first five years of writing was really training – no-one ever saw the scripts. I wrote maybe 50 in that time because I just wanted to learn how to do it. That’s when I started writing plays, five years after deciding to become a writer.

“I actually went through and deleted all of the scripts I wrote as a teenager last year – although I have a record of the titles – because I don’t want anyone to ever see them. I think they’re just terrible.

“For anyone who’s considering becoming a writer, the only advice I have is to find stories you’re actually interested in telling because the path is really hard.

“I got my work seen through sending it out, submitting pieces to competitions.

“But I’ve also done lots of behind-the-scenes work in theatres and TV where I got to know people and took their advice. It’s often really about who you end up knowing and who can help you.

“If you’re writing by yourself without anyone challenging you or questioning what you’re doing, then it’s really hard to improve.”

While Dipo is engaged in many different kinds of writing, he’s especially drawn to the stage.

“What’s exciting is that live interaction with the audience – making them feel part of the narrative,” he said.

“That’s so important to me – that they are suspending their disbelief in such an interesting way and how you can play with the form.

“While I was interested in film before theatre, I’ve realised that plays are the medium at its purest and you don’t have to fit the conventions in the same way.

“I only ever write for myself – it’s an outlet – so if a play doesn’t happen it doesn’t really upset me. It’s not important whether someone sees it or not. 

“But when an actor says the words I’ve written, it changes. It becomes something bigger, something I want an audience to see, more than just words I’ve put on a page.

“It feels like a story that’s important to the room and the people who are listening to it.

“Actors bring my work to life and they put their own interpretation on it. It becomes something physical and that’s when I want people to see it.

“With An Unfinished Man, we did the first workshop in May 2019 and one of the actors said to me that the play made them want to start a conversation about the themes and questions it raises.

“That’s the response I want. I hope people watching the play will start to think about the ideas – in this case about explorations of faith and spirituality alongside mental health and depression.

“For me it’s about people having those conversations, particularly among the black community, saying: ‘This is what I believe – can our beliefs align?

“Are we going to be on the same page?’. It’s about the interrogation of those questions. Sometimes I believe Kayode is in a mental health situation and sometimes I believe it’s a curse.

“I don’t think you can ever fully know and that’s what’s interesting. Both explanations are true.

“I’m not trying to give answers and I never want people to think that the writer’s view is the right one.

“It’s about what the audience thinks and however they respond to the play.

“What’s important to me is to keep making the work that I want to make, that’s truthful to my voice. I’m not too fixed on what I want to create, but I do want to be proud of the body of work.”

Read more: Discover Carradine’s Cockney Sing-A-Long at Wilton’s

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Stratford: Theatre Royal Stratford East set to revive Conor McPherson’s Shining City

The play will be directed by Nadia Fall and stars Rory Keenan and Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle

Nadia Fall during rehearsals for Shining City
Nadia Fall during rehearsals for Shining City – image Marc Brenner

I keep joking about this, but going to the theatre really is the cheapest form of group therapy you will ever have,” said Nadia Fall. Theatre Royal Stratford East’s artistic director sounds as though she’s in a buoyant mood as I catch her on the phone while she’s striding towards a rehearsal room.

Within, the four-strong cast of the venue’s forthcoming production – Shining City – presumably await. It’s a week before the first night and, as director, Nadia is deeply immersed in the process of production.

Written by Irish playwright Conor McPherson and starring Curtis-Lee Ashqar, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Fox and Rory Keenan, the show will run from September 17 to October 23, 2021.

Nadia said: “It’s set in Dublin in the early 2000s and it’s about a recently bereaved middle-aged guy who’s not one to talk about feelings, not someone to go to a therapist, but he’s absolutely desperate.

“He walks into this therapy session and starts to tell his story, but there’s something more to his tale – he’s having visions of his wife. So it’s an ode to Dublin, but it’s also a story about how men hold their pain and how they don’t talk about it.

“Even now we talk a lot about mental health in men and how it’s not the thing to do to express pain. The play investigates that a bit as well.”

Brendan Coyle is known for playing Mr Bates in Downton Abbey
Brendan Coyle is known for playing Mr Bates in Downton Abbey – image Marc Brenner

Coyle, best known for his role as valet Mr Bates in Downton Abbey, takes on the lead role of John. He’s also no stranger to McPherson’s work, having won an Olivier Award for his supporting role in the playwright’s hit The Weir.

“Conor’s work is very celebrated in theatre,” said Nadia. “As a fan watching the original outing of this play back in 2004, I really remember it as one of those plays that gets under your skin, it’s really ripe for revival.

“I thought there might be a whole load of people in east London who might not have seen the original production, so for them it would be a new work.

“It’s a very well crafted play that really fits in our venue – a haunting story in our old Victorian theatre.

“I wrote a love letter to Conor to say how much the play meant to me, and we were very lucky to get the rights to do it, because it’s one of those plays that half the theatres in the land would want to revive. Everybody who saw it remembers it.

“It’s a great ensemble piece and we have a genuinely Irish cast, so I feel it’s really lived-in and authentic.

“While it’s a play about grief and loss, it’s got some gallows humour in it and some really uplifting moments.

“Audiences certainly won’t leave on a downer. I really hope people will want to talk about it in the bar afterwards. 

“Conor is a master craftsman. Shining City deals with a macabre subject matter but leaves people on a thrilling high.

“I feel that people, for very different reasons, have had a really tough year with the pandemic. While the last thing I want to do is to suggest people shouldn’t talk about it, sometimes they just don’t want to, they want to be uplifted and be distracted. 

“Theatres have an extraordinary way of processing life, which you can’t get by watching the television at home. We do need to get behind our gorgeous venues, or we will lose them – it’s as plain as that.”

Rory Keenan gets to grips with his role
Rory Keenan gets to grips with his role – image Marc Brenner

Nadia, who was just embarking on her second season at Stratford East when the pandemic hit, having previously spent three years at the National Theatre as an associate director, said she was quietly hopeful audiences would return to watch live performances. 

“I think people need it and there’s an appetite,” she said. 

“Being in the rehearsal room,  even when things are hard because it’s a difficult play, is just so joyful – you remember why you do the work, and there’s no substitute for that.

“As well as Shining City, this year finally, finally, because it had to be cancelled last year, we’ll have our panto, Red Riding Hood, from November 27.

“Yes, it doesn’t seem like high art, but for so many people it’s their first taste of a theatre, and it’s such an equaliser, bringing all generations, all creeds and colours together. 

“It was such a moment, having to cancel that, because it brings all our staff and families together and it’s such a buzz.

“There’s a noise in the building from morning till night when it’s panto season, with young people, and families in the evening – I’m really looking forward to it this Christmas.

“Then, after Christmas, we have the great Lyndsey Turner directing Dennis Kelly’s bitter comedy After the End, which was supposed to be this summer but was delayed due to Covid restrictions.

“It’s an incredibly dark and exciting work that’s both post-apocalyptic and chilling, set in a city that’s just been hit with a nuclear weapon.”

The opening night of Shining City, will be an occasion with a different sort of intensity, as the community of audience and staff once more gather together in a single location for a performance, just as humans have been doing for thousands of years.

“First nights never get any easier,” said Nadia. “In fact, I think I might get more nervous over time. I’m the worst person to sit next to and I’m very superstitious.

“I try to sit next to my brother – he’s the only person I usually invite, poor man.

“He doesn’t work in theatre, he’s nothing to do with it, and I’m digging my sharp nails into his thighs. I watch the productions I’ve directed like I’m watching a cup final – I feel I’m up there with them. 

“This time will be a bit different though. Even with staff in the building, we’ve tried to be as cautious as possible. 

“Opening up again will be very emotional. We haven’t all seen each other for a long time, whether that’s staff or regular audience members.”

Tickets for Shining City start at £10. Some performances will be socially distanced. Check with the box office when booking. 

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Canary Wharf: The Greenhouse Theatre brings zero-waste venue to Jubilee Park

Company set to perform three free shows in the round on rotation from July 23-August 15

Artistic director of The Greenhouse Theatre, Oli Savage – image Matt Grayson

As Oli Savage lies on a stack of timber in Canary Wharf’s Jubilee Park, the trees all around and the sky above are reflected in his glasses. His attitude isn’t one of repose but of mirthful collaboration, creating the illusion of a wooden wall where one is yet to be built.

This is because The Greenhouse Theatre, of which Oli is co-founder and artistic director, is only just starting construction ahead of its run on the estate from July 23 to August 15. The venue will host three plays in rotation during this period and tickets are free, although going fast online so eager attendees will need to move quickly. After picking himself up off the planks, Oli sat down to tell us more…

tell us what The Greenhouse Theatre actually is…

It’s the UK’s first zero-waste performance space. That extends to everything we do from the construction, which uses found or recycled materials, to our shows and our marketing.

What that means to us is that everything we use had a life before it came to us, and it will go on to have a life after, if we don’t continue to use it – that’s it in a nutshell.

how did it begin?

I’ve been involved in theatre since my mother took me to Stagecoach at the age of five. At university I picked up some directing credits and eventually went one step further down that path to become an artistic director. The only way to get even more ownership was to create my own venue.

A few years ago I was touring a piece of queer theatre with a very good friend, playwright and close collaborator of mine, Henry Roberts. One night, we’d had too many drinks and he pitched me the idea for a show, which went on to become Swallows – one of the pieces for when the venue first opened.

It was about intimacy and aggression and the damage that we do to each other and to the environment, and how we view violence towards other people and to the natural world as different, when really they’re kind of the same thing.

My mind immediately started whirring, and I said: ‘If we’re going to do this, then we’ve got to do it properly in a sustainable way that’s eco-friendly’.

The only way to really know if the venue fits in with that is to build it yourself and so that’s what we did – our first outing was at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019. 

When you start running a zero-waste venue, the antidote to inaction is knowledge. We’ve had to learn so much about sustainability as the project has developed.

Image of Oli Savage on a step ladder
Oli and the team are building the venue in Jubilee Park – image Matt Grayson

what will Wharfers be able to see once the venue’s finished?

We have a really fun selection – The Greenhouse Theatre offers a number of different things – the shows, which are designed to inspire, and a programme of workshops and events to help people convert that inspiration into action.

We’ll also have family events such as storytelling and scavenger hunts.

We’ll have three shows in rotation – I’m directing As You Like It, an all-singing, all-dancing musical production of one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies. It’s about getting out after months of lockdown, having fun and having a laugh.

Henry Roberts is working on 12, which is a much more intimate piece, an exploration of how language and relationships shape our interaction with the climate and the natural world. It’s a bit more intense, a bit more hard-hitting, but very uplifting – a very beautiful piece of theatre 

The other piece is called Hjem, and is about a young girl whose grandmother has dementia.

The girl discovers the older woman had a relationship with a Norwegian sailor and, as the play progresses, she uncovers a beautiful story formed through sea shanties about how we build connections and relationships through the natural world.

All of our shows discuss the environment and the natural world in some way, but none of them are about the climate crisis explicitly. It’s about beautiful storytelling.

WHAT'S ON AT GREENHOUSE THEATRE?

AS YOU LIKE IT
7.30pm - Fridays, Mondays
2.30pm - Sundays
Shakespeare’s classic, directed by Oli, this cross-dressing love story comes complete with an original score of indie-folk music. A chance to escape to the forest in a celebration of life and love  

12
7.30pm - Saturdays, Wednesdays
2.30pm - Fridays
Written by Henry Roberts, this play explores memory, language and intimacy as it follows a relationship struggling to survive in a world that’s falling apart. Just what is worth saving? 

HJEM
7.30pm - Thursdays, Sundays
2.30pm - Saturdays
Harry Sever’s magical modern folk story of whirlwind romance across the decades connecting Northumberland with Norway as a story is discovered and a bond is forged between two unlikely friends 

what’s the atmosphere like?

In the past, our programmes have won awards but the main thing we’re trying to create is a really open and engaged space. 

When you visit the venue, the creators, once they’ve done the show, will be milling around for a chat.

The space is in the round, so it’s all about creating a social, informal, fun atmosphere, not like you’d expect when you go to the West End. The shows will be high quality, but it’s all about having a fun time.

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