I first came across Northern Comedy Theatre’s work in early summer 2020 when the pandemic was wreaking havoc with the theatre industry and practitioners had turned to promoting their product online. A popular way of doing this was via the video conferencing app Zoom – and don’t we all wish we’d had shares in that particular company? Those productions that I had seen using this fledgling medium tended to turn to existing texts to provide their material but what NCT did was quite different and provided a breath of fresh air. They set what they did within the world of Zoom itself and rapidly came up with a set of plays which examined some of the nation’s pastimes as reimagined for the lockdown era – David Spicer’s Doing plays. With these at their heart and making a total of ten productions in the space of one year, the company created a body of online material quite unlike anything else and were awarded a much deserved Off West End One Off Award for their consistently good work. The prolific group now have their sights set on a two week (and totally live) residency at London’s Bridewell Theatre. To mark the occasion, I met up (on Zoom, of course) with Artistic Director Shaun Chambers and writer David Spicer. What follows is an edited transcript, but you’ll just have to imagine the laughter which burst from all three of us at regular intervals – it’s the most fun I’ve had doing an interview.
I’d assumed Shaun and David were both from north of Watford but not a bit of it. It turned out that the latter was a south Londoner, so I started by asking them how they first made contact in early 2019 when the world was rather different.
SC: We found a wonderful play called Stop The Play and put that on. David sent me an email about it which I didn’t pick up until after we’d done it and when we got in touch he said he had another script he’d been tinkering with
DS: It takes me a long time to write stage plays and I’d had this for quite a while. It was called Health And Safety and considered to be in rather dubious taste…
SC: It was ideal! It was really funny and right up my street; there was a lot of physical stuff. We put that on in February 2020 in Liverpool and worked with David on it.
DS: It was literally the last place I went before…
SC: Two weeks later everything shut down. The tour I’d set up for it got cancelled.
DS: We had a talk and the original idea was to do Health And Safety as a Zoom play. My comment to that was “Let’s not!”; it was all too physical to work. I’d been watching some stuff on Zoom, and I thought if this is what we are going to do, we’re going to have to go back to basics and start rethinking how we’re going to put a story across in a Zoom setting as opposed to something which really belongs on stage
SC: We decided that it definitely had to be something original and getting used to all that was tricky because I’d never worked on this kind of thing before. And it had to be live; we were always quite keen on that. There was something nice about “going on” each night (unlike other companies, each performance from NCT was unique and so nearer to a theatre performance than many other online shows)
DS: It was an idea that literally came from a very long phone call where we said we’ve got six actors who were going to be out on tour and no one was going to be doing very much. And Shaun said If you can come up with an idea we’ll do it. Shaun is completely fearless …
SC: You mean stupid! Doing Shakespeare came from nowhere and arrived within two or three days. I couldn’t believe that David didn’t have it lying around
DS: I’ve always been a little bit nervous of Shakespeare; I don’t feel I know enough. I’ve always wanted to do something that cuts through that. It all came quite quickly and was almost like doing a crossword puzzle – very satisfying
The narrative of Doing Shakespeare concerns a group of amateur actors who meet on Zoom but following earlier misunderstandings they have all been concentrating on a different play and they all want to stick with the one they’ve gone away and prepared. Cue a Shakespeare mash up which includes witty repartee and characters which became staple figures for the group members in much the same way that the Carry On team always played variations on a theme. Eventually the Doing series had four further outings which became increasingly technically ambitious, covering the topics of pub quizzes, murder mystery evenings, book clubs and finally business – actually David’s original idea. And NCT are now going back to the starting point of their online saga and bringing the first of them to life on stage. Why the Shakespeare play? I wanted to know.
SC: Of all the ones that we did it was the most viewed, the most reviewed, the most commented on; there was a Facebook post that ended up with something like 70,000 likes. Though that first week was bizarre. I think the first night watching it was me and David and someone’s mum and by the end of the run there had been a massive upward curve. And all that told me that the Shakespeare one was the one to go for. There’s still a massive hunger for Shakespeare related material
DS: What you’re basically saying Shaun, is that Shakespeare’s a better known writer than me! But it’s the one from the series that for me feels like it belongs on a stage; it’s about a group of people who are desperate to get on a stage. We’ve reimagined it though; it’s no longer set on Zoom and it’s now a full two acts
SC: The actors have had to get used to being together again and being off book and being physical and they’re so good to work with. They’re hungry for it and so pleased to be back and heading to London
DS: The Bridewell have been really accommodating
SC: And the venue appealed partly because it’s dead opposite to the Globe, which is quite nice
I concluded by asking why they would encourage people to come and see the show.
SC: It’s a brilliantly clever and funny script and it’s a group of actors who are glad to be back and have a passion for the piece. You’ll get a brill show which is live – at last!
DS: It’s the show that’s been waiting to happen. This is a play that was written in lockdown, the director directed it in lockdown, the actors performed it in lockdown and it found an audience in lockdown. Now like the rest of the county it’s the play that is coming out of lockdown
And David’s right. There were lots of shows in the pandemic that started life onstage and were transferred onto Zoom. Perhaps this is the first that is, boldly, making that journey in reverse. To quote from King Lear: “The wheel is come full circle”.
Doing Shakespeare runs at The Bridwell Theatre from 1st – 13th November – click here
The original online version (and the rest of the Doing… series) is available via Scenesaver – click here
Reviews of all ten of Northern Comedy Theatre’s online shows can be found throughout the blog