Ninja Theatre

Chapter one: In which the Marmoset boldly sets off on his quest and then loses his mojo

Having eschewed Oxbridge – or rather having eschewed even applying to Oxbridge (probably wise, given that I’ve never been quite sure how to use the word eschew) I arrived at Manchester University in October 1979 to study drama which was still something of a radical course option.

In the late seventies there were still only a handful of universities offering drama as a single honours BA, and it seemed like a far more exciting and immediate alternative than studying plays as literature and hoping to do lots of productions in my spare time.   It felt a bit like venturing into the unknown and also a statement of bold intent as I embarked on what I hoped would be A Career In The Theatre. This was a) a vague, hopelessly idealistic and unthought through plan and b) entirely true.

The first lecture, delivered by a drawling and fairly incomprehensible David Mayer, was entitled ‘How Does A Play Mean?’.  Having completely missed the point I was sure this much be a typo on the curriculum guide.  But it wasn’t – and indeed it was the manifesto statement of the Manchester Drama Department that I didn’t quite realise I was looking for.  This was a course about ‘how’ – and not about ‘what’ or ‘who’.  And I can genuinely say that the three years I spent at Manchester University changed my life and shaped my whole approach to the work I do to this day.

Having scraped a 2:1 I was nowhere near ready to build any kind of career so I put it off for another year by enrolling on the postgraduate theatre studies diploma at the Sherman Theatre at Cardiff University. I was specialising in directing and music theatre, and it was mainly an opportunity to do a lot of shows.  It was here I met my good friends Joe Turner, Cathy Kier and Graeme Drummond.   We went on to form Fourplay Theatre and take the innocently titled Live Sex On Stage to the Edinburgh Festival fringe, where for some completely unknown reason we sold out every performance.

And I was off. I spent the next few years acting, and writing music for a variety of small scale touring theatre companies – Solent Theatre Company in Southampton, Perspectives TC in Mansfield (where I got my equity card playing Margaret Thatcher in full drag at the Mansfield Miners’ Mayday Rally.  The 1984-5 miners’ strike had just started and it was a bit like being Judas at Oberammergau.  Other shows included Trouble & Strife, Alice In Wartime by Clare Luckham and Three’s A Crowd by Jacqueline Saphra) and more for Fourplay Theatre in Cardiff. And then, on my second attempt, I managed to wangle my way onto the Regional Theatre Trainee Directors Scheme, and worked for three years at Nottingham Playhouse under artistic director Kenneth Alan Taylor, where I became Associate Director for my final year.  Ken was old school, but a real theatre craftsman with skills rooted in weekly rep and variety… And best of all he didn’t believe in having an ‘assistant’ – he just gave me the stage and it’s 700 seater auditorium and told me to direct some shows.     I also had the great privilege of working with two amazing designers Robert Jones and Ruari Murchison whose wise words are with me every time I think about what I am going to put on a stage.

Productions at Nottingham included:

The Trial of Lady Chatterly

Stags & Hens (Willy Russell)

Goose Pimples (Mike Leigh)

Crystal Clear (Phil Young)

Saturday Night & Sunday Morning (Alan Sillitoe)

The Normal Heart (Larry Kramer) NB Mine was the first UK production of this play after its initial West End run.

Prisoners (Martin Lewton)

The Act (Richard Langridge)

While I was there I also worked on a few shows for the community and touring wing Roundabout Theatre Company, directing The Complete Servant by Julie Wilkinson and writing an original score for a musical adaptation of Women Beware Women.

i left Nottingham Playhouse in 1988 and went on freelancing as a director and MD for another three years.  Shows included:

A Christmas Carol – Young Vic

One Big Blow & These Things Do Happen – York Theatre Royal

The Princess & the Monkey Palace – Oxford Stage Company

Suits (by Julie Wilkinson) – Half Moon TIE

On The Plastic (by Julie Wilkinson) – Avon Touring

Old King Cole – Leeds Playhouse

It’s A Girl (by John Burrows) – West Yorkshire Playhouse

Canterbury Tales – Chester Gateway

Tarzanne (by Greg Cullen) – Theatr Powys

plus I MD’d a fantastic production of Blood Brothers for the London Bubble long before it went into the West End.

But by 1990 I was fast falling out of love with theatre, and constantly frustrated by the lack of resources and the fact that only one in four productions was a truly satisfying or enjoyable experience.  With my first child on her way I decided to look for something more secure, more lucrative and more fulfilling…

…which I did.

I had truly lost my theatre mojo.

Chapter Two: In which the marmoset has a clear-out and finds his mojo down the back of the sofa

Skip forward the best part of twenty years – and for a sizeable chunk of that I could barely sit still in a theatre without thinking I’d rather be somewhere else. But then something happened. Perhaps it was one too many head-banging TV Script edits, or the fact that I had started to climb the walls of my study working on my own every day (the voices, the voices!), or the fact that my children were leaving home and I just didn’t need (quite so much) money any more, but after being summarily dismissed from my second stint on Emmerdale, for no particular reason that I could discern, I decided to hop off the TV treadmill and only do stuff I really enjoyed.  And to keep that feeling of professional pleasure fresh, that meant mixing it up a bit – radio, bits of TV when it excited me, a bit of teaching and mentoring, and perhaps maybe dip my toes back into the world of life theatre again.

i started out directing a couple of short plays for the fantastic JB Shorts – evenings of six 15 minute plays which grace the cellar of Joshua Brooks pub just around the corner from the old BBC building on Oxford Road – Touched by Bill Taylor and My Poor Fool Is Hanged by Peter Kerry (Click on the links take a look). These were followed by two shows for The Arden Theatre School –  Better Times (by Barrie Keeffe) and a re-working of the adaptation of Saturday Night & Sunday Morning I had developed at Nottingham Playhouse all those years ago back in the 1980s.

Then in early 2013 I was invited by Black Toffee Theatre Company to dramaturg and direct the GTX re-working of their show, Hidden, for the Library Theatre’s RE:Play best-of-the-fringe festival at the Lowry Theatre in Salford.  The production earned four stars from The Guardian and toured successfully for the following 18 months or so.

Meanwhile, I struck up an ongoing relationship with Manchester’s extraordinary and unique 24:7 New Writing Festival directing a rehearsed reading of All Because Of Molly by Paul Ferguson (that’s Bubble from Big Brother to reality TV addicts of a certain vintage), and dramaturging True by Emma Rydal, which went on to win the audience favourite award and tour  successfully across the North West.  In 2012, I was invited by fledgling theatre company, Working Progress, to direct their debut production, Loaded by Jo Kirtley Pritchard…

Dolly Rose Campbell as dysfunctional teen Chantelle in Loaded

Dolly Rose Campbell – now better known as Coronation Street’s Gemma Winter – as dysfunctional teen Chantelle in Loaded

…and a year later I was directing for them again, on the critically acclaimed one man show, Away From Home, which I had co-written with actor and company founder, Rob Ward. The show was an immediate audience hit at the 2013 festival and went on to win Best New Play at the Manchester Theatre Awards, and a notable acting gong for my fellow scribe and performer of the piece, Mr Rob Ward.

Rob Ward in Away From Home

Rob Ward as male escort Kyle in Away From Home (photo by Matt Priestley)

After a successful run at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London, the show took off on the second leg of its Spring tour, taking in venues across the north of England, the Brighton Fringe, the Dublin Gay Festival, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last summer, which is where I came in…  before the production ventured away from these shores to Frankfurt and packed houses at the 2015 Auckland Live Festival in New Zealand.  Oh yes, and the script has been published too.

In the mean time, in October 2015, I had a short new play – Prostrate – about the joys of prostate cancer – featuring in the 12th Season of JB Shorts in Manchester – which was a lot of fun, and later was expanded into a five part comedy drama for BBC Radio 4 starring Stephen Tompkinson.

May 2015 brought me to the Academy of Live & Recorded Arts in Wigan to direct the third year acting students in the first production of Jack Thorne’s Let The Right One In since the show’s hit London and Broadway runs.

Emily Dowson in Let The Right One In

Emily Dowson as Eli in Let The Right One In

A cracking bunch of students wowed audiences with two hours of theatrical scandi-noir vampiric adolescent rites-of-passage drama. A bold choice for a drama school, and a fantastic challenge to stage, especially when it came to the bone crunching denouement in a swimming pool…

Most recently, my play They F*ck You Up, which had reached the final twenty in the 2018 Royal Exchange Bruntwood Playwriting Competition, had a staged reading at the newly revamped 53Two fringe venue in Manchester. Directed by upcoming talent Jonny Cordingly and produced by the legendary Roger Haines it starred Robin Simpson and Helen O’Hara as the estranged father and daughter f*cking each other up as per the poet Philip Larkin’s instruction.


Robin Simpson as Nick & Helen O’Hara as Alex in rehearsal for They F*ck You Up

A tour of They F*ck You Up is currently in development for autumn 2023.

The Marmoset is back on the stage and kicking Ninja into the bargain…

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