Friday, 11 October 2013

Beyond The Barricade: an interview with Andy Reiss

On paper, you shouldn't like Andy Reiss: Despite not having any formal training, his natural talent has led him to have an incredible career in musical theatre, and he has taken his own creation Beyond The Barricade around the world and the show will be celebrating it's 15th anniversary next year.

The reality is, local man Andy (born in Stone, raised in Hednesford) is one of the loveliest people you will ever have the pleasure of meeting. His passion for his work is evident as soon as he starts speaking. We met with Andy to talk about his life growing up in Staffordshire and what's new to this year's production of Beyond The Barricade.

Hello Andy, could you tell us a little more about your love for musical theatre developed?

"I was first introduced to music by my mother, who was part of the Hednesford Salvation Army brass band. At the age of 5 I learnt how to read and play music. I think that definitely gave me a good grounding in music for my future. I played in a few bands as a teen and it wasn't really till my late teens that I became immersed in musical theatre, and I always felt that was the career I should pursue"

So did you start working in musical theatre as soon as you left school?

"Actually no! I went to university and studied economics with child care law. In my spare time I performed with Stafford, Rugely and Cannock operatic societies, then I decided to use my annual leave to attend an open audition for the first production of Les Miserables outside the west end. When I got a role I thought it would just be 12 months work and I would go back to my day job! I never dreamt I would stay with Les Miserables for the entire residency in Manchester, let alone end up being the shows Resident Director whilst performing in the show!" (Andy still remains the only person to ever do this!)

Why do you think classic musicals have stayed so popular over the years?

"I think the success behind classic musicals like Les Mis, Blood Brothers etcetera is the great stories. That is the key of these shows, alongside deep characters that the audience can relate to easily. The scores were written to complement the wonderful stories, so the two together just make a great recipe for success" 

How often do you get to see other shows? And what do you think of the new musicals on the scene?

"It's hard to find the time with touring!  But I think newer musicals like Matilda, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Mamma Mia! and so on, have been great new products for getting a new generation interested in musical theatre and helping youngsters discover other classic shows"

How would you describe Beyond The Barricade to those who have never seen the show before?

"It's essentially one night of big musical theatre! We have a full band, and all of the cast have been principle performers in Les Mis. We perform many of the popular songs from musicals such as Phantom of The Opera, The Lion King, Jersey Boys,with a spectacular huge finale from Les Miserables, which has always stayed popluar with our audiences over the years"

What's new to this year's show?

"Quite a lot! Wicked has just gone on tour, so we have including a new section of songs from the show. We thought it would be a good way for people to get a taster of it before seeing the full show! For the first time we have also delved further back in musical theatre, including songs from West Side Story and Carousel, and the repsonse to the new material has been great"
And finally, what's been your biggest career highlight to date?

"Being picked to perform as part of a world wide cast of Les Miserables performers to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the show was pretty major. Performing with them at the Royal Albert Hall was very special"

Beyond The Barricade will be performed at Stafford Gatehouse Theatre on Saturday 26th October at 7.30pm. Book tickets.




Thursday, 12 September 2013

Stage Door Johnny

"I  want the audience to feel like they've discovered this exclusive, decadent, secret club that nobody really knows about.  Like a dirty little secret!"
After the success of  Kiss Kiss Bang Bang the popular burlesque show, Stage Door Johnny  is bringing Stafford a new and exciting show, with that little bit of glamor we all want for a Saturday night, Très Très Cabaret! The show has been carefully planned to suit a variety of audiences and so we can expect to be carried through a range of different acts throughout the evening. With tickets flying out of the box office and a limited amount of seats left,it is set to be one of our most exciting events and Johnny is here to tell us more.

Hi Johnny, so can we start with how your performing career began? 
I've been involved in theatre since the age of about 15 - which is relatively late compared to some - when I joined the Youth Theatre at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Cannock. I then went on to do a degree with Theatre and Performance and now have a Masters in that same subject.

How did this then lead onto burlesque shows for you? 

Photo by Becky Ryan Photography
  The first ever burlesque night I went to was called Hip Hip at the Bethnal Green Working Men's Club and was produced by a company called Whoopee! There was a huge variety of performers on stage that night, and I'd never experienced anything like it before. There were acts dressed as French Poodles, and a woman who looked like she'd stepped out of a film from the 1930's and she had huge steel fans in her hands, the tips of which were then set on fire and she did the most mesmerizing dance. I was utterly captivated. The audience were really raucous, whistling, shouting, and showing their appreciation and the vast majority of them were dressed in a vintage style too.

From then on, I started to look for more events, and it tends to snowball: the more events you go to, the more events you hear about.

Is there anyone in the industry who particularly inspired you to begin with?

At that time there wasn't really much happening in the Midlands, and then (circa 2007) I heard of a new night called The Candybox which was holding a "St Valentine's Day Mascara" (rather than massacre) night and a friend and I went along.  This night was a massive revelation, and is now legendary within the burlesque community world wide, as they had a live band playing the music with top quality performers from around the globe.  They also had a resident singer - a certain Imelda May, who is now enjoying global success of her own. I'm hugely indebted to The Candybox for bringing a quality show to the Midlands at that time, and they're really responsible for developing audiences for this art from in our region.  In fact, I first saw Missy Malone at The Candybox, and since then I've booked her several times, and she's appearing at the first Très Très Cabaret.
Then, in late 2008, over a conversation with friends, we decided to put on our own night in Lichfield.  So we hired a room at The George Hotel, brought in some lighting and a sound system and launched our production company; Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with the first show called "From Russia With Love" in early 2009.  I don't think the hotel, or Lichfield knew quite what had hit them!

Can you tell us a little bit about how you've developed the story of Très Très Cabaret?

There isn't really a story per se; the format of the evening has been well planned though, to make sure we have a variety of acts on stage.  The evening is split into three acts, the first act is a variety of short acts, the second will be one longer set from a performer, and the final act is a return to the variety acts.  When programming the show, I ensure there is a wide variety of acts on stage, from classic burlesque routines, to comedy and variety acts.
 I basically want the audience to feel like they've discovered this exclusive, decadent, secret club that nobody really knows about.  Like a dirty little secret!

For those who will recognise Stage Door Johnny from your previous show Kiss Kiss Bang Bang can we expect to see any similarities between the two shows?

Naturally there will be some similarities, as it's curated by a member from the same team; Stage Door Johnny will no doubt be as ridiculous and self-deprecating as ever, and the acts are going to be of the same high quality that our audiences have grown to expect.  However, each Kiss Kiss Bang Bang night had it's own theme, and our audiences would really get into the spirit of things and wear the most amazing costumes I've ever seen. Whereas Très Très Cabaret doesn't have a theme for the evening other than decadence, delight and perhaps a touch of debauchery!

Can you tell me one of your main highlights from working in the burlesque industry?
There are many perks to the job, the main one being that you get to work with such a wide range of performers and promoters all of whom are extremely passionate about what they do, and their enthusiasm is infectious.  You also get to see things you never thought you'd see in your entire lifetime, truly truly innovative performances, and making great friends along the way.

What do you think are the key elements needed to deliver a great show?

I think the key is knowing your audience, knowing what's best for the show, and knowing what performers are out there by going to other great shows and seeing it live. I never think video does burlesque and cabaret justice, as so much relies on the atmosphere of the room.  Obviously, as this is the first Très Très Cabaret the audience are a bit of an unknown quantity, but a good host will quickly develop a rapport with the audience, get them eating out of the palm of their hand, and then be able to whip them into a frenzy! The acts themselves are obviously integral, and I look for acts that have some elements of surprise.  My particular favourite experience is just when you think an act couldn't get any better, something else happens to blow you away.

Très Très Cabaret is  very close to selling out, why do you think this style of show is so popular?

Historically, in times of austerity and depression the burlesque and cabaret scene has a resurgence, and I think it's because audiences want a reason to get glammed up and have an extravagant night out and a bit of a splurge, when they might be economising in other areas.  It's the modern day Cinderella story: we spend our lives in the daily grind of jobs and running households, but for one night, you get to go out in a stunning outfit and experience things you've never imagined.  I guess that makes me your personal fairy godmother! So put your cares aside for one night and let your hair down!

What other projects alongside Très Très Cabaret are you juggling at the moment?

Well, I too have a day job to keep the wolf from the door, and I work as a freelance director and have a number of shows in production at the moment for performances in 2014.  Audience members have previously said that there is a real sense of theatre at the shows I curate, and I guess it's my experience in that field that I inherently bring to the show.  I also gig as a host and a performer at other nights and have a couple of dates booked for the coming months.

Finally, can we expect anymore shows from you in the near future?

Here's hoping! I'm really pleased that the first event has sold so well, and hopefully audiences will be so thrilled that they'll want to come back. One thing is for sure, I guarantee they're going to be talking about the show for a good while afterwards.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Interview: Pete Firman

"Glamourous assistants, lions and tigers...I don't think you can do that these days. I think people appreciate the skill behind the magic now"

2013 is set to be Pete Firman's year. After starring on BBC1's The Magicians, Pete has started a brand new tour and is back at the Gatehouse in April after his sell out performance in the MET last year. Hailed as "the new poster boy for British comedy magic" (The Telgraph), Pete's skill for fusing magic and comedy has made him one of the most in demand magicians working on British television. We caught up with Pete to discuss magic, Mastermind and glamorous assistants.

Hi Pete, how’s the tour going so far?

"It's going really well, we're about a dozen shows in so getting into the swing of it. I love being out on the road, it's the best part of the job really".

Can you tell us why the tour is named Hoodwinker? How is this going to differ to last year’s Jiggery Pokery tour?

"There's no massively meaningful reason for the title other than I thought it sounded quite good! I quite like ambiguous show titles and I like interesting words; jiggery pokery just flowed off the tongue nicely and sounds quite curious. I had a show called Flim Flam and another called Hokum so I have a thing for unusal words and picking them for show titles.

It's all new material this year, it's 2012's Edinburgh show, so when I finished the last tour I started working on Hoodwinker. I'm reluctant to say what tricks are in it, I want to keep the surprise! In broad terms there's mind reading, sleight of hand magic, audience participation...lots of new and exciting things and lots of surprises!"

Last year you performed in our MET Studio to 110 people, in April, you will be in the main theatre performing to nearly 600 people. Do you have to tailor your shows depending on the size of the venue?

"Obviously I was mindful of the size of the rooms I'd be playing when putting the show together, but its not a massive consideration actually. For example comedians can play tiny comedy cubs or huge arenas. You just have to make sure that everything you do is going to be really visible"

Why do you think magic and comedy work so well together?

"Traditionally there's a great long line of performers who have combined comedy and magic, from music hall and variety shows and performers like Tommy Cooper, Paul Daniels and Penn and Teller, so the two do go really, really well together. I'm a magician first and foremost, but becasue I started playing comedy clubs I developed this style of working on the jokes as much as the tricks. When you're in venues like that, people haven't come out to see a magic show so you have to match the comedians for laughs. So I got a foot in both worlds and ended up with this hybrid style."

You’ve described performing magic at children’s parties when you were a teenager as “horrible”. What did you hate about it?

"The children! No, I was 15, doing it for pocket money, and my little show would be an opportunity for the mums and dads to go off to the kitchen and drink wine and leave me in a room with kids hyped up on sweets and fizzy pop while I tried to subdue them with balloon animals! Not good times!

I suppose all that stuff in some way shaped me as a performer though. You've got to do a bit of everything to tell the truth." 

Have you ever used your magic abilities to your advantage, say to play pranks on friends and family? I wouldn't be able to resist!

"When I was younger and I suppose more precocious I would subject them to loads of magic performances, but as it's become my job I don't really do it in my spare time. At Christmas my Dad will try to encourage me to show my Aunties and Uncles and Grandma some tricks even if I really don't want to!"

Magic has definitely become cool again in the last few years, why do you think this is?

"I think interesting performers have come along, a new generation. It's like that in any profession. Magic is getting a good profile on television again, for a few years it was only late night Channel 4 showing people like David Blaine. I was lucky enough to do The Magicians last year which was a BBC 1, Saturday night prime time platform for magic, so it was about time really."

The tricks seem to have become edgier too?

"I think that's also more to do with the people doing it. Obviously you want the tricks to be unique and fresh, but it's about the performer as much as it's about the trick"

You performed a brilliantly funny tribute to the Las Vegas style magic performances on BBC’s The Magicians, do you think there is still room for this type of magic or has it become too dated?

On The Magicians
"We did it with a nod and a wink, but also for me personally a little bit of homage. You can't do that sort of stuff seriously! There's a wealth of really great tricks I wanted to get into that little segment and we managed quite a few. To do a pastiche was the only way to get away with it!

I think now it looks really odd to be sticking swords into scantily clad ladies, I don't think you can get away with it in 2013.

Glamourous assistants, lions and tigers...I don't think you can do that these days. I think people appreciate the skill behind magic too now and don't need all the bells and whistles with a performance."

Are there any magicians out there who have baffled you with a trick that you just can’t figure out?

"When I first got started that feeling is what got me into it really. The longer you're in magic the more you know. For me now it's not about being baffled or fooled, it s about seeing someone doing something interesting in a new way. That's what I get a kick out of"

You studied theatre at university, did you ever plan on a different career within the industry, and did the course help you develop as a performer?

"I wanted to be an actor, so performance training has been useful in the job I ended up doing. The skills are transferrable. In fact I'd like to go back to acting at some point but at the moment I'm a bit busy with the magic! Oscars next year!

Congratulations on winning Celebrity Mastermind! Your specialist subject was Tommy Cooper, would you say he’s had a major influence on your work?

With his Mastermind trophy

    "Oh thank you! I wouldn't say he was a major influence, but I consider him a hero and I remember  watching his shows on TV as a kid with my family and really enjoying them.

    I felt to do that on Mastermind tied in nicely with what I do and he's so loved in the public consciousness. Although the study was a little like revising for A Levels again! Dates and names and places in my head!.."
Is there anyone else in the industry who inspires you?
    "I really like Penn and Teller. They made me look at magic in a different way, I remember watching them when I was younger and thinking they were doing something that was really fresh and different. They're probably over and above anyone else"

Did you have fun on the Come Dine With Me Mash Up on Channel 4? I loved your Tutankhamun costume!
Pete with Angelos Epithemiou, Oliva Lee and Stan Boardman

"That wasn't bad was it! I thought that programme was all about the cooking,beacuse my cooking, I thought, was superior! I think some strategic marking went on, I was stitched up! It was loads of fun to do, obviously I'd seen the show before so to do it with some mates and have a laugh seemed a good idea." 

Now, you must get lots of offers for glamorous assistants and I would like to make an offer of my own….

"Oh right?"

...My Granddad used to be a magician AND he knows loads of jokes…any chance of taking him on your tour?

"Haha! What's his name?"


"How old is he?"


"And most importantly how does he look in a leotard?"


"Sold! Get him down to the Gatehouse!"

Pete Firman will be at The Gatehouse Theatre on April 5th at 8pm.
Interview with Emma Hogan

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Rosie Wilby on How (not) To Make It In Britpop

"It's much less about Britpop than the title suggests, it's very much about chasing a dream, the challenges and fun of being in a band and being in a band with the person you're in love with and in a relationship with and the challenges of that!"

Rosie Wilby is a woman of many talents; comedian, musician, writer and radio presenter to name a few.

We had a chat with her to find out more about her show How (Not) To Make It In Britpop and her attempt to make it big in the music industry.

"Hi Rosie! Stafford is one of the final performances of your tour, so what can you tell us about How (Not) To Make It In Britpop?"

"It's been touring the last couple of years and had a different name originally, Rosie's Pop Diary, which was a magazine column I used to write in the 1990s about trying to make it with my band when I first arrived in London from college. The first version of the show went to Edinburgh and got some lovely reviews. It's a mix of nostalgia, lovely acoustic songs I wrote at the time that people say still stand out and charming, funny anecdotes about what it's like to be in a band and chasing a dream. Also I suppose it's a bit of a tale about growing up and laughing at my former self, my very pretentious lyrics, my comical diary entries and some of the strange fan letters I got as well!

You're very brave to bare your soul like that, I think most of us like to laugh at our younger selves but it takes guts to put it on stage! Your career started in music and you've said that you first tried stand up following the audience reaction to your stories and banter at your gigs. Was it a nerve wracking transition despite being used to performing on stage?

"There are a lot of common skills in terms of performing, but obvioiusly there's a different pressure. If you're doing a music gig, chatting to the audience and happen to really make them laugh that's a bonus, where as of course if you're doing a comedy gig the expectation is you are going to make them laugh, so if that's not working you can't just then fall back on a song!

Are you enjoying being able to perform comedy and play music in one show and not have to pick one over the other?

"This is a nice thing to do, it's been a lovely a trip down memory lane and it is really nice to play the old songs again. What's really nice, I suppose in some ways, is the show is a bit of a tale of music getting you through difficult times, as there were actually some quite challenging things that happened during that period in my life. What's really nice is some of the old band members have got back in touch and we've played a couple of reunion gigs in London all together again, so it's a tale about friendship too"

So do you think in the future you might go back to music as a full time career?

"Not in a very serious way, I think it's very, very competitive and difficult in music now, it is getting that way in comedy as well, there's a lot of people out there performing. I think music has really changed and the way we value music sadly, is changing so much, with a lot of us downloading music for free and there's not the same value attached to an album and a collection of songs that we used to have. Things are changing, which doesn't mean music will die out in any way, we still need it; it's wonderful to have a soundtrack to your life and we all will carry on attaching memories to music as it's a such a powerful, evocative thing. I just think that making music and trying to make money out of music is more challenging than it was when I was trying to do it about fifteen years ago"

You have a degree in Electric Engineering, which couldn't be further away from music and comedy! Did you ever wish to pursue a career in this field?

"I'm afraid not! It really, really was not me that degree! But, it is good to be able to rise to the challenge of getting your degree and passing your exams in something that during my first year at university I'd realised was probably not the right fit. I was actually chatting to fellow comedian Zoe Lyons at the weekend about how very few of us actually use our degrees in our normal life. It's often quite removed from what you end up doing, as when you're only 18 or 19 you really don't know what you want to do."

Obviously the show will bring back a lot of nostalgia, but will those who have bypassed the Britpop era still relate to the show?

"I changed the title of the show to How (Not) To Make It In Britpop to give a little more of a clue to the era the show is set in rather than the original title of the show Rosie's Pop Diary, which unless you were one of the few people who used to read my column you wouldn't know what it was about. I think the joke is that I wasn't really a Britpop artist, I was probably in the wrong time. My songs tended to be more gentle acoustic ballads, I poke fun at myself for having slightly downbeat lyrics which weren't really in keeping with the huge optimism of the time! It's much less about Britpop than the title suggests, it's very much about chasing a dream, the challenges and fun of being in a band and being in a band with the person you're in love with and in a relationship with and the challenges of that!"

You're going to be MC for What The Frock in March, a show case in London especially for female comedians. It's always been notoriosuly hard for female comedians to gain the same public exposure as male comedians, do you think this is still the case today?

"It is tougher, but there are now so many people doing it, with lots of young women taking up comedy as well as young males which is really great. I think we are seeing it start to balance out a bit. The worry is there are a lot of women who are really, really brilliant and do a few gigs and give up, thinking maybe it's not for them. It does require a heck of a lot of persistence and you have to have really thick skin. If you have a bad gig you just have carry on, do the next gig and learn from it. Things are changing, there are people like Sarah Millican who is hugely successful, but we need more than just her. We have had hugely successful women before, like French and Saunders and Victoria Wood, so we just need to see a few more breaking through. There are women like Zoe Lyons who is a brilliant comedian, one of the best at her craft of comedy that I know and she does pop up on things like Mock The Week from time to time, but in my opinion not nearly as much as she should do. It is interesting and I'm not quite sure what is standing in the way, a lot of male promoters will often only book one woman on the bill of a show, perhaps there's still an idea of it being a bit of a risk if you book more than one woman, although I don't know what they think will happen if they have two or more women in a show!"

There is a bit of a perception that any comedian can just make it over night too...

"Oh no not at all! I was just chatting to somebody about Michael McIntyre and how a lot of people thought he was a sudden success, but he had been touring Edinburgh and driving around the country gigging for years and years"

So what advice would you give to women wanting to carve a career in stand up?

"Keep writing and keep having a go. Ask other acts for advice on what gigs are nice to do. When I started in comedy I didn't really know who ran the gigs, so find out who to ask for a slot, because there are a lot of gigs in London but some of them have very tiny audiences and might not be the best to try out new stuff, whilst others are well established and although they might be harder to get on the bill, there's a really good audience to test stuff out. It definitely takes persistence and its not going to happen over night. But do try to meet other comedians and find out how they're going about it. Women can be over competitive and guarded with sharing contacts and resources, so I think we need to network and support each other more"

Can you tell us what projects you have planned for when you finish your tour?

"I'm thinking up ideas for a brand new stand up show for Edinburgh this year and I'm also developing a show combining video clips and stand up. It's looking back at the 90's, but also looking back at my relationship with feminism, activism and politics, as it was quite an interesting and certainly very formative decade for me so that is being devised for a festival in Birmingham called Shout Festival in March. I've got a radio show I present in London on a station called Resonance and I do quite a bit of writing for various magazines and newspapers. I've also got a book I've been developing that goes with the How (Not) To Make It In Britpop show as there is a lot of autobiographical stuff that didn't make it into the show that I have documented, so I think it will be a little novella or memoir that I will publish next year. Another fun thing on the side! "

And finally, what is your answer to the eternal Britpop debate: Blur or Oasis?

"Oh Blur definitely! At the time Oasis obviously went on to huge success with Wonderwall, but in the end the band petered out creatively whilst Blur continued to develop and do a lot more interesting stuff after the Britpop years, so I think Blur won out in the end"

Rosie, it's been an absolute pleasure, best of luck with the rest of your tour and we're looking forward to seeing you in Stafford!

Rosie's spoof of the iconic Vanity Fair cover of Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit


Rosie Wilby's How (Not) To Make It In Britpop will be at Stafford Gatehouse Theatre's MET Studio on Saturday 16th March 2013. Book Tickets