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Interview: Sheep Soup On Taking Mrs Green To Edinburgh

13 July 13 interview: Ian Douglas
photos: Ashley Bird

Two Television Workshop graduates are hoping to take Edinburgh by storm this year with a distinctive new musical

What’s different about Mrs Green’s story?
Nic: She’s an elderly woman played by Ben, who’s not an elderly woman. Once she was famous, but now she’s been forgotten. Nobody knows who she is, apart from this close-knit community she’s built around herself. They’re all a lot younger than her and she helps them out, so it’s her way of staying young. The USP is that it’s an entirely live musical, but not in a traditional sense, the characters don’t all magically know the words. She has her songs in old shoeboxes and now and then she gets them out and they all jam at her home.
Ben: We see it as a crossbreed between theatre and the musical industry. The songs are also stand-alone, in fact we’re getting a CD recorded.
How did the idea evolve?
Nic: It began when we took our last show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were busking in the rain to promote the show, and people would ask, “has your show got these songs?” and when we said no they’d walk away. We thought if we could come back with a comedy that has our songs we’d have a hit on our hands.
Ben: Since then it’s been a year and a half working on the songs and script. We’ve been in development with the Television Workshop on how to make it different, a completely rounded story, but with songs that don’t sound stupid. Now we’re taking it to the next level and putting it out there.
Would you describe Mrs Green as unique to Nottingham?
Ben: Definitely, she’s from Basford. It’s flying the Nottinghamshire flag - the script’s local in terms of dialect and references to Nottingham - while being accessible for all.
Nic: And a lot of the cast are playing characters loosely based on their real selves. Except Ben obviously.
How did you go about creating Mrs Green?
Ben: It’s not the first time I’ve put on a wig and tights. I’ve played a headmistress before. But Mrs Green isn’t just funny because it’s me playing a woman. We’ve got a comedy script that works whether or not there’s man dressed up as Mrs Green. It’s more about the research, like she’s got bad arthritis and the physicality of that is a massive thing. So there has been lots of people watching, like observing elderly people across the streets of Nottingham. But being Mrs Green is not laborious, she’s fun to play around with.
Nic: We’re still fine-tuning the look. And avoiding Mrs Brown or Mrs Doubtfire, trying to make Mrs Green into an original person. I can’t say I’ve been inspired from a real life Mrs Green. A lot of the time I’ve been inspired by seeing big stage musicals and I wanted to do something like that on a smaller scale.
Tell us about the music.
Nic: The music came first. Ben has a powerful, distinctive voice and we’ve been experimenting and jamming with different genres, like motown, blues, and jazz. I decided to write songs that would appeal to people outside of the play. Nina Smith, who’s a good friend, popped in now and again to add some of the harmonies, while Rob Green has written some lyrics. Youth Oracle has also done rapping for us.
Ben: Rob Green is performing in the play as the DJ on the radio. He’s also in the promo trailer interviewing Mrs Green.
Are you looking forward to going to the Edinburgh Fringe?
Nic: Massively. We’re taking a slice of the Nottingham spirit, something we’re really passionate about, to Edinburgh, an incredible city.
Ben: What we found in Edinburgh is that if you have a show that nobody knows anything about, it’s difficult to get people in because there are thousands of shows. So we’re doing the show in Nottingham first to get the press reviews, which we can stick on flyers to take up to Edinburgh.
How did you come to create your theatre company Sheep Soup?
Ben: We trained at the Television Workshop, as did the majority of our cast. The Workshop is increasingly recognised, it’s won a BAFTA and people like Vicky McClure have come through it. So this gave us a great base, but we wanted to take it further. So we created own company. Nic’s the founder.
Nic: What excites me about Sheep Soup is it’s an evolution of Television Workshop. Many of the famous names that have come through the Workshop do film and television, not many have promoted theatre, but that is a much more exciting medium for me. So for someone to take the theatrical spirit we’ve created and put it out to wider audiences, rather than keeping it a secret in the studio basement, that’s my real passion.
How will you be funding Mrs Green?
Nic: We are hoping the show in Nottingham will bring in enough box office revenue to help us get to Edinburgh. But the cast are making personal investments in this; everyone’s doing it because we believe it’s going to go somewhere.
Ben: Even the profits from the CD will go to supporting the show. It would be magnificent if we could pay for our cast’s hotel and expenses while in Edinburgh, which we can’t at the moment. We’ve entered the Free Edinburgh Fringe, so we don’t pay for a venue, but we don’t charge for tickets either. But you become part of a community with the other shows and everyone coming together to help each other out.
Nic: Despite all the talk about no one being able to do anything because of the arts cuts, you can do things if you are prepared to put in the time and build good relations with people. It’s possible to achieve things with very little money. There are lots of exciting projects in Nottingham in that vein, starting off with nothing, because their product is good, people want more of it.
What are your plans for Mrs Green’s future?
Ben: At the moment everything’s going into the Nottingham show, then off to Edinburgh and hopefully the show doing well and good reviews. Beyond that, doing some kind of tour or residencies in the East Midlands. Then, eventually, let her fly.
Nic: To be honest, when we started this it was, “let’s put on a great show in Nottingham”. But as we spoke to people they suggested things and opened doors we didn’t know were there. So if this does capture the audiences’ imagination there are opportunities to go further.
And for your own futures?
Ben: I’m just trying to get work as an actor. And now I can do musical theatre, it’s another string to the bow.
Nic: Writing has always been a side thing for me. So the next ambition would be to get paid for writing or directing something.
Ben: If Spielberg decided he wanted to film Mrs Green, then I think we’d be around.

Could you give any golden rules on acting or writing for the stage?
Ben: Reality. We’re trained at the Television Workshop to be totally naturalistic, staying true to the character. Try to learn your lines a couple of months before the show so you’ve got the time to get into character. We’ve been shooting promos around Nottingham and I’ve been lifting my skirts to the trams.
Nic: I’ve acted at the Television Workshop, that taught me it’s important as a writer to be in tune with the actor’s needs. So acting can help you understand how to write for actors.

What advice would you give anyone wanting to get into live performance?
Ben: Television Workshop is rising in terms of its prestige. I don’t know where I’d be without it; all my friends and my work come from there. Any kids between seven and twenty-one can apply, but you’ve got to persist. I didn’t get in til my third audition. Be patient.
Nic: Start small, do it, finish it and that gives you motivation to go onto the next project. And get involved; local theatre, youth theatre and so on.
Mrs Green is on from 16 - 19 July at the Corner Building, 8 Stoney Street.

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