Saturday, 26 January 2013

Making New Old Friends

Meeting Feargus Woods Dunlop, Artistic Director of Bath based theatre production company New Old Friends, is an energising experience that leaves you feeling that you really have just made a new old friend.

Fearg’s huge welcoming smile and easy, sunshiny attitude quickly set the tone for the interview.  The passion that he and Company Manager Heather Westwell have for making entertaining theatre that can rival a night out at the cinema or the pub is inevitably infectious and I find myself wishing I’d been around to see previous shows that the duo have been involved in as producers and performers. 

Ensuring I don’t miss the next chance to see them at work I surreptitiously grab the phone to quickly programme in 31st January to see the preview of Silly Songs of Shakespeare at the Rondo Theatre, Bath, before it takes off on it’s 23 date national tour.

New Old Friends have been around for about 5 years and was originally the theatrical love child of Fearg and friend/co-founder Josh Golga.  Though Josh has since left for pastures filmic and otherwhere for the time being, New Old Friends continue to bound forward, the biggest and most significant leap of recent times being Heather joining as Company Manager.  I settle down, notebook and chewed pen in hand to find out more from Mr Fearg…

So tell me what makes you and Heather a dream team?
We had a meeting recently where our double act of energetically stupid man and slightly disapproving sensible lady was praised as a good bit of branding. But to be honest it’s not that far from the truth. I’ve got a tendency to be a bit “Oh it’ll be alright.” Whereas Heather is fantastic at making sure that ‘alright’ isn’t enough. We want our shows to be great.

And how long have you two been actoring for?
I’m tempted to say forever - Heather used to put on shows for her neighbours with her sister aged about 5! But it’s been an exclusively performance-based career for about 5 years, which we’re hugely grateful for.

Do you and Heather write all the material?
Yes, we write the vast majority of our work at home over a brew/stew. Although occasionally I take the laptop and find a nice spot somewhere to sit and pretend to write whilst secretly hoping someone asks me what I’m doing so I can tell them I’m a playwright! But with Silly Songs, our cast are fabulous and have contributed a few songs themselves which has been an unexpected but very welcome bonus.

Okay, what is the Silly Songs of Shakespeare show and tour and how did that come about?
Theatre Royal Bath’s Shakespeare Unplugged commissioned us to create a show that took a sideways looks at Shakespeare. We wrote a bunch of daft songs, performed them in a silly way, and were picked up by producer/tour-booker extraordinaire Mark Makin of makin projects, and the rest is history.   Since Shakespeare Unplugged we’ve made the show 50% bigger (and obviously 50% funnier!).  I love Shakespeare but I think the weight of the significance of the bard can make it feel as though it’s just for geeks.  Our show is all about our audience being serenaded by the beautiful beehived Sonnettes with our ‘synopsongs’ and having a thoroughly and satisfyingly silly time.

It’s a tough economic landscape at the moment and creative industries tend to get hit first/hardest when belt tightening happens – what’s your survival strategy?

Our strategy can only really be to keep producing work that is worth people spending their money on. It bothers us greatly when we go to see shows charging premium prices that aren’t premium quality because that hurts theatre as a whole. Right now venues are even more scared of unknown quantities so we’re very proud, honoured and grateful to get this tour now.

Where do you reckon the company will be in another 5 years time?
If we continue to move along the path we’re on, hopefully in five years we’ll be settled into a regular routine of writing, building and touring one or two shows a year. Which would be awesome.

What’s next up for New Old Friends in the way of exciting projects?
Well one of the fruits of Heather’s labours has been securing the rights to Anthony Horowitz’s The Falcon’s Malteser. It is a brilliantly funny book that spoofs the film-noir Raymond Chandler private detective genre and we’re so excited to get to work on it. Anthony Horowitz is a league or two above us (he’s currently scripting Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s new movie…) so it was thrilling to meet him and talk about our ideas for staging his book. He’s been great and he’s really behind the project. We’re currently looking to get co-producers on board, so watch this space.

Thursday 31st Jan, 8pm.
Tickets £12/£10 from 01225 463362 or

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Bat For Lashes - The Haunted Man

Album Review I wrote back in November for Intuition-Online and forgot to post here for posterity!
More to come in the upcoming issue....

The mythological difficult third album has indeed been a challenge for Natasha Khann who says during its dark gestation she, "felt like I was never going to be able to write a song again". Stuck in her flat in Brighton, she felt lonely, lost and panicked about having writers block. She sought ways to distract herself, trying to invest her energy in non-musical endeavours though even this approach seemed frustrated for a while until a friend suggested she did unpaid gardening work at idyllic Bloomsbury-set country retreat in Charleston, East Sussex. Amongst the dahlias and the grounding of earth work, seedling inspiration stirred once more for Natasha.
It is fitting then that the album bursts into bloom with the opening track Lilies, a familiar Two Suns-esque Bat for Lashes sound; psychedelic, transcendental and ethereal climbing vocals breaking into a warm, rounded chorus of drums. It’s all graves and prayers and scented lilies but the relief that breaks through in the penultimate verse ‘Thank God I’m alive’, feels jubilant. Exactly the chorus you might expect from a talented singer/song writer who has returned from staring down the barrel of writers block, having seriously confronted the possibility of a life without music.
There are more blooming flowers and abundant gardens saving Natasha in Horses of the Sun and more lyrical affirmations of being alive. The catchy, victorious chorus, ‘You and me we’re wanted on the run, busting out the heavens like the horses of the sun’, does pretty much what it says on the tin, acting like a burst of hot musical sunshine breaking through clouds.
A more pop-friendly sound can be found in All Your Gold, the next single from the album released 29th October; an upbeat, edgy tune about never falling in love with Mr Nice, “Cos you’re a good man, I keep telling myself to just let go…someone from the past, I let him take all my gold, and hurt me so bad, and now for you I have nothing left”. Similarly the success of the song-writing collaboration with Justin Parker (who previously worked with Lana del Rey) produced the popular piano ballad Laura, the first single from the album.
It’s not all positive affirmations about life and flowers though. There are darker, more brooding songs on the album such as Deep Sea Diver. An earthy heartbeat thud underpins the song, lightened by icy rain drops of a piano thaw. Winter Fields begins haunting and melancholic, capturing a childish thrill and fright of freedom found in a changed snowy landscape, when the known becomes unfamiliar and special.
Overall Haunted Man is an album about place and journey, going on the latter and gaining a deeper sense of the former. The album is confident and energetic and bodes well for the live performance of Bat for Lashes on 2nd November at Anson Rooms in Bristol, which I am increasingly excited about going to see….watch this space for a future review of the gig.