Friday, 27 March 2015

INTERVIEW - The Chair, Unicorn Theatre

ANYONE who’s ever visited a barber or hairdresser will know they have a penchant for talking and telling entertaining, inventive and sometimes extraordinary stories.
And it was a visit to his own barber and watching him hold forth with his customers that provided writer Lewis Gibson with the inspiration for his latest play.
The Chair, on at the Unicorn Theatre, is set in Victorian Tiger Bay in Cardiff. It is a place full of strange sailors, lost myths, rumours and rum.
It features one Owain Sawyer, played by Gary Lagden, a barber who shaves, cuts hair and trims beards whilst telling a collection of extraordinary and intoxicating ghost stories to his rapt customers.
Combining dialogue, live music with mystery, magic and plenty of strange goings on, it is, says Lewis, guaranteed to put the shivers up you – but in a good way.
“We’re not out to terrify our young audience,” he says. “They need to be a bit scared because we are telling some quite creepy tales but it’s done with an element of fun and dark humour.”
The stories Owain regales are inspired by a series of Victorian novellas that Gary was given by his father.
“I was going to do a Christmas show and there isn’t anything more Christmassy than Dickens and Victorian London,” says Lewis.
“Gary was given some penny dreadfuls and I read them and began to get some ideas together.
“However, I was never really a fan of ghost stories so they sat in my head for a couple of years, tickling along but then I started reading some folk and Gothic novels and they began to take shape.
“They are more about the extraordinary things that happen to ordinary people – candles going out and chairs moving, that kind of thing, and how your imagination can run wild.
“All the stories Owain tells are connected to him, whether they are objects in his warehouse or things he has witnessed, but the focus is the chair.”
The show itself may be based in Wales but Lewis says the stories Owain tells will transport the audience around the world.
"He will take you on a trip to Egypt, New Orleans, to India and beyond and they will be expressed through words, sounds and the imaginations of the audience - who we like to think are sailors who have come ashore in an hour’s leave to get their hair cut or have their wounds stitched up whilst listening to his tales," he says.
"Like lots of archetypal kids stories it’s about who you believe, who you trust. There is always an element of fear and it would be very easy to terrify people but we don’t do that.
"Besides kids love being a bit scared so we want them to feel like they are on a roller coaster – where there is a certain thrill and excitement tinged with fear but where you also feel safe because you are strapped in.”
It will be that same strapped in sensation that the audience can expect, especially for those brave enough to take up the challenge of sitting in the chair during the performance.
“Yes, we do ask for volunteers,” laughs Lewis. “Owain tells three stories and he chooses a different person to sit in his chair each time .... so it will be the first one who puts their hand up.
“I originally wanted him to put shaving foam on the sitter and give them a ‘cut throat’ but we were told it might be a bit problematic – mainly from allergies rather than de bearding an eight year old,” he chuckles.
“But whoever gets to sit in the chair gets the story told to them so they are quite involved.”
It is this feeling of involvement that Lewis says is prevalent in most barber shops, not least the one he visits himself.
“My barber is just brilliant at chatting, talking about politics, the weather and all sorts of things,” says Lewis
“He knows everyone in town and in a way he was the inspiration for Owain. Once you are in his chair you are trapped and can’t get out.
“You also become complicit in the story and get sucked in and we hope that’s what happens to the audience – that they become so engrossed in what Owain says that they too become sucked in and see the places unfold in their imaginations.”
The show follows on from the success of Lewis’s last piece for the Unicorn, The Pardoner’s Tale which he adapted from Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tale and has the same dark undertone as The Chair.
“Both shows are aimed at those aged seven and over,” he says. “They have a bonkers imagination at this age which I love and they have a level of comprehension which sometimes I feel we underestimate.
"What’s great about working at the Unicorn is that they are so open to these kinds of shows. It’s such a joy because it does great stuff for kids.
“It’s a fantastic environment with lots going on and it’s brilliant to be part of something that pushes the boundaries and allows experimentation.”
For his next offering Lewis is working on a piece with the Albany in Deptford called Under. It is another dark Victorian tale though this time focuses on sewer workers called toshers, who scavenged and sifted through the filth to collect treasures that went down the toilet.
“These people had a really hard life – they were trying to find coins and rings and other treasures in dreadful conditions,” he says.
“Some died, some got lost, there were methane issues and all sorts of other horrors but we are making it a very funny play. We’ve been messing around with the idea of chocolate all over our hands and then shaking the hands of the audience.
“And needless to say there will be lots of toilet jokes. I’m developing a whole library of alternative words for farting and belching already,” he laughs.

The Chair is on at the Unicorn Theatre in Tooley Street until Sunday, April 12. Tickets cost £16 for adults and £10 for children. Visit or call the box office on 020 7645 0560.

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