Monday, 28 November 2016

INTERVIEW Sleeping Trees - Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves

AFTER two years of delighting audiences with their anarchic and hilarious pantomime Cinderella And The Beanstalk at Theatre503, the Sleeping Trees boys will be returning to the Battersea theatre with a new show this festive season.
Scrooge And The Seven Dwarves promises to be every bit as funny, wacky and wonderful as their previous offering and is on at the Latchmere Road pub’s upstairs theatre until Saturday, January 7.
The story is simple. One cold Christmas Eve, Father Christmas and his elves are preparing for another busy night. The reindeer are ready and the sleigh is packed. 
There’s just one problem, the sleigh won't start because the Wicked Witch has stolen all the Christmas spirit - and it’s this that powers the sleigh. 
In his desperation, Father Christmas looks to the most unlikely of heroes to save the day… the terrifying Ebenezer Scrooge. For it is he who is the only one who knows where the Christmas spirit is. But will he come to the rescue, change his ways and help save the day and Christmas? And what do the seven dwarves have to do with any of this? The only way to find out is to dust the snow from your shoes and head down to Theatre 503 where all will be revealed.
Directed by highly acclaimed Simon Evans, the Sleeping Trees - Joshua Smith, James Donnell-Smith and John Woodburn - recreate every character you’d expect to meet in a pantomime, as well as some you might not - from Scrooge, Snow White, the Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, the seven dwarves, Harry Potter and, of course, Father Christmas.
I chat to the guys whilst they are knee deep in rehearsals for the show and if they are exhausted from all the costume changes, character changes and general rushing about on stage, they don’t show it. 
Indeed they are positively fizzing with energy and good humour and tell me they are excited about coming back to Theatre503 for another year.
“It’s all going well so far,” says John. “We are just tidying it all up, getting it all into shape and can’t wait to get out there.
“Over the past two years we’ve built up a great relationship with the Theatre503 team and so it’s brilliant we are back here for another year. 
“It’s such a fantastic theatre and everyone who has been before knows what we are about so they know what to expect in terms of what type of show it is.
“But this time it’s a different story which we are really excited about!”
They tell me the synopsis was written about six months ago and since then they have been adding bits, chopping out other bits and generally perfecting it.
“We’d been playing around with different ideas and names and one of them which struck a chord was Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves,” says James.
“It intrigued us to think about this miserable old man with seven other but smaller miserable old men and it went from there.
“But we had also always wanted to do something with A Christmas Carol as we did an adult version about three years ago. It’s a great story and we liked the idea of making it more accessible to younger kids.
“And then of course we had to bring in loads and loads of different characters which is always the fun bit - so here we are!
“We have been trimming and refining the script on and off for the past six months so that now it’s really tight and we are really pleased with it!”
As is the order of the day with their productions, there will be plenty of music, song, slapstick, comedy and ridiculousness and a veritable feast of characters.
“It’s another character mash up and this year we’ve really gone to town on it,” laughs Josh. “In fact we have gone above and beyond with the amount of characters - so much so we’ve almost lost count!
“There is a dual narrative to it as well. As well as Father Christmas losing the Christmas spirit to power his sleigh, part of the story is about how Scrooge enters a fairytale land and we see lots of different fairytale characters turning him into a better person so that he learns the error of his ways.
“It’s a lot of fun and it teaches kids, and adults, the same message of forgiveness, right and wrong, and about the importance of being a good person that was in Charles Dickens’ original story.
“One thing we pride ourselves on though is that we don’t write jokes specifically for adults or for kids - we make it so everyone can enjoy it. So everyone will enjoy the slapstick and the funny situations these characters find themselves in.
“Not all the kids will know the story but if you can convey it to them through the humour and get them laughing then it’s job done.”
Indeed the show is intended for all ages and even if younger children can’t follow the narrative, they will enjoy the slapstick and silliness that is part and parcel of the production.
And they will also recognise many of the characters that pop up in the story - and this year the boys promise even more than ever, although they admit it ramps up the number of costume changes.
“Our costume designer is outstanding but she has to be because this year we have got tonnes of different changes so they have to be robust,” chuckles James.
“We do look ridiculous all the time and it gets a bit hairy at times as we race on, off and around the stage doing different accents, gestures and movements for the different characters as well as trying to change outfits.”
And John says at the last count there were at least 30 different speaking parts.
“Some only appear in songs but most of them say at least one or two lines,” he says. “So we probably have about 75 characters - it is a bit mental and exhausting! 
“But we are quite accustomed to our way of life - it’s a great one to have!”

Scrooge And The Seven Dwarves is on at Theatre503, The Latchmere, Battersea Park Road until January 7. Tickets cost £15 for adults and £12 for children. Visit or call the box office on 020 7978 7040 for full listings.

FIVE STAR REVIEW Peter Pan - Greenwich Theatre


It’s panto season again and this year Greenwich Theatre has gone out on somewhat of a limb with its version of Peter Pan. Not only is Peter Pan not a panto in the strict sense of the genre but this is not the Peter Pan story of old.
No, this is Peter Pan - A New Adventure, written by, starring and directed by the inimitable Andrew Pollard.
It is his 12th show for the Crooms Hill theatre and it happens to be one of his best yet. In a nod to the current political, cultural and social climate he’s managed to mix together a heady cocktail of traditional panto fare with a huge dollop of humour, farce, comment, a glorious musical soundtrack and a cracking story sprinkled with plenty of glitter, outrageous costumes and festive pizzazz. In short it’s a winner.
But what of the story? It features a Wendy who is descended from JM Barrie’s original. Gone is the starched white nightgown and mumsy character and in her place is a feisty young woman with a can do attitude, adventurous spirit and who is no push over. This girl definitely can.
Wendy (Louise Young) runs her family’s fish packing business in the London docks aided by the tea lady, Long Joan Silver (Andrew Pollard). But she longs to escape the grey world in which she finds herself and have an adventure.
Her wish comes true when the bell in her necklace begins to ring and she realises Peter Pan (Rory Maguire) is in trouble. She hires a Thames Clipper and along with Joan and the ladies who work for her, she travels to Neverland in a bid to find Peter and Tinkerbell (Krystal Dockery).
Meanwhile, in a neat twist, Hook (Anthony Spargo) and Smee (Sackie Osakonor) have been frozen in ice after the former’s near death experience by being eaten by the crocodile. When the ice cracks they come back to life and they too go back to Neverland in search of revenge on Peter. 
Once in Neverland both parties meet and try to get the better of each other - with the inevitable hilarious results - before good prevails.
As usual Andrew Pollard has set the standard high this year with his wonderful story. The cast is strong, and the verbal sparring of Joan and Anthony Spargo’s Hook is brilliantly funny. But credit too to James-Paul McAllister who is utterly hilarious as Ethel Merman, the High Priestess and Percy The Parakeet. His scenes as the High Priestess where he displays his vocal gymnastics with Joan and as Ethel in the Mermaid cove were the undoubted highlights of the show and had everyone weeping with laughter.
This is the panto by which all others should be judged so if you want a cracker of a show this is definitely it.

Peter Pan - A New Adventure is on at Greenwich Theatre, Crooms Hill until Sunday, January 8 2017. Visit for full listings.

INTERVIEW - Otto Farrant

HE may only be 20 but Otto Farrant but has already got plenty of notable acting credits under his belt.
The former Graveney School student, who lives in Tooting, started his career aged 11 as Robin in The Merry Wives Of Windsor at the Globe. Since then he’s gone on to appear on both stage and screen including roles in A Streetcar Named Desire at The Young Vic, ITV’s Marcella and in the BBC dramas Silk, War And Peace and The White Queen.
He’s currently brushing up and perfecting a German accent as part of his latest role, that of Rudolf Kammerling in Once In A Lifetime which has just opened at The Young Vic.
A satirical comedy, by Moss Hart and George S Kaufman and directed by Richard Jones, it is about Hollywood’s transition from the silent movies to the talkies.
Set in 1930 it tells the story of how three vaudeville New Yorkers head out west to cash in on the advent of the talkies by setting up an elocution school to teach the actors how to speak.
However Hollywood is a city full of clueless ingenues, all powerful studio bosses and neurotic screenwriters, so success is not as easy to come by as you might think.
And as the three try to become the next big thing in Tinseltown, misadventures fall thick and fast.
The show marks a welcome return to the Waterloo-based theatre for Otto as he appeared there alongside Gillian Anderson in its production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 2015.
“Streetcar was such a great production,” he enthuses. “To work with such a fabulous cast made up of actors who were all such consumate professionals and who were so great to learn from was fantastic - and to work with Gillian was just a dream - I loved every moment of it. 
“We also got to take it to New York which was amazing and an incredible experience - you don’t get much better really.”
But he tells me that actually this latest role is just as good, if not better, as he gets to work with Harry Enfield, who is making his stage debut in the play as movie mogul Herman Glogauer, Kevin Bishop and director Richard Jones. 
Indeed as we chat during his final week of rehearsals, he tells me it was a no brainer to be part of the production which he describes as “very funny”.
“The play is such a lot of fun and the cast is amazing so I’m having the best time,” he says. “It’s great because it’s so different from Streetcar. It’s the Young Vic’s Christmas show so it’s light and lovely, the characters are very nice and it’s very funny. 
“When I got this job I was so excited because I’m a huge fan of Richard Jones - his body of work speaks for itself. It’s always very visual and he has a strong eye for humour so I’m ecstatic to be part of this.
“I play Rudolf Kammerling, a young director from Germany who has come from a studio there to direct a movie they are working on. He’s quite wispy and slight and contrasts with Harry Enfield’s larger than life Glogauer. 
“He’s also focused and artistic and takes himself very seriously and that’s where the humour is - someone so young thinking they are the best thing on earth.”
Otto says as well as working with Richard and the rest of the cast, it was the challenges of the character that drew him to the role adding that he prefers parts that take him out of his comfort zone.
“I’ve never played anyone like Kammerling before so it’s been a fantastic role to tackle,” he says. “I love playing with accents and the idea of creating a character that’s different to the one in the script.
“I’m only 20 and he’s never been played by anyone so young before so it’s been a challenge for me to make sure I can convince people he’s a successful director despite his young age. 
“How on earth is anyone going to believe that a 20-year-old would be such a successful movie director and would come to America from Germany? I love the challenge of trying to convince the audience it’s possible. 
“I’ve also had to learn a bit of German for this role and a few phrases which has been interesting as I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I want the audience to believe I’m from Germany rather than some English chap doing a German accent!
“He’s huge fun to play though and the whole piece is so well written you can’t go wrong.
“I have a few scenes with Harry - he’s incredible and you can’t get a better mentor really in terms of comedy though as you can imagine rehearsals are a hilarious at times as he’s so funny.”
The other draw was to come back to the Young Vic, a theatre Otto has huge affection for.
“It’s also wonderful to be back here of course,” he says warmly. “The fact it’s in South London and not too far from where I live in Tooting is a bonus. 
“South London is blessed with so many great theatres and the Young Vic is lovely with a really sound ethos. 
“David Lan [artistic director] is fantastic and he has wanted to do this play for a long time as it’s one of his favourites and I can see why as it’s really good.
“They are so good at what they do here, producing work that gets you thinking. I love it.”
It’s plays like this, and ones that are provocative, that Otto says he’s naturally drawn to and hopes to do more of in the future, especially as his first love is the stage.
And despite his full CV he tells me he has not had any formal training.
“It was always a burning passion and I’ve always loved acting,” he laughs. “At school I was not academically that great at English, I was much better in maths and sciences, and I almost did a degree in physics and maths.
“However, I was always in the school plays. One day I was picked to do a play at the Globe and off the back of that I got an agent and from there it snowballed.”
And despite being still at school Otto says he managed to juggle academic work alongside the acting. So much so that when he left school he decided to ditch the idea of doing a degree and pursue acting as a career, something he says he has no regrets about.
“I just put all my energy into it and went straight into it,” he says warmly. “I’ve not really had any training, although in the future I think I’d like to - I’d love to study the craft in depth, explore and experiment with different things. 
“I love Shakespeare and Chekhov and so those three years of training would be helpful if I wanted to do any of those classic roles and that would be the reason to go. But at the moment I’m learning so much on the job.
“In terms of what I love most about my job now, theatre is definitely at the forefront of what I enjoy. I just the love live aspect of it and how much closer you get to the company you work with in theatre.
“I’d really like to work with Emma Rice before she leaves the Globe as I think she’s great at bringing audiences in and taking them to a different world. 
“It’s much like what we are hoping to do with Once In A Lifetime, taking the audiences’ minds off what’s going on in the world at the moment and having some fun.”

Otto Farrant appears in Once In A Lifetime, directed by Richard Jones at the Young Vic, The Cut, Waterloo until January 14, 2017. Tickets from £10. Visit or call the box office on 0207 922 2922.

INTERVIEW - Adam El Hagar, Licensed To Ill, Southwark Playhouse

This November marks 30 years since the famed Licensed To Ill album was released by the Beastie Boys.
Now the story of hip-hop’s most notorious pranksters will be revealed in a big-hearted, brash new theatre production.
Licensed To Ill is an eclectic theatre-gig mash up which follows Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock as they go from teenage punks to international rapping superstars, and features hits such as Intergalactic and Fight For Your Right. 
This unofficial journey through hip hop history is being staged at the Southwark Playhouse from tomorrow until Christmas Eve and comes hot on the heels of a sell out run at Camden’s People’s Theatre and a UK tour.
And as one of its stars, actor Adam El Hagar tells me, it doesn’t matter whether you’re an original Beasties fan or a complete newcomer to the band, this celebratory production will have you rhyming, laughing and gasping in equal measure.
But he says the origins of the piece began a few years ago and from somewhat inauspicious circumstances.
“It all started about three years ago when I had a lot less acting work,” he explains. “My mate Simon got me a job flyering and in an exceptional long shift at Charing Cross Theatre we started rapping as we were handing out the leaflets to make it more interesting.
“It gave me the seed of an idea that as we were both theatre makers wouldn’t it be great way of selling a show about hip hop and its history.
“This idea grew and changed a bit until we hit upon the idea of making it about a specific group. Simon was a huge fan of the Beastie Boys and suggested it be about them and although I wasn’t as big a fan as Simon, I liked their music a lot and I thought it was a cool and super awesome idea.”
The subject sorted it was then down to the guys to write the script, fit the songs around it, and research the band in more depth before approaching theatre spaces to get it staged.
“I went home and listened to all their albums and thought it was the best idea ever!” laughs Adam. “The Beastie Boys are so theatrical and funny and it was one of the things we wanted to portray, that and the fact they were one of the pioneers of hip hop. 
“We covered Simon’s flat with a time line of Beastie Boys history and what we wanted to do with the show.
“I realised they had quite a comic element to them, a bit slapstick and if you watch their interviews their jokes are really funny to them rather than the audience which is quite a cool thing to nail. We have a lot of that in the show.”
Camden’s People’s Theatre approached them to put on the show and it was such a success that they’ve decided to bring it back.
Adam says it’s also given them a chance to tinker with the script and tighten it up.
“We are so excited to be bringing it to the Southwark Playhouse,” he says. “It’s the perfect space for it and it will run up to Christmas which is great.
“We’ve freshened it up a bit as well, made it a bit snappier and focused it more on the narrative so that we properly tell their story and I think it’s the best it’s ever been now. 
“And to be able to coincide it with the 30th anniversary of the album, which was groundbreaking, is brilliant.”
The show features a live DJ, rapping and music - but Adam is keen to stress it’s not a musical in the strict sense of the word, rather a play with music.
It shows how the band started out with them hearing hip hop on the subway and follows how their career developed and progressed and the making of the album. 
And Adam says it also asks the audience questions such as why it took three middle class jewish boys to make hip hop mainstream and how they influenced and inspired and were respected by other musicians then and now.
“Hip hop is still the biggest selling music genre of all time,” he says. “There is incredible poetry in the early stuff, yet actually as a genre it’s not that old. However it’s incredible to think that this album is now 30 years old. 
“Our show has a lot of energy to it and once we start we don’t stop for 75 minutes so you have to hold onto your hats!
“But it’s great fun and for anyone, whether you know their music or not, you will get a lot out of it.”
Sadly MCA died a few years ago. I ask if the remaining Beastie Boys have given any feedback on the show.
“We’ve not heard if they have seen it or if they have whether or not they like it but we know some of their friends have seen it and praised it,” says Adam.
“I’d absolutely love it if they came along - in fact they have an open invitation to do so while we are at the Southwark Playhouse - as it would be great to see what they think.
“I hope they would love it as much as we have enjoyed creating it and think of it as a celebration of their music and their legacy.”

Licensed To Ill is on at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway between November 30 and December 24. Tickets cost £20, £16 concessions. Visit or call the box office on 020 7407 0234.

Glassblowing a Christmas Bauble

LAST year I had the pleasure of being invited to Peter Layton’s glassmaking studio in London Bridge to have a go at making a paperweight.
It was a brilliant experience as I had never done anything like it before - and the paperweight itself while obviously not up to Peter’s standard, didn’t look too bad for a first attempt. 
Not only that I was able to chat to Peter about his more than 50 year career, the inspiration for his work and his studio and gallery which is situated in a converted warehouse in Bermondsey Street under the shadow of the Shard.
During the session I was taught how to make the piece by Peter’s studio manager Bruce Marks who has worked there for about 15 years and is responsible for some of the beautiful works of art that grace the gallery.
A few weeks ago I was invited to go back to have another go - not to better my attempt at making a paperweight but this time to make a Christmas bauble.
It is one of a regular series of classes that are offered year round by Peter and his team of artists and I can heartily recommend it.
They vary from beginner’s classes to those for people who are a bit more experienced as well as seasonal events such as learning how to make a Christmas bauble.
Each one is held at the studio which is at the back of the building behind the gallery and where visitors can pop in to see the artists at work. The beginner’s event is a day-long affair in which you can make about four pieces - all of which you get to keep.
I did not hesitate so last week I found myself back in Bermondsey Street and once again under the watchful eye of Bruce.
To begin with he showed me and my fellow makers what the end result could look like before proceeding to give us a quick demo. I say quick because it seemed to be in no time at all that he’d created the perfect bauble but it was utterly mesmerising to watch him at work.
Needless to say we were all a bit nervous - not least because to create the ball shape we would have to “blow” the liquid glass before moulding it - something none of us had ever done before but we were all itching to have a go.
The first step in the process was to put on protective goggles and sleeve and learn more about the tools we would need and how to use them.
Then it was time to select the colours we wanted our baubles to be. They are actually made up of powdered or tiny shard like pieces of glass. After much deliberation I chose red, purple, blue and orange but the palate included all those in the rainbow and more besides. 
We were each given a long metal blowing iron onto which Bruce got a blob of fiery red molten glass from the furnace - which he reliably informed us was an astonishing 1,100 degrees farenheit.
Next we carefully dipped and then pressed the glass into our selected colours one at a time so that there was a different colour on each side. Then it was time to take the rod back to the furnace to heat the glass up again. Bruce told us that once out of the heat, glass cools incredibly quickly so it was important to maintain the temperature in order for it to remain malleable enough to mould and manipulate.
Whilst in the furnace we had to turn the rod constantly, which had the effect of creating a swirling pattern of the colours, before bringing it back out and smoothing it on a stainless steel work bench.
Then it was back to the furnace to collect another blob of red hot glass to coat the original, after which it was turned and twisted on the rod again. Once it was nice and smooth Bruce blew down the rod sharply to create an air pocket. This would ensure the bauble was not a solid piece.
Then it was all about blowing and shaping it to create the perfect bauble shape.
It required a huge amount of puff to blow down the inside of the rod but Bruce was constantly encouraging and helpful. It was amazing to see it balloon out slowly after each time I blew down the rod.
After expelling air from the lungs down the rod and into the glass it was all about turning the rod to smooth and shape the piece. This was done by means of a Jack, a tool that looked like a pair of pliers as well as a wad of newspapers that had been soaked in water which I held in my hand and onto which the glass was moulded and shaped.
It was a complex process and required complete concentration - one false move and the glass could break, drop or lose its shape - and of course for any novice in charge of all this hot glass it was a bit nerve-wracking - but it’s actually quite quick and in less than an hour I had created a sizeable and completely spherical bauble. 
Bruce helped tap the bauble from the rod before adding another blob of molten glass on the top which he shaped into a hook. Then it was into the annealing oven for 36 hours to allow it to cool without cracking.
It was a fantastic experience and one I’ll never forget. And the resulting bauble? Well, when I took it out of its box I was really pleased with the swirling pattern of blues, pinks, orange and purple that all the twisting and turning had created. It was also heavier than I had anticipated but that is because of the double layer of glass that it’s made of.
Fun and creative it’s completely addictive and I’m hooked.

Peter Layton’s Glassblowing Studio is open six days a week in Bermondsey Street. Visit for full listings on courses and the gallery.


In the run up to Christmas last year, strange things were afoot at one of the railway arches in Bermondsey.
A mysterious elf had been discovered in a lock up by two dodgy dealers and was passing himself off as one of Father Christmas’s helpers. 
But was he really who he said he was? That was the dilemma facing the audience at Different Breed’s anti panto, The Night Before Christmas which was staged in Gary’s Warehouse in Druid Street.
Written by Anthony Neilson the hour long show featured a cast of just four who took audiences on a journey to discover whether the elf was exactly who he said he was or just a chancer in an elf’s garb.
It was such a success that the producers of the show decided to bring it back for a second year.
“It was a bit of a no brainer really because we had such a good reaction to it last year,” says co-producer and one of the show’s stars, Tim O’Hara.
“The audiences really loved it. I think what captured peoples’ imaginations was the fact it was a bit anarchic, silly, farcical and was something a bit different to most of the other Christmas shows.
“For us too as actors it was brilliant and so much fun to do that we were really keen to have another go at it.”
The plot is simple. It’s Christmas Eve and in his Bermondsey warehouse where he keeps his hooky gear, Gary (Tim) has caught someone breaking in and is not sure what to do about it - not least because the chap in question is dressed as an elf. 
In a panic he calls his mate Simon (James Kermack) and tells him to come over to the lock up immediately. In the meantime, to keep his “prisoner” (Glen Hanning) secure, Gary ties him to a chair.
The elf protests that he is innocent of all burglary charges and actually it’s just a simple misunderstanding as he just fell out of Father Christmas’s sleigh. Simon and Gary are somewhat sceptical about this and begin an interrogation in which the Elf does his best to answer the questions and convince them that he’s the real deal.
In the midst of all this in comes Cherry, a single mum who is prepared to do almost anything to get her son the perfect Christmas present - in this case a lightsaber.
As the questions become more intense the elf looks increasingly unwell and havoc ensues as Gary, Cherry and Simon decide what to do with him.
Raucous, rude and silly, it’s all a lot of fun with plenty of slapstick comedy. It’s also strictly for grown ups as there is a fair bit of adult conversation and language sprinkled throughout the show.
And as was the case last year, it’s not just about the show. Tim and the team have done their best to bring in businesses from the local area to make it more than that - so there will be plenty of pre-show entertainment with specialist drinks from The Bottle Shop and tasty treats from local food producer Arawack Catering not to mention Santa’s Grotty Hole and Mike’s Merry Quizmass. And on Saturdays there will be a post show comedy set with different comedians each week.
“As well as the show being so successful last year, it was a really great way to bring in and support some of the local businesses,” says Tim.
“The Bottle Shop was brilliant and wanted to come back - we had a lot of lovely comments from people who popped in to try some of the local beers. And the food was fantastic too so we were keen to bring that element back again this year.
“The comedy nights too were really successful and we are delighted that we’ve brought that back.
“But this year we’ve upped the ante a bit as we also thought it would be a great place for people to have an office party. So we are also doing packages designed for just that - it’s something a bit different, coming to see a fantastic and very funny show, food and drink by local producers, a chance to meet the real Father Christmas not to mention Mike’s Merry Quizmass. 
“It’s the perfect venue and entertainment for a night out with a difference and the reaction so far has been extremely positive. 
“It’s going to be a riot of fun!”

The Night Before Christmas is on at Gary’s Warehouse, Druid Street, Bermondsey from Saturday, December 3. Tickets cost £20. Visit for full listings and prices for office parties.

INTERVIEW Benji Bower - musical director, Peter Pan at the National Theatre

The first thing I notice when stepping into the National Theatre’s rehearsal room for its production of Peter Pan is the most enormous skip. It dominates the room and has all manner of things on it to make it resemble a pirate ship.
The second thing I notice is a multitude of gongs. Suspended on a series of horizontal strings and comprising different sizes, colours and styles, they belong to the show’s musical director, Benji Bower.
“I have rather a large collection,” he laughs. “I have been collecting them for about five years, and so far I have about 17 from all over the world.
“Everywhere I go I always look out for more - the ones here are from Nepal, Vietnam, Lao and Thailand - you can never have enough gongs!
“I was determined that they were going to play a part in the show so here they are.
“They all sound different too and can evoke different atmospheres,” he adds and gives me a musical demonstration to prove it.
The gongs - and indeed the other instruments that are situated together in one corner of the room - are an integral part of the show which opens on the Olivier stage next week and for which Benji is devising and composing the music.
It is being directed by Sally Cookson who was responsible for the phenomenally successful Jane Eyre which was staged at the National last autumn and which Benji also composed the music for.
Indeed Sally and Benji have history - they’ve worked together collaboratively on various projects for about 10 years including on Peter Pan which he tells me was first conceived about four years ago and staged originally at the Bristol Old Vic.
And he is clearly delighted to be part of the ensemble cast and crew “giving it more life” and bringing it up to the National for the three month run although he admits that it’s gone through a few changes in that time.
“It’s great because it’s such a fantastic story and we’ve had a lot of fun creating this show so it’s brilliant to be giving it more life,” he says warmly.
“When Sally and I were thinking about creating it we wanted to go back to the influence of JM Barrie’s text and explore the darker side of it.
“Sally went away to research it while I played about with the music before we started knitting it all together. 
“Because of the way we work, when you get to rehearsals, you realise some of the things work and some don’t - some of the music didn’t get to see the light of day! And although the music is a really important part of the show, it’s not a musical!
“However, it was liberating for me to be able to write lots of different styles so we have a bit of ska, dubstep, pop, jazz influences all sorts of stuff - it’s eclectic and I should think there will be a lot of musical styles that people won’t expect.
“I actually wrote most of it when I was on a trip to Sri Lanka so there is probably a bit of an influence from being there with the sun and that relaxed vibe!
“Since we staged it originally at the Bristol Old Vic, the production has got bigger and bigger and now we have a large band and are taking it to one of the biggest theatres in the country so we are delighted,” he adds warmly.
“We have had to change things around in order to fit the space too. The Bristol Old Vic has a proscenium arch whereas the Olivier is a huge and wide open space which comes out into the audience a bit.
“We are still tinkering with it,” he adds laughing. “With Jane Eyre, we kept on working right up to wire - but that’s what I love about Sally and the way she works, it’s all so collaborative and you don’t go with any preconceived ideas of what it should be like - it just evolves as it needs to and as it’s meant to be.”
Benji and I chat surrounded by his multitude of musical instruments, score sheets and a couple of laptops. 
In fact he’s been surrounded by music his entire life and says he’s not surprised it’s been his career - both in terms of composing music for theatre and forming a band with his brother Will, who is also in the Peter Pan cast.
“My folks were very into music and my brother and I were always used to listening to it and having instruments of one sort or another in the house,” he says.
“They were also very supportive of us. We both started playing piano and other instruments and I began writing and composing stuff. I was given lessons by a local music lecturer who helped me score out some of my ideas. It was a wonderful opportunity because I ditched the piano lessons as they got too boring!”
But it was when he met Sally about 10 years ago that he began writing for theatre and he’s not looked back since although he says he still plays with his brother in the band and writes and produces for other singers and musicians.
We chat while the rest of the 16-strong cast take a break from rehearsals. Most of them have been with the company since the beginning although there are a few new members.
Benji himself is also part of the cast - as are all of the musicians - something he clearly enjoys.
“Being part of the ensemble is great as we all help each other out creatively and we trust each other,” he says. “There is a really wonderful collective energy.
“It’s also a fun way to work but it does get a bit hairy sometimes when I get so immersed in the composing, creating and performing of it!”
And he’s also excited to be back at the National, an organisation he says is “amazing” and for whom he would like to do more work.
“It’s brilliant being back,” he says smiling broadly. “Jane Eyre was fantastic and they’ve let us in the door again which is great. 
“And I love making stuff with Sally - creating live theatre together is a wonderful thing.”
The production itself is a modern take on JM Barrie’s classic tale but still has the original story and its themes at it’s heart.
And as well as the actors and musicians it features puppets some of which are made out of recycled materials.
“It’s a wonderful adaptation, it’s inventive and really magical,” says Benji. “It’s quite dark in many ways and you shouldn’t come thinking that it’s going to have a that Disney happy ending.
“Although it’s got a modern day slant on it, the heart of the piece is about love, the loss of mothers, trust and not wanting to grow up and we wanted to tap into that.
“We’ve aimed the show for those aged seven and up and I think it’s fine. Too often we try and shield kids from dark stuff but actually they can take it more easily than we give them credit for. 
“I do think it will smack people in the face though as it’s very raw,” he adds. “There is the darkness of people like Peter and Hook and the longing of Wendy and the motherless boys.
“It isn’t all dark though - it’s also a lot of fun with some very warm and funny elements to it and it’s actually a chance for kids to experience it and use their imagination - Neverland is really whatever any child wants it to be like.”
As well as the dance, music and song, Benji promises there will be plenty of flying - and points in the direction of the numerous ropes and pulleys that are suspended from the ceiling.
“There is a lot of flying and at the moment in rehearsals they are having too much fun getting to grips with it all,” he laughs. 
“The audience will get to see everything, all the wires and so on, which is great.
“And I imagine for the actors, the view from the top is pretty awesome!”

Peter Pan is at the National Theatre until February 4, 2017. Tickets from £15. Visit for full listings.

INTERVIEW Glenn Tilbrook

HE’S only recently stepped off a plane from America following a tour over there but already Glenn Tilbrook is back on the road in the UK.
This time though he’s without his long term friend, collaborator and fellow Squeeze band mate Chris Difford and instead heading off solo armed only with his guitar, mic and iPad, with his The Best Of Times show.
This tour takes in 42 dates in venues that criss cross the country and in a chat ahead of a stop at Blackheath Halls on December X the Charlton-based singer songwriter tells me it’s an aptly titled show.
“Yeah, life is good,” he says. “I’m in a good place at the moment, Chris and I are great, Squeeze is back together and we are being really creative, writing and recording new stuff which is fantastic. Not only that people still want to see us play live which is fantastic so we are still touring, selling tickets to shows and having a great time while we are on stage.
“Life is good and I’m very happy.”
His enthusiasm and bonne viveur is not only infectious but is clearly the real deal as throughout our chat he is full of wit and warmth and eager to talk about what he’s been up to in the past couple of years and what’s to come.
And, clearly not one to sit about and rest on his laurels, he says he’s looking forward to being back on home turf and entertaining the South London crowds in his own inimitable style.
“I’m a few weeks into the tour and it’s going great actually,” he says warmly. “I had three days off when we got back from America and then it was straight back out on the road. 
“I’m not one for sitting still,” he laughs. “It’s all a bit mental but I thrive on unpredictability and this sort of thing.
“Besides I love it. There is nothing better than looking out and seeing everyone in front going bonkers and having a good time.
“That’s what is great about Squeeze at the moment - as well as all those who’ve followed us for years we are getting all these kids coming to our gigs, going mad for the music - to see them having the best time is fantastic and so inspiring for us.
“We did Glastonbury last year. It was our first time on the main stage and it was mental! Just looking out on to that sea of faces and hearing them sing the songs back at us, it was one of the best gigs of my life.
“Home is definitely South London for me though, it always has been, so Blackheath will be special as it will be the home gig and I’m really looking forward to it.
“The Halls is such a great venue and I’ve played there many times - but it was once almost lost to the area.
“I’m old enough to remember when it was derelict and was closed for a good while. I’m so glad it was saved though. It is a great thing to have there, it’s such a beautiful building and it’s brilliant to see it the way it is now.
“So I’m excited to be back and seeing all those familiar faces and all those different generations - it’s these gigs that are the ones you cherish.”
The tour will he says be bit different from previous ones in that he doesn’t have any new solo material. Instead it will be a celebration of his songwriting prowess and will include as many of the hits as he can.
And if audiences shout out requests, so much the better - he says he’s prepared for anything, even any obscure requests from his extensive canon of work.
“One of the things that marks out my solo gigs is that I don’t work with a set list - it’s just me, my guitar and my iPad so I’m open to requests,” he says cheerfully.
“I get asked to play Tempted a lot but normally there is a really good mix of older and more recent stuff.
“If there are songs that I only half remember or if I get obscure requests I’ve got my iPad to help me so I can scroll through!
“It’s fun because I always have a go and it’s nice to ring the changes, and it means that no two gigs are the same. 
“With a Squeeze set it’s much more strict with a set list but I like the unpredictability of working on my own so it’s going to be a great night at Blackheath.
“I don’t have any new solo material as my attention at the moment is now back with Squeeze,” he adds. 
“I’m proud of all my solo work and there are some great songs but I’m equally proud of being back with the band and being creative with them - rather than being a tribute band to ourselves!”
And it’s clear throughout our chat that being back working with his fellow Squeeze band mates is something he’s delighted about.
Glenn and Chris got together in Deptford in 1973 and as Squeeze, made their recording debut with the Packet Of Three EP in 1977.
Since then with a few changes in personnel, not to mention acrimonious breakups, getting back together a few times, and surviving the ever changing musical landscape, the band has recorded and released more than 30 albums and sold millions worldwide.
They have also been responsible for some of the most enduring and catchy pop songs of the past 40 years including Tempted, Cool For Cats and Up The Junction and Glenn and Chris’s songwriting partnership has been compared to that of Lennon and McCartney.
And as well as his work with the band, Glenn, who has lived in South London his entire life, has enjoyed huge success as a solo artist and as a duo with Chris.
Following the release of Glenn’s solo album Happy Ending in 2014, he and Chris embarked on the critically acclaimed At Odds Couple acoustic tours in both the UK and America and a year later, with their Squeeze bandmates, they wrote, recorded and released their first album of new material in 18 years.
Crade To The Grave was written for the BBC drama of the same name and was inspired by Going To Sea in A Sieve, the memoirs of their friend and broadcaster Danny Baker. 
“Chris and I were in different spaces at the time and actually it took making this record, to focus and work on something creative, to force us to do something together again,” says Glenn.
“We had gone our separate ways and it was acrimonious for a while which was a shame.
“I think in the 90s Squeeze had got a bit lazy, a bit too comfortable and we didn’t push ourselves hard enough. 
“That was back then and we’re in a different place now fortunately and when the opportunity came to make this record it was absolutely right.
“It’s from Danny Baker’s book about his childhood,” he adds. “Chris and Danny went to school together and we are all about the same age so it was like reading about our childhood too in many ways.
“We knew each other growing up and I’d met Danny when I was in my teens so I knew him from then, albeit vaguely.
“I read his book when it came out and it was amazing. It was all about South East London and so it was all so familiar to me. I rang him up and he said he was working on a TV series and so we met and were there right from the beginning really. 
“It meant we could tailor our songs around it. It was great fun and really good for us.
“They are talking about a sequel so who knows, maybe we’ll get asked back!”
In the meantime, he says the tour comes first and then it’s all about Squeeze, promising a batch of new material when they get back into the studios in Charlton in January.
“There will definitely be a new album out,” he enthuses. “We are already writing for it which is exciting. It’s great to get the creative juices again and we’re going great guns at the moment.
“We have a brilliant band who are all so talented and all local to the area - we are just enjoying it all again.”

Glenn Tilbrook, The Best Of Times, is at Blackheath Halls, on Sunday, December 11. Tickets cost £23. Visit or call the box office on 020 8463 0100.