Let's go Wilde over spy thriller

The Russian Bear is arriving in Ipswich and as Arts Editor Andrew Clarke found out, it is using a touring production of The Importance of Being Earnest to cover its activities.

Andrew Clarke

The Russian Bear is arriving in Ipswich and as Arts Editor Andrew Clarke found out, it is using a touring production of The Importance of Being Earnest to cover its activities.

Come comrade, let us infiltrate the decadent Western entertainment The Importance of Being Earnest by that capitalist wit Oscar Wilde. Cast your mind back to the chilly days of the Cold War and such a conversation could have taken place within KGB headquarters - at least that is the position of comedy theatre troupe Peepolykus (people like us) and they are sticking to it.

It is such free-thinking insanity which has produced their latest touring show Spyski which is a glorious combination of traditional Victorian theatre, farce and classic spy thriller.

Founder and co-director Jon Nicolson is delighted with the rapturous critical and audience response the show got at the Lyric Hammersmith when the show played in London and is keen for it to develop a similar following on tour.

For Jon, who has a background in clowning and circus school rather than traditional drama schools is keen to emphasis the fun and the humour inherent in their fast-paced farce.

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“Hopefully audiences will find it tremendous fun. We hope that audiences will laugh - that's the point of the exercise. There's no big message, no tub thumping. It's a fun production which I suppose deals with the theme of things not always being what they seem and perhaps a question of identity. Or perhaps it's just a lot of well-performed silliness. It's up to the audience to decide.”

He said that the plot revolves around the fact that this innocent theatre company has become privy to some sensitive information during the dark days of the Cold War and the world of MI5 and the KGB bubble over into this crazy comedy.

“In many ways it's a reaction to the surveillance society which we live in and that was nagging away at the back of our minds as we were writing it. What we did was start fantasising about what could be going on beneath the surface of our everyday lives.”

Jon is a fast-talking, very chatty person, whose personal style reflects the hectic nature of the shows that he produces. We are talking with him on the move in the back of a car on his way to a meeting in Birmingham - a planned interview the previous afternoon had had to be cancelled when he was called unexpectedly into another meeting about future bookings.

Life is good, life is fast and everything is starting to happen, he explains which is wonderful for the company's profile but means long days (and nights) for the actor/directors.

“There are three of us who basically run the company and devise the shows and then hire the other actors as we need them.”

He said that the sort of show that Peepolykus produce is hard to categorise. He is reluctant to call them a spoof because although the show is an out-and-out comedy and uses the devices of traditional theatre and 1980s style spy thrillers to put the story across in a knowing way, he said that they do take the story quite seriously within its own framework. There are no knowing winks at the audience.

“As far as the actors are concerned it is a straight performance of The Importance of Being Earnest but they have been infiltrated by MI5 and the Russian intelligence services. The humour lies in the fact that they are trying subvert the production for their own ends.

“It is a classic spy story really. There are lots of twists and turns, lots of disguises and mistaken identities and makes you realise that high farce and the classic spy thriller are perhaps more closely related than you may have thought.”

He said that as a company and as individual performers they were all inspired by the dazzling, fast-paced humour of The Marx Brothers and were trying to live up to the standard that they set in the 1920s and 30s. “I suppose we aim for absurdism rather than satire - there's a lot of quick-fire dialogue and misunderstandings, that sort of thing.”

He said that they chose Wilde's The Importance of Bring Earnest because it dealt with themes of stolen identities, confusion, disguise and mysterious babies. In the play the Russians develop the perfect child once that never cries, does what it is told and grows up to become a perfect citizen. Obviously the British must have that child themselves which what sets this whole madcap farce into action.

“In fact we started out using Noel Coward's Private Lives because I had gone to see Private Lives and I felt that we could adapted that play quite nicely into what we were doing but unfortunately we couldn't get the licence so we jumped sideways into The Importance of Being Earnest which I am pleased we did now because it fits in with our play very well.”

He said that the way they work as a company means that Jon, along with his fellow company founders Javier Marzan and David Sant develop an idea for a script - a skeleton of a plot - then put it through a rigorous improvisational rehearsal process to flesh it out before committing it to paper. They then take out play with it and the production evolves through a mixture of trial performances and research. “It's a case of seeing how it plays, rewriting it, throwing bits away, moving things around, being open to inspired ideas during rehearsal and not being too precious about anything.”

He said that they developed shows simply by talking through good ideas that one of the trio and then workshop the ideas and “see what came up.” It is very much in the spirit of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and their heroes The Marx Brothers. “The last step would be to try it out in front of an audience to see what worked and what doesn't.”

Jon said that as an actor he is a lot happier being in charge of his own destiny rather than going from audition to audition, fighting it out with hundreds of other actors for jobs.

“Also because my work involves being away from home for long periods of time, away from my wife and family, I have to feel engaged with the work I am doing. I have to feel passionate about it, rather than it being just another job, so it's good to be part of the development process, part of the creative team that brings a show into being.”

He added that having had the freedom to develop his type of show, it would now be difficult to leave all that behind and just meekly go along with an existing work and another director's ideas about how it should be performed.

“When you've made up your own dialogue, when you've shaped a show to reflect your own particular talents then it's a hard thing to give up.”

Also he never went to drama school - instead he escaped to Europe where he enrolled in Circus School and was trained in the skills of clowning and circus theatre.

“I never wanted to go to drama school because it had the connotations which does to many people I think of it being rather precious and too intense. Being a huge fan of Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton, I found that Circus School was exactly right for me.”

However, with the freedom to do your own thing comes a great deal of responsibility to make sure every show works, that theatres book them and people come to see them. They live and die by their box office. Every show is only as good as their last tour. Without big sponsors or backers with deep pockets, then the pressure is on for the company to come up with a hit time and time again, just to pay the bills.

“It's so easy to get the balance completely wrong and just become absorbed by the money, bill paying side of things, so we try and keep an eye on it and keep the balance right.”

Spyski! has been a particularly big hit prompting excerpts from the show and video tributes on You Tube. It has been greeted with glowing reviews and fantastic feedback from audiences which is fantastic until you have to match it or if possible top it with your next show.

“We have already started thinking about the next show and busily working up new ideas including something for the Cultural Olympiad - a show we have provisionally entitled Stonehenge on Tour which is about exactly what you'd think it was about.

“The idea is that we take Stonehenge around the country setting it up exactly as it is in a variety of places and seeing how it looks.”

He said that it is believed that the stones originally came from Wales, so they have been moved before, now it is time for them to continue their tour of the country.

“I quite like the idea of setting them up in Trafalgar Square and seeing how they look.” He said that because two of their number were Spanish and he attended Circus School in Europe, the group had a very international flavour and they were inspired by many of the circus-themed theatre companies that continued to thrive in mainland Europe.

“There's a lot of good work going on over there which we are trying to tap into and bring to a wider audience in Britain. It's all good fun and we hope that people will come along and enjoy it and hopefully invite us back. How do you think Stonehenge will look in Ipswich?”

Spykski! is at the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich from March 31 to April 4. Tickets are available at www.wolseytheatre.co.uk ot on 01473 295900.