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Interview: Spinning A Tune With James Broadbent

James Broadbent on The Recollection of Tony Ward

It can be the little things that grab our attention, making us eager to know more. In the case of The Recollection of Tony Ward it was simply the image of vinyl records, which along with the title, suggested that this was going to be a play about memories explored through a music collection. And that was enough to get the interest of one of our music obsessed team.

So, we dropped the needle on our current favourite record (Fontains D.C.’s Skinty Fia just in case you were wondering), poured a couple of drinks and sat down with writer James Broadbent to find out more about the show that will play as part of May’s Peckham Fringe.

The show follows a man who appears to be having a midlife crisis, divorced and forced to return to live with his mother – you’re clearly too young for this to be autobiographical, so what was the inspiration?

Thanks for noting this is far from an autobiographical piece! It comes from a variety of places; the strongest of which being from when I worked in a record shop aged 17/18 – shout out to CrazyBeat Records in Upminster. I wasn’t writing at this point, and it was a simple Saturday job alongside plenty of my first experiences as a young adult.

What struck me and inspired this piece I suppose were the customers themselves that came into the shop. How they found solace in a shop of used records and what was happening outside of the shop’s doors didn’t seem to matter. Most Saturdays were a blast and I think about them often but stepping outside I was always reminded of the strange expectation and traps of suburbia. That’s what this is all about really; traps and lessons.

You’re bang on! Tony finds himself back at his mother’s house and while sitting alone he remembers that his record collection must be somewhere in the very house. It’s a little bit more freeform than: ‘This record reminds me of this’. Tony Ward, the protagonist, seems to be in the quietest place he’s been for a while, and this brings out an awful lot from within him.

We’ve really tried to utilise the stage and lighting design in Tony’s journey through his youth. For a subject manner that can come across as self-pitying and defeatist it’s these memories that personally are my favourite part of the play – of the writing anyway- how Tony relishes in these moments of the past with his best friends and I really hope that the audience revels in them too.

It’s also not all positive and yearning for the past either; Tony faces difficult memories within his marriage and experience as a father that Tal (The performer) is doing wonders with.

So is music an important part of your life, is it an area you’d want to explore more in your writing?

Music is an incredibly important part of my life. My older brother, Matthew, is a tremendous musician who has been writing and performing since I was around about ten. I remember my Dad bartering with bouncers at the Water Rats in Camden to let me in with him to watch because I was so underage. After this I’ve always surrounded myself with musicians as they’re always the funniest people. I’m happiest when I’m listening to new music, and I tend to write a lot more when I do too.

This accompanied by my experience in CrazyBeat and core memories being formed at gigs and festivals with my closest friends. It’s something I love exploring in my writing too. One of my personal highlights from my previous show was seeing the audience bob and clap along to the dance routine performed at the end of the show. I want to reach that level of energy again and music is the only thing that really brings that side out of people.

The play looks at identity and how we find our own; is this a theme you explore often, and how do you make it authentic when you aren’t anywhere near middle aged yet?

I feel as though identity is something you are challenged with consistently in your adult life and the mistakes you make along the way. The play goes from Tony’s teenage years to the present day and there are plenty of mistakes in his lifetime. His biggest mistake for sure is the refusal to learn from any of them and that’s where the commentary on the past fifty years comes in – people believe they don’t have time for themselves because everything is moving so fast and that’s nobody’s fault, but I’m a strong believer we can always become better people. This theme is consistently challenged in my writing because I know that everybody struggles with the same big questions – ‘who am I and how do I fit into it all?’ and myself like plenty of others tend to avoid questions like these and put something on the TV for noise. 

Making it authentic has been easier than I had envisioned. It’s not entirely naturalistic so that helps and working with an actor in Tal Profs who has been through similar life experiences to Tony has meant that he’s been able to bring an awful lot to the role. I’m nowhere near being middle-aged but the play isn’t about age really – but about proving who you are – even if that is just to yourself. Nothing more authentic than that.

The show is part of Peckham Fringe, are such festivals a vital step in developing shows?

Fringe festivals or shows off the beaten track of any form are the best ways to experience new art. Personally, I’ve no aspiration for anything to end up on the West End or even on screen and some people might disagree with this, but at this moment in time I think Fringe Festivals hold far more excitement than anything Between Charing Cross and Tottenham Court Road.

Peckham Fringe is a wonderful festival, where I plan to see a dozen or so shows because you have people who, like ourselves, are working within difficult budget and time restraints but what is so clear to see is the love behind every show that is put on at these festivals.

I think they help develop shows but perhaps in a different sense, you have companies that put themselves under enormous amounts of pressure to make something they never would have done if it wasn’t for the prospect of a show to fifty people at the end of it. The shows themselves take on new forms and cast and crew learn so much from these opportunities, so it’s great they exist and are popping up in new forms like Peckham Fringe.

Your last show, Lovely Spread played at Camden Fringe, when you self-produced, was that a good learning curve for you?

Such a learning curve. That was made with a very talented group of people who I can’t wait to work with again because we faced so many obstacles (covid relating and otherwise) and we overcame them together. Even six months after ‘Lovely Spread’ I know what I’d change and how I’d go about it and that’s not off the table now for another company or student production to take it and do it differently.

I learned how important marketing is, how to make those who create and facilitate your show happy by having open lines of communication and finally I learned that my writing is good enough and trusting talented people is the key to success – so stop worrying about it all and have fun.

What is it you hope audiences will walk away talking about when they see The Recollection of Tony Ward?

I don’t know really. Theatrically I undeniably want people to walk away thinking that it was a step up in production value from Lovely Spread in terms of staging, lighting and sound design – they’ll see the choices we made, and they’ll have things to say on all that.

Emotionally, it’s a strange bit of work that some people will resonate with, and some won’t. I suppose I want people to walk away from the show thinking about who they are and why that doesn’t feel enough. How being unspectacular can be the most wonderful thing if we learn to accept ourselves and learn from our mistakes.

On reflection, I kind of don’t want anybody to talk about ‘The Recollection of Tony Ward’ but I’d like to think it would stay with them when they have a moment alone.

And it’s on for just one day, with two performances, that clearly isn’t going to be all, have you got plans in place for where the show goes next then?

Thanks for your optimism! We have a few festival slots booked in for later in the summer which I’m very excited about but they’ve yet to be announced – but keep an eye out. Hopefully that time round we’ll have an entirely different team because it will take the show in a new direction and grow in ways I could never even foresee.

Thanks to James for taking time out to chat to us. The Recollection Of Tony Ward plays at Theatre Peckham on 8 May, with performances at 2.30 and 8.00. Further information and tickets can be found here.

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