When audiences are flocking to see Barnum at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory this Christmas, they may spot that, next door in the subterranean Bunker Theatre, there is something far removed from the fun of the circus. FCUK’D offers an alternative festive experience, focussing on the emotive topic of runaway children, and its writer/director Niall Ransome took time off from treading the boards in the West End show The Comedy About a Bank Robbery to talk about it with The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates.
Making no attempt to conceal neither his native Hull accent nor his infectious enthusiasm for theatre, Ransome makes a persuasive case for his alternative to the traditional Christmas fare.
“We go to see these fantastic pantomimes and musicals and West End shows at Christmas, but I also think that theatre like this is important all year round and we shouldn’t stop putting on theatre that says something about the times we live in,” he argues.
As a young actor straight out of drama school, Ransome was involved at the start of the hugely successful The Play that Goes Wrong and, learning from that experience, he says “I’m very used to the idea of audiences shouting and becoming involved and, in FCUK’D, Boy (the central character) often turns to the audience to ask what he should do.” He feels that we all ignore strangers in our busy lives and make judgements about them; “I would like to see someone come to the play, see Boy and make a judgement about him; then it becomes the job of the play to break that down.”
Boy is a 17-year-old living in a flat on a Hull council estate with his alcoholic mother and Matty, a brother 10 years his junior. When Social Services move to take Matty into care, the two boys run away from home and head north. “The boys only have each other,” explains Ransome, “it’s a story of family unity, of being together.” The writer researched the route they take carefully, even going to a cliff edge where a key scene takes place; “I took my Mum,” he says smiling.
I do think at times that the working class voice is getting a bit behind again…
The play is presented in monologue form and Ransome has performed it himself in test runs. However, at the Bunker, it will be performed by Will Mytum. “Me and Will have been friends for years,” says Ransome. “We went to drama school together and were in the next rooms. I trust him implicitly.”
The writer also set himself the additional challenge of writing the play in rhyming verse, explaining: ”Rhymes just trip off the tongue and, once you get the flow and rhythm of it, it almost dictates the way in which the story goes.” He feels that he is following in a great tradition: “Hull is rich with poetry; we have Philip Larkin, we have Stevie Smith,” he boasts.
“I am very very proud to be from Hull, a city that, over the years, has got a lot of stick,” he declares. “I went to quite a naff school in Hull, it wasn’t a nice school, but I always think that the best teachers teach in the worst schools; they can get someone from an underprivileged background to be enthusiastic about drama, art, history, maths and that is a triumph”. He continues: “FCUK’D focusses on a group of people who I feel aren’t always given voices in theatre and, around Christmas, their issues never have a holiday; setting it around Christmas, heightens all the issues.”
Ransome holds passionate views about the direction which British theatre should be taking. “Abroad, we are often seen as being about the Queen’s English, the cups of tea,” he claims. So how does he feel about the current prominence of Public School educated actors? “I admire the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne, I think they do incredible work; but we live in a time when we talk about ethnic diversity and gender equality, which are so important, yet I do think at times that the working class voice is getting a bit behind again; the theatre should be a community of all voices, all colours, all sexualities, all ethnicities and it should be a welcoming place.”
The play’s title is very in-your-face, but did he deliberately choose it to be provocative? “Absolutely!” he retorts. “That’s quite a northern attitude for me, a wonderful northern straight to the camera sort of thing, straight, snappy, bold, just what the play itself is.” He hopes to draw in audiences of all ages, but particularly the young. “It feels like 2017 is a year in which young people have really got on board,” he says, adding the caveat “I never wrote (the play) as a political piece, I wrote it as a story”. Hoping that sensible Fringe ticket prices will be a further draw for the young, he says: “The West End is money, but London has such a fantastic theatre scene.”
Plans to take FCUK’D on the road are being drawn up and a second play is already in the pipeline. As an actor, Ransome continues in his West End role until February and then it’s back to the auditioning circuit. “I believe we live in a time when, as writers, actors, directors, we can’t wait for the phone to ring” he concludes. A busy Niall Ransome sounds like very good news for theatre.
FCUK’D is at the Bunker London from 11 to 30 December 2017
Image: Andrea Lambis