Off the Boards
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Off the Boards

Off the Boards

David Robinson is a prolific playwright and actor, and has performed around the country for over thirty years. Locked out of the theatre like every other performer by the virus, he has been revising, creating and writing, and is currently working on a play based on the life of famous comedian, Ken Dodd.

Q: How has the epidemic hit people like you?

I have never in my thirty years of performing experienced the uncertainty and fear that the creative arts are feeling right now. My last performance was in The Screwtape Letters on Saturday 14 March. My next performance is unknown. So, though it is encouraging and refreshing to see pubs and restaurants opening their doors, it remains frustrating not be able to do what I have always enjoyed doing the most: telling stories through live theatre.

Q: But you have not been idle?

I have been running a series of Facebook interviews via the ever-present Zoom called Tea for Two for Ten: ten-minute interviews over a lovely cup of tea and custard cream, chatting over the arts, and lockdown, and the church and anything else that might come up between slurps. It has been a valuable lifeline. Alongside that I have been revisiting one of my favourite scripts: Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. Judy Moore and I dramatised this best-selling book in the 1990s. We are now reworking the script into a two-hander, focusing on the story from two distinctively different angles: Corrie’s point of view and a Nazi officer’s perspective. It has been fascinating process and we are looking forward to bringing it to the stage later.

And I have been writing a one man show, based on the life of Ken Dodd (see separate box). Just like one of his own typical variety shows, getting through the writing might take me a lot longer than I first thought. But the happiness will be worth it.

Q: What else would you like to do next?

I have a few tales bobbing around in my head that I would be keen to tackle: including the Reverend W. Awdry, the creator of the Thomas The Tank Engine series, and a man called Thomas Byles, a Catholic priest and another unlikely hero, on board the Titanic. And I found myself a wonderful theatrical agent a few years ago, just to supplement some of the work I create for myself. This allows me, when successful, to dip a toe into films and commercials and to benefit from working alongside other brilliant like-minded theatre companies.

Q: How do you feel about the government bailout, promised to the entertainment industry in early July?

Those of us in the creative arts are adaptable and hopeful by nature, and are used to the occasional knock back, but the road back for many in the arts will be tough and certainly not immediate. But the lights will come on again and the audiences will shuffle back into the stalls, eager for more happiness and tears. The Edinburgh Fringe will return, and I have no doubt that, in amongst the laughter and the tickling sticks, there will be many heartfelt new productions based on and inspired by months of lockdown and isolation. Creativity can grow in the darkest and loneliest of environments.

Woodbine Willie
In 2014 to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, I adapted Bob Holman’s excellent biography of a man known as Woodbine Willie, an unsung hero of the Great War. His real name was the Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, and he was an Anglican priest, who volunteered for the front line and became renowned for offering both spiritual support and cigarettes to the troops. The unsung characters have always been a quiet attraction to me, those who are on the very edges of notoriety. When you dig into their back story and discover the real person, you wonder why we don’t know more about them.

Studdert Kennedy was a remarkable campaigner who had a relentless desire to do good for those around him. To understand him, I realised very quickly I had to grasp his passion, his anger for any injustice, his deep concern and love for the young scared soldiers around him.

Noel Coward

The first production I took to Greenside, at the Edinburgh Festival, was in 2015, a play with music called Noel Coward and Friends Live in Las Vegas. It centred around the friendships Coward had with Gertrude Lawrence and Ivor Novello. Coward could act and write and sing…a little: a description that felt familiar to me. He also wrote on many occasions for his friends and was fiercely loyal to them, using the same gang of actors for many of his hugely successful plays and films. Similarly, I enjoy creating and performing with friends I know well, and have been fortunate to be able to do so for most of my career.

I set the play towards the autumn of his career in the late 50s, when all his close friends, including Gertie Lawrence and Ivor Novello, had predeceased him. He was in Las Vegas and was the talk of the town, with full houses every night. It was financially the most lucrative time of his life, and yet he was at his loneliest. So it was a production with some enchanting Coward and Novello songs, not sung by me. I added some clips from Coward classics but the play was mainly about friendship and valuing those we have close to us: a longing for happier days. It played to enthusiastic houses at Edinburgh and then toured briefly the following year. We would all love to revive it one day.

Woodbine Willie

In 2014 to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, I adapted Bob Holman’s excellent biography of a man known as Woodbine Willie, an unsung hero of the Great War. His real name was the Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, and he was an Anglican priest, who volunteered for the front line and became renowned for offering both spiritual support and cigarettes to the troops. The unsung characters have always been a quiet attraction to me, those who are on the very edges of notoriety. When you dig into their back story and discover the real person, you wonder why we don’t know more about them.

Studdert Kennedy was a remarkable campaigner who had a relentless desire to do good for those around him. To understand him, I realised very quickly I had to grasp his passion, his anger for any injustice, his deep concern and love for the young scared soldiers around him.

Ken Dodd

Q: What led you to write Tickled: The Ken Dodd Story?

It is often said that the good old days of variety died in the 1950s, but I believe it died on 11 March 2018, the day Sir Ken Dodd passed away. He was the last of the truly great music hall entertainers and we will not see the like of him again.

Q: You had a family connection to him?

My father’s cousin, Diana, was a good friend of Ken’s, and travelled many miles assisting him with anything from driving him home or selling his souvenir tickling sticks. Her insight into the man off stage has proved invaluable. The only way to experience Dodd was to see him live in a theatre, a joy I had on numerous occasions. He was well-known for giving value for money, with his shows lasting well past midnight. He would quip to the late-night audience ‘Don’t worry about getting mugged after one of my shows, loves, you’ll always go home in the daylight. If the cabs are all done, you can always grab yourself a milk-float.’

Q: What is his appeal?

It is his palpable love for what he did. He would often claim that he had never been a solo performer, it had always been a double act between him and his beloved audience from day one. His energy, even in his later years, was quite remarkable, not only for his length of shows, but also the content. It was a persistent tidal wave of humour coming at you, washing over the stalls and on up into the circle. Not only the stories and the gags, but the eccentric physical stuff and then the songs, and even a touch of ventriloquism. He rarely needed supporting artists, he was not only a one-man act, he was very much a one-man variety show. Which is the main guiding reason for thinking my tribute to him needs to be a theatrical one man show.

Q: How hard will it be to recreate him, on stage?

It will need some careful thinking and planning, not least physically. He was an instantly recognisable figure, even if it was just for his teeth and unruly hair, which I must admit the months of lockdown has got me coming close to. My hope is that I will do the great man proud, with the aid of watching him on DVD again and again, along with chats with Diana and some pointers from a voice coach.

He had his share of personal tragedy, tears and tough times. But his purpose in life was to bring people happiness and he did so for over sixty years. In the few times that he was interviewed, he would often refer to being ‘lucky’ in the business, but in later years he exchanged the word to ‘blessed’. He had a quiet but real faith and was a regular attender for evensong at Liverpool Cathedral, the venue for his final curtain call. So the joy of writing about my comedy hero will continue, but the opening night at the Fringe will sadly be on hold till August 2021.

Q: Following on from your play on Woodbine Willie, you turned to another war for Chamberlain: Peace in our Time?

That same fascination for those on the edges of a story drew me to write on Neville Chamberlain. The books on Churchill could fill a library and yet the volumes on Chamberlain could barely take up a shelf. Why? What was happening behind the famous door of Number Ten when the great appeaser was wrestling with the script for his famous 1939 broadcast to the nation? The play is a two-hander, with Chamberlain being guided by his personal assistant, Jack. There is also a delightful scattering of wartime songs throughout the play. The journey, the research and then eventually the final production developed into one of my most enjoyable and satisfying theatrical experiences to date.

Q: Future plans for it?

It is heading for the Brighton Festival in 2021, hopefully followed by a national tour. The production has to date been the most successful of the one act plays I have taken to the Edinburgh Festival. But who knows? Sir Ken may have the last laugh.

Q: What will Christmas mean for you this year?

The Christmas season can be responsible for helping us to sail through the choppy waters of January and February. But we have the current unknown seas to navigate first, with the prospect of large gatherings looking remote. So we have been having an eye on other plans to help us through the festive season.

Searchlight (my theatre company) will have a series of four sketches available for churches and community groups. We are going to be filming them professionally over the summer, and then we will have them ready for church leaders to preview and hopefully purchase from October. They will be in our usual style: fun, and short and to the point with hopefully a thoughtful punch to finish, and importantly reflecting on the year we have all journeyed together.

The package of material is called Clapping for Christmas, and we will look at the story then and now through the eyes of the Innkeeper, (hospitality) and the Shepherds,( farming and supermarkets); the Three Kings, (royalty, We’ll meet again) and finally Mary and Joseph, (family and the carers). Our hope is to bring some real joy and smiles to the Advent services, as well as space for some timely reflection. More details on the resources will appear on the Searchlight Theatre Company website.
searchlighttheatre.org