We chatted to Ben about writing and composing The King of Nothing which will play at the Little Angel Theatre from the 24th September until the 20th November.
Hi Ben, how has it been working on The King of Nothing? A total delight. With some shows you can be unclear exactly what you’re trying to do and can struggle to see eye-to eye with your co-creatives. But on The King of Nothing, I’ve been working with a dream team and we have known exactly what we’re aiming for since we first did a short R and D on it, about 4 or 5 years ago now.
How did the idea for the show come about?I work a couple of days a week as a music teacher in a primary school (come on, how many people can you name who actually make a living writing musicals?) and in the school where I teach, the Year Two children make puppets and put on a show every year. I remember seeing a teacher standing in the corridor holding up two sticks, with a disconsolate expression: “We’re doing The Emperor’s New Clothes in two weeks,” she said, “and this is all that’s arrived.” That’s brilliant, I thought. A puppet version of the Emperor’s New Clothes in which there are no puppets! Instead, the performers make the audience believe there are puppets! I explored this germ of an idea for a while, seeing how far the conceit could be developed and played with. I immediately thought of Steve Tiplady to work on it with me, because I knew this ridiculous idea would totally appeal to him.
Could you tell us a bit more about the process of putting the show together? Initially we just spent a few days playing with scrap materials which our brilliant designer Alison would fashion rapidly into prototype puppets. I had brought together two of my favourite performers, Gilbert Taylor and Karina Garnett, who worked together on a previous Monstro show, Book Story. Both are superb improvisers and clowns, so once we had those two in the room, director Steve at the helm, Alison beavering about with needle and thread and me on the ukulele, we were away. That stage of improvisation led to a period of writing. That got somewhat extended during the-you-know-what, so I ended up with a very detailed script and songs. Then we got together early this year and lovingly smashed the whole thing up again, using the script and songs as a loose basis for a creating a complete semi-improvised rough version of the show (with junk rehearsal puppets) that we took to a school in Barking to test out on some Y3 and Y4 children. They gave us their frank and fearless responses and I then factored those in to another big rewrite. So after all that effort and sacrifice, we can only assume it must be perfect!
How does it feel to be bringing the show to Little Angel Theatre? Like coming home. My first professional musical was a show I made with the same director Steve Tiplady for Little Angel back in the mid-Noughties called The Mouse Queen. It was a much-loved show that went on to tour off-West End and even off-Broadway at the New Victory Theater in New York (that’s how they spell “theatre” over there, adds a note of authenticity I feel). That was the beginning of my journey into making Puppet Musicals and will always feel like “where it all began” for me. I’ve so enjoyed having the privilege of working on many more such shows at that unique theatre over the last fifteen years and more. I’ve taken my kids there and I’ve met adults who remember seeing my shows there as children. History, innit.
What can audiences expect from the show? Expect to be told a Large Number of Untruths. This story is all about our capacity to be fooled and to fool ourselves. It is told to you by a pair of Actors-or-should-I-say-Swindlers who make their intentions very clear from the beginning: “Everything we say is a complete and utter lie. And that is the guaranteed truth!
By Emma Clarendon
The King of Nothing runs at the Little Angel Theatre from 24 September until 20 November 2022. Further information and tickets can be found at littleangeltheatre.com/whats-on/the-king-of-nothing