Ahead of Crimes on Centre Court’s autumn national tour we sat down with writer & director of the show, Feargus Woods Dunlop, to find out more about how this unique piece of theatre came to be.
Let’s start by asking you to tell us a little about New Old Friends as a company first
We are a husband-and-wife team (I run the company with Heather Westwell my wife) and we specialise in creating touring comedy theatre with a firm focus on entertainment. We’ve been going since 2008 and are very proud of where the company now sits in the national theatre scene.
A firm focus on entertainment? Can you elaborate on that?
I guess what we mean by that is we make theatre with the primary goal of making people laugh out loud. When we first started out I think we felt maybe a bit embarrassed by our lack of lofty aims, but over the years we’ve come to believe that actually giving people a couple of hours of escapism to just sit and laugh with strangers can be every bit as profound as more obviously worthy shows.
Crimes on Centre Court was a podcast first, how did that come about?
It was an audio story first. When Covid closed the theatres, we were four previews into a show which was supposed to tour and lead into another tour. So Heather & I, like the rest of the industry, were left wondering what to do. But, after a couple of months scrambling to save the company financially, we were absolutely determined to get something out to our audience that was fully Covid proof. In December 2020 we launched our podcast Comedy Whodunnits for Your Ears, Heather & I play all the characters and it is edited and has glorious sound wizardry added by Fred Riding our brilliant sound designer for the stage shows. Thankfully people really loved it and at one point we were the #2 most listened to Fiction podcast in the iTunes charts, we even got invited on to chat with BBC Radio 4’s Front Row.
Where did the idea to set a murder mystery in a tennis club come from?
That would be Heather’s fault. The success of the first series of Comedy Whodunnits (Crimes Against Christmas based upon our 2016 stage show) meant we were keen to follow up. The second series was Crimes of a Country Garden which was our first original story specifically for audio, but we used the classic murder mystery setting of a big, isolated, country manor. When we were thinking about series three, we realised we could do things with sound that would be incredibly challenging on stage and on one of our allowed hour-long walks Heather suggested that setting something during the Wimbledon tournament would be great fun. We continued trading terrible tennis puns as we strolled through a woods near our house and by the time we got home we’d sketched out the death of Lord Knows, chairman of the Whombledun International Invitational Tennis Tournament and a lot of the ensuing nonsense. Then I just had to go away and write it all out!
You’ve said there that part of the attraction was doing things you couldn’t do on stage, why did you then choose to put the show on stage?
Nothing worthwhile is ever easy right? In truth, we didn’t necessarily plan to ever stage Crimes on Centre Court but the response to it as a story was great and when an opportunity came up to open a new show over the summer in Bath before a national tour into the autumn it floated to the surface as an obvious choice. The challenges of putting some of the set-pieces was actually what excited us most about staging it. We’ve made quite a few ‘Crimes…’ shows now, so having a whole new palate and set of tropes that come with sport in general and tennis in particular was great fun.
How do create the theatrical set-pieces that New Old Friends are known for?
We have an incredibly talented creative team to help with it, and we draw on all sorts of reference points; 80s sports movies, ballet, Japanese games shows, of course other pieces of theatre, and we just magpie all the bits that excite us. Then we come together in our rehearsal barn and play around with the ideas until we find the ‘New Old Friends-ness’ of it. One of the most enjoyable parts of making the kind of theatre we make is coming up with seemingly insurmountable staging challenges and then… surmounting them I guess.
You opened the show with a week at Theatre Royal Bath earlier in the year, how did it go?
We were thrilled with it. We got some amazing reviews which is always nice, but more important to us is that the audiences really seemed to connect and embrace our big stylistic choices.
Big choices, such as?
Well for a start the play opens with the cast all dressed as The Hedges of Whombledun singing close four part harmonies, which is quite an unusual way to begin a murder mystery. But right from the get-go people were on board with it and appreciated the marriage of a very silly idea (what if the hedges could sing/talk?) and the amazing talent and skill Guy (Hughes, our composer & MD) and the cast bring to that moment. It’s actually quite beautiful. Then we have the various ways of playing out the tennis matches, someone plummeting to their death, and a character who we never see more than the top of their head.
Finally, we talk about the effect of Covid on the industry and regional touring in particular.
There are obviously far greater tragedies caused by Covid that its effect on our industry. But that said it was, and continues to be, devastating. There is the visible and easily parsed stuff like show cancellations, rising costs of materials, and the stress of building contingency after contingency into everything you do. But there is also the more fundamental issue that audiences haven’t yet returned in anything like the same numbers as pre-pandemic, and we’re now crashing into a cost-of-living crisis which isn’t going to help. Regional theatre is absolutely vital.
We were very fortunate to have built up some funds prior to Covid which have allowed us to produce two tours (Crimes in Egypt in Autumn 2021 & Crimes Camera Action in Spring 2022) at a small loss, but we can’t do so forever. If you can afford to I urge you to book that ticket for your local theatre, not necessarily for our show (although I’m sure you’ll love it) but for any show. Take a bit of risk on something you’ve not heard about. The theatres are back, safe and ready to whisk you away on adventures which are exciting, entertaining, educating, and all the other ‘e’ verbs you can think of.
Crimes on Centre Court arrives at Tacchi-Morris Community Arts Centre this Friday (4th November) and will be staying for an additional show on Saturday 5th November. Tickets are still available. For more information about the show and to book your place please click here.