ED2018 Caro Meets ED2018 Interviews ED2018 Theatre

Alex Maxwell and Atlanta Howard: Tobacco Road

By | Published on Friday 24 August 2018

We’re approaching the end of the Fringe now, and given our dual Edinburgh/London readership, we thought it seemed sensible, for our last Q&A of the season, to focus on a show that’s still on for a few more days at the Fringe, but that has some London dates coming up.

Of course, that’s not the only reason why we are interested: It’s by a company, Incognito Theatre, that we’ve admired for some time now, and their contribution to this year’s Festival is an original and fascinating play that got a glowing review from our impressed reviewer. I spoke to Alex Maxwell and Atlanta Hayward, who both perform in the show.

CM: Can you start by telling us something of the narrative of ‘Tobacco Road’? What story does it tell?
AM: ‘Tobacco Road’ follows the lives of five young men and women who try and forge their way through the underworld of 1920s London. It’s set in the aftermath of the Great War and having very limited options to make a living, the three boys join up with the two girls to (reluctantly) form a gang in attempt to find the notoriety and wealth they so desperately desire. The play then follows their rise to achieve their ambition. However, in a city littered with notorious gangs and brutal violence combined with conflicting interests, cracks begin to form in their attempts to stay at the top.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the characters depicted in it? And the extent to which they are based on real people?
AM: Yeah so with the boys, a reviewer summed it up really nicely, we have a fighter (Tommy), a dreamer (Alfie) and a pragmatist (Felix). The formation of the characters comes from a mixture of general real-life stories of the time and real-life characters. For example, Tommy is loosely based around real-life boxers of the era but mixed with the brutality of some of the gangster stories we researched.
AH: It was important to us to be true to historic events and real people, looking at what carried them into gang culture (willingly or not) and the options (or lack of) they were facing. We spent a lot of time researching and have based our characters and the violent and epic events they encounter on an amalgamation of real people living in London in the 20s. One of the girls is based on a woman who ran a gang called Alice and the Forty Diamonds. She used to carry a hairpin around with her that she would use to stab unsuspecting victims in the neck or eye! I didn’t realise how notorious women gangsters were at the time so it was incredibly interesting to uncover some of their untold stories, and show their importance in what’s seen as a singularly male world.

CM: What are the primary themes of the show? Does it have any specific issues to address?
AM: Of course, gang culture and crime. I think a huge thing it confronts is how a lack of opportunity and the socio-economic situation you are born into is a pivotal in leading someone into crime and gang-life.
AH: We wanted the production to explore the stories that have gone untold in many history books, from the day- to-day struggle of being a female gangster in a male-dominated world to the complex and impossible standards of masculinity. Tobacco Road is a magnified examination of the real people who had to forge a life for themselves in a world that had ignored them.

CM: What made you want to focus on this historical period?
AM: Well, ‘Peaky Blinders’, being so popular at the moment, definitely acted as a stimulus. Being such an epic series, it got us excited to explore the various means with which we could bring such a style and era to the stage. Such a sexy look as well.
AH: Ha!
AM: However, it was the research into 1920s gangs that provided us with an array of material, stories and characters to work off and create our own narrative from. Also, weirdly enough, our shows are kind of progressing in chronological order (last show set in WW1) so it was quite a nice transition into this one.

CM: What relevance do you think this period and themes have for a contemporary audience?
AH: By shining a light on gang activity, we investigate how young people find themselves embroiled in gang culture and, as Alex said earlier, why people felt they had no other option but to go into crime.
AM: It’s been mad to discover the parallels with modern day gang culture and how similar the reasons for joining gangs remain. Of course, it’s important to stress that as a company, we are on the whole from different backgrounds and as such we are confronting 1920s gang life. But of course, by performing such a piece in any given time provokes such issues in contemporary society (with it being especially so topical at this moment in time).

CM: How did you go about putting the show together? Can you talk us through your creative process?
AM: We initially started brainstorming ideas back in October and subsequently started doing various improvisations, devising, character work and writing scenes. This led to a work-in-progress showing of three shows in December. We then subsequently returned to the show in July and lots of re-writing, devising, choreographing and editing occurred.
AH: Yeah, it’s always an ongoing process! I jumped on board in July, where we initially discussed all of our further research and ideas and delved deeper into the world in which the play is set. The company already had a solid show on their hands, those two weeks in July where spent developing it into something even more fantastic.

CM: We’ve seen and loved your shows in Edinburgh before. What makes you keep coming back to the Festival?
AM: There’s nothing like the Fringe! What’s been great is how our company has built up its rep and each year we have people returning to come and see our shows again. However, it’s equally as rewarding when new audiences discover us and the reactions we get off them.
AH: This is actually my first Fringe! I’m having a blast, I’ve definitely caught the Fringe bug!

CM: Can we talk a bit about the company? How did it come together and how did you get involved with it?
AM: So yeah, five of us formed the company around five years ago. We used to perform with Young Pleasance [YP] and approached the Pleasance about forming our own company to do a show up at the Fringe. This created the XYP slot that allowed us to take our first show up to Edinburgh under the Pleasance’s umbrella, and yeah, we have taken off from there really!
AH: I’m actually the most recent member, I got involved with the company in April to audition for the part of Frida. It’s been great working on Tobacco Road with these guys. I’ve loved every moment!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your previous shows?
AM: Our first show was an adaptation of ‘The Government Inspector’ and this was followed by adaptations of ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ and ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. Our company ethos in the past had been to take classic texts and reinvent them physically and each year we progressed to bigger venues at the Pleasance. ‘All Quiet’ ended up touring to New York for a two-week off Broadway run before returning to the Fringe the following year for a shorter run. What’s so exciting about ‘Tobacco Road’ is that it is our first crack at a wholly original piece of writing.

CM: What aims and ambitions does the company have for the future?
AH: We’ve discussed the potential for some two hander, one man/woman pieces which is really exciting to think about. We’re also eager to keep ‘Tobacco Road’ on the road and start touring the show!

CM: What’s coming up next?
AH: We’ve got a short run straight after the fringe at the Greenwich Theatre, which we’re all excited about!
AM: And plenty more up our sleeves…
AH: You’ll have to wait and see!

‘Tobacco Road’ was performed at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2018.