ED2022 Interviews ED2022 Preview Edition ED2022 Theatre

Rob Ward: The MP, Aunty Mandy And Me

By | Published on Friday 29 July 2022

Regular Fringe-goers will no doubt be aware of the work of Rob Ward, the creative force behind ‘Gypsy Queen’ –  a play about bare‐knuckle fighter and traveller ‘Gorgeous’ George O’Connell – which won much acclaim when it was on at the Festival in 2017 and 2018. 

Rob returns to the Fringe this year with ‘The MP, Aunty Mandy And Me’, which is about a young gay man’s encounter with an MP, and explores the issues of consent and coercive control. It’s a topic that’s… well, topical, in the light of recent high profile allegations against certain elected representatives. 

I was keen to find out more about the play – as well as the writer and performer of it – so I arranged a chat with Rob Ward ahead of his Edinburgh run. 

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the plot of ‘The MP, Aunty Mandy And Me’ – whose story does it tell and where does the narrative take us? 
RW: This is the story of Dom. He’s a young gay man and steam train fanatic who, despite struggling to get 100 likes for an Instagram post, has convinced himself he is a social media influencer and a sought after #instagay.

He dreams of life as an A-Gay in a swanky city centre apartment, but his crippling anxiety prevents him from living far from the small sleepy village in the north of England – five miles from the nearest gay – in which he grew up.

He lives with his mum, who spends most of her time high on MDMA – her ‘Aunty Mandy’ – and listening to Simply Red records. One day, a chance encounter with his local MP Peter Edwards presents Dom with a job and the opportunity to grow as a person.

More importantly, it brings Dom into direct contact with the only gay man he can talk to that isn’t a random profile on a hook-up app. However, it soon becomes clear that this relationship will come at a cost for Dom as the play explores sexual consent and coercive control. In an attempt to live the life he has always wanted to, just how much does Dom have to give up?

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
RW: At the heart of the story is the sexual misconduct of an elected politician. 58 MPs have faced such allegations this year. There are 600 MPs in total in Parliament. It isn’t just an issue with politicians of course, this is a tale of power and the abuse of it.

It is also an exploration of consent, coercive control and grooming, specifically within the gay male community, and the script also investigates the part that intoxication, hyper-sexualisation and image obsession within mainstream gay male culture can play in contributing to some of these abusive situations. 

Physical attractiveness has long been prime real estate amongst gay men. We have prioritised this above so many other qualities, and I suppose the provocation within this play is about the culture this has created. On a positive note, I think we’re moving into a world where, for a lot of younger LGBTQ+ people, the days of uninvited arse-grabbing, unsolicited dick pics and other such oppressive sexual behaviour is unacceptable.

The #MeToo movement was an opportunity for introspection that I don’t think we took as a gay male community, though I think the overall acceptance of this sort of predatory behaviour is diminishing.

The sexual liberation and freedom that comes with being a gay man is a wonderful thing, but that freedom has to extend to every gay man and it must always be an active choice, not one that they feel is an unfortunate by-product of their sexuality and associated behaviour that has to be tolerated.

This all sounds pretty heavy, sure, and I feel our production gives these issues the weight they deserve. But my scripts will always be packed with lighter moments, such is the human experience.

‘The MP, Aunty Mandy And Me’ is full of biting humour and contemporary queer commentary, and includes various comedy characters that make up the fictional village in which the play is set.  

CM: Is there any element of the autobiographical in it?
RW: There are autobiographical elements in there, but with the intense nature of the subject matter I hope you don’t mind that I won’t expand any further on that.

But the play is also an amalgamation of conversations I’ve had with many gay men, all of whom have generously shared their experiences with me as we collectively attempted to understand the issues that form the central conceit of the piece.

The partnership that we have with Survivors Manchester – the survivor led charity for male survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation – has also played a pivotal role in shaping this script.  

CM: What inspired you to write a play tackling this subject matter and these themes?
RW: It was a combination of personal and collective experience and some questions I had been asking of myself and my community for a while.

The idea behind making the central character a gay man who doesn’t necessarily understand mainstream gay male culture was very much my experience for many years. I’m not into steam trains myself, but in my experience my love of sport – perceived as being atypically heteronormative – raised many eyebrows amongst many gay men I have met over the years. 

I think within a minority group those who are perceived to be different aren’t always trusted, it is seen almost as a betrayal of the culturally defined norm. I wanted to capture some of this disenfranchisement in the script, thus we focus on a young gay man with a hobby that seems alien to the image obsessed sexual culture he strives to belong to. 

In terms of the wider context of the play, I’ve always had an interest in politics and have been an active member of the Labour Party through good times and bad. It’s been mainly bad for twelve years now.

As a northerner, the decision to set it in a small northern community was inspired by the decision many of these communities made to vote for Brexit and tilt towards social conservatism over the past six years. However, the play attempts to undermine some of the stereotypes of these people that have been developed by the London media.

CM: Did you always intend to perform this yourself? How does the fact that you are performing your own work affect how you work with your director? 
RW: I frequently perform my own material. At first, this was because no bugger would give me a job. Over time, I’ve realised I can hold my own – or at least no one has yet been brave enough to tell me to stop.

I love one-person shows. They are innately theatrical – the audience have already suspended so much of their belief as they follow one performer often portraying multiple characters – and because of this I think there is a fun, cheeky and playful quality to them.

It’s you and an audience, no one else. As a performer – and hopefully as an audience member – that creates a special experience. 

The director, Clive Judd, has been my friend since we were eighteen. We have never worked together professionally, despite both having worked in the industry for over ten years now.

Sure, there are down-sides to working with Clive. He encourages me to drink far too much after rehearsals and he’s a Villa fan – I guess someone has to be!

But Clive might just be the most brilliant person I’ve ever been in a rehearsal room with. I totally trust him to take my words, and an issue that is incredibly delicate, and do right by them. If you don’t have that with a director, then it will never work. 

CM: You’ve brought work to the Edinburgh Fringe before – what made you want to return to it? 
RW: I’ve missed the buzz of it all. I’m sure I’m not the only creative who has felt pretty lost over the past two years. It’s a bit like when you were naughty as a kid and your mum told you there was no Playstation for a week. You’re at a loss for what to do.

We developed this play in February and March 2020. Two weeks after our first performances we were all locked down. I’m looking forward to seeing how the show goes down, but also to immersing myself in the brilliant work of others. Can’t wait! 

CM: What are the best things about the Fringe for you? What are you most looking forward to about being in Edinburgh for the Fringe this year? 
RW: I love the camaraderie with fellow artists, the buzz of the venue bars and the warm bubble that the Fringe creates.

The world is pretty shit right now. Being in Edinburgh is escapism. I look forward to catching up with old friends and making new ones.

Having not been on a stage for two and half years, I’m looking forward to getting back out there and shaking the rust off. Hopefully I can still remember lines!

CM: What’s the most difficult part of being at the Festival?  
RW: The cost. Always the cost. It’s just absurd. It’s always been a dear do, but this year in particular the price of accommodation is staggering. People are broke right now. Bills are sky-rocketing.

The worry for me is that the Festival becomes a celebration of the wealthy South East of England rather than a truly diverse feast of storytelling. Sadly, I can’t see this trend reversing and it’s something all of us who love the Festival should think deeply about. 

CM: Aside from performing, what else will you get up to while you’re there? Do you have a list of shows you want to see? Do you have other plans? 
RW: Arthur’s Seat and Portobello beach are a must. I’ll also be taking a trip to Glasgow. I have family coming up too, so I’ll be spending some time with them.

The new football season starts on the first weekend of the Festival – though as an Everton fan this isn’t really going to be much solace to me. As great as the Festival community is, it’s important to take yourself out of it too. It’s an intense goldfish bowl and it’s not healthy to live solely within it.

In terms of shows, I’m particularly looking forward to ‘Are You Being Murdered’ starring former ‘Allo Allostar Arthur Bostrom. I’ve performed with Arthur several times and he’s great fun to be around and very funny to watch do his thing. He’s also very tall.

Also, I saw Richard Vergette’s one person show ‘Leaving Vietnam’ in Manchester last year and it was terrific. It’s an exploration of the American male psyche, tracing one man’s journey from that terrible war to the explosive political climate of the modern day. 

And there’s ‘Bloody Elle’, which was a huge hit over the past year that I didn’t get a chance to catch in Manchester, so I’ll be righting that wrong in Edinburgh. Outside of that, I’ll allow the Festival to guide me to the good stuff once I’m up there and settled in.

CM: Let’s go back a bit now: can you tell us how you came to be working in the arts? Was it something you always aspired to, and how did you begin your career? 
RW: I was always a show off when I was a kid and that naturally segued into an interest in acting. When I moved to Manchester and started uni I found lots of like-minded people in the Drama Society and I was putting on and performing in shows three times a year and we were up in Edinburgh every summer.

It was a great time and many of the people I played around with – on stage I should stress! – are still working in the industry today and excelling. Clive Judd, the director of ‘The MP, Aunty Mandy And Me’, was one of those. 

I was a jobbing actor and involved in the Manchester Fringe scene for a few years in the early 2010s. Like most young people who get into acting, I was convinced I was the next DiCaprio, but when I got over that nonsense I decided to explore my interests in creating and telling stories. I started to write, which was something I had done as a kid but been too afraid to pursue at uni, where my identity, my ideas and my politics were not fully formed. 

The producing started out of necessity at first to get my own work out there, but there was only so much extending of my overdraft I could do and so many Arts Council funding rejections I could take.

That’s when I met Max Emmerson, the boy genius of the producing world, and we’ve been thick as thieves ever since. He’s great when he’s not constantly reminding me of how much younger he is. 

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future? 
RW: My previous shows ‘Away From Home’ and ‘Gypsy Queen’ both toured internationally to New Zealand, Republic Of Ireland, Serbia and Canada… I would love to take this show further afield.

I have a couple of exciting projects coming up with Live Theatre in Newcastle and Curve in Leicester over the next two years.

I love having my own company, alongside my business partner and best friend Max Emmerson, and we both want to grow the company over the next few years. I would also love to develop my screenwriting. That should be enough to keep me out of trouble… though I’ll probably find time for some of that too!

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
RW: I’ve been really lucky to be able to tour my work all over. From New Zealand to Canada, LGBTQ+ festivals in Dublin and Belgrade in Serbia. In this country as well, I’ve performed in boxing gyms in Manchester and miners’ welfares in the south of Wales. Town to town, city to city, I love exploring and meeting new people and hearing their stories. 

One story that stands out, when I was in Auckland with ‘Away From Home, I was performing in the fantastic Aotea Centre. I was sitting in my dressing room backstage and Michael Palin was in the main space.

Halfway through my vocal warmup I heard the ‘Lumberjack Song’ belting out across the tannoy. I’m a huge Python fan so I was halfway down the corridor to join the fun before my producer had to rope me back in and remind me we had our own show to do. Killjoy! 

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? 
RW: We’re taking the show on a UK tour this autumn, with nineteen performances at twelve different venues. We launch at Curve, where our company Emmerson & Ward is a Resident Creative, and we’re taking in such venues as Hull Truck, Birmingham Rep, York Theatre Royal and Hope Mill Theatre. All the details of the tour are on our website.  

Rob Ward performed ‘The MP, Aunty Mandy And Me’ at Pleasance Dome at Edinburgh Festival 2022.

LINKS: www.emmersonandward.com | twitter.com/robwardrw 

Photo: Pamela Raith Photography