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Tom Machell: Ticker

By | Published on Sunday 11 August 2019

Tom Machell is one-fifth of ThreeWeeks Editors’ Award winning comedy group zazU. But this year he can be found in the Fringe’s theatre programme where he is performing a great new play he has written called ‘Ticker’.

Based on real life experiences, ‘Ticker’ tells the story of twenty-something Spencer, a Geordie millennial who is deeply in love with the inestimable Gabi. Spencer’s life is torn apart by Gabi’s untimely – and unexplained – death. What follows, according to our reviewer, is “a truly arresting exploration of grief, mental health and toxic masculinity, balanced by dark humour and punctuated by unexpected twists that keep you guessing”.

I wanted to find out more about the background to the show, and also how putting on a one-person play at the Fringe differs to being part of a sketch comedy group. So, I posed a bunch of questions to Tom himself.

CC: Tell us about the premise of ‘Ticker’
TM: ‘Ticker’ is a dark comic story about love, loss and grief. It’s about Spencer, a typical Geordie lad who likes going out, drinking and having fun with his pals. But Spencer’s life is torn apart by the untimely – and unexplained – death of a girl called Gabi. He suddenly becomes the prime suspect and chief mourner, and things then start to spiral out of control. The play explores the theme of how not talking about things can eventually lead to self-destruction, as well as raising awareness of the unjust heart conditions that so many young people die from every week in the UK.

CC: It’s inspired by your real-life experiences. What made you decide to write a play based, to an extent, on real life?
TM: I lost a very close friend of mine to an undiagnosed heart condition in 2013. She was brilliant, a complete legend, so full of life and such a clever, beautiful, exceptional person. She was only 23 and I didn’t think that was fair. I have always wanted to do something to honour her, but she would have found it so cringey if I had written a play directly about her. So I decided to write a play around her condition. I want to raise awareness of these conditions and get more young people to get their heart checked.

CC: How much of those real-life experiences are actually in the play?
TM: The anger I felt towards her death has definitely filtered into the play. Spencer, as a character, is a very angry young man. His choice of language is very true to how I felt about her death. He repeats ‘it’s not fair’ a lot and I would have to agree with him on that. But, with every other element, I tried to move away from my own experience, as I think I would have found focusing on that too difficult. Doing the show every day with all these fictional characters is hard enough. If I had to relive my actual experience I think that would be too hard and quite unhelpful.

CC: Did you research more widely the way young men tend to deal with grief?
TM: I did a lot of research into grief, yes, especially focusing on young northern men and their response to it. I found that physical responses were much more common than emotional responses. We prefer to punch a wall and keep quiet rather than talk about how sad we are feeling.

CC: Does the piece touch on the wider debate around toxic masculinity and how men often deal with depression and other mental health challenges?
TM: Definitely! I hope that ‘Ticker’ shows how not talking about things can eventually lead to self destruction, and that the message at the end of the play is clear. I explore masculinity through three characters in the show.

There is Scott, Spencer’s best friend and right hand man. He’s rude, funny and, in his own words, ‘a massive lad’. Then on the other side of the spectrum I have Gabi’s best friend Michael. Spencer can’t understand him as he doesn’t behave like a traditional bloke. He is probably the most aware character in the whole play and Spencer hates that.

Spencer’s mental state is all over the place. One moment he is calm and collected, the next he is a screaming at a waitress about an order of milk for his tea. A way that I have dealt with these themes in the play is using humour and comedy. I find it’s so much easier to open up a conversation about things if we have comedy on our side.

I have found it interesting that my audiences so far have laughed and then checked themselves to make sure that is OK. YES IT’S OK! We need to laugh, we need to see that it is ridiculous that we don’t talk about things, and to recognise the ridiculous labels and rules that we place upon ourselves, and that it is OK to be sad.

CC: We know you best as one-fifth of zazU. What made you decide it was time to try your hand at writing a play?
TM: Well, I was heavily inspired by my zazUvain co-star Maddie Rice, who came up to Edinburgh last year with ‘Pickle Jar’. I had it on my bucket list that I wanted to write a play, bring it up to Edinburgh and hopefully get it published. It has been the most terrifying thing I have ever done creatively and mentally, but I love the play, the characters and the story, so even though it is a whirlwind of emotions, it’s fun…I think.

CC: How does performing a one-person show compare to being part of a group?
TM: It’s bizarre! There are some positives, especially if you are a control freak. However, you have to be so mentally strong. If something goes wrong with zazU, all five of us can band together and get ourselves out of a rut. Being on your own, you have to do that by yourself, which is much more difficult.

CC: How did you team up with the show’s director Derek Anderson? What was his role in developing the piece?
TM: I met Derek doing an ‘R&D’ at the Bunker Theatre in London three years ago and we have been pals ever since. I sent him a fifteen minute extract of the show. We then had a coffee and he kindly agreed to work with me on it. He has literally done everything on bringing the show to life – he directed it, built and designed the set, developed the script and is the lighting designer. He is a Fringe hero and I owe him my life.

CC: The music side of the show is interesting. You’ve worked with Holly Khan on all that. How did that process work?
TM: Holly’s role in the show has been vital. She has been with us since the start of rehearsals, constantly bringing in new pieces to try. We talked about Spencer having a musical world in his head. A world where each character has their own instrument or sound. She has managed to create a musical world that aids the passing of time so well. It’s beautiful and filmic and I hope we get to work on something else with her soon.

CC: We mentioned zazU. What’s going on with all things zazU?
TM: ZazU are good! We are having a break from live stuff as everyone is so busy, but we’ll be back soon with something new.

CC: Finally, we are well into the Fringe now. What have been your highlights so far?
TM: I have so many. I’m working with the company Fight The Dog on ‘Ticker’ and every single one of their shows is amazing, so I would recommend all of them. And also ‘Boar’ at the Pleasance Courtyard, Naomi McDonald’s ‘CopyCat’ at The Caves and ‘Ripped’ at Underbelly.

However, my main recommendation is to do a triple visit to Iron Belly at Underbelly Cowgate. So, ‘Do Our Best’ at 2.50pm, then ‘Ticker’ at 4.10pm, followed by Nicola Wren’s ‘Superstar’ at 5.30pm. It’s a beautiful sandwich of theatre!

Tom Machell performed ‘Ticker’ at Underbelly at Edinburgh Festival 2019.

Photo: Matt Crockett