Friday, 20 February 2015

Interview: Paul Harnett & Nikki Davis-Jones

Paul Harnett and Nikki Davis-Jones are currently working on a musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland which opens at the St James Studio on 9th March 2015. 

Running for just 45 minutes, the show has been created as part of the St James Theatre's series of lunchtime plays for office workers, families and tourists to enjoy. Alice: A New Musical will feature original songs for characters such as the Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter as well as an entirely new script. 

Paul Harnett co-wrote Alice with Rebecca Crookshank and is also directing the production. He is a founding member of Butterfly Theatre Company, for which he has played Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest, Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol (St James Theatre), Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Bridewell & St James Theatre). His credits also include: Raymond in Blue Remembered Hills (New Diorama), Joseph in Impotent (Lion and Unicorn Theatre) and The Apollo Victoria's 80th Birthday Gala. Paul directed As You Like It and The Importance of Being Earnest at the St James Theatre. He was recently the assistant director for The Vertical Hour at the Park Theatre.

Nikki Davis-Jones is working on Alice as the Assistant Director. She created the role of Elphaba in the original UK touring production of Wicked, following almost three years as standby Elphaba in the West End production (Apollo Victoria). Her credits also include: Maureen in Rent (UK Concert Tour), LIFT (Soho Theatre), Blues in the Night (Hackney Empire), Serena in Fame (UK Tour), Bubbles/understudy Chloe in Never Forget (Savoy), Lisa/understudy Sophie in Mamma Mia (Prince of Wales) and Linda in Blood Brothers (Phoenix). 

Yesterday I spoke to Paul and Nikki about why they’re so excited to be working on Alice, how the show works as lunchtime theatre and why they’re having a great time in rehearsals…

Paul, as well as directing Alice you have also co-written the piece. How did the idea come about?

Paul Harnett: Well I’ve been doing these lunchtime shows for the past year at the St James. We’ve mainly been doing Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde and stuff like that, but I wanted to see if we could do a forty-five minute musical as a lunchtime show. Alice was the obvious choice because it gives every single department working on the show ultimate creativity. You can set up a strange new world and script-wise we could do whatever we wanted with it; same for the lighting, costume and choreography and music – it gives you the scope to do something incredible. It helped me to get some incredible people involved.

Nikki, when you first heard about the project what made you want to jump on board?

Nikki Davis-Jones: I’ve never done anything like this so it was really nice of Paul to ask me to assist him. He’s a very good friend so I knew he would be open to me getting involved; he’s such a great writer and great director. It is a privilege to work with him professionally because we’ve never worked together before.

The lunchtime theatre concept is really interesting, who do you think should come and see this?

PH: Well firstly the shows that we’ve done previously have really worked. The office workers in Victoria literally put down their pens, come to the theatre, watch a show and then get back to their desks within an hour. They are the first audience, but with this new show because it’s a musical it opens it up to a whole new musical theatre crowd. The concept is to get people into the theatre for a tenner.

NDJ: It’s escapism, isn’t it, for those workers. They can completely switch off from work for that hour and see this amazing fairy tale.

PH: And I know that even just from doing the Shakespeares and seeing the looks on people’s faces when they leave that it is needed. I can’t wait to see how people react to this, because we’re taking it to another level. 

Hannah Toy as Alice

What can people expect with the show? Have you had fun with the story?

PH: When we were writing it we spent a lot of time trying to make it a bit more adult. We changed the story slightly, adding in a new storyline for Alice and her mum to look at the relationship there. In our version Alice is a teenager, so it looks at relationships and confidence and all the kind of things teenagers are dealing with. 

NDJ: The music is absolutely incredible! Daniel Williams and Jay Reynolds who wrote it are great.

What is it like? What are the influences?

PH: Dan and Jay have a band background, Dan was in a pop band back in the early 2000s so he’s not initially from the musical theatre world. The music has a brand new sound that I haven’t heard before, it’s really contemporary.

NDJ: Each song has its own genre, there are some jazz influences, the Queen of Hearts song is massive – it’s a big belty, rock sound. The different styles of music are unbelievable! Alice has a lovely ballad, the ensemble numbers are really clever – it’s interesting music and very catchy. It has been stuck in my head all week [laughs]. 

You have put a great cast together, what has the atmosphere been like in rehearsals?

PH: I knew all the cast before, we didn’t really audition it because they are all people I’ve worked with or seen or who are really good friends of mine. We’ve had an amazing atmosphere in rehearsals! It’s really important to pick people who are incredibly talented, but also really nice people to work with. The entire team have been chosen in that way. Sean Parkins who is choreographing is just the loveliest person and is so talented. I got Nikki involved because she is such a lovely energy to have in a rehearsal room. We’re all doing this because we love it, there aren’t thousands and thousands of pounds being made here; this is actually a musical written from scratch and created by people, who are incredibly talented, with love.

Hannah Toy as Alice
Nikki, how are you finding your first experience as an assistant director? Is directing something you ever thought you might like to one day try and, looking ahead, is it something you would like to do more of?

NDJ: It’s something I had never even thought about doing! It’s never crossed my path so to be asked to do it and to have a go at it is great. Quite often when I have been sat in rehearsals for other shows that I’ve been in I have thought ‘Why can’t they see that?’ or ‘That doesn’t make sense!’ or ‘I can’t quite understand what that person is saying’ so it’s quite nice that I’m now able to say ‘Umm… what about this?’ [laughs] Paul will probably tell me to shut up most of the time [both laugh]!

PH: [jokingly] Or just to make some tea…

NJD: [laughs] Yes I’m just the tea woman, and I’m there to make everyone laugh! But yes, it is something that maybe I would like to do more of - definitely! As an actor I’ve worked with a lot of directors so you kind of know how to say things and how not to say things. It’s really interesting and I’m sure it will enhance my acting which is good. 

Finally, I have to ask you our killer question… if you had to go to a desert island which three musical theatre songs would you take with you?

PH: Umm… ok… I guess I would take ‘Quiet’ from Matilda because I think it just an absolutely beautiful song. I love the feel of it; I love the frankness of the beginning and then the way it ends - it is so stunning and beautiful. I would take ‘A Weekend in the Country’ from A Little Night Music because I think it is incredibly written and the lyrics are fantastic, it’s hilarious! Finally I would take ‘And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going’ from Dreamgirls [laughs] which I don’t think really needs any explanation!

NDJ: You could sing that really loud on a desert island [laughs]!

PH: I could! When Dan was writing the songs for the Queen of Hearts the only thing I said was that it had to have a similar ending to And I Am Telling You [both laugh]. 

I love it! And Nikki?

NDJ: Well probably ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ from Blood Brothers because it has a special place in my heart and it makes me cry. You need those special songs to make you cry. I would take ‘I Can Take Your Head’ from Alice – it’s the big Queen Of Hearts song that we’ve been talking about and it’s incredible! What else? Oh, probably ‘Falling Slowly’ from Once!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Alice: A New Musical runs at the St James Studio between Monday 9th March and Saturday 21st March 2015. Please visit for further information and tickets.
Photo Credit 2-4: Darren Bell

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