Oli Forsyth and Smoke & Oakum bring their sixth show, Kings, to New Diorama Theatre this month. Daniel Perks chats with Oli about coming back to his theatrical home:

When I first saw Kings at the Vault Festival 2017, I instantly named it my Pick of the Vaults – a decision I still stand by. It won Show of the Week in the Vault Festival Awards too.

Writer Oli Forsyth brought his trademark style and magical touch to the conversation around homelessness. It was real people having real conversations about real life, a piece that forced the audience to sit up and pay attention without getting on its soapbox and preaching like a fervid prophet.

Given its acclaimed success on its very first outing, is it difficult to keep the momentum going? Once you celebrate a strong production, how do you add to it, make it bigger and bolder and better? That’s the dilemma that Oli faces now – Kings opens tonight for a three-week run at Smoke & Oakum’s home in New Diorama Theatre, with whom they are an Emerging Company.

I caught up with Oli just before Kings opens to get his thoughts ahead of the big reveal:

Oli Forsyth

How are you feeling about Kings, opening tonight [3 October]?

Oli: Brilliant, so excited. It’s that magical moment where the work is constant, you’re in it all the time – it’s so exhilarating. When we handed the script to the cast, it became something bigger than I ever thought it could be. I wrote Kings in my local café, so to see it on stage will be bonkers.

It’s also lovely to revisit something too – usually when you put on new work, the struggle is whether it’s only you that thinks it works. But with the response we had at this year’s Vaults Festival, we know it works. That doesn’t remove the pressure, it just gives you a different kind. We know it’s good, but how good should it be – how do we get it to that level? It’s mad that we keep moving the goalposts!

It’s mad that we keep moving the goalposts!

Kings premiered at Vaults Festival earlier this year and got great reception. What do you do to move a production forward once it’s had that level of affirmation?

Oli: We were completely in the dark, we didn’t know what it was going to be, so the reaction that came out was mad: five performances; winning an award; Sir David Bell, former director of Crisis, calling it, ‘the closest he’s seen to the real thing’. You don’t know that’s there when it’s just in your book.

After that, New Diorama Theatre asked their emerging companies [of which Smoke & Oakum is one] for any upcoming work, so we asked for three weeks in October and we got it. That’s the thing with New Diorama Theatre – in any other theatre you would expect a bit of pushback.

Instantly after that we began the redrafting process to extend the show. It initially ran at about 55 minutes, we wanted it at about 90 minutes – new scenes, new text, new journeys, new everything. And we got it published.

How difficult is it as a writer to add material into what is essentially a well compacted production? How do go about it?

Oli: Usually when coming up with a play idea, I have a process. The idea will come and I realise that it’s a combination of three or four fragments that I’ve been spinning around into one piece. With adding, you look at a fully formed thing and wonder how you can tack bits on – that’s how it feels in the beginning, sprinkling glitter on it. But then, there’s an inexplicable moment when you get back into the headspace where the characters were talking loudly and clearly, so it becomes the same process as the first time around.

With this version of Kings, we have a new set of stories – the external world plays more of a part. In the first version, most of the characters’ influences came from within the group; now the ground is quite literally shifting under their feet. It’s true for most people living in homelessness – you have zero control.

What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors by Joue Le Genre

The topic of homelessness has recently received a lot of attention, not just with long-standing companies like Cardboard Citizens and their most recent production, Cathy. Joue Le Genre’s What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors, which came to this year Edinburgh Festival Fringe with St Mungo’s charity; Alexander Zeldin’s world premiere of Love at the Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre at Christmas 2016 – Kings’ first outing at the Vaults Festival is in good company at a very poignant moment:

Oli: Over 250,000 people are homeless in the UK – that statistic came out during our run at the Vaults Festival. Suddenly we were talking about something important. But that comes with the responsibility too. Companies like Cardboard Citizens are making excellent work specifically about that – Cathy is a phenomenal show. I have to remind myself that our job is to make a piece of theatre about these characters who are homeless, not a play about homelessness.

The characters are key – from a writing perspective that is my primary focus

The challenge as a writer is to make work that an audience member wants to know more about and cares about. In this case, we have four very different, very complex people who have been thrust into a world that is constantly on their back. Every single character in the show makes a bad decision, does something morally dubious. That’s because everybody is flawed – to make them as heroes would be at best patronising, at worst seriously misleading. We have the issues of addiction, of emotional and physical abuse – things that colour so many stories about homelessness. But we want them to be exactly that, colour, not the centre point of the show.

Cornermen by Smoke & Oakum

What is the hope for Kings after this run?

Oli: We’ve partnered with Centrepoint with this, a connection made through ambassador Lisa Maxwell. We’re collecting for them after this and there’s a Q&A after the show on 12 October. Hopefully there will be a conversation between us all after this run to see what the future for the show is.

Another show of ours, Cornermen, is touring in spring 2018 – 16 venues over two months, which is great to develop a relationship to show our work to the country. This was a show that began in 2015 at the Old Red Lion; then it did Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Brighton Fringe, Vault Festival, New Diorama Theatre – it went all over. It’s based on the management side of boxing, our first play that really made a mark.

Hopefully we can keep up a system whereby one show is on tour, one is London-based – a cycle of new content and heading out. Long may it last!


To read more about Kings, which plays New Diorama Theatre until 21 October 2017, follow the theatre on Twitter (@NewDiorama) or visit the theatre website – www.newdiorama.com

To read more about Smoke & Oakum, follow the company on Twitter (@SmokeAndOakum) or visit the website – www.smokeandoakumtheatre.com