I saw Tom Adams’ Elephant and Castle, which is a joint venture with his wife Lillian Henley, recently (review here and ticket link for future performances/ information is below) and I thought it was brilliant. It was a fascinating piece which raised questions I didn’t know I had and had me Santa-style laughing more than once. I had a chat with Tom about his show and all things theatre (part II coming soon) and got all the insights I was after and then some. Get yourself a brew and settle in – this is a cracking interview!
Let’s start at the start: Elephant and Castle – what is it and why should people see it?
Elephant and Castle is a gig theatre show about my sleep talking and my sleep walking. My wife, Lillian is also in the show and it’s her story about how she copes with looking after me and how I wake her up quite regularly; I’ll shout, I’ve punched her in the head before… It’s a comedy show really and it’s an exploration of a relationship. We lay our relationship on stage and we want to be vulnerable and silly and funny; to show all the multi-facets of a relationship. It asks the question: can you really know who that person is, that you’re sleeping next to? Where do we go to when we sleep? I go to a primitive place it seems – I’m talking about food and swearing and I get a bit yobbish maybe. I could have made it all a joke like ‘hahaha, isn’t this funny, what I said – joke-joke-joke’ but I think we wanted to show the sadder and slightly more worrying side of it, so it’s a little bit of a drama too.
It is absolutely fascinating to watch.
Well, it’s unique because it’s an actual married couple on stage and we both have different skills – Lillian is very musical and has a great singing voice, and I kind of like to be funny and tell stories, but when we were making the show it became Lillian’s story. She’s kind of the protagonist really – she’s the one that the audience will hopefully look at and identify with. It’s a light, gentle, poignant, fascinating, funny and different show and I’m fascinated by the idea of live music telling a story.
So the name Elephant and Castle, according to the blurb, is based on the very first thing that you said to Lillian in your sleep – does it hold any other significance?
Yes it does actually; all of the recordings you hear in the show – and we’ve made around 300 in total – all of them were made in the first flat we shared. So it’s significant to our relationship – we loved that flat. I said to her ‘I want to put you in a wardrobe and take you to Elephant and Castle ‘ and my friend said ‘that sounds like a shit Narnia’.
I do like that – that’s really funny!
Yeah – I do like that, that all of the recordings were made in Elephant and Castle and it’s romantic for us. We did think at first that we wanted to include lots about the social history of Elephant and Castle, because there’s a lot of regeneration going on there, and not necessarily for the better. But then we would be confusing the whole subject – talking about social housing in the middle of a show about sleep talking might not be the best! We thought that could be the next show…
Is this the first show that you’ve done together?
Yes, – we’ve been together nearly ten years and we’ve always thought that we would one day work on something, and nothing really fitted. Then this came along and I was originally going to do it as a solo show – I write solo shows quite a lot – and Lillian doesn’t necessarily make theatre shows that are autobiographical – she makes more stylised shows. She works with 1927 theatre company quite a lot – a multi-award winning -touring the world – large – scale theatre company, so she’s used to working on that scale, at that level and style of show, whereas I kind of write about me and my life. Asking her to show our relationship on stage – I had to woo her – I asked her in November 2012 or 2014 or something like that and she said okay give me six months to think about it because she needed to process it. We want to take this show on and on and keep building on it, so it’s still kind of in the early stages.
In terms of working together – there was quite a dark section of the show as far as I remember – I remember thinking ‘that’s quite deep and that’s quite personal for them to include here’. Was there as conversation beforehand in which you decided where exactly to draw the line in the sand in terms of what is public and what is private?
That’s interesting – well yes, there was. We always wanted to make a good show and we always wanted to not let our reticence withhold parts of our relationship; if we thought it would make a good show, then we included parts of it. And we had a really good dramaturg who was really good at not just leaving the audience with lots of horrible information and leaving them to cope with that – I like to think that it could maybe help someone. There’s light in it too – support, all the way through. There’s audio footage of me punching Lillian in the head in my sleep, and her dad came to watch it and I thought I hope he doesn’t go away and think that I’m like that person, you know. I’m not aware of it, I’m doing it in my sleep. But I think we’re all game to include the deeper, darker side of it. I think you mentioned in your review something about – you know, kids say the funniest things or something like that – is that right?
Yes, I said it wasn’t a case of ‘sleep walkers and talkers do the darndest things’-
-yeah, exactly – that whole thing of ‘oh ha ha don’t they do the darndest things’. In our research we spoke to people who do sleep walk and sleep talk when we went to an amazing sleep hospital in Cambridgeshire. We spoke to lots of people who suffer from it and I sort of made a promise to the doctor and myself that I wasn’t just going to write songs about people and abuse their trust or anything like that. But it’s interesting; some things are inherently funny, like hearing someone sleep talk –
-of course – I absolutely loved the opening of Elephant and Castle – you had everyone in fits of laughter because it was just so funny as an opening. (details edited out – go and see it if you want to find out what had everyone chuckling!).
Yeah, exactly – I wanted to go with that but I’ve done something that could be taken either way. It’s hard to know when you want to leave stuff out – we’ll have to do a director’s cut!
So, I had a read of your blog from 2014 and you seemed really uncomfortable when hearing the tapes and thinking about night terrors. Has doing this production changed your views in any way or enlightened you about yourself in some way?
Well it’s interesting – there is scientific evidence that shows that if you sleep walk or sleep talk, it’s an early sign that you’ll get Parkinson’s disease. It’s kind of a warning sign and that kind of worried me – but I’m always thinking about what will make an interesting part of the show. The people who sleep walk who get Parkinson’s, sleep walk or talk towards the R.E.M. part of their sleep, not the deep sleep. I sleep talk more in the deep sleep, so that’s good I suppose but that was a kind of warning sign to me, you know, that this wasn’t just a funny little anecdote you can say over dinner, there are real concerns within that. I’ve never done anything to cause real harm though, like I’ve never fallen down the stairs – I’ve walked into a door before but you know like when you’re drunk, you’re more relaxed so you don’t hurt yourself as much? I was fine really. The doctor reassured me during that part of the research that I was a slow wave sleep parasomniac so it’s in the deep part of my sleep that I sleep talk.
-and the thing in your blog posts that seemed to spark your concern was considering night terrors and recognising that often when you wake up you’re scared?
I have recordings of me waking up and swearing, but I can’t remember what I’m dreaming about. I’ve never had the night terrors where I actually wake up screaming like I’m being murdered. I watched a documentary on YouTube, there’s really good grainy, black and white night vision camera footage done by scientists in the seventies – of people having horrific night terrors. It’s all done in the name of science, no one was harmed, but it was all done for research and they were pioneers in the field. But I’ve never done that, where I’m screaming. I didn’t want to put in the show that I’m really worried for my health – I’m not really, I feel like I’m not a ticking time bomb or anything. If it’s true we put it in. We want to just show a loving relationship and how that works at night when a person most needs help and there’s nothing more dramatic than that really. We talk about other stories (again, edited for your future viewing pleasure!) true stories of examples of what could happen but I never wanted my shows to feel like they’re lectures. I like to deal with feelings more than ideas –
-but this show is inevitably going to be quite educational because people won’t know a lot about what they’re going to see?
Yeah, but I’m trying to create a mood board of emotions and thoughts; still with a structure, but to keep it at the heart rather than a dry academic piece – like I’ve swallowed a textbook or something.
Another interesting thing is that early on, you were toying with the idea of having a narrative and characters – is it the idea that you were trying to present an honest, true relationship that steered you away from using separate characters and a narrative?
Yes, definitely. I’m not a very good actor I don’t think – I discovered that quite early on in my career, I thought ‘I don’t really like playing other people’. I did acting, well, I did clowning, but sort of still playing myself really. I realised that all my ideas were about my life and that was an interesting thing in rehearsal; I wanted to be on stage as myself singing about something.
That comes through very well actually – there’s this overall impression that you’re incredibly comfortable, even when you are (edited – sorry!) It’s still a case of ‘so this is me!’
Well I’ve never (edited – aren’t I a meanie?) on a stage before but I liked that because it’s pushing myself – it felt right in this show, because it’s about vulnerability and it’s a gag but also it has some kind of resonance. I do enjoy that bit; the bit when Lillian helps me put my dressing gown on is a really truthful moment and I like being able to be real on stage.
Well I was going to ask whether you wanted humour to be more prominent than the darker side but actually what’s becoming clear now is that you want it to be honest and a real portrayal of a real relationship, so is that actually the driving force in Elephant and Castle then, with humour and darkness complimenting?
Yeah, exactly. Essentially, the real relationship and Lillian’s reaction to it has to be the core of it,and we thought okay, we might need to have some light and funny songs in it, but I hate the idea of a comedy song about sleep talking. I cringe a bit – I like to write a serious song but sing it funnily. I like songs that don’t scan as well, songs that don’t rhyme. I like singing in sentences – there’s a great singer called John Grant and there’s a really good song he’s written called Glacier. It’s just a really lovely, poignant song. I like singing serious songs but with a glean in my eye so the audience know that it’s generally funny.
A really unique thing about this show is that I’ve never sat in an audience and repeatedly made sustained eye contact with performers. I find that very uncomfortable – what is the intimate performance space like from the other side?
I love it, I can’t do it any other way. I do stuff in people’s lounges, like a comedy gig with ten people sat around on a sofa, on a chair or on the floor and I’m in a corner of the room. That’s me all over – I love playing Wembley as well (he quips), I give that a go, but it’s just for the ticket sales really…
So tell us about the online Sleep Story Museum. What is it and how is it going?
It’s called the Sleep Story Museum and we want it to be an online archive of people’s experiences. Like a good Museum, it’s got a bit of science and little bits of education, but there’s another side of it that’s quite arty and lets you see each other’s sentences mixed together with darker, more surreal sentences. I’m going to send a big mail out – I think it takes a bit of time to raise awareness so after live shows we’d like Q&As because I think there’s more of an appetite for it post-show. Even if we’re not getting people’s stories online, we’d like to get them after the show or on post it notes. We want to have a talk at each venue really, and maybe get someone from a local university or neurology department talking about the brain – someone who’s an expert in that field to pick their brain. At the moment we have about eight sentences there (on the site) but I’d like it to be thousands of interesting, odd stories. There is a Twitter site about sleep talking but I think we wanted to make a place to get to know our audience and get more funny anecdotes that we can include in our show.
To bring it full circle, sell Elephant and Castle in no more than one sentence.
It’s a totally unique show; the unique selling point of the show is that it’s a husband and wife exploring their relationship on stage and one of them is a slow wave sleep parasomniac.
So there you have it – all things Elephant and Castle from the man himself. It’s a show well worth seeing, so grab yourself some tickets if you can, and keep an eye out for Tom’s news about the online library. Apparently, the intention is to keep travelling and adapting Elephant and Castle, but in its current form it can next be found at The Theatre Royal, Margate (tickets here), Wilderness Festival in August and as part of an exciting showcase at Bitesize Festival. Now head over to Part II of Tom’s interview, the all-things-theatre quickfire round!