Neil Jennings & Chris Smart are at the heart of Mangled Yarn & their ebbulient take on the ultimate horror story
Hello Chris and Neil, first things first, where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
Chris: I’m originally from Lichfield, in Staffordshire. It’s near Birmingham, but I’ve lived all over, including Italy and Denmark. I’m currently house hunting in Welwyn Garden City, in Hertfordshire.
Neil: I’m an Essex lad who grew up in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. I now live in North London.
You are quite the creative polymaths, can you tell us about your fields of operation?
Neil: I trained as an actor at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. I’m also a self taught multi-musician. My main instrument is Ukulele; but I can actually play it well! I’m also a keen illustrator, song writer and playwright.
Chris: I also trained as an actor, at The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. I’m a multi musician too – Banjo, Accordion, Guitar, Mandolin. I write songs, sketches and plays and I also direct.
When did you first develop a passion for the arts?
Chris: of course I could say I fell in love with Shakespeare and classic literature at a young age and that was it, (of course I do love those things the requisite amount!) but I was brought up watching John Hughes movies and laughing at people like John Candy and Steve Martin. I think I always held out hope that I would get to do that. In the end I managed to combine the two.
Neil: As a kid I sort of popped in and out of the arts. Sometimes I was very keen, other times it didn’t really bother me. It was at University (I studied Drama at Aberystwyth) where I truly found that this was the career for me.
Can you tell us about The Pantaloons?
Chris: We met six years ago at an audition for the company. It was an unusual audition in that it was just really fun and everyone seemed as lovely as they were talented. We both got the job and haven’t looked back. The company creates hilarious and accessible theatre from Shakespearean and classic texts. Using all kinds of influences and styles to put their own incredible spin on a well known piece. Music is used heavily too and has also challenged us both to learn new styles and instruments . If drama school taught us the foundations of Acting, The Pantaloons taught us how to be comedians. We will always love continuing to work with “The Loons”!
In a world where you can get entertainment ‘on demand’, what makes theatre special?
Neil: For me it’s the thrill of how are you going to stage something. CGI in films and television makes everything possible, but on the stage, there’s a real magic needed to create the same effects. I love, not only working out how to do a particular thing, but also watching how others achieve it. You can really learn from each other.
Chris: firstly I think because it is not “on demand” there is always a sense of occasion and excitement with theatre, you have to get off your arse and go somewhere to watch a bunch of real life human beings tell you a story. No matter how amazing the box set is, you can’t replicate that on your sofa at home. Secondly we both love, and work within a style that is immediate; it embraces and works with the here and now to create a truly unique experience. Bringing the audience into the action means that every night is different; it comes with different risks, different failures and different successes, all of which combine to make something truly special.
You’re washed up on a desert island with an all-in-one solar powered DVD/TV combo & three films, what would they be?
Chris: The Big Lebowski is a must, Uncle Buck because it’s John Hughes and John Candy but not tied into a season like thanksgiving or Christmas. Finally The Royal Tenenbaums, I love Gene Hackman in that movie.
Neil: It depends. Can the Back to the Future trilogy be on one disc? If not, then it’s those! If they count as 1, then I’ll throw in Labyrinth and Ghostbusters (the original).
Where, when, why & with whom was Mangled Yarn created?
Chris: At a Birthday house party last Summer. I think it was Neil’s birthday. We were a little drunk…
Chris: … and we were spitballing ideas for inappropriate text to style combo’s. Classic horrors as Pantomimes really got us laughing.
Neil: We joked about Frankenstein as a Pantomime for ages.
Chris: But the next day I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I knew it would be a really interesting project and I was convinced we could make it work.
Neil: We thought for a bit about just doing a normal Pantomime with the characters of Frankenstein and the monster in it, but that’s not an original idea – it’s been done quite a lot.
Chris: often by amateur theatre companies.
Neil: So we then talked about trying to do a faithful telling of the whole story, but with a Pantomime trying to burst out the whole way through.
Chris: That’s really when we became Mangled Yarn. It’s a mangled quote from All’s Well That Ends Well. “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together”.
What is the Mangled Yarn ethos?
Chris: We want to take incredible professional theatre to everyone, that’s for everyone. We are particularly focussed on bringing our work to those people that, for whatever reason, don’t usually have access to live theatre.
Neil: We are passionate about taking source material seen as “difficult” or “inaccessible” and innovating with it, creating productions that are first and foremost enjoyable and entertaining, but also remain faithful to the spirit of the original text.
You’re performing at this year’s Brighton Fringe, what are you bringing to the table?
Chris: We’re passionate about comedy. We love to laugh and think it’s one of the most important things for an audience to do. If we can also give them the facts at the same time, we’re laughing… still.
Can you tell us about the musical side of Frankenstein?
Neil: Our cast are 5 actor musicians. We have both live and recorded music, and we’re going down a disco route. So we’ve written half a dozen disco parodies that tell the story!
What lead you to the unlikely pairing of Frankenstein and a Pantomime?
Neil: A simple response would be that we found the idea funny. Is it possible to tell such a dark and harrowing story faithfully, yet in the style of a family friendly comedy? We knew it would be a challenge, especially dealing with the subject of life and death. I think we’ve managed to do a great job with that. The finale of our show is a perfect example.
Chris: People often see classic literature as “stuffy” or “difficult”. We wanted to find a way to challenge those preconceptions and help an audience find the joy of the source material. We thought Pantomime was the perfect tool.
What’s the last thing you do before you step out on stage / the curtain goes up?
Chris: I don’t really have any particular rituals, sorry to be boring! I used to always brush my teeth just before beginners but that’s about it.
Neil: It depends on the show and the company. I’ve done shows where we’ve got into an almost superstitious routine of actions and words. I don’t really have a “thing” that I always do, though.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell Frankenstein to somebody in the streets of Brighton…
Neil: It’s Frankenstein as a Pantomime. If that doesn’t do it, I’m not sure what will!
What will you be doing for the rest of 2019?
Chris: We’re hoping to send Frankenstein out for a small UK tour this Halloween. We have a few venues pencilled in, including The Place, Bedford and the Old Library Theatre, Mansfield. We’re also going to begin work on our next project that we’re very excited about. We don’t want to say too much about it yet, but it’s very ambitious. What we can tell you is it WON’T be a pantomime.
The Warren: The Blockhouse
May 24-26 (20:00)