Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Eat the Dramaturgy: Jonny and the Baptists on tour


50-date UK tour for the hit musical comedy about inequality, friendship & revolution
5 MARCH – 27 MAY 2017

Three quarters of MPs are millionaires. A third of the country lives below the poverty line. Whatever your politics, Jonny & the Baptists think it's worth talking about.

A riotous and heartfelt musical comedy for our times, JONNY & THE BAPTISTS' Edinburgh Fringe hit EAT THE POOR will tour the UK in March-April-May 2017. With over 50 dates, their biggest ever schedule reflects growing national audiences from acclaimed shows and appearances on Radio 4’s The Now Show and BBC Live at Television Centre.

Created through extensive research travelling across the country in early 2016, the show combines contemporary satire and inventive musical silliness with an epic personal story. Setting out to explore the gap between rich and poor, Jonny & the Baptists’ lives turn upside down when Jonny betrays Paddy for financial gain. As Jonny enjoys the high life with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jerry Hall, Paddy falls into homelessness and despair.

An toe-tapping comedy about inequality, homelessness and revolution in modern Britain, EAT THE POOR sees the multi-award-nominees continue to grow in scope and ambition - and even dabble in a small amount of actual economics. Continuing the company’s commitment to reach broad, diverse audiences, their biggest ever tour schedule takes in leading theatres, arts centres, rural venues, comedy clubs and festivals across the country. (Full dates below.)

Nominated for five major awards (they’ve never won any), Jonny & the Baptists – real names Jonny Donahoe & Paddy Gervers – have rapidly become one of the UK's hottest live musical comedy acts. Winning rave national reviews for 2016 climate change comedy The End Is Nigh, they have also enjoyed regular broadcast work, major festival appearances, and once topped the iTunes Comedy Chart with single ‘Farage’. Alongside, Jonny has been nominated for a New York Drama Desk Award for his hit one-man show Every Brilliant Thing on international tour, now an HBO special (broadcast over Christmas 2016).

Answers by Jonny & the Baptists - Jonny Donahoe & Paddy Gervers (writer-performers) and Will Young (director) from rehearsals...

Thank you for taking the time to chat - it's much appreciated. I am a bit worried about asking questions on comedy, since I have no sense of humour and reduce everything to questions of structure...

Bearing that in mind - I've never been sure how you approach 'musical comedy'. There's two of you, so is this more like a gig, or one of those big productions they have in London?

Ha. Sometimes a bit of both. Our early shows were very much 'gigs': funny songs with a setlist, and often a theme but performed straight to the audience. We still love doing shows with a band from time to time (not least because it allows us to feel briefly like rock stars). Recently though we've made tentative steps towards something more like 'theatre'. Not like a west end musical - we can't afford the production values for one thing - but exploring ideas more through story and drama. We don't necessarily prefer one or the other, but they're different ways to get into the ideas we want to explore. The new show, Eat The Poor, is based around research into inequality but as we go, a personal story from our lives takes over and carries the ideas forward.

The inspiration for the show is pretty clear, but I am wonder how effective you find the stage as a medium for exploring ideas: do you find that the process of writing songs brings out your thoughts on a topic, for example, or do you have a clear idea of what you'll be saying from the start?

Generally we start with a very broad idea. It's usually whatever we're talking about in the pub, or something we want to know more about. The last show was about climate change, this one is about inequality and came from all the news stories in 2016 about homelessness and food banks, and the role of economic inequality in the EU referendum. It has to be something we want to know more about, because then we go on a period of research.

For Eat The Poor we spent several months travelling round the country working with homeless charities, local councillors and researchers, and talking to people from big cities to rural villages about how they experience poverty and inequality. From that you start to have an idea of what you want to say, so we go into a room with a massive pinboard and post every idea onto it with a different colour for themes, narrative elements, song ideas, jokes - everything we're thinking about. 

From that you start to pare back, and see which ideas go together, and hopefully start to see the show coming together.

What about audiences - do they tend to agree with the political stance, or is there much argument around the show?

In 2014 we toured a show called Stop Ukip during the European Elections (and it's pretty clear we sorted that right out - you're welcome guys). At one show someone sat down, put up a Ukip poster by his seat and sat quietly throughout. Afterwards we had a chat with him. It was very polite. He explained that he thought we had a right to say what we wanted, and he had a right to present his own views however he wanted. 

There's something valuable in those moments, when you can communicate openly with people who are far apart politically - but of course that's not the norm. Most people who come are probably broadly on the same political spectrum as us, but hopefully the shows also push ideas further and get people to think more, or in a different way, about their own role in the systems around them.

Is there a danger that political performance can end up as 'preaching to the choir', and becomes a nice place for people to nod their heads and agree with you, then do nothing about the problems? Is there any way around this?

We've been accused of 'preaching to the choir' on separate occasions by the Guardian and the Telegraph - which is quite sweet really, if you think about it. Our friend Grace Petrie, who's a wonderful protest-folk singer, has a brilliant response to the 'preaching to the choir' criticism: 'oh yeah, who are these other artists doing shows just for audiences who hate their work?'

Of course, people who come to the shows usually like us and what we stand for. Most audiences for The End Is Nigh came agreeing that climate change is a massive problem: but do our everyday actions reflect that? In Eat The Poor we try to turn the problem back on ourselves as well, and by implication our audience. 

We know a lot of well-meaning Corbynite socialists who are very good people, but bought flats in London supported by money from their parents, and send their own kids to private school. (We've had pretty privileged lives ourselves - you can tell that because we're answering a Q&A about dramaturgy!) 

If you agree with us that inequality is a major social problem, you also have to ask where your own life sits in that structure.

Basically - you can still challenge people who agree with you, just as you can challenge yourself and your own behaviour.

Flying off in another direction: what musical influences are at play in your work?

That's a hard one, there's so many. Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg, Bjork, Jacques Brel, Usher, Rihanna, Nick Cave, The Divine Comedy, Grace Petrie, Marin Harley, the list goes on. Often the influences come from the song we're trying to write: is this more a protest song, a classic rock song, a blues number? The comedy and the theatre should mostly lead the song, so the music needs the right tone to make it funny or dramatic. Then sometimes there's just a tune you've had on the brain for years and eventually the right idea comes along.

Is your approach to making performance political in itself - does the format express any political ideas, for example, or the use of music as a medium for satire?

There's a long tradition of both political and protest songs in folk traditions; and of satire as a medium for attacking the establishment - so in that sense, yes. At heart also, we're entertainers. Music and comedy help our shows be fun, funny, warm and accessible while still tackling important issues. We always want to write inclusively, to have a show anyone can enjoy no matter their background or political interest. 

That's what stops it being a lecture or feeling elitist. Getting an audience to sing along to a catchy chorus is a great way to break down barriers and build a sense of community in just three minutes. We want anyone to be able to come and have a brilliant time: partly because that's a good way to get the ideas out as broadly as possible, but mostly because it's more fun that way.


5 MAR - BRISTOL - Tobacco Factory Theatres |
7-11 MAR - EXETER - Bike Shed Theatre |
12 MAR - RICHMOND - Orange Tree Theatre |
16-18 MAR - SALISBURY - Salisbury Playhouse |
21 MAR - NORWICH - Norwich Playhouse |
22 MAR - GUILDFORD - Star Inn |
23 MAR - COLCHESTER - Lakeside Theatre |
24 MAR - HARLOW - Harlow Playhouse |
25 MAR - CARDIFF - Chapter Arts Centre |
28-29 MAR - NEWCASTLE - Northern Stage |
30 MAR - OXFORD - Old Fire Station |
31 MAR - FARNHAM  - Farnham Maltings |
1 APR - BEDFORD - Quarry Theatre |
5 APR - SUNDERLAND - Pop Recs, Sunderland |
6 APR - READING - South Street Arts |
7 APR - HAVANT - The Spring Arts Centre |
8 APR - MIILTON KEYNES - The Stables |
11 APR - GLASGOW - Platform |
12 APR - LANCASTER - The Dukes |
21 APR - CAMBRIDGE - Cambridge Junction |
22 APR - CALSTOCK - Calstock Village Hall |
28 APR - CARDIGAN - Small World Theatre |
29-30 APR - MACHYNLLETH - Comedy Festival |
2-6 MAY - PLYMOUTH - The Drum, Theatre Royal |
8-10 MAY - LONDON - Soho Theatre |
11 MAY - BIRMINGHAM - mac |
12 MAY - CORSHAM - Pound Arts |
13 MAY - FRITWELL - Fritwell Village Hall |
15 MAY - HOVE - The Old Market |
19 MAY - FAREHAM - Ashcroft Arts Centre |
20 MAY - EASTLEIGH - The Point |
21 MAY - IPSWICH - New Wolsey Theatre |
23 MAY - EDINBURGH - The Stand |
24 MAY - GLASGOW - The Stand |
25 MAY - MONIAIVE - Craigdarroch Arms |
26 MAY - BARNSLEY - The Civic |
27 MAY - SALFORD - The Lowry |

Eat The Poor was created with support from: Arts Council England, Pentabus Theatre, Bike Shed Theatre Exeter, Arts at the Old Fire Station Oxford, Old Red Lion Theatre London & Farnham Maltings.

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