Derby acting duo Maison Foo

'Memoirs of a Biscuit Tin' photography Robert Day

'Memoirs of a Biscuit Tin' photography Robert Day - Credit: Archant

Nigel Powlson meets Bethany Sheldon and Kathryn Lowe

A single tweet helped a Derbyshire theatre company become an overnight Edinburgh hit and now Maison Foo are returning to the Scottish capital with a new show and a growing reputation.

Bethany Sheldon and Kathryn Lowe first met at the old Derby Playhouse Youth Theatre and, after drama school, turned their backs on the bright lights of London in favour of creating their own company in their home city.

Now, both 31, the duo have created a unique niche for themselves as Maison Foo, making theatre in eccentric and innovative ways. Indeed, Derby has fallen in love with their street theatre creations, which have become a highlight of the annual Festé celebrations. During Derby’s annual outdoor festival you may well have bumped into Bethany and Kathryn out on the streets – pretending to be Alien Tourists leading visitors around the city on an invisible bus or the Trolly Dollies, 1950s ladies of etiquette on ‘a mission to clean up the street and audiences alike’.

They have also been barmy librarians collecting people’s memories, and have performed with puppets in seaside beach huts. They are just as happy visiting hospitals in the guise of the Knitting Nanas, as being out in the open air but it’s their more traditional indoor stage show, Memoirs of a Biscuit Tin, that has given the talented pair a major breakthrough.

Originally performed at Déda, in Derby, where Maison Foo were former artists in residence, this carefully-crafted show about an old lady and the memories left in her house, struck a chord when they took the work to the ultimate proving ground of Edinburgh during the annual festival.

Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner caught the show, loved it and in just 140 characters on Twitter created a genuine buzz around Maison Foo.

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‘She tweeted about the show and suddenly it was a sell out – that’s the power of Twitter,’ says Bethany.

In the resulting Guardian review, Memoirs of a Biscuit Tin was described as ‘my surprise hit of the festival... touching and beautifully crafted... a deceptively sophisticated and layered work... a little show with a big heart that deserves to find an audience.’

Suddenly Maison Foo were in demand. ‘Bookings started to come in, instead of us ringing venues and nobody wanting to speak to us,’ says Bethany.

Now the duo are returning to Edinburgh with their newest work Pendulum’s Bargain Emporium – described as a ‘desperate tale of slavery and greed told with humour, intimacy and charm.’ It will include many of Maison Foo’s trademarks – inventive visual storytelling, live music, clowning and puppetry.

Like all their work, it was developed in Derby and was previewed in the city and you won’t have to go all the way to Edinburgh to see it – because Derby Theatre is bringing a taste of Edinburgh to us this summer in a special festival called ‘DEparture Lounge’. It will be a showcase for some of the most exciting fringe stage companies in the UK and Maison Foo will bring the July celebration to an end with Pendulum’s Bargain Emporium.

Kathryn says, ‘It’s a brilliant platform for great work. It has been handpicked by Derby Theatre and will show a wonderful range of pieces. It will bring lots of other artists and producers to the city.’

Bethany adds, ‘We have done six previews of our show already and had Q&As afterwards and have got some rich feedback which we have taken back into rehearsal. For us, it’s not about picking a show that has already been made, we do it from scratch. People think we are crazy putting shows out there and asking audiences what they think but, for us, it’s essential.’

Bethany, who went to Heanor Gate School and Kathryn, a former pupil at Etwall’s John Port School, first crossed paths in Derby Playhouse Youth Theatre productions between 1998 and 2001. They moved on to train as actors – Bethany at Manchester Metropolitan School of Theatre and Kathryn at Bretton Hall. After graduating, Bethany returned to Derby Playhouse in 2005 to perform as one of the witches in Macbeth, as Mollie in Animal Farm and as the Mother in Johnno and she began a director’s apprenticeship at the theatre.

She bumped back into Kathryn in Derby, and they quickly realised they both had a passion for devising theatre and rather than wait around for someone to cast them in a show, they began to make their own work.

Bethany says, ‘We got together at the old Playhouse rehearsal rooms and just said “Right, what are we going to do?”’

The first piece they created was an adaptation of Carol Ann Duffy’s poems The World’s Wife, which premiered in Derby Playhouse Studio in January 2007. They were then invited to come full circle and to direct the Youth Theatre in the Tempest in June that year. ‘It was around that time that we decided that creating our own theatre was a lot more exciting than performing in other people’s plays and so we decided to form a company together,’ says Bethany.

In April, 2008, Maison Foo was born – Bethany had not long come back from training in Paris and says there was still ‘a bit of a French flavour flying around.’

‘We thought our work had a European feel so we went for Maison and then Foo is an old English word for fools,’ she says. ‘Maison Foo has various meanings but I think in short the tagline “house of mischievous mad fools” sums us up.’

Kathryn adds: ‘I like to think we are very visually intelligent. We see with pictures rather than words. So when we were creating the aliens we knew they had to be tall and it had to be a spectacle. And we ended up with lamp shades on our heads, because we like the surreal – we are big fans of Dali.’

Now the duo have a sustainable full-time career in theatre based in Derby – proving that London doesn’t have to be the only path.

Kathryn says, ‘From day one we started at Derby Playhouse with that umbrella of support and then had a home at Déda for two years. Now with Derby Theatre supporting emerging artists, it’s still the best place for us to be. We do work in London but we don’t have to do the whole Dick Whittington and the streets are paved with gold thing.’

Bethany adds, ‘These are exciting times for Derby with artists’ networks starting to develop. We could go to London but we might get sucked into an abyss. We want Derby’s artistic scene to develop and we want to be part of that. But we also want to tour nationally and internationally. Hopefully we are going to Edinburgh this year with a bigger reputation that will get the promoters in and we’ll take it from there.’

Off the back of the success of Memoirs of a Biscuit Tin, Maison Foo were able to secure further support from Arts Council England, from commissioning partners such as Derby Theatre and Déda, and have also come up with an innovative fund-raising campaign of their own. In order to get the new show to Edinburgh they are having to raise around £20,000 and are hoping that £3,000 will come via a crowd funding site called sponsume.

Bethany says, ‘Here people can support by donating as little as £10 and up to £500 and Maison Foo will be giving gifts in return, from certificates to a song composed just for you. My favourite one is when you sponsor a line. You will get a postcard from Edinburgh telling you how it’s getting on in its new environment!’

You can find out more about the company and how you can support them getting to Edinburgh by going to the website