Funny business - Common Ground’s alternative Christmas show

The Tinderbox - Julian Harries, Common Ground

The Tinderbox - Julian Harries, Common Ground - Credit: Archant

For actor-musician team Julian Harries and Pat Whymark, creators of Eastern Angles’ much-loved Christmas shows, this year is even busier than usual. Andrew Clarke grabbed a moment in their hectic schedule to talk

For the actor-musician partnership of Julian Harries and Pat Whymark, Christmas and New Year has always appeared like a speeding train, bearing down on them after they have stalled on a level crossing.

This is their busiest time of year and no matter how prepared they are the Yuletide season always hurtles towards them far faster than they expect.

Over the past 20 years, Pat and Julian have become part of the Suffolk Christmas landscape, thanks to their inspired brand of seasonal madness.

The pair are either involved with the Eastern Angles Christmas show or they are staging their own festive frolics for their company Common Ground.

This year, however, they have thrown caution to the wind and are doing both.

Our interview is taking place at the end of October and they have just delivered the Eastern Angles script, which they will also be directing. Their next task is to set to work on the script for their own show, The Tinder Box, adapted from the tale by Hans Christian Anderson.

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“Oh, it will be fine,” laughs Julian, as he whips up a cappuccino, after I ask him if the script will be ready in time. Pat gives me a look which can only be translated as “I sincerely hope so.”

Doing two shows simultaneously is a tall order, but it is something that Pat and Julian feel they need to try. Support for Common Ground has started to gain momentum after a series of successful shows including Pinocchio, Stuff in the Attic, Prisoner of Zenda and Harriet Walker, and they don’t feel they can let things go off the boil.

“We had a good audience for Canterville Ghost, our Christmas show last year, and we wanted to do something for this Christmas even though we were writing and directing the Eastern Angles show this year,” said Pat.

They are determined to keep Common Ground going even though Julian has the possibility of work in the West End next year and Pat has a thriving voice-over career.

“We created Common Ground because we wanted to work in Suffolk and offer work to local actors and to help young actors gain a foothold in the profession. It’s about investing in local people and local talent.”

In addition to performing in Suffolk, says Pat, they are also starting to make in-roads in London theatres.

“We took Mary Shelley earlier this year to the Gatehouse in Highgate and it did really well.” It’s another reason to keep Common Ground in the public eye, even though they work for other companies and retain a lot of affection for Eastern Angles, which is where the pair met.

Pat was one of the founding members of the company and has provided much of the music for the shows since 1982. Julian arrived in Suffolk in 1990 on his houseboat – which he moored in Martlesham Creek – to join the cast of Peddar’s Way and then appear in his first Christmas show, Sherlock Holmes and the Missing Carol in which he played Holmes to Ivan Cutting’s Dr Watson.

Two years later, Julian was back as Holmes – and this time he had also written the script. The show also introduced a regular to Pat and Julian’s onstage adventures, Greg Wagland, who took over the role of Dr Watson.

Greg is back in this year’s show which is entitled The Mystery of St Finnigan’s Elbow. Set in 1936 at a Suffolk girls’ school, the plot (such as it is) deals with the mysterious disappearance of an ancient relic, St Finnigan’s funny bone.

The setting merely provides a framework for Julian’s love of pastiche – or as he prefers to call it genre-based comedy. He lovingly recreates and then gently lampoons the staples of English culture – everything from Hammer Horror (Bats Over Bleedham Market) to science fiction B movies (The Day The Earth Wobbled A Bit), Agatha Christie (Dial M For Murgatroyd) and genteel English literary detectives (Parson Combes and the ballad of Mad Dog Creek).

Julian loves creating a world which everyone can identify with and then taking it to extremes – in the same way as an artist exaggerates facial features to create a caricature.

“We’re trading off nostalgia,” says Pat. “We’re tapping into these well-loved worlds, which are part of our collective past but no longer exist in the present day.”

“But at the same time as being nostalgic, it’s got to be fresh,” Julian adds: “We can envisage how we can achieve some big screen storytelling in a small theatrical setting as we write the script.”

Pat stresses that although the scripts appear to be light and fluffy there is an awful lot of material interwoven into the plot.

“If you look there’s a lot going on. Lots of references, incidental gags, which either you spot or you don’t, theatrical gags like the use of a set of banisters to simulate going upstairs – all in addition to the story being told, so there are lots of layers, which just add to the quality of the evening without it ever being obvious.”

They want to make both their Christmas shows different from one another. Eastern Angles will continue down the genre-comedy route while the Common Ground shows will have more of a European folk lore feel – good solid folk stories that haven’t been snapped up by the panto world.

“Our shows will still have that slightly surreal, wacky edge to them because that’s us, but I think it’s good that Common Ground has its own identity. Also I think the Common Ground shows are probably more child friendly,” said Julian, “There’s less innuendo. They are more family shows whereas the Eastern Angles shows are more tailored to a grown-up audience.”

The Tinderbox

December 17-January 10