Tommy Tank

Bold Text  are a collective of West Midlands-based playwrights (Steve Jackson, Liz John, Nicola Jones, Helen Kelly, Sayan Kent, Vanessa Oakes, Tim Stimpson, and Julia Wright) who have responded to the remarkable Steelhouse Lane Police Lock-up – built in 1891 but unused since 2016 – by writing or back-filling imagined stories about the gaol’s historic inmates. Under the direction Jo Gleave, four of us performers (Ali Belbin, David Gray, Fran Millican-Slater and me) brought the composite script onto its feet within the walls of this unusual and troubled place; a site that has seen the likes of the Birmingham Six and Fred West through its doors, and which still possesses its ghosts, as I was to find out.

For Behind Bars: Inside the Lock-up, the chosen subjects were from the early days of the Lock-up; Sgt. Evelyn Miles and Rebecca Lipscombe, the first female officers appointed in Birmingham back in 1917; Chief Constable Rafter, the man who first appointed them (now immortalised as Sam Neill’s Peaky Blinders character); early police photography pioneer Det. Charles Muscroft; actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was required to register at the Lock-up as an alien during her visit to Birmingham’s Grand theatre in 1916.

Infamous killer James Twitty (“…we only meant to gag her!”) and legendary local street-hawker Tommy Tank – a regular visitor for episodes of drunk-and-disorderly conduct – were characters rendered by myself. The above image shows Tommy Tank – likely photographed back in the day by Mr. Muscroft himself.

The nine performances of Behind Bars were popular and well-received. The Lock-up itself is open at regular intervals for visits, and there are future plans to restore the building to it’s original appearance and develop the site as the WM Police Museum.

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Following the performance of FRED JEFFS: The Sweetshop Murder at Thimblemill Library (12th July 2018), I was interviewed by James Sandy (aka. King Of The Buttons) for his excellent podcast , The New Curiosities Box, show #19, (first broadcast 25th July 2018 on 107.5 Switch Radio)

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/avcgy-974155-pb?from=share&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&download=0&vjs=1&skin=1

From 37:30 mins you can hear an authentic record of me talking whilst avoiding my own get-out, whilst the sell-out crowd at Thimblemill finally disperse…

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Images from the Thimblemill Library performance. Credits – Birmingham Repertory Theatre / Graeme Braidwood.


Furnace FJSM A5 Leaflet - PF4

Furnace FJSM A5 Leaflet reverse - PF4

The Box Offices are now open for the July performances of Fred Jeffs: The Sweetshop Murder, commissioned as part of FURNACE, Birmingham REP’s Community Engagement Programme.

Tickets for the three shows are free, but limited in number so please book ahead if you can.


Here’s a couple of hapless Greek deities from the 1992/3 show, ROUGH, devised by Bodies In Flight

Photographer and printmaker Edward Dimsdale has collaborated with Bodies In Flight throughout its history; not only documenting the work, but developing a visual language which provides the interface between the core themes of ‘Flesh’ and ‘Text’. Ed is currently compiling images from the company’s back catalogue in preparation for a programme of 30th Anniversary artworks for 2019. As well as a publication from Ed, there are plans for a new performance piece, which, I am excited to say, I will be a part of.

In ROUGH, four seemingly redundant Greek Gods are reduced to touring the Working Men’s Club circuitwith their whirlwind interpretations of the Greek tragedies; all the juicy, gory bits compacted into a tasteless melange. When things go a little too far – even by their own standards – the Gods don their angel wings, pick up their lyres and ascend to a heavenly place…

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Backstage with Bodies In Flight. (clockwise) Simon Pegg, Graeme Rose, Catherine Porter and Charlotte Watkins. Bristol, 1992

 

 


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There were plenty of excuses NOT to come to see us in Engine Brake at Salisbury Playhouse last Saturday afternoon, (19th May.) The much-touted ‘Making of the Mayor’ parade was bringing the sun-drenched Wiltshire streets to life with its celebrations; whilst footie fans were busy clearing the mart-shelves of Carling in readiness for the Cup Final. Meanwhile, down the Thames Valley the fairytale nuptials of the sometime-reluctant Royal – Prince Hal – and his American-born actress bride Meghan Markle, were pulling at the Nation’s fickle heartstrings whilst earning a tidy bob or two for the UK tourism industry. Some of the coolest-staged, and genuinely heartfelt looking photos emerged from the House of Windsor that day. By way of comparison….

Back in Brum with my mind bent on the Fred Jeffs Project, I finally find something that has been eluding me for months. The above picture.

It is 70 years old, and shows Fred Jeffs and Betty Marshall on their wedding day, 1948. The best man is my grandad, Doug Rose – Fred’s elder, half-brother – and a maid of honour whose name I have not yet found, perhaps Betty’s sister?.

Betty herself looks happy and radiant; my grandad looks joyful; Fred looks… frankly, a little stiff, uncomfortable.

Barely three years before this photo was taken the two brothers, Doug and Fred, were occupying dorm space in Stalag VII, near Munich, to where they were likely marched from their respective POW Camps in Poland. My grandad, captured in Crete 1941, wound up in BAB21 (Auschwitz-Bleckammer). His younger brother Fred, captured at Dunkirk 1940 at the age of 21, ended up in Posen (Poznan) Stalag XXI-D. They return to Civvy-street with hopes of a return to ‘normality’ in a ‘land-fit-for-heroes’. They also, very likely, opted to keep ‘schtumm’ about the horrors that they had witnessed in the theatre of war, in the POW Camps and on the west-bound Death Marches out of Poland prior to liberation by the Allies.

 

 

 


ENGINE BRAKE opened last week at the New Diorama Studio in London NW1. The process of making has been hugely enjoyable one, with a bright and talented team of collaborators assembled by The Plasticene Men director Simon Day.

Show premieres are terrifying things at the best of times, but if you are devising new performance work, you can find yourself plagued with doubt. As a maker (or performer) you have to trust your instinct, but you are always looking for some fresh perspective and a reassurance that the ideas of the show find an effective conduit through the form that has evolved through rehearsals. The process of arriving at this is messy and non-linear. Show content is a sublimation of the universal and the personal – woven into a complex tapestry of threads in which coherent patterns can become lost. In this frenzied atmosphere critical feedback from audience and/or reviewers can expose personal insecurities and vulnerabilities in unhelpful or destructive ways. Recognising this, I have learned to take reviews, whether positive or negative, with a pinch of salt.

A well written analysis, however, is such a breath of fresh air – for audience and creatives alike. Rosemary Waugh writes eloquently and sensitively about the show, ENGINE BRAKE in this Review in Exeunt (14th May 2018). For me it is a reassuring confirmation that the complex ideas and conversations that informed the making process have percolated through into a poetic form that – even though the threads are ‘unhemmed’ – has a coherence to it.

Engine Brake 1 mattcawrey

We enter the second of four weeks’ touring, with the show moving to Salisbury Playhouse this week (17th – 19th May), then Plymouth Drum (28th May – 1st June) and finally Bristol Wardrobe Theatre (6th – 9th June).

photo by Matt Cawrey.

Simon writes about the development process of ENGINE BRAKE in this Blog post from The Plasticene Men.

Engine Brake press review: exeuntmagazine

 


Engine Brake

11Apr18

The trailer for Engine Brake, a new piece I’m devising along with co-performer Radhika Aggarwal and director Simon Day under the moniker of The Plasticene Men.

The show opens at the New Diorama Theatre, London, 8th – 12th May 2018.

Further dates; Salisbury Playhouse (17th-19th May), Plymouth Fringe Festival, The Drum, Theatre Royal, (28th May – 1st June) and The Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol (6th – 9th June).


After an early morning interview with presenter Alex Lester on the WM Breakfast Show, I appeared on Caroline Martin’s lunchtime show (BBC Radio WM, 3/4/2018) talking to her about the mysterious unsolved murder of Fred Jeffs and my community project with the Birmingham Rep Furnace programme.

The broadcast is available for ‘Listen Again’ until 29th April 2018. (Restrictions apply for International listeners)

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0616hn4


Maundy Thursday

30Mar18

What is it about an unsolved murder that holds its grip on us? Perhaps it’s a need to complete the story and provide some sort of closure? Or a fascination with gruesome misadventures?  Wherever I have been in the last month – whether talking to local history societies, visiting retirement homes or holding sessions in the libraries of Bleakhouse, Thimblemill or Quinborne, I meet people who find themselves entranced by the story of Fred Jeffs and the Sweetshop murder. Real connections to the story itself are never far away. In the past few weeks I’ve met and interviewed people who visited Jeffs’s shop on its last day open, those who remember the house-to-house investigations made by the C.I.D. and plenty more who remember the rumours that grew and persisted in the wake of the murder. There is a variety of speculation as to where he was killed, what happened to Fred’s devoted poodle ‘Perro’, and who was responsible for the attack, murder and disposal of the body.

Yesterday was Maundy Thursday, and it was on Maundy Thursday 1957 that Frederick Walter Jeffs met his fateful end. A team from BBC Midlands Today visited key locations and featured the project on last night’s teatime news.

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Here, BBCmtd reporter Sarah Bishop (née Falkland) interviews Elizabeth Rose (Fred’s niece and my aunt) outside No.12 Stanley Road. Liz shared her memories of visiting the sweetshop as a young girl and her memories of Uncle Fred.

Current shop owner Andrew Bowen then talked about his family taking on the shop and their realisation of the dark history of the building.

Then our crew relocated to a remote spinney off Park Lane, Handsworth, described by the press at the time as “a lovers’ Lane”. It was in this location that the grim discovery of Fred’s half-buried, beaten body was made on the afternoon of Good Friday 1957.

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Back at Smethwick Library, archivist Ian Gray helped uncover some local press coverage from the time. In the Oldbury ‘Weekly News’, the Jeffs investigation competed for space with pictures of that week’s visit of the Queen to Warley / Smethwick. Meanwhile, in the wonderfully titled ‘Smethwick Telephone’, a local reporter gains a real scoop by interviewing the boy who discovered Fred’s body while ‘birds-nesting’ with his pals. The ‘Telephone’ names him as 15-year old Cyril Blakemore, of King St., Smethwick, sets up a photo of him pointing at the shallow grave, and then tells us that Cyril spent the evening at a local cinema. “I wasn’t in the least bit upset” he tells the reporter.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09x087z/midlands-today-evening-news-29032018

Feature starts at 22:50 mins




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