Meet New Old Friends – Making People Laugh Since 2008

NewOldFriends, Feargus Woods Dunlop & Heather Westwell, by Lloyd Evans

New Old Friends is run by a husband and wife team, Heather Westwell, and Feargus Woods-Dunlop. Yes, I confess it, Feargus is my son and Heather my daughter in law. They both write their own material for their theatre company, usually madcap comedy with a dollop of mayhem for good measure. I may have had occasion in the past to gently chastise my son for not being, ahem, gender equal in his writing, i.e. his last couple of plays have featured three male actors to one female. Heather, though, has been doing her bit to redress the balance with her recent writing of Home for Christmas which was female led.

So, how thrilled was I when Feargus said you’re going to love the latest one, Mum, we’ve got a female lead and equal numbers of men to women in the cast. (The answer is very thrilled by the way. My work here is done)

Jane: My first question is for Heather. Heather, you are an enormously funny comic actress (and she genuinely is), however, recently you starred in a very serious play about Anna Seward, the Swan of Lichfield, (Check out the interview with the director here). Which do you prefer, serious or funny?

Heather: That’s such a good question. I really enjoyed the role of Anna, it was something that I had not really done before but enjoyed the challenge of doing something new. Playing a real person from history wasn’t something I’d done either. All the roles I play for New Old Friends are fictional, so I can make up their own personalities, whereas with Anna I really enjoyed researching into who she was and what things she liked and disliked. But when it comes to it, I am always just drawn to comedy, it’s where I feel most comfortable.

A question to both, how did you end up performing together?

Fearg: We started off performing at cabaret nights. Short sketches in between other acts like magicians, poets, singers and bands. We have a pretty similar sense of humour and our styles (me wordy, Heather physical) fit each other well.
Heather: Yeah, we met at a theatre working on a panto project (oh no we didn’t!) No we really did, we just had a lot of things in common and creating comedy was one of them.

It’s been great fun to watch the development of the company over the years (I always want to wear a huge badge to your shows saying ‘I’m related to them!’, although I have given an undertaking not to do that…) Tell me about the current production and why it will gladden my little feminist heart?

Fearg: I actually think that a lot of our work has been underpinned by feminist leanings. But this one is more overt in some of that, we’re thrilled to have a 50/50 cast and a 50/50 creative team. Our Poirot-style detective is a woman who has to deal with the latent misogyny of the period, but does so with wit and grace.
Heather: Artemis Arinae is our main lady, she’s intelligent and ahead of everyone else by ten paces. The show is witty and fast paced, lots of multi role characters and some cross-gender casting as well. Alongside all of this madness, the show does have a heart to it as well.

Feargus, do you remember your first trip to the theatre? If not, I can jog your memory… *grinningmadly*.. And Heather?
Feargus: I don’t, I was literally a baby. Anyone who has been within earshot of you at a theatre post show (and post a gin & tonic or two) has heard the story so we don’t need to throw it up online I wouldn’t have thought. (Dear Reader, I breastfed him at one week old in a box, a theatrical box, not cardboard, at the Theatre Royal Bath.)
Heather: I grew up in the country, so there wasn’t a theatre nearby that we could go to easily but for special occasions we go and travel the hour to the nearest one. I can’t remember my first theatre trip, it might have been Rainbow Live! But I do remember being at primary school and taking part in our summer performances and I absolutely loved them.

Who do you most admire in the world of theatre? Who are you role models, or idols?

Both: What Tim Minchin has achieved is spectacular, transporting his wondrous but sometimes cynical comedy into glorious stage shows which are utterly joyous with bags of heart to watch is hugely inspirational. Also, The 39 Steps stage adaptation has been a guiding show for us for a long time, and we’re thrilled to be working with James Farrell (the Associate Director from the West End & touring version) on this show.
Heather: We both absolutely love Kneehigh theatre, whenever we’ve seen one of their shows we come out buzzing and feel inspired to try new things with our company.

Who or what has had the most impact on your careers to date?
Fearg: It will sound like pandering, but obviously you & Sparks (Feargus’ Dad) have been massive with all your support.
Heather: Yes both are families have so incredibly supportive, and our friends too. As soon as we mention a new show to them they are instantly excited and wanting to support us in any way they can, I don’t know what we’d do without our core people.
Fearg: Professionally I’m very lucky that there have been many. There is Kate Cross (an awesome woman you should interview for your Inspirational Women series) who runs the egg, Bath, who gave New Old Friends our first ever gig and continues to support us ten years later. Also Lee Lyford who was the leader of the youth theatre I went to and kindled my passion and gave me the belief I might be good enough at this to make a living.
Heather: More recently we had the great fortune to meet Tim Ford, who is a fantastic director and just one of the most enthusiastic and positive people you could ever hope to meet. He saw us at Edinburgh in 2015 and gave us a massive opportunity in 2016 (the studio Christmas show at Lichfield Garrick, Crimes Against Christmas) which really took us to a new level.

If you could each choose an actor, any actor, to appear in one of your shows who would be your choice? Obviously we have to exclude all the wonderful actors who have already appeared in New Old Friends’ productions.
Fearg: I’d love to work with Simon Paisley Day (the first ‘Hannay’ I saw in 39 Steps), his command of language and comic timing are second to none. I also adore Jonathan Slinger. Two men. Not particularly on brand is it? (Mum: I’ll let you off, I adore Jonathan Slinger, too.)
Heather: I’m a massive Kim Cattrall fan, I think she’s a very funny lady. Seeing her in one of our shows would be hilarious. (Mum-In-Law: Actually, Kim Cattrall would fit in really well with your style of comedy. bet she’d love it!)

You’re off on a nationwide tour from Tuesday 13th February. What’s the best thing about touring…and the worst?
Fearg: Getting to perform in different cities and regions is such a privilege, the different theatres we visit all have subtle variations and challenges. It’s very exciting. The downside is you eat pretty badly and see an awful lot of the motorways of this fine nation.
Heather: Yes definitely seeing the different theatres, I love. Also seeing the country. Whenever we get a break before the show, I always try and pop out and have a walk around the city or town we’re visiting, seeing all the landmarks is something I love to do. Probably the worst thing is missing my own bed and my garden!

And what’s next for New Old Friends?
Fearg: Now that would be telling. We have a lot of plans and irons in the fire, but at the moment we don’t actually have anything ‘announce-able’. But hopefully we will find homes for one or all of our three existing Christmas shows in 2018, we’re in conversations to create at least two new ones, and then we have some very exciting ideas for multiple tours in 2019.
Heather: Fingers crossed we’ll be able to announce something soon. Watch this space.

Thank you both, and break a leg with the forthcoming tour. I hear the first night in Bath is completely sold out! Well done, my darlings.

Meanwhile you can probably find a theatre near you to see the cast of NewOldFriends in action with Crimes Under the Sun (best poster ever). Please just click on the poster for a list of tour dates! You can also follow them on Twitter @NewOldFriends.

 

Meanwhile, I am hosting two seminars in Bristol in March and April. Our first, Understanding Menglish, or, more prosaically, differences in communication between men and women is on March 6th at Arnos Vale from 10 until 12, just £49.50 per person. If you book both seminars at the same time there is a very special offer available, too! See here for more details.

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Posted on February 12th, 2018 by

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