The Edinburgh Festival is a carnival of creatives. A buzzing experience that I have to undertake every year. I have seen some absolute duds and some mesmerising pieces of work, like Alistair McGowan’s portrayal of Jimmy Saville: an impeccable performance that haunts me to this day. Out on the streets and in any available space there are performances, sometimes not intentional but everyday people interacting with those who take over their home for a month long residency. Liverpool’s own Naughty Corner are becoming a regular feature in the Festival. This year they brought Bob the Russian, a timely and topical piece set at the World Cup.
Now, football is not something that I naturally gravitate towards, but as I have followed this company’s work since seeing The Bastard Queen in the much-missed Lantern Theatre, I was keen to see their latest work. A potent cocktail of theatre, with striking physical choreography, ensemble comedy and surreal anarchic fun, plus an important political message, Bob the Russian opens a compelling dialogue about the destructive behaviours around the ‘beautiful game,’ particularly during tournaments.
10mh caught up with writer and director, Mike Dickinson, in Edinburgh for a candid chat about his new work, before the play finishes its away fixture and comes back to the North West for its final performances. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
10mh: Tell us a joke…
A joke? Boris Johnson. There’s a joke.
10mh: Describe Bob the Russian in a sentence.
Bob the Russian is an outrageous, hilarious and – at times – poignant heist-comedy that combines every avenue of comedy you can think of and relentlessly busts genres and expectations… not bad, that.
10mh: Why this play and why now?
The play has been in my head for at least two years, ever since the Euros in 2016 when I saw Russia and England fans rioting and realised the World Cup would be held in Russia. I then started to get interested in the idea that Russia with such a poor effort on human rights can be awarded with this opportunity. The play then came pretty much fully-formed over a few planning sessions.
The twist at the end was always apparent as it gets the real message across. I wanted to do a play that would give people the best night out of the year, but also make them think, get them talking and possibly tell them something they didn’t know. It seems to have worked anyway. Only two more shows to go and then it seems right to put it to bed. It was a show built for this year and this year only, but the message will always stand.
10mh: What does a typical creative day look like for you?
It’s hard to say really. I go through creative phases. But if it’s a day of writing it would usually be procrastinating and putting it off for as long as possible, until finally getting around to it in the evening. I write at my best late at night and through the night. The majority of my plays have been story boarded in my room at 4 a.m. I’ll start by getting a playlist for the idea built up and just keep listening to that with a pen in hand and then characters and scenes start to form; I often have a full scene come to my head with no idea where it’s going in the play, but then the rest of the story comes around this one scene, or couple of scenes.
That’s the best I can answer that one, I think! Every day is completely different with where my head’s at, but that would be the best way to describe the start of my process. I hope it’s made some sense.
10mh: If you could choose seven people, dead or alive, to see Bob the Russian who would they be and why?
Hard one this.
1. Guy Richie – I think he’d think he’d written it himself.
2. Danny Boyle – Because he’s the finest British film director alive.
3. Peter Sellers – So much of what I write and direct is from anything that man has done. I’d watch him open an envelope for an hour. I’d love to hear one laugh from him from watching something of mine.
4. Talking about Bob the Russian specifically, I’ve always thought I’d love for Liam and Noel Gallagher to see the first scene of the show. Obviously because we use their mammoth tune D’ya Know What I mean and perform a seven-minute riot scene. They’d destroy it or love it. Either would be amazing to hear. We’ll have them classed as one, so ‘the Gallaghers.’
5. I’d be lying if I didn’t say Quentin Tarantino. If I ever make anything 10% as good as something that man has made (maybe not Death Proof) then I’ll die happy. It’s no secret he’s one of my main influences on directing and using popular music as a score. I think he’s a genius so it’d be insane to have him see the show. And then hire me for… something.
6. ANYONE FROM CHANNEL 4. Seriously, come and make Bob the Russian or Not the Horse a series already, it’s screaming for it.
7. My Grandad, Roy Dickinson. I used to watch Laurel and Hardy, Monty Python and the Pink Panther with him and my Nan. He would love – absolutely love – the humour in the shows and it’s always going to be hard to swallow that he’ll never see one of them. But without him, they certainly wouldn’t be as funny as they are.
10mh: What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
I’m trying to not comeback with the worst cliche answer here. One of my lecturers once said ‘Shut up talking and try both.’ I’ve stuck to that ever since. In context, we were standing in the rehearsal room debating two ways to say a line, or movement or something, and instead of just trying both we were going round in circles. As soon as you try both, you all usually know what works.
Another like that would be from the same lecturer who said ‘Never shoot down an idea unless you’re offering another one.’ It doesn’t have to be better, or even the finished product, but if something doesn’t work always come with an alternative. That’s something we keep to heavily in rehearsals and personally I always have.
10mh: What are you reading at the moment?
Reading… yeah… about that. I wish I could shut my brain down and sit with a book for a couple of hours, my mum wishes that as well, always saying I should read. Especially with being a ‘writer.’ It’s something I want to do more of but barely find the time and commitment to do. It’s not like I replace this with watching a series, I don’t watch many of them either.
Films though, I’ll watch them for days. I recently saw a film called Les Diaboliques, which may be one of the best things I’ve ever seen. It’s known as ‘the best film Hitchcock never made.’ It’s a masterclass in suspense. So I’ll probably be ripping it off in some way or another pretty soon.
10mh: What is the weirdest thing that has happened in a performance, whether in the audience, on stage or behind the scenes?
Weirdest thing that’s happened on stage in one of my shows is probably a selection from any of the last shows of the Fringe run. This is where the cast, after being in Edinburgh for the month, take that final performance to another level and really try and get one over on each other. Pushing that improv a little bit further or throwing in a few surprises.
I remember once, a member of the cast was leaving and so when a suitcase was opened in Not the Horse, there was a printed picture of his Mum in there. The audience couldn’t see it, only the actors on stage, who then had to finish the scene without breaking character. They somehow did. But there’s been plenty of things like that, added lines, planted jokes even an offstage testicle. Yeah, it can get a bit odd.
10mh: Music features heavily in your work. If you had to make a soundtrack for your life in three songs what would they be?
It would be impossible so I’m going to cheat and try and say three of my favourite songs ever. One would be Blue Monday by New Order. I could listen to it every night of my life. I love disco music, absolutely adore it, so I’m going to throw Sister Sledge’s Thinking Of You in there and I’ll say The Chain by Fleetwood Mac because I’ve always adored it and it’ll always remind me of Not the Horse.
I’ll probably think of three better songs the minute I’ve finished this but music is such a big part of my day to day life I couldn’t possibly accurately pick a few.
10mh: What’s coming next?
A break. That’s what’s next. I haven’t stopped writing and directing for five years with Naughty Corner Productions. We have done seven brand new original pieces, staged and toured them all non-stop. I think we could benefit as a company and as people from taking some time out from it. It’s almost like there’s been no chance to take a step back and look at what needs changing and what needs reworking, because there’s plenty that does.
I’m going to concentrate on teaching for a while and a few pop-up directing gigs, but we don’t have to keep churning plays out like Marvel movies and I think in doing that we’ll be able to come back with new projects better than ever in the summer of 2019, because there’s plenty of talks being had and plans being made. So, I think this is the first time I’m saying it, but yes, after the final Bob the Russian show at Edge Hill, it’s a little Naughty Corner hiatus.
Don’t miss out!
Bob the Russian – Final Performance
The Arts Centre Edge Hill University 25th October
The Comeback Special directed by Mike Dickinson at The Hope Street Theatre, 5-8 September