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Just So cast - interview

Weaving together five of Rudyard Kipling's well-known tales Just So explores these stories in a bright, bold fashion. Alongside an original score by Stiles and Drewe, a collection of animals are found to be searching for their identities in this fun and creative piece - an escape into your imagination to allow the jungle to come alive on stage.


These four fantastic cast members have provided some responses to give an insight into their experiences working on the production: Joe McWilliam (Eldest Magician), Ellie McWilliam (Giraffe), Thomas Riggs (Jaguar) and Heather Daniel (Dingo Dog).


 

How would you describe Just So for those unfamiliar with the concept?


Joe: Just So is, at its core, a show about characters finding their individuality. It's narrated through the lens of Rudyard Kipling's 'Just So Stories', and those characters happen to be animals, but those animals still have deep and complex personalities, wants and desires that keep the story compelling. It's also littered with a load of very entertaining song-and-dance numbers, and promises to be fun for families and adults alike!


Ellie: Just So is a musical version of all the Rudyard Kipling stories of the same name, interwoven together to create one massive story! You have the story of how the giraffe and zebra get their stripes, how the jaguar and leopard get their spots, how the elephant gets its trunk and how the Kolokolo bird finds the courage to fly! And most importantly… how the great evil crab, Pau Amma, is defeated!


Thomas: A joyful journey into the wonderful world of Rudyard Kipling's animal stories, told in a fantastical way where reality blends with childlike wonder.


Heather: Simply put, it’s two hours of silliness and fun, with some cracking songs thrown in!




Could you tell us about your role in the show and what the part means to you?


Joe: I play the Eldest Magician, who functions as the story's narrator as well as the creator of the world within the story. I love playing the EM as he presents as this all-powerful, all-knowing entity but shows a soft side in guiding our heroes through their journey of self-discovery. 


Ellie: I play the Giraffe who is one half of the girly duo – the giraffe and zebra. What’s great about these two roles is they’re up for a bit of interpretation, so we could be quite flexible in how we wanted to portray them. They can be sassy, sarcastic, silly and more – and I’ve decided to go for a ditzy, happy-go-lucky West Country lass based on Alice from Vicar of Dibley. Eleanor, who plays the brassy, high-belting, Northern Zebra, and I wanted to make sure we had quite contrasting but complimentary characterisations that would work well together but also stand out from the crowd separately.


Thomas: I am the Jaguar, on the hunt with the Leopard as we lurk across the veldt, prowling and preying upon the wildebeests. I've enjoyed trying to balance both a suave and sassy nature with the innate desire to feast on our prey - this will be a special role for me as it's my first one in London!


Heather: I play the Dingo Dog, who turns up in the final of the' Just So Stories' that appears in the show about how the kangaroo got his long legs and characteristic bounce. Dingo is such a fun part to play and also means I get to be in the ensemble for Act 1 - which is just the best of both worlds!




How much prior knowledge did you have about Rudyard Kipling, and what preparations have you made to be ready to take this to the stage? 


Joe: I loved 'The Jungle Book' as a kid, but admittedly I wasn't familiar with the 'Just So Stories' before I auditioned for the show. My character delivers many Kipling poems throughout the show, so I've since read through many of his works in detail to help me understand the 'why' behind the poems!


Ellie: I already knew about the 'Just So Stories' and musical, and was familiar with the poem ‘If’. It was a very important poem to my grandparents, who have both now unfortunately passed away, but my husband (who plays the Eldest magician in the show!) sings a musical version of the poem ‘If’ and I find it very moving and spend the song trying not to cry…


Thomas: Practising the show whisked me back to my childhood where I had read the stories. This feels like a very nostalgic piece where I can channel my inner child again! When I first landed the role, I was musing on inspiration and landed on Bagheera from 'The Jungle Book'. I've loved playing alongside the actor playing the Leopard and delivering an entertaining rapport as a duo.


Heather: Beyond knowing he wrote 'The Jungle Book', I didn’t know much about Kipling before the show, and hadn’t even heard of the 'Just So Stories'!




What is it like having to become or interact with animal characters, and what specific skills does it take to emulate their presentation?


Joe: I'm one of the fortunate few in the show who is playing a human character, though the rest of our cast have put a great deal of effort into letting the animals shine through the personalities of their characters (as opposed to crawling around on all fours and moo-ing). I think that's the key to helping the audience connect to our show, and it's been amazing to watch my castmates bring that energy to the stage.


Ellie: Quite frankly I do next to nothing on stage that would suggest I am a giraffe. I’m one of the shorter cast members as well which is quite ironic considering I probably play the tallest animal, so I think you’ll have to suspend your disbelief a bit (a lot).


Thomas: I've taken some experience from pantomime to help portray a more vivid animalistic quality on stage. However, it can't simply be too over the top for the sake of it -- we have all imbued our characters with a sense of human-like personality while being an animal and it's been amazing to see how the characters have developed!


Heather: It’s so much fun getting to play a range of different animals. On the whole, I’ve just tried to humanise them a lot - thinking about what they’re going through at that point in the show, and then where possible adding on little characteristics or actions that reflect the animal I’m playing at that point in the show.




Featuring a score by Stiles and Drewe, how does the music fit with the script? 


Joe: The music is really vibrant and fun - it has the charm of the 80s without going too ham on the synth, so it feels somewhat timeless and holds itself up well as a modern musical. A lot of the lyrics are original, and most songs tell the mini-stories of a character or group, just like the original 'Just So Stories'. My favourite number in the show, however, uses Kipling's most famous poem 'If' as the lyrics, set against an epic orchestration at the climax of the plot, in a final "you can do it" to the heroes of the story. Without spoiling anything, it promises goosebumps!


Thomas: As someone who didn't know the score, it's such a wondrous mix of numbers! From the heart-wrenching 'Wait A Bit' to the high-octane experience of 'Leaps & Bounds', and the journey that culminates with my personal favourite 'Please Don't Touch My Stove'. Each song feels like a story itself, moving the plot with a magical quality with the support of the Eldest Magician taking on the narrator. And who would have thought a song about a green, greasy river could be so beautiful?


Heather: It really brings the script alive and shows the audience how they should be feeling - there are some really beautiful bits of music that keep reappearing throughout the show, and help carry you through the journey.




How does the show appear both playful and meaningful with its messages?


Thomas: I LOVE the reimagination of the stories on stage, especially how the scenes, costumes and set design playfully represent the characters in a whimsical adventure. The script balances serious and silly remarkably, and everyone on and off stage can revel in the shared journey of the animals. Finding your identity is a core message of the play, something I believe a lot of the past and crew can attest to and no doubt the audience as well. It feels a very fitting play for any age, or background and for anyone who needs a little reminder that our uniqueness is beautiful.


Heather: There are some really silly and fun bits in the show that I think audiences will really enjoy - I mean, we are playing animals after all. But under all of those jokey moments, there’s always a deeper message, and the elephant's child is the vehicle for bringing those out - he’s constantly learning from each interaction and experience, and you can see how they impact him over the course of the show as he grows up.




What have you learnt, both about yourself and the stories you're telling, by doing this piece?


Joe: For me, it's been really enjoyable to dig into Kipling's works to try and understand the deeper meaning behind them, so that I can translate the stories in a way that can be understood by an audience, as that's such a central part of my character. It's also been a huge learning experience for me playing such a unique role, particularly in tackling the challenges that come with maintaining the façade of the show's storyteller while also letting the undertones of my character's real personality shine through.


Ellie: Obviously we get a lot of creative support from the lovely production team members, Glen, Adrian and Sam. But what I’ve really learned is that it’s up to you to make a character your own. You can’t rely on others to help you ‘stand out’ from the crowd because that’s not their job! You have to be responsible for creating a character using your own creativity and knowledge – which is sort of what happens in the show itself. All the animals are responsible for finding their own individuality with support from others.


Thomas: It reminds me of the absolute joy of children's literature and how - even as an adult - you can come away feeling enlightened. I've been reminded we're all on a journey of identity, but that it truly is better to figure it out together. The stage is a perfect place for stories like this and can bedazzle an audience of any nature - especially in bringing out the inner child (sometimes forgotten about) in all of us.


Heather: I’ve learnt that I will never be a strong dancer - and that singing in an Australian accent is a lot harder than I initially anticipated!




Why do you enjoy working with Sedos [theatre company], and what does it bring to you?


Joe: Sedos was the first theatre company that I performed with when I first came to London six years ago. That show became a springboard of sorts for me and hooked me into the London theatre scene with the sheer talent of the people I was sharing the stage with, not to mention how kind and welcoming everyone was, and I've since performed in four shows with Sedos and six with other companies. I think Sedos represents the very best of what Amateur Theatre should be - professional, incredibly high quality, and above all else, fun!


Ellie: This is my 5th show performing with Sedos and the sheer talent and skill that Sedos brings in is unmatched. Every cast, crew and production team member is so very talented in what they do, but everyone also has their unique skills that they can bring. Not only that, but the people are just so kind and warm and a lot of fun. I feel very lucky every time someone wants me involved in their production! 


Thomas: Sedos is my first dip into the talented pool of theatre in London, and I was 'just so' lucky to land a role with this marvellous cast and crew, and wider group. From the very first workshop of this show, I felt warmly welcomed and enticed to get involved in such an open and encouraging company. The entire process has been a blast; new friends have been made, a brand-new experience achieved, and there's plenty more to come!


Heather: It’s a really great creative outlet, but more importantly some of my closest friendships today have been formed from Sedos shows - and that’s by far the best thing it’s brought to me.


 

It's been brilliant to hear four different perspectives here - thank you all so much for taking part and your wonderful contributions. Best of luck for the show!


Get your tickets to Just So at Bridewell Theatre, London, here:


Additional thanks to Pippa Kyle and Glen Jordan for coordinating this interview.

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