Alphabetti give the gift of Present this Christmas

Alphabetti’s Christmas show is filled with hope, offers a powerful message to take home and serves up a shedload of banging tunes. Sam Wonfor talked to director, Ali Pritchard.

Present at Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle

Malcolm Shields in Present at Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle

Christmas. The most wonderful time of the year, as the song goes. A time where spending time with full tummies and loved ones in warm and toastie living rooms sponsored by Ferrero Rocher and powered by charades, comes as standard for so many of us.

But for those less fortunate; for those whose family relationships are more complicated; for those whose problems have reached tipping point and further; for those who have suffered the worst of society’s decisions, Christmas can be devastating.

It’s hard to imagine for those of us lucky enough to have never had to face the reality of having nowhere to call home.

It’s not so hard to imagine for Ali Pritchard, artistic director at Newcastle’s Alphabetti Theatre.

“I’m absolutely aware that, were it not for the support I have had from family and friends, I could quite easily have ended up facing those struggles,” he says.

“I did an autobiographical piece called How Did We Get To This Point? at the old Alphabetti (on New Bridge Street in Newcastle). It was about how I had been on the brink of a nervous breakdown and a social breakdown on many occasions – and if I hadn’t had the people I have around me, what would have happened.

“I told my story of the ups and downs and struggles with my mental health, interspersed with almost identical stories from homeless people I’d spoken to while walking my dog, Rex.”

Anybody who has had the good fortune to have come into contact with Alphabetti will know all about Rex. He’s the theatre’s fine and faithful mascot and never far from Ali’s heel.

Rex and his 2020 Calendar

Rex and his 2020 Calendar, available to buy from Alphabetti

“I originally got Rex because I wanted a dog for companionship, but also because I needed a reason to get up and out,” says Ali. “Because of Rex I met so many people and made so many friends who probably would never have talked to me – or someone like me – had it not been for him.”

Those meetings and conversations have inspired and informed all of Ali’s writing since he founded Alphabetti in 2012.

The aforementioned How Did We Get to This Point? Was a follow up to How Did I Get to This Point? – a short piece performed at the original Alphabetti space, upstairs in the Dog and Parrot in Newcastle, and inspired by the assertion that most of us are just two pay cheques away from facing homelessness.

“Through all of it, I was meeting people who had such similar stories to mine – the only difference being, they didn’t have the support I had,” he says. “I think that’s why pretty much all my writing at Alphabetti has focused on the homeless community.”

And so we arrive at Present, a new Christmas play, written and directed by Ali, which once again brings the stories of an often invisible community into sharp front and centre focus.

“But it’s not sad, this time,” he smiles. “I wanted to write a happy show. I didn’t want it to be awful and horrific. I wanted to tell a story which had hope, which was funny and which could explore the idea of being that first person to offer to help – even in some small way – and what a massive difference that can make.”

Present tells the story of Dave (Malcolm Shields); a homeless man who is offered a glowing glimmer of hope at the beginning of the play in the form of a text from his daughter, whose son wants to meet his grandad for the first time this Christmas.

“It’s the lifeline which makes him think that he can do this,” says Ali. “He can stop the lifestyle of perpetually destroying himself – through drinking – which he does because he feels like it’s easier if he does it, rather than waiting for other people to do it.

“That text gives him that chance and that hope which everyone should have at Christmas.”

Alphabetti have again linked up with homeless charity, CRISIS, in the development of Present, and with support from Arts Council England, Ali and his team have worked closely with CRISIS members to deliver arts workshops in creative writing, photography and art. Some of the work produced will be displayed at the Theatre during the run of the production (December 17-23).

In addition, 5% of the box office receipts will also be donated to the charity.

While Ali has once again drawn inspiration from the experiences of people from the homeless community, Present is a very different prospect to his previous work in this area.

“A lot of the words from the other plays were taken, verbatim from the people I’d met and got to know. But I wanted this to be a fictional story. There are moments I have taken from stories I’ve been told, but I’ve taken them a bit further; made them bigger.”

And then there’s the sprinkle of Christmas magic of which you’ll find now spoilers here.

Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle

You’ll find Alphabetti Theatre on St James’ Boulevard in Newcastle

What I can tell you is that audiences will also be treated to the considerable talents of a live band throughout.

Under the direction of award-winning composer and all round tuneful wizard, Mariam Rezaei, musicians Diji Solanke, Martha Wheatley and Wilf Stone underscore the story with a series of cover tracks we’ll all know.

“They play the music which is playing in Dave’s head,” says Ali.

“The band are the backdrop, and we’ve raised them up – so they’re this group of people who are watching but never interacting, which is a comment on the way society treats the homeless community. Why do people feel it’s ok to ignore someone? Why is that ever OK?”

Expect Car Wash by Rose Royce; Insomnia by Faithless; the Christmas classic Killing In The Name Of by Rage Against the Machine; a sprinkle of Led Zeppelin, and some Bing Crosby and Judy Garland thrown in. It’s fair to say the setlist Dave puts together for himself cannot be pigeon holed.

“And then there’ll be a big Christmas sing-a-long at the end,” says Ali. “We want everyone to go away smiling and feeling like there is hope and love to be found. And that you could be the person who makes that difference to someone.”

Sounds like the perfect gift.

Present will be performed at Alphabetti Theatre, on St James’ Boulevard in Newcastle from December 17 to 23. All performances are Pay What You Feel, with 5% of box office receipts going to CRISIS. For tickets, call 0191 261 9125 or visit www.alphabettitheatre.co.uk

@samwonfor

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