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Interview: Paper Mug Theatre presents Steve and Tobias Versus Death

Say what you like about the last couple of years, at least we haven’t had to deal with zombies. Though at the rate things are going, this may be factually inaccurate by next week/ tomorrow/tonight.  For those wondering how horrifying things could get if you threw zombies into the mix, Paper Mug Theatre’s latest show Steve and Tobias Versus Death is an exhilarating ride through the eyes of two brothers dealing with an absent father, ailing mother and their own fractured relationship.

Run Riot caught up with writers Daniel Kettle and Sebastian Gardner to learn more:

Kerenza: What's the goal behind Steve and Tobias Versus Death - to provoke thought, scare, amuse or all three? 

Daniel and Sebastian: All three baby, try and stop us, we're gonna run you over choo choo!!! The show is rooted in comedy, because that’s what we know, and where we always like to start with our writing. But our goal for this show was to make the first zombie show where the zombies are actually dangerous, and actually trying to get you. And without really intending to, we ended up with a story about a relationship between two young brothers that can’t stand the sight of one another, that have to work together to keep each other alive.

Kerenza: Was the show written with the backdrop of the pandemic in mind? 

Daniel and Sebastian: No, it was written before the pandemic, but that goddamn Wuhan stole our idea! But no, seriously, we wrote the show back in 2018, a story about an infection taking over the world, forcing two brothers to lock themselves inside their home to escape, and dealing with the side effects of being isolated from the rest of the world – so you can imagine our surprise in March 2020. But through all of this, the rewriting of this show through a global pandemic and extended periods of isolation has left us hoping that the show will highlight the absurdities of the last couple years, and if it offers even a hint of comic relief to one person in the audience, then it was worth doing.

Kerenza: How does the show dissect parental relationships?

Daniel and Sebastian: It shows that the traditional nuclear family isn't necessarily needed to have love and functionality in a household. Along with our drive to write a zombie comedy show that was as scary as it was funny, this was always at the heart of it. Love and family comes in all shapes and sizes! Deep, deep down, the show is about two young boys that will do anything for their mum. In reality, the show is a love letter to our mums, so hopefully they’ll come see it.

Kerenza: Why do zombies (and their accompanying apocalypses) have such a fanbase in pop culture? 

Daniel and Sebastian: They're something that have been around for so long that they have their own lore. You go to zombie movies or read zombie books to see the new way this particular director or author have done the genre. I think they are so popular as well because they seem to be just within the realms of possibility in our minds and that makes them more scary. Doing a zombie play with all this history is fun because we get to choose which parts of that lore or which zombie tropes to use to create our own zombie world. We’ve taken A LOT of influence from the source material we grew up with, from Shaun of the Dead to Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days to 28 weeks, the best parts are all there, but to work with our make-up artist, cast and Director to create a zombie universe that is uniquely ours has been one of the best parts of the process.

Kerenza: Compared to cinema and its arsenal of special effects, is it difficult to create horror and genuine frights for the stage? 

Daniel and Sebastian: At first, we found it incredibly challenging, but the harder it was, the bigger the pay off when we found a way. What we’ve ended up with is a show that demonstrates that theatre really is the ideal space for audiences to experience horror and gore, up close and personal. Our last round of Arts Council has allowed us to bring a make-up artist on board, and we’ve got a relationship with Kryolan who provide all of our stage makeup and training for our artists. Nic, Jonny, Ellie and the whole team at Pleasance have been incredible, and the Downstairs space they’ve given us allows the audience to be fully immersed and on top of the action, so there’s nowhere to hide…

Kerenza: How much of the show is improvised? 

Daniel and Sebastian: The cast and creative team are entirely comprised of East 15 grads that have been working together for over 6 years now, so we’re very comfortable improvising around each other and listening to direction we want to take the performance each night. As writers, we the script was written on its feet, improvising around ideas and story beats, trying ideas out before committing it to the page. A lot of the jokes are improvised and a lot of the dialogue is off the cuff. But the shows structure always stays the same.

Kerenza: What other themes is Paper Mug Theatre keen to cover? 

Daniel and Sebastian: We’ve been working as a company for 3 years now, graduating through a pandemic in that time. We’ve created a few shows that sit miles apart of a spectrum of style, but the thing we keep coming back to is exploring real relationships, and the way we’re effected by those closest to us. Just this week we’ve taken one of our shows on our largest-scale tour as a company so far, with ‘A Partnership’ currently visiting nine theatres in the UK, returning to London at The King’s Head Theatre in April.


To book tickets for Steve and Tobias Versus Death, please click here.

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