Bedfringe 2022 Interview: Infants

“Getting it back on stage was hard – really hard – there were some real logistical (not to mention mental) barriers to embarking on a process we had already been through once, with a kind of anxiety-driven paranoia that having been halted already it could so easily hit problems again.”

WHO: James Lark: Writer/performer

WHAT: “James Lark’s (Tony Blair the Musical, The Snow Spider) new musical promises tantrums and disasters, naughty words and naughty characters but after a single calamitous day, we can’t guarantee that everyone will be coming back to school tomorrow…

Class 3 are on the brink of disaster: tactile Drew is a safeguarding hazard, Chloe’s obsession with Ryan threatens her friendship with queen bee Kaylee, and a noxious misunderstanding threatens the career of teacher Mr Finch. It’s just as well mobile phones aren’t allowed in school – the parents couldn’t possibly find out, could they?

WHERE: Quarry Theatre

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Is this your first time to Bedfringe?

This is the first time I’ve had my own show at Bedfringe, though when I lived in Bedford (many, many years ago) I was a regular in the audience and saw some incredible shows. I was once – even more many years ago – a frequent visitor to the Edinburgh Fringe, both as performer and spectator (and of course the two things go hand in hand, as I think it’s very much the point of festivals to be able to experience and soak up other people’s work at the same time as developing your own) – so at a time when my career and the other complexities of Being A Grown Up were starting to make spending a whole month in Edinburgh kinda impractical, it was brilliant to discover I lived in a place that had its own opportunity to see a lot of the people who were heading up to Edinburgh themselves. And Bedfringe has a great atmosphere because it’s fuelled by genuine enthusiasm for the shows they have on – the people running it are probably the most enthusiastic audience members of all, in fact – and it’s hardly surprising, I mean look at the range and calibre of the stuff they’re featuring.

What are the big things you’ve learned since 2021 and have you absorbed any of the lessons yet?

It has been a funny couple of years. And I don’t mean funny in a way that I got to laugh at much. ‘Infants’ was meant to get its premiere in 2020, and things were pretty well advanced (cast ready, rehearsals underway, posters printed) when a global pandemic reared its ugly head. So instead of putting on my exciting new musical I found myself spending intense days working online and long evenings gardening; on the one hand a frustrating time, and it was certainly annoying to have the brakes put on my musical when everything had been going so well. On the other hand, giving a piece of theatre more room to develop can be a positive thing, as was the case here – we did an online preview, we tried out sections at outdoor events, and we had the time to get some aspects of the production much more into shape. Getting it back on stage was hard – really hard – there were some real logistical (not to mention mental) barriers to embarking on a process we had already been through once, with a kind of anxiety-driven paranoia that having been halted already it could so easily hit problems again. We had to recast some of the roles, half of the original cast having (perfectly naturally) moved on abd become unavailable. But what a rewarding process it has been, and to be honest it is a more polished, more brilliant show for the extra time it has taken us to get here.

Tell us about your show.

‘Infants’ tells the story of a single day in the lives of a class of seven-year-olds: bossy Kaylee and her best friend Chloe, sensitive Ryan, clumsy Liam, tactile Drew and sulky Jenny. But it’s not just about the children – we also meet their parents and their teachers, who become embroiled in a potential bullying situation and a misunderstanding involving a mop, all of which leads to a cataclysmic confrontation that will leave a substantial mark on all of the characters involved. It’s a comedy, with plenty of wordplay and physicality, not to mention moments of pure farce, but without giving too much away there’s a bittersweet element to what happens – with each rewrite the comedy in the show became darker, perhaps because the more I invested in the characters, the more the consequences of what was thrown at them felt genuinely painful. Also, the childishness we were exploring was being echoed in some of the highest public offices in the country, and a story about infantile behaviour getting out of hand and turning into a hunt for a scapegoat does seem… well, topical.

Featuring no fewer than 19 characters, the whole thing is performed by just six actors – so it’s something of a tour de force for the performers involved (not to mention a calorie-busting workout). And obviously, it’s all set to music, which veers from childlike simplicity for younger characters to some pretty sophisticated material for the adults. There are some old-fashioned toe-tapping tunes in there (you WILL come out with them stuck in your head), but also some really exciting moments of ensemble singing when all the different characters and storylines come together – so if you like the melodic invention of William Finn, or the wit and complexity of Sondheim, there’ll be plenty here to satisfy you.

I can also guarantee that you’ll laugh. A lot.

What should your audience see at Bedfringe after they’ve seen your show?

You must must must go and see ‘The Same Rain That Falls On Me’, a brilliant, funny, sad and vital monologue written by Logan Jones and performed by Ella McKeown (23 July, 12pm) – it packs so much into its 35 minutes and will leave you reeling. Matthew Gouldesbrough’s five star OffComm award-winning play Elegy (30 and 31 July, 4.30pm) looks too be another theatrical experience not to miss. I’m a huge silent cinema fan and seeing films with live musical accompaniment is one of life’s great pleasures, so Bela Lugosi’s ‘White Zombie’ with a new original score written and performed by Jason Frederick looks like an absolute treat (25 July, 7pm). And any opportunity to see Simon Munnery (23 July, 9pm) should be seized.