Drawing: Ammar Haj Ahmad in The Jungle

Autographed drawing of Ammar Haj Ahmad in The Jungle at The Playhouse Theatre on London's West End

“It’s not about refugees, it’s about humans,” said Syrian actor Ammar Haj Ahmad in a recent interview about the theatrical phenomenon, THE JUNGLE in which he stars and leads a multinational, multiethnic cast, vividly recreating the life in the sprawling makeshift camp called ‘the jungle’ in Calais on France’s northern coast, where thousands gathered from all corners of the world to escape war and terror, hoping to cross the English Channel and build a new life.

Ammar plays Safi, the main spokesperson for the Jungle’s inhabitants, who also functions in the play as the guide and chronicler. In 2011, Ammar was a cast member in a production of the Arabian classic ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, which completed its global tour in Edinburgh. His visa ran out, but the crisis back in this homeland had escalated to the point where he felt he could not return. He contacted the British Home Office to apply for asylum and the 36 year-old has not returned to Syria since.

The Broadway-bound National Theatre and Young Vic co-production with the playwrighters Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s Good Chance Theatre premiered at the Young Vic last November. Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, it transferred across the river to the Embankment’s Playhouse Theatre earlier this year where it resides until 3 November before crossing a bigger stretch of water to New York.

The sell-out production received a powerful reaction. Audiences and critics were blown away. The Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish has called it “the most important play in the West End.” The immersive nature of the play, which transports everyone into the jungle itself is “an experience we do together- actors and audience,” said Ammar. “I am truly grateful to be part of theatre that makes a difference.”

I met Ammar at the stage door after a Saturday matinee a few weeks ago where he signed my sketch.

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Drawing: Vanessa Kirby in Julie

Autographed drawing of Vanessa Kirby in Julie at the National Theatre Lyttelton Stage in London

Vanessa Kirby’s impressive stage career is being matched by her latest screen appearances, in particular her mesmerising two-year role as Princess Margaret in Peter Morgan’s Netflick series THE CROWN, for which she won this year’s Supporting Actress TV BAFTA Award, after being nominated last year. She also collected an Emmy nomination.

She can also be seen as White Widow in the latest MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE blockbuster, FALLOUT opposite Tom Cruise. In 2106 Variety labelled her “the most outstanding stage actress of her generation, capable of the most unexpected choices.”

Vanessa signed a sketch for me in 2104 at the Young Vic in London, where she was playing Stella in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE with Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster. She won the WhatsOnStage Award for her supporting role, which is judged by the public.

Vanessa has just completed the season of Polly Stenham’s JULIE, an adaption of August Strindberg’ MISS JULIE at the National Theatre, in which she played the title role. Paul Taylor in his Independent review wrote, “Vanessa Kirby shines.”

She signed this sketch for me a few weeks ago at the stage door.

Drawing: Alex Lawther in The Jungle

Autographed drawing of Alex Lawther in The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre on London's West End

“The most important play in the West End.” That’s the five-star verdict of critic Dominic Cavendish in his review of THE JUNGLE. “Astonishing. The West End just got a heart transplant,” he said in the Telegraph.

Originally commissioned by the National Theatre, THE JUNGLE is a series of vivid snapshots of life, loss, fear, community and hope in the sprawling refugee camp that existed for a year near Calais on the French northern coastline, known as ‘The Jungle’.

Written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, who had first-hand experience of the camp, running a pop-up theatre called ‘Good Chance’ and co-directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, the production transferred from a sold-out run at the Young Vic last year, across the river to The Playhouse Theatre.

Veteran Guardian critic Michael Billington also gave the production five stars, calling it a “priceless piece of theatre… that moved to the West End with all its vital organs in tact.”

The immersive show has transformed the traditional venue. Audiences can either sit amongst the bustling Afghan Cafe in the stalls or watch from the ‘Cliffs of Dover’ seating in the dress circle. Regarded as one of Britain’s rising stars, twenty-three year old Alex Lawther plays Sam, a ‘brattish, but terrifyingly efficient’ Etonian posh boy. He describes the Jungle as “Glastonbury, without the toilets.”

Alex will be familiar to viewers of the Netflix series THE END OF THE F***ING WORLD and was the young Alan Thuring in 2014 Oscar-nominated film THE IMITATION GAME. I caught up with him to sign this sketch on his last day with the London production, arriving for Saturday’s matinee before he starts a new project. He will rejoin the cast when it transfers to New York later in the year.

Drawing: Helen McCrory in Medea

Autographed drawing of Helen McCrory in Medea at the National Theatre in London

Throughout the summer of 2014, the superb BAFTA-winning and double Olivier nominated actress Helen McCrory played the title role in the National Theatre’s production of Euripides’s MEDEA on the Olivier stage.

It’s one of the most terrifying characters in Ancient Greek tragedy – a sorceress who kills her own children – and it requires, if you will forgive me, a killer performance’, one which Telegraph critic Charles Spencer called Helen’s “performance of her career.”

Helen of course is no stranger to playing screen villains, her most notable being Narcissa Malloy in the final three HARRY POTTER films. For her role as MEDEA she won the Critics Circle Theatre award for Best Actress.

I left this drawing at the National for Helen to sign which she did and returned it to me with a note saying ‘what beautiful sketches.’

Drawing: Michelle Dockery in Network

Autographed drawing of Michelle Dockery in Network at the National Lyttelton Theatre

Michelle Dockery returned to the National Theatre late last year to play the role of the ambitious TV producer Diana Christensen in the stage adaption of Paddy Chayefsky’s blistering satire NETWORK, which completed its repertory run last Saturday. After making her professional stage debut in 2004, Michelle earned an Olivier nomination five in 2009 for her supporting role as Maroussia in the National’s production of BURNT BY THE SUN. On the small screen her five year portrayal of Lady Mary Crawley in the popular TV period drama DOWNTON ABBEY, earned her a Golden Globe and Emmy Nominations. She kindly came to the stage door between shows on Saturday to sign and pose for photos and I managed to get my drawing graphed and dedicated.

Drawing: Toby Stephens and Lydia Leonard in Oslo

Autographed drawing of Lydia Leonard and Toby Stephens in "Oslo" at the Harold Pinter Theatre on London's West End

OSLO tells the story of two maverick Norwegian diplomats who coordinated top secret talks that inspired seemingly impossible friendships leading to the groundbreaking Oslo Peace accords in 1993 between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the State of Israel. JT Rogers play opened last year at the Lincoln Centre in New York, winning the Tony Award. The London production opened at the National Theatre for a brief and sold out run before transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End. Toby Stephens plays Terje Rod-Larsen and Lydia Leonard, his wife Mona Juul, the Norwegian diplomats who orchestrated the Peace accord between Yitzhak Rabin and the PLO’s Yasser Arafat. Both Toby and Lydia signed my sketch a couple of weeks ago at the Pinter stage door.

Drawing: Bryan Cranston in Network

Autographed Drawing of Bryan Cranston in "Network" at the National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre in London 2017

Bryan Cranston made his London stage debut as Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airways to rave reviews in NETWORK on the Lyttelton boards at the National Theatre this month.

Based on Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant script for the Oscar winning 1976 film, Bryan plays the aging news anchor who threatens to kill himself on live TV, becoming an instant crazed celebrity guru yelling the iconic slogan, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Bryan won a Tony for his portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in ALL THE WAY on Broadway and is the winner of six Emmys and 2 Golden Globe Awards for his celebrated role as Walter White, the chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-lord in the hit television show BREAKING BAD. He also earned BAFTA and Oscar nominations for TRUMBO in 2015.

Bryan signed my sketch at the National Theatre stage door last week.

Drawing: Sir Peter Hall

The ‘colossus’ of British theatre, theatre, opera and film director Sir Peter Hall died this month. In their obituary, The Times wrote that he was “the most important figure in British theatre for half a century.”

Sir Peter ran the National theatre from 1973-1988 and founded the Royal Shakespearian Company in 1960. The National Theatre said that Sir Peter’s “influence on the artistic life of Britain in the 20th Century was unprecedented.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sir Peter on a few occasions at theatre press nights before he retired from public life in 2011. He was always a delight. In March 2010 he attended the opening night of PRIVATE LIVES at London’s Vaudeville Theatre, starring Kim Cattrall. After the show he went backstage and signed for me leaving via the stage door.

Drawing: Peter Firth in Equus

British actor Peter Firth will be known to TV viewers as Sir Harry Pearce in the BBC spy series SPOOKS – the only cast member to appear in every episode of its ten series. My favourite role however was his stage and subsequent film appearance as the disturbed equine-worshipping teenager Alan Strang, who blinds the eyes of horses in Peter Shaffer’s EQUUS, which ran at the National Theatre in London in 1974 and transferred to Broadway the following year, earning him a Tony nomination.

In 1977 he reprised the role for the film adaption, opposite Richard Burton who played the psychiatrist Dysart attempting to find the root of Alan’s equine worship. He won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Academy Award. EQUUS is one of my favourite plays and I had the honour of meeting its author and the privilege of directing it in New Zealand many moons ago. I left this sketch of Peter as Alan with London agent and was very pleased to get it back signed.

Drawing: Karla Crome in Amadeus

karla-crome

Twenty-eight year-old London-born actress Karla Crome is currently receiving excellent reviews for her portrayal of Mozart’s shrewd and sharp-witted wife Constanze in Michael Longhurst’s revival of Peter Shaffer’s AMADEUS  on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre. Writing in the Radio Times, Claire Webb said that Karla was “superb.” Her small screen credits include Sky Atlantic’s HIT & MISS and regular Jess on E4’s MISFITS. In 2012, Screen International named her as one of the UK Stars of Tomorrow.

Karla is also an accomplished playwright. IF CHLOE CAN was presented by the National Youth Theatre and the award-winning MUSH AND ME premiered at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe.

I found an intriguing piece of trivia in her Q&A on the Theatre’s website. Karla was asked about any pre-show rituals, and she replied she always does vocal warm-ups by singing ten nursery rhymes through a straw.  “It’s not a good look, but I swear by it.”

I left this sketch at the National, where she signed it for me, in clutch pencil, which is also unusual.