John Woodburn, James Dunnell-Smith and Joshua George Smith make up comedy trio, The Sleeping Trees. They spoke to BroadwayWorld about bringing their latest Christmas comedy show, The Legend of Moby Dick Whittington, to online audiences.
Who inspired you most growing up?
John: When I grew up, I was fascinated by ’60s music. My dad drove me to football games then one day he introduced me to The Kinks, and I’ve never looked back. I think what I love about The Kinks frontman/songwriter, Ray Davies, is the way in every song he makes; he tells a wonderful story.
Ever since, I have been interested in storytelling, how to play with people’s imagination, and bringing things to life. I watched a lot of Kenan & Kel when I was young too. They taught me to be silly with your mates. You will see in The Legend of Moby Dick Whittington that is a very heavily ticked box.
James: My childhood was spent watching Shooting Stars, Bottom & The Fast Show. So Vic & Bob, Rik Mayall and Paul Whitehouse were big influences in terms of UK comics. I watched most of Jim Carrey’s films on repeat too so will have to chuck him in there. And the greatest artist of all time, Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola.
Josh: I’ve always enjoyed the silly and the strange: Monty Python and The Mighty Boosh were mainly what I grew up on.
How did the idea of The Legend of Moby Dick Whittington come about?
John: We had conceded that Christmas was not going to be the same this year. Around July, we decided to think outside the box. This led us to the idea of doing something inside a box (or screen).
We had always liked the idea of making a film but never had the time to do write it. Then lockdown happened. So, we wrote a film, wrote another 30 sketches, planted chilli seeds, painted the bathroom, learnt to play the violin, and started Mandarin lessons. That was the first week of lockdown.
James: It came about because we knew we needed to put something out at Christmas; something that wasn’t live but still had some of the magic of our live shows. The specific title was just one we happened to land on, and all loved. We’ve never really used either of those stories before in previous Christmas mashups.
Josh: We’ve always loved smashing together stories and mixing all the characters to see what happens, and when we thought of the name Moby Dick Whittington it seemed too interesting to pass up.
What can we expect?
John: You can expect the following: three grown men going around a house, turning every nook and cranny into a different location; playing every silly character that appears, and not apologising for one moment of it. We can probably expect a lot of letters from angry parents asking why we gave their children permission to destroy the house!
James: The Legend of Moby Dick Wittington is an interactive Christmas film suitable for all the family. There will be plenty of silliness, stupid gags, over the top characters, and one of the best quickly-thrown-together King Rat costumes of all time.
Josh: You can expect a lot of mayhem! We wanted the audience to be involved like at a live show. So prepare to get creative with your cushions!
What has kept you going during the challenges of 2020?
John: a??ae??a??a??ae??e??e?? (Probably learning Mandarin)
James: Personally, I’ve got to say music! Having spent so much time at home this year, I don’t know what I would’ve done without it.
As a company, I think we just wanted to stay creative and continue to put stuff out, whether that was old shows online or new content such as this film. Oh and Flipz, those chocolate covered pretzels, I have been averaging a bag a day.
Josh: Keeping in contact with people, whether it’s on Zoom, social media, phone calls or two metres apart. Finding a way to stay in touch without touching.
How have you found developing a show in these uncertain times?
John: We have certainly had to roll with the punches, but overall we have been so lucky. For example, we rapped the last day of filming an hour before Boris Johnson announced lockdown 2.0. We received funding from the Arts Council, which was a surprise. We’re just so happy to be able to spread a little bit of joy for families in these crazy times.
James: Unorthodox, but just as enjoyable! The process obviously included a lot more zooming and writing apart, but we have worked together for so long now that we have a fairly decent process that seems to get the job done in the end.
The filming itself was done in a week which was intense but great fun too. It was very different from performing live and not without its challenges, but it was nice to spend a week all together!
I don’t think you can let what’s been happening in the world get to you too much as it’s out of our control, just dress up like a whale and take your mind off it, innit?
Josh: It obviously brought about a whole host of new challenges, but overall we had a lot of fun finding ways around those challenges.
Any other projects you want to tell us about? Any more mash-ups?
John: We have something in mind for our return to live theatre, but we will keep that quiet for now… we wouldn’t want to jinx the entire world!
James: There may be some more! We’ll see what happens with a live performance next year. We had an idea for another Christmas show in 2020 before it got cancelled, so maybe that!
We also have some bonus online content coming over December too, so make sure to check out our website and social media!
Josh: We are always looking for stories to mash together, so I’m sure there will be more. Who knows in what form they will come about though?
What do you think makes panto so magical?
John: Probably that it is an endless cycle of experience and nostalgia. It is such a ridiculous artform if you really think about it. We realised this when we had Canadian friends in once and afterwards; they were like, “What on earth just happened?”.
You forget how colloquial the format is after being exposed to it your whole life. So, hats off to you panto, we are happy to be of service keeping new generations clued in with your weird conventions.
James: It’s the people that go and see them year after year. Without all the families shouting out and getting involved, it would just be people in silly costumes occasionally throwing a pie at each other. Honestly, panto without an audience would be horrific. Nobody would know if anyone was behind them or anything – doesn’t bear thinking about.
Josh: It’s often the first experience most will have at the theatre. Panto is a time where you can let your hair down in the lead up to Christmas, shouting, screaming, singing and dancing, immersed in all the festive feelings.
Why is it important audiences support the Christmas theatre season, particularly this year?
John: Any tradition is important to keep going as it makes people who they are; it helps define culture. For this reason, it is incredibly important that the next chance you get…pie someone in the face!
James: WE NEED MONEY! No, it’s been tough for so many industries, but the arts have really been hit hard. Most of us make the bulk of our income through live performance. If you can afford to support panto season this year, it would mean a lot to the people who have tried to make them happen!
Josh: We all must support each other after this year in any way we can. Everyone has had to rethink the way they do things drastically. Any help will make a real difference in keeping people going.
If you could have any panto character round for Christmas dinner, who would you invite?
John: It’s got to be Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol! That way, he will be in a great mood for fun and games – not to mention that he’d also be able to afford the biggest turkey in the country.
James: Me as King Rat.
Josh: The back of the pantomime horse. I reckon we’d get on.
Why should people tune in to The Legend of Moby Dick Whittington?
John: People should watch this living room adventure because if they don’t, Santa won’t come. He told us.
On a serious note, we are truly proud of what we have created and believe this film is joyous fun from the moment it begins to the cheeky easter egg scene after the rolling credits – so make sure you watch every second of it! Merry Christmas!
James: Something different, something the whole family can enjoy, from your 4-year-old to grandma and grandad. No smut, just good gags and stupid characters all put together brilliantly by our super talented team of lovely creative people. Plus, you’ll see the best use of a bath you’ll see in 2020.
Josh: There are plenty of things we can’t do this year. Don’t make having silly fun one of them.
The Legend of Moby Dick Whittington available online now