Friendly Fire Productions was formed in April 1996 by actors Helen Grear, Tim Kane, Euan Macnaughton, Thomas Murphy, and myself. Our manifesto was bold and bespoke of grand plans for not just a kind of theatre but a whole spiritual form of transformative art:
“We are committed to the promotion and development of what we call Visionary Drama: new theatre which is textually and visually poetic, physically adventurous and dedicated to the awakening and evolution of the human spirit. We aim to produce two to three new plays per year. For me, FFP offers a space in which I can create plays with spiritual and social relevance but without dogma, not constrained by any unimaginative concern for "realism" "real" too often equaling propaganda for ascendant ideology. My hope is that we can help to light a (friendly) fire and burn up some of Babylon's prevailing errors:
- the cloven fiction which divides spiritual and social exploration from entertainment,
- the contempt and cynicism which denies the disadvantaged any articulate voice,
- the careerism which leads to prostitutions of the soul and adulteries of the spirit,
- the satanic part of us which deals in authoritarianism and self-protection, making a mockery of Brotherhood and an outlaw of compassion.” (Coming Up programme, 1997)
I can look back and say now that this is perhaps a little overly ambitious and naïve. But such sentiment is an energiser. We pushed forwards with productions which were far more high-profile than Fireworks ever managed.
Our first production, Groping in the Dark, played at the Warehouse, Croydon and the Mermaid Studio. Because it was my first premier after Fat Souls, we got a decent amount of press coverage. The reviews were mixed but the audiences, especially at Croydon, built well. Fireworks regular Caroline Burns Cooke was in the cast, alongside Helen, Tim, Euan and Tom, Richard Earthy and Sebastian Knapp. I directed. The local Croydon free paper, at least, absolutely loved it.
“Riveting stuff” – News Shopper on Groping in the Dark
We followed this in 1997 with a co-production with the Warehouse, my play Coming Up. Ted Craig, who’d done a brilliant job on Fat Souls, directed. Tom and Euan were in the cast, joined by Joanna Brookes (Fat Mags from Fat Souls), Thomas Goodridge, and Nicola Duffett (Howard’s End, EastEnders). It was a critical and audience success.
“Tragic but uplifting." – What’s On on Coming Up
We struggled with a lack of funding and with some of the original founders drifting away. It took us two years to mount another production. We only managed to gain the money to mount Jim Kenworth’s Gob by landing a casting coup – Jason Orange, who had recently split with his band, Take That. He and Tom co-starred in the 1999 run at the King’s Head Theatre, sharing a stage with DJ Spike. I directed. We got acres of press coverage, some great reviews, and sold out audiences every night. We were planning to take the show to Edinburgh but Jason decided he didn’t want to continue acting and the finance fell through.
“Go see Gob before it's too late." – Metro on Gob
We tried to mount further productions. We staged a public reading of my William Blake play Divine Vision at Swedenborg Hall, and showcased Bumps by Sheila Dewey at the King’s Head. But finance was not forthcoming. Firebird, a small-scale off-shoot from the company, produced my Desires of Frankenstein in 2002 and Histrionics by James Butler in 2008, both in Edinburgh, and Virginia Plain by Nick Garrett in London in 2003.
The last time the Friendly Fire name was used was on my film Academic in 2011. Tom appears, as does Nicola Duffett. It preserves on digital recording the spirit of the company: the interest in spiritually opposed characters; the conflict between imagination and reason; the insistence on an outsider, Romantic view of art; the story focus on unusual protagonists and worlds. It is poetic in essence. Poetry was always the friendly fire we were talking about.
Friendly Fire never received any funding from arts bodies or local authorities. We did a lot of fundraising activities. Such luminaries as Michael Codron, playwright Tom Stoppard, barrister Christopher Kemp, actor Michael Culkin, as well as enormously supportive family and friends, were kind enough to donate. We held two fundraisers, Consummation and Ignite, where we performed short plays, hosted guest spots by various artistes, sold a lot of drink and raffle tickets.
Our attempt to change the consciousness of the country via theatre failed. We did produce high-profile work, played to strong audiences, collaborated with many inspiring performers and creatives. We burned bright for a short flaming while.