Tom Gill takes real-life pain to grow a powerful show at The New Theatre Royal

Carrying the weight of the world in his sports bag, a working-class lad trades his council estate for a one-way ticket out of Salford.

Saturday, 2nd June 2018, 2:53 pm
Updated Tuesday, 19th June 2018, 2:28 pm
Tom Gill's Growing Pains is at The New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth, on March 13, 2018. Picture by Rob Blackham

Tom Gill's genre-busting drama, Growing Pains, goes on a poetic journey from heartache to redemption, against a backdrop of broke lads and terrible dads.

An award-winning spoken-word artist and Slam Poetry Champ 2015, Tom's one-man show enjoyed a sell-out run at Edinburgh Festival in the summer of 2016.

'I think it's got a lot slicker since then,' Tom explains of his show's origins. 'When I took it to Edinburgh, me and my director Matthew, we developed it on the go, it was a constant experiment, so there's always room if something comes up that we can add or take away, but the main narrative and story is basically the same.'

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And the show draws heavily on its star's life, utilising his musical and acting skills, as well as demonstrating his verbal dexterity.

'It's very similar to my life story. The idea was to take the heart of what that is '“ a lot of people feel trapped in a town, or people with families where there's an abusive father/son relationship '“ the idea of being able to move away but carrying all of that baggage with you and sort that out.

'It's told from the point of view of a young lad from Salford, but because of what it's about, a lot of the audience can relate to it.

'Young people in a town often don't have a voice in the theatre. For example the group of friends who hang around with the young, working-class lead, they're based on people that I know but they're not straight impersonations.'

Tom is also an accomplished actor, he was in the acclaimed First Light at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2016. And he's recently been working on Mike Leigh's latest film, Peterloo, about the 1819 massacre, where cavalry charged crowds demanding electoral reform.

'I've just been doing this film with Mike Leigh, the way he works he does a very similar thing [to how I put together Growing Pains], he asks you to think of three characters, you'll act each one of them out and then you'll combine them to create a new character.  

'I worked on a very similar basis to this, the characters in Growing Pains feel quite real and authentic because they're based on real people.

'Some of my mates have said they can see themselves in characters but none of them can say it's exactly them.'

With subject matter so close to home, Tom didn't shy away from digging deep into himself.

'There was a lot of honesty and vulnerability involved. I play a father character in it who's quite close to my own father, and play out relationships that do actually exist.

'I know a lot of plays tend to steer away from that side of thing, but I thought that really informed it and the reason I wrote it was because it was quite cathartic. The best thing to do is be open and talk about stuff, not hold it in, just embrace it and see how it goes, but that does add to the raw edge of it.'

But don't take it all as being totally autobiographical. 'The lines are sort of blurred between what's real and what isn't,' he admits.

And being a one-man show, where he plays numerous characters, he has to keep on his toes.

'There's a lot of words packed in there, a lot of wordplay, a variation of styles. Some fast-paced, some slower more considered stuff. But because it's just me, I can control that, different nights go down differently. I can do the same song in five different ways, and I can play around with those things.'

Given that his career so far has covered so many bases, how did this one evolve?

'This show was meant to start out as me piecing together poems that already existed, and when I came to Matthew with a new song, and a spoken word piece to do with my father, that's when we realised then that the other stuff, like the political stuff, didn't really fit, it would be more interesting to write new stuff for this narrative. 'It was going to be a spoken word show all told in verse, then there were certain points where Matthew said we need to link this scene to there, whether that was through a song, a monologue or poem. We ended up with about six songs in it which was never my intention, it just felt right.

'It's like a spoken word musical. In some musicals you feel like they're just trying to get through a scene to get to the song, or: "We've not had a song in a while, let's plonk one here", whereas this was quite an organic thing. Where it was a poignant moment that the character needed to express themselves, that's how we'd do it, so it became this mass of styles.'

New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth

Tuesday, March 13