Wales-based theatre company, Gurnwah Productions, recently went out on their first World Tour with their show, The Man Whose Hair Grew Black, written by Anthony Bunko and directed by Neil Maidman.
Drawing comparisons with The Goon Show and The Young Ones, the story follows the surreal adventures of Clive the Postman whose appearance sent shock waves through a small Welsh village, triggering a bus load of insanity turning up wearing Jesus sandals, dark shades and in search of answers
Ahead of the company performing the show in Leicester Square Theatre, London on February 1, Andy Howells chats to writer, Anthony Bunko.
Can you tell us about Gurnwah productions and how you came to be?
For some reason I always wanted to write a play. Merthyr isn’t a theatre town so in my 30’s I found myself ‘sneaking off’ to Cardiff and Swansea to see Frank Vickery plays. I loved them. Loved the experience. Several years ago I wrote a comedy play based around the film, The Wizard of Oz, called the Wizard of Gurnwah (which is posh for Gurnos) I didn’t know what to do with it next, then through a late, great friend I got introduced to Neil Maidman, a theatre director, who was from Merthyr but lived in Aberdare. I sent him the script, a week later we meet in Wetherspoons in town. We got on well although, I think he thought I was mental (he still does!!) and the rest is history. We put the show on within three weeks to a packed house to kick off the Merthyr Rising festival and it all took off from there
What inspired you to write The Man Whos Hair Grew Black?
I had written 5 plays up to that point (the Wizard of Gurnwah, OMG, Breathe, I Could Have Been An Astronaut if it Wasn’t for Malachy McAleer and A Gurnwah Carol). I’m always scribbling things down, and I had written down the title The Man Whose Hair Grew Black on the back of my notepad but hadn’t done anything with it. I was asked if I could write an hour-long play for Merthyr Comedy Festival last April. I only had 6 weeks to write it and get it ready, so one night, with a bottle of red in front of me, I just sat down, looked at the title and just wrote and wrote and spilled it all out on the page. When I had the story from A to Z – I thought it would be a good idea to do it in the style of an old 1950’s radio play, a bit like The Goons for some bizarre reason.
How long did it take to put the play together and how difficult is it to keep a play such as this constantly funny?
It took one night to get the main story down, then about a week to take all the edges off it. Then Neil, the director, did his magic and took my mad ramblings and turned them into something more respectable for the stage. The scariest thing about writing a play or a book is when you have to give it to somebody else to read. I always think, ‘bloody hell, this is crap.’ Luckily Neil and the actors always take the story up a few levels. I do a bit of rewriting during rehearsals and adding jokes etc just by watching them acting it out. I’m lucky I have so many talented people around me
It’s performed on stage as a radio play. Is working on radio something that you are familiar with or have an interest in?
Not really. I wasn’t a big fan of The Goons etc I belonged to the next generation, Monty Python, The Young Ones, but recently, we went into the studio with Owen Money to do a pilot of one of my other plays and I loved it. I loved the way a scene can change by adding a different accent or background noise etc. It’s something I would like to do more of.
Was the cast particularly difficult to assemble or did you have a good indication that they were all good for the requirements for the roles?
Gurnwah Productions are lucky enough to have a group of top-drawer actors around us who we know will take our work to another level. I loves them all – even the mad ones! (laughs)
The cast seem to be having immense fun performing with the script. Did you write any parts around the actors or have they had to step closer into your creations?
For this one I just wrote it. The play is about a postman from a small village who wakes up one morning and his hair has grown black, not back, but black! So, I just made up this imaginary village with mad characters and just let it go. I didn’t think of the actors at that point. I didn’t really know which actors would be in it. But with some of the other plays, especially the comedies I have written parts for certain actors because I know they would be great doing it. In my first play, I rewrote the whole play, adding two thug boys in there, after two boys (Callum and Ieuan) turned up for an audition and just blew us all away with their humour. They were so funny.
There is also some audience interaction involved at varying points, how important is it to have that in such a show as this?
Like I said, I grew up watching shows like The Young Ones, which changed comedy on TV for ever because they weren’t afraid of trying new things ie tomatoes talking in a fridge in the middle of a major scene etc. So, I wanted to do things like that and because I wasn’t from a theatre background and hadn’t been told what I should write and what I shouldn’t I just went for it. Most of my early plays which were always sold out, I would say 80% of the audience had never been to the theatre before…so I wanted to keep them on their toes, to get them involved now and again, eg for a Bruce Lee chef to appear out of nowhere and sing Kung Fun fighting or a mental pie man in the audience etc or whatever. It seems to work.
The show toured around South Wales at the end of 2019 and will be performing at The Leicester Square Theatre in London on February 1. Who do you hope will come and see the show?
The tour around South Wales was brilliant. Great reviews and audiences. It wasn’t easy mind. One of the cast dropped out just before one of our shows in Swansea at the last minute due to illness. But because of the format of the play we covered it without the audience really knowing too much about it. For London, we want the Queen to be there and the Kray Twins and the Clash. Seriously, playing London is a massive step for us. When we first started, someone said to me, ‘Your stuff is funny but only in Merthyr.’ I thought ‘Ok, I’m going to show you matey,’ and my aim was to take something to the West End.
What else are you working on presently?#
I hope to put two new shows on early in 2020. I have already written them and cast them. One is called Fly Me to the Moon. An hour-long comedy again for the Merthyr Comedy festival, which we are talking about taking to Edinburgh. The other one is a very dark piece called – in the hands of Victor ‘the knuckles’ Norman – which I have written for a very good friend of mine. It’s a one man show which will be challenging to everyone involved. I have also set myself a goal of doing something very creative but very different, not sure what yet, watch this space!