They’re young, talented, already driving some of the most exciting shows on stage — and they’re only just getting started. Clara Strunck meets the West End’s new faces.
It’s a wonder that anyone who saw this year’s Regent’s Park Open Air theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream made it out of the theatre alive — such were Wokoma’s levels of fall-off-your-chair humour in her hilarious turn as a gender-flipped Bottom. Born and raised in Elephant and Castle and now living in west London, the actress had already carved out a perfectly good screen career for herself via E4’s TV series Chewing Gum and Netflix’s Crazyhead — but then she got bitten by the stage bug. Her classical theatre awakening came after she joined Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Donmar productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV when they transferred to New York in 2014.
‘You look at other women in those casts and you feel like you have an army behind you,’ she says. And it seems like there’s no stopping her now, as she begins her role starring in Teenage Dick at the Donmar, a darkly funny take on Richard III, another Shakespeare play with a twist. She’s also written some of the next series of Sex Education, counts Deborah Frances-White and Phoebe Waller-Bridge among her friends and is penning a film out in 2021 — we’re bracing ourselves for a cult hit.
Composer, music supervisor and director
Like other great infant German piano protégés, Marc Tritschler impressed from an early age — six to be precise. He spent his formative years performing in major chamber concerts and acing international music prizes. Today he is the creative director of music at the National Theatre, drawing on his love of both contemporary and classical music — via pop, rock and everything in between — to inform the institution’s musical direction.
If your ears pricked up while watching The Merchant Of Venice at the RSC — Tritschler probably composed the piece. Or As You Like It at the National Theatre? Tritschler, too. It wasn’t just theatre that prompted him to move to the UK in 2016. He and British director Polly Findlay had worked together on a production of War Horse in Berlin and in 2016 the pair married — they now live in East Dulwich with their 16-month-old son. And what’s next? ‘The ultimate experience would be an original music theatre production conceived by the National Theatre. Being involved from the start, and seeing that on stage, is the dream project,’ he says.
‘Emilia was one of the best experiences of my life,’ says Saffron Coomber, 25, waxing lyrical about the production that had the most profound effect on her career to date. She netted a main part in the all-female production about the poet Emilia Bassano, which transferred to the West End this year after a run at Shakespeare’s Globe. ‘I love seeing women take up space, sharing their ideas, being funny, bold and unapologetic.’ Coomber started acting at the age of 12 with a part in Dustbin Baby, a film adaptation of the book by Jacqueline Wilson. By 14, she was cast in Tracy Beaker. Half English and half Jamaican, she’s emphatic about the need for diversity on stage. ‘Growing up, the characters I used to get were “moody mixed race girl”. I think people enjoy labels but in my head, I can do anything.’
Costume and set designer
For those of you lucky enough to have seen Lynn Nottage’s impeccable play, Sweat (winner of Best Play in partnership with Chanel at this year’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards) you’ll know Frankie Bradshaw’s work already. The 27-year-old’s set and costume design attracted almost as much acclaim as the cast (The Stage has hailed Bradshaw’s ability to create ‘deeply atmospheric onstage worlds’). She’s the ultimate design polymath. ‘I love designing sets and costumes in tandem,’ she says. ‘I like the completeness of the visual world that you can create.’
For Sweat, she travelled to Pennsylvania with the director Lynette Linton to get an in-depth understanding of the play’s subject. ‘When you meet real individuals who are like the characters in the play, it gives you a sense of how to do the work justice. I like to put on work that invites the audience to see the world differently.’
Nathanael Campbell very nearly missed his big break. Not for a lack of talent but because the 27-year-old, who lives in Forest Hill, had his mind set on a different career. ‘When I was younger, I wanted to be a chef,’ he grins. Luckily for us, by sixth form he’d fallen in love with acting and landed his big break in the acclaimed musical Come From Away, set in the wake of 9/ 11. He was always a natural fit for music theatre — ‘I grew up in church, gospel singing’ — and has also had stints in Guys And Dolls and Sunny Afternoon.
But he knows Come From Away has been a game changer. ‘This has been a pivotal moment,’ he says. ‘I’m in the room with staples from the world of theatre, and I get to do scenes with them. I was freaking out for a lot of the time at the beginning. I was only nine at the time of 9/ 11, but it’s about how, in times of tragedy, people can come together. It’s a perfect story for now. We’ve all done shows but to be in one that’s so present is really quite special.’
She has already been called a ‘super producer’ with a ‘Midas touch’. And who can argue? Francesca Moody was the original producer of Fleabag, helping to take Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s runaway comedy show to Edinburgh long before it reached global cult status. ‘I always felt Phoebe was an amazing actor; it’s hard not to engage with her,’ says the 31-year-old. Live performances in the West End earlier this year sold out the day tickets were released. ‘You can’t legislate for that level of success because it’s absolutely crazy.’ And the career triumphs keep coming: she’s scooped a whopping eight Fringe First Awards to date, the latest for Baby Reindeer at the Bush Theatre, Richard Gadd’s play about being stalked. How does she deal with the great expectations of following up a hit like Fleabag? She definitely feels ‘the fear’ but adds, ‘I’m starting to feel I can replicate the success of Fleabag with Baby Reindeer.’ We have a hunch anything she does will be a sure-fire hit.
Costume and set designer
‘Visual elements of performance have always been a big part of my interests,’ says Max Nicholson-Lailey, 25. ‘I toyed with the idea of studying art and fashion.’ But an interest in dance led him to a masters in costume design at London College of Fashion instead. ‘It was either going to be dancing on stage or fashion, and I’ve ended up in this middle ground between the two.’ Raised as one of seven children in Somerset, Nicholson-Lailey describes himself as a ‘performing arts child. I was very imaginative, always dressing up.’
While he was still studying for his master’s, he was chosen as one of the finalists for the Linbury Prize (the UK’s most prestigious award for stage design). That led to masterminding the costumes and set of a children’s show, Huddle, which debuted last year to rave reviews. ‘I never thought in a million years it would be that well received,’ he says. ‘I thought, it’s a show for little kids, no one’s going to be writing home about it.’ But they did, and more: Nicholson-Lailey was nominated for a Stage Debut Award thanks to the show. His career goal? ‘Obvious,’ he says: his sights are on designing something at the National or the Royal Opera House one day. ‘That’s the dream.’
It took stepping out of the spotlight for Rebecca Frecknall, 33, to shine. ‘I knew I wanted to work in theatre, but the pathways I thought I wanted to take, like acting or dancing, were never right,’ she explains. ‘But when I directed a piece I wrote at university, I loved it.’ It was a smart choice: now an associate director at the Almeida, this year she was nominated for Best Director at the Oliviers for her hit production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer And Smoke. It was her proudest moment yet and came, thanks in part, to the Almeida’s artistic director, Rupert Goold, to whom she turned for career advice. ‘I was sick of assisting, I wanted to step out of it,’ she says. ‘Rupert and I stayed in touch after I’d assisted him in 2012 — we got on really well. I said, “I feel stuck and no one will give me a shot.” We talked about a hypothetical world in which he might give an emerging director an opportunity on the main stage, which had never happened before.’ Summer And Smoke was born. Now, she’s working on a long list of projects, from current Almeida production The Duchess Of Malfi to a play in New York. ‘Rupert decided to risk it, I guess,’ she smiles. ‘It paid off!’