Interview: Tobias Oliver

Tobias Oliver is one half of theatre production company Mr Bugg Presents.  They’ve been incredibly busy of late with their WW2 show ‘Miss Nightingale The Musical’.  Tired of the traditional heteronormative love stories which are so often the focus of musicals, and bored of seeing same-sex relationships sent to the sidelines, Mr Bugg Presents took action and created the musical they’ve been longing to see. This week LGBTQ Arts’ Amie Taylor caught up with Tobias to find out more about this exciting show.

AT: Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to work in the arts…

TO: I come from a family of performers, both on stage and off! My great-grandmother was the lead female actor in the Vienna State Theatre and then the Mahen Theatre in Brno. She met my great-grandfather, who was a doctor with a passion for theatre and the arts, when he saw her perform and fell head over heels in love. Their eldest daughter, my grand-mother, ran away to Berlin in 1921 aged 18 determined to follow her mother onto the stage. It caused quite a scandal. A close family friend went to check up on her and apparently reported back that because she was living on her own, wearing red dresses and sporting lipstick she was obviously a prostitute! She actually forged a career as a successful actor in her own right, appearing on stage and in film. I loved the stories she told me about Berlin in the 1920s/30s of watching Marlene Dietrich perform in the cabaret before she became a huge star, of dancing the night away at transvestite balls in a custom made outfit that was half male and half female, and of buying songs from Bertolt Brecht. The tolerance, colour and queerness sounded a world away from the oppressive late 1970s and 1980s Britain in which I was growing up. She had to give up acting after she married and moved to London because Equity – the actors’ union – wouldn’t let her join as a foreign national and it was a ‘closed shop’ because you couldn’t work if you weren’t a member and you couldn’t become a member if you didn’t have a work contract. However, she never lost her love of acting and theatre. And it was she who introduced me to theatre and as a boy I was regularly taken to see all the lasted West End, National Theatre and RSC productions. At the time I took it rather for granted and only now do I truly appreciate just how lucky I was to see so many amazing productions and performers. After acting a huge amount as a student I began my career in theatre back stage, working in arts marketing, and only began performing again more recently and now run a musical theatre company – Mr Bugg Presents – with my husband and together we produced Miss Nightingale the musical. We also both perform in the show and in some ways it does rather feel like I’ve finally inherited the ‘family business’!

AT: And tell us about Miss Nightingale – what inspired this production?

TO: The show is written by my amazingly talented husband, composer Matthew Bugg. We celebrated our 23rd anniversary just a few weeks before starting rehearsals so I am obviously completely biased when I talk about the show. He was inspired to write it out of a need to see a different kind of story told in musical theatre to the usual West End boy-meets-girl affair. He wanted to create the type of show that he wanted to work on, a show that featured a passionate, real and authentic same-sex love story front and centre. Not one that was relegated to the sidelines in the more usual gay best friend cliché. We both wanted a show that featured a strong, independent woman who didn’t need a man to complete her or make everything alright.  On both sides of our families we’ve been lucky to have some very powerful female role models, woman who have broken out of the mould that society says they should inhabit and lived the life they chose. So the inspiration has been the coming together of our very different backgrounds, his Northern working class roots and my Eastern European Jewish heritage; the style of the show very much blends the political satire of the German cabaret with the saucy humour of the Music Hall tradition. Think Kurt Weill meets Gracie Fields! As you can see Miss Nightingale isn’t your usual kind of musical or what most people think a musical is. Yes, it’s fun and silly and has some very saucy songs but it also moves you to tears and has a very serious message as well.

AT: The story is set in WW2, are there any messages or themes you feel are still prominent today in 2017?

TO: Frighteningly so. Six years ago when we staged the first production neither of us had any idea how relevant it would seem in 2017. Miss Nightingale uses saucy innuendo, compelling drama, and satirical comedy to explore prejudice – antisemitism, homophobia and misogyny – in World War Two London at a time when Britain was (supposed to be) fighting against this very thing. Sadly given recent events both in the UK and overseas the message of the piece seems even more relevant than ever!  There has been an horrific rise in hate crimes both against LGBTQ and those of different ethnicities and religions. None of us know what will happen to LGBT peoples’ rights after Brexit because much of the protection we’ve achieved against discrimination came from the EU. The far right is on the rise across Europe with a particularly regressive, homophobic and racist platform. Then there’s the frankly terrifying, virulently anti-LGBT agenda of the Trump government in the United States.  It’s truly frightening. The arts in general, and performance and satire in particular, seem like some of the best ways to resist this hate-filled propaganda. And that’s before you look at the dreadful misogyny that pervades so much of the media and social media discourse.

AT: What do you hope audiences will take away from watching?

TO: I obviously hope they’ll have a bloody great evening’s entertainment with laughs, cheers and most likely a few tears as well. But alongside that I hope the show’s message of love, unity and hope is something of a rallying call. That people are inspired to stand up for what they believe in and not to take equal rights for granted. History teaches us again and again that hard won freedoms – or in other words the equal rights we all deserve – are never set-in-stone and the tide can all too quickly turn as we see minorities used as scape-goats for wider social ills.

AT: Describe the piece in 6 words…

TO: Saucy, silly, sexy yet deeply serious.

AT: And what’s next for you?

TO: A holiday! Seriously, we’ve been so busy with the last two UK tours of Miss Nightingale, working on other productions and then preparing for this eight-week run at The Vaults that we’ve not really had any proper time off for the past few years. After that we plan to take Miss Nightingale overseas – there already interest in both American and Australian productions of the show. The time definitely feels right for this. We have a panto to write for Cast, Doncaster which is always a hugely enjoyable thing to do. And we will be developing our second original musical, The Queen’s Hand – into a production in 2018 or 2019. So the next few years are looking rather exciting!

Thank you so much for your interview Tobias!  You can see Miss Nightingale The Musical at The Vaults (London) until 20th May 2017.  Book now.

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Photograph © Robert Workman

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