Many significant events can take place as the result of having a couple of drinks in a pub. Thus it was that in 2013, Ben Kernow and a friend – fresh out of drama school – decided they should make things happen themselves. Grabbing the bull by both horns they planned to mount their own theatre production. Only problems; no money, no script, no venue, nothing, except enthusiasm and a complete belief in themselves. Where there is a wil…….
Having secured a venue in London for a week and gathering a small group of like-minded theatre folk around them, they set about creating a production. Charles Dickens and Christmas go together like Fred Astaire ad Ginger Rogers, like Bacon and Eggs; to Ben, this was the perfect confection to provide the basis for the entertainment. Ben also found inspiration from Mike Leigh, the supreme film-maker, who is well known for using improvisation as a means to build characters and stories. So the tale began to take some shape as Ben took all the ideas and distilled them into a script. The result was ‘A Dickensian Christmas’.
‘A Dickensian Christmas’ takes place in the kitchen of Charles Dickens’ London home one Christmas and concerns three of his servants who take in a mysterious stranger. They spend the evening telling Christmas orientated stories to each other – including a very cleverly condensed version of ‘A Christmas Carol’. It is inventive, funny, touching and sincere. A perfectly formed Christmas present.
Such was the success of the outing in London that Ben began to look at ways of reviving the show and decided to focus on his native Cornwall. It might not have escaped your notice that Ben’s surname, Kernow, is Cornish for Cornwall. There was no better way to start than by forming a Company – the Ha-Hum-Ah Theatre Company.
‘Ha-Hum-Ah’? What’s that name all about you may ask. The three syllables all provided a sound used in warm-up exercises Ben used when training to be an actor – and, if you say them quickly you get Hahummah – rather good!
“Cornwall has a phenomenal theatre scene and home-grown companies like Kneehigh and Miracle have made a name for themselves well beyond the far South West.” However, Ben points to some voids in the provision of professional theatre in the County and he hoped Ha-Hum-Ah might be able to plug one of the gaps.
Setting the Company up as a CIC (Community Interest Company) was likely to provide a better footing when it came to bid for funding and a fortuitous meeting with Fin Irwin from IntoBodmin was very much the boost that Ben needed. IntoBodmin is also a CIC and looks to bring the community of Bodmin and surrounding areas together through arts and culture. They have recently taken over the lovely Old Library building which has been empty since the local council moved the library elsewhere. The Grade II listed building is being transformed into a creative arts café and community hub.
“There was a natural fit between Ha-Hum-Ah and the Old Library venture” says Ben, “and I was very lucky to be able to call on Fin’s experience in writing bids, which he helped prepare when we had decided to jointly produce the show in Bodmin for a four week run.
“I would have loved to have reunited the original cast for the new production, but it just wasn’t possible, though it was great to have one of the four original actors return. So, we went through the usual casting channels and were staggered to receive 1700 applications! What was so good was to find two fantastic actors who were based in Cornwall. Soon the final performer was signed up; we had our cast.”
Not content with staying in one place, the team have upsticked and taken the show on the road to venues in Callington, Launceston, Fowey and Boscastle.
“Without the funding from FEAST, Cornwall Council or Arts Council England, we would never have got the production off the ground, but with the show doing well and receiving such a warm reception from the audiences, we are hopeful they will want to stick by us!”
The main theatre in the county The Hall for Cornwall at Truro closed for two years for a revamp, it is to small venues that professional theatre companies are looking to take their work. While the aim in Truro is to attract the big touring productions, there is a sense that the smaller works and organisations are being left a little out in the cold. The innovation which IntoBodmin is showing is allowing companies like Ha-Hum-Ah to reach audiences who suddenly have great theatre on their doorstep.
“We believe we are good at what we are doing and through careful marketing and realistic ticket prices we are, in some way, supporting the local economy. We are happy to be able to offer great quality work on a smaller scale whilst setting standards that can inspire others. We hope that we may be able to continue to do so.”
So, what is next? Ben is already planning the next production. “We are interested, as a Company, in exploring genres and so the follow-up project will take a very different subject matter and be given the Ha-Hum-Hah treatment.” Ben isn’t giving too much away, but I can tell you my taste buds were tingling!
When I attended the press night at The Old Library to review A Dickensian Christmas I was struck by the warmth of the production and the feeling that the actors were almost performing to each member of the audience individually. It was an absolute treat.
There is no doubt that Ben Kernow is a driven theatre professional, and although he has enjoyed performing in pantomime for many years – something which engulfs the festive period – this year, he will be able to spend more time with his family as his Christmas offering comes to an end on 22 December.
If Ben Kernow and Ha-Hum-Ah can continue to bring such brilliant productions to the people of Cornwall, then they will gain a reputation throughout the county and beyond as a Company of quality and originality. Let’s hope those with influence will recognise this. Here’s to the success of the whole venture. More please!
My review of A Dickensian Christmas can be found at https://reviewsgate.com/a-dickensian-christmas-bodmin-5-cormac-richards/