On the eve of appearing at Brighton Fringe, and ahead of his first run under the ITI umbrella at Edinburgh Fringe, ITI interviews Oliver Harrison, writer and performer of the delightful children’s show, Signor Baffo’s Restaurant.
ITI’s Jack Crozier sat down for a video interview with Olly from his Brighton home as he grabbed some space to talk at the foot of the stairs – to a background soundtrack of his young daughter playing (with just a little bit of screaming)
ITI: So – Signor Baffo’s Restaurant is an interactive kids show featuring a chef… tell us what it’s all about…
OH: The basic premise of the show is that Signor Baffo – a charismatic fellow who is low in the restaurant ranks, he is really the kitchen police – turns up to work and realises his boss isn’t in today. Facing closure, Signor Baffo has this great idea that he can cook the food – and so the restaurant can open!
It becomes apparent that he is absolutely useless at doing pretty much anything – but he wants so much to do well! In the end it turns in to this massive mess as he tries to cook these lovely meals – ending up in pretty much chaos on stage!
The show actually begun its journey at Brighton Fringe a few years ago. How are you feeling about returning this week?
I’ve played at Brighton Fringe twice now – with the first show in 2013 very much the beginning of a journey, simply in a café. That was a lot about resolving teething issues and developing what works and what doesn’t – before a return when the show was more established. When we came back we moved from the café, which only sat around 20 kids, to The Warren which is a much larger theatre – and where the show will be this Fringe.
Because Brighton is fairly small in the scheme of things, there’s a following just through me being a local and living here and doing other local shows that haven’t been at the Fringe. I feel like the image is quite strong and people have seen it around and so know of the character, even if they haven’t seen the show. With a kids show, you can also come back two or three years down the line and play the same show again as kids grown up and others take their place!
After Brighton Fringe, the show comes into the ITI fold, to become one of the shows produced by the company. But you’ve been an actor with us for a while now as Manuel in Faulty Towers The Dining Experience: how has that been?
I began in 2014 when cast as Manuel, and since then have got the opportunity to play abroad, at Edinburgh, and also come back to Brighton – allowing my peers and family to see it! I took like a duck to water really, because the character I play I am really suited to – the slightly bumbly & hapless, yet wanting to do well but inevitably messing everything up. It’s just who I am – it suits my personal character and clown quite well!
Signor Baffo’s Restaurant comes to ITI as an established show already – can you just tell us a little bit about the show’s origins?
I was really keen to make a kids show – I’ve always found that child audiences can be really honest. They’re the most critical, but also the best audiences! After deciding on making the kids show, weirdly I started playing on the idea of a waiter – a Spanish waiter – and now it is clear that the character I was creating was Manuel, even though this was way before my involvement with ITI.
I sort of veered towards a chef, maybe because of the costume – they’re just sort of ridiculous clown shoes and massive hats and chequered trousers – and settled on a charismatic Italian. With this, I applied for Arts Council England funding in 2013 and created the first incarnation of the show which took place in a café in Brighton, during Brighton Fringe. Before we had even made the show it had sold out – so it was quite a surprise!
I would say it has developed as my craft as a performer has developed. When the character started I feel it was the bare bones of a character – kind of two-dimensional. Since then I’ve trained a lot in clown and developed my performance in that clowning world. Signor Baffo has developed because there’s a melding of the two worlds – my character as a clown and Signor Baffo have sort of become one!
As it’s a solo show is there an improvisatory thread – that of exploring and experimenting?
Actually, in a similar way to Faulty Towers The Dining Experience, in the bits that involve audience interaction you can never quite predict what is going to happen – so there’s got to be elements of improvisation there!
During a Margate Theatre Royal show – at a moment where I borrow an audience member’s shoe in order to put it in the Bolognese sauce (because we need it smelly and cheesy and that’s Baffo’s logic) – one child turned Baffo down. Subsequently, by saying ‘hands up if you want to give me your shoe’, a sea of hands were in the air and the shoes were off and bombarding Baffo! So by playing with an audience’s character you get those little golden moments which I try to hold on to!
Over the last two years I’ve trained in workshops and on courses with the masters of clown – Philippe Gaulier, Aitor Basauri, Mick Barnfather, Dr Brown – which have formed how I behave on stage and how I am as a performer. The training looks primarily at discovering what’s funny about each individual person, rather than trying to layer a character – essentially finding the idiot that exists within all of us and exploring that on stage. Baffo is the perfect character to do that with!
Despite being a ‘kids show’, reviewers and parents alike have laughed just as much – what aspects appeal for the whole family?
There are a few jokes and puns in there that go over the kids’ heads, for sure, but I think that any show that involves comedy should appeal to humanity. Whether you’re a child or an adult – it goes back to the clowning thing – you see someone on stage pleasingly being an idiot and you just laugh at them! I’ve often found parents laughing as much – and more so at times – than the kids! So I like to think of it as a family show – something that everyone can enjoy.
The show itself does that thing that we do in ITI – there’s no fourth wall. Baffo addresses the audience directly, and that itself creates this kind of immersive experience. It’s immersive in the sense we’re all there in the same room – I’m not sort of talking at them, I’m talking with them and to them. Then there are several key moments within the show where I either get kids up on stage or I’m asking for suggestions. So that interactivity is very much in the same world that ITI is known for.
This is the first time Baffo will be at Edinburgh Fringe: you’ve been up before with ITI, as Manuel, but now you’ll be up again and as Baffo. How do you feel about that?
Last year, I was up with my own show and own company for the first time with my daughter – so we went to see quite a few kids shows. It struck me that I really wanted to be part of a kids show at Edinburgh – and I know Baffo, as an established show, will do really well there. When this opportunity came up to take it up with ITI I snapped it up because I think it’s a great opportunity – a match made in heaven!
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