INTERVIEW: Coventry choreographer gets stuck into Spamalot silliness
Coventry local Ashley Nottingham choreographs Monty Python musical at the Belgrade Theatre
As Selladoor’s superbly silly new production of Spamalot continues its tour of the UK, we’re looking forward to seeing the work of one former Coventry kid when it arrives at the Belgrade Theatre this week.
Running at the Belgrade from Tuesday 27 February until Saturday 3 March, this reimagining of the much-loved Monty Python musical has been choreographed by Ashley Nottingham, whose love of dance was inspired during his childhood by the local pantos that his mum and dad worked on.
Ashley tells us more about his career so far and what to expect from the show.
Tell us a bit about your background – how did you end up as a professional choreographer?
My mother used to choreograph the Coventry GEC pantomimes in the 70s, 80s and 90s alongside my father who directed them. I would watch my mum choreograph in the lounge when I was a baby. Year after year, I would see my parents create and rehearse the pantomimes and I was desperate to get involved somehow.
I joined a dance school when I was three and loved it so much that I gradually began to assist my dance teacher. At primary school I would direct my own variety shows that featured all of my talented friends, in the 15-minute break time in the school hall, for which I charged 15p for entry! Eventually my parents let me choreograph their pantomimes when I was a teenager.
After years of dance training and participating in amateur theatre in Coventry, I moved to London to study Theatre Dance at the London Studio Centre. I raised my tuition fees by holding a variety show at the Albany Theatre using the best of Coventry talent which then became an annual event for six years. After my professional training I then went on to perform in West End musical theatre for ten years, working with some of the world’s greatest choreographers and directors. Now I am living my childhood dream of being a freelance choreographer.
When did you know dance was what you wanted to do? Was there anything in particular that inspired you?
My parents sent me to ballet when I was 3 because my older brother was going and, of course, I was intrigued but I wasn’t really that keen on it until my dance school show was looming. At the age of five, I performed in my first show at the Butts (now the Albany Theatre) and that was it – I was hooked!
I can still remember the feeling on stage and the inspiration it gave me to continue, learn from the older dancers and progress. My dancing school principal, Kathy Stokes, was always a huge inspiration. She worked us hard with technical exams but always included show work (not competitions) and performance so we could link everything together with musicality and emotion. My other inspiration was choreographer Beryl Thomas who choreographed the Coventry Youth Operetta group in the 80s and 90s. She was a very strict woman who knew how to get results from a group of passionate performers.
What are some of the other projects you’ve been working on recently?
I have my regular, professional dance class at Pineapple Dance Studio in London three times a week, which is hugely popular with professionals in the industry. I have five musical dance shows on a new, 5000-passenger Italian cruise vessel called the Meraviglia which opened last year. As a matter of fact, I just returned from Italy where I have been rehearsing with its new international cast. I recently choreographed Top Hat at Arts Educational in London, and an LBGT commercial that was nominated for an Adcan Award in LA.
How well did you know Spamalot before you found yourself working on the show? Were you a Monty Python fan?
I knew it very well as I had seen the original West End Production twice and had listened to the original cast recording on repeat many times. I wasn’t a Monty Python fan until I reached adulthood – I guess I didn’t understand the humor when I was a child. I think the musical is a beautifully crafted masterpiece with a completely infectious score by John Du Prez.
Spamalot’s a little different to most musicals in that there’s a lot of slapstick comedy. How did that affect your approach to it? Was it challenging to get the right balance between something that was funny but also looked good?
Not at all. I was working with a brilliant bunch of actors and a terrific director that gave me time and space to experiment. Having years of pantomime experience subconsciously came in useful for this, but a lot of the time I just studied the music and it told me what to do.
With the show having toured for some time now and even won a Tony Award, there are obviously certain expectations. How much room do you have with a show like this to make it your own, and how much did you draw on choreography for previous productions?
I will always approach a new project with a fresh eye. As long as you tell the story and honour the characters you can do anything. This is made easy when collaborating with the visions of designer and director.
Tell us a bit about what audiences can expect from this production of the show?
The audience can sit back and enjoy a fast-paced and energetic musical comedy with something in it for every member of the family. The show is a runaway train that never slows down. The cast are led by King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake who well and truly navigate everyone at full pelt. There are so many character and costume changes for all of the actors right from the very first number in the show, so they never really get to stop!
As a Coventry local, do you have any memories of visiting the Belgrade while growing up here?
I performed in the Gang Shows when I was in the 80th Cub group which I enjoyed immensely and I remember doing the John Spencer concerts there with my dancing school. I always came to watch the Belgrade pantomimes and supported the touring productions. I loved getting a programme to read the actors’ biographies and I still have so many of them. I particularly remember seeing Tap Dogs. It’s almost as if the whole of the city came to watch, the atmosphere was incredible!
Will you be coming to see the show here?
I am busy in London during the week but I will certainly come up to see all the shows over the weekend.
Do you come back to Coventry often and have you been following the buzz around the City of Culture success?
I do come home a few times a year and I always get the latest information from my family. Mum will often keep newspaper cuttings of articles that she knows I will be interested in. My brother, Myles Nottingham, is the Commanding Officer for the Corps of Drums (based in Cheylesmore) which celebrates 70 years this year. The marching band are always asked to attend the latest Coventry festivals and celebrations so I am always kept up to date with the Coventry buzz. The City Of Culture is a great win, it makes me so proud!
Spamalot is at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry from Tuesday 27 February until Saturday 3 March. Tickets are available to book now by calling the box office on 024 7655 3055, or by visiting www.belgrade.co.uk where prices are even cheaper.