An Interview with David Johnson, Performer in Pigeon English

Harri, from Stephen Kelman’s novel Pigeon English, has captured the hearts of many readers, and bringing such a well loved character to the stage, a character also firmly located in heated discussions about youth violence, immigration and broken Britain, can’t have been easy.  Director Miranda Cromwell spent a whole week auditioning performers from Bristol Old Vic Young Company and the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, thereby meeting young people from all over the country to find her cast.

For Harri she was searching for someone who could be “in the moment, full of life as well as being able to be our storyteller and gateway into this world”. Luckily, she met David Johnson, an NYT member and a very experienced young actor. Having been the youngest person ever to be awarded a scholarship to New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, David (along with the rest of the cast) is an example of a new generation of hard-working, dedicated and talented theatre-makers who are on the rise. Opening tomorrow, we caught up with David between technical rehearsals to ask him about playing Harri.

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Photography by Paul Blakemore.

What’s Pigeon English about?
Pigeon English illustrates the story of a young boy who moves from Ghana to South London, and begins his journey into manhood, as he adapts to, and uncovers the truth about life in London.

Describe it in three words.
Exhilarating, Truthful, Unique.

Have you read the book?
Yes, I have- I actually read it after I got cast in the role of Harri. I really didn’t want any preconceptions of the character while I was auditioning, I just wanted to see if I could find him for myself before reading the book. With that said, when I did read the book, I fell in love with the world Stephen created. It really is a story of our time, and past times for that matter. There are just moments that you get completely encased in the world that Harri is surrounded by and you can’t help but say that it’s your world too, because you’ve definitely seen and lived with these characters before. The specifics in the book for me are just too close to the truth, my truth! And that’s what made it so brilliant for me.

What’s it been like playing Harri?
Playing Harri has been a roller coaster to say the least, a roller coaster which I quite frankly dont want to get off! For me Harri is one of those characters that completely embodies your youth, and what it means to be blissfully innocent. All the ways that you used to think and the things you used to do, that you would probably call ‘ridiculous’ now, that’s exactly what Harri stands for. I found that I’m constantly ‘in search of’ with Harri and I love it, because that’s exactly what he is, ‘In search of’. Through Harri I’ve just found an opportunity to revisit my care-free days, never-ending days, those days when I wished I was a little bit older.. but now it’s those days that I would love to load up on the old time machine (Perfect example of be careful of what you wish for!).

How do you think Harri has changed as a character in his transferral from the page to the stage?
I think the actual change has come from me! The details in the book are so specific that there’s no way you can misinterpret what it means to be Harri. But I think the extra ingredient to bring him to life, to stage, is what it means to be me, David. Not just my present, but my past. I don’t want say too much about what it means to be me, because you will definitely see it on stage, but I think it’s pretty cool! There’s always been ‘a Harri’ rooted deep down inside me, and now I actually get the chance to let it live… Pretty bo’stlyes right?!

Describe an average day of rehearsal.
Right, it’s probably worth saying from now that rehearsals are pretty manic! We’re a crazy bunch so I guess when you put us together you get one of two things- utter madness or pure genius, either one works for us!

We generally rehearse from 9-6 everyday, finding and working new things into the play all the time, pretty much trying to make the best show we can. But it doesn’t end there! After rehearsals, we hit the streets of Bristol and push ourselves that bit further: busking, flyering, promoting etc. So all in all, we would get home around 8/9pm, run lines, make changes to our script, ready to do it all again in the morning… Nobody said it would be easy!

How did you get involved with the production?
I got involved with this project through the National Youth Theatre, which I joined seven months ago. The co-commission between the Bristol Old Vic Young Company and The National Youth Theatre meant six NYT members and six Bristol members would ultimately put on the show. I was lucky enough to be forward for this project, and went through four rounds of auditions before finally being cast in Pigeon English.

What are you most excited about? 
I’m really excited about putting it up on its feet. The process of making this project has been incredibly hard and as much fun as it’s been for us all, it really hasn’t been easy. Miranda (the director) has pretty much built this from the ground up, going against all odds and really pushed to bring this story to us and ultimately to life. All of our team have worked so hard to get this show rolling, from cast to crew, and I just think all we want now is to see it fly…

What’s next for you?
I just got offered a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts to study Acting in September, which is really exciting. But what I really want is to continue to play with new bigger, better characters, and continue to explore, find and love what I do… But for now, Harri is more than enough fun for me!

Pigeon English is on at Bristol Old Vic 7-10 Aug and Underbelly, Edinburgh Fringe 12-25. Find out more here.

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