Image: Ben Kin

An interview with MTW president Sam Cochrane

It’s February, and finalists are beginning to feel the heat. Essay deadlines are looming; dissertations are getting serious; an unknown world beyond graduation awaits. But for Sam Cochrane, a third-year history student, time has been compressed. His essays are done; he’s already moved to London, albeit only temporarily. The principle project in his life now is a musical which he has written, directed, and sometimes stars in. Goodbye, Warwick library. Hello, Timpson: The Musical.

You heard that right. In his first year at Warwick, Cochrane – also the president of Music Theatre Warwick – began to write a musical about Timpson, the shoe cobblers and key-cutters that is a staple of so many British high streets. Cochrane “always found it very odd” that these two occupations should find a place together under the same awning, “and I thought, that needs a musical”. Naturally.

The principle project in his life now is a musical which he has written, directed, and sometimes stars in

The show is modelled – “very very loosely” – on Romeo and Juliet. The two warring houses in this case are the Montashoes and the Keypulets, who ultimately find peace through the younger generation – Monty and Keeleigh – and together form the dynasty that is Timpson.

It is appropriate that the musical should showcase two families, when Timpson is itself such a family institution. Having been run by the same family for over 100 years, “it’s got that really lovely family feel to it. It gives back a lot to the community. They have an amazing charity called the Alex Timpson Trust which we raise money for now through the show. In their shops, 10% of their employees are ex-convicts, which is awesome. They just do loads of wonderful things for their employees. It’s a wholesome company.”

They have an amazing charity called the Alex Timpson Trust which we raise money for now through the show

Cochrane explains that “we’re trying to do something similar with our theatre company as well, making shows for family audiences. The two lock together quite nicely.” I don’t think he intended the pun, but it is amusing to hear how Timpson is embedded in his subconscious.

Cochrane is reluctant, even when urged, to share just how successful the concept has been. So I’ll do it for him: after a preview performed to an audience of Timpson employees (“they honestly were the best audience I have ever performed to – so receptive, they laughed at every joke and were cheering throughout”), the musical travelled to the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe where it gathered a slew of four- and five-star reviews and was selected by the Guardian as one of the best shows at the festival (“unashamedly wacky… delivered with verve”). Most prestigiously, it won an award from The Stage.

Cochrane explains: “At the press event, all the other winners were people from really big venues, and we were the only ones from one of the more student-y venues. It was really cool feeling like we’d crashed this press party, fangirling all the people there. It sets us up quite well as a company for the future. And also I don’t think many musicals have won them before, so it was never even on our radar that that would happen.” Basically, “we did better than any of us had anticipated.”

The musical travelled to the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe where it gathered a slew of four- and five-star reviews and was selected by the Guardian as one of the best shows at the festival

Their success at the Fringe has led to a tour: three weeks at the King’s Head in Islington until early March, a week at the Old Joint Stock in Birmingham at the beginning of April, a weekend at the Brighton Fringe in May (“bang smack exam time – I’m just hoping I don’t have an exam on the same day as a show”), and hopefully a triumphant return to Edinburgh in the summer. “That isn’t something we would normally do [return for a second Fringe run], but it makes sense for this show – I want to do a bit more with it, and there are lots of people who haven’t seen it, or people who have who want to see it again.” Meanwhile, interspersed through their festival appearances, the cast will return to their most dedicated fans – they have been called on to provide the entertainment at Timpson’s AGMs.

Underneath Cochrane’s modesty is a steely assurance in the quality of his work and his ability to reproduce it beyond Timpson. “We see a life now with this theatre company we’ve made. I actually think the hardest bit was what we did last year, getting a name for ourselves. Once you’ve got that people will hopefully be like, ‘oh that’s written by one of the guys who wrote Timpson – it’s the same theatre company, so let’s go watch it’. Now I’m writing two new shows, and we’re going to see whether we can get investors interested. Then we can pay ourselves as actors and creatives.”

I actually think the hardest bit was what we did last year, getting a name for ourselves

Sam Cochrane

Cochrane points out that generally in comedy musicals, “the humour is from shock humour, like Avenue Q or Book of Mormon: they’re funny because they’re rude or offensive a lot of the time. Whereas I think there’s quite a nice gap in the market for musicals that are family-orientated, that are funny in a different way. It’s quite hard to make something funny that isn’t rude.” I admire this of Cochrane – students so often try to do something political, or intellectually or formally challenging. Cochrane just wants everyone to have a good time.

He won’t be drawn on what his new ideas are, but he’s “not worried about writing a new show because it just seems like the next step. Timpson works so well because of the name: it’s a device where we put something that shouldn’t be a musical next to ‘the musical’. But now we’re in a place as a company where I’d be able to write a show that hopefully doesn’t need that title to bring people in, so I can come through on ideas I’ve had for a while.”

Cochrane’s writing career began when he was 14 when he started work on a television series. Even now, he thinks “it’s the best thing I’ve written. Obviously, it keeps changing and I keep going back to it and writing it. My dream is to get that made but it’s a long way away.”

Whereas I think there’s quite a nice gap in the market for musicals that are family-orientated, that are funny in a different way

Sam Cochrane

For now, he is making the most of the talents of people he has met at Warwick. “I came up with the idea [of Timpson] towards the end of school, but I never thought I’d never actually do anything with the idea until I met people crazy enough to go along with it.” The production team is almost entirely comprised of Warwick students and graduates: co-writer Chris Baker, composers Tom Slade and Theo Caplan, producer Ellie Fitz-Gerald, lighting designer Danny Vavrecka, set designer Doug Cairns, musical director Chris Poon and stage manager Freya Jefferies. “This show definitely wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t come to Warwick.”

So what next for Sam Cochrane? He’s in London now for Timpson’s run: in the evenings he’ll be at the theatre, but the daytimes will be dedicated to his dissertation. In the long run, he admits that the likelihood of earning a living out of theatre straight after graduation is unlikely, so he is on the search for a job. He doesn’t know what yet, but has his eye on the company with which he already has established links – “I was thinking I might see if Timpson needs someone!” Even if they don’t hire him, Cochrane is happy that his musical-writing debut has assured him free shoelaces for life.

My final question is about the name of his theatre company – Gigglemug. It has a pleasing alliteration, but what does it mean? Cochrane explains that “Chris and I were trying to come up with a name, searching all over the place. We knew we wanted something cheery and something with a hint of the Victorian era about it.” Then they found this old English slang word, gigglemug, meaning “a habitually smiling face.” “We like to think that the audience will keep smiling for the rest of the day after seeing our shows. It’s fitting I think.” Walking away from our interview, a smile still on my face, I couldn’t agree more.

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