Interview: Jonathan Oldfield on Criminally Untrue, ‘Accidents and mistakes become gold’

by Jim Keaveney.

PillowTalk Theatre bring their production, Criminally Untrue, to VAULT Festival this weekend. The show is a completely improvised true crime documentary, based entirely on audience suggestions, helping a team of improvisers create a crime that never happened.

It stars Pedro Leandro, Will Hughes, Orla Newmark and Steve Duffy, with direction by Jonathan Oldfield and Lorna Rose Treen, who run PillowTalk Theatre together. The company have had sell-out runs at Edinburgh Fringe with clown duo Jam Sandwich and late-night cult cabaret The Wonder Jam . They run the smash hit festival Whitechapel Arts Showcase and their collaborations have included Disentangle Projects (Driving with Eileen), Corn Exchange Newbury (Dream Out Project) and The Point Eastleigh (Mystery Solvers).

As they geared up for VAULT Festival, we caught up with Oldfield to find out more!

Q&A with Jonathan Oldfield

What can you tell us about Criminally Untrue?

Criminally Untrue is a completely improvised true crime documentary, made up entirely on the spot based on audience suggestions. We weave together characters and absurd storylines with all of the tropes of a typical N*tfl*x true crime documentary: twists and turns, talking heads, dramatic reconstructions…the lot.

As we (along with the rest of the world) sat watching true crime documentaries over the pandemic, we started to notice the formulaic nature of the stories and the sometimes laughably similar moments of surprise across the whole genre. From Wild Wild Country to Fyre Festival, the ridiculousness of the stories really intrigued us and got us thinking about an improvised version.

From here it started to grow, and was meant to have some shows at last year’s VAULT Festival before it sadly got cancelled. This led to some amazing new opportunities though, with Stanley Arts and the Bridge House Comedy Festival, as well as with The Laurels in Newcastle who all gave us such lovely support and time to develop the show.

Whilst we as a group of improvisers had worked together before doing short-form improv, we’d never attempted to make a new type of show and wanted to make sure that the audience felt really involved in the creation of the true crime documentary, as well find it funny along the way.

How does it feel to be bringing the show to VAULT Festival?

All the performers met in Edinburgh doing improv with The Improverts – the festival and city’s longest running group – so festivals are very much in our DNA. London can sometimes feel big and scary and a bit disconnected, but VAULT Festival has been such a supportive and creative home. When applications came up for this year it was a no-brainer.

Improvised work can punctuate a festival atmosphere really nicely, with audiences tending to feel connected over the shared spontaneity of the moment, and their interactive involvement in the work. We really do all create it together.

We’re also aware that this might sadly be VAULT Festival’s final year, unless they can fundraise (send them money! Support the arts!) so we feel intensely grateful to be part of its final weekend in those strange underground arches.

Is it daunting coming up with a unique show every time you perform?

Yes – and that’s where the fun is. It never stops being scary. It never stops being risky. It never stops being seat-of-your-belt-I-have-no-idea-whats-coming-out-of-my-mouth-y. It depends on a lot of trust and listening to each other. For us, it is a team sport. When you’ve got the right people around you, it feels like your about to shoot into space with your mates, and the experience of creating and justifying your silly ideas can be really satisfying.

People sometimes ask if we reuse jokes but even though it may seem easier that way, you learn the hard way that improvised comedy works best in the moment – right place, right time, right audience, right now.

How often does the show take you down a path you hadn’t imagined it could?

We always surprise ourselves, but sometimes we really, really surprise ourselves. Accidents and mistakes become gold. When everyone is bringing their own really specific imagination, you can end up in some weird places. We once did a show involving a village rave in a nuclear power station, we also once did a show about rival estate agents in Penzance, we once did a show about young nuns on a 18-30 booze cruise.

How would you describe it to someone considering buying a ticket?

Don’t listen to us! Listen to a lovely reviewer who once said “this is improv for improv-phobes”. We like to make our improv accessible for everyone, whether you want to get really involved in the show or you just want to sit back and soak in the weirdness. Whether you’re a comedy regular, or a true crime enthusiast who’s never seen improvised work before. It’s high energy, cartoony and super super stupid. If that’s up your street, then please join us! We are also still really workshopping the format, learning from each version that we make, so this is a really exciting time to come and actually help us make the show better!

Criminally Untrue plays VAULT Festival’s Crypt on 18 and 19 March