Sam Shammas Productions Ltd is a young company dedicated to producing new writing and neglected classics for the London stage.
The company was set up in March 1995 and began by focusing on new writing. Its inaugural venture, Patrick Mackie's Stealing, was an edgy look at adulterous relationships in the aftermath of a robbery. With only three in the cast and minimal set, it was ideally suited to the tiny venue which jostled for space in the middle of Edinburgh's Princes Street. Despite the competition, it won praise from The Scotsman, and continued to evolve in readiness for a London run already in preparation. Hampstead's New End Theatre was the destination, but here the play was teamed with one of Mackie's earlier plays, Untrue Stories, to make a double bill called Double Desire.
Two more new plays followed: Peter Briffa's Night of the Fox at Sadler's Wells Lilian Baylis and Derek Parkes' Just a Matter of Time at Wimbledon's Studio Theatre. The first drew predictable notices from some quarters of the press, dealing as it did with an unrepentant rapist whose views, always forthrightly expressed, were an uncomfortable mixture of eloquence and hamfistedness. Nevertheless, it became the most successful piece of new writing produced by the company, a talented young cast imbuing the provocative script with considerable tension, while word of mouth brought surprising numbers to a cavernous venue. Just a Matter of Time was a more downbeat, provincial piece, making use of the L-shaped Wimbledon space by turning it into a suburban living-room, complete with constantly flickering television. By now, a lesson had been learnt: when producing new writing, attention is invariably drawn to the script and not to the design, direction or performances. By switching tack to classic works, the company hoped to draw critical focus from the writing, to see what people had to say about aspects fully within the company's control. By and large, it worked.
In October 1996, Jean Giraudoux's Ondine - a reworking of the classic fairy tale of mermaids and bewitched princes - was produced at the Shaw Theatre and drew a glowing review from Time Out who picked up on its infectious spirit. The largest cast yet rose to the challenge, and the many friendships forged during that run went on to bear fruit in successive productions.
Perhaps perversely, Sam Shammas Productions returned to a small venue after Ondine, choosing the Tristan Bates in Covent Garden to stage Jonson's jet-black comedy Epicoene with an all-male cast. A struggling air-conditioning system made life for audiences and actors difficult for a time, but many people came back more than once to see this rarely performed masterpiece. A loud, frenzied play concerning a man who hates noise and a succession of brutal tricks played upon him, the men prevailed upon to play women were unnnervingly good, while the play's unexpected sting always drew gasps and enthusiastic applause.
It was nearly six months before Shakespeare's Pericles made its appearance at the Cochrane Theatre, another expansive space with interesting challenges for the actor's powers of projection. Although the show ran only for a week, the audience's response was the most thrilling the company had yet enjoyed, and interest for the forthcoming Revenger's Tragedy (publicised by a teasing flyer included in the programme for Pericles) was already gathering force.
Revenger's opened in late April at the Riverside Studios and ran for three weeks. The company's revision of Tourneur/Middleton's dark wonder was a wonder in itself: cut to an hour and forty-five minutes from an uncut script lasting nearly twice that length, the show was difficult to look away from. Again, an intimate venue contributed to the ambience, with the audience sitting around the action (latecomers were shown in at an opportune moment by a grim-faced Jacobean guard). As ever, the importance of maintaining a play's symmetry was remembered in such details as the blood red and grass green uniforms, which were in turn reflected by the towering painted backdrop depicting souls being cast down to hell.
After four pieces of new writing came a fourth classical piece in the shape of Tamburlaine. Another highly ambitious piece, and the second (after Revenger's) to be both directed and designed by Sam Shammas, the stage was dominated by a high steel fence peppered with more than 300 blood-spattered dolls. Characteristically, there were many old faces in the cast, not least Catherine Harvey, who appeared in the company's first production, and Iona Grant, who featured in Just a Matter of Time.
Following a brief pause to design and direct a successful production of Boucicault's The Shaughraun for Ovations Productions in Highgate, Sam returned to the Riverside Studios with her tenth company production, Deirdre of the Sorrows. Another Irish piece, Synge's dark rumination on love in the face of death drew enthusiastic reviews, the small cast of six being drawn almost entirely from previous shows. The chance discovery of Iceni Brewery's 'Deirdre of the Sorrows' beer on a website also led to an unusual tie-in: audience members were able to see the show then sample the beer of the same name.
Sam Shammas's continuing policy to design and build all set, props and costume herself pays unique dividends. Sound and publicity design is also undertaken 'in house'. Although physically exhausting for the small company, the process allows production design - normally fixed by the time rehearsal starts - to adapt and grow as discoveries are made in the rehearsal room. In the case of Deirdre of the Sorrows the result was an impressive and innovative use of limited space.
Although the company is no longer producing shows 'back-to-back', it continues to support the work of up-and-coming playwrights through its New Play Database, a unique undertaking in the UK.
Below is a summary of all company productions to date.
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