An Interview with the Cast of the Sophie’s Surprise 29th

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Sophie's Surprise 29th
Sophie's Surprise 29th

Spurred on by success at Edinburgh Fringe, Sophie's Surprise 29th is 'part circus, part comedy and part chaos'. With the production now joining Soho's newest cultural establishment Underbelly Boulevard, we sat down with the cast of the show; Katharine Arnold, Cornelius Atkinson, Nathan Redwood Price & Isis Clegg-Vinell to see what makes them tick...

Hey cast, could you take us through the origin story of Sophie’s Surprise 29th, including the name?

Sat in a Joe & the Juice in Soho, less than 1 minute from Underbelly Boulevard, the three of us lamented the lack of a strong, British circus company. Places like Edinburgh Fringe, Southbank Centre, and past Underbelly seasons had all seen a wealth of incredible circus shows from Canada or Australia. But we’d yet to see a really stand-out, high-quality, absolute banger of a show from a British company that could compete with the Briefs or the La Cliques of the world. Rather than drown our sorrows in overpriced smoothies we got to work envisioning the show that would become Sophie’s Surprise 29th. We wanted to find a tone that felt unique to us, both as individuals and as a wider culture.

Even in 2021, British circus didn’t really feel like it had a quantifiable aesthetic or culture like the behemoths from Australia or Canada did. So we thought; what’s more British than the idea of getting overly pissed at your mates sticky-floored-house-party whilst a bunch of absolute choons are blasting? The name was borne from wanting to find something that felt like it could be for anyone, anywhere - not too remarkable, familiar for all, and with the scope for our titular character to get older, get married, throw Christmas bashes, have baby showers…the list is endless.

The show experienced great success at Edinburgh Fringe in 2023; what was this like for the show’s potential?

I’m sure everyone says this, but it was actually crazy and kind of unexpected. Obviously, you go into Ed Fringe wanting your show to be good, and we were confident it was, but the audience reactions blew us away. We sold out a show very early on into our run, which with 500ish seats in the tent was no easy feat, and it just snowballed from there. 

One of the most incredible things was how many people we spoke to who said they’d bought tickets because they’d heard of it from someone else. So word of mouth was doing so much work for us, which was lovely, and we were incredibly grateful for it. We made it a mission to come out and meet our audiences after the show came down, and learnt so much from them about what worked, what they loved the most, and what we could develop more. The fantastic thing was that everyone had different favourite characters and moments so we really felt like we’d been able to make something for everyone. 

It’s just so meaningful to have your work enjoyed. At the end of the day our goal was to make a high-quality, funny, unique, and enjoyable show, and it was a wonderful feeling to have that realised!

Underbelly Boulevard
Underbelly Boulevard

What’s it been like bringing the show to London & Underbelly Boulevard in Soho?

We’re all very excited to be bringing the show to London. Each one of us cut our teeth on the London cabaret scene (with most of those venues being in or around Soho), and to be presenting our own show in the heart of the city is an incredible feeling. It’s not without stress though - each of us is a perfectionist in our own ways, and we’re aware of the weight & gravitas of what we’re doing and what that means. But if there’s one environment we all thrive in, it’s a high-pressure one with not enough time! We’re really looking at what we did in Edinburgh, why it was so successful and trying to distil that and shove it into a bottle (probably an alcopop one).

So we’re tweaking things that didn’t work the way we wanted, and finding time to highlight some elements that worked better than we expected, with the goal being to take what we did in Edinburgh, upgrade it, polish it and bring an incredibly honed and refined version of the show to Soho. Soho is a place that always feels like anything could happen…and it’s this magical vibe which fits perfectly with the sense of our show which makes performing here feel extra thrilling...

Described as ‘a house party disguised as circus’ what was the process like for combining these creative formats?

That process was actually pretty instinctive. It all came pouring out after we’d arrived at the house party idea. We had a huge list of ‘things that happen at every house party’ that we kept adding to. Everyone recognises classics such as: someone gets too drunk and the immediate medical solution is to feed them as much bread as possible, those two people who you never thought would get together are in fact snogging each other or, everyone’s favourite, that end of the night drunken, lairy sing-a-long. We started making a Spotify playlist consisting of nothing but total tunes. We brainstormed British pop culture archetypes and remembered the grungy vs townie turf wars that embroiled most of our secondary school life. We started to look a little further afield at movie tropes & character references, and then the ideas started to morph into a meta, spoofy, satire. 

It was important to us that the circus made sense in the context of what was happening. Circus in a cabaret format can be a really good vehicle for that kind of contextualisation, and we tried to use it in smart ways to push the characterisation and individual narratives forward. We feel circus is at its best when every part of it - the character, music, lighting, narrative, and skill  - all come together and coalesce into something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

We tried to take all these lessons from the high-brow, complex, cutting-edge work we’ve done in our careers, and apply them to a low-brow concept, a surprise birthday party. To give you a show that on the surface is so stupid, undeniably enjoyable and able to be taken at face value, but that if you look at how it all works under-the-hood, is actually intricately thought through and clever. There a lot of examples of this throughout British pop culture and media, Mr Bean and Fawlty Towers being ones that come immediately to mind. As a culture, we’re the champions of being stupid, smartly, and this is the ethos of Sophie’s Surprise 29th.

Sophie's Surprise 29th at Underbelly Boulevard
Sophie's Surprise 29th at Underbelly Boulevard

What are you currently enjoying in the wider UK culture scene?

UK culture is a never-ending melting pot of ideas and inspirations. What Soho in particular does so well is that exact thing we’ve talked about of mixing high and low brow, posh and trashy, serious and silly. From restaurants like Blacklock (super high-quality food and cocktails, decent prices, no over-engineered service and irreverent dessert portions) to nightclubs like The Box where you can spend a gazillion pounds on the poshest champagne but watch the sauciest acts, the gamut is huge.

Favourites include Shackfuyu for amazing food and frozen yuzu margaritas, Tate Modern for constantly changing exhibitions and aesthetic inspiration sources, magazines like Perfect which draw on different cultural elements to combine art, photography and fashion, all the independent theatres and music venues putting on small scale and experimental new works, and the vibrant live comedy scene (which is where we found one of our newest recruits, who you’ll see appearing as a party guest in this incarnation of Sophie’s Surprise). The list is endless!


Book your tickets to experience Sophie's Surprise 29th here.