They say life imitates art but there are times when the reverse can also be true. And this has certainly been the case for actor Dan Whitlam. The 23-year-old from Clapham is starring in Tobacco Road, a play that shines a light on London’s criminal underworld as the country emerges from the shadows of the First World War.
The hour-long production is being staged by Incognito Theatre Company at the VAULT Festival in Waterloo until 19 February. Devised by the company, it tells the stories of five young men and women who try and find fame and fortune, not to mention just staying alive, in the cut-throat society of thugs and conmen they inhabit. Violence is never far away and it is this aspect that has brought back some painful memories for Whitlam from his own youth.
“I was stabbed when I was 16,” he tells me candidly as we chat about the show. “I was with some friends and we were coming out of an audition at the Pleasance Theatre in North London. One of my friends got mugged and I ran to help.
“There was a fight and I got stabbed with a screwdriver. I was taken to hospital with a collapsed lung. Looking back it seems surreal but it was the classic case of wrong place, wrong time.”
Thankfully Whitlam is now recovered from his physical injuries and is able to pursue his dream of an acting career, graduating from Guildhall School of Music and Drama three months ago. But it’s clear emotionally it has had a profound effect on him.
“Looking back I think the guy who stabbed me was a victim of circumstance,” he says. “Since doing this play I have been trying to see this whole issue of gangs and the violence that often goes with it, from both sides.
“Why would someone get into a culture like that and carry a knife? They are often scared and vulnerable – it must be a terrifying situation to be in. Whenever I see another child who’s been stabbed and injured or killed it’s a horrible reminder of the dangers in London. I don’t know what the answer is though.
Not surprisingly it’s his first hand experience which drew him to being part of the production. However the fact it is set in his home turf of South East London was an added bonus. And he says the company uncovered some surprising and fascinating facts during their research.“I felt compelled really as it’s obviously a subject so close to home,” he explains. “Geographically too as I live in Clapham and it’s all based in Lambeth.“But it’s also a fascinating period in history when both men and women were drawn to the criminal underworld.“During the First World War, women survived as there were jobs suddenly available to them that hadn’t been before. They were earning money, were independent and had responsibility. But when the men came back and took back some of those jobs, many women struggled and some turned to crime just to survive – they felt they had no other option.“Similarly today many young people feel they have no other option but to carry a knife or be part of a gang.“What’s interesting is when people think about gangs of the period, and particularly with the likes of [TV show] Peaky Blinders, they think about the men and the violence,” he adds.“However women played their part too – there were plenty driven by power and money who were also involved in gang culture at the time. “When we were devising the show, we wanted to show people the role they played, how powerful they were and how they were seen as equal to the men – something not often told in history books. “Here women are very much driving the story.”Tobacco Road’s protagonists, five small time crooks who join forces, are also based on real people. Elsie and Freda are inspired by the ruthless female gang leader, Alice Diamond and her followers,Tommy Carlisle is based on the bare-knuckle boxers of Lambeth, Alfie on the thousands of young men left deeply traumatised by the effects of the First World War and the ambitious Felix is inspired by the bloodthirsty young men who were driven to succeed by their unerring determination. “My character Alfie isn’t the brightest,” laughs Dan. “He’s a happy go lucky kind of guy and would run into a fight without knowing why or what the repercussions will be. “All the characters want to be in gangs for different reasons but Alfie doesn’t. He is obsessed with Westerns and would much rather leave London and his associates and that life behind, go to America and become a film producer.“I can relate to his love of films as I’m equally obsessed and would to work in that field at some point!”In describing the characters Dan is clear the play is far from doom and gloom. Rather it is full of fast paced action, humour and poignancy. And after a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer he hopes for similar reactions when it opens at the Vault Festival.“Being part of the Vault Festival is amazing and we are all so excited to bring this show to the part of London where these stories took place,” he says. “There is so much history woven into the fabric of this area and it’s been fantastic to bring it to the stage in this way.“Tobacco Road is gritty and dramatic but there is a real depth and balance to it. I hope audiences will be entertained but I’d like to think they will also see the parallels with what’s happening in London now and gain a greater degree of understanding of what it must be like to be part of that culture.”
Tobacco Road is on at the VAULT Festival, Network Theatre, 246A Lower Road, between Wednesday February 13 and Sunday February 17. Visit www.vaultfestival.com for tickets.