With the new revival of RENT having been announced to open at Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, Ahmed Hamad was cast as Benny, with the show only managing previews and their opening night when theatres were once again forced to close due to the pandemic, and the musical is now streaming online until 20th December. Ahmed is now preparing for the livestreamed performances of Stay Awake, Jake at Southwark Playhouse on the 18th and 19th December, a new musical by Tim Gilvin, which Ahmed has recently recorded the cast album for. Since graduating from Arts Educational Schools, Ahmed made his West End debut in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium and he was in the original cast of The Boy in the Dress, which premiered at Royal Shakespeare Theatre in November 2019, with the cast recording being released tomorrow. Recently, Ahmed chatted to us about starting his role of Benny in RENT, being in the premiere of The Boy in the Dress and preparing for new musical Stay Awake, Jake.
How did it feel returning to live theatre to play the role of Benny in RENT at Hope Mill Theatre?
It honestly felt amazing. We’d been without live theatre for almost seven months and we came back with such a fitting piece. It’s a show about people, specifically artists, trying to survive in a world and a time where things are really difficult. The characters in RENT are also living through a pandemic – a much more serious one which had a huge stigma attached to it. The fact that we also created this show during the coronavirus pandemic made lyrics like “connection in an isolating age” even more poignant.
What did you enjoy most about playing the character and being in the cast?
Under Luke Sheppard’s direction, our show was special in the way that we were always present around the edges of the space. We were essentially always involved as ‘players’, and then adopted our characters fully when we stepped into the space. Benny as a role can be quite separate from the other principals, and quite isolating in general. With the way our show was set up, I was able to have my moments as Benny but also join in with the ensemble sections throughout the piece. This gave our show a real sense of community which is echoed throughout the piece! I also remember seeing the cast list released and getting so hyped for this production. Pearson Casting did an amazing job of assembling such a diverse and talented cast. Living with all these beautiful people whilst we were in Manchester was the cherry on the cake – being surrounded by the constant love and positivity was definitely the highlight for me.
How was it rehearsing for the show and what are you looking forward to for the show to be streamed online?
Rehearsals for RENT were odd in the fact that not only did we have to adhere to the COVID guidelines, but we also only had three-and-a-half weeks to create this show from scratch. The Hope Mill Theatre founders/producers (William Whelton and Joseph Houston) and our creative team kept us all safe and healthy during rehearsals. We were also tested for COVID on day one and just before tech. It took me a little while to get used to daily temperature checks and wearing masks whilst rehearsing. We were sat apart when learning music (due to social distancing) with our Musical Director (Katy Richardson) so we really needed to know our harmonies! Our choreographer (Tom Jackson Greaves) created such beautiful phrases that were effective in the storytelling whether we were in the space or in our chairs.
I’m most looking forward to seeing the show from different perspectives. It was filmed from a few different angles, and I’m excited to notice little things in everyone’s performances that I would have missed from the side. I’m also super excited for everyone to see this production. The Hope Mill Theatre has done such a great job of making this accessible – the way theatre should be.
Here’s a link if you’d like to grab tickets! Streaming until 20th December.
Can you tell us about being in the world premiere of The Boy in the Dress at Royal Shakespeare Theatre?
I felt incredibly lucky being part of this musical. Watching all the creatives like Gregory Doran, Sarah Tipple, Laura Bangay, Alan Williams (and many more) working in a rehearsal room and creating a brand new show out of words on a page was really remarkable. The head of music at the RSC (Bruce O’Neill) was also heavily involved with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical when it was produced in Stratford-upon-Avon, so there really was such a wealth of experience and knowledge in the room! The show itself has a great message about acceptance, being in touch with yourself, and being exactly who you want to be. The most interesting aspect for me was all the puppetry. Playing football on stage is difficult, but we devised puppetry sequences (led by our puppetry director, Laura Cubitt) where the ball would be puppeteered by different actors. Although I play football, being able to manipulate the ‘ball on a stick’ and portray convincing ball physics was a new skill for me – and one I loved learning!
What was it like covering the role of Gareth?
Gareth is a really interesting character. He’s the captain of the football team, he’s got an abnormally low voice for his age, and his hair grows at a hilarious rate throughout the show. He’s pretty much a walking cartoon character! The biggest challenge about covering the part was probably the football puppetry sequences. My ensemble roles included footballers in both of the teams that faced Gareth’s team. This meant I needed to know four different football and puppetry tracks! I was lucky enough to be the first cover to go on – I played Gareth on the 23rd December 2019. The support from the cast and crew was amazing, and I’ll always hold that day close to my heart.
Do you have any favourite memories from your time in the musical?
I always have two favourite days when working on a musical. The read-through on day one, and the band call just before we start. Day one rehearsing with the RSC was amazing. I miss the feeling of having all those creative people in one room ready to start on a show. It was also nice having David Walliams (who wrote the book) in the room for the first week.
There are so many things I loved about my time in Stratford, but here’s a few. Looking after Christina Modestou’s chocolate Labrador called Hamish, spending evenings with everyone in the Dirty Duck, watching the other company perform The Whip by Juliet Gilkes Romero, recording the album in the studio, the fellas getting our dresses on for gala night, and gaming with Rufus Hound whenever we had free time!
You were Swing and cover Calypso in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium, how was this?
Joseph was a great experience. It surprised me as it’s a role/show I never thought I’d see myself in. It was great sharing this experience with four other people from my year group including Jac Yarrow who played Joseph, and one of my best pals, J.R Ballantyne. I’ve also made some great friends in the cast including the other male swing, Matthew Rowland, who I now live with! During rehearsals, our choreographer (JoAnn M Hunter) would always give the swings time to practice lifts and choreography. I was told that this isn’t too common so I’m grateful that she gave us that time.
I made my debut on the 2nd August 2019. I luckily had a few hours before I needed to be ready so I had a bit of time to prepare. My parents were able to come and watch my second show too. So many greats have performed at the London Palladium, and it felt really special to have worked there.
What was it like booking your professional West End debut with the show?
I was really humbled that this was my first job. We also performed on Britain’s Got Talent a week into rehearsals! Looking out at over two thousand people on my first show was breathtaking. This show was perfect for me to watch and learn from other actors. I learnt a lot from watching the other actors’ methods, and as swings, we’re always watching from the outside, making notes, and mentally preparing ourselves for the possibility of being thrown on for a show. I’d also never danced before ArtsEd, and if you’d told me my first job would be swing and I’d have to learn loads of dance tracks I’d have probably laughed in your face. I’m quite a visual learner and this helped with being a swing, but I’m not sure if I’d do it again.
What can you say about being part of MT Fest last year?
MT Fest really set up my love of working on new musical theatre. It was great to be able to throw ideas around and try lots of different versions. I was still training at ArtsEd at the time and quite nervous about stepping into the industry, but everyone was so kind and welcomed me. I’m particularly thankful to Sophie Isaacs and Liam Doyle for really taking me under their wing, and making me feel comfortable!
How was it training at ArtsEd and can you tell us about some of the shows you performed in whilst there?
I owe so much of where I am today to Chris Hocking and all of the staff at ArtsEd. In terms of dance, they got me to a place where I was dance captain in one of my third year shows, and a swing in a West End show – things I would’ve deemed unattainable before training. They also get so many current industry professionals in to work with us and get our names out there before we’ve even graduated. I signed with my brilliant agent, Amy O’Neill, at the end of third year and I’m thankful to ArtsEd for creating that opportunity.
In third year, I played Papa Ge in Once on This Island and I was a Whiffle/dance captain in Cry-Baby. Papa Ge is the god of death in the piece and in this version directed by Richard Fitch, the four gods never left the stage (similar to RENT) but also weren’t visible to the other actors. This meant we were able to play manipulate, play with, and bounce off the cast. Cry-Baby is based on John Waters’ movie of the same name. I’d probably describe it as Hairspray meets Grease on crack! I enjoyed working on the harmonies in the barbershop quartet with the other Whiffles, and I really surprised myself in the role of dance captain.
You’ve performed at the Royal Albert Hall for BBC Proms – West Side Story, 2018 Olivier Awards and Let’s Face the Music: A Tribute to the Greatest Musicals, how did you find the experience performing at the Royal Albert Hall and what were the events like to do?
It amazes me how complicated it is to put something on at a venue like the Royal Albert Hall. We rehearse for a little while and arrive on the day but it takes months of planning and hundreds of people to make it all happen. West Side Story was probably my favourite as I love the score and hearing the John Wilson Orchestra play it for the first time left us all speechless. Jocasta Almgill, who played Joanne in RENT, was also part of it as one of the principals!
Did you always know you wanted a career in acting and when did you start?
I feel like the best way to explain is to go all the way back to the start! I’m the youngest of four, and I was born to Sudanese parents. All four of us were born in Saudi Arabia but we moved to the UK when I was just about a year old so all I’ve known is here – I’ve never been back to Saudi but we go back to Sudan every few years to visit family. My eldest sister works in a haematology lab, my brother is an Apple technician, and my other sister is a business and property advisor. You can kind of see where this is going… My love for acting and performing came from my love of music. I played piano, and one of the first shows I did was Little Shop of Horrors. The drama teacher at secondary school told me I wouldn’t have to act/dance, and I could sit in the band pit with my script and be the voice of Audrey II the plant!
Fast forward to college, I was studying Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry and Music. I’d carried on doing amateur theatre outside of college but at this point, I knew it was what I wanted to do as a career. Mum was fully on board but Dad took a little bit of convincing. I took a gap year to work, research drama schools and prove that I was serious about this. I gained a place at ArtsEd and here I am! I’m truly blessed to have beautiful parents who support me and are proud of what I do and who I am.
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch?
I think I generally like to watch shows where I can feel fully immersed. The show I’ve seen the most amount of times (four) is the production of In the Heights that was at the King’s Cross Theatre. I was engulfed in the music, choreography, and all around good vibes. I also tend to support shows my friends are in too – in the week before lockdown I caught Waitress, Hamilton, and the tour of The Book of Mormon to see different pals. I’m also passionate about new musical theatre, and will do my best to watch new shows when I can. As an actor, I sometimes find it hard to take my ‘director hat’ off and just enjoy the show as an audience member. A few pieces that have had me forgetting I was in a theatre are: The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios, The Whip at the RSC, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Gielgud.
What can you tell us about Stay Awake, Jake?
I got involved with Tim Gilvin’s Stay Awake, Jake during the first lockdown – my agent sent me a self-tape request and the project at the time was very low budget. It was a new musical (which had done a short run in 2016) and it would be me recording the songs of the show at home and rehearsing on Zoom with the writer (Tim Gilvin) and director (Grace Taylor). After hearing I’d got the part, James Pearson called and invited me to do a Q&A on the CCI (Collective Creative Initiative), which is an amazing free platform that James and Rosie set up in 2020 full of free classes which supported artists. From there, the project snowballed into something bigger as an MD called Nick Pinchbeck came on board with a recording studio and Tamara Saringer joined the project as musical director. Tamara MD’d Cry-Baby in my third year so I felt really comfortable having her who knew me and my voice!
I loved discovering the character of Jake, and we rehearsed safely adhering to all COVID guidelines during the summer. Fast forward to early late August and we’d had a band call and recorded the full album the following week with orchestrations by Matthew Malone (who also worked on The Boy in the Dress!). The band was made up of some incredible musicians, and I can’t wait for the album to be released! It’s an interesting story about a man, Jake, who travels through the night to try and save his relationship. Some of my career goals are to originate a character and perform on an original cast album; I feel blessed these tick two off with this show.
I’m lucky enough to be performing Stay Awake, Jake at the Southwark Playhouse on the 18th and 19th December. The performance will be livestreamed and is only £10 at the moment! https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/stay-awake-jake/
What was it like being part of the Turn Up fundraising concert?
Being even just a small part of Turn Up was so immensely empowering. Seeing so many black and mixed actors on my TV screen that I look up to made me feel so seen. Even something like seeing an all-black band would seem tiny to others but was incredibly significant. I watched the concert twice – once alone and another time with my housemate and our friends we were bubbling with. I watched a concert celebrating black performers with three white allies, and the conversations that we had after watching it were some of the most thought-provoking I’d had in a while. I did what I could to educate them, I shared experiences I felt comfortable with sharing, and they heard me. I’m truly grateful for Ryan Carter, Nicole Raquel Dennis, and everyone involved for putting in the work to make Turn Up happen.
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