The Boy Who Was Woody Allen

March 5, 2013

The Hampstead and Highgate Express

Thank you to Alex Bellotti from the Hampstead and Highgate Express for this piece:

There are many routes into the world of show business – but few forays can match the back story of playwright David Simmons for sheer entertainment. Then again, few writers can claim to have helped sell more than 200 million records and been threatened with a shotgun by a member of Fleetwood Mac before they had even picked up a pen.

“That story has kind of gone down in music folklore actually,” says the 63-year-old Hampstead Garden Suburb resident, a music publisher of 30 years responsible for everyone from Elvis to Culture Club.

“Peter Green thought I had his money. Unfortunately, he ended up being arrested and sectioned for it – a real shame really.”

Many would deem such drama enough for one lifetime. But as Simmons considers the prospects of his latest play, The Boy Who Was Woody Allen, which finished its debut run at Islington’s The Pleasance Theatre on Saturday, it becomes clear that his own dramatic streak could never be silenced.

“I’ve worked with some brilliant, creative people over the years – but I never had the confidence to be creative myself.

“That changed when I had a little radio show called Have I Got Jews For You, which covered the lives of famous Jews. One of them was Woody Allen and an idea just sprung from there.”

Career epiphany

Over three months, that idea became the story of 18-year-old John O’Leary, a 6ft 3in Catholic who, facing his school’s career adviser, has an epiphany that he is going to become Woody Allen.

“I think me and Woody exist in the same universe,” explains Simmons, of the openly nonsensical plot. “We prefer to live in this kind of insane world – real life is just a bit dull.”

Fittingly, the play, which took three years to reach the theatre, continued to embrace such insanity in every way, with the lead actor not being found until four weeks before its opening.

That actor was 26-year-old James Phelps, recognisable for his role as Fred Weasley in the Harry Potter movies.

“I thought I just had a cameo part to be honest,” admits Phelps, who is used to sharing the limelight with twin Oliver. “Me and my brother have been in a lot of stuff together. So it was nice that David and the director Adam valued me on my own.”

Ensuring the play will be valued as highly is the next stage for Simmons and Phelps, but both are optimistic about future showings.

“David’s writing partner Geoff Morrow said something pretty insightful,” says Phelps. “He said a trial run like this can be like seeing a band perform at a pub and then years later seeing them play Wembley.”

Simmons adds: “When you work in music, you realise not every song’s going to debut on Radio 1’s playlist. You have to keep pushing and hope it works out. It’s the same with Broadway.”

The question has to be asked then: would Woody himself go and see the play?

“Well, put it this way,” Simmons laughs, “I hope if he was in the audience, he would be laughing and not trying to sue me.”

February 8, 2013

Harry Potter Star James Phelps Makes Theatre Debut as Woody Allen

By Tom Marshall of The Islington Gazette

The intimate stage of a small fringe theatre in the depths of Holloway may not have the glamour of a multi-billion pound movie franchise, but actor James Phelps isn’t complaining.

After making his name as Weasley twin Fred in all eight Harry Potters, the 26-year-old launched his theatrical career at the Pleasance Theatre this week.

He stars in a surreal tale about a tall, blond Catholic teenager with one very odd mission in life – to be Woody Allen.

Speaking ahead of yesterday’s opening night, he said: “I’ve always wanted to do theatre but never got round to it.

“Now I’m doing my first show and I’m in the lead, although I’m surrounded by pros who have done it all before. I’m nervously excited.”

Phelps plays 18-year-old John O’Leary, who realises in a moment of epiphany that being the famously neurotic Jewish comedian and filmmaker is all he wants to do, despite the obvious barriers.

It comes as quite a shock to his mother when he switches faith, begins learning Yiddish and embarks on a stand-up career.

He said: “The best way to describe the play is ‘quirky’. There are a lot of jokes from different Woody Allen material and it’s a bit naughty as well in parts.

“My homework involved watching all his movies and trying to mirror his performances on stage.

“Getting the New York accent down was a challenge and I’ve had to learn some Yiddish.

“It will be interesting to see what everyone thinks, because it’s really funny on the page.

“We keep getting in trouble with the producer for laughing too much.”

Phelps was cast in Harry Potter at 14, alongside identical twin Oliver who played George Weasley.

He says he would not change anything about his decade as part of the most successful film series ever.

“I do miss it, but a lot of us in the cast still meet up quite a lot,” he said. “I still play cricket and golf with some of the guys. We don’t hang out on screen but we still meet up off screen.”

One thing he doesn’t miss is Fred Weasley’s ginger hair. He’s also relishing performing without his twin by his side.

“It’s been quite fun not working with him,” he said. “I mean that in a nice way! It’s fun playing the one character on its own.

“I’m sure my brother has been wanting to do something like this – maybe he can be my understudy.”

The Boy Who Was Woody Allen is at the Pleasance Theatre in Carpenters Mews, N7, from tonight until Saturday. From 7.30pm, tickets £10-£15, call box office on 020 7609 1800.