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.”
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.”