'We like to challenge our audiences'
Theatre company White Cobra's founders talk to us amid final rehearsals for their next play The Father
For Northamptonshire theatre company White Cobra, there’s nothing quite like the sight of a satisfied audience. Its founders Richard Jordan and Kate Billingham talk to Julia Thorley about the evolution of their theatre company.
White Cobra was created by Richard Jordan and Kate Billingham twelve years ago to tour the one-man play Scaramouche Jones. Richard performed the title role, Kate directed and the company got its name from a white cobra that features in the script. Since then, the company has produced around 30 shows, a mix of live drama, audio, musical and comedy productions, and performed across the UK.
The most recent shows, It's a Wonderful Life – a Live Radio Play and Lilies on the Land, were both performed at the Royal Theatre, Northampton. Their next, The Father, by Florian Zeller, will also be staged at the Royal, before going on tour. It deals with the difficult subject of a man who suffers from dementia and is cared for by his daughter Anne. Kate is to play Anne, and the role will be particularly poignant for her.
“My father died with Alzheimer’s two years ago. When I read the script, I thought, ‘If only I’d known this before, I would have seen the signs in him earlier.’ It’s a great play, and I hope it will increase awareness of this terrible illness, and if we can raise some money for Alzheimer’s charities, too, that will be even better.”
The lead role will be taken by Ian Spiby, who was Kate’s drama tutor. A further local connection is that the poster for this production was created by Willy Gilder, who was a familiar voice on local radio across Northants for over 20 years, and was himself diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2021.
“We usually do three main shows a year, but in 2023 we actually did four. We will do one well-known piece likely to put ‘bums on seats’, and then something less well known. In the past we’ve done Hi-de-Hi! and Stepping Out: The Musical, for instance. We like to challenge our audiences, too, which is why we do serious plays, such as The Father, alongside the lighter shows.”
Although very definitely based in Northamptonshire, touring is a big part of the way White Cobra works, which is unusual for a small company. The team take their productions across England and Scotland, including to Chester and Bath, and the Edinburgh Festival, and have toured around Ireland. They take part in open-air theatre, too, as they did with their production of Around the World in 80 Days.
“We love the touring, but it’s hard work. To balance that, we use our downtime on the road to explore the local area, almost like a mini-holiday. We’ve been to some lovely places and made many good friends along the way.”
Richard and Kate are both happiest on the stage, but are also involved in directing and producing. They describe themselves as ‘semi-professional’, but their attitude is fully professional.
“We do employ professional actors occasionally and our tech team are professionals. We like to support local theatre groups and have recruited performers from there. We don’t audition as such, but rather we invite actors we believe will fit the part. One of the problems, though, is attracting a wider diversity of actors. Should we specifically tackle this or is so-called colour-blind casting the way to go? It’s tricky, and we need to be wary of tokenism.”
It is perhaps true to say that of all the arts, theatre is the one that still has a reputation for being dominated by white, middle-aged people. Could this be the reason why casting can be difficult? It’s a situation that extends into audiences, too, with younger people more likely to go to, say, a comedy performance than a straight play. This is a generalisation, of course, but whether it arises because of expectations among some sectors that theatre ‘isn’t for them’ or something more practical such as ticket prices is hard to say.
Richard and Kate agree that it is a challenge sometimes to get people to come out to live theatre.
“Shows at the Royal tend to pull in reasonable numbers, but elsewhere it varies. It’s hard to attract new and ongoing audiences, but we are starting to build up a local following. Saturday evenings tend to be the slowest sellers and people tend to buy tickets at the last minute.”
As for the future, licences permitting, White Cobra has a programme planned up to spring 2025, then there are other projects in the pipeline depending on the availability of cast and the production team. As well as live shows, the company has a YouTube channel, where one of its most successful uploads is a four-part radio play version of Pride & Prejudice. A similar adaptation of Sense & Sensibility is on the cards.
The couple put their heart and soul into White Cobra.
“We’re definitely not in it for the money! But when you look at the audience and you can see in their faces that they’ve enjoyed themselves, well, we can say, ‘We did that’ – with the help of the whole team, of course. It’s a great feeling.”
You can find White Cobra online at www.whitecobra.co.uk
More from us.
Read a piece from the archive about Willy Gilder’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis