Former Rent and The Boy in the Dress cast member Ahmed Hamad opens up to Luke Prowse Baldwin about his 2020 and in particular his latest challenge: embodying the title character in a new production of Stay Awake, Jake; a one-person musical about a man that, at 2am, drives from the Big Smoke to Carlisle in a bid to make amends with the woman he loves.
I know it’s show week at the moment, Ahmed, so a big thank you for joining me this morning! And what’s more, I suppose you’ve been a fairly busy man for a while, largely with Rent. I know the latter of the live performances were sadly cancelled, but you’ve recorded The Boy in the Dress soundtrack, and now you’re rehearsing for Stay Awake, Jake. How much of a whirlwind would you say the last few months have been for you?
It’s been mind-boggling. Obviously Rent was supposed to happen earlier in the year. When everything closed and stuff, everyone kind of forgot about it. I wrote it off because I didn’t want to get excited about it or anything, knowing that it probably wouldn’t happen. When it was then confirmed, I think from then on I was like, “Okay… this could actually happen.” We rehearsed here in London for three and a half weeks, moved up to Manchester, all lived in a house together, and before I knew it, there was an announcement, and it was back to London. Thankfully, courtesy of Umbrella Rooms, we were able to share it with audiences.
And how’s it been going straight into Stay Awake, Jake?
It’s actually really good that I had Rent just before because it kind of built up the stamina. It’s literally just me for about an hour, and when we were recording the [Stay Awake, Jake] album, that was really tough to get into having not sung for a while, so the fact I was back into the swing of doing some shows and rehearsals really helped.
Let’s talk Stay Awake, Jake then. If you were writing the blurb for the copy going out to theatre lovers across the world, what d’you think you’d write?
That’s a tough question! I would say, Stay Awake, Jake follows… erm…
[Laughing] Not going to get it up on your phone, are you?[Laughing] Just hear me tapping away on Google! ‘Stay Awake, Jake is the story of a man who drives across the country to save his relationship. He encounters obstacles… mental ones, memories and ultimately takes responsibility for his actions.’ I think that’s what I’d say.
It sounds really good. I was picking up in the press release on how it touches on some of the current pressures on males in society. Particularly as a man that specialises in musical theatre, how’re you finding exploring that?
It’s difficult. I think I’m quite a sensitive person. I’m quite empathetic, and Jake is really not. He’s quite emotionally unavailable throughout the memories and the start of the show. He kind of gets there. It’s tough because one of the blurbs I have seen, which I didn’t steal from, was about how it’s a story about what it means to be a man in the twenty-first century, and I think a big part of that is taking responsibility for your actions and being open to others. I think when it gets to things like gender roles and toxic masculinity; it’s lost a bit. There’s not too much of that in the show, but it is… I’m trying hard not to spoil the story!
[Laughing] We’ll stop you there. So what some might not realise is that the cast recording, or to put it plainly, the recording of you as Jake, was recorded during the summer and therefore way before you’d been cast in the run coming up. How did it feel recording the tracks even though you’d never played Jake onstage?
Although I had to think about the show as a through line, I was very much thinking of it from song to song. For instance, we didn’t start with song number one. We kind of strategically picked which songs to do at what time, so it was weird. I was obviously thinking about his journey, but a lot of it for me was the vocals because… [listening to] the album you’re only using your ears.
Absolutely. When’s it being released?
You know what? I’m not entirely sure. It was supposed to be before the Southwark run, but I think it’s moved to just after. I look forward to listening to it.
You’ve spoken in the past about the sheer amount of stamina this show demands from you. What are you doing to manage that?
A tonne of things! Actually on Rent, one of the girls in the cast (Maiya Quansah-Breed) kind of opened my eyes to so many different vocal rehab techniques. I’m always steaming and stuff, but I’ve bought this kind of bubbling straw, which helps you warm up and warm down. There’s this vocal syrup stuff I use religiously! Knowing my body, and when it needs to kind of relax as well, is a big thing. At the start of this week all the team said, “You are literally the only person in this show. You call the shots in terms of workload.” It’s weird; I think it comes from a musical theatre background, but I need to be physically warm to then be able to properly sing, so I’ll be going to the gym in the morning. I think it’s a lot about… what’s the saying? Prevention rather than cure.
It sounds like you’re in line to be the next Mo Farah! On a sadder note, I think it’s important we properly acknowledge the predicament the live arts are in at the moment. With the uncertainty around how long it might be before you get back on a stage after this weekend, how greatly does that change your outlook on the performances coming up?
Yeah – I’m really going to be carrying it. I can’t put into words how heart breaking it is. For people to have to mourn a show more than once in a year is horrible. It really is horrible. Rent we thought wouldn’t happen. Then it did, and four previews later, we were shut. One of my friends is on Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. He rehearsed everyone in, and suddenly it’s gone. The director [of Stay Awake, Jake], Grace, works on Six; she’s the Associate Director. Everyone is being hit. I want to use it as a beacon of hope but also an act of defiance. There was one line [in Rent] that Millie O’Connell who played Maureen said: “They’ve closed everything down. Barns. Troughs. Performance spaces.” On the last few nights, the audience were just completely with her. I just hope for the future.
We need support and as an industry, to really stick together.
Just to finish off, what’s the closest you’ve come to driving all the way from London to Carlisle at 2am to keep your relationship afloat?
Okay… you’re gonna laugh. I don’t drive! I’m doing a musical about a guy who drives for six hours. I just find it really funny. I’m having to imagine so much!
Well, Ahmed, it sounds wonderful. I’m itching to know which services Jake stops at! Big fan of Keele personally.
I think he stops in Staffordshire!
Does he?! I’m from Staffordshire. That’s made my day! [Laughing] Cheers, Ahmed, and we wish you the very best of luck. Merry Christmas!
Thank you very much – great speaking to you.
Stay Awake, Jake premiers via livestream at Southwark Playhouse on Friday 18th December 2020 with two further livestream performances on Saturday 19th. More information on the production and how to purchase tickets can be found here.
Image: Pearson Theatre Productions