Alex James Ellison hunkers down at a Covid-safe distance on the sea wall at Saltdean for our interview. We’re talking about the journey of a fiver and also of a young Brightonian who gives every indication of going places.
Fiver, co-written and co-directed with Tom Lees, started life as a workshop at the glitzy London cabaret venue the Crazy Coqs – quite a good omen for a piece that subsequently had a successful outing at Southwark Playhouse and was nominated for a What’s Ontsage award.
We’re chatting because his show is getting another outing – this time live streaming as a concert from the Southwark venue next week.
Alex cut his teeth in amateur drama companies before attending the prestigious Brit School , followed by 3 years at Mountview Drama School. “ I was singing when I was 11/12 and busking on the streets of Brighton when I was 16,” he tells me. Aged 11 he appeared in the film Miss Potter with Rene Zelwegger and Ewan McGregor .
After Mountview he hit the road, doing gigs and performing his own material . He recalls his mother saying about a £5 note – “ don’t touch that, you don’t know where it’s been “ and so an idea was born, which at first led to a song cycle imagining the journey of a fiver and what it meant to the people it ended up with.
The idea is a clever one because the story was not pre-planned; it developed as the fiver passed from hand to hand- any story could be told as long as it related back to getting the fiver. So we see every angle from getting it donated to a busker, to a character buying a lottery ticket to someone getting a bed for the night.
Along the road of its development Alex has taken onboard audience suggestions – they wanted more stories and more characters. Now its cast of 5 play 20 different people , with Alex as the central character of the busker. He acknowledges he based the character on himself – so it seems natural he should assume the role – although he did audition other actors for the part.
In 2017 Alex won Pride’s Got Talent and his Brighton appearances have included Proud Cabaret.
Is the show now finished or can it be developed , I asked him. He thinks it’s complete but for its next outing he would like someone else to direct it and bring new views to how the show should be done. His next project, after its live streaming, is to produce a cast recording, using the 3 live shows .
How has lockdown been as performer? “ not bad – I’ve been with my family in Brighton since March, including working behind the bar in a local pub – the Hartington : it grounded me meeting normal people ” he says. And he also admits it will be a different experience to perform the show without an immediately physically present audience. The show is rather like a busking performance in Covent Garden, the audience are close and give you a buzz”.
His character in Fiver is a young, confident guy, and meeting him I get a strong feeling that’s exactly him too. Interestingly he was 27 when the full show hit the stage. A certain Stephen Sondheim was 27 when he wrote the words for West Side Story – I think there could well be a parallel and a glittering career ahead.
Fiver, the concert, livestreams at Southwark Playhouse on 27/28 November for 3 performances, with the possibility of a permanent recording later. Full details at southwarkplayhouse.co.uk