Press Release

Birmingham theatre company brings verse drama back to the Midlands

Birmingham-based Haunted House Theatre have announced a tour of the Midlands with a new verse play about free schools.

Free for All, written in iambic pentameter, is a play by University of Birmingham PhD student Richard O’Brien (25), a prize-winning poet who is researching if poetry can still work in the theatre for modern audiences.

O’Brien said: ‘I’m excited to be staging verse drama on Shakespeare’s home turf, the Midlands. Birmingham has such a rich tradition of innovative performance, and the mac is at the cutting edge of that tradition today. Nottingham also has a great history of protest and political debate, so the Contemporary is the perfect place for this play. And I’m looking forward to coming to Leicester, the birthplace of Joe Orton and resting place of Richard III, with a show mixing Shakespearean and modern theatrical traditions. With King Charles III playing at the Curve, Leicester is getting two modern verse plays in one week!’

He added: ‘For a long time, it would be unusual to go to the theatre and not hear poetry. Even today, Shakespeare is the world’s most performed playwright, but I think poetry in the theatre is something we’ve become very suspicious of. Free for All is an attempt to show that verse on stage can still speak to people today.’

Following an Edinburgh Fringe run, the show tours to Nottingham Contemporary (Jan 27th), Hansom Hall, Leicester (Jan 28th) and mac Birmingham (Jan 29th). Actors have been cast from the finest of the region’s talent, including Matthew Bretton, a recent graduate of Birmingham School of Acting.

Director Rebecca Martin expects the play to ruffle a few feathers: ‘Free schools are one of the most controversial topics of the day. Since the General Election, all parties and voters have been asking tough questions about privilege. How can education give every child an equal chance? Free for All doesn’t offer one answer, but Richard’s characters have very strong opinions on both sides.’

Martin was a co-founder of pantsguys productions, an Australian company which won multiple Sydney Theatre Awards. She said her first UK company was created with one thing in mind: ‘We set up Haunted House Theatre to revive a kind of theatre where the power of language can make anything happen.’


Richard O’Brien was a winner of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2006 and 2007, and the 2015 London Book Fair Poetry Prize. Andrew McMillan describes him as ‘one of the strongest poets of his generation’. He is working on a practice-led PhD on Shakespeare and the development of verse drama, funded by the Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, and lives in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.

Rebecca Martin is an Australian theatre practitioner and co-founder of award-winning Sydney Theatre company, pantsguys Productions. Her credits include for stage: A View of Concrete, The Mercy Seat,The Shape of Things, autobahn, Punk Rock, After the End, Cock. For screen: The Great Gatsby, Cedar Boys, Neighbours, Underbelly. Rebecca trained at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, and has a BA from the University of New South Wales and a Masters from the University of Melbourne.

For more information, please contact: / 07754 105529


‘A satire on free schools and the conflict between the new and old Left, it is narrated by the ghost of socialist Labour politician Anthony Crosland … sharp and playful uses of verse’

Sally Stott, The Scotsman

‘A very clever verse play with a strong political slant, exploring the ideas of choice and social responsibility … The futuristic, ultra-modern world of the play is complemented by video game analogies and forays into virtual reality … It is immensely enjoyable to hear a play written this way be spoken out loud. As the actors run through rhythm and rhyme, you feel the verse form adding a layer of impact to the manifestos being put forward.’

  • Cara Ballingall, Broadway Baby

‘The most highly professional show I have seen at Fringe. Brilliant! Ingenious and thought provoking. . This show was so good I went to see it twice, so glad I did and want to see it again. The show and the actors deserve to make it big!’

Stephen McManus, audience review

‘A brilliant production’ — @IKI_MONO

“free for all” @theSpaceUK surgeons hall #edfringe2015 was a fantastic show,clever writing & energetic performance — @Red_Belly_Black

‘an eloquent performance of verse with side splitting moments’ — @salih_canan



I can’t just put my faith in someone else:

in you, the NHS, the welfare state,

to pick me up, to always lend a hand.

Life isn’t like Unreal – you can’t respawn

if you’re unlucky. If you die, you die …

A new free school sets a town’s parents at loggerheads over the one thing that really matters to them: their children’s future.

When lifelong activist Kerry is persuaded to attend an open evening at the Waters’ Edge Academy, she discovers she’s not the only parent making sacrifices. But why is Martha’s mother so against her getting what she wants: a competitive skillset and a life she can afford?

Before long, the ghost of Anthony Crosland, the 1960s Labour education minister who introduced the comprehensive system, has started wreaking havoc on the interactive whiteboard. This might have something to do with Kerry’s concerns.

Engaging with questions of choice, control and the death of the post-war utopia, Free for All is a modern verse play by award-winning poet Richard O’Brien, directed by Sydney Theatre Award-winner Rebecca Martin.

For more information:


Twitter: @hauntedhousetc / @notrockyhorror



Haunted House Theatre is a profit-sharing co-operative based in the West Midlands, drawing professional talent from Birmingham School of Acting and Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Institute.

DIRECTOR Rebecca Martin

WRITER Richard O’Brien

PRODUCER Eilís Smyth

KERRY Katie Beth Stubbs

MARTHA Caroline Pegg

ANGELA Rebecca Martin

KEITH / MR BIDWOOD Gareth Bernard

STRUAN Louis Osborne

JENNY Blake Barbiche


TORBEN Chauncey Campanaro



Writer Richard O’Brien is working on a PhD about the decline of plays written in iambic pentameter since Shakespeare made the format famous.

What can verse do that prose can’t? What does theatre gain from using language in a way that goes beyond the restrictions of naturalism? And how do writers, actors, and audiences respond to a different set of restrictions?

Until Mike Bartlett’s 2014 King Charles III, there hadn’t been a smash-hit verse play since Christopher Fry’s The Lady Not for Burning in the 1950s. Critics such as Charles Spencer have responded to poetic verse as a tedious relic and as something which puts audiences to sleep. On the other hand, Shakespeare is the world’s most performed playwright, so there must be something in dramatic verse which audiences still respond to.

Now Haunted House Theatre want to prove the critics wrong and demonstrate that contemporary poetry can work onstage.

O’Brien comments: ‘For the majority of the history of theatre, plays were written by poets. They didn’t start from a realist desire to produce a faithful reproduction of the world – they worked poetically, running on language, creating magic and spectacle from the building blocks of words worked into a certain shape. But since Shakespeare’s day, this form of theatre has been less and less frequently explored, and I want to challenge that status quo.’

Following a two-week run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Haunted House are bringing contemporary verse drama to audiences in the Midlands, in a tour funded by the Midlands3Cities Cohort Development Fund. The show is coming to Nottingham Contemporary on Jan 27th (free – booking here), Leicester’s Hansom Hall on Jan 28th, and Birmingham mac on Jan 29th (tickets here). Alongside the production, Haunted House will offer talkback sessions and workshops on this little-known field for actors, writers and directors. Further discussion of the ideas behind the production can be found here.

The company welcomes comments and responses to how poetry in the theatre works for a modern audience on their website: