The Wardrobe Ensemble have been one of the Fringe’s biggest success stories.
In the space of eight years, they have gone from bringing a show up in the back of a car on a £200 budget to landing a month-long West End run for Education, Education, Education, which just finished at Trafalgar Studios.
"We’re basically ten people, with no artistic director," explains member Tom Brennan. "We create all the work together, we make all the plays together, and we make all the artistic and professional decisions together as well. I’ve always felt like we’re this big family."
They met as teenagers at Bristol Old Vic’s Young Company, and their first Edinburgh show, Riot, was created through the theatre’s Made In Bristol programme in 2011. It was about the chaotic opening of the Tottenham branch of IKEA in 2005, when five people were hospitalised as hordes of people scrambled savagely for Swedish sofas.
"The first performance went really badly," remembers Brennan. "Then we woke up the next day, and the London riots happened. And suddenly our show that was a bit of lightweight fun became really biting satire. The whole thing kicked off. It was complete madness."
The troupe made a splash again in 2015, once they all graduated from university, with 1972: The Future Of Sex, an endearingly awkward look back on the sexual mores of the seventies. Then in 2017 they debuted Education, Education, Education, which revisited the 1997 general election in a whirlwind of Union Jack dresses and D:Ream chart-toppers.
Both shows traded heavily in nostalgia, both were stuffed with a madcap energy, and both were huge hits. They’re back this year, freshly minted as associate artists of legendary company Complicité (“Their support has been completely invaluable,” says Brennan), with The Last Of The Pelican Daughters, a family drama about four sisters coming to terms with their mother’s death.
Unlike their previous work, it’s set in the present day. It has “less physical wildness”, too, says Brennan: "It feels like a coming of age... Our last two shows have been about young people becoming adults, but this is about being an adult. Not about what happens when you’re about to inherit the earth, but what happens when you actually have inherited it.”
Like it or not, he continues, the group are growing up. “We’ve just had our first Wardrobe Ensemble baby,” he says. “We want our creature comforts, and we’re a bit less afraid of sincerity now. I think this show has the potential to be deeper than any of our other works, but I hope it will still feel like a show made by us.”