by Louise Carey, Nov. 29, 2017
With Brian Mitchell, Writer of The Ministry of Biscuits & Co-Founder of The Foundry Group
"Obviously the biscuits are a metaphor…but I’m not saying for what"
In a dystopian parallel version of post-war Britain, big government is watching you. Specifically, it’s watching which biscuits you dunk in your tea through the Ministry of Biscuits, an authoritarian state agency set up to police the design, manufacture and consumption of teatime treats throughout the country. Under MiniBic’s oppressive rule, only the drabbest of biscuits are permitted, while more exciting fare, like jammy dodgers and Jaffa cakes, are blacklisted.
So begins The Ministry of Biscuits, a satirical musical comedy that took audiences by storm when it first toured the fringes 20 years ago. The play is the witty and whimsical result of a collaboration between two famous Brightonians: Carnegie-Medal-winning novelist Philip Reeve and acclaimed playwright and composer Brian Mitchell. And this November and December, it’s back in its home town, in a new production by The Foundry Group at The Lantern Theatre.
We spoke to Brian Mitchell, the show’s award-winning co-writer and director (and the co-founder of The Foundry Group), about the new production and the secret behind The Ministry of Biscuits’enduring appeal.
Mitchell and Reeve came up with the concept for the show 20 years ago, at the beginning of their careers. Reeve was writing a short story called ‘Urbivore’ at the time, the piece that would go on to inspire his famous four-part fantasy epic Mortal Engines. The two writers were working together on a completely different project when Reeve handed Mitchell a chocolate ginger nut, sparking a quip about the ‘ministry of biscuit ideas’ from which the entire musical was born.
The story of the play centres around mild-mannered junior biscuit designer Cedric Hobson, who is working on a drier version of the rich tea finger when he falls hopelessly in love with his secretary. Inspired by love, Hobson designs a biscuit the likes of which the world has never seen, a biscuit so decadent, so delicious, that it will change the Ministry—and his own life—forever.
From the first draft of the script, Mitchell knew that the concept behind The Ministry of Biscuits was so absurd that it could only be staged as a musical. ‘The thing about music is that it supplies a sort of reality,’ he told Daily Brighton. ‘A chord can establish a reality immediately, or take you to an emotional place immediately. That defies all the other aspects of storytelling.’ He cites how the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, with their absurd characters and whimsical plots, still routinely move audiences to tears.
Though Mitchell studied music at university, at the time he was more of a playwright than a composer. He had a piano that he hadn’t touched for ‘seven years’, but as soon as he began working on The Ministry of Biscuits, ‘music started to bubble out of me’. The score of the musical is heavily influenced by British Light Music and the Ealing comedies of the 40s and 50s, with a dystopian twist. The overall effect, Mitchell joked, is as if Georges Auric, after writing the score for Passport to Pimlico, ‘had not stopped and had written a load of songs’.
It took another three or four years for Mitchell and Reeve to start writing the play, and still longer to finish it. Eventually, it opened at the Brighton Festival in 1998. Thanks to securing arts funding, Mitchell and Reeve were able to put on a ‘lavish production’, with a string quartet and a piano, in the Pavilion Theatre (now the Studio Theatre). The reception was overwhelmingly positive, and following a strong start at the festival they also took the play on a well-reviewed tour. Ithad a wildly successful revival in 2005, but the length of the run was limited by other commitments. Ever since, Mitchell and Reeve have been keeping an eye out for opportunities to stage the musical again.
2017 proved to be that opportunity, and after an absence of 12 years, The Ministry of Biscuits is finally back in Brighton. On at the 50-seat Lantern Theatre, the production is a smaller and more intimate affair this time around, with a cast of four and a piano accompaniment. Mitchell is acting in it himself, alongside Murray Simon, Amy Sutton and Radio 4’s David Mounfield. With a long run of 26 performances, there’s plenty of chance for positive word-of-mouth about the show to spread. And any Ministry of Biscuits fans who can’t make it to Brighton will also have a chance to catch the musical when The Foundry Group take it on tour next year: they already have 33 dates booked for Spring.
So how well does the play stand the test of time? If its sold out 2005 revival is any indication, very well indeed! Mitchell argues that, with its post-war setting, The Ministry of Biscuits comes ‘pre-dated’, giving it a timeless quality.‘It was already an old jokes’ home,’ he told us. ’20 years later, it’s no more dated or less topical than it was.’ Some argue that the play’s political satire about big government and over-regulation is even more relevant today than it was in 1998, though this doesn’t matter to Mitchell: ‘frankly, I don’t care about that; I think that it’s about deeper things than that. It’s the silliest thing that we’ve ever written, but it communicates a lot of things. It will always be topical as far as I’m concerned.’ What deeper things, you might ask? Mitchell isn’t telling: ‘obviously the biscuits are a metaphor…but I’m not saying for what. I’m not sure we know yet.’
Well, there’s only one way to find out…
Catch The Ministry of Biscuits at The Lantern Theatre between 23rd November and 30th December; the play is suitable for all ages from 7 years and up. Tickets are £10 for adults, £8 concessions, or £30 for any group of 4. Buy tickets here.
For a taste of what the musicalis all about, check out the trailer on YouTube (warning: it contains mild spoilers!)