The things you miss when you do not go to the Edinburgh Fringe…
This year, I missed the extraordinary Simon Jay reprising his highly-praised Trumpageddon show and a new show @JohnLewis: Never Knowingly Undertweeted. The latter is about the American academic and “computer science educator” who owns the @johnlewis Twitter handle and gets mistakenly deluged by enquiries intended for the famed chain of British department stores.
The British store chain’s slogan is Never Knowingly Undersold.
Last night, I went to see@JohnLewis: Never Knowingly Undertweeted – only on at the Drayton Arms Theatre in London until Saturday.
And, this morning, I Skyped Simon Jay for a pre-arranged chat. He overslept and was barely conscious.
I always find this is the best way to chat with people for blogs…
JOHN: So what did John Lewis, the American, say when you contacted him?
SIMON: He is very modest and self-deprecating. So he said: “Why would anyone write a play about me?”
JOHN: Modest and self-deprecating? Are you sure he’s an American?
SIMON: Yes. He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.
JOHN: He was shocked you wanted to write a play about him?
SIMON: (LAUGHS) Humbled. Originally, the play was going to be much more like a Jon Ronson investigation, where I tried to get into his life and how it all came about. He gave his blessing but then said he was incredibly busy. So it turned into a sort of Joyce Grenfell character piece.
JOHN: Did he have to approve everything?
SIMON: No. I mean, I wasn’t going to take the piss. I wasn’t going to betray him. He didn’t even see the script. He said he didn’t have time to read anything, so he just took it all on trust, really. I put updates from our rehearsal on Twitter. I don’t know anything about his mother, but I portrayed her as some kind of religious zealot. I Tweeted a picture of me full-crazy and he said: “Oh! It’s uncanny!”
JOHN: When you quote him saying things in the play, are those quotes he gave you?
SIMON: Well, based on things that he said, yeah. When I interviewed him, I was only able to get a couple of lines on each question I asked him. And he did give a few interviews early on to people like the Daily Telegraph.
JOHN: Has the quirky story been picked up in the US or only in the UK?
SIMON: Well, John Lewis, the store, isn’t known in America. In the US, he is confused with Congressman John Lewis.
JOHN: Who you also mention in the play.
SIMON: Yes, he gets a lot of racist abuse on Twitter intended for the Congressman, which I was going to explore. But then I thought it might be a dramatic turning point too far – from a light-hearted show about mistaken identity to the racist underbelly of the US.
JOHN: Why racist abuse?
SIMON: Because the Senator he shares a name with is a black Senator from Georgia, a civil rights campaigner who talks a lot about how racist America is. So lots of people take to Twitter to abuse him (LAUGHS) to prove how right he is!
JOHN: You talked to the John Lewis Partnership – the stores – about the play…
SIMON: Yes. They were a bit bewildered at first. But it’s very much a warm, fluffy thing; John Lewis are hardly going to be offended and sue me. And the story is not about them; it’s about mistaken identity. The fact it is about John Lewis is incidental, really.
JOHN: It’s all good, light-hearted publicity for them.
SIMON: Well, some people genuinely think it’s a conspiracy – that John Lewis have employed someone to pretend to be this man with their name!
JOHN: And the store’s reaction?
SIMON: They just think: Oh! It’s just an amusing thing that has happened and we don’t really get involved, but we are very grateful for the fact he forwards everything on.
JOHN: He does?
SIMON: He always puts the @JLPartners tag when he answers on Twitter. (They are also @jlandpcustserv)
JOHN: In the play, you have some characters who are John Lewis staff reacting to things, sending him presents and so on.
SIMON: Well, they really did send him a hamper at Christmas and even embroidered his @JohnLewis Twitter handle into a cushion. It’s all fact. That’s all true.
JOHN: The staff in the play are slightly bitchy to each other. Did John Lewis, the store, object?
SIMON: Well, their Regional Marketing Manager came to see a preview. I think they were checking to see it wasn’t libellous. She liked it. I think she just accepted we all know characters like that.
JOHN: Any chance you might be in one of the famous traditional John Lewis Christmas ads on TV?
SIMON: Well, apparently the management did talk to the director of this year’s ad and there was some talk about that and they were looking to get the ‘real’ John Lewis involved and the way to do that was to have lots of different John Lewises in the ad and I would be one of the John Lewises. Maybe they would have had archive footage of the Congressman. But, like all these things, it was probably just an idea on a piece of paper and they will have gone with something much more outlandish.
JOHN: So whither the show now? The West End and Vegas?
SIMON: There’s a thought of taking it on tour, but I think I will have a break.
JOHN: Doing what?
(AND I ADDED THIS BIT ON 19th NOVEMBER 2018…)
Alas, Simon did not appear in the John Lewis Christmas ad on UK television but, today, The Guardian carried a story headlined MAN NAMED JOHN LEWIS STARS IN TWITTER UK’s CHRISTMAS AD. Here is the Twitter ad…
…and here is John Lewis (the department store)’s actual 2018 Christmas ad – starring Elton John…