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‘Sex Education’ star Kedar Williams-Stirling on taking ‘Red Pitch’ to the West End | London Theatre

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Williams-Stirling talks to London Theatre about the importance of staging Tyrell Williams’s play in the West End and what he learned from starring in Sex Education.

Arriving for a photoshoot following a full day of rehearsals for Red Pitch at @sohoplace, Kedar Williams-Stirling is tired but focused, stopping only to give the photographer’s dog a cuddle and scratch behind the ears. The east London-born actor plays 16-year-old Bilal, an amateur footballer desperate to succeed in Queens Park Rangers tryouts, in Tyrell Williams’s debut play, which is in the West End after two sold-out runs at London fringe venue the Bush Theatre.

“The energy that Bilal inhabits is relentless,” Williams-Stirling says. “The show doesn’t let up, and there’s no interval. The amount of energy that the characters have is probably the biggest challenge.”

Williams’s play follows three teenage boys living in a part of south London that is steadily being gentrified. They dream of dazzling football careers and discuss everything from girls to their ambitions on the fading pitch they call home, which is based on the football grounds Williams himself played on as a teenager.

“They’re trying to figure out what it means to be 16 years old: girls, friendships, school, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a Black man. There is so much transition happening for these boys and what’s beautiful about it is the end of the piece kind of feels like the beginning of their journey,” says Williams-Stirling.

Unlike Williams-Stirlings’s Red Pitch co-stars Emeka Sesay and Francis Lovehall, who were talented footballers in real life already, he’s had to brush up his skills, and is heading to football practice when our shoot wraps at 8pm. The Arsenal fan also explains that director Daniel Bailey, who he’s known since he was 14, has a rule that if you’re late for rehearsals, you have to do 50 press-ups on the spot. “Two minutes [or] 10 seconds [late], he’s like ‘50 press-ups.’ But that’s good, that’s training,” he says.

Williams-Stirling and his co-stars Sesay and Lovehall have been with the production since its premiere in 2022. How does it feel to be a part of the show’s West End transfer? “It feels good, it feels healthy,” he says. “It feels like the natural progression of the piece. We’ve been in it for quite a while, so it’s great to see it given the dues it deserves. @sohoplace is a beautiful space, and it’s a blessing that we’re able to keep everybody that was in it from the beginning.”

He continues: “The show has just gotten richer. The more time we’ve been able to spend with the characters, the more we’ve been able to delve deeper into their family dynamics or the boys’ relationships, and decipher the differences between each of the three boys.”

Despite spending nearly 20 years in the industry, with early roles as Young Simba in The Lion King in 2006 and Scud in Moira Buffini’s Welcome to Thebes at the National Theatre in 2010, and a prominent screen role in the hit Netflix series Sex Education, Williams-Stirling remains an enigma, keeping silent about his private life and opinions in the media. He is modest about his achievements and says his reticence to take up space in newspapers and magazines is “because there’s so many things going on in the world, so for something to be printed on me, is that necessary? Should that piece of paper be taken up by something more important?”

He speaks carefully and reflectively about his contribution to the acting world, adding “but who knows? Maybe what I’m doing, my work, and my message is important.”

So what else is there to know about the 29 year old from Plaistow? Williams-Stirling says that he “stumbled” into acting and had his talents first picked up during a school play when his mum and the headteacher noticed he knew the lines of every character. He moved to Croydon because his mum believed he would have better opportunities in a school outside east London, but he ended up applying for Sylvia Young Theatre School after seeing it featured in a documentary.

Williams-Stirling went on to the Barbara Speake Stage School and Italia Conti Academy of Performing Arts, which were positive experiences but he believes the pressure placed on kids from a young age “leads to quite a toxic mentality, because when you leave [performing arts school], you have a certain perception of the industry, and yourself, that isn’t real. You felt like [you were] conforming.”

Williams-Stirlings’s big break came in 2019 when he was cast as school jock Jackson Marchetti in Sex Education, the ground-breaking teen sex comedy drama. During four seasons on the show, his character faced a number of challenges from mental health struggles and a cancer scare, to the search for his biological father, as well as plenty of sexual exploration. Being a part of the show was an education: “What I learned about myself was just to give myself more space and that you don’t have to conform. You don’t have to be a certain way or have to be so finite in your perception of yourself,” he says.

He praises West End star Hannah Waddingham — “big up Hannah” — who played one of his on-screen mums in the show, saying: “She’s such a lovely person, she’s so bright. I went to her show Hannah Waddingham: Home for Christmas, and she’s killing it in the singing game. Knowing that she came from that background and she’s now killing it in the acting as well, it’s great to see she’s still holding on to that aspect of her singing.”

KEDAR - SEX EDUCATION

Waddingham and Williams-Stirling are just two of a raft of actors to have their profiles raised as a result of Sex Education. While Waddingham’s career then went stratospheric with Ted Lasso, other cast members such as Aimee Lou Wood and Olivier Award nominee Tanya Reynolds landed West End roles in Cabaret and A Mirror following the show.

Williams-Stirling explains that one of the things he loves about theatre is the co-operative nature of the work, and says that Red Pitch playwright Williams has been instrumental in making the actors a part of the play’s journey. “It’s been really healthy to have Tyrell in the room. That’s what has been so great — the whole piece being really collaborative and grounded and really unifying from the jump. It’s not been this hierarchical space where nobody feels like they’re heard,” he says.

Finding the right emotional support for actors on stage and screen has become a more pressing concern in recent years and Williams-Stirling was one of the first to benefit from having an “intimacy co-ordinator” on Sex Education, which was a fairly novel idea at the time. Another first for him has been having the support of a drama therapist as part of Red Pitch. “I’ve never had that in my entire life,” he reveals. “How important is that? Why would you not have that? It’s so vital to have somebody to help you create some distance between what is going on with your character and what is going on in your normal life.”

There are parallels between Red Pitch and Ryan Calais Cameron’s For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, which is playing at the Garrick Theatre and also enlisted the support of a well-being practitioner to coach the actors through the play’s challenging themes. While vastly different in many ways, both shows are shining a light on the young, Black, male experience and are shaking up traditional programming in the West End. When Williams-Stirling first read the script for Red Pitch, he says, “I felt like it was a piece that examined the relationship with three, young, Black men, and the nuance of that intimacy and that dynamic was something that I’d never read before. I love that, it felt like it was about time.”

He continues: “I’m really grateful for the fact this piece is alive, because everyone that’s seen it from the Bush, quite a lot of the conversations show that they felt seen. Especially in the theatre space, that can be quite elitist, it’s nice to be part of something that gives back.”

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Photo credit main: Kedar Williams-Stirling. (Photo by Michael Wharley)
First inset: Williams-Stirling (centre) with Red Pitch co-stars Francis Lovehall and Emeka Sesay. (Photo by Helen Murray)
Second inset: Williams-Stirling in the first season of Sex Education. (Photo by Jon Hall and Netflix)

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