You’d better put the kettle on for tea and toast before I launch into this one about an incredibly bright young spark from Shooters Hill who, among many other things, is helping the United Nations celebrate its 75th birthday in October.
Right, if you’re comfy, I’ll begin.
Tom Powell, a 25-year-old creative powerhouse from the snowy north, headed south to Greenwich – to live – and Lewisham – to study – in 2015. Since then, Covid apart, his curriculum could not be more vitae.
Let’s get the United Nations bit out of the way, then Tom can take up the story himself (Oh, blessed relief – Ed). He’s working with Peace Child International and UN associations on a series of events from Middlesbrough to London and Estonia to Tunisia as part of “global conversation initiative” from Antonio Guterres, the UN’s secretary general.
So who exactly is Tom Powell? “Just a young lad from a small town near Middlesbrough that nobody has ever heard of. As a young creative – music and drama – I saved up enough money after college to escape the cultural plughole that was Teesside in 2015 and ran away to London for university. I love Teesside by the way, but it is a very grey place for us thespians.
“After doing a degree at Goldsmiths University – during which time I started Creative Vortex Productions – I embarked on a masters course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama to pursue my passion for creative entrepreneurship, theatre and events.
“Creative Vortex specialised in taking academic research and making it accessible to the general public, often using a combination of theatre, original film, food and drink, and live music! Between 2017 and 2019 we produced The Accused, Devils on Horseback, Top of the Cops, the Devils on Horseback tour, and our version of One Georgie Orwell, amongst other smaller projects.
“Since becoming independent last September, I’ve continued to develop new theatre, meanwhile working freelance as an events manager for conferences and corporate functions, performing regularly as a professional musician across the UK and abroad, and programming live music for venues across London and the south east.
“Current projects include working with David Gordon, the brother of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, on a new musical adaptation of his oratorio, Alpha Omega, alongside the UN stuff.”
Covid meant that Tom, like so many freelances, came a catastrophic cash cropper.
“The three areas to my work – theatre, live music and conferences – all rely heavily on public gatherings. Lockdown meant that my whole summer’s income was taken out.
“I also fell through just about every crack in Rishi Sunak’s support measures. I’m ineligible for the job retention scheme as I’m self-employed, and ineligible for the self-employment income support scheme as a new business without three years of tax returns. And having studied my master’s degree within the three years in which they assess eligibility, I had no premises to acquire a £10,000 grant for.
“Universal credit was my only option left, but anyone who lives in London will tell you that it just about covers your rent, if you’re lucky.”
So Tom busked his way through the first month of Covid.
“Every weekend my flatmate, Lucy Hall, and I would do a live-streamed gig from our home in Shooters Hill. I also pushed myself to record a different cover song every day to keep the creative juices flowing, I took requests, and I put up a little PayPal link in case anybody wished to purchase the song and help towards filling my fridge!
“It was wonderful how my friends on furlough pay, or who were working from home and saw where I’d been left, chipped in and bought a song or two – just as I know they would buy me a pint if I was actually doing a gig!”
Tom couldn’t be described as a key worker, but he certainly made some key contributions.
“During this time I also worked on a little collaborative virtual choir video for Tees Valley Youth Choir. The students were missing each other and their weekly choir practice so much, so their choirmaster, Nikki Lycett-Findlay, asked if I’d be able to put something together for them – also as a thank you to our NHS and key workers who continued to work throughout the lockdown.
“Nikki used to be my own singing teacher and I used to sing in that choir as a youngster. We decided on Labi Siffre’s Something Inside So Strong and the students’ heartfelt performances were viewed 55,000 times in just three days.
“Susan Robertson, the Tees Valley Music Service manager, was so impressed – and tearful – that she asked me to help them. So I signed off universal credit and worked for the service producing 25 videos in 14 weeks.”
Then came requests for work on other projects. We Love Sousse, from Tunisia, asked me to coordinate an Anglo-Arabic rendition of Stand By Me, and The Entr’actes – made up of young West End musicians – asked me to produce the audio-visual elements to 42nd Street and Hairspray; then my own band requested that I give them some attention – so we recorded Crazy Little Thing Called Love.
“They’ve all been great fun to work on, and the most recent is a collaboration with Don’t Forget The Bubbles – an organisation of paediatric medical experts championing new research – for which 20-plus doctors from around the world are performing Seasons of Love from Rent.”
Does Tom miss the north? “As a kid I loved where I lived. I didn’t really know any different, only that it was home. I moved from West Yorkshire to Teesside when I was young and always felt at home by the Tees. As an angsty teenager I left Teesside as often as I could – my first girlfriend aged 14 was based in Chester-Le-Street, Durham – so there was always some excuse to get out!
“Now, home is a really strange concept. I have a great relationship with my parents, so going home is always very soul restorative. West Yorkshire also feels somewhat like home, as it’s where I was born and where half my family live. But then London is where I live, and in south-east London in particular, I do love it here.
‘I don’t know whether it’s because there’s just enough smog to remind me of Teesside, yet minutes from the Kent countryside to remind me of North and West Yorkshire; or whether I just love being in such a diverse area.”
As for the future? “That’s a strange one for anyone working in the arts post-Covid. I’d like to think that eventually the West End will make a bit of room for a show I’ve produced. But then, the future of the West End as we know it is in question.
“I’ll keep plodding on with my music – I have an album’s worth of material waiting to be recorded and no time to do so! Perhaps I’ll actually join a company for some stable and somewhat secure income for a little while.
‘Whatever I do, I have a compulsion to create, create, and create – I can’t help myself! The other day I had a spare couple of days so I made a desk out of old pallets! So I’ll keep making shows, music, and who knows where I’ll end up.”
Hope you make your contribution down south, young Tom.
MERCURY MAN looks at different sides of life in south-east London. Read his past columns.
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