Meet 2 Magpies: The innovative theatre company created by Nottingham graduates

After their sell out tour of The Litvinenko Project at various quirky Nottingham cafes as part of the neat14 festival, we sat down with the 2 Magpies Matt Wilks and Tom Barnes.


Last year, Tom and Matt decided to set up their own theatre company that specialises in site specific performance. “It started as all good things do, over a drunken conversation at the Edinburgh Fringe. We were having such a good time that we thought why not do this for a job”, Tom told us.

Matt added, “We just kind of went ‘fuck it’. We could either go and bust a gut trying to get a grad job which we could end up hating or we could bust a gut and do what we love. The decision almost made itself.”

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Nottingham birds 

So where on earth did the name come from? “We wanted to do something about magpies because it’s a Nottingham bird-  there’s the Magpie brewery and Notts County. Magpies pick out the shiny things which we see as the stories. And 2? Well, one for sorrow, two for joy!”

Apparently our quaint little nursery rhyme is not an international phenomenon. “Trying to explain it to a guy from the Middle East on our course last year was interesting – he did not get it at all and to be honest it sounds quite absurd when you explain it to someone from a different country.”

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Alexander Litvinenko’s cup of tea was poisoned

Both Tom and Matt studied MA International Security and Terrorism at Nottingham last year after finishing their degrees in English the year before. This probably explains their decision to explore the mysterious case of Alexander Litvinenko in their latest venture, The Litvinenko Project.

Litvinenko (an ex-Russian spy) died after being poisoned with polonium in his cup of tea 8 years ago. The case is still open and his wife Marina continues to fight to find the truth. The hour-long play explored his final day.

“We wanted to fuck up the tradition of having a cup of tea, so we’ve put the show in cafes and tea rooms.” The show sold out at Nottingham Playhouse, Lee Rosy’s Tea Rooms and Edin’s Deli.

“It is such an interesting story that is so complicated. Andy McNab said that if he had taken it to his publishers they would have laughed him out of the room because it was so unbelievable that this actually happened.”

Successfully combining political enquiry and contemporary theatre

The plan is to speak to Litvinenko’s wife Marina. “Our aims are pretty similar”, Tom said. “We want to add to the discourse and keep it in the public consciousness”.  Matt added: “It is a really interesting, sensitive story and we are coming to it from the point of view of contemporary theatre. Her medium is politics and ours is theatre, hopefully the two can work together.”

The Litvinenko Project was part of neat 14, the Nottingham European Arts and Theatre Festival. 2 Magpies have been flung into a mix of international theatre that for the past week has been right on our doorsteps, a sign that the drunken decision is becoming a professional and well respected company in the city.

Tom and Matt could not speak highly enough of the festival: “It is a culmination of all of the support we’ve had along the way. Nottingham is a great city to incubate a theatre company because it is a very supportive environment.”

For Tom it’s nice to do a show where the audience is not full of their mates. “You look around the room and you just think, how on earth did you find out about this? For us to have an audience where we don’t know everyone is brilliant – it’s one of the biggest challenges!”

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Tom Barnes and Matt Wilkes

2 Magpies have come a long way since their debut show Serenade last year, Matt believes they have found their ‘niche’ with The Litvinenko Project.

So what next for 2 Magpies?

Nottingham is 2 Magpies home for the foreseeable future, “It’s a great place to be at the moment”.

Matt’s dream is for them both to be making a living wage from theatre in five years time with successful regional, maybe even national tours under their belt. Tom just hopes he’s not stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s.

So much has happened in the past 18 months for 2 Magpies, that it would be silly not to be dreaming big. And if things fall through surely a career in espionage and solving some international crimes would be an option? “We might already be spies under the guise of running a theatre company, but if we told you we would have to kill you.”

Or maybe just throw another gin and tonic over me.