The packed shelves of Matthew Xia’s spare room turned study, visible over a Friday afternoon video call, read like a roadmap of the theatre director’s brain. A “Fuck the government” sign protests above what he calls his “Black shelf”, where plays from the African and Black diaspora sit alongside history books such as Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa. There’s a 00s Hip Hop Connection magazine cover featuring a 19-year-old Xia, then DJ Excalibah, as part of Radio 1Xtra’s starting lineup and, below it, a photograph of him as a sixth-form dropout, being awarded an honorary doctorate by Grayson Perry, from the University of the Arts London, in 2019.
Xia spins the camera to a library of works directed by Joan Littlewood – an inspiration for her ability to connect theatre and community – and a card featuring the cast and crew of his adaptation of Broadway musical The Wiz, a high-octane celebration of Black music and culture that premiered in Manchester to rave reviews last year. And then, in stuffed-toy form, plump and brightly coloured, there’s the cast of Hey Duggee, CBeebies’ Emmy-winning standout animation hit of the last decade, which Xia will bring to the stage with a nine-month UK tour starting in December.
Hey Duggee was the BBC’s most-watched kids’ show in 2020, with more than 192m iPlayer requests. On the surface, bringing an anthropomorphic dog who leads a cast of adventure camp animal pals, collectively known as “squirrels”, to the stage, could appear to be a change of direction for Xia. His recent choices of work have offered nuanced portrayals of south and east Asian (Michelle Lee’s Rice), Jewish (Maya Arad Yasur’s Amsterdam) and Black experiences (Tambo & Bones – a distorted minstrel show meets hip-hop concert – at London’s Stratford East, next year) under his watch as artistic director of Actors Touring Company.
Is Hey Duggee a departure? “Far from it,” says Xia. “It’s one of the most political things I’ve done.”
For those who haven’t had the pleasure, each of Hey Duggee’s 200-plus, seven-minute episodes sees his playful charges learn something new – honey-collecting, making a mixtape or even diplomacy – each time earning a much-coveted badge for their efforts. Xia’s gateway into the show was his now eight-year-old daughter with whom he’s watched the lot. So, when Kenny Wax, producer of Six: The Musical, approached him last year after acquiring the rights, Xia was all-in.
“Duggee is completely non-judgmental and quietly progressive,” Xia says of the show’s appeal. “It’s quirky and playful but has pop culture references like Bowie, Run DMC and Apocalypse Now. It runs deeper, too.”
By way of example, the squirrels arrive by different modes of transport: “A clear indication of different class backgrounds and relationships to the environment,” he observes. Happy the crocodile has an elephant mum, Mr and Mr Crab have been married for 27 years and Roly the hippo is, says Xia, “possibly neuro-atypical, which is held and celebrated [in the show].”
A graduate of the Young Vic’s Genesis Network for emerging talent, Xia has held posts at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse and Theatre Royal Stratford East. But his route into theatre’s “white, middle-class playground” wasn’t straightforward for an east London boy raised by a single white mother and a Jamaican father he hardly saw.
He had been to the theatre once – a school pantomime trip – before his primary school teacher, Mrs Bellamy, encouraged him into drama sessions. At 11, he joined Stratford East’s Youth Theatre, paying £1 subs at weekends. It provided an outlet for an attention-hungry schoolboy: “I switched from acting out by setting school bins on fire and shoplifting to showing off on stage. It was a safe space that reflected everyone around it.”
That theatre was otherwise inaccessible to families like his is a wrong he works to right from the inside. “That early experience underpins every single thing I think about at work,” he says.
At 16, an “almost non-speaking” part in Armando Iannucci’s short, Tube Tales, put him instantly off acting and on to the autonomy of directing. Simultaneously, an inner quest was emerging – to understand the Black culture that his father hadn’t been around to hand down. At 15, a friend introduced him to rap via the Notorious BIG, Nas and Wu-Tang, as well as British rappers Rodney P and Blak Twang. “I became obsessed,” he remembers. “They spoke my life; this benefit class, fringe of criminality existence that mirrored my world.” He swapped college for pirate radio, promising his mum that if he wasn’t a superstar DJ within two years, he’d return. Aged 18, in 2001, he’d signed to Radio 1Xtra; a decade later he played the opening ceremony of London’s Paralympic Games.
By then the crossover to theatre had already happened. At 18, Xia was approached by the Olivier-winning director Ultz to turn Rodgers and Hart’s Broadway classic The Boys from Syracuse into hip-hop musical, Da Boyz, at Stratford East. “We took out the seats and put bouncers on the door,” remembers Xia. “This audience understood clubbing but not theatre. We wanted to speak to them in terms they knew. I’m obsessed with the audience as active spectators,” he says, something that makes Hey Duggee an enthralling prospect for under-sixes and their adults.
Interactivity is a trademark. For the apartheid drama Sizwe Banzi Is Dead at London’s Young Vic, in 2013, Xia segregated his audience; for 2016’s Blue/Orange, starring a pre-Hollywood Daniel Kaluuya (a pal from his hip-hop days) as a mental health patient, theatre-goers entered through a consultation room.
A trustee of the homeless theatre group Cardboard Citizens, and board member of multiple inclusion and diversity charities, Xia’s commitment to making theatre accessible has manifested as activism, too. This summer he spoke up about the daily micro-aggressions he endured at the Edinburgh fringe where, despite directing the award-winning comedy Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going to Happen, he felt “invisible” because of his skin colour. He is not afraid to take to Twitter to express his views, either: “I never call out individuals or organisations but there are some theatres I’ll possibly never work in because I voice this need for every human being to have access to and be represented in theatre.
“As a DJ, I had a gung-ho approach. I lost it a bit when I first moved into theatre and felt like an impostor. My campaign work may be the last romance of my fearlessness.”
Those messages of fearlessness and tolerance will be embedded in Hey Duggee’s 55-minute live show. If Xia – who was one of Britain’s 2022 Eurovision judges – is known for holding up a mirror to society’s ills with one hand, he is adept at turning his other to full of fun, fantastical theatre. Productions of Into the Woods (at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, 2015) Sleeping Beauty (Stratford East’s 2018 pantomime) and The Wiz demonstrated an ease with the kind of joy and illusion that makes theatre magical.
In Hey Duggee, he says, “we’ll give the audience just enough to help them suspend their disbelief”. Xia promises “the world’s most adorable puppets” with no hiding the actors giving them life, adding: “It’s got lots of music and laughter and Duggee might have his own DJ booth.
“If this is the one piece of theatre someone has seen, I want them to want more, right down to the programme where every kid will have a sticker sheet of badges to earn along with the squirrels.” Any parent of preschoolers will tell you that alone is worth the trip.
As with his other works, Hey Duggee speaks to Xia’s own quest, too. “Duggee asks us to imagine a world in which we can behave differently. All my stuff about otherness, accessibility, playfulness, inclusion, politics – big or small P – is all in this work. I don’t know how to make theatre without that.”
Hey Duggee: The Live Theatre Show tours the UK and Ireland from December to August with a four-week residency at the Royal Festival Hall, London, over Christmas.