Category Archives: Concert

Treason the Musical in Concert – Cadogon Hall

Treason the Musical - Cadogan Hall

With 2020’s Guy Fawkes celebrations sacrificed to restrictions and next November still far away, it may seem like a strange time to premiere a new musical based on the Gunpowder Plot. But we’ve been in lockdown for so long it’s hard to know what month it is and a Spring preview of Treason the Musical gives creators Ricky Allan and Kieran Lynn plenty of time to work on their next iteration for an autumn staging. Filmed as live and streamed from Cadogan Hall, this 50-minute concert staging certainly suggests a production with a lot of fantastic material and plenty of room to expand.

Musicals set in centuries past are surprisingly few and far between given the scope for flamboyant costume, stylised dance and dramatic stories. Two recent shows have not only caught the popular imagination but managed to bring history to life by giving it a contemporary resonance using musical style, tone and design with Six, based on the wives of Henry VIII, and of course Hamilton about a Founding Father of America, demonstrating how to create very human insights into famous stories.

Reaching back to the final days of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, through the accession of a new monarch whose failure to bring religious tolerance to England underlies the plot to eradicate the ruling class, and concluding with the round-up of the co-conspirators, Allan and Lynn’s musical covers a lot of ground. Framed by the grief of Thomas Percy’s widow Martha (Lucie Jones), Treason the Musical is told in flashback using a female perspective on a story that is, in the history books at least, exclusively male.

The action is also directed by a female Narrator who summarises large chunks of the story in rhyme that transport the viewer back and forth through time, outlines the growing contextual frustration that drives the Plotters, presents the characters while introducing and sometimes explaining their interior life. It is a useful structure, particularly in this Cadogan Hall try-out where digital viewers are guided through the sparsely-staged story and its numerous inter-locking plot points.

And there is much to admire in Allan and Lynn’s approach which eschews the character of Guido Fawkes – who does not appear at all – to focus on Thomas Percy in the first half and in the second on the driving force of Robert Catesby who instigated and coordinated the conspiracy (in this retelling). In doing so, Treason The Musical is also interested in the wider impact of religious persecution after Elizabeth I’s long rule, the quickly fractured hope of a new age and the sacrificial wishes of some of the individuals involved. 50-minutes is not quite long enough to explore and develop these themes sufficiently but the foundation of a bigger musical is clearly in place.

The Songs

Allan has composed twelve consistent songs that draw on both traditional musical theatre and more historically-appropriate folk styles in the score to bridge the 400 year gap between the events relayed and the viewing audience. Together they make an atmospheric combination, one that is generally favourable and sympathetic to the schemers, offering psychological depth in places as well as a growing fervour of discontent as the events of 1605 accelerate. The opening number When Will I See You Again sung by Martha Percy reflects on mourning her husband Thomas, immediately reorientating a historical story that we think we know so well and suggesting the very personal and painful consequences for this women. It sets the tone for a show that is shaped both by the inevitability of its outcome (we all know how it ended) and our preconceived, distorted and disassociated socially manufactured understanding of the Gunpowder Plot.

Allan’s approach seeks to restore the everyday reality to this intrigue and the humanity of its proponents, exploring this in the more dramatic and insightful numbers given to the leads. Blind Faith, a duet for the Percys, for example examines the strain on their marriage, an obsessional number in which Martha descries losing her husband to the cause while Thomas explores his obsession with Robert Catesby, simultaneously sharing lyrics but speaking about quite different relationships. Similarly, Catesby’s first big number I’ve Got a Plot (that rhymes anarchy with monarchy) has a beating pulse that builds as he tries to inspire his gathered colleagues, suggesting both the danger of their meeting and the conviction required to instigate such a deadly action.

While the tone is largely quite serious, a single encounter with King James provides the show’s only true comic number when Thomas delivers a letter from the Earl of Northumberland to the Scottish King in 1603 acquiring promises of tolerance for Catholic subjects. It is a high point of the show, richly characterised by Daniel Boys in the role of the Stuart heir that plays with notions of James’s reputed sexuality as well as making him a spoiled, needy and demanding brat who addresses both Thomas and the audience quite differently while warming to the idea of his own beneficence should he inherit the English throne – there are notes of Hamilton‘s George III. James should really have a light Scottish accent but this is a character who demands at least another song if not several in an extended version of Treason the Musical.

The Narrator never sings but Allan and Lynn’s use of verse and rhyming couplets is another nod to the style of the era. When James ascends the throne and quickly fails to honour his promise of tolerance, the story escalates dramatically, mirrored in the pace of the Narrator’s speech which turns into rap and beat poetry, as Allan and Lynn again traverse the boundary between traditional verse and contemporary rhythms to add shape and variety to the different ways that information, plot developments and character insight are conveyed within the structure of the show.


The way we are taught to collectively remember history is event-driven, signified by key dates, simplified stories and moments of change or linear progress. So our modern impression of the Gunpowder Plot is shaped by our knowledge of its outcome and the associated annual celebrations that make the original events feel more like a cartoon strip than a dangerous sequence of activities involving people as real as we are. Allan and Lynn have taken a valuable character-based approach to the creation of Treason the Musical and while there is more development to be done here, there is a solid underpinning of complex and conflicting motivations across the characters they have chosen to follow that offer interesting and potentially affecting portraits of hazily understood individuals.

Primarily, Treason the Musical sees the events of 1603-5 from the perspective of Thomas Percy whose own fluctuating emotional state is the audience’s guide through the story. As an emissary from the Duke of Northumberland (an underused Cedric Neal) to King James, Thomas is optimistic that a new age of acceptance is about to dawn, revealed in the number All We Dreamed and More. The rapid decline of that fantasy draws him into the circle and thrall of Catesby where his dissastisfaction is transformed into murderous intent.

Treason the Musical is not quite there in fully articulating that journey but there are hints enough in this first draft for singer Bradley Jaden (After You and Les Miserables: The Staged Concert) to capture Thomas’s frustration and readiness to act. That he finds solace in Catesby’s charismatic company is clear and the score builds to a Les Miserables-like stridency that is often engrossing. In a longer runtime there is much more to Thomas’s character that could be explored; perhaps a duet with Catesby to compound the feelings of admiration, some post-Plot reflections on whether it was worth it or last thoughts about his wife and his own death. Thomas certainly deserves one or more solos to tell us more about his motivation.

Oliver Tompsett (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) as Robert Catesby is the Enjolras figure of Treason the Musical, quickly making his mark in the second half of the show with his blazing fervour for change in Got To Take Things Into Our Own Hands that leads quickly into the rabble rousing I’ve Got a Plot. It’s a great role for Tompsett who fills Robert with fire and certainty and, again, a longer production could explore his charm and impact on others in greater depth. Allan also gives Robert a fascinating piece of psychology with a backstory that uses the death of his wife to suggest his own desire for a speedy end. The haunting solo Cold, Hard Ground brilliantly implies that Robert Catesby was determined to die on one hill or another, and the Gunpowder Plot was a convenience – it is a really strong character point that offers plenty of scope for development in the future.

The remaining cast – though filled with great musical theatre talent – has far less to work with in their roles with Boys and Neal under-utilised as King James and the Earl of Northumberland, while the secondary cast including Rebecca LaChance, Waylon Jacobs, Emmanuel Kojo and Sharon Rose provide some beautiful harmonies and vocal support in representing the wider conspirators and their circle. Debris Stevenson doesn’t sing but as Narrator is key to welcoming and authoritatively guiding the audience through this story. Even with additional songs and an expanded life for some of the characters, the role of the Narrator in any future iteration is a crucial one, not least in offering a non-gendered role while underscoring the themes of storytelling, memory and inevitability that drive the action.

The Future of Treason the Musical

There is a huge amount here for Allan, Lynn and their creative team to be quite proud of and a future draft of the show can only build-on and expand the impressive material they already have in place. But there is still some work to do to really flesh-out the concepts the musical is exploring as well as envisaging what a staged performance might look like. Key to this is length and this first-look implies the show could feasibly double its runtime, dividing neatly into a Two Act structure that allows the creators to burrow a little deeper either into the build-up to the 5 November 1605 and the motivation of key individuals, or its aftermath where the writers could speculate on those last hours surrounded in Holbeche House.

Using the existing material, there are two possible options; the first would see Act One consider the context for religious dissatisfaction, why the broken promises of King James’s early reign took men to the point of no return and the pressures Thomas and Martha Percy experienced as Catholics forced to hide their faith, concluding at the point of putting the conspiracy into practice with I’ve Got a Plot – a good finale song. Act Two could then dramatise the days before and after 5 November which the current draft skips over, leaving the Narrator to slightly unsatisfactorily tell the audience about the main event.

Alternatively, leaving the familiar parts of the story to the audience’s already primed minds, the show could consider much of the existing material Act One but introduce a more reflective second where the men could muse on their decisions, the cause and what it means to so fatally fail. There are many examples in theatre and literature of such introspective moments, from the night before Agincourt in Henry V to the eve of the Somme in Birdsong and even in Les Miserables behind the barricade. In each, men quietly commune with their souls before facing the enemy one last time. A similar exploration of that moment of pause in the siege at Holbeche would add a new dimension to this story and the unfamiliar aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot where all we really teach is that the men were pursued, surrounded and savagely punished. This would add weight to Martha’s final contemplation of the personal cost to a newly-minted widow.

How the show would work in practice will help to clarify some of this, by thinking about the transitions between songs and if additional score or book is needed to facilitate changes of scene, perspective and mood. That this concert staging of Treason the Musical directed by Hannah Chissick leaves you wanting a little bit more is a good thing and testament to the exciting work that Allan and Lynn have produced here. What they have is a tantalising first draft that offers plenty of options for development, some strong character portraits and a platform for expansion. Most importantly, they have something new to say and by the time November comes around, Treason the Musical may be ready to explode.

Treason the Musical in Concert was performed at Cadogon Hall and was available to stream from 12-14 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Gatsby: A Musical – Cadogan Hall

Gatsby A Musical - Ruby in the Dust

We’re yet to begin our own version of the Roaring 20s and after months of lockdown the possibility of a new Jazz Age, of celebration, dancing, freedom and fun seems pretty appealing. And while the 1920s inspired some great works of fiction, this defining impression of the equivalent decade a century ago in reality was little more than a fleeting moment, one that was over almost before it began. Linnie Reedman and Joe Evans’s haunting adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel Gatsby: A Musical, revived as a streamed concert at Cadogan Hall from 26-28 February, is a grand tragedy, not just a tale of lost love, dreams and delusion, but the story of what happened when the party stopped.

The Great Gatsby has been adapted in many form – all-star films, plays and several musical versions – many of which emphasise the glamour of the titular character, the buzz of his social world and the aesthetic of an era synonymous with liberation and excess as society shook-off the privations and strain of the Great War, launching headlong in a youthful new world, full of possibility for a different kind of future. That the rekindled relationship between Jay and Daisy plays out against this whirl of activity makes it one of the grand love stories of literature, represented by interpretations often more in love with the style of the book than its substance.

But the dreamy tone of Fitzgerald’s novel, published in 1925, is far from celebratory, Gatsby is a character who throws elaborate parties but never attends them, the marriages in the book are fraught and constrictive while the hotheadedness of youth and its exuberant passions hungry for people, travel and experiences are decisions individuals have come to regret in the intervening years. What appealed in their early 20s has paled at the start of the novel as individuals chase what they imagine is their last chance, hoping that time can be rewound and something lost recapture. The novel really exposes the underlying rot in all their lives, disguised perhaps but there all the time. The Great Gatsby is a novel about the self-destruction of a generation, untethered and adrift from its social moorings, where even the basic stability and normalcy of marriage is corrupted and mundane, giving every experience a hollow vulnerability.

This is a theme seen in other material set in the years around the publication of Fitzgerald’s novella and there are hints of Terence Rattigan’s superb After the Dance in this production which also tries to account for the Jazz Age generation and the ruined lives that resulted from the profligacy of their youth. Priestly’s Time and the Conways does a similar thing, examining a single family across the 1920s and 30s, while Noel Coward’s darkest piece The Vortex from 1924 focuses on vanity and the destructive effects of addiction that, like Fitzgerald, recognises how rapidly the carnival ended for this generation and its carnival kings.

Hoping to raise funds for a full staging later this year followed by an international tour and West End transfer in 2022, Reedman and Evans’s elegiac musical understands this beautifully with a structure and tone that looks beneath the surface of the novel for the inevitable tragedy at its heart. That Jay and Daisy belong together is less a desirable outcome of their years apart than the final sign that the revels have ended and the past can never be entirely glossed over or underdone however much Gatsby himself insists history can be repeated. In its place Gatsby: A Musical gives us more than characters living in fantasy worlds and instead implies a deep putrefaction at the heart of their lifestyle that cannot be reversed even by true love.

The melancholy underbelly of Reedman and Evans’s musical is given further significance by expanding Fitzgerald’s original with additional sections set in 1929 in which Daisy returns to once again look for her lost lover. There is a pleasing symmetry in this approach which sets Gatsby: A Musical apart from its competitors while nicely mirroring the novel’s original action set in 1922 where the leads seek to recapture their pre-war (for the USA) ease in 1916. Reedman and Evans’s musical has layered concepts of looking back on looking back with Daisy in particular imaging the last encounter with Jay in both eras was the greatest time of her life. The frame is a strong one, giving additional resonance to the mystery of Gatsby as a character and his enduring effect on those who knew him.

It is a familiar musical theatre device, using a later period and looking at the main action in flashback – a technique used most notably in The Phantom of the Opera, which has a particular synthesis in the tone of Gatsby: A Musical giving the absent Gatsby a Phantom-like presence looming watchfully over his guests on the Cadogan Hall balcony, a spectre whose very reality is called into question by Daisy’s return to chase his shadow on the cusp of a new decade. Reedman and Evans conjure some interesting and credible reasons for Daisy’s lack of knowledge about the outcome of Gatsby’s story while dangling the possibility that Fitzgerald’s conclusion was not definitive in order to drive this part of the story – a theme that could be further expanded into a tantalising is he / isn’t he alive hook for the audience.

Much of the musical returns to Fitzgerald’s original story, told as recollections in which Daisy and Gatsby’s associates return to a now dramatised past. But rather than retaining the original narrative voice, Daisy becomes the central figure in this interpretation, relegating Nick Carraway to a far more peripheral role. It’s a valuable reorientation of the material that casts a slightly different light on events by seeing them from the more emotional perspective of someone centrally involved and directly affected by the various entaglments than Nick’s more detached observations. It also puts a rather flighty creation at the heart of what is a beautiful but often a very male novel – a male writer with a male narrator obsessed with a male archetype – but giving Daisy her own voice is more than a tokenistic female perspective, it adds complexity, highlighting the casual treatment of women in the story as their desires, needs and individuality are crushed by overbearing and possessive partners who eventually dictate their physical confines.

This is reflected in Evans’s music arranged by Henry Brennan with a majority of songs given to the women of the show. And while Daisy is the lead, ample stage time is also given to her husband’s mistress Myrtle who has a far more fleshed-out role and interior life than Fitzgerald could give her, drawing useful parallels about the pressure of stultifying marriages, the quest for empty pleasures that fulfill a momentary need yet prove fatal and the ultimate limitations of a woman’s social power in this era. We also get a fuller taste of the sweet and supportive friendship between Daisy and Jordan in their high-spirited girl group number Ab-So-Lute-Ly Pos-I-Lute-Ly which offers a brief glance at a relationship not driven by one of the men in the story.

Leaning away from the cliched vision of the 1920s as all fast-paced jazz and dance bands, Evans has created a more reflective score that certainly draws on the musical styles of the era, but in keeping with the plaintive mood of the piece uses slower blues melodies to give Gatsby: A Musical its haunting quality. There are some upbeat numbers to create the mood in the early sections of the production that set the scene for Gatsby’s 1922 parties and the New York vibe of the time with Manhattan Moon and The Gatsby being particularly notable, but this hugely appealing score focuses on character insight above era, offering much greater variety and impact across the numbers.

Some of the best really summarise the particular social and emotional situation of individuals; Myrtle’s solo You Can’t Live Forever and her sorrowful duet with Daisy Broken Wings, Broken Dreams are wonderful character portraits while the desperate connection between Gatsby and his former love is made to feel crucial and defining in I’ll Sing a Deathless Song, Who Are You Anyhow and The Moon That Never Rose. Most interesting is the continual recognition that something significant is ending, which thematically aligns this piece with Rattigan, Priestly and Coward with big ensemble numbers either side of the interval, Leave the Dance and The Party’s All Done which provide this valuable context of decline and wistful regret.

Filmed on stage at Cadogan Hall “as live” and cut together for streaming, there is a rough and ready feel to Reedman’s production that nonetheless captures the energy of live performance and the wonderful reverberation of sound and vocal in the empty room. Using the balcony behind the stage allows Gatsby to lurk Phantom-like above the action while nodding to the physical staging of the story as he watches his own parties from the staircase. There are a lot of screencards notifying the audience of place and date as the show flits quickly between 1922 and 1929 but this screen black-out is a momentary distraction although perhaps a necessary transition for a show apparently recorded in segments – however, in a fully-realised production it is less clear from this concert staging whether the existing material flows from scene to scene with projected location cards or if additional music is required for breaks and changes.

There are some excellent performances from this committed cast who, within the bounds of social distancing, few props and limited physical movement around the stage, really bring this story to life with an absorbing clarity. Jodie Steele’s Daisy has a tremulous poise which in both eras shows a woman looking to the past for escape. That Steele develops Daisy’s strength throughout is notable while her vocal range gives the songs plenty of heart. Equally, Ross William Wild’s Gatsby is every bit as absently charismatic as you could wish but given a flesh and blood emotional intensity by Wild that makes his obsessive love for Daisy and the contrasting detachment with the rest of life so credible. As his vocal unfurls it becomes a real high point in the later sections of the show.

Emma Williams is wonderful as Myrtle, really eking-out a thin character and creating a vast and textured inner life for her that matches Daisy’s. Williams is superb in her solo musical numbers and really makes the audience feel the effects of Myrtle’s circumstances. Great support too from Oliver Mawdlsey as Owl Eyes, Lauren Chinery as Jordan and Chancie Alexander-Burnett as Catherine. A note too for Belle Mundis’s delightful costumes and vision for the show with sequined flapper dresses, gauzy materials and slick suits that support not only Fitgerald’s concept of illusion but also of this concert version looking to its fully-staged future.

There are a couple of loose ends in Gatsby: A Musical which are left unresolved, particularly the hint given in 1929 that stealthy movement has been detected around the Gatsby house with various comings and goings late at night or lights left on. And while this may be another character, it is an avenue for development that would give these later sections greater jeopardy as Daisy tries to ascertain what happened to Jay. Nonetheless with big ambitions for the future, Reedman and Evans’s musical has something new to say about Fitzgerald’s most famous hero and the dark heart of the Roaring 20s myth.

Gatsby: A Musical at Cadogan Hall was streamed from 26-28 February and is available from 11-14 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Swingin’ the Dream – RSC

Swingin the Dream - Royal Shakespeare Company

Shakespeare’s influence on popular culture is inestimable and while his plays are fundamental to the stage, the influence of his words and the often borrowed stories that Shakespeare made his own are felt across film, music and dance. From a ballet versions of The Winter’s Tale – a rich, psychologically complex version of which the Royal Opera House screened last summer with Edward Watson as Leontes – to Hollywood musical adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew (Kiss Me Kate), Romeo and Juliet (West Side Story) and even Hamlet (The Lion King), not to mention the High School movies that reimagined Shakespeare for a younger audience (such as 10 Things I Hate About You), Shakespeare’s understanding of the human condition has allowed his work to be translated into many different forms.

Theatremakers often build on Shakespeare’s plays to create new avenues for his work including the superb Teenage Dick at the Donmar and musicals like & Juliet which opened in 2020 or the Young Vic’s Twelfth Night which reshaped the play into a community-created musical extravaganza that opened Kwame Kwei-Armah’s tenure as Artistic Director. Now, Greg Doran at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has joined forces with Kwei-Armah and Jeffrey Horowitz at Theatre for a New Audience in New York to recreate an all but lost 1939 musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a work in progress version of which was streamed live from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford on Saturday.

And the concept couldn’t be more timely; not only with theatres having to dream a little differently to stage productions that raise funds during a third lockdown that will likely take most venues to their one year anniversary of closure, but in also giving renewed life to a musical interpretation of Shakespeare’s play developed and performed by African-American musicians using the jazz music they created which speaks to contemporary political debates about inclusivity while reinforcing the universality of Shakespeare’s themes.

In theory, jazz seems a perfect accompaniment to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a tale of magical mischief, mayhem and romance as a group of lovers defy social convention by escaping to the woods to live freely – the very epitome of jazz and its ethos. But running for just 13 performances in 1939, Swingin’ the Dream flopped quickly before most of the script was destroyed leaving just a handful of pages and some songs. Exactly what happened to this show is open to debate, with only a handful of critical reviews suggesting either this particular marriage of Shakespeare and song was imperfectly balanced, or that the show was perhaps aimed at the wrong audience. Nonetheless the RSC, Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience have determined to revive and recreate the missing segments with a full production to follow sometime soon.

The 55-minute concert streamed on Saturday, was described as a ‘work-in-progress’ which in practice was a chance to understand what the research team had uncovered about Swingin’ the Dream to date and to hear all of the rediscovered jazz numbers played live on stage. The show, briefly introduced by Doran, Kwei-Armah and Horowitz, was in part a narrated outline of how this familiar story was adapted, characters renamed and their occupations recast to create gender-fluidity such as making Snug the joiner a midwife played by comedian Moms Mabley. This concert version also offers some theatre history, explaining at various points who some of the famous jazz musicians and performers were, the fate of the original show and some of the 1930s context that influenced the decision-making.

Overseen by Music Director Peter Edwards (also the evening’s pianist), an Ensemble of nine readers and singers were tasked with reconstructing the original 1939 production by bringing the ‘ingredients’ together, briefly explaining the overarching story to guide the audience between the songs while announcing the arrival of the various famous faces including Louis Armstrong (Bottom) and Maxine Sullivan (Titania). This narrative structure also described the evolution of a production that had combined acted scenes, musical numbers and dance sections choreographed by Agnes de Mille (niece of legendary film director Cecil), which have also been lost. All of this offers a series of clues as to what a fuller production might look like.

This first look implies that the show was refocused on the Fairies and Rude Mechanicals – played by those well-known musicians – rather than the Lovers and political world of the Court, replacing Theseus with a more generic ‘Governor’ – allowing the production to skip quickly to the arrival of its much anticipated celebrity cast and hastening the drama and humour of their characters. This is, notably, something The Bridge Theatre did with its immersive production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2019 (rescreened by the National Theatre at Home last summer) that found fresh and smart contemporary insight by emphasising the magical and comedy scenarios. It seems clear that for Swingin’ the Dream these characters did and will offer the most fruitful opportunities for entertainment within the show, providing much of the musical inspiration, so we can expect to see far less of the ‘driver’ characters whose romantic entanglements will be at a lower volume.

And fixing more pointedly on these characters will also have consequences for the visual experience of the show and it is clear from this early snippet that most of the scenes take place in the enchanted woodland which offers some interesting opportunities for scene designers who will need to align the magical quality of the forest with the 1930s style of music that should spring naturally from its surroundings. The title song, performed originally by the Dandridge Sisters, is piano-led and performed for the RSC by Mogali Masuku, Georgia Landes, Kemi-Bo Jacobs and Anne Odeke with a girl-group harmony so redolent of the era.

But referred to in the very next segment as ‘The Voodoo Wood’ the scene must also feel intimidating, perhaps even frightening, while the arrival of Oberon and Titania (played originally by Juan Hernandez and Sullivan) must herald a sultry romance as well. Titania sings a memory song about “Moonglow” under which she first met her Fairy King, a moment of pause performed for the RSC by Zara McFarlane that is laden with atmosphere and the breathy, almost painful reminiscence that classic jazz can evoke. To create a set that can simultaneously serve as a place of escape, hope, danger, magic and memory will be an interesting challenge for the design and lighting teams when a complete production is ready for preview.

Some of the best moments in this early concert staging of Swingin’ the Dream are those that allow the audience to imagine what the finished production may look like by drawing wider contextual connections with the cultural forces of the time. Anyone interested in the history of popular culture in the twentieth century will relish the references to the performance styles that were emerging at a time of great creativity. In a nod to the latest craze, the Jitterbug was included in an extensive “dream dance” sequence called Doing the Saboo choreographed by de Mille while the audience is reminded that a Jitterbug dance scene was cut from The Wizard of Oz released in the same year.

Film also gives us context for the arrival of Puck, the last of the major players to assemble, played by Butterfly McQueen who had been disbarred from attending the Gone with the Wind premiere in a Whites-only cinema. These stories are as much a part of the brief experience of Swingin’ the Dream as the residual script, drawing on an era where racial segregation could only be overcome on stage (to a point), where leisure time was spent in dance halls and the golden years of cinema were just beginning as Technicolor offered a very different visual experience to audiences. How faithful the finished show will be to these influences and how they will be incorporated into the production will be one of the most anticipated aspects of early previews.

Anyone hoping to see an advanced frame for the forthcoming production and perhaps an insight into how the finished show will look may have been a little disappointed that this revival is still in its early stages with no new dialogue or scenes to share as yet, but Edwards’s production did offer a more fully-staged finale, a section of music depicting the play-within-a-play that concludes A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is restaged as a medley of recognisable jazz classics from leading songwriters including sampling from Jeepers Creepers, Blue Moon, Ain’t Misbehaving and She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain performed for the RSC by the full Ensemble that included Alfred Clay, Andrew French, Cornell S. John and Baker Mukasa.

Lasting around 5-minutes, this segment uses a heightened performance style to enhance the comedic incompetence of the Rude Mechanicals as Pyramus and Thisbe converse through Wall, the growls of the masked Lion are answered by the band and a lampshade on a stick doubles as the moon. The cast throw in a couple of contemporary Covid jokes with Lion unable to touch Thisbe’s abandoned scarf must mawl a second version extracted from a infection-safe plastic bag, while Wall refuses to let the classical lovers draw closer than 2 metres from him, jokes we can only hope will no longer be required by the time a final version is ready for its audience.

Nonetheless, there is plenty of evidence in this small scene alone to suggest how Shakespeare’s original text has been repurposed into song without losing the meaning or fluidity of the scene. With this beautiful music already in place but much of the script to recreate, a contemporary adaptation of Swingin’ the Dream may well take note of the 1939 critic who, recognising some imbalance, wanted to jettison some of the dialogue to give more prominence to the jazz. Yet, Shakespeare’s words will still be crucial to creating resonance while pinning the architecture of the new piece together whatever decisions are made about the musical balance or thematic emphasis.

The RSC, Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience have a difficult but fascinating task ahead in recreating a lost work that honours the original and its biography while developing a version of Shakespeare’s most beloved summer show that offers something to modern audiences. Performed by Edwards on piano, Chris Storr on trumpet, Neil Charles on bass, Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson on clarinet and saxophone as well as
drummer Barrell Jones, the original music by Jimmy Van Heusen is beautiful and with plenty of clues to the narrative and visual aspects of the production left behind, when theatres eventually reopen, Swingin’ the Dream will be just the kind of theatre magic we’ve all been waiting for.

Swingin’ the Dream was streamed live by the RSC on 9 January and a full production in association with the Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience is in development. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Sunset Boulevard in Concert – Curve Leicester

Sunset Boulevard - Curve Leicester (by Marc Brenner)

There are many reasons why Curve Leicester’s digital production of Sunset Boulevard in Concert is the most fitting end to a year in which theatre and film have moved closer than ever, regional theatres have grasped the opportunities of digital performance far quicker than the West End and musical theatre has been most adaptive to the plethora of pandemic restrictions. After a summer advocating and lobbying for reopening and testing equipment to make venues Covid-safe for audiences and performers, it felt entirely appropriate that an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was the first professional production staged in London in late summer – the stunning Jesus Christ Superstar in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Lloyd Webber also facilitated the first indoor public musical at the Palladium, Songs for a New World (perhaps now tentatively) scheduled to open at the Vaudeville Theatre in February, and now the online premiere of Nikoloai Foster’s version of Sunset Boulevard sees out the year.

Filmed within the last fortnight, Curve Leicester puts a new spin on the hybrid theatre-film approach by using all the possibilities of its empty auditorium to expand the playing space to create a production that retains the simplicity of a concert staging focused on characters and plot with only costume to suggest era and place. At the same time, Foster deliberately takes the audience out of the story, making visible the cameras, lighting rigs, crew and fellow cast members creating this digital version of Sunset Boulevard in Concert as the actors traverse the front and non-stage spaces of the venue. Almost Brechtian in style, it takes a few minutes to get used to but soon becomes a clever representation of the musical’s circular genesis from extraordinary 1950 movie by Billy Wilder to musical theatre production to now, once again, being committed to film.

Sunset Boulevard with lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s five greatest scores, sitting alongside Evita, Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and the Amazing Technnicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, all of which have music that immersively characterise their protagonist and their experience within the story. Often referencing the musical rhythms of their location, these shows use their score purposefully to reflect the interior emotional trajectory of their lead(s). Still within the bounds of musical theatre, Phantom, for example has an operatic pomp full of baroque stylings, threat and romantic innocence drawn to the bass notes of darkness, while Evita‘s quite different political style captures the verve of revolution tempered by the complex dance rhythms of the Argentine tango and choral intensity of the Catholic requiem – but both create, reflect and enhance the psychological experience of the story.

Drawing on the sweeping styles of Silent Movie scores, Lloyd Webber does something quite different with Sunset Boulevard, eschewing the song and dance numbers that musical theatre law determines should open and close each Act, and instead draws inspiration from the small-scale intimacy of Wilder’s film where the narrator Joe Gillis and the tragic-strength of Norma Desmond are the focus. Sunset Boulevard has a couple of full-cast numbers about the lure of fame as desperate starlets, screenwriters and directors hope to make their mark but these events merely swirl around the central characters giving focus and context to their purpose in the story.

And that is not to say that the music is in any way smaller or quieter than Lloyd Webber’s other work; in fact Sunset Boulevard is akin to Phantom in its grandiosity using the sweeping and soaring of a full orchestra to open out the musical’s central themes of delusion, fantasy, the brief lifespan of stardom and the emotional truth beneath the facade of celebrity. Within its two Act structure there is a fragile bombast that entirely captures the contradictory notes in Norma’s personality, the grand dreams and memories that rouse and stir as she reflects on the life she had, with minor key reflections on the tragedy of her fall and the destructive tumult of her deluded self-awareness.

In scoring his leading lady, Lloyd Webber also notably draws on Middle Eastern sounds to reflect Norma’s obsession with Salome and there are hints woven through the instrumental elements of the score that emerge in As If We Never Said Goodbye as well as the famous conclusion. But there is also verve and energy that musically creates the whirl of Hollywood and life on a movie set, seen in the faster-paced title song sung by Joe at the beginning of the second Act and the frenzy of Joe’s escape from the baliffs with Act One’s car chase.

Foster for Curve Leicester pins the shape of his production around these musical cues from Lloyd Webber, adding layers of film to these sections that create a rush of energy during the chase scene or flicker with black and white images of Paramount Studios in its heyday. But what sets this hybrid production apart is its emphasis on the specific theatre origins of this production. Many of this year’s attempts to digitally represent a stage performance have, like an NT Live showing, taken an immersive approach, trying to take the audience as close to the story as possible while still maintaining the illusion of theatre.

This version of Sunset Boulevard instead makes a virtue of its scratch staging, denuding the production of elaborate scenery and setting to utilise (and thereby promote) the various spaces of the Curve auditorium, as though activity, encounters and plot devices spring from the building. And Foster’s approach serves a duel purpose, showcasing the facilities of the in-the-round space created to house the company, orchestra and camera crew while the theatre remains closed, while purposefully reinforcing the themes and purpose of Wilder, Lloyd Webber, Black and Hampton’s story that focuses on the mechanics of film making, the underbelly of Hollywood and the fairweather nature of fame.

Designed by Colin Richmond, with the orchestra placed in the stalls, scenes occur on the central circular platform, in various points in the seating on three sides of the stage, along the audience walkways and most atmospherically in the Circle where Norma Desmond makes her dramatic first appearance. This movement around the front of house performance space gives Foster’s production an added verve, suggesting the changing locations from the main-house and room above the garage within Norma’s extensive mansion to the Paramount lot and Schwabs Drug Store where Joe first encounters Betty, adding drama and intimacy that builds a considerable emotional and dramatic effect as the story unfolds.

The viewer is Joe’s confident, addressing us through the camera as he narrates his own history, a reliable if critical narrator who becomes increasingly aware of the compromises of his own character. Returning continuously to this device throughout, it grounds the production ensuring the we retain Joe’s point of view as the camera actively seeks him out, finding him in the stalls and gantries or underneath the seat rigging where his encounters with other characters come to life or Joe watches his life unfold with powerless hindsight.

It sounds frentic but underneath the layers of film, what emerges from these intriguing staging choices is a deepening emotional connection to and between the characters, one that immerses the audience in the unfolding tragedy of Norma Desomond’s determined comeback. The show really comes alive with her arrival theatrically lit by Ben Cracknell in the Circle where she delivers one of the show’s biggest numbers With One Look, and the balcony location proves to be a vital one for Norma, the only character (apart from butler Max) featured there and vital to her famous finale walk down the steps towards the baying news cameras.

Ria Jones offers superb vocal and performative range as Norma, grand, ostentatious and determined, in love with her own fame and its once potent effect on others but now fragile, tentative and almost agoraphobic in her inability to interact with the modern world. Jones shows a woman trapped in her own past, almost frozen in time and deeply deluded about her value and allure, as well as the practicalities of 1950s talkie film-making. Norma Desmond is a crazed figure but Jones never lets her seem entirely disassociated from reality – certainly not until the show’s intense conclusion – and there is real style and strength in her presentation of Norma, a woman not to be gainsaid or duped, admirably certain of her value and what is owed to her status.

Her relationship with Joe, though arguably one-sided in terms of genuine feeling, is given credibility by Jones, showing Norma as a once desirable prize still able to bewitch Joe with more than just money and lifestyle, a quality that pulls him back to her at the fateful New Year party. Her knowing attempts to manipulate him feel calculated in Jones’s interpretation, a selfish certainty that only her needs matter, and these contradictions only make Norma’s behaviour and pointed refusal to ‘surrender’ more understandable though nonetheless tragic. Musically, Jones is triumphant, delivering some of the best songs Lloyd Webber has written with incredible range while her return to Paramount number As If We Never Said Goodbye becomes quietly moving.

Danny Mac gives Joe plenty of causal swagger in the early part of the show, though besieged by creditors and down on his luck, this is Joe at his most assured and cheeky. But one fascinating aspect of this Curve production is to show how keenly this story is as much about Joe’s delusion as it is Norma’s and how violently that comes crashing down for the both of them. When Joe’s absorption into Norma’s lifestyle increases, we see a more cynical film noir hero, with Mac showing a character ashamed of himself, almost surprised at how quickly he sold out for easy comforts, but so enmeshed in them that he refuses to go back to the bleak life he once had.

This more compromised version of Joe emerges before us in Mac’s charismatic performance, overwhelmed not so much by Norma’s unwavering attention and demands but stifled increasingly by his own guilt as the months pass. What saves Joe from appearing grasping and unsympathetic is the sensitive and heartfelt connection he develops with very likeable fellow-writer Betty Schaefer (a rounded performance from the excellent Molly Lynch) that develops subtly over a few scenes in Act Two and quickly becomes the impossible escape from his situation that Joe still dreams of but recognises can never be. Admitting their feelings in Too Much in Love to Care is sweetly performed here by Mac and Lynch while their parting moment is gently devastating.

Jones’s performance may be the showpiece one, but Mac pins the show together, mirroring the experience of the audience as we encounter the strange events of this story and its characters, while charting the development of Joe from worldly but free writer to kept-man disgusted with his own nature. Joe’s own Hollywood dream is shown to be every bit as unlikely as Norma’s, and finding that he is unable to make it on his own despite plenty of friends in the business and Betty’s guidance which comes too late, Mac’s Joe reaches his tragic breaking point.

By presenting the complexity of its characters, Foster’s production of Sunset Boulevard in Concert builds to a powerful and emotive conclusion. Like Sondheim’s Follies, this is story about the ghosts of the past haunting the present, where characters filled with regret reflect on what they have become. This very different approach to hybrid performance centers on the sweeping emotional turmoil of Lloyd Webber’s music, pays tribute to Wilder’s original film and showcases the Curve Leicester venue; it certainly offers ‘new ways to dream,’ proving a beautiful and fitting finale to a year of considerable change for theatre.

Sunset Boulevard in Concert is available digitally from Leicester Curve until 9 January and tickets cost £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Film Preview: Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day

Don't Let the Devil Take Another Day by Ben Lowe

One of the most distinctive voices of the past twenty years both vocally and lyrically, Kelly Jones had an extraordinary and unexpected 2019 involving two albums – one with his band the Stereophonics – and an acclaimed solo tour working with new musicians in intimate venues around the country. But it almost didn’t happen. Ben Lowe’s new documentary which premiered at the BFI Southbank on the eve of lockdown inadvertently became the opening and closing film of the Doc’n Roll Festival pending a now postponed cinema release.

It has been a tough year for cinemas and for film festivals forced online by a pandemic that has once again closed arts venues just as they were resurging. The handful of screenings the BFI managed during the London Film Festival were enthusiastically received in their Covid-safe and socially distanced cinemas and they have long championed diverse programming that has often included music retrospectives. Lowe’s documentary may only have been seen on a big screen by the hundred or so people at this event, but will appear online along with the remainder of the Doc’n Roll Festival.

Structure: Authenticity in Adversity

No ordinary musician movie, Don’t Let The Devil Take Another Day is about the cost and importance of storytelling, the creative process and cumulative pressures of performance across a career spanning two decades. Part fly-on-the-wall insight into Jones’s solo tour, part biography and part exploration of the personal and professional challenges that 2019 brought, Lowe successfully side-steps the cliched tour bus approach of endless concerts, wild behaviour and backstage dramas as well as the semi-spoofed interactions of difficult personalities and creative differences.

Instead, Lowe uses the structure of the solo concert – also titled Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day – to delve deeper into the stories that Jones tells throughout to explain and explore the influences and experiences behind the music. The song selection for the tour reflected what Jones considered the key moments of adversity and crisis in his career, so in structuring his insightful film, Lowe adopts a dual stranded architecture; the first is a time-based approach that anchors the wider purpose of the documentary in what appears to be a single version of the concert comprised from several nights of the tour as it evolves across a handful of UK venues. With this in place to guide the shape of the story Lowe is telling, it allows the director to break out into a light-touch history of the Stereophonics to reveal the cathartic nature of the creative process in composition and songwriting, considering what it means to perform and hear the songs as Jones contemplates a cross-roads in his musical development.

Referenced in the opening moments of the film and explored in more detail in some of these contextual sections, there is a triumph over adversity sub-narrative at play that sits beneath Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day as the reason for the solo tour and the existence of the film itself is eventually explained. But, coming to Lowe’s attention only after original and location filming was complete, it is a theme that is modestly explored, a private challenge included with empathy but without sensationalism in a series of matter-of-fact sequences that are central to but do not solely define a film driven by contemplation of the inspiration for and consequences of live performance.

The strength of this approach lies in its authenticity, tying the film’s structure to the revealing intimacy of the concert programme and the work ethic of its creator. Lowe’s ability to understand and reflect that on screen gives the film its genuine depth and heart, elevating the material beyond the standard gigs and gossip narrative.

The Creative Process

Most of all, Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day is a film about the creative process, how a burgeoning idea is informed by everyday experience, shaped and honed into a musical product before recording and performing it. And these are two related by distinct activities, as Jones explained in the subsequent Q&A – the music comes regardless of the opportunity to perform. And the film is about challenging the status quo to a degree so we see Jones not only working with a different group of musicians on stage but collaborating with Dwight Baker and Patricia Lynn from support band The Wind and the Wave. Having always written alone and changing little in the edit, the quiet process of working through melodies and lyrics – which Lowe captures in dressing rooms and studios – with two other songwriters is a revealing one, pushing the more instinctual creativity of Jones to revisit ideas while challenging the scrutinizing Lynne in particular not to overthink the songwriting process.

But the creative act can also be a difficult one when the concept of performance itself becomes a taxing experience. And here Lowe returns to the adversity sub-narrative using personal iPhone footage, a supportive voicemail from Tom Jones and several expert talking heads to reveal a new level of anxiety in the months preceding the tour. Used to capturing a song in two or three takes during album production, Jones openly struggles when recording the album Kind and the film is compassionate in its portrayal of vulnerability in these moments, looking with balance at how ongoing success in the music business – and to have delivered an album every other year for more than two decades is remarkable in itself – as well as an innate need to compose and create becomes both a point of crisis and engineers a more optimistic future.

All About the Music

Jones has always created music that reflect his own experiences and state of mind (increasingly so in recent years) and, during the Q&A, the singer admitted that his lyrics are now more openly reflective of his state of mind than some of metaphor-shrouded songs of the past. Anyone listening to Kind, the anxious recording of which is shown in this film ahead of it release last autumn, will notice how directly Jones confronts the work of the past two decades and its effect on his mental health. ‘So much responsibility / Sometimes I cannot breathe’ he sings in This Life Ain’t Easy in which the fast-paced pressures of modern life crowd-in on the protagonist as ‘the stitches in my skin keep falling out’ (Stitches). This is clearly an artist grappling with the bigger question of history, achievement, purpose and meaning.

Yet, these contemplative numbers have always been a part of the Stereophonics music, sometimes nestled among the anthemic focus of earlier albums but a consistent theme nonetheless. From the philosophical Is Yesterday Tomorrow Today (Performance and Cocktails) to fan favourite Maybe Tomorrow (You Gotta Go There to Come Back), Drowning (Pull the Pin) and No One’s Perfect (Graffiti on the Train), Jones returns again and again to these same questions about the path the band has taken and its personal consequences – something which Lowe’s film draws out extremely well in the particular programme selected for the solo concerts.

The openness with which Jones confronts the daily expectations to deliver and perform music, support family and the still noticeable absence of Stuart Cable are given subtle significance in Lowe’s film using archive material about the Stereophonics, home videos, backstage footage, commentary from Jones himself in direct retrospective interview as well as the stories he told the audience on tour. All of this expands on and reinforces the personal perspective of the show and ultimately the music itself.

And, while fans love the big stadium performance of Dakota (Language Sex Violence Other) or The Bartender and the Thief (Performance and Cocktails), some of the greatest moments in a Stereophonics tour are the reworked and stripped back acoustic versions of well known songs where just Jones’s distinctive voice fills the room. This was characteristic of the reworked simplicity of the songs selected for the smaller scale solo tour venues and Lowe’s film lingers on some of these performances, placing the astounding vocal quality centre stage. Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day includes extracts from Suzy and Katie from Jones’s only other solo album Only the Names Have Been Changed, You’re My Star and as well as a stunning extended performance of Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make it Through the Night, a song Jones remembers his father singing in the clubs, filmed in close shot to emphasise the tenderness of the performance.

Lyrically contemplative, Lowe’s film also focuses on the how the musical composition of the Stereophonics and Jones’s skill as a composer has evolved and expanded since the band launched its indie rock sound in the mid-1990s. These have facilitated greater experimentation allowing each album as to act as biographical markers and milestones of musical development. With a solo tour band comprising drummer Cherisse Osei, violinist Fiona Bruce and multi-instrumentalist Gavin Fitzjohn, we also see the move towards a wider symphonic and orchestral sound that has led to diversity between albums releases. From Handbags and Gladrags to Sunny (Keep the Village Alive) and What’s All the Fuss About (Scream Above the Sounds) which has a complex Bond theme quality to the second half with a heavy brass section, this move beyond guitars and drums to multilayered scores and arrangements is captured in Lowe’s documentary in a focus on the wider selection of instruments appearing on stage with Jones.

Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day, Jones explained during the Q&A was intended to record the solo concerts, having grown out of plans in discussion since 2015 to document two decades of the Stereophonics. It was only subsequently that the underlying circumstances gave a difference resonance to the film, allowing Lowe to reorientate the narrative. By necessity, it makes the personal stories told on stage and its song selection even more meaningful, while clearly opening a new and fairly optimistic chapter.

There is much about this film that is unassuming, not least the personality of its protagonist, and Lowe is successful in delivering an intimately staged and shot 90-minute movie about a testing period of detailed self-reflection and transition. But this is always a film that is about that magical quality of music in performance and, having only recently been able to hear live music in an indoor venue again, this film will make you hunger for that experience of sound echoing and reverberating around you. Grounded in the specific music choices from the tour and the stories these songs tell, Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day explores the power of creative inspiration and the extraordinary potency of one distinctive voice.

The cinema release for Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day has been delayed until 11 December and will be available as a digital download from 18 December with an album released on 4 December. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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