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An Interview with Chris Durnall, Director of ‘Rhapsody’

Get the Chance Community Critic Barbara Hughes-Moore speaks with Chris Durnall, Artistic Director of Company of Sirens, and director of the upcoming new play ‘Rhapsody‘ about the life of Dorothy Edwards, one of Wales’ greatest writers. While little-known nowadays, Edwards was a highly influential member of the Bloomsbury Set, a group of radical English writers which also boasted the likes of Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. The play is written by Gary Raymond and performed by actors Gwenllian Higginson and Gwydion Rhys, with music by Stacey Blythe (though not a traditional ‘score’ as such – more on that in a bit). ‘Rhapsody’ will premiere at Chapter Arts Centre in May 2023.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Hi Chris, tell us a little bit about why you wanted to tell the story of Dorothy Edwards.

Dorothy Edwards a writer who has clearly been repressed due to her gender, her Welshness, and her working-class roots. When she was part of the Bloomsbury Group, she was called the ‘Welsh Cinderella’. That wasn’t necessarily she reason she did what she did, but her creative life was different [because of] where she came from. I think she got swamped by the big personalities in the group like Virginia Woolf and David Garnett. So, it’s about bringing her life out and finding a way to tell that story that is contemporary, so that it’s not a piece of history. It happened in the 1920s and ’30s but its themes are relevant for now. For us, it’s about making it current and contemporary, otherwise it becomes a museum piece, and when theatre becomes that, then it loses relevance. There needs to be a reason to make it, and that reason has to be something that’s happening in the world today.

How have you ensured that the creative process retains that immediacy and relevance?

We wanted to begin with Dorothy’s suicide and work backwards. The short pieces seen [in the R&D in November] actually started with Dorothy in Bloomsbury, then it went to her introduction into London society, then we touch on her return to Cardiff and worked with [Ronald Harding, a married Welsh cellist]. Really, it’s working backwards: starting with her suicide and then trying to explain what happened to her. What were the factors that led to her being relatively unknown, and unhappy in her personal and creative life? We try to answer those questions. Her suicide note is very well-known [“I am killing myself because I have never sincerely loved any human being all my life. I have accepted kindness and friendship and even love without gratitude and given nothing in return.”] After that, the rest of the play is exploring what that might have meant.

Does that mean you follow a strict structure – x has to happen at this point, y at the other – or do you keep it quite loose?

It’s very loose, and it shifts focus. The film ‘The Hours’ is quite a similar reference point because of that. We wanted to avoid was a straightforward linear storyline: we wanted to play around with time shifts and theatrical styles. So, first of all you have the sonata form: the three different strands of a sonata, based upon musical notation, [provides the structure for the play]. Then within each of the three acts, you have three very different styles of performance / musical instruments – within those you have three sections as well. So, the sonata form is kept throughout the three sections of the play.

That’s really important for us because she was so musical: her novel was called ‘Winter Sonata’, her short stories called ‘Rhapsody’, and they’re all based on musical form. How then do you capture that musicality within the production and within the text, and how do you make the music not something that is a soundtrack but is an integral part of the production itself?

Gwenllian Higginson as Dorothy / Gwen the actress / herself in Company of Sirens’ ‘Rhapsody’

That’s the creative challenge – and within that, there’s a third layer which might be quite controversial, where the actress steps out of the story. That happened once in the R&D, but I would like that to happen a lot, where the actress steps out and comments on their life, so as to make a connection between the actress, the character of Dorothy, and the part she’s playing. It’s interesting theatrically to do something like this; it might seem confusing at first, but I think in the context of shifting focus / timeframe, that it would work. The device takes it away from a linear narrative. It is about Dorothy Edwards, but it’s also about Gwen, and about the actress playing her: you have three women investing in this role – the catalyst is Dorothy but it’s also a catalyst for their experiences as well.

You mentioned ‘The Hours’ as a touchstone for you – when I was watching the R&D, it reminded me of ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’: where actors are playing actors playing characters, which shares the ‘triple layer’ device.

That’s a really interesting observation and something I hadn’t thought of! [Harold] Pinter did the screenplay for that, and I’d like this play to be a lot more fluid so that the three drift in and out constantly. In the first act particularly, Gwen and Dorothy shift all the time, as does the male character [played by Gwydion Rhys]. Once you’ve established a convention, the audience understands and goes with it. The risk you take when doing something different is that the audience might be a bit confused at first!

Do you think that choice brings out different things for the creatives and the audience?

I think we underestimate our audiences a lot of the time, and a lot of the work I see is rather ‘on the nose’. To me, that bypasses the whole point of theatre – which is about audience involvement, the audience thinking and making decisions for themselves based on what is presented to them. If you’re constantly given information without the opportunity to assimilate and interpret it, it’s easy to be entertained but it’s difficult to be moved by it because you haven’t invested enough of yourself in the performance. The audience wants to be part of the experience. For me, it’s about what’s underneath the words: the spaces, the gaps, the moments of reflection where the audience comes in and makes it their own.

Do you feel that theatre enables you to give the audience more of an active role in telling a story?

Definitely – I’ve done theatre all my life, and what I love about theatre is you can do anything with it, it’s so incredibly flexible. You can create anything onstage and the audience will go along with it: what works is when an audience suspends their disbelief. I think that’s true of all theatre, that the audience will invest in what you’re doing and will buy into it – we sometimes underestimate and spoon-feed audiences when they don’t want that. I go to the theatre wanting to be challenged.

Stacey Blythe

Would the challenge in this production be the musical aspect, i.e. Stacey Blythe’s music, which isn’t just an emotional score but a character in its own right?

This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. In 2013, I worked with the Sherman Theatre on a production called ‘Matthew’s Passion’. I worked with an autistic actor and a musician, and I wanted the musician to follow the actor around so that everything they did was interpreted musically. It didn’t quite work in that instance and became more of a soundtrack. So, what I wanted was for Stacey to work with Gwenllian – her music is the soul of the actress, they’re in a rhythm together. Stacey has certain chords and codas in mind but is flexible enough to follow the actress and shift as needed, and vice versa – they work together in this beautiful dialogue. I find that fascinating. You’ve also got the script on top of that, and a rhythm to the script that is more evident in the monologues in the first and second act – but there’s a musicality to the script, the performance of the actress supporting the music, and those things come together in an interesting way.

There are a lot of trios going on here: the sonata, the actress, the rhythms.

That’s absolutely intentional. When you start something like this, I really believe that things happen independently of you making them happen. It’s sort of magic, theatre is: it’s based on ritual and performance, and that magic doesn’t go away, so things happen constantly if you allow them to, and if you don’t try to control them.

How do you manage to walk that line as a director, when you have to lead while also allowing for these magical ‘unexpected’ things to happen?

The first thing is, I don’t try to control the proceedings. Casting is very important, finding people who you can trust and support each other. Then I try to create an environment in the rehearsal room where people feel happy and free, where they have fun, and where they feel respected – for me, that’s the main job of the director, because once you’ve created that environment with very talented people, they’ll get on with it. The big problem, and I’ve made it in the past, is where you try to control something. Allow people to try things out, and if it’s not right it will become self-evident. A lot of the time I’m happy to admit when I don’t know what to do, or where to go, with a story – I don’t profess to know exactly what I’m doing. In fact, I very rarely look t the script once I’ve read it and talked about it. Staring at the script isn’t my job: I’m interested in what’s going on out there. The director’s job is to create an environment in which actors can be creative. If you do that, they’ll amaze you – but if you try to control it, you’re in trouble.

It’s evident in the work you’ve done, the creative freedom you give the actors.

In this country we have that tradition where we still think in terms of Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan – don’t get me wrong, they’re great, but we have to move forward. Where’s the innovation otherwise? It’s fixed in time and set in aspect, which is okay if you want a bit of nostalgia. But what I try and do is make theatre when people go to the bar afterwards and say “What do you want to drink?”, but instead that they talk about the play.

What is it about Dorothy’s work that suits this looser, more collaborative way of creation?

I read her novel and her short stories, and I thought there’s something indefinable and great here a. Gary [Raymond] then did something for the Wales Art Review on Dorothy Edwards, I emailed him saying I’d read his work and was interested in what he’d said. He came to see ‘Stone the Crows’, and we got talking afterwards and exploring some of the ideas of musicality and character. There’s something special about her work and I don’t know what it is yet, but that it’s something to do with musicality, and about masculinity – all of her protagonists were men, which is extraordinarily unusual.

I wonder what the impetus for that: is it that great literature is often written by and about men, or was Dorothy making a subversive point by speaking through her male characters?

The form she chose to adopt (i.e., the country house novel) was quite old-fashioned, yet within that traditional structure is something really unusual that I think came from her background, who she was, her upbringing. Her father was a really important figure in her life in terms of her relationships and her political qualities: he was a firebrand Welsh radical that was part of the Labour movement. One of the things we wanted to explore here is the figure of the father: at the moment, it’s introduced in a recurring musical motif from the Chopin sonnet which we translated into Welsh. The father may not be in it, but his presence will be through this tune, and also in the male characters who do feature. If you look at her relationships with older men like David Garnett [a Svengali-type figure who introduced Dorothy to the Bloomsbury Set], there are qualities in them that they perhaps share with Dorothy’s father.

Maybe it was subconsciously a way of linking with people who were successful in the field, who had access to many opportunities she didn’t have growing up.

It was all controlled by Virginia Woolf and co., who were basically literary gods. But they were very exclusive, which might have been a shock to someone as idealistic as Dorothy. Expectations and reality are often very different. I can only relate it to my own experience: when I went to drama college, I expected everybody else there to be as passionate as I was about literature – I love those people, but I was really disappointed that they didn’t feel the same way about theatre as me. I can imagine Dorothy felt the same way about the quest for knowledge.

While Dorothy wasn’t a Welsh speaker herself, the character does speak Welsh in the play. How does Dorothy’s ‘Welshness’ factor into this production?

If you’re going to include the concept of Gwenllian playing ‘Gwen the actress’ playing Dorothy, and two of them are Welsh speakers, then you can’t ignore it – it’s part of who those people are. It was important for us to bring it into how we worked together on the play.

Is that important for this story specifically, or something that theatre in Wales can and does focus on – the layers of language and ‘the self’?

The Welsh language is an important part of who and what we are – and when you’re exploring national identity as we do here, you need to address it. What that does for us here is that it feeds the production, that bilingual element. I’ve been to quite a few Welsh language shows over the years – and while I don’t speak it myself, if it’s done well, then I can follow the narrative.

What about Gwydion’s role – he seems to play combinations of characters, like Dorothy’s fiancée, and David Garnett, and ‘himself’. It’s not called ‘Dorothy and David’ – while it’s Dorothy’s story, it’s interesting to see how his role feeds into hers

You have three strands to him too – he plays the cellist she had a relationship with in Cardiff, who wasn’t her intellectual equal; David Garnett; and the actor Gwydion as well. He also represents the men in her life including her father, but we haven’t at this stage yet explored Gwydion’s role fully within the piece the way we have Dorothy’s.

‘Rhapsody’ premieres in May next year. Has the R&D process in November crystallised certain things for you and the team, and can you see aspects changing already?

We’re getting there! We will have 3 weeks to rehearse and there will be space between the R&D and then, where we can explore what we haven’t thought of yet. When you go back to something you’ve done before, you’re faced with these moments that you missed – time gives you the space to assimilate what works and what doesn’t. I’m so keen to produce work. I just want to get stuff out there all the time. I often feel like I’m treading water sometimes, when all I want to do is make new things.

The Monumental Welsh Women project

What are your plans for where ‘Rhapsody’ goes now, following the R&D?

What we like to do is to perform an extract as part of the Monumental Welsh Women week at the Wales Millennium Centre in March next year, because the event celebrates the lives of Welsh women that have been largely forgotten, then stage it at Chapter, and then look for other ways to perform extracts of it at festivals. I think you can take it to various places, tour it around Wales, Dublin Fringe, Edinburgh, maybe even Germany and the States.

What has surprised you the most, either about Dorothy’s story or the creative process?

The speed with which it developed over two weeks. We now have a script – the conversations I had with Gary and the performers created the script very quickly, and Gwenllian rose to the challenge so quickly. When you set a two-week development period, you expect to come out of it with a few scenes and themes – but as it was, we had the first draft of a script! The way the actors really entered into the whole piece, pleasantly surprised me. They just did it! The second act, which is basically a monologue, just poured out of them. My job is to allow that to happen, not to tell them what to do; to guide them so they do it themselves

What do you want people to take from it, and talk about at the bar?

I would like them to make connections with their own life; that’s the whole point – to see that what they’ve experienced on the stage e.g. I’ve been through that or thought that or felt like that. When you’ve done that, you’ve achieved a lot. I want them to take something of the play home with them. To me, that’s the nature of art: taking something and saying, I understand that. It’s like looking at a painting: even if you’ve never seen it before, there’s something of you in there that you recognise. Whenever I read a book or see a play, I visualise a place within my own life that I can place it in – it’s making a link between the general and the person, and it goes to your heart not your head. You can analyse things in your head, but when it really works is when it goes to your emotions.

Finding something that resonates on your frequency.

It’s indefinable – if you try to analyse it, it kills it. You don’t have to have a reason in art, sometimes there isn’t one: there’s an internal logic but it can’t be defined. You just have feel it.

Company of Sirens is working with Sight Life Wales to perform ‘How My Light Is Spent’ at Chapter on 18th and 19th November. Company of Sirens will restage ‘Stone the Crows’ in February 2023 (you can check out Get the Chance’s five-star review here) before premiering ‘Rhapsody’ in May.

GET THE CHANCE INTERVIEWS ROBERT WILFORT ON SPIKE (UK TOUR)

Get the Chance Community Critic Barbara Hughes-Moore speaks with actor Robert Wilfort, who plays the title role in SPIKE, a new play by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman which charts the rise of Spike Milligan and The Goons. Milligan was the head writer and one third of The Goons, a working-class British comedy trio which also comprised Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe (and, later, Michael Bentine), who took the nation by storm in the 1950s. Despite frequent run-ins with the BBC, The Goons’ avant-garde silliness inspired countless comedic greats from Monty Python to Mischief Theatre. The UK tour ends its run in Cardiff, playing at the New Theatre from 22 – 26 November (you can find out more about the production and book tickets here). Robert chats about what it’s like to play such a beloved icon of British comedy, and why Spike aficionados and newcomers alike will leave the theatre laughing!

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today, Robert!

Thank you for having me.

Tell us a little bit about SPIKE.

The Spike of the title is Spike Milligan, played by me. It’s a new play written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman written about Spike and The Goons, particularly focusing on the time round about when they were starting to become popular in the 1950s. For those of you who don’t know who Spike Milligan is, he’s a hugely influential comedian, writer, poet, performer who burst onto the scene in the early 1950s with this anarchic radio comedy show called The Goons which was quite unlike anything that came before it. It was hugely popular and hugely influential, so this play is exploring the development of that time and a celebration of his work.

How surreal does the play get? The Goons toyed with that kind of comedy.

They did! They were absolutely mad; they took these huge surreal logical leaps. We’re not too surreal: we try to tell the real story of his life, but we do have some fun surreal moments in the playing of it. Spike breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience quite a lot, and the staging is quite fast and fluid, and funny, strange things happen; we mix scenes together. There is a nice surreal thread running through the show.

How do you bring that into the creative process: is the comedy quite regimented or do you keep it quite loose?

We keep it fairly loose – if we interact with the audience we do have room to go off a bit, but we do tend to stick to the script! It’s a great script – the play is very fast and snappy so that was the thing we were trying to capture the most, because The Goons have a huge energy to them. Most of their clips are on BBC Sounds. They’re fast, snappy, they don’t let up with the jokes and we try to capture that energy in the play. If you don’t like one joke, there’s always another one along in a minute! I think what Ian and Nick wanted particularly to capture is that, when we see things on tv that talk about comedian’s life it’s often quite dark, tears of a clown – and Spike did have that side to him; he did have that side to him. He got shell shocked in WWII and had serious mental health issues throughout this life which he was always very honest about. We deal with them but we don’t dwell on them: the tone of the show is joyful and silly and happy, because I think that’s what people need at the moment.

Was it important then to bring those two tones together in the show?

That’s been the big challenge: finding when Spike is ‘on’, which he kind of always was. He was always funny and always telling jokes, he just couldn’t help it. But he could also be quite argumentative and difficult to work with and worked himself into a breakdown. He used to write an episode a week, thirty episodes in a series, and he pretty much did it on his own. It was his passion project, so he would just work and work and work. We showed the effect this had on his marriage. For me as a performer it was about finding the moments of being real as opposed to the jokes.

There are a lot of jokes, a lot of Spike’s jokes – Ian and Nick will freely say that they wrote this show because half of it was written already! We do also act out parts of Goons’ shows as well, with the microphones as if we’re recording them. So there’s a lot of original Spike material in there. It was all about finding the pattern, finding a real person in amongst all the jokes and the tomfoolery.

How do you even begin to approach playing a real person who is so eccentric, unique and beloved? What is your way into that?

When I was offered it, I thought ‘what a great part!’ then I started to get slightly worried because he’s one of the funniest people who has ever been – no pressure! I tried not to let that worry me too much. It helped that I was a fan and I knew his work, my dad was a big fan and he grew up listening to it first time around. I felt like I knew the style of the comedy and then I read and watched a lot about him. I knew his performing style but I wanted to try and find footage of him from the time. I think a lot of people have an image of him as a grumpy old man figure, but he was quite young when he started. So it was about trying to capture his energy and essence without trying to do a picture perfect impression. It’s our version of Spike, our story we’re telling. Ad it was really good fun to research – lots of silly videos!

How do you interact with the other cast members playing The Goons, and get that sense of camaraderie?

Luckily, everyone in the company is really lovely and naturally funny themselves, so it hasn’t been that much of a challenge to look like we’re having fun. It’s about getting the speed and the timing right so it feels like it’s flowing. We have some scenes where they are just messing about in the pub, because that’s how it started (and how a lot of great comedy starts: good friends messing around together in a pub!) Jeremy who plays Harry Secombe is fantastic; Paddy Warner who plays Peter Sellers is fantastic too – so it’s not been hard, we just kind of keep throwing things around and see what works. We still try and play around with it, never try to do it exactly the same every night but tweak it a bit and catch the other person off a little bit. It’s about trying to make other people laugh!

Is that one of the joys of touring this kind of show? That you not only play the different interpretations on the stage every night but different audiences react differently?

They do! That’s the fun: that every theatre presents a new challenge, and a different space and size. You have a different experience depending on where you are. We definitely notice that different towns have different feelings to them – I’m sure Cardiff’s going to be the best, though!

All my friends and family are coming to the Cardiff shows – I’m from Porthcawl so I grew up only half an hour down the road.

Have you ever performed in Cardiff before?

I haven’t performed onstage in Cardiff since I was in the National Youth Theatre – I’ve done TV and radio in Cardiff since but never a play, so I’m really looking forward to it. We’re there the last week in November, we finish on the 26th.

Just before Christmas!

Come and do your Christmas shopping on Queen Street and then see our show – it’s a great day out!

The Goons in 1956

Even if people didn’t grow up with The Goons, they will have grown up with those who were influenced by them, like Monty Python, Mischief Theatre and the Horrible Histories crew.

We acknowledge that at the end of the play, actually: just how many people have been influenced by him. The Goons started in 1950, so you had people like John Lennon and Paul McCartney listening to it, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, as well as all of the Pythons. I don’t think you would have had Monty Python and all of these people without Spike. You can hear the influences in later classic sketches, like ‘Don’t tell him your name, Pike!’, there’s a version of that on The Goons twenty years before Dad’s Army. People would gather round listen to it on the radio. It was like the rock and roll of comedy: the parents didn’t understand it, but they did. I think Ian and Nick thought Spike may have been forgotten – I’ve actually explained who he was to a lot of people my age.

Is that part of the impetus behind the show: to find out more about this person who influenced so much?

Yes! Also, it was an interesting and important time: all the Goons were in the army, and they would go and entertain the troops. The Second World War helped to create this whole generation of working-class actors, writers and performers. I can’t think of the same happening now: three working-class lads having their own sketch show seems like it would be rare now. It was an interesting and important time, and we want to celebrate that. Spike died 20 years ago, a whole generation have grown up not really knowing him, other than maybe doing his poems at school. We have had all ages in the audience! It’s a good night out for anyone whether you know the Goons or not.

Why is theatre suited to telling this story?

You get the instant reaction, the laughter. It could absolutely work as a TV project, it might have originated as that. Because there’s been no theatre for such a long time, and because there’s that communal feeling you can sense as the show goes on. Being in a space with other people all enjoying the same thing, I don’t think anything is quite like that.

What’s your favourite moment that’s happened so far?

We had a couple of drunk ladies in the front row the other week! That’s the joy of live performance – they were really enjoying it, and joining in. we had a strange moment in Brighton where a few kids broke into the theatre and were running around the royal boxes trying not to get caught! That’s all part of the joy: you never know quite what’s going to happen. The best moment for me is just having an audience being happy and entertained.

What makes you laugh like that? Who are your comedy influences?

My favourites are Vic and Bob! They were my heroes, along with people like Chris Morris (The Day Today, Brass Eye) and Steve Coogan. They have a special place in my heart: pure silliness, pure nonsense.

Speaking of Chris Morris, I often quote “Peter, you’ve lost the news!” out of context, totally unprompted. Do you have a favourite Spike Milligan joke that you find yourself dropping into conversation?

His poems always make me laugh: he has one that goes ‘There was a young man called Wyatt, whose voice was incredibly quiet, and then one day, it faded away, [mimes the rest of the line silently]’. It’s always the strange experimental moments in The Goons that make me laugh most: there’s a scene where a spy has been sent to the Secret Rendezvous, and the code is to knock the door six thousand times. It goes on for ages and the knocks get faster, then the door opens and he asks ‘Is this the Tea House of the Orchard Moon’? ‘No, next door’, and then he does it all over again! What the show deals with is how much Spike had to fight the BBC to get stuff like that on, because the bigwigs at the BBC didn’t understand the comedy. The core of the play is Spike’s battle with the BBC to get the show, and its special effects, how he wanted it.

He ended up transforming BBC sound effects. He’d ask for the most ridiculous things like Big Ben falling off Beachy Head, or a Wurlitzer organ travelling through the desert as fast as it can go. He was constantly pushing and challenging, and out of that came the radiophonic workshop and all the amazing things they did on Dr Who. He wasn’t just an influence on comedy but on radio and sfx as well.

What do you think is the secret of comedy: is it that boundary-breaking rebellion against authority that Spike embodied so well?

I think it is that. It can be saying the least expected thing or breaking the boundaries. Spike would find the surreal or the silly in anything: any turn of phrase he could make a pun out of. I think it is having a way that looks at the world that turns it on its head, that makes it come to your point of view. It doesn’t have to be taboo busting, though there is a place for that in comedy.

Spike wasn’t an overnight success: like all the best kind of artists, he spent years out on the comedy circuit and then people slowly came round to his style. I think the world came to Spike as opposed to the other way round; he didn’t emerge fully formed. He was aways funny; his war memoirs are always a great read because they’re very silly.

He has a joke even on his grave – “I told you I was ill!” – there’s not many people who could do that, and make you laugh long after they’re no longer with us.

And there’s not many people who could have got away with saying what he did to Prince Charles!

What do you want audiences to come out of this play, this theatrical comedy experience, to feel when they leave the theatre?

If we send people out there to explore his work who maybe wouldn’t have before, and to go back to The Goons as a lot of people haven’t listened to them. We just want to send people out happy, really. I want people to go out and say “That was the best actor I’ve ever seen in my entire life! Nothing will ever top that!” Send them out happy, and then dip their toes into this amazing world of comedy.

I’m sure they will, Robert – we can’t wait to see SPIKE!

Please come and see us, we’re really looking forward to Cardiff. My mum’s bringing a coachload of her friends to the Wednesday matinee. Fifty pensioners from Porthcawl!

I don’t think you could have a better audience!

The UK tour of SPIKE ends its run in Cardiff, playing at the New Theatre from 22 – 26 November (you can find out more about the production and book tickets here).

PREVIEW AN INSPECTOR CALLS, NEW THEATRE 18-22 OCTOBER

This is a syndicated interview for An Inspector Calls, which is performing at Cardiff’s New Theatre from 18-22 Oct 2022. The death of a young woman at a high-class dinner party summons Inspector Goole to the scene of the crime in JB Priestley’s classic thriller. Stephen Daldry’s multi award-winning National Theatre production returns to embark on a sweeping UK. Stars George Rowlands and Evlyne Oyedokun, discuss why it’s the ultimate theatrical thriller.

Did you study An Inspector Calls at school? If so, did you enjoy it when you first read it? Do you think your appreciation of the play is different as an adult?

George: I did read it at school, although I can’t really remember much of it. But I did always like it. I always think at school when you sit down and analyse every single word it can make you go a bit crazy, and I always thought it ruined books and plays. But now that I’m an adult, or more importantly now that I’m an actor, I definitely have more of an appreciation for it.

Evelyn: I actually didn’t study An Inspector Calls at school, I studied To Kill A Mockingbird. I’d heard about An Inspector Calls but I didn’t really know what it was, or really anything about it. It wasn’t until I got this audition that I actually read the play for the first time, and I still didn’t quite understand it. It took me a while to realise how many layers this play actually has.

This production of An Inspector Calls is now 30 years old and yet still as popular as ever. What do you think makes the play so timeless and this production so engaging?
Evelyn: Well, the fact that is has three timelines helps. It’s set across three timelines – you’ve got 1912 which is where the play is set, then you’ve got the future, which is the Blitz, 1945, and then you’ve also got the current now, 2022. It’s amazing. You’re flicking through the past, present and the now constantly, and it’s so reflective on humanity so it makes it so relevant, and people can really see themselves.

George: At the end of the day, at its centre it’s a play about somebody in distress, and that doesn’t get old, does it? I think at different points in time when we’ve put it on over the last 30 years, it’s been relevant. And this time around I think it’s more relevant than ever because of what’s going on in terms of the strike action and housing crisis.

Can you tell me three facts about your character?

George: Eric is well educated because he’s been sent to public school. He enjoys a drink, probably a little bit too much. The third fact is that Eric really wants to be respected by, namely his dad. Unfortunately, the combination of those three facts results in some pretty catastrophic things.

Evelyn: Three facts about Sheila… well she’s absolutely besotted with Gerald. She is very self-absorbed and in her own world, as she’s been brought up that way. She absolutely adores clothes. It’s hard to give facts without spoiling it!

What made you want to be an actor?

Evelyn: Oh gosh! With me, I actually didn’t ever want to be an actor, it happened by accident. From a young age I was struggling with people, and I never really spoke – I was pretty much mute to people I didn’t really know. My mum advised me to go and see a youth company at the weekends, so I did that, and I didn’t realise how natural it was to act as it is to live in the real world. I was a lot freer. That’s how I realised it’s the only thing I can do. Drama school taught me how to speak, and acting taught me how to be more of a human than I ever was.

George: I think it beat doing any other boring job. I did find out quite early on in Year 6, for the end of school plays we did Wizard of Oz and I completely rewrote the script because I thought it was rubbish, and obviously made my parts the best. I like storytelling and I like the creative and artistic aspect of it. With this production it has enabled that part of acting, and it’s been a really good creative process.

What’s the best part of about going on tour with a show?

Evelyn: It’s exciting to share a relevant story with so many people. We come to you guys, and you stay where you are.

George: Being able to play in these amazing theatres, I’m really excited to do that, and bringing the story to people.

Do you have any particular venues on this tour that you’re most excited to visit?

Evelyn: To be honest my main one would probably be New Wimbledon Theatre because it’s the one my mum will get to see.

George: Well, I’m excited about them all. But Bromley Churchill Theatre I have a funny connection with because I did a play there last year, in the studio. I was doing Macbeth at the time, and I think Jon Bishop was playing above us. They’d hired security and there were loads of people, and we were underneath doing sweaty Shakespeare in a room. And now cut to a year later and I’ve gone up, literally upstairs. I’m excited to do that, and I also love Bromley as I lived there for a while.

What advice would you give me about going on tour? Are there any essentials to have in your dressing room, or top tips for making yourself feel at home in each town/city?

Evelyn: I’m really bad at this stuff, a lot of people tend to make their dressing rooms cosy with nice blankets and things. I just bring everything that I have in my bag and that’s pretty much it. Some people put up fairy lights and flowers, but for me I’m very simple. With autism, as long as I’ve got really comfy clothes, a phone charger and headphones to cancel out sound, I’m all good.

George: I’m sharing a room with Simon who’s playing Gerald. I don’t know… I think a bottle of water goes a long way. A bottle of water and some Vaseline is not a terrible idea – for the lips, obviously. I get chapped lips.

What’s the most challenging part of being a performer?

Evelyn: For me it’s not being able to see your work or the story you’re creating because you’re so involved and living in the moment of it. You don’t really see the end result. I feel that the end result is mainly the response from the audience, if they got the story then we’ve done our job. I think that’s the most challenging part of it.

George: With other jobs you can put a direct amount of work in, you can work more, you can do this this and this and your results will be better because of it. Like if you’re studying for an exam, the more you revise the better the result. But with acting it doesn’t work like that because being good is so subjective – there’s no grade. I think that’s quite hard. Putting lots of work in and not knowing really how it will go.

Evelyn: One of the sayings at RADA was, ‘plan it, know it and forget it’ – it’s the hardest thing to do, but it’s the most rewarding thing to do.

If you could swap roles with the other person for a performance, would you?

Evelyn: If I had to be someone out of all the characters it would definitely be the inspector, because I’m obsessed with crime documentaries and serial killers, everything to do with murder, unsolved murder, unsolved mysteries, death row, all of that! I’ve pretty much seen everything and I rewatch it to
go to sleep.

George: If I could pick any character I’d probably pick Edna. I would love to play the role of Edna. If you haven’t seen this production, there’s a special thing that Edna is part of – a little bit of magic. She’s amazing. My second choice would be Mrs Birling. I really like Mrs Birling, she’s got such sass, and doesn’t have the insecurities that Eric is stuck with.

An Inspector Calls is playing at Cardiff’s New Theatre from 18-22 Oct 2022. You can find out more about the production and book tickets here.

Barbara Hughes-Moore interviews Rhys Jennings on When Darkness Falls

Get the Chance Community Critic Barbara Hughes-Moore speaks with actor Rhys Jennings, who is part of the touring cast for the When Darkness Falls. This spooky stage thriller is written by James Milton and Paul Morrissey, and is based around the legend of ‘Guernsey’s Ghosts’. The show is playing at the New Theatre Cardiff from 11 – 15 October (you can find out more about the production and book tickets here). Rhys chats about understudying the two lead roles, how the cast keeps it fun behind the scenes, and why you might just walk away from the show believing in ghosts yourself…

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Thank you for taking the time to sit down and speak with me today, Rhys.

Thanks, Barbara!

Tell us a little bit about When Darkness Falls.

When Darkness Falls is a two-hander ghost story set in the modern day but which brings up lots of stories of the past and hauntings and ghosts. It’s set on the island of Guernsey, so it takes all this local mythology and weaves it into a two act play over the course of one night. It aims to provoke debate about what ghosts are and what the paranormal is, but also with a few scares. It’s good fun!

So what is your role in the play and how did you get involved?

So I have a very interesting role. As I said, it’s a two hander and I am the solo understudy in this show. So it’s your classic two hander where you get an older and a younger actor so they needed someone halfway between through the two! It’s a very odd experience, actually: I’ve done a lot of understudying before, but this is basically an entire play, and you’re always on edge in case someone gets ill or is off, and up you go with not much rehearsal.

It’s really interesting, and it’s lovely to be part of such a small company as well, this is a very tight-knit group of people. We’re only a few weeks into the tour at the moment and everyone’s very close, and it’s a really fun company to be part of.

Peter Duncan and Daniel Rainford in When Darkness Falls

How do you manage to keep it fun behind the scenes when you’re in such a scary show?

I think the guys have really managed to just enjoy the text of it, because there’s lots of storytelling which could easily become very drab and dreary. It’s about two people interacting with one another, and how a story can trigger more memories. It’s been really fun to be part of that process and to be able to offer some input as well to the guys as they work.

Do you have a favourite role out of the two?

It’s tricky! Peter Duncan, who is famous for many things but many have a soft spot for his Blue Peter days, is playing the older part, and there’s an incredible young actor in his 20s called Daniel Rainford. So I think perhaps you’d put me in the younger part but I’m looking forward to one day playing the sort of roles Peter Duncan does. I do overall prefer the older role that is a storyteller and who has a bit of a mental breakdown throughout the course of the night. That’s more interesting to me, I think.

Have you performed at the New Theatre before?

I’ve performed in Cardiff before but never at the New Theatre! I’m really looking forward to coming to Cardiff, because I trained at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. It’s really nice to make a return visit because I haven’t done anything that’s come back to Wales for a good few years. I’m really excited to show the guys in the company around Cardiff.

Daniel Rainford and Peter Duncan in When Darkness Falls

What do you think Welsh audiences will take from the show?

While it’s set in Guernsey, it has a similar bucolic, rural feel and a lot of similar folklore and ghost stories. I think Welsh audiences will enjoy it for that. It’s quite a universal debate the characters are having over the course of the evening about what a ghost is: sometimes it’s repressed trauma and guilt, so a lot of that is very universal. It’s an interesting thing to watch.

Without spoiling anything, is there a particular moment you would want audiences to look out for?

That’s a really good question, because it’s one of those plays where audiences might think they know what’s going on – but if they pay attention they’ll be able to see the ending. It’s a bit like an Agatha Christie mystery: if you’re canny enough, by the end you get that real satisfaction of figuring out the ending. So listen and see if you can pick out a few of those themes that are repeated. Do a bit of detective work as an audience!

That’s a great challenge to give audiences! What do you think the secret is to make a good thriller in the theatre?

It is tricky! I think it’s all about suspense and rhythm, and also having two little stories going on: one where the audience might know a little more than the characters at certain moments and vice versa. It’s about who has the information, and you can gift that to an audience, make them feel that they know something that even the characters don’t. That can be really exciting for a thriller. Or you can have an object that has been in the background the whole play, and eventually pays off – in fact, we might have one of those in ours!

Peter Duncan and Daniel Rainford in When Darkness Falls

The last ‘spooky’ show I saw at the New Theatre was Ghost Stories, which was also made into a film – I didn’t sleep for a month!

I was involved in the film! I had a very last minute call from my agent asking me to fill in for an actor on the day of the cast readthrough. I’m still fairly early in my career, and I’m not in the finished film, but I was reading lines with Martin Freeman and all these amazing actors. I don’t know how I managed to get a ticket into that room, but that was a great experience.

So you were like a ghost: an unseen presence that kept the whole thing going?

Yes! I like the acting profession for all these strange little moments you have – it’s never boring. I straddle a bit of writing, a bit of acting and voiceover, and I like constantly dipping my toe into different things. You get all these strange, wonderful little anecdotes.

Does being involved in such different mediums – film, voiceover, theatre – give you different shades of ‘acting’?

Yes, and the things you learn from one thing help you in another. I got very into puppetry for a while and toured the world doing it, and it’s only much later when you’re doing something more text-based, that you suddenly realise the connections. Through the course of your career start putting things together in unexpected ways. It’s really fun. We’ll be performing in Guernsey a couple of weeks after Cardiff, and it’ll be interesting to see what different audiences react to. Different places have a different sense of humour. I’m really excited to see how Cardiff audiences will respond to it!

Daniel Rainford in When Darkness Falls

Is there something that really surprised you about being part of this show?

In the early part, I thought it was going to be very lonely as there’s not many people backstage. And while it can be lonely at times, I’m surprised by how much warmth and humour there is; a real camaraderie to the show and I feel very included in that. Theatre can sometimes be quite hierarchical: my first job was understudying in a show that had enormous stars all the way down to new graduates fresh out of Drama School, and there was quite a lot of hierarchy to that. Here, though there’s a difference in age between all of us, it feels like we’re working on this together. Especially after everything we’ve been through the last few years, it’s nice to be part of a family again.

What’s it like working with a household name like Peter Duncan?

I’m not quite in the generation that grew up with Peter, but in my generation of Blue Peter presenters they would talk about his adventures, like him scaling Big Ben. There are lots of stories and ancedotes that Peter is just brilliant at: listening to him, you get the sense that Peter would go over to someone and say ‘I’ll give you a Blue Peter badge if you help my friend’. It feels like a skill we could all do with!

What’s coming up for you after this tour?

I’ve spent a long time writing a musical called The Wicker Husband, which opened at the Watermill Theatre earlier this year, and hopefully it will have a future life as it’s a beautiful thing. Do keep an eye out for it: it’s about an old basket maker deep in the swamp who weaves creatures out of wicker who come to life, and he weaves a beautiful husband for a girl who everyone thinks is ugly, so much so that she thinks herself that she’s ugly. Throughout the course of this beautiful musical, she learns that there’s no such thing as ugly; that ugliness isn’t something you can see.

Three words that sum up When Darkness Falls for you.

Surprising, suspenseful, curious.

Do you believe in ghosts?

Do you?

Yes.

Do you really? That line actually pops up in the play.

Do you think that audiences will believe in ghosts after this show?

I think those that are skeptical will be more open to the idea that ghosts can mean. ‘What are ghosts?’ is an interesting question to go in with.

Thank you, Rhys – we can’t wait for the show!

INTERVIEW WITH JAY OSMOND, THE OSMONDS: A NEW MUSICAL UK TOUR

What follows is Vicky Edwardssyndicated interview with Jay Osmond.

Jay Talking
They say you should never meet your heroes, but seriously? I mean, asking a 70s kid to interview an ACTUAL Osmond? The guy who sang Crazy Horses?  WILD horses wouldn’t have stopped me.

Any fears about heroes having feet of clay prove unfounded. Jay Osmond is lovely.  Meeting me to chat about the World premiere of The Osmonds: a New Musical, I’m curious about the show he calls a ‘living memoir.’

“I wrote this book called Stages about my life. It turned into more of a travelogue, so I always wanted to do a backstage version that included not only the good times, but the bad and sad times too,” he explains.

A friend and producer of Jay’s had an idea. “He said ‘why don’t you write a living memoir and put it on stage?’ And I thought ‘Exactly!’ I have always loved the stage – for me it was one last frontier to conquer.

“I wrote it from the heart. It was hard; I had to play my drums a lot to get my emotions out, but it all boiled down to this: why did we do what we did? It was because we wanted to help people; to use those talents to do some good in the world. I wanted to put that purpose into the show. I think you can do almost anything in life if you have a purpose.”

And you’d need a sense of purpose to get 30+ songs and Jay’s story into a two-hour production.

“It was a challenge,” he admits. “It’s about the four brothers who were at the start. I was one of them. The story starts at the 50th anniversary and then goes way back. Each of us has a different perspective, so this is very much my perspective; hard times, fun times, why we did what we did and how we did it as a family.”

The result is a show that, by all accounts, has broad appeal. Great music and a great story, in which Jay pulls back the curtain to reveal the real family behind all these hits – parents George and Olive Osmond and their nine children; it taps into something richer and is a show that will speak to everyone.

Shrugging modestly, Jay concedes only that “Our music really is multi-generational.”

He’s more effusive, however, about the show’s creative team, praising them and recalling the moment during the workshopping process when he realised that they had created something special.  

“To see people laugh, cry and sing along – I knew then that it would work. We have been so blessed with the talented people involved.”

Jay started his barbershop quartet with Brothers Alan, Wayne and Merrill. They had no idea they would go on to become one of the most famous groups in history. Singing initially to fund hearing aids for their two older brothers, Virl & Tom, they were discovered by Walt Disney in 1961. Mentored by Walt, they were invited to appear on The Andy Williams show, achieving global fame. Adding brother Donny to the group, international tours and high profile TV appearances followed. Selling millions of records worldwide, earning dozens of awards and more than fifty gold and platinum records, The Osmonds remain pop royalty.

And even though he was voted one of the top 10 drummers in the country during the 1970s, co-wrote many of The Osmonds’ hit records and choreographed their shows – as well as being an accomplished TV producer – Jay brushes off his achievements. And again, the modesty is authentic. Our Jay is not a man who puts on an ‘interview’ persona. The kindness and warmth is sincere – and never more so than when he talks about the fans.

“We call them friends, not fans,” he corrects me gently, “and we hear them when they tell us that our music helped them at difficult times in their lives.”

Their ‘friends’, it transpires, were a big part of the decision to premiere the show in the UK.

“This is where our family was so welcomed. Osmond-mania kind of happened everywhere, but there was something about the UK; our family was so accepted and so loved here. We have been to almost every place on the tour list at some point and they are places that hold so many memories. We’ll go to Canada and America too, sure, but it feels right to begin here.”

It also feels like the perfect show for a world emerging from the misery of the pandemic.

“I think it really is,” he says, smiling. “I want it to be a celebration of helping people out. I want people to walk out of the theatre feeling lifted and excited about life; to feel joy. That’s my goal. I am humbled by the fact that we have been blessed with people who have loved our music and that we might have played a small part in their lives when they have faced challenges. I want them to know how much they have helped me and my family. They are part of The Osmonds. It will feel like a high school reunion when they come to the show!”

Or as one ‘friend’ said to Jay recently: “This is not just your story; it’s ours too.”

And that’s something he’s very respectful of. But then respect has always been important to The Osmonds.

“It’s a really big part of our belief system and of our perception. We had talent, but we didn’t do what we did to be famous or to make money; we did it to serve people. When we collected our People’s Choice Award, immediately after, Mom and Dad reminded us to do our chores. Our parents always reminded us what was important: Do what is right and the consequences follow. We have had to make a lot of choices along the way, but it’s been a great journey.”

Ah, but it’s not over yet, Jay. Next stop the show. And it looks set to be a spectacular jaunt down Osmond memory lane.

Take 5: five quick-fire questions for Jay Osmond

What’s your favourite Osmonds song and why?

Love me for a Reason. Because ‘let the reason be love’ is a message that is so powerful. But Crazy Horses would be my next choice.

You did karate as a young man. Still doing the fancy kicks?

No, not nowadays. But I keep fit. I’m a walker – I love to walk. And I love football. I’m also doing the Pure Trim diet at the moment. It’s organic and very pure and I have lost 30lb in the last 6 months.  

Big families usually mean hand-me-downs. Did you have hand-me-downs?

We had so many clothes thrown at us in the 70s that we didn’t need to hand down. But when I look back at some of the things we wore – wow! But hey, it was the 70s and we all wore crazy stuff. I can’t wait for people to see the costumes in this show!

What’s your most memorable moment of being in The Osmonds?

So many, but one that stands out is the night we went to watch Led Zeppelin in concert. We were introduced to the guys and they were just the nicest people! Robert Plant asked us to join them on stage for Stairway to Heaven. We weren’t sure that their audience would appreciate us, but eventually we said OK. Robert introduced us as his brand new friends. I played percussion and conga. It was incredible!

What is your philosophy for life?

Go about life and do good. Because when you do good, you feel good. And have a purpose. Be a light to others. To me, that’s the goal in life. It’s the key.

How do you want people to be feeling when they have seen your show?

I want people to walk out of the theatre feeling lifted and excited about life; to feel joy. That’s my goal.

The Osmonds: A New Musical is playing at the New Theatre Cardiff from Tue 4 October – Sat 8 October

INTERVIEW WITH GARETH MALONE, SING-ALONG-A-GARETH! UK TOUR

What follows is Richard Barber’s syndicated interview with Gareth Malone, who is touring his new Sing-Along-A-Gareth! show throughout the UK this autumn

He’s taken the Military Wives to the top of the charts. He’s had us all singing from our kitchens during the pandemic. Now the irrepressible Gareth Malone, choirmaster extraordinaire, will be spreading joy the length and breadth of the land together with his band, four professional singers and a choir, local to each venue, on a tour of Britain’s theatres.

Sing-Along-A-Gareth! (“I like the fact it’s got Gaga in the middle,” he says, with a smile) opens at The Lowry in Salford on October 26, taking in, among others, Liverpool, Cardiff, Bath, Norwich and London at the Cambridge Theatre on December 5, before coming to a rapturous climax in Poole on December 16.

“I’ve been involved in choirs for many years now,” says Gareth, “and then along came performance stuff on TV. But I’d never quite married the two together although, on previous tours, there was always audience participation, moments when I’d encourage people to join in with the singing.”

During the pandemic. singing was as good as banned. Then came the Great British Home Chorus which saw thousands of people around the country sing with Gareth from their kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms.  Every day at the same time, Gareth would bring joy through music into people’s homes reaching an average of 20,000 live viewers every rehearsal.

So, was a tour part of the plan? ‘I promised myself that once lockdown was over, I’d get back on the road and get out in front of audiences. I wanted to hear people singing again and to entertain them’.

As soon as he put the word out, he started receiving messages from people saying their whole choir would be there. “I love that. I see this tour as a celebration of people coming together after all those months of isolation. It’s certainly the first time for almost three years that I’ll have been on the road performing in public.”

Gareth Malone

The first half of the show will see Gareth, and a group of singers and musicians, perform songs he’s sung over the last fifteen years as well as some tracks he performed with the nation during lockdown. Playing piano, guitar and bass, Gareth will tap into the musical talents of the audience to write their own songs composing something special and unique to every venue. In Cardiff, it might be about Cardiff Bay.

The second half will see a local choir from each venue perform with Gareth, continuing the fun and bringing people together. Improving mental health, wellbeing and happiness, singing encourages a real sense of community, something that was so lacking during the pandemic. Gareth is happy to bring back that sense of togetherness with a feel-good evening of upbeat fun tracks we all know and love which everyone can easily sing along to.

He’s put together a song list, available now online, for the show. “I’m adding to it all the time but it’s guaranteed to include arrangements for some of those numbers people will be familiar with from Home Chorus.

So, what will audiences be singing?

“Elton John’s I’m Still Standing for its positive message,” he says, “and Walking On Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves for its joyful optimism.” There will also be Hey Jude (arm-waving obligatory) and Wake Me Up, the Avicii song sung by Gareth’s All Star Choir which topped the charts in 2014 when it became that year‘s Children In Need anthem.

“And I’d have to have Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Then, of course, there will always be a place for Wherever You Are, the song that propelled Gareth’s Military Wives choir to Number One at Christmas 2011, selling more than the rest of the Top 12 combined.

He’ll also be including Fields of Gold, made famous by Sting. “It’s a beautiful and uplifting song, a particular favourite of mine and with a quality that will resonate with everyone, in my opinion, particularly if they were to think of the loss of the Queen.

“I was sitting on the sofa a moment ago, playing it on my guitar, and it’s one of those songs that you can read in a number of ways. There’s a haunting quality to it, something that evokes memories, both happy and sad.”

From as far back as he can remember, he says, Gareth always wanted to do something a bit out of the ordinary with his life. His father worked in a bank; his mother was a civil servant. At secondary school, he grew increasingly enamoured of performing: in plays and orchestras and jazz bands and pop groups.

“Choir was like the background of my everyday life. I’d go in at ten past eight and we’d sing for about forty minutes every morning except Friday when there was a school assembly which I hated. That was seven years at a very formative stage.

“I wasn’t quite sure where any of it would lead. I did a drama degree but, when I came back from university, I realised that music was missing from my life. My epiphany came in a concert. I sang a note which seemed to reverberate off the rafters and, on the walk home, I made up my mind I was going to be a professional musician.”

At the London Symphony Orchestra, he ran a number of educational workshops. When someone said they were starting a community choir and would he like to run it, he didn’t need to be asked twice. “In the end, I ran two choirs: one for adults, one for children.” It’s how he came to the attention of the BBC. “And that’s how Gareth Malone, choirmaster, was born.”

He’s a natural performer, something that was traced back to his mother’s father, Teddy, when Gareth was the subject of BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are?. “My grandfather was the sort of man who’d dance round the lawn in his underpants to make everyone laugh.”

In much the same way, Gareth enjoys working with an audience. “On this upcoming tour, I’ll be encouraging people to help me make up a song about their local town or city. So, in Bristol, it might be something to do with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I like that interaction, the sense that you’re taking the crowd with you.

“The nice thing about a tour is that, if the lights went out, I’ve got my guitar so I could sit at the front of the stage and we could all sing a song together. It’s organic. I love the immediacy of a live audience.

“But I couldn’t possibly have predicted that, one day, I’d be going on tour, for instance, and filling theatres with people singing at my behest. I’m doing what I really love. I’ve been very, very lucky.”

The only possible downside in a life of wraparound music is that, nine years ago, Gareth was diagnosed with tinnitus. “I had an ear infection in 2013 which left me with a ringing in my right ear. But I’m lucky in that it’s not hearing loss and lucky, too, that’s it’s very mild – like a high-pitched whistle in one ear – because it can be very isolating and, at its worst, send you round the twist.

“Plenty of people respond to music that’s bone-shakingly loud. Not me. I look after my hearing. There’s been no degeneration in my hearing for some years now. And, given what I do for a living, that’s got to be a good thing.”

Recently, Gareth had special ear moulds made that let in the good sounds, as he puts it, and keep out the dangerous frequencies. “I wore them to a gig recently and it was such a nice experience.

“I shall be conscious of that on the tour. For me, volume does not equal quality. You can be moved by two recorders being played without amplification in the Barbican hall, for instance. It can be rhythmical and intense and it can still excite your brain which is where all music happens.”

But isn’t Sing-Along-A-Gareth! going to be a rather noisy affair? “No, it won’t be damagingly loud. A thousand people singing along together needn’t be deafening although a lot of people clapping really loudly can test me to the limit. So, no one should be put off if they see me putting my fingers in my ears.”

He skids to a halt, quickly adding: “Not that I’m discouraging applause, of course.”

Sing-Along-A-Gareth is playing at the New Theatre Cardiff for one night only on Tuesday 8th November 2022. For tickets to Sing-Along-A-Gareth!: visit garethmalone.com

Cher and Cher alike: An Interview with Director Arlene Phillips

What follows is a syndicated interview with The Cher Show director Arlene Phillips.

The Cher Show is a brand new musical which tells the life story of the legendary recording artist, and is packed with 35 of her biggest hits, including ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’, ‘I Got You Babe’, ‘The Shoop Shoop Song’ and ‘Believe’. With book by Tony and Olivier Award-winning Rick Elice (Jersey BoysThe Addams Family), direction by Arlene Phillips (Saturday Night FeverStarlight Express), choreography by Oti Mabuse (two-time Strictly Come Dancing champion) and costume design by Gabriella Slade (SixIn The Heights), The Cher Show is playing at Cardiff’s New Theatre between 23 – 27 August and continues touring around the UK and Ireland through to 1 April 2023.

Both have successful decade-spanning careers. Both are driven and fiercely independent. And then there’s the mutual love of sequins. Arlene Phillips talks to Vicky Edwards about Girl Power, refusing to act her age and why The Cher Show is an unmissable and fabulously feel-good extravaganza.

“I loved Cher’s music from the first time I heard it, but it’s more than that;

Cher is an icon,” says Arlene, confessing that she is thrilled to be directing The Cher Show.

“I am so excited! Cher is a woman who right from the start of her career was ahead of her time. She’s had hits in every decade, she’s a great actress and she’s whip-smart. She has also been a great pioneer for women’s rights. If there’s something to shout about then Cher shouts about it.”

All of which results in an international following that transcends age, gender and race. And now the show that carries her name seems set to do likewise. Having debuted on Broadway in 2018, earning two Tony Awards, Arlene’s production of The Cher Show marks the European premiere. Telling how Cherilyn Sarkisian went from truck driver’s daughter with big dreams to the Oscar-winning Goddess of Pop and Queen of Reinvention, Cher takes the audience by the hand and introduces them to the influential people in her life; from her mother and Sonny Bono to fashion designer and costumier Bob Mackie.  Recalling how she battled the men who underestimated her and defied convention, the story is told, Arlene explains, as if Cher is looking back on her life.

“There is a great story running through as she looks back at the moments where she made an impact, whether through a relationship, a hit, a movie or fashion. We want the audience  to embrace her story and have a good time.”

And a soundtrack of all her hits? Arlene is quick to reassure:

“Oh yes. There are so many hits and the show will have a great party feel to it, as the story builds and builds, finishing in a full-on full-out concert.”

And if all that weren’t enticing enough, joining Arlene on the journey are some impressive names. Written by Olivier and Tony Award-winning Rick Elice (who also wrote Jersey Boys and The Addams Family), choreography is by double Strictly Come Dancing champion Oti Mabuse.

 “Oti’s choreography is SO exciting! She is really gifted and people are going to see something that hasn’t been seen before,” promises Arlene, who as one of the world’s most respected choreographers is, let’s face it, pretty well-placed to make such a pronouncement.

And of course you can’t possibly tell Cher’s story on stage without fabulous costumes. Enter costume designer Gabriella Slade, the super-talented creator of costumes for international smash hits including Six, In the Heights and the 2019 Spice World tour. 

“The impact Cher has made in fashion has been enormous. She isn’t afraid to say I want to stay as young as possible for as long as possible and she isn’t afraid to wear the fantastic clothes and look as glamorous as can be. We have phenomenal costumes from Gabi – the details are incredible. It’s a feast of costumes!”

With a female icon as the subject of the show and Arlene, Oti and Gabriella all adding their superpowers to the mix, there’s definitely a whiff of Girl Power about the show.

“I love that,” beams Arlene, who admits that directing rather than choreographing does require a gear shift.

“It is different, but mainly it’s about how you tell the story. With choreography you look at the story, but you listen to the music. As a director you look at the story and then you use the music to help you tell the story; you’re really conscious of seeing the arc all the way through. The audience have to fall in love with the star and find things out about Cher that they didn’t already know.”

Both she and Cher are fiercely independent women. Does Arlene identify with, as well as admire, Cher?

“I totally identify with Cher in that I want to continue doing what I do for as long as I can and not be defined by my age. I am enjoying life and if I can make an impact in some way then I will.” 

With over 100 million record sales and heaps of prestigious awards, including recognition from The Council of Fashion Designers of America, Cher has certainly influenced popular culture more than most. 

“The invention and the reinvention and the ability to use her body in a powerful way is inspirational,” sighs Arlene, going on to tell me that The Cher Show has had a little reinvention of its own, having been reworked since its award-winning Broadway run.

“We have clarified every detail and I can’t wait for people to see it,” she says, passing me a list of the venues that the show will play.

“There are so many theatres on this tour that are special to me, but every theatre is making sure that they are Covid-safe and that audiences feel confident about visiting them. I hope people will support their local theatre. There really is no substitute for live performance and I urge people to go and feel the love and warmth of this show.”

Adding that she sees the production as being “absolutely a show for now,” she continues:  “Escapism is a wonderful mind-healer, and that’s what you get with The Cher Show.  We’re all more fragile than we’ve ever been before and the future feels unsure. This is a show that brings pure post-pandemic joy.  People will go home having laughed, possibly having shed a tear and dancing up the aisles. They can put aside their worries and in that moment they’ll be wrapped up in this extravaganza of a show!”

The Cher Show UK & Ireland Tour is produced by ROYO with Fiery Angel, Cuffe & Taylor/LIVE NATION and Playing Field in association with Tilted, Aria Entertainment and JONES Theatrical Group. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram: @TheCherShowUK

Here, Cher and Everywhere: An Interview with Choreographer Oti Mabuse

What follows is a syndicated interview with The Cher Show choreographer, Oti Mabuse.

The Cher Show is a brand new musical which tells the life story of the legendary recording artist, and is packed with 35 of her biggest hits, including ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’, ‘I Got You Babe’, ‘The Shoop Shoop Song’ and ‘Believe’. With book by Tony and Olivier Award-winning Rick Elice (Jersey Boys, The Addams Family), direction by Arlene Phillips (Saturday Night Fever, Starlight Express), choreography by Oti Mabuse (two-time Strictly Come Dancing champion) and costume design by Gabriella Slade (Six, In The Heights), The Cher Show is playing at Cardiff’s New Theatre between 23 – 27 August and continues touring around the UK and Ireland through to 1 April 2023.

A bundle of zesty energy, Oti Mabuse may be on a rare day off when we meet but she’s still operating at warp speed. But then the double Strictly Glitterball champion has good reason to be so happy and animated.

Currently revving up for the hotly anticipated brand new production of The Cher Show, directed by national dance treasure Arlene Phillips and with a book by Tony and Olivier Award-winning Rick Elice (of Jersey Boys fame), Oti will be choreographing the show, which will tour until April 2023.

Telling the story of the Armenian American truck driver’s shy daughter who rose to global stardom, The Cher Show charts superstar Cher’s meteoric rise to fame. And of course there is a cracking soundtrack. Packed with 35 of her biggest hits, it’s part show and part party. 

“It’s the story that so many women connect with, but it’s also the songs and the clothes. It will be epic!” beams Oti, adding: “It has to be bigger than anything because it’s her; it has to live up to Cher’s iconic status. Shehas been such an inspiration to so many people and this musical is going to be a celebration of everything people love about her.”

And so it’s down to Oti to weave that star quality into the choreography – a challenge that she is absolutely thrilled with.

“What I love about choreography is that, when I’m dancing, I am only part of the picture, but when you are choreographing, there are so many elements that are so exciting. Creating a storyline through dance means you go through the smallest details – is there a connection or a secret between the dancers that we need the audience to share? What props are there? What is the dancer at the back of the stage doing?”

As for the music, Oti’s exuberance ratchets up yet another notch when we start talking about Cher’s hits.

“I grew up with a family that always listened to music and we all loved Cher’s music. Her songs have stories behind them and I LOVE choreography that has a story behind it! It has an intention you can then give to the movement. It makes everyone in the theatre part of the story. And everyone connects to Cher’s music because it is timeless. SHE is timeless!

“The show starts from the beginning of her life and comes to present day, so if you don’t know Cher’s story you will learn it. There are so many great songs that will make people feel uplifted too. And the show is going to almost every theatre in the country because Cher is an international phenomenon!”

But while she won’t be on the road with The Cher Show, Oti will be touring with her own dance production, I Am Here.

“This is very exciting because it’s my first official tour. It’s such an honour. It’s going to be loud, funny and truthful, and people will meet the real me. We have a live band, great music and a cast of great dancers.

“I love touring and the audiences make it for me. People have paid to come and be entertained and it’s lovely to do that; to create a memorable moment in their lives.”

And, it seems, Oti relishes the educational aspect of touring life.

“I love learning and when you tour in the UK you learn crazy things like whether you put cream or jam on a scone first! I love hearing the different accents and the different way people greet each other depending where you are.”

With an infectious chuckle she adds: “I think touring is the best way to understand human beings!”

“All the theatres my shows are visiting are so supportive of people who come to put a show on; they are so welcoming and so, so hard working. After lockdown and the terrible time that theatres had, it is so lovely to be taking The Cher Show and Here I Am on tour.”

But even with two stage shows hitting the road, human dynamo Oti is still thinking ahead.

“I have a lot of things that I want to achieve in life and I am lucky that my parents raised me to be driven and ambitious. But my goals come from a good place and I really enjoy the journey of pursuing my dreams. Anyone who hires me knows that I will be the hardest working person in the place. For instance, there were very few books about dancing for children, so I wrote one.”

And that’s by no means all. Born in South Africa in 1990, Oti has been dancing since childhood. From making a name for herself in South Africa as the undefeated  eight-time South African Latin American champion, she also managed to train as a Civil Engineer while competing in dance competitions. Winning awards and championships across Europe, TV soon beckoned and Oti joined the German version of Strictly Come Dancing. After two successful seasons, she joined the original BBC version of the show. Winning the coveted trophy in 2019 with actor Kelvin Fletcher, the following year Oti became the first Strictly Pro ever to win the Glitterball two consecutive years, alongside her partner Bill Bailey. TV and theatre work continues to flood in, which she juggles with running The Oti Mabuse Dance Studio, but, I ask, was performing always the dream?

“I wanted to go into Musical Theatre straight from High School, but my mum said I should be first academic and then pursue my passions. Since she was paying the bills, I didn’t have much choice!”

Reflective for a moment, she adds: “Engineering and dance are both about problem solving and precision and I love them both equally. I’d love to do a TV show about it.”

 A TV show about engineering told through the medium of dance? If anyone can pull that off then it’s Oti. Stand by for the Reinforced Concrete Rumba…

The Cher Show UK & Ireland Tour is produced by ROYO with Fiery Angel, Cuffe & Taylor/LIVE NATION and Playing Field in association with Tilted, Aria Entertainment and JONES Theatrical Group. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram: @TheCherShowUK

PREVIEW: Interview with Footloose designer Sara Perks

What follows is a syndicated interview with Footloose designer Sara Perks

Following two critically acclaimed tours and huge popular demand, Footloose The Musical is back and better than ever! Touring the UK until August.

This brand-new production of Footloose is created by Sara Perks who has designed in the region of 250 productions. Sara has been nominated for Broadway World Awards, a Whats On Stage Award and an Offies Award. She holds an Edinburgh Fringe First; The John Elvery Theatre Design Award and a Vision Design (Costume) Award from the BBC.

We spoke with her to find out more about the life of a Theatre Designer and to find out more about her inspiration for the Footloose Uk Tour.

Can you tell us a little bit about life as a theatre designer – what made you go into this field and who or what were your inspirations

At the moment it’s very busy but it tends to be a bit ‘feast or famine’.  Currently I’m working on four shows which are all at different stages in the process.  For me Covid has meant that all my work suddenly got bunched up together which makes for a lot of plate spinning and juggling of schedules.

My inspirations were and still are the ability to create a live experience that an audience is able to experience together and enjoy together in the same room.  To be connected to something visceral that is happening in front of them – nothing will ever replace that.

You have designed both the costumes and the set for this brand-new production. What is the process of making this happen?

A designer’s process follows a set of deadlines really.  I discuss the needs and wants of the production with producers and the director initially, then filtering in what the choreographer, musical director and lighting designer would like to achieve. 

All of this along with my own creative reaction to the piece results in a preliminary design – a ‘white-card’ model box which is a scale model of the proposed design at 1:25, with technical drawings.  This is then commented upon by the creative team and producers and roughly costed, because of course there is a budget attached to every production that needs to be considered as well.

I would then take the design and model to the next stage – a final.  This would be in full colour with all the chosen finishes and renders. This is then costed and signed off precisely. 

An independent scenic workshop is selected on tender to build.  From that point I work between them, the production manager, the rest of the creative team and rehearsals to try to ensure everything is on track, and make sure information and alterations proceeds as required

And that is just the set.  What about costumes?

Amongst this whole process (which can span over years or just weeks depending on the size of project) I’m busy designing costume. There are similar deadlines, but these tend to be a bit more fluid especially if it is a show that is more based on sourcing vintage items to buy, rather than having a lot of costumes made.

Footloose being set in the 80s was almost all vintage sourcing so I worked very closely with a costume supervisor, my right hand really when it comes to costume, to make that happen.  We shop, buy online, fit and alter, adapt and repurpose all through the rehearsal process and well into the technical rehearsals in order to create the right looks.

It’s a big cast – how many costumes were sourced and created?

After we got past 80+ we stopped counting!

Can you tell us about what audience expect to see in terms of design and what helped to influence this.  Can we expect a real 80’s vibe?

When we started the process (over 2 years ago – a small thing called a pandemic got in the way!) the restyling 80s retro look was very in vogue. 

We looked at shows like Stranger Things and 2 years later – Sex Education, in the way that they are clearly 80s but restyled with a modern eye, and not completely slavish to period.  It was all about looking cool and right for character.

However I’m old enough to the remember the film when it came out and was the same age as the characters in the 80s so my own experience went to some of the costume and hair inspiration!

In regard to the set the inspiration for it really is the classic iron rivetted bridges that you find all over America spanning rivers and gorges.  Like the Potanwey bridge that is mentioned by Ariel in relation to her brother.  The Williamsburg bridge in New York is another example.

The bridge and town limits are central to the plot of the show and why the town of Bomont is under restrictions on socialising, so it seemed a good metaphor to use as a frame for the whole concept.

Do you have a favourite costume in the show?

I love Wendy-Jo’s yellow jumpsuit; and there are several great classic 80s prom dresses in purple; green and cerise, but I think the Rev’s white sequin jacket for the mega mix would have to be the favourite.  And Darren Day wears it so well!

Many might say ‘the gold pants’ (and those who see the show will know why!)  Tell us a bit about the gold pants! Although most of the design is new they’ve been revived from previous productions is that right?

These are a bit of a ‘surprise’ in the show – I  won’t give it away completely – but they always go down a storm with audiences so we decided to keep it in for this new production.  For me it’s the highlight of the show!

Finally, what would be your top tip for audience members who might come along dressed up for the show – how do you create the perfect ‘Footloose’ outfit?

It’s not just a pair of legwarmers or neon socks.  You could choose to go full ‘cowboy’ and join in with some line dancing at the ‘bbq’ at the start of the 2nd half; or grab a taffeta block colour party dress or ra-ra skirt for the prom.  If you want a more tailored look a velvet or sequin tux with jeans would fit right in as well.

Based on the 1980s screen sensation which took the world by storm, Footloose The Musical sizzles with spirit, fun and the best in UK musical talent. With cutting edge modern choreography, you’ll enjoy classic 80s hits including Holding Out for a Hero, Almost Paradise, Let’s Hear It For The Boy and of course the unforgettable title track Footloose.

Everybody cut loose for a night of dazzling excitement music and dancing!  

For full listings visit www.footloose-musical.com  follow on social media @FootlooseTour  #EverybodyCutLoose

PREVIEW: Interview with Footloose star Darren Day

What follows is a syndicated interview with Footloose star Darren Day

Following two critically acclaimed tours and huge popular demand, Footloose The Musical is back and better than ever! Touring the UK until August. TV star and musical theatre favourite Darren Day joins the cast of the tour as Rev. Moore and we caught up with him to find out a little more about the tour and his role in the show. 

You’re back on the road In Footloose The Musical how does it feel to be back on tour?

We were about to go into rehearsals for Footloose when the Pandemic hit and the tour was rescheduled a few times before dates were set for our 2022 opening, almost a full two years later than originally planned and it is amazing to be back out there with the show.

2020 was devastating for us all.  But coming out of the other end things have really started moving quickly for me. Having not been able to perform during the pandemic, going back on stage and being part of a big musical feels so magical, in the way it felt when I landed the role of Joseph at the Palladium at the beginning of my career.  

I recently finished the UK tour of Chicago which was brilliant and during that tour I saw a genuine thirst for live theatre so couldn’t be more delighted than to move straight into another tour with Footloose.

In all of my years as a performer in Musical Theatre I don’t think I have jumped straight from one tour into another… I feel very lucky.

Can you tell us a little bit about this tour of Footloose?

This production of Footloose is particularly a special, even if you have seen it before you will want to see it again… and this new version will blow you away.  It’s been reworked with a new set, new costumes. The lot. 

Racky Plews, who’s directing, has brought an edgy and exciting new take on the show. She’s been working closely with the writer of the original movie and songs, Dean Pitchford and his input into this new production has been invaluable.

The cast and the whole team on this are truly ‘the cream of the crop’ a really gifted bunch of performers. Acting, singing, dancing and playing instruments throughout the show.

And what about your role as the Reverend?

I’m so happy to be playing the Reverend. Over a decade ago I met with the producers for Footloose and Chicago within about three months of each other. I was told I didn’t look old enough! So … the only downside of me playing these two roles back-to-back is that I must now look ‘old enough!!’

Since those meetings all those years ago Billy Flynn and the Reverend have been on my bucket list of roles I desperately wanted to play, so to get the opportunity to play them both in one year is incredibly exciting for me and I feel deeply grateful.

Having a teenage daughter myself (in real life!) I have a lot of ‘method’ experience to draw upon! It’s tough letting your ‘little princess’ out into the big bad world!

What do you think keeps Footloose so fresh and keeps audiences coming back for more?  

The great thing about Footloose which I think separates it from other ‘jukebox’ shows is that Dean Pitchford wrote the songs specifically for the movie. So, not only are these songs instantly recognisable the second the intro to them begins. they also carry the plot forward in a very truthful way. Apologies for that sounding incredibly ‘arty’ and ‘theatrical’ But they do!

In the show there are these massive hit tunes that everyone recognises along with a strong and beautiful storyline.  It’s a really feel-good show – no doubt about it.  

Do you have a favourite moment in the show?

I guess one of my favourite moments in the show is my solo song ‘Heaven Help Me’ It’s a brilliant tune with beautifully written lyrics. Also the poignant moments with the Reverend’s daughter are lovely to play – and the revelations that happen to him.  

My favourite moment in the rehearsal room was when I sat and watched the cast perform the opening number of the title song. I got goosebumps and thought to myself if this is how it feels in a rehearsal room the way it’s going to feel with a set, costumes and on a stage with an audience will be breath-taking.

Finally – why do you think people should come and see Footloose this year across the UK?

You are going to have the most incredible night. You’re going to hear songs that are instantly recognisable, and I challenge you not to sing along to them. There are big numbers, there’s a beautiful story going on, the cast are ridiculously talented.  You’ll leave the theatre buzzing after having a very special night out.  We will have a ball and I can’t wait to see everyone up on their feet at the end to cut loose!

Based on the 1980s screen sensation which took the world by storm, Footloose The Musical sizzles with spirit, fun and the best in UK musical talent. With cutting edge modern choreography, you’ll enjoy classic 80s hits including Holding Out for a Hero, Almost Paradise, Let’s Hear It For The Boy and of course the unforgettable title track Footloose..

Everybody cut loose for a night of dazzling excitement music and dancing!  

For full listings visit www.footloose-musical.com  follow on social media @FootlooseTour  #EverybodyCutLoose and follow Darren @DarrenDayOfficial for a peek behind the scenes of the tour!