Hallelujah! Following three West End runs and a sold-out UK tour, the original Death Drop took the theatre world by storm by filling the stage with an all-star cast of drag queens and kings. It was easily the filthiest and funniest thing I’d ever seen – and the sequel promised to be even more anarchic, swapping out Dragatha Christie for Dragnus Dei. Produced by TuckShop and Trafalgar Theatre Productions, Death Drop: Back in the Habit centres on a gaggle of glamorous nuns who occupy the remote convent of St Babs. With a gamut of ghostly goings-on, and a potential serial killer slashaying their way through the sisterhood, the Vatican sends Father Alfie Romeo to sleuth out the truth – though he’s no Sis Marple.
Written by Rob Evans and directed once again by Jesse Jones, Back in the Habit is the newest entry in the self-proclaimed Death Drop Cinematic Universe (DDCU), created by Christopher D Clegg. The sequel is blessed with the presence of drag royalty, including two returning stars: RuPaul’s Drag Race US Superstar Willam (the only contestant to be disqualified!) as Sis Titis, and award-winning Drag King LoUis CYfer as Alfie Romeo. They’re joined by a holy trinity of Drag Race UK stars: River Medway as Sister Maria Julieandrews, Cheryl Hole as Sister Mary Berry, and Cardiff-based Victoria Scone (the first cis woman to compete in the franchise’s history) as Mother Superior. Blessed are they who pun in the name of the lord.
The cast are on top form and bring glamour, gags, and gravitas to a script that isn’t quite as tight as the costumes. There’s a lot of camp, comedic potential in Christianity – for further reference, see the Met Gala’s 2018 bash – and its ecclesiastical extravagance is suitably eviscerated here. In true Death Drop fashion, the jinks are high and the brow is low, with no innuendo left unturned. Despite throwing shade at the ‘cheap’ production values, Peter Mackintosh’s set and Rory Beaton’s lighting are extremely effective, especially in the scarier scenes (demonic possession, ghostly apparitions, and a ghoulishly good reprise of Flo and Joan’s ‘Oopsie Whoopsie’).
The characterisations are top-class – but I must make a confession: while the performers are truly doing the Lord’s work, the material they’re given is far from divine. Cheryl Hole’s Sister Mary Berry and Willam’s Sis Titis are brilliantly named and performed, but their comedic potential isn’t mined as much as it could be – Mary Berry isn’t even the resident chef! If we already have Sister Maria Julieandrews, why not have her be joined by other onscreen nuns: can you imagine Willam donning Deborah Kerr’s iconic white wimple from Black Narcissus while Cheryl Hole channels Debbie Reynolds’ guitar-strumming Singing Nun? In recent years we’ve even had Saint Maud, Warrior Nun, and The Conjuring movies – but there’s one obvious omission: to not have a queen take on the role of Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Mary Clarence here is practically blasphemous, especially as its her film which lends this show its subtitle. Its second-to-none cast, though, is its saving grace.
While it might not be the answer to all your prayers, Death Drop: Back in the Habit is a Joyful, Joyfulslay ride that features a heavenly host of drag performers that put the ‘original’ in ‘original sin’. Can I get an Amen?
‘I told you I was ill’: this is the epitaph of one Terence ‘Spike’ Milligan, who holds the rare honour of being able to make people laugh long after shuffling off this mortal coil. Milligan was the man behind The Goons, a satirical radio show broadcast by the BBC between 1951 and 1960. As co-creator, chief writer and one third of the titular trio along with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, Milligan took postwar Britain by storm and influenced comedic greats from Monty Python to the Muppets. Premiering at the Watermill in January and now ending its successful UK tour at Cardiff’s New Theatre, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s SPIKE celebrates the man behind the madness.
Directed by Watermill AD Paul Hart, SPIKE takes place during the tumultuous making of The Goons, which was just as chaotic and surreal behind the mic as it was in front of it. This trio of working-class lads had a penchant for the surreal and direct line to your funny bone – but, as with anything creative, tempers flared and egos clashed. Robert Wilfort (aka Gavin and Stacey’s Jason – he of the infamous fishing trip) is nothing short of stupendous as Spike, no small feat when considering that the man was a one-off who was always ‘on’. Determined not to play him as a ‘Tears of a Clown’ caricature (for more, check out our interview with Robert here), Wilfort plays Spike as the beleaguered eccentric he was – a loyal friend, a frustrating colleague, and a loving if distant husband. Wilfort captures Spike’s soul in all its anarchic, defiant glory, and has the comic chops to make his iconic quips soar.
He’s supported by a rabble-rousing, gag-tastic cast who collectively had the audience in stitches. While this is Spike’s show through and through, Mischief Theatre alums Patrick Warner and Jeremy Lloyd as Peter Sellers and Wales’ own Harry Secombe, not to mention Ellie Morris as Spike’s first wife June, all have their time to shine. Warner and Lloyd are uncanny as their comic counterparts – and when they share the stage with Wilfort, they nail the Goons’ very particular magic: they’re just three (extra)ordinary people who enjoy making each other laugh. Robert Mountford does a brilliant job as both a haughty BBC Executive and as one third of a toffee-nosed trio of critics, along with James Mack and Margaret Cabourn-Smith (who also plays enthusiastic sound engineer Janet). It’s no surprise that cast and crew have been nominatedfor multiple Broadway World UK awards.
While the show focuses on a relatively narrow portion of Milligan’s life, it covers a lot of ground, from his service in the Royal Artillery during World War II to his struggles with PTSD and bipolar disorder and the breakdown of his first marriage. Most vividly, it captures his infamous battles with the BBC: you see, the war never really left him, and neither did his rebellious attitude to authority. When he discovered that the Officer Class were to have command over him again, this time as the pen-pushing Heads of Department who nixed anything vaguely novel, Spike took up arms anew.
In the excellent post-show talk (of which the New should do more, if possible), co-writer Newman admitted that the play gave him and Hislop (The Wipers Times) the chance to ‘steal all of Spike’s best jokes’. While the play lacks something of a dramatic through-line, the love for Spike is in every second; there’s a reverence about his irreverence that makes it as moving as it is hilarious. Even Spike’s daughter, Jane Milligan, expressed how much she misses her dad’s ‘anarchy’, and his ability to hold power to account – remember that even the reigning monarch did not escape unscathed from Spike’s cutting wit.
While Peter Sellers went on to great success in movies like The Pink Panther and Dr Strangelove, and Secombe (iconic as Oliver!’s Mr Bumble) went into music, Milligan became a prolific memoirist (Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall), poet, and children’s author – but never reached their flashy heights. His influence, though, is immortal – and SPIKE is, in true Goonish fashion, an eccentric celebration of a man who, even after a lifetime of making the world laugh, was still gone too Goon.
SPIKE concludes its UK tour at the New Theatre Cardiff this week – make sure to catch it between 22 – 26 November before it’s Goon forever! More information on the show and how to book tickets here.
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!
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).
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.
You know that feeling, right? When you’re alone, and yet you know – somewhere deep in your soul – that you’re being watched? That singular chill down the spine is what’s promised by When Darkness Falls, a new ghost story by James Milton and Paul Morrissey (who also directs). Now touring across the UK, this tense two-hander is playing at Cardiff’s New Theatre this week, with plenty of tricks and treats for audiences this Halloween season.
The story is deceptively simple: John Blondel (Peter Duncan), Guernsey historian and sceptic of all things that go bump in the night, invites a mysterious young man known only as The Speaker (Daniel Rainford) to record the first in a series of podcasts charting the ghoulish history of the island. A storm is brewing outside but also within, as nightmarish stories of torture, murder and revenge unfold, and long-repressed secrets are dragged into the light.
Save for an eerily effective (and, dare I say, ghostly?) performance from Rhys Jennings, who voices the parapsychologist on the tapes and who understudies both lead roles (you can check out our interview with Rhys here), Peter Duncan and Daniel Rainford are the only two people onstage throughout. They do an excellent job of drawing you in to the play’s strange, spooky world and holding your attention (not to mention your breath!) And it’s the kind of show which yearns to be watched again, once you know all the twists and turns.
Though he became a household name through his beloved tenure on Blue Peter, Duncan began his career on the stage in Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre. Here, Duncan conveys a very sympathetic sense of jaded affability before descending into something akin to madness. He spars extremely well with Rainford, who is fresh off his acclaimed turn as Tommo in Private Peaceful, a role he originated. Rainford is a captivating storyteller, and his calm and measured demeanour ably conceals the deep waters within. There are moments when the pair ‘step into’ the characters of the stories they tell, which I would have loved to have seen mined further. And while the Speaker’s arc blossoms into something fittingly tragic, Blondel’s is an unfinished symphony – perhaps setting up a sequel. You certainly get invested enough in the characters and the story to want one.
Their interactions are underscored by a host of ghostly illusions, courtesy by John Bulleid, Associate of the Inner Magic Circle with Silver Star, who was part of the team behind Harry Potter and The Cursed Child. The effects – and jumpscares! – are cleverly interwoven into the set, which is designed by Justin Williams, and by Bethany Gupwell’s lighting and Daniel Higgott’s sound. The set – a dismal, purgatorial office – is filled with shadowy corners and a creepy corridor of opaque glass that makes every reflection ghostly.
While the show gets a little less scary in the second half – and there are some deliberately funny lines that Duncan in particular delivers with relish – it ramps up the tension the way a dripping tap becomes a tidal wave. This is a dread that oozes, that seeps into the cracks of your very soul. What’s scarier still is that it’s based on truth. The tale of the German soldiers was especially haunting, as was its message: that the most frightening thing of all is the human capacity for cruelty. That sort of horror is absorbed into the walls of a place; it cannot be bricked in or painted over. It can only be confronted.
While the play ends on a somewhat ambiguous note, it leaves us with a question: do you believe in ghosts? By the time the curtain falls, you might just get your answer. Suspenseful and spooky, this is the perfect show to get you in the Halloween mood. When Darkness Falls, will you rise to meet it?
When Darkness Falls is playing at the New Theatre Cardiff from 11 – 15 October (you can find out more about the production and book tickets here).
This is a syndicated interview for Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical, which is performing at the New Theatre Cardiff from 25-29 Oct 2022. Stars Robert Duncan, James Gaddas, Susan Penhaligon, along with director James Grieve and writer Amanda Whittington, discuss why it’s the ultimate feel-good show.
As the world premiere production of Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical embarks on a UK and Ireland tour, director James Grieve promises audiences are in store for “a feel-good, foot stomping, sea shanty musical telling the astonishing story of the world’s least likely boyband”.
Based on the true story of the Cornish singing sensations and the smash hit 2019 film about them, the show has already played to packed houses at the Hall for Cornwall in Truro – where it broke box office records as the most successful production in the venue’s history.
Grieve is in no doubt as to why the musical, with its mix of comedy and drama, was so rapturously received in Truro and why it is sure to captivate audiences around the country. “It’s so heart-warming to see a group of very normal, humble people achieve something extraordinary,” he says of the tale of a bunch of fishermen who come together to sing traditional working songs to raise money for charity, never expecting to land a record deal and end up performing at the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury.
“The real Fisherman’s Friends are ordinary blokes who work hard as fishermen, farmers, builders and shopkeepers. We all see ourselves in them. They never sought fame and fortune but it found them and their remarkable talent, and it’s wonderful when good people get justly rewarded. That’s what makes this story so uplifting. But more than a story about finding fame and fortune it’s a story about friendship, loyalty, community and the unbreakable ties that bind us, and it is full of humour.”
The multi-level set designed by Lucy Osborne recreates the fishing village of Port Isaac, including the famous Golden Lion pub where the lads first begin singing over a few pints, as well as the Atlantic ocean and locations in London.
There’s also a life-size boat on stage, with the director adding: “We wanted to capture the hard graft and very real danger of life as a working fisherman at the mercy of stormy weather and rough seas. I’m fortunate to be working with a world-class team of creatives who have summoned howling winds, towering waves and vicious storms through dazzling design, lighting, sound, choreography and music.”
As in the film, the audience discovers the Fisherman’s Friends through the eyes of Danny, a music manager who stumbles into Port Isaac and finds his life transformed by the village, the band and the songs.
Starring as Jim, the group’s lead singer, James Gaddas is no stranger to musicals. He’s known for Bad Girls and Hollyoaks on TV but he’s also been in the likes of Billy Elliot, Spamalot and Mamma Mia! on stage. “But I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s earthy and visceral. The music is strong and grounded. It dates back as long as 200 years ago, with the fishermen adapting it for today but staying true to those roots.”
There are 37 musical numbers in the show, including most of the songs from the film and many more besides, with the singers accompanied by seven folk musicians who between them play around 40 instruments. “And the band are stunning,” James enthuses. “You get a cappella performances, then the counterpoints when the musicians join in.”
The actor describes Jim as a man for whom his boat, his crew and singing with his mates are his life. And Gaddas feels there’s a universality to the characters, noting: “These are people you can relate to and we all want that magic moment when things turn around for everyday people doing everyday jobs. It’s like a kid playing football in the park and a scout just happens to be there. It’s something unexpected suddenly happening to the underdog.”
Robert Duncan plays Jim’s father Jago, who is in his 70s and the elder statesman of the group. Born in the Cornish town of St Austell, Duncan didn’t hesitate to say yes to the show. “It’s set in a place I know very well,” he says, “and I was excited about doing something from my own neck of the woods. It’s like me paying homage, plus I’d never done a musical before.”
The star of Drop The Dead Donkey has toured in Twelve Angry Men and Rehearsal for Murder. How is he finding singing the sea shanties? Robert laughs. “It’s certainly not water off a duck’s back but David White, our music supervisor and arranger, told me ‘We don’t want the most wonderful voices in the world, these are fishermen, so do it as you believe working people would sing’. I did sing in choirs when I was younger but before this I’d never have had the confidence to sing a song on stage. Somehow this felt like the right time and when I was given the opportunity I grasped it with both hands.”
The story, he believes, is in many ways specific to Cornwall yet it has a universal appeal. “Some of the things in it are peculiarly Cornish but the idea of how the landscape shapes people is true wherever you go. Plus it’s about community and getting through things together, which is now more relevant than ever.”
Duncan believes audiences around the country are going to love the songs in the show. “The a cappella group, which I feel privileged to be a part of, creates such a strong sound and it touches people. There’s a lot of emotion in this play and it’s not just a cappella, we also have the folk band who are so talented they can play anything. They become a part of the community on stage, wondering around with harps and double basses.”
Playing Jago’s wife Maggie is Susan Penhaligon, who was also raised in Cornwall and says: “There’s an old phrase ‘Cornish women be brave and stubborn’ and that’s what Maggie is. Her roots are in Cornwall and she’s typical in that she’s independent, free-thinking and tough. I love her and I feel like I know her.”
Having lived in St Ives and Falmouth from age six until she went to boarding school in Bristol when she was 11, Penhaligon adds: “Fisherman’s Friends is a Cornish story and they don’t come along very often. As far as I’m concerned, we’re exporting the right kind of Cornish culture rather than bobbing boats, pasties and jam and cream on scones. It’s not the picture postcard image, it’s the real Cornwall.”
Asked if she can relate to Maggie as a character, she laughs. “Yes because I think I’m also brave and stubborn.” And she agrees the story will resonate around the country. “It’s has a truth to it and it’s about history. There’s something basic and organic about it that touches people and the music is fantastic.”
The actress came to fame in Bouquet of Barbed Wire and is known for A Fine Romance and Emmerdale on TV and a variety of stage roles including Three Sisters and Of Mice and Men. Fisherman’s Friends is only her second musical, after she played Fräulein Schneider in the 2017 tour of Cabaret. “And I’ve never been so terrified in my life,” she recalls of singing on stage for the first time, “but by the end of the run they couldn’t get me off the stage.” She laughs. “When it comes to the singing, I’m an actress who gets away with it.”
Adapting the story for the stage, Amanda Whittington points out: “It’s a fascinating world to explore and discover. Port Isaac and the fisherman’s way of life is rich territory for drama and the characters are funny, real and recognisable. “Then of course there’s the sea shanties, which are beautiful and timeless. The traditional shanties are the backbone of the story but there’s also contemporary songs of the sea and wonderful new songs written especially for the show.”
The writer, whose previous stage adaptations include Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Tipping the Velvet, is seeking to strike a balance between fact and fiction, explaining: I love the fact it’s about a real place and time, yet it’s full of mythical and magical elements. It’s about making sure we stay true to the original fishermen’s story but embracing the possibilities theatre brings.”
As for what she hopes audiences will take away from seeing it, Amanda says: “Times are tough and we want Fisherman’s Friends to be a joyous and life-affirming experience for all. It’s a story about the place you call home, whatever and wherever that is. I also think you’ll be literally taking the songs away in your head and heart. Once heard, they’re never forgotten.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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 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.
What follows is Vicky Edwards’ syndicated 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.
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.”
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.”
Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through as Bat Out Of Hell!, the electrifying, award-winning hit musical featuring the greatest hits of Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman, hits the highway to Cardiff’s New Theatre this week. I grew up on the music of Meat Loaf, but I’ve been burned by jukebox musicals before. Bat Out of Hell!, though, is a different beast entirely: it actually began life as a futuristic rock opera in Jim Steinman’s college days, a punk spin on Peter Pan called Neverland. Steinman turned his unfinished opera into his magnum opus: Bat Out of Hell, one of the best-selling albums ever made – and now it’s back in its original form, bigger, better, and more bombastic than ever.
Set in Obsidian, a post-apocalyptic Manhattan that’s a long way from Neverland, Bat Out of Hell! follows Strat (Glenn Adamson), immortal eighteen-year-old leader of ‘The Lost’, a biker gang locked in a deadly war with the tyrannical Falco (Rob Fowler). When Strat falls in love with Raven (Martha Kirby), Falco’s rebellious daughter, the game is on and all bets are off.
Operatic in scale and anarchic in spirit, Bat Out of Hell! is an adrenaline-fuelled rollercoaster ride through some of the most iconic songs ever written, from It’s All Coming Back to Me Now to I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That). They’re also some of the hardest songs to sing – but this peerless ensemble make it seem like second nature. Not only are these the best voices I’ve heard on ANY stage, they bring every drop of emotion to songs that demand nothing short of everything: high concept Wagnerian epics that are as a high risk as they are reward. A slew of talented people have trod the boards at the New Theatre, but this might just be the most exciting cast ever to do so.
Adamson and Kirby bring charisma and complexity to roles that could have become rote in less capable hands. Their chemistry is even more scorching than the real flames that shoot across the stage during the performance of the legendary title track – which is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced in a theatre. They make the star-crossed love story into a symphony.
This is a show that is in on the joke and wants you to laugh right along with it. It’s hard to tell who’s having the most fun, but that honour might just go to Rob Fowler and Laura Johnson (standing in for Sharon Sexton) as Falco and Sloane, Obsidian’s answer to Burton and Taylor. Their version of Paradise By the Dashboard Light might be the most fun you can have with your clothes on (even if theirs weren’t!)
Meanwhile, Joelle Moses and James Chisholm bring gravitas to their powerhouse rendition of Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad, while Killian Thomas Lefevre’s Tink steals the audience’s hearts with Not Allowed to Love, one of the ballads written specifically for the show. (The other, What Part of My Body Hurts the Most, is sung by Fowler and Johnson in an affectingly tender moment for their characters).
The songs are mini epics in their own right, self-contained sagas that lend themselves perfectly to the stage – and their unique sound is captured by South Wales-born musical director Iestyn Griffiths and his superb live orchestra in. Coupled with Jay Scheib’s kinetic direction and Xena Gusthart’s inventive choreo, the music underscores the immersive fever dream of the stage (designed by Jon Bausor, also responsible for the fabulous costumes), a world half dreaded and half desired.
The spectacle of this show is second-to-none. If you’re not a fan of the songs, you will be by the time the curtain falls – and if you are one already, you’ll be in paradise (by the dashboard light). The men who brought them to us may be gone, but the beat is theirs forever – and with Bat Out of Hell!, it’s ours now too. With a little faith, trust and pixie dust, your rock and roll dreams can come true – so get yourself all revved up, because you’ve got somewhere to go – just watch out for the sudden curve!