Our Artistic Director Alastair looks back over Original Theatre’s show history through songs!
“Music melts words” Benjamin Britten in The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett
Whilst neither W.H Auden in the play (or in life) or many of us would wholly agree with the fictions Benjamin Britten’s assertion that music can melt words- it remains a hugely powerful tool in theatre productions. Some of best memories of theatre productions are rooted in the music used to underscore or frame the action on stage. It helps theatre makers creates mood, atmosphere and at its best can elevate the text and performance into something truly sublime.
Music has always been a key feature of our Original Theatre Company productions. Theatre is an ephemeral art form, here one day in vibrant technicolour, alive and kicking and then the next moment it’s gone. Existing only as a memory. One of the advantages of the current situation is we have found a way to record two fantastic live recordings of The Croft and The Habit of Art. Long after this has passed, to know that we have those on digital celluloid for all time is something I’ll be thankful for.
I have always found that music can stir those dormant memories- return us almost intact to moment in our pasts complete with sights, sounds and smells. Given that at the moment theatre has been forced off stages we are all having some time to reflect, it has given me some time to think back over some of our past productions and the music used in them. Below is a small selection of some of the most memorable music we have used in the past 15 years.
BIRDSONG 2013- 2018
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto – Movt.II
This beautiful piece of music was chosen with the help of the genius that is Tim Van Eyken who I worked closely with when directing Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. This piece of music accompanied a passionate sequence in ‘The Red Room’ between young Englishman Stephen Wraysford and the married wife of his french host in Amiens, Isabelle Azaire.
Birdsong and with it this piece of music accompanied us through hundreds of performances over 6 years and I think all of us involved in the making of the show will be immediately transported back whenever this played.
THE NIGHT WATCH 2019
Kay’s Theme- Sophie Cotton
The Night Watch adapted by Hattie Naylor from Sarah Waters much loved novel toured just last year. It’s an epic story which is told backwards and follows the lives of Londoners living in the shadows of war torn London. One of the key characters is Kay, played exquisitely for us by Phoebe Pryce and this piece of music by Sophie Cotton, our composer is her theme and it was used in the opening sequence of the play. Sophie’s beautiful music was written for us through rehearsals and this piece seems to encapsulate so much of the locked emotion held by Kay.
THE PRIVATE EAR and THE PUBLIC EYE 2013
Happy Together- The Turtles
This double bill of plays by the late Sir Peter Shaffer we produced in 2013. It would be fair to say that it wasn’t our most commercially successful play. Audiences were few and far between. But I remain very proud of the production co-produced with Jamie Barber and Brian Kirk at The Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford.
This song was used just after the interval in a real coup de theatre which in hindsight might possibly have upstaged the play. As the music began the set for The Private Ear and the main character played by Stephen Blakely started to deconstruct, removal men started taking out the furniture, walls spun and records flew up and out of the roof. Meanwhile Stephen’s character was magically transformed taking him and the audience into the second play The Public Eye. It was great fun and always got itself a big round applause. Probably the best scene change we have ever done!
TWELFTH NIGHT 2005 (and 2011)
Mishma Blood Oath- Philip Glass
Our inaugural production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has become the stuff of legends. Set in Edwardian England it played out on stages outdoor and indoor all over the UK. It wasn’t the easiest of beginnings. I am spending the lockdown writing a book about its many highs and even more bountiful lows. Yet the music remains strangely evocative of a lost world, and I used it again when we revived the production in a different form in 2011. The pulsing dynamism of the music seemed to propel the characters in the play as they all fell into Twelfth Night’s chaotic brew of love, mistaken identity and some wonderful comedy all underpinned by great melancholy.
NAPOLI, BROOKLYN (2019)
Funiculli, Funiculla- Mario Lanze
Meghan Kennedy’s exquisite play about family, love and self discovery played at London’s Park Theatre and on tour last year. I saw the play on Broadway and fell in love with its huge heart and the true story on which it is all based. One of the most memorable scenes from the play saw Luda played so marvellously by Madeleine Worrall, a first generation Italian immigrant living in Brooklyn dance joyously around the kitchen with her firebrand daughter Francesca and her best friend Connie. It seems to ape the great scene in Dancing at Lughnasa when the characters frustrations, hopes and dreams all come out from the energy in the music. I never tired of watching the play and this scene I will always remember with this song at its heart.
THREE MEN IN A BOAT (2012-2015)
Rock the Boat- Hues Corporation
Craig Gilberts rollicking adaptation of Jerome K Jerome’s classic comedy novel took us on a madcap journey around the UK to theatres big and small. It was an anarchic retelling of the familiar story all set in a pub and of course it is completely daft. And great fun with it. It was the last time OTC producer Tom Hackney and I acted (if that’s the word) together on stage and at the end for no particular reason other than both play and song had boat in the title, we did a suitably daft dance at the curtain call to this classic number. It’s not my favourite song, but I can’t help but think of the audience all clapping along in time to our poor dancing. In the current climate maybe we could all do with a bit of the innocent, silly and slapstick comedy of Three Men in Boat. For now we will make do with this Hues Corporation classic.
DANCING AT LUGHNASA (2012)
Dancing in the Dark- Frank Sinatra
I remain really proud that as a still relatively young company we tackled Brian Friel’s truly remarkable play and toured it all over the UK. For anybody familiar with the play the most famous scene sees the sisters dance in a daze of frenzy, joy and frustration to the Marconi radio playing The Masons Apron. Yet I was surprised re watching our trailer- not just how young I looked in the video- but that it was the haunting rendering of this Frank Sinatra classic that transported me to Ballybeg and the Mundy sisters farmhouse in Donegal.
Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play that is told by the grown up Michael looking back at his 1930’s childhood- trying to understand how his life changed forever in the afterglow of a memorable summer spent with his Aunts and Uncle Jack the missionary priest returned from Africa. This song came out of the radio and surrounded the action designed brilliantly by Dom Bilkey- it was haunting, deeply evocative and remains even today transportive.
JOURNEY’S END (2009)
Nearer my God to Thee
Even today sound designer Dom Bilkey has never quite forgiven me for including this hymn in the final moments of R.C.Sherriff’s classic Journey’s End. I remember a heated exchange over the consoles in the technical rehearsal both of us passionately advocating whether to include it (me) or not (him). In the end we went with using it at the moment Stanhope heads out of the dug out to his inevitable fate. Amidst the machine guns, shells and chaos of war, the hymn cut through and the trench carved open to reveal the image of a single young soldier played by a ,then very young, Hubert Burton lost in the chaos and madness of war.
It was a truly striking image. The jury remains out on whether the plays needed it- but regardless for all of us involved the song will remain forever associated with what was a very happy production. Everyone involved remains in touch over 10 years after. It was a play that created strong bonds between us all and this song will always remind me of both the play and the people who made it.
THE HABIT OF ART (2018-2020)
Peter Grimes Act 1 interlude- Benjamin Britten
Our most recent production of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art was due to be remounted in March and head to New York after a hugely successful run in 2018. Yet due to the closure of all UK theatres the show was forced to close before it even opened. Instead of a dress rehearsal we filmed it and you can now find the production online at www.originaltheatreonline.com.
Towards the end of the play you see David Yelland who plays Britten conducting the beginning of the Act 1 interlude from his acclaimed Peter Grimes opera. Then at the very end, Kay, the stage manager, left alone in the deserted rehearsal room leaves the room and turns out the lights. The same refrain of music is played leaving us all in the empty space with just the last few notes of music before the curtain call.
The Habit of Art is a play about many things, but for me at that final performance- watched by just a handful of people it acquired new resonance. The lights were going out on the production and the company and we didn’t know when or even if they would go on again. Yet the play reminds us that the Habit of Art will endure,
‘Am I dead!’ Auden exclaims, ’I have the Habit of Art. I write or what else am I?’.
At the moment we cannot perform, we cannot do our job, so we are having to ask that same question of ourselves. It is a time for reflection, for renewal and to be thankful for all the work we have made over the years, the people we have worked with and the friends we’ve made across the world. The theatres will re-open, and when they do we will be ready to pick up the Habit of Art once again.
In fact I don’t think it ever leaves us.
BONUS TRACK- Birdsong company 1st July 2015
Jimmy Waddell – James Findlay arrangement
This is a bit special. The final performance of a 6 month tour in 2016 fell on the 1st July 2015 the 99th anniversary of The Battle of The Somme. This was filmed from the stage side at the final curtain call- when we performed a one off song which we had spent the past few weeks rehearsing in the pre-show warm up. The musician in the play is James Findlay a wonderful folk singer and he is the main voice you can hear leading us. You can also see the back of the books author Sebastian Faulks centre stage who had that night joined us in some scenes from the play and at the interval had read the sequence in the novel describing the horrors of the first morning of The Battle of the Somme. It was a deeply emotional evening and this song was sung with real passion by the whole company. I remember the emotion pouring off the stage at the beautiful Richmond Theatre Royal and into the audience. It seemed an appropriate way to mark the day and the end of a long run of the show. Unforgettable.Share: