A tongue-tied tale of romance given a mod-ern twist

The colourful look and sounds of The Swinging Sixties explode on to the New Wolsey stage this weekend as it opens its world premiere production of Mods and Rox.

This brand new musical, packed full of chart-topping hits, transports the tragically-beautiful tale of Roxanne and Cyrano de Bergerac from 18th century France to mid-sixties London – a time when it was the capital of the music and fashion world.

It is the feel and the atmosphere of this era that artistic director Peter Rowe wants to capture and put before the audience in Ipswich.

The New Wolsey stage has been transformed into a giant 1960s Wurlitzer jukebox – the sort that you used to get in the fashionable coffee bars of the period, as portrayed in the Cliff Richard film Expresso Bongo.

“It’s a heightened representation of the 1960s,” said Peter Rowe. “Our action goes from Carnaby Street to a flat in Soho to Brighton Pier.

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“You can’t get detailed sets of all those places on stage – and not keep the action moving – so what designer Mark Walters has done is conjure up the impression of those places and created an atmosphere of the era.”

The whole play appears contained within a giant jukebox and each scene is like a different record being played.

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This is the New Wolsey’s fourth musical world premiere in three years – the others being It’s a Wonderful Life, 20th Century Boy and Reasons To Be Cheerful.

In between times they have worked hard to increase the profile of lesser-known shows like Sugar (adapted from the Marilyn Monroe classic Some Like It Hot) and Leader of the Pack, a stage biography of hit songwriter Ellie Greenwich, who shared offices with Phil Spector, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, as well as Elvis Presley’s songwriters Leiber and Stoller.

Peter said the theatre had established a national reputation for its pioneering work for new musicals and this continued to grow.

This weekend a new production of the T-Rex musical 20th Century Boy opens at The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry.

The New Wolsey’s musicals are hugely popular and Peter Rowe continues to feed new work into British theatre.

He said it was a reminder that not only was there life outside London but the West End needed regional theatre for tried and tested new work and a supply of trained performers.

The cast of Reasons To Be Cheerful, which the New Wolsey staged as a co-production with Graeae Theatre Company, were featured in the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games.

Mods and Rox was written by Paul Sirett, author of the Graeae production. Paul and Peter met during the rehearsals for the Ian Dury-inspired play and immediately hit it off. They then started fishing around for a new project they could do together.

Although this was their first meeting, Peter said he knew Paul by reputation from his work at Stratford East and The Royal Court, where he had developed other music-driven shows.

“I liked his work and I thought he did a really good job on Reasons To Be Cheerful. I helped in the development of that script – I think I helped with the framing of that show – making the event a tribute to the father, which was not in the original story.

“As a result he said that he would like to work with me, so we started talking about things that we might do together. Paul said that he had always wanted to do an adaptation of Cyrano and suggested that we could do that set against a landscape of punks versus rockers.

“I said: ‘Rockers weren’t really against punks.’ So I suggested we move the setting to Mods versus Rockers because that is the archetypical clash, so decided to move the Cyrano story to that period and that’s how the show came about.

“Although there was a lot of talking about it initially, it actually came together exceptionally quickly. From the time of saying ‘Go’ to the first draft to saying ‘Go’ to the production proper was only two or three months – a very short time indeed.”

Paul Sirett said his collaboration with Peter on the writing and the creation of the show had been a revealing adventure.

The first act takes place on Carnaby Street, the fashion centre of Swinging London. The play follows the fortunes of a young mod called Christiano who falls for a young girl, Roxy, who lives in Soho.

Roxy loves music but sadly Christiano can’t sing, so he employs Cyril, a rather unprepossessing individual, to supply the romantic songs that will win her heart. But as events move along, Cyril finds that he too is in love with Roxy.

In the second act events move swiftly as the action shifts to Brighton and the scooter-loving Mods come face-to-face with some tough-looking Rockers.

It was the structure of the show rather than the content or the songs which have given Peter and Paul the most headaches.

For Peter there can be only one place for the interval and that is after a heartwrenching balcony scene between Christiano and Roxy, with Cyril playing Cupid in the shadows.

“Unfortunately, on Paul’s first draft that scene came two thirds of the way through the play,” said Peter. “Unfortunately, there isn’t anywhere else for it to go.

“The famous, big balcony scene has to be at the end of Act One. If you save it for Act Two, then Act One is all set-up and no pay-off. So what we did was work on Act Two and fleshed it out, so the balance is much better now.”

Peter said that although the show is based on a classic story which tells a timeless tale about the true nature of love – and is also very funny – he felt the songs were at the heart of the show.

“Looking back I found that most of my notes to Paul were about the emotional beats of the story and how they worked as a trigger for a song. I didn’t have that many notes; he wrote a really good first draft very quickly, but virtually all I had to say was about cranking up the emotional pressure.”

As with many New Wolsey shows the songs which punctuate and illustrate the story are well-known chart hits and Paul and Peter have mined a series of classic singles which all hit the charts between 1966 and 1968 – prime years for the clashes between Mods and Rockers.

“From 1966 to 68/69 there were a lot of stunning songs, particularly great Mod songs. We have included a lot of Small Faces songs and Who songs – so that was relatively straightforward – but the Rockers proved more problematical.

“In Paul’s first draft, the Rockers were singing songs that were throw-backs to an earlier period – things like Rock Around The Clock and Shake Rattle and Roll. I felt that alongside the very strong Mod songs, the rock numbers felt quite lightweight; they needed to be heavier. So I suggested including things like Shaking All Over and The Peter Gunn Theme – just to give the rockers not only a more contemporary edge but also more menace.”

Peter said that the problem with a so-called juke box musical is that although the songs have to fit the mood and situation, they are not active songs in a musical theatre sense – songs that advance the plot or add more information about a scene.

“Although three or four of them work in a traditional musical sense, the rest have to capture the mood rather than advance the story. We were looking for songs that would help the character vocalise his inner thoughts. Also, the songs are much more band numbers than musical theatre numbers as we did in 20th Century Boy.”

Musical director Ben Goddard, who has been musical director on several of the New Wolsey’s rock’n’roll pantos, has opted for a more faithful 1960s sound –stripping out the brass and keyboards which are such a feature of the Christmas shows and replacing them with vintage amps and 1960s guitars to achieve exactly the right look and the right sound.

“There was a real feel to this era. We are playing classic songs like Substitute, Itchycoo Park, Keep on Runnin’, She’s Not There, The Kids Are Alright and, of course, My Generation.

“These are songs with a real musical identity and it’s important for the show that we get it right. So we have worked hard in rehearsal getting that authentic sound; not allowing the amps to get too overdriven.

“Also, I have worked with many of the cast before. They have also played together in Peter’s pantomimes in Clwyd, so they know one another, and they come to the show knowing how one another plays, which is half the battle.”

The show will feature one new number – Angel of Soho – which has been written by Peter and Ben.

Peter Rowe explained that the song is a crucial one. “It gets sung three times: once by Cyril pretending to be Christiano, once by Roxanne back to Christiano, and finally by Cyril and Roxanne as a full-band number for the finale.”

He said the experience of writing the song was exhilarating and surprisingly straightforward once they had got over the terror of writing a song that would have to stand comparison with some of the greatest hit songs from one of the greatest eras of British songwriting. “It was a daunting task before we started work but once we got going it was less complicated than we imagined.

“To be honest, it was a lot of fun. I had never written a song before so I asked Ben: ‘How do you work?’ He said ‘Write me some lyrics and I’ll work from that.’

“So, while Ben was out one day, I sat down and wrote three different sets of lyrics. He came back, chose one and went off to compose the melody.

“It was a very interesting and fruitful process. Although I have written a lot of shows, they have always had other people’s songs in them. This was something new and now we are talking about what else we can write together.”

Peter said the rehearsal period, a little over three weeks, has been a swift and harmonious process. “It’s been a big ask getting a new show ready in such a short space of time but we have done it.

“Because it’s the first show of the season we have had the luxury of working on the main stage for the final week.”

Paul Sirett sat in on the early rehearsals, providing quick on-the-spot rewrites when scenes needed tightening or characters needed defining, but the rehearsal script has remained largely unchanged.

Peter is thrilled with the cast. Peter Manchester, who starred in 20th Century Boy, returns to the New Wolsey to play Cyril, while James Haggie, who played Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors in 2008, plays Titch.

Newcomers Francesca Jackson, who was one of the finalists in the Andrew Lloyd Webber talent show I’d Do Anything, plays Rox and Michael Woolston-Thomas plays young Italian looker Cristiano.

Peter said the show is now ready for an audience.

“I have done as much as I can with it. It now needs an audience for it to take flight and for people to rediscover a beautiful story set in a wonderful time.”

• Mods & Rox is at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, until September 29.

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