Best friends go time travelling up on the roof

Up On The Roof, the New Wolsey’s spring musical, may have attracted critical acclaim and been nominated for awards when it was first released in the West End in 1987 but for such a seemingly high profile show it passed a lot of people by including New Wolsey Theatre artistic director Peter Rowe.

Peter first came across the play, which he describes as a play with music rather than a traditional musical, in 2006 when he was invited to direct it at Hornchurch and had such a great time with it, exploring the different eras and getting lost in the music that he immediately resolved to revisit it at the New Wolsey.

“It’s such a lovely show that it deserves to be better known. It was nominated for an Olivier when it was first staged in London in the 1980s but it very much disappeared from view since then but it’s such a tremendous show, such a fun, good-hearted show that it deserves another revival.”

The show focuses on the lives of five characters and we meet up with them in 1975, 1980 and finally in 1985. The first time we meet them they are just finishing university. During their three years of study and play, they have formed an a capella choir and have sung their way through ‘uni’ up on the roof of their digs. This is what binds them together.

In 1975 they are looking to the future and mapping out their lives. When they all meet up again five years later for a wedding, plans are already not turning out as expected. There is unexpected good fortune as well as disappointment and the dynamics within the group shift as a result.

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In the last act the group meet up for a ten year anniversary holiday in the south of France and the difference between their expectations and realities of how their lives have turned out is immediately apparent. The dynamics within the group have totally changed but can they still make music together?

Peter said that he found show not only hugely enjoyable but very engaging with something to say about how long-term friendships evolve and change over time. “The whole thing is very atmospheric. Each era is defined by the music and the clothes. It’s hugely evocative. When we first meet them, they are saying goodbye to one another. It’s the last day of university. It’s the final meeting, of what they have called The Roof Club. There’s a party going on down below them and they escape through a skylight up onto the roof and have their own private goodbye to each other and sing together one last time.”

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He said that their repertoire is largely soul and motown classics – not a dissimilar selection to those heard in the annual New Wolsey pantomime but delivered in a totally different and unaccompanied fashion.

For those wanting to get a feel for the musical play, it had certain similarities with the TV series This Life. “It’s not a stage version of This Life, but it does capture that feeling of a group of twenty-somethings turning into thirty-somethings and how their priorities and their relationships change.

“In Act Two, it’s five years on and Bryony, the brightest, most academic of the group is getting married and this is already a shock. Then they meet up a further five years down the road and what I love about it, is that it is a play about how, despite the changes in their fortunes, the friendship manages to survive.”

He said that a lot of the enjoyment for audiences is trying to work out exactly what has happened to each of the characters in the intervening five years. It is never what they thought it would be.

“It is very much a play with music. All the music is sung a capella. There is no accompaniment – no band or backing tracks – just very close harmony arrangements of some very familiar songs. The music, the songs, arise very naturally out of the action. There’s no stopping the narrative just to put a song in. The songs are part of what is going on.

“In 1975, they are enjoying their last chance to sing together, in 1980 they sing at their friend’s wedding and in 1985, they sing just for the hell of it. They sing for friendship.”

He said the demands of the group dynamic, the ability to act as well as sing in a close harmony style made for some complex decisions during the casting process. “We spent a while getting just the right group of people. It’s a very naturalistic piece, so getting people who were very close to those characters was important as was getting voices of the right range, so they would blend and I am very happy with the five that we have found.”

By the end of the play audience will have come to know and embrace the characters – flaws and all. “There’s plenty for people to get their teeth into. There’s a lot going on as careers take off or crash, or don’t go where they expect them to. They are fascinating as people because they come from a wide variety of backgrounds and this informs how they develop and grow as individuals.

“As a director, what I found fascinating is that I would expected these people to have gone their separate ways once they had left university but they didn’t and not only did they stay in touch but the friendship stayed intact and that was an interesting thing to explore and what we found is that within the group they found a trust and friendship that was missing from other parts of their life – that they couldn’t find elsewhere.”

He said that it was the warm-hearted nature of the play that persuaded him that it was worth reviving – especially in these austere times.

n Up On The Rood is on at The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until May 22. Tickets can be booked on 01473 295900 or online at

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