Advertising the best qualities of regional theatre
- Credit: Archant
Mad Men comes singing and dancing to the stage. This is the best way to describe the world premiere of Colchester Mercury’s The Opinion Makers which opens this weekend.
It’s a tale of an earnest but rather ineffectual advertising agency in London at the beginning of the 1960s. They are keen and want to emulate their smarter, flashier transatlantic cousins but are held back by their ingrained British reserve.
This is the era just before The Beatles made London swing. This is the time of the Profumo scandal and when Cliff Richard and The Bachelors were the hottest things in the charts.
It was a world emerging from the black and white austerity of the 1950s into the pastel-coloured world of the prosperous early 60s. The Opinion Makers is set at a time before the world went psychedelic. It’s a world where British business looked enviously across the pond and sought ways to emulate what they thought was America’s golden consumer-led society.
According to the Mercury’s artistic director, Daniel Buckroyd, The Opinion Makers functions both as a nostalgic look at a gentler age and a sharp satire of a time where anything American was deemed to be better than anything British. Perversely, this was turned on its head just 18 months later when The Beatles turned Britain – and London, in particular – into the centre of the cultural universe.
The Mercury’s brand-new musical stars a galaxy of familiar faces including Great British Bake-Off’s Mel Giedroyc, Julie Atherton and Daniel Boys, from West End hit Avenue Q, Justin Edwards, who is known to millions through his roles in The Thick of It, Skins and Harry & Paul, and David Mounfield, star of TV series This Is Jinsy.
Daniel Buckroyd said that the opportunity to bring a brand-new musical to the stage was the culmination of a journey which started five years ago when he was working at The Nottingham Playhouse.
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“I first met Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon, the writing team behind The Opinion Makers, when they pitched an idea to me about a play about the early aviators Alcock and Brown. We did it. It went to Edinburgh and then out on a small tour and it was very successful – a very good piece. Once we’d finished the Alcock and Brown play, we started discussing other projects we could work on together and they came up with this kernel of an idea about a 1960s advertising agency.”
He said he commissioned them to go away and develop the show and two-and-a-half years later they came back with a rough draft which was then given a workshop performance.
“That was a useful exercise because we learnt where the piece worked and didn’t work and how it connected with an audience. It got a fantastic reaction from a range of different people and across a wide age range. It really clicked. So I was looking for a way to do a proper, fully staged production and when I came here a year ago, I realised that it was now a possibility.”
He said the show has been developed further since then and continued to evolve in the rehearsal room as the cast got to grips with an array of quirky characters.
“The whole thing is centred on the incompetent team at Fernsby Market Research. They are taking on the challenge of rebranding the cure-all Dr Campbell’s Lotion. Mel’s character Lassiter and her colleague Penhall (Daniel Boys) take a high-stakes gamble by creating all of the market research over a few too many pints in the local pub. Along the way we encounter a Scottish laird with a dark secret, his glamorous American gold-digger wife and an insane Home Secretary-in-waiting.
“The songs transport you back to the world of sixties London for a hilarious, off-beat musical about the birth of the pollster. It’s a mixture of Think Mad Men meets Carry On.”
Mel Giedroyc said that the actors enjoyed a real sense of ownership of the characters because they were the first people to bring them to life. Also they had an opportunity to help shape the way that the show developed and how the characters were portrayed. “It’s an amazing feeling – slightly scary as well. It sounds quite cheesy but I think we feel very honoured to be entrusted with a new musical because they don’t come around very often. I was at that workshop three years ago and it was entrancing. So it’s not only a new show. It’s a good show. What I love about it, is that it captures the feel of the early sixties. It’s colourful, frothy and funny.”
Mel describes herself as a huge musicals fan even though she hasn’t had much experience in performing in them. Her previous musical experience was in Eurobeat: Almost Eurovision! in the West End and on tour, playing opposite Les Dennis.
Mel adds with a laugh: “I think we’re like Shackleton – exploring unknown territory – with possibly not enough equipment.”
Daniel said that working on a new show was slightly scary because no-one had the safety net of having seen a previously successful production. “No-one knows what it should look like but on the other hand, it is tremendously exciting to be breaking new ground and presenting something that no-one has seen before and we are able to make our mark on it.”
Because the script is such good shape and because they have had the benefit of a workshop performance, he said that there hasn’t been the need for wholesale reworking or major rewrites in the rehearsal room which can be a factor in the development of some new musicals.
“The preparation work has been very thorough but even so we are continually tweaking things and finding ways to make certain moments work better. But, as with any play, it’s not until you put it in front of an audience will you really know how it is going over – particularly with comedy.
“And we’ll continue to fine tune it throughout the run.”
After leaving Colchester, The Opinion Makers will then play at the Derby Theatre. It is hoped that eventually it may find a home in London.
Daniel said that for Brian and Joseph, the writers, handing their play over and throwing it into the bear pit of the rehearsal room was a huge leap of faith. “They are quite concerned and very protective of their material but fortunately there is a huge element of trust that exists because I have been through this with them before.
“I am in constant contact with them and if I feel that something is not working or we have found a different way of doing something in rehearsal then I will talk to them about it and they are very supportive.
“One of the most exhilarating moments during rehearsals is when the collective intelligence in the room says: ‘if we tried this, don’t you think that it would work better.”
He said as an artistic director there was a strong temptation to play safe, to only programme known shows like The Sound of Music or Cabaret. “There is a strong argument which says why open yourself to risk by taking a chance on something unknown. But, I think audiences like being in at the beginning of something new and exciting. After all these classics were new at one time - how exciting would it have been to see them on their opening performances?
“Also I think regional theatres have an important role to play in originating new musical theatre. I think new musicals should bubble up all over the country and feed their way into the West End. They shouldn’t always have to start in London.”
Mel said that in addition to the good writing and the wonderful music, The Opinion Makers, had a broad appeal because it chimed with the times. “There’s a huge interest in vintage clothing from that period at the moment and TV shows like Mad Men, which is about a New York ad agency in the sixties, and shows like The Hour, which is set at the same time, have a huge following. Now we have Breathless as well. The early 60s have a sense of style and it’s a time which is very fashionable just now.
“Although the show is very much a farce, it has substance because underpinning the bungled launch of this product is a tale about the moment in time when this country turned a corner and became the consumer society we are today.
“You never feel you are watching a political show but there are elements of social history contained within it.”
Daniel Boys said that after 18 months in Avenue Q in the West End he is relishing the opportunity to tackle some fresh material. “Keeping your performance fresh, night after night, is part of an actor’s skill set. It’s just something you do. Everytime you go on stage you have to remember that the audience out there in the dark has never seen this before, no matter how times you have done it.
“But I would be lying if I didn’t say that during a long run that there have been nights when it was a real effort to go on stage and go through it all again. But, you get over that because that’s what actors do. You go out there and play it as if it were the first time.
“But, once the run is over it’s great to go into something new and create something different.
“This is extra special because it is a premiere and we get to create characters that have never been played before.”
He said that the appeal of the show lies in the fact that these are ordinary people who have been given a job to do – to relaunch a product – and it is clear, quite quickly, that the task is beyond their capabilities.
“We are drones in an advertising office and the whole affair swiftly descends into farce,” laughs Mel. “It’s about how all the people at this market research company spend their time talking complete nonsense at one another. Nobody from the boss of the company, down to the drones like us, knows what they are doing or why they are doing it and they are oblivious to the fact that the results of their work make no real sense.
“It’s the moment when British market research tips its toe into a more American-style market re-search and it turns into a hilarious disaster zone.”
The Opinion Makers by Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon runs at the Colchester Mercury Theatre until November 9.