New Wolsey brings some Midsummer Songs to the autumn season
- Credit: Archant
The New Wolsey Theatre’s new musical Midsummer Songs, about friends reuniting after 25 years is, for some of the stars, a real case of art imitating life. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke attended rehearsals of the exciting new show kicking off the theatre’s autumn season
For the actors and creators of the New Wolsey’s latest musical drama, Midsummer Songs, they are finding that art is imitating life.
The play, written by artistic director Peter Rowe with music by Ben Goddard, features a group of university friends meeting up 25 years after a drunken graduation party and finding that time has marched on and relationships have changed.
The play is loosely based on the real life experiences of co-author and musical director Ben Goddard but it also rings true for co-stars Alex Bourne and Adam Keast who had previously worked together on Buddy in the West End.
“This whole situation is very familiar to us,” said Adam, “We were great mates in Buddy 20 years ago and we haven’t seen each other since but we started rehearsals 10 days ago and it’s just like old times.
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“So this show is incredible relevant. We are actually living the show you might say.”
Alex then adds with a laugh: “So no acting required then.”
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They both agree it is slightly surreal how relationships do just pick up from where they left off before, no matter how people have changed in the intervening years.
“As far as we are concerned, it’s the way the profession is. You work quite closely, quite intensely, with people for a period of time while you are with a show. Then you all move on, go your separate ways, before you are then cast in another show together.
“People say that you only have acquaintances when you are in a show but I would argue that they are real friends. You do make proper good friends but you simply can’t keep in touch with everybody.
“In the days before Facebook and mobile phones, there was no real way to stay in touch, you just got on with your life but it is amazing that when you do get together again, at some audition, party or a show then all the old magic is there. It’s fascinating.”
Alex said that everyone had been bowled over by just how timely and relevant the script was. “I think that for many of us, for me certainly, we are of that age where you are wondering what became of the people you went to school with or were mates with at university.”
The play follows the lives of a group of university students who rent a house on a remote Welsh mountainside after exams and during a boozy, hedonistic week record a set of songs onto one side of a C90 cassette tape.
They bury the tape in a box and pledge that in 25 years time they will return to the house and record songs for the second side. The play is a look at how people change and how relationships and friendships evolve over time.
For Peter Rowe and Ben Goddard, the production marks a big step in the dark.
Although they have worked together a lot since they first met in 1997, they have largely been working with existing material. Midsummer Songs is the first show that they have written together from beginning to end.
The genesis of the play started when they were working on the finale song Angel of Soho for the 2012 musical Mods and Rox. It was the first song they had written together and wanted to extend this fruitful collaboration into a full-length play.
Pete explained: “This is the realisation of a long-held ambition, so we are a bit nervous. It’s a big deal for both of us.
“Although I have written many rock’n’roll pantomimes, provided the script for stage biographies of people like Marc Bolan (20th Century Boy) and Ellie Greenwich (the reworked Leader of the Pack), this is the first play I have created from scratch.”
The idea for the play came from a conversation he had with Ben Goddard while working on another show and is based on Ben’s experiences at a recent university reunion. He said: “I was in this situation. I went away with a group of chums to the Lake District after I had finished my finals at university and I recently hooked up with them again. I was telling Pete that it doesn’t matter whether you own your company or you are a senior executive you automatically revert to the same relationships banter whether you like it or not.
“It didn’t seem to matter that 25 years had gone past. You find yourself hitting someone around the head like you did when you were 20 and then you discover that he is now a surgeon.”
He said that this provided an interesting dynamic which helped shape the feel of the show.
“I think it’s both good and bad that people can get back together and put aside all that has happened over the last 25 years of their lives and yet at the same time you want that acknowledgement of what you have achieved and you are not the same person you were 25 years earlier.”
Pete admits that in the past he has shied away from writing a completely new work. “I have always had that fear about facing a blank piece of paper – what on earth do you write about?
“I think Midsum 000mer Songs works, it doesn’t have that fear factor, because we had talked about Ben’s experiences and knew where we were going with the story. We had a story and a structure before we started writing.
“I have written musicals about people writing songs and about dead rock stars but they have always had other people’s music in them. This is the first entirely original show that I have written and it is very exciting for that reason alone. We have been messing around together with other people’s songs for quite some time and now we want to take it onto the next step – which is creating something which is completely our own.”
Pete is also clear that the production is a play with music rather than a traditional musical. “It’s not like traditional musical theatre where one character has an idea and the idea is continued or explored further in a song. I don’t think that the dialogue ever stops, it keeps going through the song. We see the songs being made as part of the action of the play.
“In terms of which convention we are operating in, we are entirely naturalistic. We are not operating in a heightened musical theatre world where characters suddenly burst into song. That never happens. We always have a context within the story for a song to appear.”
Ben added that the fact that these university mates were all members of a band allowed them to have actor-musicians in a naturalistic setting.
The pair were also thrilled to be writing their own songs.
Ben said that the music represented the student’s eternal musical hero, the guitar-wielding singer-songwriter.
It’s the music that all students relate to. When you get to university you discover the guitar-playing singer-songwriter and this is the music that informs the show. It’s timeless.”
Pete explains that because the show is a play with songs, he was anxious for the lyrics to stand-up as the sort of songs that the characters would write at the time that they wrote them. “The lyrics reflect who these people are and what is going on in their lives at the time.
“There is an element of
autobiography not only in terms of characters but also in the process I suppose. There are characters in the story who get very excited about making songs and it is fair to say that we are still very excited about making music.”
But, not everyone at the reunion had been there 25 years earlier. 22-year-old Hannah Jarrett-Scott plays a young girl who mysteriously turns up to the reunion and knows an awful lot about their past.
“I don’t want to say too much because it’s better to preserve the mystery but it’s great being the young newcomer. I’ve only been out of drama school for just over a year and it’s great to come into a situation where the play is mimicking our actual experience.
“Many of these guys have worked together before and are busy re-establishing friendships and I’m trying to fit in. So the dynamic works really well. Hopefully I’ll be able to spring a few surprises on them!”
Midsummer Songs is at the New Wolsey Theatre from September 4-27.