Being Yourself on Stage -an interview with Ty Jeffries

Ty-J sings-ty-jeffries
Ty Jeffries in “Ty Jeffries Sings Ty Jeffries” at Live at Zédel.


“Cabaret is being yourself, only on purpose.”

Erv Raible (New York based cabaret impresario 1978-2014)

One of the things people who sing cabaret find so daunting is the thought of being themselves onstage, especially engaging with the audience in patter, and for some even singing when not being in character can induce anxiety.

Some have solved the problem by creating a persona and bringing that character on to the stage.  One of London’s most well-known cabaret artists Ty Jeffries is famed for his onstage alter-ego Miss Hope Springs– a pop and jazz singing diva of the 1960’s and ‘70s, very glamorous, extravert, outrageously camp and with a famously sharp tongue.

The real Ty Jeffries is none of those things.  Now, however, for the first time, Jeffries is to sing his own material in a new show, entirely as himself.

I interviewed him to find out why he has chosen this new path, and what he feels about the whole concept of appearing as himself, and to ask if he has any words of advice to budding cabaret performers, or more experienced who might also be leaving a stage persona behind.

Miss Hope is so different in personality to you, and for nearly 10 years, you have been so successful with her.  Why did you choose not to appear as Ty Jeffries before now, and why do it now?  What caused the change of heart?

For me personally, it has been a journey of self-confidence and self discovery.  I started writing songs when I was 7 years old and I got my first publishing deal at 14.  I was a singer-songwriter and that was what I wanted to do as myself. Things didn’t go the way I hoped. I didn’t become the next Elton John, but knew I had something that I wanted to express, and I felt more comfortable expressing it with a mask on, with a character I could hide behind, a character that I could write for, that I could inhabit and hide within.

And I think she did what I hoped she might do. I mean the name Miss Hope Springs – Hope Springs Eternal- was not by chance.  She took me through the journey from 7-8 years ago when I started doing her through to where I am now.  She is fully formed and things are working really well with that character and that show, and it has built up a following and I am working all the time, which is marvelous.

Miss Hope Springs

I just suddenly thought instinctively that I wanted to step out of the character now, just to show that beyond Miss Hope Springs I am a serious songwriter. And I think that message often gets lost behind the wigs and the lashes and the sequins.  People see what I call Musical Comedy Cabaret. Other people see it as Drag, with the negative connotations and the prejudices people have and the snobbishness about drag.  I realized if I do the material as myself, it’s a different type of audience who will come and see Ty Jeffries who would never come and see Miss Hope Springs.  I just needed to step out of that character, and try my own feet – without heels on.

What have been your main challenges in making this shift?

It’s what you touched on at the beginning. It’s a sense of fear, a sense of nakedness, not having something to hide behind, a persona that does some of the work for you, but at the same time I want to show the seriousness of my songwriting beyond the songs I write for Miss Hope Springs.  The songs I write for her are very specific. They fall somewhere between musical theatre comedy and pop and jazz from the era of 1960s and 70s, and I also write contemporary songs that are not right for her and would be out of place for her, but that I can sing, including some that are autobiographical, though of course there is a grain of autobiography with Miss Hope Springs, which gives her the authenticity that I think people resonate with.

So, I’ve made a conscientious decision not to sing Miss Hope Springs songs, but to really separate the two, and do other songs.  I hope people won’t be disappointed, but it’s really going out on a limb and I really want it to be its own identity as Ty Jeffries as a singer-songwriter, composer and lyricist, and we’re leaving Miss Hope Springs in a bag so to speak, with her wigs etc in Somerset and I shall be venturing forth as myself.

I hope I shall discover a way to be comfortable doing it, and I think if I have a word of advice to anyone is that you will only ever find out by doing it.

I didn’t perform Miss Hope Springs for 10 years, because I suffered so much from anxiety!  I would work hard and get a gig and then as soon as I got it, I would freak out and cancel it, because I go so anxious. It wasn’t until 2010 that I finally had the courage to start doing her, and now it’s been 9 years to find the courage to come back to where I was when I was 18 and early 20s when I was writing pop songs. With the confidence I have built up and the following I have built up, it’s a safe place for me to do it.

I am sure there is some weird psychological things going on as well. Having a very famous father (Lionel Jeffries) with a very big personality, was very stressful. He cast a very big shadow, and it was only when he passed away that I managed to do Miss Hope Springs, and now part of me has sort of grown up and can take that risk as myself.

Ty Jeffries with father Lionel Jeffries on the set of Camelot.

I was going to ask you about that. I was wondering just how much having such a famous father had had an effect on you, and it sounds as if it has.

Absolutely, and I think it was easier doing it as a woman, so I wouldn’t be in direct competition with him.  But as well as any Oedipus Rex going on, I had to make my own way, which I’ve done all along without any support. My father passed away and most of his contemporaries and people in the business who might have helped me have also all passed on.  So, I’ve really made my way with the help of friends and people who have liked my work.

I also had a show put on with Xara Vaughan singing my work, which she delivered beautifully, and that went very well, and that was the first step, but now it seems the time to step out myself.

What material can the audience expect from your new show? 

Well Xara has the most amazing singing voice, but I have a voice like Toblerone – it’s quite rich, but then it’s got quite chunky, clunky bits in it. It’s not a flawless voice by any means, but I think there’s an authoritativeness that comes from a singer singing his own work, like Michel Legrand used to do it, Burt Bacharach does it and when Harold Arlen used to do it.  There’s a specific voice that comes from that.

The songs I will be doing are more contemporary, not the easy listening Bacharach sound, and exploring songs not performed as Hope, but more the songs I would be doing if I had become the singer-songwriter I set out to be 30 years ago. Songs that are really coming directly from my voice.

How is being yourself affecting your performance?  Do you find your delivery of songs and patter is different from if Miss Hope Springs were to sing the song?

Yes, it’s very much more workmanlike. It’s much more stripped back. I think of myself as a song-smith. For me it’s my day to day work, although I haven’t made vast fortunes from it as yet, it earns me a living and I take my songwriting really seriously. It’s been my life’s work, so for me this is like a workman showing his work, his pieces of art, like a painter showing his pictures in a gallery.  The show is very simple and very pared back.

Unlike Miss Hope Springs, I’m a very low key person. I avoid crowds and slip out the back after a show, and no-one recognizes me without all the slap on.  Miss Hope Springs loves all that. I’m not keen, so this is really just about the songs, and it gives people a chance to hear the songs stripped right back and hopefully appreciate them for what they are, without all the hair and the sequins and the tragi-comedy aspects of Miss Hope Springs. The songs will be under the spotlight in their own right, and I will be there to present the songs in a very pure and simple way.  This is the best showcase for them at this point.

Miss Hope Springs can be quite acerbic.  How will Ty Jeffries deal with hecklers or difficult people in the audience?

That’s a very good question. Miss Hope Springs is known for her retorts and her sharp wit. I don’t have to access that part of my personality during this.  I think I can deliver the same warning glances as Hope, but I hope people are just there to come and listen to the songs.  If they’re expecting Liberace, they will be sadly disappointed.  I feel a bit religious about it, having given my life to it as others might give theirs to Jesus or Buddha, so it’s interesting that it should be done on a Sunday.

I was going to call the show Chiaroscuro.  My father was a painter and I am a painter, but I didn’t think people would know what that was, but it comes in one of my songs Turning Shadows into Light.  This is about me coming out of the shadows into the light, from my childhood and  father’s career and coming out of that, having to make my own way, and now even out of that to another place.

Coming out of Hope Springs’ shadow, actually.

Yes, and it’s scary. But I would just say to everybody who wants to perform as themselves, there’s a wonderful book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers.  I read it when I was paralyzed with fear and anxiety and learned to over-ride those feelings.


Back in the day when I was first starting experimenting as Hope , I was doing Miss Hope Springs Sing Barbra Streisand at the Kings Head Theatre, not singing my songs, but about a fictitious relationship between Miss Hope and Streisand, and I got so nervous that about 10 minutes before the show, I climbed out of a window, over the wall and into the carpark, dressed as Miss Hope Springs trying to get away!  The sound and lighting guy was very kind and suggested I come back in, sit down and have a glass of water and see how I felt then, and after about 10 minutes I was ready to go on.

I had a word with myself after that, telling myself “You spend 99% of the time wanting to be on stage, wanting to perform, wanting to sing your songs and show the world what you can do, and when you get to doing it, you’re so paralyzed with fear and anxiety, it ruins the experience.”

But since I talked to myself, I never did it again. I get myself revved up like a racehorse waiting to go on, but I won’t have nerves. I just won’t have them, and I think people can have a word with themselves and I think it’s possible for all of us to de-activate that actually quite useless part of our mechanism.  Excitement and a bit of nerves and wanting to go on and deliver is very positive, but when it descends into fear and anxiety, it makes it really difficult.

And I think having a certain amount of technique and having something to do is useful.

Yes, when it comes to performing as themselves, I think of Barbra Streisand.  When she is performing, she is not giving us the Streisand that is making a cream cheese and salmon bagel in her kitchen, she is giving us a Super version of herself. A super self beyond herself. Likewise Joan Crawford.

You (Fiona-Jane Weston) have done more performing as yourself than I have, so I suppose you too access a part of yourself that’s still you, but the part that gets you out on stage, is that right?

Yes, that’s true. And also, because I am presenting other women, many of whom have died but whose stories have not been told, I feel a certain sense of responsibility to those women, not wanting to let them down. Never mind about Fiona-Jane, I want people to be interested in these other women.

Yes, and there’s the conundrum. I am fascinated by Miss Hope Springs. That’s why I created her, but I hope people will be interested in my life. I will be talking about aspects of my life, although I have been reticent to do so before, because I think people will expect that, but keeping light and show-bizzy as well. There is enough doom and gloom in the world, so I won’t be going into “When I was 3…”.   I want to keep it entertaining and light, and work through a colour palette, whether I do it as myself or as Miss Hope.

How do you anticipate being yourself might affect your engagement with the audience?

I really don’t know! I am quite a shy reserved person, but I’ve always performed at parties.  I will do it as a performance after a lovely Sunday lunch in front of about 80 of my closest friends, and hope my experience will come to the fore and I’ll just deliver the songs.

Where and When:

Ty Jeffries Sings Ty Jeffries will be at Live at Zédel on Sunday, 24th February at 3:00pm and also on September 4th at the same venue

Miss Hope Springs is still being performed, and you can catch her on 11th April at the Edinburgh Fringe preview at Underbelly Festival in the South Bank Speigel Tent, and at various venues is London and beyond.

www.misshopesprings.com

Key Take-Aways from How Ty Jeffries will Present as Himself:

  • He will be presenting his songs in a spare, pared back way, without the glitz and glamour of Miss Hope Springs. This will be a workman-like performance.
  • As a person, Ty has come through a lot of self-development, growing out of his childhood experiences of living in the shadow of a famous father, and then hiding behind a larger-than-life stage persona, to a sense of being more confident in himself to present his songs in a pure and simple way, and allow them to be under scrutiny for what they are.
  • He will be drawing on his years of experience, both as a songwriter and performer at parties and as Miss Hope
  • He has worked through his once paralyzing fear and anxiety by ‘having a word’ with himself, and refusing to allow those feelings to overcome him.
  • He will not be laying his psyche bare for all to see, but present a Super-version of himself in a professional manner

What key –takeaways did you get from this interview?  Do you have other tips on finding a way to be yourself on stage?

Join the conversation and comment below!

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Jeff Harnar: The 1959 Broadway Songbook

Jeff Harner - photo Seth Walters

Jeff Harner – photo Seth Walters

Jeff Harnar returns to London to present his new show The 1959 Broadway Songbook – a celebration of the 21 musicals you could have seen in New York that year, some brand new at the time (The Sound of Music, Gypsy, Flower Drum Song, Fiorello) and some still running from previous seasons (My Fair Lady, West Side Story, The Music Man, Bells Are Ringing).

The structure of the show itself sounds intriguing with an homage to the Golden Age of Broadway – a ‘boy meets girl’ narrative, and created around the musical structure of a Broadway show of that era.  I just had to ask him about it. Directed by Sara Louise Lazarus, he comes with one of my favourite Music Directors Alex Rybeck.

What got you interested in theatre, particularly musical theatre, and how did you start?

As a child, family friends were in a local production of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and had the great good sense to lend me the Original Cast Album before I saw the show so I would know the songs. I was hooked. When I was nine I was cast as Winthrop in The Music Man in the Chicago area and from that landed my first agent. By the time I was ten I had all my union cards and became a working TV commercial jingle singer. Then my voice changed and it’s been an uphill climb ever since!

Were you tempted simply to appear in shows? What led you to cabaret?

I graduated from New York University with a BFA in acting and pursued theatre auditions until I became discouraged and stopped. I discovered Barbara Cook’s cabaret work (having already adored her stage work from the Music Man record). Here was a Broadway talent finding new deeply personal expression in this sublimely intimate art form. Here the music I loved was being celebrated and illuminated in ways entirely different from their presentation in stage shows. Again, I was hooked.

What first brought you to London? How did that come about?

I first came to London with Shauna Hicks (Linda in the Broadway production of Blood Brothers) to perform our I GOT RHYTHM: Mickey & Judy’s Hollywood at Pizza on The Park almost 18 years ago. Subsequently I’ve returned as the host of three seasons of “The American Songbook in London” at The Jermyn Street Theatre and Pizza on the Park. In recent years it’s been Ruth Leon who has devotedly continued my UK presence with engagements at The Crazy Coqs and now this engagement, my debut at The Pheasantry.

This current show sounds most interesting. Tell us about the structure, especially the sections you have labelled with musical terms.

The 1959 Broadway Songbook is a celebration of the 21 musicals one could have seen in New York in 1959, including new shows such as Gypsy, Fiorello, and The Sound of Music, and shows still running such as My Fair Lady, West Side Story and Bells Are Ringing. Together with Music Director Alex Rybeck, who will be joining me at The Pheasantry, and Director Sara Louise Lazarus, we came up with the concept of touting not only the music, but also the format of the Broadway musical. As such, we have a sung “Overture, “Entr’Acte” and “Curtain Call,” as well as a boy-meets-girl narrative upon which we hang those glorious songs. We even take an “Intermission” where we discuss some of the current events and pop music of 1959. It’s a wildly delightful structure for me as the performer, as the show is weaving its spell on multiple levels, first and foremost, as a set of unforgettable and timeless musical gems.

Jeff Harnar with Alex Rybeck and Marylin Maye

You direct cabaret, including people I know (Tovah Feldshuh, who taught me the art of cabaret at Yale with Alex Rybeck as Musical Director,  Anna Bergman). What sort of things do artists want you to do in the rehearsal room? Simply be an outside eye? Help with the structure/patter/ musical arrangement?

As a Director, for me, the ideal chemistry is a seamless collaboration between the artist, the Music Director and myself to craft the best possible vehicle for the performer. I’m there as a guide, with a mindful eye to the overall shape and tone of the piece. I’ve learned so much about performing in my role as a Director. It’s helped me sharpen my own tool kit: I certainly cannot guide an artist if I’m not actively practicing the very suggestions I’m making to them. And yes, as a Director my fingerprints are on many aspects of a show, from its title, the design of the promotional artwork, every word spoken or sung, the creation and shaping of arrangements, and the staging.

Do you direct full length shows as well?

Not yet!

Anything else you would like to mention or talk about?

I learned the hard way that Oscar Hammerstein had made lyric adjustments for the West End version of 1959’s Flower Drum Song. Alex and I performed our show at a party honoring Elaine Paige in Salt Lake City and in the song Don’t Marry Me I sang the Broadway lyric “They’ll get splinters in their little f- – – – -s,” and watched Elaine burst into hysterics, barely able to recover. From that I learned the West End rewrite is, “They’ll get splinters in their little bottoms.” How I hope to get it right at The Pheasantry!

He had better!
Jeff Harner and Alex Rybeck appear at The Pheasantry Saturday 24th March at 8:30 pm (doors open 7:00pm) and Sunday 25th March at 8:00pm (doors open 6:30pm).

Fiona-Jane Weston

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Lucy Dixon: Lulu’s Back in Town

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Lucy Dixon – Lulu’s Back in Town

Lucy Dixon is not an artist to stand still – neither artistically nor physically. Her work has moved from performing in musical theatre to French gypsy jazz, tap dancing, improvised percussion and much else.

Having trained from childhood as a dancer in several styles, including ballet, tap, contemporary dance, she also had a love of music, inspired in no small part by her mother, who is herself a very good singer and sings in a choir to this day.

These interests led to the 19 year old Dixon to move to Paris to work as a showgirl for a year with the renowned Lido. Here she experienced the independence, glamour and special energy of Paris, which still excites her, but realised she also wanted to return to the UK to work in the West End musicals scene. She was fortunate enough to be cast in Follies, Cats and Cabaret, amongst others, and in time joined the international tour of Stomp.

She describes Stomp as “a great school of rhythm and all about percussion”.  The lengthy and demanding tour did eventually begin to pall after 5 years, and when they were in Paris decided she wanted to stay.

She was by now writing her own heartfelt jazz compositions in the dressing room, and was able to meet some extraordinary musicians, one of whom was Sébastian Gastine with his far-ranging tastes and interests including gypsy jazz, swing, electric bass and funk.  She still works with him, his brother David and fellow guitarist Vincent Simonelli.

As a result, her own music has developed into much more of a swing jazz, with a strong influence of manouche (gypsy) style, resonating with its historical connection to Paris.

I asked her what inspired her to include tap dancing in her show.

“Manouche jazz does not have drums, only guitarists. Having experienced a surfeit of drumming in Stomp, I find it liberating to produce the percussion by other means, and manouche gives me the space to do that. Also, I find dancing helps me connect with the other musicians in an exchange of ideas, rather than just waiting for their solos to finish. I am a singer who is very physically inspired, and don’t like to stand still for too long. I like to express myself physically as well.”

Her latest album and show Lulu’s Back in Town pays homage to the inspirational artists of the 30’s and 40’s.

“I am a great Fred Astaire fan, who was also a great drummer by the way, and love that whole 30’s era – the style, art-deco, the clothes – and the songs were so beautifully written. It was a real craft back then, a proper job”.

Lucy Dixon 2

Forming what she describes as ‘a musical collage’ with modern influences of R &B and hip-hop, she channels all these elements into the show ensuring it is not an imitation of the era, but a continual extemporization on the theme, as she thinks of a hip-hop way of phrasing or moving a classic songbook song.

She loves to improvise and never fixes her tap dancing or any aspect of her performance. “I love that danger on stage”, she says. “It’s what jazz musicians do”

Lucy Dixon will appear in Crazy Coqs at Live at Zedel on Thursday 24th August at 9:15 pm.

Fiona-Jane Weston

 

Addendum:

Lucy Dixon at Crazy Coqs

I have seen countless shows at Crazy Coqs since it opened in 2012, and although this one is very different from anything else I have seen there, it is entirely appropriate for the venue.

Jeremy King’s vision for the place was that it should feature American Songbook, but should also resonate with old-style Parisian cabaret, and the wonderful clock above the bar featuring the two cockerels inspired the name for the venue, Crazy Coqs, in honour of the Parisian club Crazy Horse.

Lucy Dixon’s cocktail of classic jazz songs from the golden era of American songbook, coupled with the excellent French manouche band, comprising of Sebastien Gastine on double base and David Gastine and Julien Cattiaux on guitar, fuses the two worlds perfectly.

An added point of serendipity is that her leading architect father Jeremy Dixon designed the interior of the Brasserie Zédel building!  It was particularly satisfying to see him in the audience supporting his daughter in the space he had such a hand in creating.

Opening with Shall We Dance?, Lucy showed us her intentions for the show, including of course her tap-dancing, from the start, and the audience responded with warmth immediately.

There is a good balance of upbeat and calmer, more introspective material, and although Lucy is not one for much banter or direct audience address, she does tell a story through song, most particularly in the more reflective numbers.

She keeps the surprises coming with spontaneous ‘drumming’ with brushes on the famous red and white curtains behind her and on the metal Crazy Coqs sign in Bye Bye Blackbird.  I particularly loved her graceful and expressive hand and arm gestures in this number. She also produces from her hatbox unexpected instruments to create rhythm, ranging from a metal teapot to a plastic carrier bag.

Of the many standout numbers, my particular favourites were her solo accapella rendition of Gypsy in my Soul leading into an exciting Get Happy with the band joining in, a beautiful use of breathy vocal tones in C’est le Printemps, the show’s title song Lulu’s Back in Town and her rousing closing number Undecided.

It is hoped that Lucy and her gypsy jazz band will henceforth appear in the UK more frequently, including possibly on my own show Fiona-Jane and West End Friends.  Let’s hope that works out – you would be in for a treat!

Fiona-Jane Weston

lucy-dixon-with-band-at-crazy-coqs.jpg

 

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A Spoonful of Sherman

17794-spoonful - Copy

The version of A Spoonful of Sherman currently appearing at Live at Brasserie Zedel is a pared down production of the 2-act show with 4 performers staged at the then St James Theatre in 2014.

Celebrating a century of songwriting from three generations of the extraordinary Sherman family, brothers Robert B and Richard M, their father Al and now Robert’s son Robert J  Sherman (Robbie), the show is a delightful history and showcase featuring just a snippet of their extensive body of work.

Setting the works of the famous brothers in historical context, the audience is treated to some of the early work of Al Sherman during his Tin Pan Alley days, and some written around the time of World War 2, including the sentimental though beautiful There’s A Harbour Of Dreamboats.

We learn that Al found it difficult to make a living as a songwriter, despite having written for Broadway shows, and that he went home from the hospital where his first son Robert was born, leaving wife and infant behind, because he did not have enough money to pay the hospital bill. He opened his post to discover a royalty cheque for just the right amount from a song called Save Your Sorrow.

We also learn that Robert, having joined the army at the tender age of 17 in 1943, only 2 years later was to lead a squadron of just 8 men into the infamous Dachau concentration camp hours after the Nazis had fled.

The War meant that, in spite of their age difference, the brothers attended university at the same time. Robert studied literature and Richard music.

Their careers going nowhere separately, their father laid down the gauntlet to them to write a popular hit song. This gave rise to numbers still played on the airwaves today, including Let’s Get Together and You’re Sixteen, and their legendary partnership was born.

Of course, the show includes the favourites forming the soundtrack of all our childhoods ranging from Mary Poppins, Jungle Book, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and countless other films from the Disney cannon and beyond, and the audience is also treated to some powerful material from Robbie’s shows Bumblescratch and Love Birds.

One of my personal favourites is Robbie himself singing a song his father wrote for him, River Song from Tom Sawyer.

This beautifully staged (Stewart Nicholls) production featuring the ebullient Daniel Boys, the crystal clear dewdrop voice of Helena Blackman, excellent piano skills and occasional comic showstealers from Christopher Hamiltonalongside the endearing personality of Robbie providing narration is to tour the UK soon, once again as a full-length show.

By the way, Robert also loved to make kites – go and fly one for them by catching this show.

Fiona-Jane Weston

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Undermined

Undermined

Danny  Mellor in Undermined

Young actor Danny Mellor presented his self-penned hour long one-man play Undermined at Wilton’s Music Hall this week following an acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Festival.

This is a well-structured work describing a year in a young miner’s life in North Yorkshire during the tumultuous 1980’s miner’s strike. Based on true stories, it is beautifully observed, not only of the events shaping the strike through the eyes of one miner, but the various people affected.

Well directed by Ben Butcher, and using finely honed movement skills, Mellor builds vivid pictures of crowd scenes, picket lines, fights and individual characters. His depictions of the men and women of the community are amusingly and sensitively portrayed, from the familiar Northern matriarch to the swaggering gawkiness of some of the young men.

By turns he is rangy, still, drunk or exhausted, with sharp attention to detail both in physicality and voice.

The emotions elicited in us move from great amusement to shock, anger and tears.

My one note of criticism is that at the beginning of the piece, where Mellor moves into a fast spoken part, that one section was almost inaudible on the evening I saw it, not helped by its being set against energetic music. This was a pity, as it is an important part of the plot, explaining why the union chose to strike at that moment. Writing as someone who was not in the country at that time, it would have helped to be given the playwright’s perspective on this.

This is easily rectified, however, by a slightly slower delivery and greater attention to diction at that point. It does not detract from enjoyment of the piece as a whole. The main thrust of the narrative is not so much the political wrangling on the national scale, but the undermining of both the strike itself, and crucially, of the friendships and community ties. The consequences of the divisions formed then are still felt in those former mining communities to this day.

An excellent piece of theatre.

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Shell Shock

shell-shock-tp-tm

Tom Page and Tim Marriott in rehearsal for Shell Shock

Shell Shock is a powerful and acutely-observed new one-man play soon to tour the UK describing a young soldier’s difficulties in settling back into civilian life, and the effects on his mental health and family life.

Originally created at Eastbourne College, former pupil turned professional actor Tom Page tells one soldier’s story of coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tommy Atkins’ observations on life on civvy street are poignant, frequently comic and always moving. His over-emotional responses to post office queues, a trip to Ikea, his relationships and family lead to alienation and anger.
The story, adapted from the original novel Shell Shock: The Diary of Tommy Atkins, highlights the work of charities such as Combat Stress and Help For Heroes and was described by General Sir Mike Jackson as: “a vivid and compassionate portrayal of an ex-soldier having to cope with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and it shows just how important is the work of charities such as Combat Stress”.

Shell Shock is written by Neil Watkin and adapted for the stage by Tim Marriott and features a filmed introduction from Squadron Leader John Peters, the former RAF Tornado pilot famously shot down and held captive by the Iraqis in the first Gulf War.

 
Read the interview with adaptor and director Tim Marriott and actor Tom Page here:

TIM MARRIOTT

How did the project come about?

Neil Watkin (writing as Neil Blower) is a former soldier who returned to the UK after several overseas tours and after leaving the army began to demonstrate signs of PTSD. As part of his treatment he was advised to write a diary. Into this work he amalgamated stories of other veterans with similar tales to tell creating a fictionalised account of a generic ‘Tommy’. The resultant diary/novel was published and received positive responses including General Sir Mike Jackson comments: “a vivid and compassionate portrayal of an ex-soldier having to cope with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and it shows just how important is the work of charities such as Combat Stress”. Having recently written and produced a number of issue related works for the Brighton Fringe and on tour, I was approached by the publisher to write a stage adaptation.

The novel you have adapted is essentially a diary. What were the challenges in dramatising it for the stage, and how were you able to overcome them.

Written in the first person as a direct address piece, it wasn’t immediately obvious how this could be a stage drama. However, I knew about Alan Rickman’s adaptation My Name is Rachel Corrie, a blog written by a young American woman killed in Palestine by an Israeli bulldozer, and subsequently could envisage how a direct address piece could work. The humour of the original diary, the guttural language, Neil’s excellent ear for dialogue and the fact that I was working with an extraordinary young actor, Tom Page, ideal for the role, meant that the pieces quickly fell into place.

The first problem was that this is a written diary, so we made the choice to change this to a video diary to allow Tom to speak to the audience and infuse the action with cinematically screened footage to reveal his subconscious and colour the flashbacks and nightmares that any PTSD sufferer experiences.

Shell Shock 2017 Printers Playhouse

Tom Page in Shell Shock

How were you able to secure the funding to mount a full production and tour it?

We are LIBOR funded. The UK government has recently been highlighting reforms in mental health care, particularly with reference to veterans. We therefore applied to the LIBOR fund with the support of Anglia Ruskin University, who are to evaluate the project and several related charities such as Help for Heroes, Combat Stress and PTSD resolution.

You are touring to a range of spaces, each of different shapes and sizes, and each presenting a particular challenge. How will you adapt the set to suit such an array?

We have an expanding set of doorways and partition walls suggested by wooden frames, which can be tailored to each venue. The walls and empty door frames are in part meant to be suggestive of his deconstructed mind but also of his nightmare shopping experience in Ikea!

The piece is imagined largely in Tommy’s home and bedroom, his mother represented by a cottage sofa, his father by a leather arm chair, his fiancée by the bed – so these are the key areas with stage space defined by a floor cloth, which can expand for larger venues.

 

TOM PAGE

What drew you to the project?

I immediately identified with the central character. The diary drew me in straight away and I was fascinated by ‘Tommy’- the trauma he experienced and his denial as he falls into PTSD really impacted on me. The strength of the script, the remodelling of the diary into stage form was amazing. I could hear the voice of ‘Tommy’ so clearly, and what a challenge! 90 minutes on stage alone… got to be done!

You have a very different background from Tommy Atkins. You are highly educated, while Tommy left school early and has difficulty reading and writing. How do you identify with the character?

Not so sure about highly educated! I didn’t join the army at 16, I finished school with A levels, but have not gone on to college or university and actually experienced some learning difficulties at school and could really identify with the problems Neil faced and that he has expressed as ‘Tommy’. Like him, I have had to learn to mask such difficulties and deploy strategies to overcome them, so although I recognise I am very different to ‘Tommy’, there are similarities I could draw on in creating the character.

Do you or your family have any military background?

I served in the cadets as a teenager and have to say did not enjoy it!

How do you see your future career developing? What do you see yourself doing?

I have been lucky to gain some professional experience as a teenager in small parts on TV and in commercials and have managed to perform in professionally produced plays at the Brighton Fringe, in Eastbourne and on tour – I just hope to keep developing this kind of powerful work.

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For more information on the production, forthcoming tour information and the Shell Shock project please visit www.shellshock.org.uk

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A Christmas Carol – Fitzrovia Radio Hour

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Fitzrovia Radio Hour – A Christmas Carol. Photo: Geraint Lewis

 

The Fitzrovia Radio Hour are an acclaimed troupe who re-work vintage plays and write their own works and adaptations in the style of 1940’s radio drama, complete with cut-glass accents, live sound effects and plenty of nonsense.

Dickens’ Christmas classic is ‘broadcast’ live from the atmospheric Vaults Theatre by a cast comprising Ernest Andrew (Samuel Collings), Vanity Fair (Alix Dunmore), Beau Belles (William Findley), Stanley De Pfeffel (Michael Lumsden) and Gretchen Hagaegard (Dorothea Myer- Bennett).

From the start we are let into the secret that there has been rivalry and jealousy over the part of Scrooge, and the actor about to play the eponymous role has been injured in mysterious circumstances at the nearby Old Vic. However, the show must go on, though one cast member is visibly distraught, and Ernest Andrew takes his place.

Of course, there are more ghosts than the cast bargain for and the inevitable mayhem ensues.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Fitrovia Radio Hour -A Christmas Carol.  Photo:Geraint Lewis

 

The whole production is delightfully silly, very slick and wonderfully energetic. Beautifully choreographed, we see the actors jump to the microphones taking various characters in Dickens’ story, and create the splendid sound effects with a vast array of props, ranging from cloth in water, to cabbage in a boxing glove to coconut maracas.

Ridiculous product placement advertising, cast dynamics and a crackling script keep the pace moving as well as the visible theatrics, and arch reference is frequently made to the venue in which the show takes place.

The result is a highly amusing, joyful romp guaranteed to bring Christmas cheer.

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