Treasonable tomfoolery

The following article was first published in the December 2018 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Mark Brailsford is uncharacteristically lost for the right phrase. “I know you can’t use that word. There might be a better word without swearing.” His eyes twinkle. “It’s a clusterfudge.” Our conversation has turned to Brexit, which is certain to be a key part of the satirical revue he’s directing this month. “We scattergun everyone, both sides get it from The Treason Show, but because the dominant narrative is so incompetent, we only have to cover what’s going on and we look like we’re biased. And I can’t help that, because Brexit is a disaster. Whichever way you look at it.”

Now in its 19th year, The Treason Show has become a Brighton institution, reflecting current affairs in a collection of comedy sketches and songs. In recent years, the group’s annual end-of-year show – That Was The Year That Was – has even spread beyond the city to Lewes and Shoreham-by-Sea.

Although Mark founded the show, he’s keen to emphasise the collaboration involved. He reckons there have been well over 300 contributors since the original cast of four trod the boards at Brighton’s Komedia. However, The Treason Show might easily never have happened at all. Back in 1999, Mark mentioned his work on the Radio 4 Week Ending sketch show when he met Geoffrey Perkins, then BBC Head of Comedy. The Perkins response was “That taught you two things: how not to write and how not to be funny.” Mark “loved him even more after that” and decided to drop satire in favour of playwriting. Whilst arranging for his latest play to be performed at Komedia, he was asked if he’d like to set up a topical sketch show. Despite hesitating initially, Mark decided on a three-month trial in June 2000. “After two marriages and near-bankruptcy as well, the company motto is ‘we’re still here’.”

Indeed they are – and in the final stages of assembling this year’s conclusive performances. “You would think the Christmas show, which is a ‘best bits’ show, would be easier to put together than the regular shows. It’s not. It’s actually harder. Because it’s a review of the year, it has to encompass the big stories and then marry up with our best material – and those aren’t always the same thing.” Ultimately, Mark’s aiming for “a distillation of the narrative”, he says. “There are story arcs for every year. You will see a thread of triggering moments that everybody’s reacted to throughout 2018.” And so we return to “the b-word”, as Mark puts it. “There will definitely be a reaction to Brexit stuff. A mix of people going ‘I don’t like that’ and others cheering wildly. We want it to be a unifying, cathartic experience. Making people laugh together. It’s tougher to do comedy these days.”

That Was The Year That Was 2018 is at the White Hart Hotel in Lewes on Saturday 22nd and at Horatio’s on Brighton’s Palace Pier from Thursday 27th until Monday 31st. treasonshow.co.uk

Dickens Digested

The following article was first published in the November 2018 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

David Lean’s 1946 film version of Great Expectations won two Academy Awards and went on to earn itself fifth place on the British Film Institute’s list of the best 20th century films. It’s also directly responsible for a theatrical presentation of the story coming to Lewes.

Shaun Hughes at Lewes Little Theatre
Photo by Mark Bridge for Viva Lewes

“I’ve always thought it was one of the best movies of all time”, says Shaun Hughes, who’s directing a stage version of Great Expectations at Lewes Little Theatre this month. “And that hooked me into Dickens.” Shaun’s theatrical career started when he was a professional dancer, before expanding into acting, singing and design. These days his stage work is a hobby, albeit a hobby that keeps him very busy: next year he’s directing Shakespeare’s King Lear in Surrey and then taking the show to Germany.

There’s a Shakespearean link with this version of the story, too. It was written in 2005 by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod for the Royal Shakespeare Company and, Shaun tells me, attracted him because of its similarities with the RSC’s earlier production of Nicholas Nickelby. “That involved people talking to the audience directly, furniture came and went, and the actors played many roles. This reminded me very much of that.”

Compressing a 500-page novel into two hours has resulted in a show that’s “really fast paced”, according to Shaun. “There is a lot going on and all of the actors have got to play a variety of roles”. He’s using a composite set that represents a number of different locations, with cast members moving the staging when required, rather than relying on scene changes and stage crew. “There’s no such thing as an entire blackout. Something pulls the eye and the audience will look at it – which is only right; they’re here to watch a story being told.”

That tale takes place over quite a few years, so I ask Shaun how the aging of key characters will be conveyed. “Pip, the main character, will change costume on stage to show him changing from being a boy to a young man to an adult. There won’t be any makeup involved but it’ll be down to his ability to act. And Estella, the same. They’ll both be playing their younger selves and then their adult selves.” This sounds like challenging work for the cast, I suggest. “They’re all excellent, absolutely amazing.”

Ultimately, the fact that a lengthy 150-year-old novel can be transformed into a compact contemporary play is a testament to the skills of Charles Dickens. Shaun agrees wholeheartedly. “He’s writing stories that are romantic. They always end in a positive. Although there may be many negatives along the way, people always travel through his stories: Oliver, Pip, Scrooge – they travel and change… and come out the other end a better person. It’s very, very appealing.”

Great Expectations runs at Lewes Little Theatre from Saturday 24 November until Saturday 1 December 2018. lewestheatre.org

Live, Love, Laugh

The following article was first published in the October 2018 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

When it opened in 1971, Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies was a contemporary tale set in a dilapidated New York theatre. “A lot of the context is very topical for that time”, says Thomas Hackett, who’s directing a version for LOS Musical Theatre in Lewes this month. “We’re setting it when it was written. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” We’ve found a quiet spot for a chat during rehearsals by squeezing into the costume store, which seems particularly appropriate for a story about theatrical lives. “It’s about growing up and looking back at your younger self. Your course may have changed but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong”. Before the fictional theatre closes forever, former members of Weismann’s Follies reunite on stage for one last time. “They were showgirls, they’re proper performers”, says Thomas. This, he tells me with a smile, is why he’s working with choreographer Star Bray. “I need someone who knows what they’re doing, not just to wing it myself!”

Fortunately there’s space in the storeroom for all three of us. “We both wanted to keep the choreography as part of the story, rather than the singing and the dancing being separate”, explains Star. “The music is beautiful. You have the opportunity for Charleston, for 1940s close-hold jive, for Shim Sham, and we’ve got elements of Fosse as well. There are plenty of different dance styles to play around with, which has been fun”.

“We’ve been incredibly blessed with the amount of talent that has rocked up”, Thomas adds. “We have this plethora of leading ladies with so many credits to their name – here, Brighton, Eastbourne – and they’ve brought all that talent. Every time something happens on stage, it’s a highlight.” Not only is the show packed with performers, it’s also packed with Sondheim songs. “When he wrote it, it was an homage to Rodgers and Hammerstein, to Oscar Straus… Obviously ‘Losing My Mind’ is the big torch song, ‘I’m Still Here’ is another big number but, as a piece, it’s really hard to break it down. I look on it very much as a whole.”

Although Thomas has kept the show rooted in the 1970s, he’s made one change from the Broadway production. “We’re breaking for an interval. When Sondheim originally wrote it, he didn’t want one but an interval was subsequently put in the script. It’s a long time to sit and hold focus. And there’s a social side as well; having a chat at the bar is part of an evening out.” As I emerge from the costume store, I ask the director what message he has for those sociable theatregoers of Lewes. “More than anything, if you don’t know it, you need to see it.” To which his choreographer adds “And if you have seen it and you do know it, then you’ll want to see it again”.

Follies runs from Wednesday 3rd until Saturday 6th October 2018 at Lewes Town Hall. Tickets via losmusicaltheatre.org.uk

Starting Out

The story of my introduction to journalism was published in the July/August 2018 edition of The Journalist, the magazine of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ):

Jim Rockford, the fictional private detective played on TV by James Garner in the 1970s, made a big impact on me as a child. Jim lived in a static mobile home – what an intriguing notion for a youngster – and solved mysteries. ‘Cold cases’ mainly, because he didn’t like upsetting the police. A sensible maxim, I thought. Perhaps one day I’d have a similar job, solving mysteries and not upsetting people.

The Sound of Silence

The following article was first published in the July 2018 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Three years ago, pianist and vocal coach Nancy Cooley wanted to hear more of her favourite music. “Often, as an accompanist, you don’t get to choose what you want to play”, she tells me. And so the Lewes Festival of Song was born. “We just did one day of concerts in October 2015 and then I thought I’d expand it.” This year she’s artistic director of a three-day festival that opens on Friday 6th July with Glyndebourne favourite Louise Winter performing a collection of songs on the subject of youth and dreams. “I love putting the programmes together”, Nancy explains. “It’s about the people, the lovely collaborations, which is the joy of music, really.”

All the concerts take place at St Anne’s church at the top of the High Street. “The music director just said ‘come’ and the support from the church people was wonderful”, says Nancy. In a spirit of reciprocity, this year’s festival ends on Sunday 8th with a concert entitled Sacred Raptures. “I wanted to do a programme that was very much to do with St Anne’s church. I included music about solitude because there was an anchorite living in the church in the 12th century. She was in a tiny little cell just off the vestry.”

As part of this site-specific celebration, Nancy spoke to Sussex-based composer Orlando Gough and asked him to create a choral work for the occasion. “I started thinking about silence and what it meant to me”, he explains. “I thought to myself, could I be an anchorite or a hermit? When I find myself in the countryside where I can’t hear anything, it’s a really beautiful feeling. And then I thought about the other kind of silence, the three o’clock in the morning silence when you wake up, you’re by yourself and you’re terrified. So I thought I’d write a piece about the two contrasting ideas of silence.” Orlando was also influenced by a radio interview with a Libyan refugee who’d crossed the Mediterranean by boat. “He described the voyage as being ‘like a great journey made in silence’ and I was really struck by that phrase. It then becomes about a collective silence, about all being in the same situation. And the piece has ended up being extremely monumental and epic.”

Finally, to the elephant in the room. A newspaper review of one of Orlando’s projects last year talked about treading ‘a fine line between eccentricity and madness’. How does this one shape up? “The text is quite odd”, he admits. “There’s a 12th century flavour to the lyrics; they’re written in rather arcane language. It’s all similes: silence is like a hyena, it’s like a jackal… at the end it’s like a dung beetle, it’s like a blinding light. But by my standards, it’s not wildly eccentric.”

Lewes Festival of Song runs from Friday 6th until Sunday 8th. www.lewesfestivalofsong.co.uk

Bengt into shape

The following article was first published in the June 2018 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

A conversation on the other side of the world first brought Swedish pianist Bengt Forsberg to the Lewes Chamber Music Festival. Although he’d visited the area previously – “I was here with my family many years ago for a performance of Carmen at Glyndebourne and we fell in love with your town”, he tells me – it was a chat in Australia that led to him returning as a performer. Viola player James Boyd mentioned “this festival of interesting, not always well known music” run by violinist Beatrice Philips; Bengt was convinced and made his festival debut in 2015.

This year, Bengt, Beatrice and James are all back in town as part of a three-day festival that’s now a well-established part of the classical music calendar. Over twenty artists – a blend of internationally-acclaimed professional musicians and some of today’s top young performers – will be presenting seven concerts in historic buildings. “Chamber music is in no way less intense in emotional impact or passion than music written for larger forces, such as a symphony orchestra”, Bengt explains. “The only actual difference is the amount of players involved; and you can really come close to the audience in a smaller room.” Playing with a group of other musicians is “very much a shared venture”, he says. “You always have to find a mutual understanding of the music.”

Last year, some of Bengt’s rehearsals were open to visitors. For 2018, there’s a formal open rehearsal ahead of the opening night. I wondered how comfortable he was with an audience hearing what could be thought of as an imperfect performance. He tells me the process is inspiring: “There is no such thing as a ’perfect performance’; interpreting music is an ongoing process of finding hidden secrets and revealing possible truths in it.” His definition of a good pianist is similarly broad and relaxed. “Someone who can think ‘outside the box’, so to speak; who enjoys discovering also the established masters… and, above all, feels great joy in music making; but that goes for all musicians, I believe.”

The musical theme for this year’s festival is ‘Exploring Vienna’, which Bengt describes as “a subject very dear to me”. It’s Beatrice who’s chosen most of the music “but I might have come with some suggestions”, Bengt adds. He’s become known as someone who enjoys uncovering and playing lesser-known works: does he have any interest in composing for himself? “No, not at all – there is too much music composed today. I prefer to discover exciting but dead composers who can’t defend themselves; there’s so much fantastic music out there waiting to be played!”

Lewes Chamber Music Festival runs from Thursday 14 to Saturday 16 June. leweschambermusicfestival.com

Chess: Political Pawns

The following article was first published in the April 2018 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

It’s 1984. US president Ronald Reagan is cracking jokes about bombing Russia. There’s political tension between West and East. The CIA and the KGB are spying on each other. And Chess, an allegorical musical about international rivals, has just been announced by the unlikely triumvirate of Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice. Their concept album heads into the top 40 and the subsequent West End show opens in 1986.

Three decades later, the musical is about to be revived on the London stage… but not before Lewes gets its own production, courtesy of the LOS Musical Theatre company. Andy Freeman, who’s directing the local version, allays any worries about the plot. “You don’t need to know about the game of chess”, he tells me. “If someone’s coming along, expecting to be confused by ‘Knight to Bishop’s Pawn Three’ or something like that, they’re not going to be.” Although the story is packed with comparisons between chess playing and political machinations, it’s actually a love story connecting American chess whizzkid Freddie Trumper, his assistant Florence Vassy, Russian champion Anatoly Sergievsky and the family he’s left at home. “It’s a love triangle that pretty much spreads into a love square, if you can have such a thing”, Andy explains. “Underlying everything is the partisanship of the Americans, of the Russians, and the puppet-masters pulling the strings of their players.”

Back in the 1980s, the Cold War was a genuine threat to peace and the Berlin Wall was dividing Germany. Does Chess still have relevance to the 21st century? “There is always something going on somewhere in the world where one country is playing off against another”, Andy says. “Big countries, big organisations, they still use their athletes, their chess players, whoever, to their own ends.”

The music has also aged well, thanks to the partnership of Benny and Björn – best known as the guys from ABBA – and the storytelling of lyricist Tim Rice. “There’s some cracking stuff in it, some beautiful music”, Andy explains. “It’s picked up the flavour of the 80s but there’s other stuff there that would sit happily in any musical written today. Some of the choral pieces are almost classical.”

As well as singing the praises of the performers, Andy is equally enthusiastic about Liz Allsobrook’s “stunning” set design. “We’re doing it as a black stage, which is one of my trademarks, and we’ve just got white cubes that we will move around – half a dozen big ones, half a dozen little ones – they can be beds, they can be tables, they can be a desk in a TV studio or whatever. For the first time we also have this whizzy backdrop that is a flexible LED screen.”

And what about that rival production from English National Opera? “I shall go and see it. See if they can get anywhere near ours. We don’t feel threatened!”

Chess runs from 10th – 14th April 2018 at the Town Hall. losmusicaltheatre.org.uk

Belongings: Music and Migration at Glyndebourne

The following article was first published in the November 2017 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Walking into the staff café at Glyndebourne, I find myself surrounded by dozens of excited children who are taking a break from rehearsing a new opera. ‘Belongings’, composed by Lewis Murphy with words by Laura Attridge, compares the lives of World War 2 evacuees with present-day refugees fleeing war zones. As the youngsters return to the stage, Lewis sits down with a coffee. I ask him if there’s a moral to the story. “If there is a moral, it’s about learning from history”, he tells me. “It’s about openness and human connection. As well as entertaining the audience, I’m hoping we can make them ask questions of themselves.”

Glasgow-born Lewis has been Glyndebourne’s Young Composer in Residence since 2015, before which, he admits, “opera was quite new to me”. He’s clearly a fast learner. As well as composing ‘Belongings’, he’s subsequently been commissioned with librettist Laura to write for Scottish Opera. Should we expect more music from the Attridge and Murphy partnership? “Whether we actually brand it as that, who knows. But in terms of setting ourselves up and promoting ourselves as creators of new opera, it’s something we are interested in. We’ve reached a point now where we feel comfortable working together.”

This type of collaborative approach runs throughout Belongings. “Lucy Bradley, our director, was involved from the very beginning of the project, talking with me and the librettist about the story and trying to structure the narrative of the whole piece. And Lee Reynolds, our conductor, has also been heavily involved.”

Earlier this year, culture and arts project The Complete Freedom of Truth arranged for all four members of the creative team to visit the Italian town of Sarteano and meet young people in a refugee community. Lucy encouraged the community to perform an improvised drama that represented ‘home’. “It was really heart-warming, touching and very humbling for us to see what these guys missed”, Lewis says. “It was the first time we’d actually had direct contact with people who’d been through that situation.”

Insight from the trip has been passed on to the 65 members of Glyndebourne Youth Opera, aged between 9 and 19, who are singing alongside three professional singers: Rodney Earl Clarke, Leslie Davis and Nardus Williams. “The production taking shape here looks incredible, so I’m really excited to see what happens.” There’s a special show for schools followed by one public performance – but what next? “I would love to get it performed again”, Lewis says. “I think it is still a very relevant piece for our times. Themes of displacement and people being thrown into a new environment; these have happened throughout history and will probably continue to happen. As soon as you create conflict, people have to move.”

Belongings will be performed at Glyndebourne on Saturday 11 November. Tickets available from 01273 815000 / glyndebourne.com

The Askew Sisters

The following article was first published in the October 2017 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Hazel Askew is half of a folk duo that played one of its first professional shows at the Lewes Arms around a decade ago. She and sibling Emily return to the town this month with a music workshop and gig.

When did you and your sister first play music together?
Probably towards the end of primary school. In our early teenage years we had a little band called Rubber Chicken, of all things! When we were a few years older and I started playing melodeon and Emily played the fiddle, it fell into place a bit more as a duo. That’s when we started performing more seriously.

A lot of early musical instruments seem less sophisticated than their modern counterparts. Why are they so appealing to you?
Early instruments are less technically sophisticated but we love the quality of their sound. For example, the vielle (medieval fiddle) is slightly larger than a modern fiddle but has gut strings and no sound post, meaning it is quieter and has a beautiful earthy resonance.

Where does ‘early music’ and ‘folk music’ overlap?
The distinction between folk/traditional music and ‘art music’ is much clearer now than it would have been in medieval times. If you look at the surviving music from that era, a lot of the melodies sound like folk tunes. Music would have been more improvised, much like folk music today. The idea of notating every expression, dynamic and ornament in music has only been around a few hundred years.

How do you choose songs for your albums?
We love how folk music connects people in different ways, including the way that narratives from the past can strike a chord hundreds of years later. Often we are drawn to songs like that. As I get older and I’m more in tune with the subtleties of the personal, political and social struggles I see around me and hear about in the world, I find that I’m much more picky about what traditional songs I want to sing. For example, I find the gender politics of some traditional songs interesting to navigate, and that’s much more nuanced than just wanting to sing songs about ‘strong women’, whatever that actually means. It’s not about never singing a song that has something potentially problematic in it, but whether the way you sing it and introduce it on stage highlights that or just lets it go as the status quo.

What will people learn in your Early Music for Folk Musicians workshop?
We will cover a range of different early tunes and songs from England, France, Spain and Italy. We’ll also bring lots of instruments to demonstrate and lots of material so we can tailor it a little to the needs to the participants. We really enjoy teaching folk and early music; it belongs to everyone, so we love encouraging people to play it.

The Askew Sisters play the Elephant and Castle at 8pm on Saturday 21st Oct. Tickets £8. Full details of the workshop from lewessaturdayfolkclub.org / 01273 476757

Record Store Day 2017

The following article was first published in the April 2017 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

Stevie Freeman
Photo by Mark Bridge for Viva Lewes

Record Store Day is a worldwide celebration of independent record shops, prompting many musicians to release special vinyl versions of their songs. “It’s like Christmas”, says Stevie Freeman of Union Music Store. The Lewes shop she runs with husband Jamie will be open from 8am on Saturday 22nd April for this year’s event, with queues of people expected outside. “Last year the first person was here at about five in the morning”, Stevie tells me. “Luckily Tanya [Laporte’s café] opens early for coffee. And then from 12 noon until 5pm we’ll have a stage outside with live music. We generally get a barrel of Harvey’s, so you can have a pint while you’re listening to your music as well.”

Behind the scenes, Record Store Day is serious business. A retail code of conduct commits participating businesses to not taking pre-orders or reservations for their exclusive vinyl stock. Stevie can’t tell me which of the Record Store Day discs she’ll have in stock because there’s a strict embargo until the end of March. “Around 800 special edition titles are released for Record Store Day. Some will have just 500 copies; the most that any release gets is probably 5,000 copies worldwide”. As a result, there are no guarantees. “We look at the list and ask ourselves what our customers would want. But we might order ten copies and just get one or two. Generally we won’t know what we’ve actually got until the week before, when stuff starts arriving. Then we’ll publish it on our website.”

Limited-edition versions of vinyl records aren’t simply collector’s items, Stevie explains. They’re also helping build a connection between artists, record labels, retailers and music-lovers. “That’s such an important thing. It had got lost but I think we’ve found it again. I might have one or two customers who collect and don’t play their vinyl but I’d say 99% of vinyl that I sell is for people who want to play it. I know this because last Christmas we sold more record players than anything else.” It’s surely no coincidence that December 2016 also saw UK consumers spending more on vinyl records than they did on digital downloads.

Last year’s Record Store Day witnessed half-a-dozen acts turning up in Lewes, so who’s expected this year? Another secret, sadly. “I haven’t got any names I can give you yet… but it’s going to be great”, Stevie assures me. Given that she’s attracted acclaimed Nashville fiddle players 10 String Symphony to the town for a show at the Con Club on Sunday 2nd April, plus award-winning folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow on Thursday 27th, it promises to be an entertaining afternoon. “It’s been great every year and we’ve had some surprise visits from bands. So come along on the day, even if you don’t want to buy vinyl. It’s a big fun party.”

1 Lansdown Place, Lewes. unionmusicstore.com