The Glenn Miller Story was born over a series of lunches between Bill Kenwright and Tommy Steele, when Kenwright discovered his friend’s passion for Glenn Miller and his Orchestra – he’s such an enthusiast that he’s travelled around the world for snippets of the original orchestral sounds.
Tommy was quick to point out (as have critics been) the obvious problem; at 79, he’s too old to play Glenn, who tragically died aged 40 when his plane disappeared whilst crossing the English Channel in December 1944. Three years later they came up with a solution, and a show was born under the careful direction of Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright.
Act 1 is a nostalgic walk down memory lane, setting the story. In a Basin Street Jazz Club, a young Glenn Miller is trying to make his way in the world of music with his trusty buddy Chummy MacGregor (played by Ashley Knight) by his side. We’re treated to musical delights such as ‘It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing’ and ‘Sing, sing, sing’ here.
Back home in Colorado, Miller bumps into childhood sweetheart Helen Burger (Abigail Jaye) and when he tells her of his musical passion, his new love encourages him to follow his dream to New York. Later, on their first anniversary, Miller presents his wife with the score for ‘Moonlight Serenade’, which he’s written for her. Abigail Jaye sings a heartfelt rendition of the song for us, accompanied by Tommy Steele on piano.
Shortly afterwards Miller gets his big break, when dance hall owner Cy Shribman (Mike Lloyd) comes knocking; he hurriedly puts together a 16-piece orchestra and the unique Glenn Miller sound is born.
In Act 2 we’re treated to the classics we expect: ‘String of Pearls’, ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’, ‘Pennsylvania 6-5000’ and more as the Miller sound spreads like wildfire around the world. The addition of the live Orchestra on stage throughout is a delight for our eyes and ears, as are the dance hall groovers who treat us to snippets of an array of dances such as tap, Charleston, tango, jive and jitterbug, to name a few. Ashley Knight thrills with his performance of ‘Perfidia’, performed with backing support of The Modernaires. The 1930s costume and hairstyling are delightful and transport us back to that era.
As World War II broke Miller enlisted in 1942, determined to rally the troops with his upbeat music. He gave military marching bands an injection of adventurousness and fun, which proved popular with his comrades as a morale booster both at home and abroad. It was during this time that travelling from the UK to Paris, tragedy struck. Miller was never to be seen again – and the rest is history.
It’s clear for all to see that Tommy Steele has a passion for the story, with charisma and enthusiasm for the role oozing out of him. He is a natural all-round entertainer, coming to life with a sparkle when in front of his audience. In addition to his speaking and singing roles we are treated to glimpses of his ability as a musician (piano and trombone), his comic sense of humour and eagerness to thrill his audience. At the end of his encore he seemed reluctant to leave the stage, to the audience’s delight.
Come and decide for yourself if casting Tommy Steele in this role was a plausible decision, but even if you don’t agree you’ll be well entertained by one of our homegrown entertainers – so grab your ticket while you still can.
Legal Aliens are an international company, dedicated to telling European stories at a time when others might be tempted to shy away. The result of this determination is their Translating Europe series, which opens with the English premiere of Petr Kolečko’s Poker Face.
Translated by Eva Daníčková, the play tells the story of Jana (Lara Parmiani), a hugely successful international poker player, who in her youth may or may not have got pregnant by the writer, revolutionary, and later first president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel. The resulting child was Pavlína (Daiva Dominyka), now a young woman and in a relationship with the idealistic Viktor (Mark Ota), who wants to start a revolution of his own, if only he had the funds…
Considering the play was written by a Czech playwright, in Czech, (presumably) for a Czech audience, the story and its context are surprisingly easy to understand for British viewers. Although, inevitably, we may not catch every reference in Becka McFadden’s production, even someone with no knowledge at all of Czech history or politics – or poker, come to that – can make sense of what’s going on, and the family drama that unfolds between the characters could almost be happening anywhere.
At the centre of the story is Lara Parmiani’s Jana, whose poker face remains in place even away from the card table, in her troubled, brittle relationship with her daughter. Yet we also meet a younger, more emotional Jana, who longs for news from her absent father (Arnošt Goldflam, on screen) and looks forward excitedly to a meeting with her adored Havel. Lara Parmiani skilfully embodies both versions of the character, so that even as we dislike the woman she’s become, we can’t help but feel – if not sympathy, then at least understanding of the events that have brought her here.
Pavlína, played by Daiva Dominyka, is the polar opposite of her cold-hearted mother; sensitive and romantic, she’s struggling to understand who she is and where she fits within her family and her society. As her boyfriend Viktor, Mark Ota probably has the closest to a comedy role within the play; a skilled speaker, he knows how to turn on the charm and deliver a good soundbite, and even his darker scenes are shot through with a surreal humour that’s as entertaining as it is slightly bewildering.
The use of video is effective, if occasionally a bit frustrating – this is particularly the case in the opening scene, when Arnošt Goldflam, the man we later learn to be Jana’s father, speaks at length in Czech. There are subtitles, but positioned as they are at the bottom of the screen, reading them involves a fair bit of neck craning for anyone not sitting in the centre of the front row. The later footage of Havel’s funeral works really well though, playing silently in the background and looming over the family’s dysfunctional attempt at a Christmas celebration.
Poker Face may be set in a foreign country, and it may make reference to events we’re not all that familiar with, but that doesn’t make it any less relatable. At a time when it’s becoming all too common to regard anyone not from our own country as inherently different, this play offers a timely reminder that while we may not speak the same language or share the same politics, at the end of the day we’re all human beings. And while that might not be an especially new or surprising message, it’s nonetheless one that – increasingly, it seems – needs repeating.
Poker Face is at the King’s Head Theatre (Sundays and Mondays) until 31st October.
Over the past three years, Arrows & Traps have become well known for their unique adaptations of Shakespeare and other classic works – most recently Macbeth and Anna Karenina. But the company’s latest project is their most ambitious to date, as they prepare to perform Twelfth Night and Othello in repertory at Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse this November.
The decision to take on two plays simultaneously stemmed from director Ross McGregor’s interest in exploring the duality in Shakespeare’s work. “Shakespeare’s comedies are not just simply throwaway funny things that end in orgiastic shotgun weddings. His tragedies are not just gloomy tear-stained stab fests. Iago, the antagonist in Othello, is darkly funny whilst he does unspeakable things to innocent people, and the comic treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night descends into dark cruelty and manipulation. The blending of light and dark seemed to be interesting to explore.
“But it was also a practical decision. If I was asking audiences to come back and see a second show, I wanted to provide a varied menu. Twelfth Night is an unrelenting carnival fun fair of laughter, love and lyricism – and it’s also a full blown musical – whereas Othello is a psychological thriller, set in a hyper-sexualised, racist and cut-throat world of politics and militia. So I thought people would enjoy seeing the same ten people navigate the different worlds and present two sides of the same coin: the birth and demise of love.”
Of course, performing two plays at once brings with it new challenges: “I’m currently running a sweepstake on which of the cast comes onstage in the wrong costume and says the wrong opening line,” says Ross. “It does impose more time constraints on us; we have to work faster, move on quicker, correct and evaluate with more brevity, there’s less room to devise and experiment. Choices are still being made, options are still being explored, but there is now a much more pressing sense of the need for producing work each day and drawing a line under it.
“The line-learning element doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue; I’ve structured the castings so that each actor has a main role in one of the shows, and a supporting part in the other, so no-one is drowning under a tidal wave of iambic pentameter. We use the same set for both, so I suppose that might challenge us to create different stage pictures across the two shows, but with the material being so different, and the characters each actor plays being so contrasting, I haven’t noticed any repetition. In fact, there’s some nice echoes in there across the shows, for instance the bed that Pearce Sampson (Orsino) woos Pippa Caddick (Viola) in is the same one where he (now as Iago) contrives her death (as Desdemona). So I’m enjoying that aspect of it.”
Unusually, the cast for the two plays features only two new faces: “We usually have more, but this project seemed to represent the culmination of the last three years, so I wanted to show that in the casting. We have David Grace, playing the lusciously adorable and insipid Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night, and then the lovesick puppet Rodorigo in Othello, an altogether darker and more tragic role. I’ve been a fan of David for about two years, so it’s an honour to finally get to work with him. He brings an energy and dedication to his work, he’s one of the most specific actors I’ve ever heard in terms of his delivery and responses to the text; he’s flourishing as an Arrow and it’s a pleasure to support.
“Then we have Lloyd Warbey playing Feste in Twelfth Night – the lady’s fool and her “corrupter of words”, and Lodovico in Othello. You may be familiar with Lloyd from his work on Art Attack on the Disney Channel, and he’s worked all over the country, so it’s a privilege to have him involved. For Feste, you need a showman, an entertainer and a comedian, and yet there’s a melancholic sadness to him; he’s broken, lonely and jaded, and it’s great to see Lloyd switch in and out, hear him spin the language with a cheeky grin on his face.
“The other eight members of the cast are my core members, the people I would trust with any script, and the people that without them there would be no Arrows & Traps. There’s no greater gift for a director than having a cast like this. They’re a pleasure to see every day, and the amount of effort and energy they put into both shows is humbling.”
As always, the Arrows are keen to delve into the text and find something fresh and original: “I think the main element of Twelfth Night that feels new to me is the darker and melancholic elements. I’ve seen quite a lot of productions of the play that focus on the comedy but ignore the other elements. Shakespeare first staged Twelfth Night on the anniversary of the baptism of his own twin children, one of whom had drowned several years before. I think this was deliberate. On one of the days of the year where he perhaps thought of his son the most, Shakespeare put on a play where two twins find each other again after both nearly drowning. There’s a wish-fulfilment, a consoling father fantasy in that which is heartbreakingly sad. Twelfth Night to me is a dreamscape where your wildest dreams can come true, where gender and sexuality are fluid and transient, where chaos flies with majestic abandon.
“In terms of Othello, I wanted to examine what it means to be a Moor in modern times. So often, we take the word “Moor” to simply refer to someone’s race, to be black or North African, but it originally referred to their faith – that they were Muslim. We’re staging this in November, during the month where Donald Trump may or may not become leader of the most powerful nation in the world – a man who’s built a campaign on fear-mongering against Muslims, a man who campaigns for power on the promise that he will exclude, interrogate and remove people of a particular religion. Othello seems timely to me in that regard.
“I also wanted especially to show Desdemona in a better light. So often she’s portrayed as this weak, blonde willowy girl who meekly accepts her own murder, but to me she’s incredibly strong-willed and independent. She goes against her father for the man she loves, she rejects prejudice and society’s expectations of her and is unwilling to let it oppress or minimise her. She’s seduced by stories of battle and violence, tales of the unexpected and grotesque, which to me shows that this is an adventurous, outspoken, and vivacious young woman, and I wanted to show a Desdemona like that, which is something I’d never seen before.”
And now for the big question – to see just one play, or both? “I’ve directed the two shows to be able to stand on their own two feet independently of each other, but there’s something exciting about seeing both,” Ross suggests. “There are also five days in the run where you can see both in the same day, which would be something of a marathon, but since the Gatehouse is above a pub, you can have dinner in-between, have a drink and make a day of it.
“But if you could only see one of them, you have a choice between a clown-filled chaotic musical of love and passion and confusion, or a darkly thrilling study of the breakdown of a relationship in a violent and brutal society. They’re two hours each, so we’re not talking about a four-hour snore fest, but two fast-paced, visceral rollercoasters. Of course, the producer in me would like to add that if you book for both you get £2 off your second ticket…”
This Sunday sees the launch of Tellit, the UK’s first ever festival of true-life storytelling. It’s the brainchild of Michael Kossew, and will feature a week of shows across London including spoken word, theatre, comedy and movement, workshops and open mic events.
“I love listening to people’s stories and being transported into their lives for an hour or even a few minutes, and wanted to share my favourites with as many people as possible,” explains Michael. “There are loads of storytelling festivals but, in this country, no festival had ever focused solely on true-life storytelling and I wanted to change that.
“Then I had to make a decision about whether to focus on truth or storytelling. I chose truth as it allows artists more freedom to create performances in whatever style they feel comfortable performing and can allow the festival to grow in so many interesting ways.
“Once I started telling people my vision, I ended up putting a great team together to help me curate the festival. Kate Walton, a storyteller I’d met at my storytelling nights, Jacob Wagen, an old friend and theatre producer and Tim, an audience member who loves stories. We started working together and this festival has grown to what it is through our collective visions.”
Michael runs true storytelling events around London and at festivals, and wanted to combine his two passions into something greater. “Sharing stories goes back thousands of years. It’s not something I’ve created. But it’s something that, in this world driven by shorter and shorter forms of communication and concentration spans, is being lost and I want to help bring it back.
“We’re all natural born storytellers and we have an innate ability to tell amazing stories to each other. We all have at least one story from our own life that we love telling our friends. It could be one that you’ve told a million times because it always makes people laugh or cry or reminisce about lost youth or loved ones and, being this captivating, makes you an artist. We are all artists and telling stories is one of the easiest ways to unlock this creativity inside you because you already have the tools, the material, the experience of life to be able to tell your own stories.”
“We’ve made sure that all our shows are of an incredibly high standard for this year, but I would say that The Quest is a major highlight,” says Michael. “I would love to, one day, gather together in one room the greatest storytellers from around the world and hear tales from their own lives – giving a wonderful insight into the lives of people on this planet. This year The Quest gathers together storytellers from major true-life storytelling clubs around the country for the final event of Tellit. It’s going to be a great celebration of stories at Hoxton Hall, one of the most beautiful venues of the festival, on the 22nd October.
“The ultimate aim of The Quest is to find stories from around the UK and eventually the world, bring those storytellers together to celebrate the stories that we tell. We want to inspire people to share their stories, whether they’re grand adventures or a beautiful slice of their lives. We’re not aiming to find the ‘best’, because all stories are beautiful in their own way, but we want to find a snapshot of a place and time reflected in the stories we tell each other and we’d love for people to think of their life events in terms of a story, to frame it, to own it and to tell it.”
Michael wants people to feel inspired to share their own stories and experiences. “We’d love for them to realise that they do have a story to tell, and I hope audiences will leave feeling enriched by the stories they’ve been told as well as their own memories that the stories re-ignited. Maybe some will start their own storytelling night, or club or circle and come and join The Quest next year.
“I think people will take away many lessons from the stories they’ve heard as well. Stories are great teachers and they will stay in your mind long after the festival is over, and I hope they continue to be passed on from teller to listener to teller.”
And what about people who feel they have a story, but are worried nobody will be interested in hearing it? “I’ve found this to be the single biggest thing that holds people back from sharing their stories. My advice would be to listen to other people’s stories and see what draws you in. You’ll often find it’s the little things, like the way someone folds their clothes, or makes a cup of tea or relates to a parent and it’s these shared experiences that are often the most captivating. The story that you think isn’t interesting will trigger more memories and thoughts in your listener than you could ever imagine, and they will truly be interested in what you have to say. The trick to making people listen, is belief and presence. You have to believe that what you’re saying is interesting and, rather than simply remembering what happened, you have to re-live the experience as you’re telling it.
“Finally – I would say just get on stage and share it. It gets easier every time and the audiences or listeners you tell your story to are so supportive, free of judgement and want to hear a great story. You’ll feed off this, relax, thoroughly enjoy it and will be desperate to do it again.”
“Funny. Surreal. Savage,” says actor-turned-writer Jay Taylor, when given three words to sum up his debut play, which was shortlisted for the inaugural Theatre503 Playwriting Award in 2014, and opens at Theatre503 on 26th October. “The Acedian Pirates is a dark comic-drama about military occupation, the moral conundrum of armed intervention and the mythology of warfare,” he adds, when allowed a few more.
What led Jay to choose this weighty subject for his first play? “I wanted to write something about the way people mythologise conflict and also about man’s obsession with war,” he explains. “It seemed to me that Helen of Troy was the ultimate idol and myth, so I wanted to offer a radically different perspective on the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’. This play was intended to investigate belief, propaganda and the moral dilemma of intervention; all themes that seem very relevant considering the amount of instability and conflict in the world today.
“I hope it challenges a few perceptions and attitudes towards the military: their recruitment policy, their moral responsibility and their genuine intentions when invading or occupying another territory. But this is not intended to be a condemnation of the military or a pacifist diatribe. The crux of the play is the moral dilemma of intervention; for example, what would have happened if the allies had not intervened in the Second World War in order to defeat fascism?”
After 10 years as an actor, Jay’s finding it fascinating to approach the creative process from the other side: “I’m quite used to being in an audition environment, but being on the other side of the table for our casting process was a hugely informative experience. And being in rehearsals is fantastic – the actors are able to investigate their characters with great specificity and turn them into fully realised people. Plus, they’re not letting me off the hook with regard to the characters’ desires and objectives, which forces me to rethink certain aspects of the play. It’s brilliant.
“There are many transferable skills between acting and writing. Essentially they’re both about critical thinking and determining what characters, choices and attitudes best serve the story you are trying to tell. Acting also gives you a good ear for dialogue, as well as a desire to make every character as dynamic as possible. I’ve played plenty of characters that are purely there to exposit and give information to the protagonist. That sort of writing is lazy, so I try my best not to do that!”
Jay’s over the moon to see his work performed at Theatre503. “It’s thrilling. Theatre503 rightly has the reputation of being one of the most bold, ambitious and innovative theatres in London. For a theatre with such limited space and resources, their output is extraordinary. I’m delighted that my first play has been programmed there; I think it’s worth mentioning that I sent The Acedian Pirates direct to the theatre, through their unsolicited script submission portal. Their resident literary manager and dramaturg Steve Harper has offered invaluable support to me as a writer – this production wouldn’t be happening without him.”
The Acedian Pirates takes place in a lighthouse, with a set designed by Helen Coyston. “Helen’s been a fantastic addition to the creative team,” says Jay. “Having only seen the model box and costume design drawings, I think her design is going to be deeply atmospheric, offering a pressure cooker environment for the characters to inhabit. I’m personally looking forward to seeing how we cram six actors, a lighthouse, the moon, the sea and some pretty significant special effects all onto the diminutive stage at Theatre503! But we will and it will obviously be deeply cool and brilliant… I hope!”
Finally, what advice does Jay have for someone thinking about getting into writing, but not sure where to begin? “People often say to write what you know, but my advice is to be as bold, inventive and imaginative as you can. I love nothing more than going to the theatre and seeing something subversive, different and theatrical. I feel like our addiction to television box sets has stifled creativity and made theatrical exuberance unfashionable.
“Don’t write what someone else tells you to write or what you think might please someone. Think with your inner child; write about something that inspires you and something you really believe in.”