Named for the only song her parents wrote together, which opens and closes the performance, Miriam Gould’s Empty Room is a deeply personal one-woman show that explores her family history and the important part music has played – and continues to play – in that story. A courageous, soul-baring performance, it’s by turns funny, poignant and surprisingly educational; I certainly know a lot more now about Dmitri Shostakovich than I did going in.
The show features one performer but four characters, all of them real people. There’s Miriam herself, aged 14, breathlessly giving a classroom presentation about her favourite composer. Then there’s Rachel Gould, her mother, a sophisticated jazz singer sharing personal anecdotes with her audience in between numbers. Next there’s fast-talking Sal Nistico: jazz saxophonist, self-confessed heroin addict, and Miriam’s father.
Finally, there’s Miriam again, but here and now, revealing directly to the audience that her teen obsession with Shostakovich is in fact representative of something far more personal – the loss of her father, an event she acknowledges she’s still processing nearly two decades later. With the benefit of hindsight, she can admit that for all his genius as a composer, as a man her teen idol had his flaws. In the same way, her father wasn’t perfect, and neither Miriam, her mother nor even Sal himself ever try to pretend otherwise.
Even so, and despite the fact we’re never able to see them directly interacting, the show always overflows with a feeling of deep mutual love and pride, not just between daughter and father but between all three family members. And what we do see is how their separate personas – each represented by an item of clothing – begin to intermingle as the show goes on, finally ending up arranged neatly on the ground around Miriam’s own violin, which takes centre stage throughout. It’s a simple but highly effective way of bringing the family together for the show’s moving finale.
It goes without saying that music plays a huge part in the show. The track list is made up of several numbers written by either Rachel or Sal, and just as we’re invited by the teenage Miriam to hear the hidden story in Shostakovich’s work (which also features prominently in the track list, unsurprisingly), so her parents’ music offers us greater insight into the people who created it. The impact of music on teenage Miriam is obvious, but while adult Miriam admits wryly that that younger version of herself was pretty intense, the passion that goes into her performance and presentation of her parents’ work live on this stage makes it clear she feels that impact no less powerfully now than she did back then.
Empty Room is the kind of show that makes you feel privileged – not only because it’s so well performed, but because the story it tells is so very personal. The final monologue is delivered with charm and humour, but also an intimacy and raw honesty that’s genuinely moving. Beyond that, though, the show also really makes us think about both the nature of family and the power of music within our own lives (after the show, each audience member is invited to contribute to the Survival Playlist). An eloquent tribute and an engaging hour of entertainment; with her first solo show, Miriam Gould has set the bar high.
There can be few movies more iconic than Saturday Night Fever. Its place in popular culture is so established that even if you’ve never seen the film, you almost certainly still know the music and the dance moves, and you’ve probably performed some version of the latter to the former, most likely at a school disco or cheesy student club night. You also, I’d guess, know that John Travolta is Tony Manero, and like most people, you can’t quite imagine anyone else filling his shiny shoes and sharp white suit.
Tony is a young man in 1970s Brooklyn with little to look forward to in life; he still lives at home with his disappointed and unhappily married parents, and works during the week in a local paint store, with no obvious prospect of moving up in the world despite being very good at his job. The one bright spot on the horizon is Saturday nights at local disco 2001 Odyssey, where Tony can do what he loves: dance. When the club announces an upcoming dance contest, he teams up with new love interest Stephanie Mangano (Kate Parr) – funnily enough, the one woman in town who doesn’t want to sleep with him – to claim the prize, and with it her heart.
So given the tough act he has to follow, how does Richard Winsor fare in Bill Kenwright’s stage version? Actually, not bad. He’s got the classic moves and Manero swagger down, and leads the ensemble dance numbers under the 2001 Odyssey mirrorball with the cool confidence of a man who knows all eyes – particularly the female ones – are on him. For Act 1, that’s pretty much all the plot requires, but as events take a darker turn in Act 2 Winsor also shows us glimpses of the vulnerability behind the arrogance, and finally gives us a reason to root for Tony despite his many flaws.
This change in tone is reflected in the show’s other big star attraction: the soundtrack. While Act 1 packs in the legendary disco hits, from Stayin’ Alive to You Should Be Dancing, after the interval the pace slows, with numbers including Too Much Heaven and How Deep Is Your Love (and also Tragedy, during which everyone of a certain age could be seen physically restraining themselves from launching into the Steps dance routine). Almost all the musical numbers are performed by the show’s very own – and very convincing – Bee Gees, Edward Handoll, Alastair Hill and Matt Faull, but every now and again a key character breaks into their own solo, some of which fit what’s happening in the story better than others. Though all the songs are well performed, this lack of consistency in the show’s format jars somewhat, and feels like an unnecessarily confusing distraction.
There’s no doubt, however, that the production succeeds 100% in capturing the spirit of disco – from Bill Deamer’s irresistible choreography to Nick Richings’ lighting design and Gary McCann’s set and costumes, which between them bring Odyssey 2001 vividly to life both on stage and off. Because the songs stand alone as hits in their own right, they take centre stage throughout; it’s impossible not to get caught up in the excitement and energy of the group numbers, or to feel a sudden urge to get out on the dance floor yourself. The show does have its flaws, and it might not be the most memorable start to the theatre-going year, but that doesn’t mean you won’t head home with a skip in your step, all the same.
Miriam Gould is a theatre-maker, performer, musician and writer. In August her first solo show, Empty Room, comes to the Camden Fringe, drawing on Miriam’s own experience and family history, and exploring the many ways in which music can help us survive.
“Empty Room is about a family unit – a mother, father and daughter, who each, in their way, are struggling with life and using music to cope,” she explains. “In a wider sense, it’s about parenthood, childhood, and music. The parents are jazz musicians and the daughter is obsessed with the Soviet neo-classical composer Shostakovich. All three are using music in different ways in order to survive. In their own ways, they’re all trying to find coping mechanisms for the absurdity of existence.”
Empty Room is a very personal project for Miriam, and was inspired by her parents, who were both jazz musicians: “The music in the show, some live, some recorded, is either written or played by my parents or Shostakovich – with whom I am genuinely obsessed,” she says. “My mother wrote some incredible songs which describe what was going on, with a poetry that gets to the heart of things in a way simple text could never do. I have always been struck by the power of music to communicate a depth of experience and emotion that we otherwise struggle to convey.
“From the age of 6, it was just me and my Mum, and the fact that she managed to be a parent as well as a jazz singer still baffles me. But mostly it inspired me to make my own way. My father died – spoiler alert! – and the amount of love and respect for him in the jazz community makes me proud even though I had nothing to do with it. So I guess, to give a really boring answer, my parents have inspired me. Perhaps, more specifically, it’s my mother’s compassion and forgiveness that infuse the show.
“Oh, and Shostakovich. He was amazing. He lived in a place and time where writing a symphony was a life or death scenario. And still he made the music he needed to make. Even though he was censored in every other possible way, and at times showed real cowardice in order to survive, he spoke the truth in his music. So, yeah. Did I mention I love him?”
Miriam started work on Empty Room all the way back in December 2014, and the following August performed a few works-in-progress in London and Canterbury. “It was just me, working in a room on my own. I’d never made my own work before. Then I got busy with other projects until November last year. I’d been wise enough to film the performances in 2015 and was able to show this to Alex Scott, the Artistic Director of Little Bulb Theatre, whom I very much wanted to be my dramaturg. I needed to not be on my own in a room for all the rest of the process.
“I’m currently in my last few days of tweaking the show based on feedback and how it felt to perform it in June when I had a couple of showings at Battersea Arts Centre. I really believe that sharing your work when it’s not finished, but you’re ready to share it, is so incredibly valuable. Especially with the right audience. BAC’s audiences are primed for scratch performances, so it’s such a great place to work and not be afraid of failing.
“When I first started working on the show, it was a revelation to me to perform as my mother and my father. I learnt so much about them by trying to get into their skin. It changed my life in a big way at the time. Now, I’m able to be more detached from the very close material. It’s obviously still important to be aware of how I’m doing emotionally throughout the performances, but the processing of the material happened in the rehearsal room.
“I love telling this story, more and more because of what it’s really about, and not because it’s autobiographical. I love sharing the idealism in it, the love and compassion, the passion and humour. I want to start a conversation with the audience. I always make a point to talk to as many people as possible after the shows, not to hear more about the performance, but much more to hear what it sparked in people’s minds or bodies.”
Although Empty Room is a very personal story, Miriam believes it will resonate with a lot of people: “I hope it allows people to rethink their relationship with their parents or children, especially if that relationship is strained. The younger version of myself in the show is very passionate and pretty awkward, so I think this will be familiar to how a lot of people feel even if they don’t show that side of themselves on a daily basis. I suppose I want it to be cathartic for the audience, that a space is created where they can have all the feelings and maybe connect with a younger, more naive part of themselves.
“On a less emotional level, I also hope that people will love the music, not just the jazz but also the Shostakovich. After the sharing in June someone said how rare it is for them to see someone play classical music. I have a massive bee in my bonnet about the (perceived?) elitism in classical music and I hope that by sharing some of the music I’m passionate about, some members of the audience might be tempted to seek it out for themselves.”
A unique feature of the show is The Survival Playlist. “Basically, each audience member is given a slip on which to write a song that has helped them get through a difficult time at some point in their life,” says Miriam. “If they want to share more about this, they are welcome to do so. There is also a Twitter handle – #SurvivalPlaylist – through which I have gathered some gorgeous submissions already. To begin with, it will be published and continually added to on my website with links to the songs. Eventually I would like to make this playlist available on other platforms as well, through Spotify and hopefully a podcast.
“I think the most interesting thing about the Survival Playlist is not the actual playlist itself, but the conversations and memories that it sparks, as well as the simple fact that music means so much to us, especially when we’re hitting rock bottom, and the playlist is a celebration of music as a survival tool.”
As well as making work on her own, Miriam is also an Associate Artist with Little Bulb Theatre and the co-founder of female theatre duo Double Trouble Theatre, whose work focuses on real-life events through soundscapes, poetic imagery and story-telling.
“In a lot of ways, the idealism of Empty Room echoes my own belief in the arts,” she says. “I am convinced that we have evolved to make art for a reason, it’s not just some frivolous thing to keep us busy in between the important stuff like shopping. At the same time, I wish we as a culture would view artists more like craftspeople, less like it’s some martyr’s calling, and more like an occupation. Which it is.
“I want the work I make to draw people in, so it must be entertaining, but I don’t just want to tell people what they know already, or even worse, not tell them anything at all. Finding the balance between communicating something deeper and meaningful and making work that doesn’t empty theatres, I guess that’s something most artists are trying to achieve.
“I see art as socially cohesive, which surely must be even more important now that we’re all constantly being divided and pitted against one another. I don’t want my audience to agree with me. I want them to engage in the work and respond, in whatever way is best for them.”
Given that we had our first (very brief) snow of winter last week, the timing of Paper Balloon’s alternative Christmas show Once Upon a Snowflake seems particularly appropriate. Combining live music, shadow puppetry and storytelling, Once Upon a Snowflake introduces us to three spriteologists, who begin by smugly informing us (in song, no less) that there’s nothing they don’t know about sprites. But when a young girl disappears after an encounter with a mischievous winter sprite, they’re forced to enlist the audience’s help in solving the mystery.
The show has plenty to delight audiences of all ages: catchy songs, colourful costumes, plenty of witty references to popular stories, and – naturally – a bit of audience participation (the section in which the cast improvise a story and song with suggestions and props supplied by their young audience is a highlight, if only to see how they manage to turn a shoe and an umbrella into a footballing dinosaur). As in all the best family shows, the humour is carefully pitched so it can be enjoyed by adults and kids alike, and there’s even an educational element: while we may not all believe in winter sprites, there’s still a lot to learn for all ages, whether it’s that polar bears don’t live in Antarctica, or that sometimes even so-called experts get things wrong.
But what makes this production really stand out from your typical seasonal family show is the skilful use of light and shadow puppetry, which are put to magical effect throughout the show, particularly when telling us about the missing Liza; it proves as fascinating for the grown-ups as it is for the children to watch her dream-like world come alive. The shadow work is incorporated seamlessly into spirited performances from Alex Kanefsky and Dorie Kinnear who, as well as spriteologists, also play at various points Liza, her parents, her neighbour and even the chatty sprite she discovers in her pocket one day, all while interacting with their (at times unpredictable) audience.
The two also have excellent support from Joseph Hardy, who not only plays an impressive number of musical instruments (frequently all at once, with the aid of a loop pedal) but also sings and provides wonderfully creative and entertaining sound effects for the story. Darren Clark’s music – like the rest of the production, which was originally directed by Maria Litvinova – has a very Russian folk feel to it, all of which adds to the show’s unique character and style.
Once Upon a Snowflake is charming, quirky and different, sidestepping the usual panto conventions but still delivering a heartwarming Christmassy message about acceptance and friendship. Perhaps the story might go a little over the heads of some younger children – but it’s beautifully presented, and the show has more than enough joyous energy to keep most little ones spellbound regardless.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉
This Friday, RADA Studios Theatre will play host to a unique interpretation of The Winter’s Tale from award-winning contemporary quartet The Hermes Experiment. The hour-long piece combines live music with Shakespeare’s drama, focusing on the jealousy and fury of King Leontes when he believes his pregnant wife Hermione has been unfaithful with his best friend and is carrying his baby.
“It’s the original Shakespeare play, pared down to an hour of its core elements and portrayed through a musical as well as a theatrical perspective,” explains director Nina Brazier, who adapted the original text for the production. “The Hermes Experiment are a group dedicated to pushing the boundaries of their craft, and it is their first project involving theatre.
“Alongside The Hermes Experiment, composer Kim Ashton and myself have led the devising process with five extraordinary actors: Christopher Adams, William McGeough, Sadie Parsons, Robert Willoughby and Louisa Hollway. The music plays an equal part as the text in bringing the drama to life, with the actors, the music and the musicians become intrinsically intertwined.”
The Hermes Experiment are Héloïse Werner (soprano and co-director), Oliver Pashley (clarinet), Marianne Schofield (double bass), Anne Denholm (harp) and Hanna Grzeskiewicz (producer and co-director) who explains, “We’re a contemporary ensemble made up of harp, clarinet, soprano and double bass. We are mainly a musical ensemble, but we are very interested in working with different art forms – we have worked with a photographer, dancers, and now also actors. Aside from work with other art forms we commission new music for our group, and have commissioned now 40 composers to write for us, arrange better known works, and improvise. We started in late 2013, soon after we all graduated from Cambridge University, which is where we all met – and we all wanted to do something unique and innovative musically.
“We’d been planning to do a project that fuses music and drama for a while – we were interested in what would happen if we brought all these creative minds together, and we hoped that the practice of the actors and the musicians would be enhanced by working with the other – and luckily we think it did! We had a few ideas, but eventually settled on Shakespeare: people know the plots so we could play around with it, the musicality of his language lends itself to working with music, and who doesn’t love Shakespeare!”
The show was developed during a residency at Aldeburgh Music in September 2016. “The devising process gave us permission to think in a completely new way about how we approached the text, and allowed us to explore Shakespeare from a musical as well as theatrical perspective,” says Nina. “During the process we used movement and gesture as much as text and music, feeling that we were creating a theatrical language that extended beyond the written and spoken word. As composer Kim Ashton said in his blog, we began ‘layering text, music and movement together in a variety of ways, such that each strand is dominant or subordinate at different moments, sharing equally in the unfolding of the narrative’.
“This heightened theatricality is fully integrated with the music, not only extending the emotions of the character but communicating the symbolic content of The Winter’s Tale.”
The piece was first performed in a one night showcase at the Cockpit Theatre in December, where it was well received by critics. “It’s a completely new and original way of seeing Shakespeare,” says Nina. “Following our performance at the Cockpit, The Winter’s Tale was described as ‘groundbreaking’ (The Reviews Hub), ‘resourceful and inventive’ (The CUSP) and ‘skilfully crafted’ (London Theatre 1). The performance ‘gripped the capacity audience from beginning to end’ (Early Music Reviews) and was seen as ‘an exciting trend to start’ (Schmopera) with ‘tautly-directed action’ (The Evening Standard).”
The show is far from the only project for The Hermes Experiment, who have a busy year coming up. Hanna explains, “After The Winter’s Tale, we have about a month off and then we are performing as part of Colourscape Festival, we are doing a recital as part of the Park Lane Group concert series, and in November we are going to Russia to perform at a contemporary music festival in St Petersburg. We will be revealing even more projects we have coming up in the coming weeks so keep checking our website and social media for updates!”