Ever since their debut in 2015 with Weekend Rockstars Middle Child Theatre have been rewriting what musical theatre can be with their distinctive gig-theatre genre. Their new show, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, has been met with rave reviews and a coveted Bobby Award from Broadway Baby. Liam Rees caught up with playwright, Luke Barnes, and composer, James Frewer, to discuss the creative process and the benefits of culture outside of the capital.
We have so many questions about how to change ‘musical theatre’ and what that means
Liam: Middle Child have been doing gig-theatre for a while now, how did this develop?
James Frewer [composer]: So they always knew music was something they wanted to work with and tried lots of different things. We stumbled across a novel we wanted to do called Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe [adapted for the stage by Amanda Whittington] and we thought it’d be cool to do a full underscore in a film way. And we thought This is cool. Then we wanted to do it ourselves and that’s where Luke [Barnes] came in, with an amazing Northern voice that’s real. When we’re in Hull you can’t make stuff that’s pretentious, nor do we want to, because we’re going after a different audience, people who don’t normally go to the theatre. We wrote Weekend Rockstars, which was our first piece of gig-theatre, but it was set up more as a gig with a band.
Luke Barnes [writer]: Instead of trying to find a new form of gig-theatre, that [Weekend Rockstars] was closer to a gig. I was really proud of it but it felt like the seeds for this [All We Ever Wanted Was Everything]. The gig-theatre thing comes from a fundamental question: How can we make this [theatre] relevant? in content and form to an audience of non-traditional theatregoers. Edinburgh isn’t necessarily the audience we’re trying to find but the fundamental thing is to get people who don’t normally like theatre and we hope that people who do like theatre will also like this.
James: ‘Theatre’’s almost a dirty word for a lot of people. You know, you might associate it with panto but often you’re told off for going on your phone, rattling your sweets and all that, and that makes people feel really alienated. Also, you got so many options since the Internet. Live performance is a real luxury. You’ve got to give people something that they want to do.
Luke: We’re competing against staying in and watching the entirety of Breaking Bad – why would you go to the theatre? As a person who wasn’t introduced to theatre at a young age, why would you do it as a normal thing? So it has to be bigger than a play, it has to be a social event.
James: The original show was very different to the one you just saw. It was in a nightclub and the audience were all standing and it was more of a spectacle. Hull’s got a really big music scene and we got bands every night, so it was in three acts and we’d get bands to play sets at the start, before the show, and in between acts. And it changed every night and it was cool as hell. We got to know the nightclub manager quite well and one night there was a really laddy-lads-lads [kind of] band taking the piss out of theatre in the toilets, [but] by the end they were weeping their eyes out.
Liam: When you’re making a piece of gig-theatre what’s the writer/composer relationship like?
Luke: The key is Paul Smith [director of All We Ever Wanted Was Everything and Artistic Director of Middle Child Theatre].
James: We have an amazing middle-man. He is an amazing human who is very good at teasing work out of people. So we came up with a concept and I came in later. Fundamentally you need to get the script right and then put the music on top. In my head, it’s absolutely pointless writing a bunch of songs that Luke has to work around.
Luke: I think you’re doing yourself an injustice by saying ‘put the music on top’. They’re absolutely intertwined. They have to work in synergy for the music to articulate the emotional narrative of the story.
James: It has to intertwine [so] you don’t notice the music and then suddenly it punches you in the face. But you also need to get the dramaturgy right.
Luke: What it’s not is a short scene followed by some songs followed by a short scene: that’s a play with music. And it’s not a gig that’s directed by a theatre director. Gig-theatre is words and music in synergy, all the time, in complete equality.
Liam: How much has it changed since the beginning?
James: It’s changed in every production, the ‘Live your life, I fucking dare you’ line at the end was very bleak [in a club setting] so in rehearsals we thought No one’s going to want to stay and drink after that so we added a Billy Bragg inspired anthem that worked in that context. But here [at the Roundabout in Edinburgh] that didn’t feel appropriate. We worked on it for a long time, about two years.
Luke: At the start of the process, I didn’t just write a play and give it to them. We spent a week together with the actors, a music-festival organiser and a club manager to work out the common ground, what we wanted. Also theatre happens in the process of rehearsal. I love directors, I love actors and I‘m not clever enough – no one is clever enough – to sit at their desk and say What I’ve written is genius, that’s perfect. If they do, send them home, theatre’s made in that [rehearsal] space and lived in performance.
Liam: What was the process like for composing the music?
James: Really fun. You’ve got a lot of eras to play with, which was really cool. You get to rip the hell out of the 80s tunes at the beginning. And it was a dream adding in all the apocalyptic stuff at the end. One important person in this mix is Ed Clarke, our sound designer. It is an absolute nightmare to put a show like this together sound-wise, it requires such detailed sound work: when to push, when to come back. He just gets music.
Liam: Could any of the actors play instruments at the beginning of rehearsals?
James: Some of them had never picked up a bass guitar in their life. Josh [Meredith] is a drummer in a local Hull band but it’s just teaching them how to do it. If you give them the confidence, anyone can turn up and do it.
Liam: What do you feel is next?
James: For me and Luke, we have so many questions about how to change ‘musical theatre’ and what that means. I’m really interested in changing it. I’m fed up of watching people imitating [Jason] Robert Brown. It’s nice but it’s not new.
Luke: The last thing I’d like to talk about is [Hull] City of Culture. I think the lesson I’ve learned this Fringe is: if you invest properly in people who have shown commitment to something, look at the rewards they reap. Look at this whole generation of artists to come out of [a] city that was low on confidence, low on culture. You’ve got NPO backing, Fringe Firsts all because someone gave them a platform and some backing. You saw the same thing in Liverpool, culture reinvented the city. It’s a fantastic thing that Arts Council England is moving money out of the capital because art is for everyone.