Friday, 14 March 2014

Reflections: Down Among The Wines And Spirits

'You think I'm making this up...'
It's been a while (8 years to be precise) since I was in a full show in a theatre. I've done loads of concerts, and I'm in front of audiences every day for work, but for a long time now I haven't experienced the joyous, sequin-encrusted, make-up-smeared, heart stopping, foot blistering, so-tired-but-wide-awake-at-1am treadmill that constitutes the full run of a 'show'.

Enter 'Down Among the Wines and Spirits'. A proper show all about the old Music Halls, at Norwich's super Sewell Barn Theatre! With audiences and everything!

Devised and directed by Cassie and Selwyn Tillett, it was an expressive theatrical interpretation of what we call the Golden Age of British music hall- the bit that went from about 1880-1920. The Golden Age came after Song-and-Supper clubs, but before Variety, and encompassed great names like Alec Hurley, Vesta Tilley, George Robey and of course, my gal Marie Lloyd. We still know these names today because they were the big headline stars, but Cassie and Selwyn also wanted to shine the limelight on to the lesser known names, the ones listed 'down among the wines and spirits' at the bottom of the theatre bills.

Cassie and Selwyn used songs from the era, together with some imagined and documented conversations between performers, to present a dynamic onstage/offstage glimpse into the world of the music hall. Selwyn, indefatigable at the piano as 'Mr Fitt' the theatre manager, accompanied all nine other performers as we each did our best to characterise two or three bygone stars.

My hat was quite something as Ada Reeve.

I also sang as Marie Lloyd (of course) and Gwendoline Brogden; the latter best known for the WW1 recruiting song 'I'll Make a Man of You' used in the musical 'Oh What a Lovely War!'.

Marie Lloyd we all know about, but Ada Reeve was a very long-lived comedienne and singer who worked the 'Alls in the 1890s and was still performing in films in the 1960s.

 I sang a hit from early in Ada's career: The Bird on Nellie's Hat. You can just about see it peering over the brim in this photo.


Needless to say, we all had great fun. We had lovely audience feedback and good houses for each of our four performances. I hope that this encourages the Barn to put on more shows featuring music as their central ingredient.

In this show our music addressed the broadest themes of wonderful, horrible, breathless, groaning, sighing human experience; marriage, death, poverty, superstition, love, laughter.  Yet I know that there are those that dismiss music shows as the slightly ill-bred cousin of 'proper' plays. I couldn't disagree more. My experience of singing is extensive and, from classical arias to 'Knees Up Mother Brown', without exception every performance I do demonstrates to me unequivocally that music- of any type- engages audiences on an altogether different level; a more visceral experience, more emotional, and equally as powerful as any mere spoken words.

So thank you, Judi, Gill, Steve, David, Johns x 2, Angela and June, and of course the back stage crew Anne, Adrian and Jane, for sharing this wonderful experience with me and with our audiences. And thank you to Selwyn and Cassie for creating a jewel and allowing me to sparkle in it! Long may it continue!

For more photos and information on DATWAS see Cassie's blog about the show here, and for details of forthcoming shows at the Sewell Barn following the link here.


Saturday, 8 March 2014

Tunic Or Not Tunic?- That Is The Question.

Here are a couple of pictures of my latest costume creation. 
This is a silk tunic, made from an old long skirt in a beautiful shade of turquoise. I had to make it from an online picture of the front of a 1913 dressmaking pattern, as I didn't have time to wait for the pattern itself to arrive from the USA.  

It is a versatile piece designed to be worn with a skirt, which can be either attached, or separate, as mine is, and the tunic can be worn alone or with a blouse underneath. I'll be wearing it without a blouse (but with a tiara!) as singer Gwendoline Brogden for Down Among The Wines And Spirits, and with a blouse and THE enormous Edwardian hat as Elizabeth Mickleburgh-Kett for Gressenhall's 'Murder Most Grave' Museums At Night Event (scroll down to 16th/17th May on their website for full details).


It was, as these things usually are, trickier than it looked. For one thing, I was making it for myself, which makes fitting sessions difficult. I was also converting a circular skirt and although I had plenty of fabric, the grain was going in all the wrong directions due to the cut. As a result, the skirt of the tunic didn't fall quite right. Therefore, the inside of the garment doesn't bear close scrutiny because of the numerous, finicky adjustments I had to make. It's still not perfect, but will just about 'do' for on stage.



However, the finished piece looks pretty nice -that wonky bottom edge has been adjusted since I took these photos- and it's just right for 1913. As it's a stage costume, the silhouette of it and the overall effect is the most important thing. So it is a bit Belle Epoque- floaty with a slightly raised waistline and soft gathers over the bust - and I decorated it with some vintage sparkly bits. I think they're actually 1940s, but they look eminently suitable. The blue waistband and collar tone in with the skirt (original 1914) and I did a nice-but-fiddly oversewn finish along the raw silk edges. 


And all this on a borrowed sewing machine. Within an hour of beginning, I put the wrong sort of bobbin in my much-lauded new Singer, and knocked out the timing, so it had to go to the repairers (not cheap).



Instantaneous practical rescue was available: luckily a friend was able to lend her machine to me for the three allocated days of half-term I had in which to make the darn thing. 
And my Other Half provided emotional rescue (yes, it really was necessary) in the form of my favourite biscuits, Lemon Puffs. 

It was a good lesson. Because it was a borrowed machine, I was more careful than I usually am, and reaped the benefits. Aesop's Hare and Tortoise would have approved- as did my cat!