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"We'll Live and Die in These Towns" at the Belgrade Theatre

Review

(Musical) plays constructed from a selection of songs not originally written to tell a coherent narrative have a very chequered history. A scant few ("Buddy", "Our House" "Five Guys Named Moe" and best of all "Labelled With Love") worked well at all levels while most others have distinctly poorer reputations: though bizarrely not commercially: which is presumably why they continue to proliferate regardless of quality.

Coventry's Belgrade Theatre however can proudly parade its track record at the more original & classy end of the spectrum from "Return to the Forbidden Planet" via "Three Minute Heroes" to last year's "Godiva Rocks" and so rather specialises in the genre. Last night I attended "We'll Live and Die in These Towns", based on and containing the songs from the debut album by local band The Enemy. So is this play a "jukebox musical"? Well no-one is using the term from the production end, so they do not conceive of it in those terms and writer Geoff Thompson specifically mentioned at the launch back in May (see my article on that) that the Bhagavad Gita was a key source.

In fact the play is pretty classically structured with the protagonist on a personal existentialist journey: in fact one could sense hints of Homer as well as the Gita and indeed Sartre or Anouilh in the overall structure. Equally the influence of Shaw is evident especially in the first act. To this end, the songs are not required to drive the narrative as such (a wise move) but reflect & enhance aspects of the rest of the writing & in some cases serve as a tonal complement (after all, basing the play around a series of unrelated songs is not easy nor desirable). Consequently some songs are played through and others appear in snippets as required. Few are performed as the Enemy do on record but serve the piece as required in band performances, solo or in the case of ones performed by Julie Mullins, in quite "West End" arrangements.

As stated at the launch, the emphasis is on the plural "towns" and although there a few "Coventry" references, (plus some projected slides of local scenes) none are important & the story tends, again wisely, to the universal.The supporting cast are excellent with most playing two roles & many performing the songs on instruments. I particularly enjoyed the second act scene where the "band" switched to other roles & showed their dramatic as well as musical skills: Molly-Grace Cutler, Meg Forgan (in her professional stage debut), Andy Burse and Andy Sopp were really superb for a relatively short scene. I'd love to have seen more of these four plus Quinn Patrick (excellent as the brother of the protagonist), Julie Mullins, Steven Serlin & Mark Turnbull, not least as it would have eased the burden on the very demanding lead role played by Tom Milner. It is also a very male play with the female characters having the least dialogue.

In fact this scene I just alluded to was in my opinion the strongest in the play (the second act was the more dynamic, clearly showing the directorial style of Hamish Glen, overall Artistic Director of the Belgrade). In this, lead character Argy, cast as writer of the songs, was challenged by four other characters on how he had written songs about them, using their real names, with real events and then "abandoned" them: one being his sister. Now I have no idea if Tom Clarke actually wrote the songs about such "real people" but clearly Argy will be seen as his avatar and the issue will now appear to be aimed at him: I salute his courage in agreeing to this, especially as it is not unambiguously resolved in the scene.

Will Enemy fans like the show? Good question. As noted, the songs are arranged for dramatic purpose and do not slavishly copy the originals (and Tom is in fact the show's musical director so can be credited with both these arrangements and the strength to depart from the blueprint). None is delivered with the fury of the Enemy at full live pelt, but that's not appropriate. Some are quite low key in tone as Argy loses his self belief. However the final two numbers which recreate a live show do come close to the songs as recorded (these went down well with the fans present). I think true fans will be pleased how adaptable the songs are (always a sign of a well written one in my opinion) and how they can be set in a wider context, offering tone if not always precise narrative function (which is fine: why jam a round peg into a square hole?).

Credit too to designer Patrick Connellan: everyone I spoke to praised that aspect of the production

The journey of Argy perhaps unsurprisingly takes a spiritual turn towards its resolution and there follows a narrative "twist". Now I'm not sure I am ever particularly happy with this sort of thing & can only leave it to each audience member to decide their own response. Is Argy looking for redemption? Does he find it? Well as I say, the show ends on a high note.

 

"We'll Live and Die in These Towns" runs until Saturday 20th October

Tickets are available from 024 7655 3055 or
boxoffice@belgrade.co.uk

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From the back catalogue