It is amazing what a difference seven months can make. Back at the beginning of March the cast of the amazing production of Hair The Musical that will conclude our INTERLUDE programme’s second chapter at UEA this weekend were all playing leading roles in major West End musicals. This weekend though, as the shows they began this year starring in continue to be on hold for now, this collective of some of the finest musical theatre talent in the world will be with us at INTERLUDE@UEA for a concert production of an iconic show in our temporary big top venue.
Before lockdown, three of the cast of Hair (Jodie Steele, Sophie Isaacs and T’Shan Williams) were actually starring together in the sensational new musical, Heathers and this weekend will see them reunited for the first time since Heathers’ incredibly successful first West End run was brought to a premature halt. Star of stage and screen Layton Williams, who was playing the title role in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie in London whilst also preparing to go out on the tour of the show that would have made it to Norwich in June if COVID hadn’t stopped all touring in its tracks, also comes back to Norwich for Hair. Similarly poignantly, Frances Mayli McCann, who actually spent the first week after theatres were shut down here in Norwich having been playing the role of Éponine in the touring production of Les Miserables – the last show anyone saw on our own Theatre Royal stage – also returns to Norwich. Even as I write this now I can hear her character singing the chilling line “a little fall of rain can hardly hurt me now” and it brings me to tears reflecting on the thunder storms we’ve been through since we saw Les Miserables, which was set to be the biggest show in Norwich Theatre Royal’s history, abruptly taken away from us by Coronavirus.
Completing the cast are Cleve September who was starring in Hamilton before lockdown – an original and Olivier-nominated member of the West End cast – as well as other leading men Matt Croke from Aladdin and Jordan Luke Gage from &Juliet. Then, bringing the whole thing together, is one of the most exciting producers in the theatre industry right now and the creative force behind the Turbine Theatre at Battersea Power Station, Paul Taylor-Mills, alongside legendary choreographer Arlene Phillips who directed the original concert production on a jetty at Battersea and who now re-visits the show again for the INTERLUDE big top.
It was an incredible opportunity to be able to extend INTERLUDE for two more weeks beyond its successful six-week run in Chapelfield Gardens in Norwich City Centre and to move up to UEA. As is the case in these times of COVID-19, a huge amount changed in the short period of time from late July when INTERLUDE was first launched to early September when its second phase, INTERLUDE@UEA, got the green light.
Our first outing was about re-starting live performance in our city centre and filling a huge gap that COVID had created in terms of bringing people together to share in an experience. For me, our second outing had to be about all of that and more. I wanted it to go further and be a way-marker to the future and provide a glimpse of the light that I believe burns bright at the end of this horrendous tunnel.
Hair The Musical is a show about human resilience and the search for identity in an uncertain world. Its premiere at the Turbine Theatre in London, and now its re-staging as part of Norwich Theatre and Lost in Translation’s INTERLUDE, is a bold act of the utmost resilience. I do not know of another new production of a musical that has both had its London world premiere and first UK tour during COVID!
The fact that it’s taking place is thanks to the power and passion of individual creatives and established organisations working together in unusual circumstances and against the odds. This is important in an arts world that I worry is inadvertently perpetuating this divide and some other divides right now, rather than focusing on standing strong together to secure the future of the whole ecology.
This said, it is also a creative collective who want it to be known that they are representing an industry of hard-working survivors in the most uncertain world that theatre has ever known. We are a sector that has always been and, despite anything COVID can throw at us, will always be viable. In fact, with ongoing, wider-reaching and more timely support we can use our inherent creativity to show other sectors the way. We will not only be viable but in a post-COVID world we will be ENviable.
We conclude our INTERLUDE this weekend with a production that I could only ever have dreamed of making its way to the Theatre Royal stage at the beginning of this year and we are, through bravery and determination, making it happen in a big top tent! I cannot describe how much a remarkable display of commitment to survival this show and the whole of INTERLUDE has been.
Throughout this period I have found it helpful to draw contextual comparisons between theatre and sport. If we were to translate INTERLUDE into Premier League football, it would be the equivalent of each of the first teams leaving stadiums behind and coming together for nothing more than to just delight fans and keep the sport alive through playing a Sunday morning five-a-side competition in local parks!
Every artist who has joined us on this amazing INTERLUDE adventure, which has seen more than 15,000 audience members enjoy live performance again, has done so because they share in a passion for keeping the performing arts alive whatever it takes. Every audience member that has attended one of the 100 performances powered by the 220 creatives has done so because live performance is a part of their life that was taken from them and that they wish to have back.
Things might be tough and compromises might need to be made right now, but this inherent and intrinsic need for creative experience and determination to protect it is what true future viability looks like.