The sound of music: can music lend theatre the vital power of rock'n'roll?

This article is from 2016

The sound of music: can music lend theatre the vital power of rock'n'roll?

Matt Regan is a composer for Greater Belfast / credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

The List's theatre editor explores five shows at this year's Fringe where live music is key

As the careers of David Bowie, Roger Daltrey and countless others have made clear, the connections between rock music and theatre have inspired some of the most exciting performances of the past 50 years. This year, across the Fringe, theatre is returning the compliment by enlisting rock music and bands into their productions.

Putting the Band Back Together emerged from director Annie Rigby's regret at not having time to play music and a meeting with a regular collaborator. 'Mark Lloyd was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When his wife, Kylie, asked him, "What do you want to do with the time you've got left?" his first reply was, "I want to put my old band back together".' Inspired by Lloyd and realising how central music is to many people's pleasure, she hooked up with former Futureheads frontman Ross Millard to create a play that allows audiences to recall their past glories.

'By coming to a pre-show workshop, anyone can join the performers to play or sing live as part of the show,' explains Rigby. 'The show celebrates talent, yes. But more importantly, it celebrates doing the things you love, and not worrying if there are a few wrong notes along the way.' Following Lloyd's passion, the show brings together working musicians, members of the public and a moving true story to capture the joy and liberation of rock'n'roll.

The notion of 'theatre as gig' appears across the Fringe. Kid Carpet, known for his DIY ethos and enthusiasm for children's toys as instruments, has collaborated on The Castle Builder. His sensibility chimes with the script's story of a man determined to build his own castle. He says incorporating live music into performance 'allows for a different type of communication and understanding between the performers and the audience to develop.' And it is beyond intellectual appreciation: 'We feel music. The physical movement of waves of sound being absorbed by our bodies is a really tangible product of bass and drums, but to see and feel those things happen before our eyes is real magic.'

Composer Matt Regan, for Greater Belfast, realised theatre offered a way to expand his songwriting. 'Sometimes I would finish a song and feel like there was much more to it. Lyrics can be so restrictive. I felt I needed to expand the songs.' Having fallen in with theatre-makers since his move to Glasgow, he combined the arts for an intensely personal and passionate study of his home city, reflecting the conflicting emotions through 'a real mix of everything I've been interested in over the years. The process was like jigsaw pieces finally falling together.'

Throughout the 20th century, music thrived on hybridisation: American blues fusing with British art sensibilities in the 1960s, African rhythms meeting Gospel spirituality in soul and funk, dubstep crawling from the pristine sound of Detroit techno and reggae low-end depth. The influence of performance, already clear in David Bowie's theatricality or the frantic live shows of GWAR or Rammstein, is now encouraging musicians and directors to blur the boundaries for mutual advantage.

Chris Redmond is an old hand at blending poetry and music. 'Animal has come out of Tongue Fu, the show I run with spoken word and improvised music. Stylistically it's pretty omnivorous,' he says. Using the band from the show, 'we're jumping between film soundtracks, boogie woogie piano, funky drum solos, a preposterous re-working of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight', heavy drum and bass and pretentious art-hop,' he continues. 'It doesn't sit in any one place for long.' This restless inventiveness, long the preserve of the experimental theatre-maker and the avant-garde musician, offers a winning alternative to the staid, script-heavy performance that can weigh down many theatre productions.

Yet 'theatre as a gig' can evoke other, more reflective moods. Daffodils (A Play With Songs) teams Kitan Petkovski and Rochelle Bright with the band LIPS for a nostalgic and romantic trip to 1960s New Zealand, with LIPS providing a soundtrack that matches the bittersweet tale. Petkovski and Bright found working with musicians gave the script a particular structure. 'We learnt that our process involves a very finely detailed breakdown for the actors that is beat by beat matched by the band,' they say.

'Then in live performance, there is this balancing act between everyone, making small shifts, to keep each moment feeling authentic and real. I think this style of performance for music theatre is unique.' These subtle adjustments contrast with the broad, dynamic energy of Kid Carpet or Tongue Fu, but share an enthusiasm for live music during a performance which is not quite a musical, nor a straight-ahead gig.

Whether the performances are defined as 'plays with music' or 'theatre gigs', they build on both the measured creativity of the play and the emotive appeal of popular music. Outside of the Fringe, theatre sometimes struggles to finds its place within contemporary culture – despite the inclusion of acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the International Festival, or the brutal adaptation of Macbeth by Black Sun Drum Korps, it can be labelled as high art and exclude younger audiences.

While the simple grafting of one medium onto another is not revolutionary, and rock'n'roll still trades on a reputation for rebellion that has hardly been delivered since the death of punk, its rich collection of attitudes and tempers provides an energy that can be lacking in yet another adaptation of even challenging scripts like Beckett. Perhaps the theatre as gig refers back to the classical Athenian theatre, which was as musical as it was literary. But Kid Carpet concludes with a sentiment that suggests high ambitions. 'To put evocative music alongside meaningful text, costume and design is akin to alchemy, enlightenment and the bedrock of spiritual practice.'

Putting the Band Back Together, Northern Stage at Summerhall, 8–27 Aug (not 10, 17, 24), 4.50pm, £12 (£10). Previews 6 & 7 Aug, £10; Daffodils, Traverse, 7–28 Aug (not 8, 15, 22), times vary, £20.50 (£8.50--£15,50). Previews 4, 6 Aug, £14.50 (£8.50); Greater Belfast, Traverse, 5–28 Aug (not 8, 15, 22), times vary, £18.50 (£8.50--£13.50). Preview 4 Aug, £12 (£8.50); Animal (Are You a Proper Person?), Gilded Balloon Teviot, 6–28 Aug (not 15, 22), 5.30pm, £12--£13 (£10). Previews 4 & 5 Aug, £7; The Castle Builder, Summerhall, 560 1581, 5–28 Aug (not 15, 22), 12.55pm, £12 (£8). Previews 3 & 4 Aug, £6.

Daffodils (A Play With Songs)

Bullet Heart Club This is far more than boy meets girl. Rose was 16. Eric, 18. He was a teddy boy, she was a farm girl. They met at the lake by the daffodils. Same place Eric’s parents met 20 years earlier. Fate? Perhaps. This critically acclaimed heart-breaker carves out the bittersweet nuances of one couple's life to a…

The Castle Builder

  • 2 stars

The true story of a Norwegian inmate who built a castle on a remote headland over the course of five years.

Animal (Are You a Proper Person?)

Tongue Fu in association with No Ordinary Experience Action film crushes, pub science and awkward one-night stands meet in a boisterous show about learning to live with the choices we make and the animals that guide us. Featuring farcical storytelling, high energy live music and homemade graphs. Created by the acclaimed…

Putting the Band Back Together

  • 3 stars

A show about people's relationship with music. Featuring Ross Millard from The Futureheads, Maria Crocker from The Letter Room and Alex Elliot from Northern Stage.