Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Bah Humbug! - A Christmas Carol

The Christmas lights are up, the city of London is shimmering and people are smiling with festive joy. Right? Bah Humbug!

With every Christmas comes the miserable old miser Scrooge. We all know one… whether it’s your boss, your grump of a grandfather or the scowling man on the tube. Some people just can’t help but follow Charles Dickens’ example.

One person with true ‘Scrooge-it is’ is Andrew MacBean, the actor taking on the role of Ebenezer himself in the latest stage adaptation of Horla production uses mime, physical theatre and live music to emphasise the darker aspects of the tale. It’s set to send a chill down even the most resilient of spines. If elves in skirts and fat jolly Santas are NOT your thing, then maybe this is the Christmas outing for you – and the sprogs.

I met with main man Andrew MacBean recently and chatted with him about all things Humbug. Between you and me, it looks as though his new puppy rules his heart and his abode. He may be a softie with his pooch, but this is one man that looks set to freeze audiences with the icy persona of Scrooge. Like the character, Andrew is no stranger to turning points in life. Leaving an established business career to take on acting school was just one such decision. Lucky for us, it looks like it was a risk worth taking.

1. Most people know the story of Scrooge but can you sum up A Christmas Carol for the punters out there?

It’s a story of a man who has reached middle age and has remained single. He has slowly but surely throughout his life, distanced everybody from him and has become more and more isolated, mean and more and more unhappy. All of a sudden, one Christmas Eve, his dead ex business partner Jacob Marley, visits him and tells him that he’s giving him the chance to change his ways. He says he’s going to send Scrooge three different ghosts who are going to help him by taking him on journeys – to help him realise what his life has been, what his life is now and what his life could be unless he mends his ways.

2. Is this a play specifically for children or will adults find it entertaining too?

I think they will because the story of a person finding a different approach to life is a lesson we can all learn from. We can all change the way we live our lives and the way people see us and treat us. I think there’s a good message there. It’s an exciting and interesting story with a lot of typically Dickensian characters – round, robust and jovial. It’s a family show that really will span the generations.

3. You play the role of Scrooge, he’s a grumpy old sod to say the least. What techniques do you use to get into character?

All my friends say that I was made to play it… so that probably means they think I’m a grumpy old sod now! But, I think you need to figure out in your mind why someone is like that. I’ve tried to work out why he is the way he is – isolated, grumpy and mean and then to believe in that myself.

4. I saw the musical Scrooge a few weeks ago, starring Tommy Steele – have you been to see it or do you prefer to let your character evolve yourself – without seeing the way others portray him?

I haven’t seen it… I am quite happy to see others but just haven’t got around to seeing that one. In fact, I’ve never even seen any of the films of A Christmas Carol. Not by design, just by accident. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of copying you know. I’ve been watching Bleak House recently because it’s set in the same period and it’s really interesting. You see little details, what the actors are doing or how the story is being told and you think, “Oh, that’s a good idea… I could use that”.

In the end, the character comes from the individual actor and you know, Tommy Steele isn’t me and I’m not Tommy Steele so we’ll both find our own ways into the character and how to present him.

5. The musical was actually very dark in places and scared the wits out of me – are there any chilly moments in the Horla production?

There are very chilling moments, I mean Scrooge goes on a very scary journey. The other day we went on a Jack the Ripper walk in the East End and we were walking down streets that were really very dark. The guide was explaining to us how the light would have been in Victorian times. There wouldn’t have been much artificial light like street lighting and the back streets wouldn’t have had any at all - it’s scary. The opening scene is the funeral of Jacob Marley and Scrooge goes off to the tavern. He then heads back to his house and sees the ghost of Jacob Marley for the first time. He’s walking through absolutely black streets, possibly unpaved, it’s cold - just imagine that scenario… and then hearing a voice calling your name. It’s a scary part of the story and we do try to present that as a real event.

6. Have you had any young audience members in yet to give you a verdict on how the show looks so far?

As we move on and start running the show we’ll get some people in and there’ll be some young people to give us their verdict. That’s what’s great about doing a show for a family audience – you’re playing to people who don’t go to the theatre every day of the week, maybe just once or twice a year. The magic that you can create on that stage is quite special in a way. We’ll be performing in quite small spaces so we’ll see the audiences really clearly and you can tell if an eight year old is bored or if they’re engrossed in the story. From my personal point of view, if they are engrossed it gives you a hell of a boost. It’s great.

7. You’ve got an impressive history – you trained at the Bristol Old Vic from 2000 to 2002. Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?

I’ve always been interested in theatre and I’ve always wanted to act. I didn’t for a long time – I pursued a career in business and was travelling a lot so it really wasn’t possible to do much amateur work much. But, I’d always wanted to do it and in my early forties I was bored with what I was doing and was looking for a change. I literally just woke up one morning and thought; “I need to be a bit more radical in my thinking because I’ve got another 20 – 30 years of work in front of me, what do I want to do with it? This is my only chance”

I just decided then and there that I was going to apply to drama school and try to become an actor. I had to give twelve months notice for my job so I went in that very morning and gave in my notice. Then I started to apply to drama school and it all became a bit of a reality. I’ve now been an actor for three and a half years and I don’t regret it at all – it’s been a wonderful life change and an exciting career so far.

8. I’ve noticed that a number of your on stage parts (and there are many!) seem to have a sinister side… do you enjoy playing the bad guy?

I do, I really enjoy it. I had a reputation at drama school for only ever playing priests! As soon people knew we were doing a play with a vicar in it they used to joke that he was what I would get cast as. They weren’t such bad parts but since I left drama school I’ve played some pretty bad characters. I played the part of Killer Joe in Bristol and he was an appalling man. He was the sheriff of a town but was also a hired murderer. It’s quite interesting to try to understand what motivates someone to be really bad.

9. You’ve also done a lot of on screen work with BBC, ITV, HTV and CITV. Do you have a preference for TV or live on stage?

I go back and forth on these. I really like the thing I’m doing at the time because it’s so engrossing. I’m doing more theatre than I do television and when you do a theatre job it takes three or four weeks of rehearsal and then five to seven weeks playing so it takes up a lot of your life. It’s quite nice to mix it with a bit of television where you get a part, you go down to the studio, shoot for a day or so and then it’s all over and done with. I like having the mix but if I were going to have to choose one for the rest of my life, I would probably have to choose the theatre.

10. Do you have any advice for aspiring young performers?

Well, my advice to somebody who thinks they want to become an actor is – if there’s anything else that you want to do, I would suggest that you do that. It’s not a career for the faint hearted. It’s tough getting work but even then, when you’ve got the work, you’ve got to work phenomenally hard. If this isn’t a job and a life that you want more than anything else, don’t do it.

If you do decide to be an actor then you have to completely throw yourself into it. To me, it’s fantastically rewarding, it’s great fun… you work with extremely interesting and exciting individuals – some of them can be very annoying at times because you’re working at a very close proximity. You can drive each other mad but at the end you come out with some really extraordinary times and great results. Acting is seen as a very fluffy sort of existence but so far my experience is very far from that. It’s a tough life – you have to work hard at it but it is rewarding.

11. I guess criticism can be hard to deal with too…

Personally, I try not to really look at the reviews, I find them very confusing – whether they are good or they’re bad. If a reviewer says “I really liked it when he did that”, every time I get to that point in the play it’s in my head that somebody has commented on that. It’s difficult to ignore it. I’m not sure that it’s particularly constructive. I think reviews are designed for directors, producers and the audience. If there’s something an actor is doing that is wrong or isn’t working then it’s up to the director to resolve it.

12. Where to from now – what would be your dream role?

I really don’t have a dream role so I don’t have a plan. What I really like about acting is that you wake up one morning and there’s a phone call from your agent to say there’s an exciting audition to go to and that every day is different. You just don’t know what’s around the corner.T

he thing that matters at the moment is getting A Christmas Carol right and what happens after the 7th of January – who knows.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Flirting with a Fender



A good night out can be hard work in London. Especially one full of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.

Lucky for us, it’s now possible to experience it without heading to the ‘Red Light District’. Instead, you’ll find it at the theatre.

Musicals are no longer for the art-fanatics, culture buffs, critics, the educated and the old. They now cater for the music lovers, the rockers, the punks, the old lady next door and her grandchildren. ‘The Next Big Thing’ is for the lovers of a good hard riff and anyone who ever dreamed of being a rock star. Face it, didn’t we all?

Two people who dreamed of wowing the crowds with an instrument are the musical’s creators Pete Sinclair and Mark Burton. Unfortunately, rock God status wasn’t meant to be. They can however, write a mean comedy script. And that, dear rockers, they have.

The story follows the path of aspiring young musician Mike West. In a flurry of beats, he flounders his way through the musical genres of Merseybeat, Swinging London, Psychedelia, Glam Rock, Punk, New Romantics and Britpop. It’s a fast paced journey through the British music scene… trust me, no matter what your age or musical preference, you’ll come out singing.

I had a chat to the masters behind the latest stage show to hit London. They had a lot to say about life as comedians, failed rock dreams and the erotic addiction of a perfect guitar.

Can you sum up the musical for the punters out there?

M: The idea of the show is basically an affectionate journey through British music from the 60s (the Beatles) up until the Brit Pop. There’s a central character called Mike West who goes on a journey to try to find fame and fortune.

P: At the centre of it are the songs – our own spoofs of musical genres. You’ve got The Beatles, The Kinks, The Stones, Punk, New Romantic, Ska – right up to Oasis. I suppose it’s a bit like Spinal Tap. What they do for heavy metal, we do for all the different genres of music. You know, we’re sending it up but we’re doing it from the perspective of people who love the music. They are original songs but we’ve worked very hard to make them sound like the original artists. Do you need to be a music fan to enjoy it?

M: There are lots of jokes about British music – which we think is an internationally known thing anyway but we want people to be able to enjoy the music and the story on its own level.P: Everyone wants to be in a band… I think it’s the central thing, you know, “I want to be in a band... I want to be the next big thing” (hence the title).

A 17-year old guy came along to see it actually and he was really into it. He’s in a band and his cat is actually called ‘Fender’ which is the name of the character who plays the guitar in our story.It’s a satirical look at the past 40 years of the British music industry… you’ve covered all the big names.

Was it difficult to write and how long did it take?

M: It was very hard to write. The whole process took us about five years. I think the reason it took so long is partly because we’ve got day jobs. Slightly odd day jobs… we write jokes for TV shows and things. All musicals take a long time to develop… it seems so easy you know, “Oh, I’ll write a few songs round the piano and a few jokes and that’ll be that”. But there are a lot of things you have to learn about putting a musical together… we almost disappeared in the art of it. We enjoyed nearly all of it (laughs).

M: Having said that, the funny thing is that Pete isn’t actually a musical fan. Even though the show itself doesn’t feel like a musical, we had to learn the traditions involved with making a musical. Whether you agree or disagree, it isn’t your average musical – it’s got rave music in it and is very different.

P: I have to say, there was one evening when it started and an elderly couple got up and walked out. The first number, which is quite rocky (a Led Zeppelin parody) and I can only imagine that it was because they thought, “oh my God, what is this? We’ve come to some sort of rock gig!”Luckily they’re the only two who left.

M: One review said that it’s a show for people who don’t like musicals and I think that it’s true. I hope people that do like musicals come too but I think that it will appeal to people who wouldn’t usually dream of going to a musical. If they knew it was just good pop tunes and a funny story full of jokes they would probably want to come along and see it.

P: It’s very loud – we wanted it to feel like a rock gig – but it’s not like being in a Status Quo gig or anything. Our sound expert told us that it’s not as loud as We Will Rock You - so volume shouldn’t be a reason to leave! How did you come up with the idea? Was it a spur of the moment revelation over a few stiff drinks or was it more of a long-winded work in progress?


M: I think I came up with the original idea to be honest…

P: I think he probably did… unless his lawyers are listening!

M: Don’t worry Pete, you do all the hard work and write the best jokes.

P: If you want to go back even further… Mark and I desperately wanted to be pop stars. We played in the teenage bands and in a way it starts from that idea of being 21 and wanting to be Paul Weller. Now I’m 46 and I STILL wish I was Paul Weller. This is the nearest we’ll get to living that fantasy of pop music and stardom.

M: Paul Weller will want to be you soon Pete…

It’s a performance full of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll – all the good things in life. How much of it was based on your own experiences?

(Both laugh… and laugh… and laugh)

P: I wish! Sex drugs and rock-n-roll – yeah, that’s been my life, honestly! No, I’m happily married with twin 7 year old boys so this is kind of the other life that maybe I might have had in a parallel universe.

M: I had an aspirin once and half a lager last night. Funnily enough Pete and I were in bands and all the usual stuff… I sound like David Cameron now… “Maybe in my younger days I dabbled” (laughs).

P: I never inhaled!

M: I think part of it is really that we’re like the Mike West character – we’ve observed it, we’ve been around that kind of world, although we may not have bitten so hard on the cherry ourselves.

I saw a few celebrities at the press night. Who has attended so far?

M: We’ve had a very good turn out, I mean Pete and I work in the comic industry and have done for years so we do know people. Some of them are performers and their faces are familiar – like Jack Dee and Ian Hislop who is on the show Have I Got News For You, Punt and Dennis, Tony Hawks, Doon MacKichan from Smack the Pony was here.

P: Of course, it’s partly because these people think “Oh God, if I want these guys to write gags for me I’d better turn up I suppose…”

You’ve captured the almost erotic relationship between a young musician and his guitar. My brother’s wallet has always had a photo of his amp and electric guitar in the place of his girlfriend… do these come from fond memories of your own past instruments?

M: An amp and a guitar! So he’s got a bit of a threesome going on there…This is the thing you know, the guitar is a bit of a symbol – you can’t say a phallic symbol because that sounds very odd but there is definitely a strange kind of erotic or sexual relationship between music and people. Whether it’s a soundtrack or your own instrument if you do, people become very attached. Because the story goes through lots of different times and genres, we wanted to have something that was constant and in the middle. We felt that the relationship with the guitar was the perfect thing.

P: One of the central themes of the piece is the love of music versus the love of fame. The character Fender very much represents the love of music. We also tried to make it represent the roots of music. British music was very white, particularly in the period we’re talking about. The influence however, was so often black music. Like The Stones… a lot of their influences came from black music. The character of Fender is played by a black actress.

M: The Black American roots make up so much of musical history and the Fender guitar is made in America. It’s such an iconic instrument in the world of music.

Speaking of the guitar… Melissa Lloyd plays the part of Fender beautifully. During her first scene on press night, the lady next to me spun around and whispered excitedly ‘that’s my daughter!’. It really bought it home that the stars lighting up the stage have proud mums and dads at home. What were the cast like to work with?

M: A fantastic cast. People ask if we have any stars in the show and we say “yeah, we have eleven”. They’re just not stars yet… there’s a line in the show actually – “I’ve always been famous, the world just hasn’t realised it”.

P: We didn’t have enough money to pay a huge star to be in this anyway. It’s not like I’m pretending we looked at them all and said, “Yeah, that’s interesting Mr Connery but we’re going to see someone else…”

M: Brad Pitt just didn’t cut it. What do you think makes you two such a good writing team?

M: What a question! Ooh, well Pete and I have worked together for a long time and have a common language. We share each other’s sense of humour, we’re good friends, we get on very well. We have the same passion that drives us to do it. We’re not doing this for the money - believe me!

You’ve both got an impressive history as TV comedy writers including Spitting Image, Have I Got News for You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Where are you going from here?

M: Good question… obviously, we hope this show has a future. I’m writing more films for here and America (that’s my day job).

P: I’m writing a new sitcom with Jack Dee, which is hopefully going to be going out in the New Year. It’ll be on BBC4 initially, which will transfer to 1 or 2 if all goes to plan. I’ve really enjoyed the process of writing a musical and working in the theatre and it’s something I’d be interested in doing again. It has always frustrated me that stand up comedians can get up, tell a joke and if 100 people laugh then everyone thinks “Ooh, it’s funny, I see… yes, give this guy a series”. Any advice for aspiring scriptwriters out there?

M: Don’t bother; we’ve got all the jobs.Seriously, there are two things I’ll say. Persevere because it takes a long time and is hard work. Also, discipline yourself and be aware that a people tend to do something and buy into it and don’t want people to see it, or to change it. You have to be ready to be collaborative and say “I don’t think this is funny but let’s work with it”. You can’t be precious.

P: I started out as a stand up a long time ago. It was a mixed experience - lets put it that way. I had some good gigs but the bad ones, my God. You really, really learn your lesson; don’t write stuff that’s half funny – if it’s half funny that’s just not good enough.

M: If it’s half funny get someone else to perform it.

Go see it - release the rock God within!

CREDITS:

Thanks to WEST END EXTRA for the bubbly photo of Pete and Mark - cheers!

And to Colin White for the images of Jon Boydon living it up as Zack love at the New Players Theatre.