The Emperor’s Clothes and a mother’s pride

The Emperor’s Clothes is back on the stage this week. During the lockdown periods, composer Phil and I worked hard to refine and polish the show, and then Phil spent countless hours working on the musical landscape of the piece. We were then approached by Canterbury Operatic Society who asked if they could produce the show, and would we like to direct and musical direct it. We said yes, and many months later, we will be opening tonight at the King’s Hall in Herne Bay. Tickets from Ticketsource or on the door.

The logo for The Emperor’s Clothes – a purple wardrobe on a bright yellow background.

I am so incredibly excited about this production. Seeing our work come alive again, with a bigger cast and bigger stage, is thrilling. And I have been able to put my own spin on how this musical world looks and feels. One of my favourite moments was seeing a coat stand be transformed into a lamppost, retaining the essence of both identities and looking incredible.

My one sadness is that my mum won’t be there to see it. My family and many of my friends and colleagues are incredibly supportive of what I do on stage, and have seen countless productions over the years. My mum became well known to front of house staff as well. She would always get a programme and make a point of turning to the page where I was featured to tell them “that’s my son!” It did not matter whether they would be people who would know me or not, they got told anyway. Other family members and housemates have told me that this would continue once she took her seat. Whoever she was sitting next to, or behind, or in front of, would know that her son was in the show. And a great many people in my home town who had never met me knew exactly who I was due to being shown the programmes by a very proud mother.

When Legacy Performers produced the show in 2020, my mum and dad were not able to attend. Mum was too unwell to travel and by this time Dad was her full-time carer. She did get to see me as Henry Higgins in Spring 2019, definitely a good last show to see! Due to a combination of deafness and the early symptoms of dementia, I am not even sure to what extent Mum even knew I had co-written a show. She never forgot that I do theatre, but the details became hazy.

And now she is no longer with us. In a strange twist of fate, I learned that the Society were definitely going ahead with the show within 24 hours of my mum’d death. She was given an incredible send-off, where I met some of the people who only knew me as “Barbara’s son who does the shows”. My dad and my sister are both coming down to support the show, as are many friends and colleagues. But mum’s absence will be felt.

However… I don’t know how the afterlife works, and I assume that all depictions in art, music, literature and film are very wrong. But if any of our notions of our loved ones watching what we get up to are true, I know my mum will be very busy right now. Somewhere, whether it is up there or out there, a group of souls or angels or both will be gathering. They will be assuring Mum that their eyes are glued to the King’s Hall. And every one of them will smile when she says, no doubt many times, “that’s my son. He write this. That’s my son!”

This one’s for you, Mum. If you are somehow able to watch this, I hope you enjoy.

If These Books Could Talk (a poem)

I am the fruit of knowledge and experience,

The product of months and years,

Of pain and joy and toil and tears.

I am coloured by a worldview that is my own, 

Shared by no other.

I am built from mistakes and reflection,

From failures and mis-steps and triumphs,

Perhaps I am even built from wisdom.

Alone, I cannot give you these things.

Knowledge, experience, skill are not mine to bestow.

But together. Ah, together!

A meeting of minds, in the moment, or across the years.

A new construction. 

My words meet your thoughts.

My worldview blends with yours.

There is work involved, but also reward.

I cannot give you knowledge or understanding,

But I can advise and guide the way.

Take what I give and forge your own path.

Bring your experience, passions, skills.

Use your mistakes, triumphs, failures.


Knowledge, understanding, perhaps even wisdom.

Not mine to give. 

But yours to build on, and yours to surpass.

This is a poem which I wrote back in 2018, in response to a poetry symposium held on campus called Poetic Nursing Heart. I attended the first (and indeed subsequent) symposium, where I heard from nursing students and staff about their philosophy, concerns and joys through the medium of poetry. I also shared some of my own poetry, from the perspective of a mental health service user (you can find some of that on this very blog), but I wanted to respond in a different way. So I wrote these words, in theory from the perspective of our books, but showing some of how I feel about my role as well.

This is also a handy moment to be able to say that I’ve started a YouTube channel to share some of my writing and singing (at least, I don’t think I’ve already mentioned it). Here’s the poem as uploaded to YouTube – and please do check out some of my other videos there as well, while I experiment with how to do the YouTube thing.

Hero of the café – a (very) short story

It was a typically dull morning in the café when Les’ shift started. It may as well have been copied and pasted from the day before and the day before that. Arnold the chef told Les that the usual crowd were there, doing their usual thing and having their usual breakfast. Gary was reading the Sun and enjoying the vegan special. Occasionally he’d comment on some news story or other, never minding the deafening silence each comment received. Matilda was people-watching, or rather she would have been people-watching if anyone was actually doing anything. Just the cup of coffee for her, which she would eke out as long as possible, not saying a single word. Amal was catching up on emails over his toast. The only thing that distracted him from the screen was adding just that little bit more butter to the slice. And Elizabeth, as always, was tucking in to a full English. No distractions for her – the food occupied every ounce of her attention.

Perhaps it was the sense of banal repetition which caused it. Perhaps Arnold wasn’t paying attention. Or perhaps Les had put things away in the wrong place. Whatever it was, the oil caught fire, and the flames soon began to spread. It took a while for Les to notice, despite there being literally nothing else to capture their attention. But the flames were there, visible through the glass window in the kitchen door, and Les raised the alarm. Les’ cry drew everyone’s attention away from what they were doing. Amal was set to calling 999 – his phone was already on the table – and Les made sure that everyone else cleared out. Almost everyone, that is. Nobody noticed one customer as they grabbed a handy item and headed towards the kitchen…

Later, when the smoke had cleared, Les sat with Arnold as he explained to the fire fighters why they hadn’t, in the end, had any fire to fight. Drawing a foil blanket around himself to calm his shivers, Arnold told then how he had been rescued from the blazing kitchen by a mysterious person with a bucket over their head. They had burst through the kitchen door, held out their hands and suddenly there was a chill.  The temperature dropped and the flames were doused.

Les glanced over at the café patrons, assuming they would be swapping theories about who could have been under that bucket. But it was not so. Gary seemed despondent that he couldn’t return to his newspaper just yet. Matilda, as ever, was watching everyone else for their reactions rather than offering one of her own. And Elizabeth was sympathising with Amal, who had rather hoped that his swift action in summoning the emergency services would be the most heroic thing to happen that morning.

A strange lack of curiosity, Les thought. Whoever had been under that bucket, Arnold owed them his life. However, none of the regulars really talked about anything important – this wasn’t a secret they would learn easily. But looking over once more, Les thought they could see a flicker of an amused smile on Matilda’s face. Could it be?

The end. Or the beginning.

Why this story?

In the summer of 2020 (doesn’t that seem like an age ago?), I took part in NODA’s first ever online theatre summer school. For most of the week, I was learning about backstage roles in the theatre, mostly stage management and costume. But one of the optional workshops I attended for this revolved around storytelling, run by Sarah Osborne. In this workshop, we were given a random genre, setting, item and twist, and had a short time to write a story. No time for second-guessing ourselves, just put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and go. My random items were:

  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: A café
  • Item: A bucket
  • Twist: Someone has a super-power

What you have read here is the result, edited very lightly since.

Oh, yes I did!

This year, for the first time since 2010, I was in a panto with Gingercow Theatrical Productions, and I had an absolute ball. This was special, for a whole bunch of reasons. Getting back on stage for the first time since pandemic ended plays was a thrill, and we could tell that audiences were as pleased as us to be back watching live theatre. And I have long wanted to return to pantomime, so it was brilliant to get the chance to be a meanie in Jack and the Beanstalk.

A green flyer with a bold title in yellow - Jack and the Beanstalk. A subtitle is on a wooden-effect frame - the gigantic family pantomime.
Our flyer

I don’t seem to play nice people very often any more, but that’s OK – nasty people can be much more interesting! My role was Baron Waysland. The main purpose of the character is to make sure that Jack and his mother need to pay their rent and therefore sell their cow – basically, to make sure that the beanstalk bit of the story happens. But I had plenty to do throughout, acting as an unwanted admirer to Dame Trott, generally annoying everyone and getting to sing the wonderful “You’ll Be Back” from Hamilton. A wonderful song, which I milked for all it was worth. It’s Panto after all – the audiences would be disappointed if we didn’t ham it up! I grew my beard long for the role and spent some time carefully brushing grey facepaint through it. Not my most handsome look, certainly, but just right for the character.

A man wearing a brocaded jacket. He has a bushy grey beard.
Baron Buster Waysland

Pantomime is important, because it is often a child’s first experience of live theatre (we know we had several young audience members who this was true for) and it brings a real sense of community. Performing in village halls leant a sense of togetherness and warmth to the whole thing which could have been missing in a smaller venue. And in the dark times we are living through, it is wonderful to be able to escape for a couple of hours, laugh and be released from inhibitions. In pantomime, you can boo the baddies and cheer the heroes. In real life, cheering doesn’t always help, and we often have no chance to let baddies know how we feel. For me, as well, the rehearsals were a much-needed oasis of sheer joy in my week. During those times, work did not exist, my mental health did not exist, the world outside did not exist. Just a bunch of bizarre people, lots of laughter and a clear victory of good over evil. And really, I could not have asked for more.

Busting terrible information

As a librarian, information is my “thing”. The teaching that I do is as much about evaluating sources of information as it is about finding them. And so, I find bad information, fake news and misleading social media posts to be really irritating.

I see a lot of bad information and fake news on Facebook, but I don’t always challenge it. That would be a full-time job. But this morning, I did challenge something, because it was particularly ridiculous.

A laptop computer displaying a web page with the word "Fake News" as the banner.
Fake News Media. Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay 

I am not going to share the post that wound me up, because I don’t want to propagate it further, hence the “fake news” image. It consisted of a bar graph showing “Disease deaths per day worldwide”. COVID-19 is a way down the image with a figure of 56. An arrow points to it with text reading “THIS is what collapsed the world economy”. Alarm bells rang instantly, and a couple of other people had commented on the post already asking when it was from. The person who had shared it did not know, so I thought I’d do some digging.

First, I took a look at the reported deaths from COVID-19. Statista gave a figure of 757, 471 deaths to 14th August. The WHO has a slightly lower figure of 757,154. If you divide this by the number of days in the year so far, you get either 3,194 or 3,196 deaths per day. Incidentally, this is higher than any of the other figures on the viral post (the highest is tuberculosis, with 3,014). Even if you assume no more deaths will occur for the rest of the year, it would still work out as over 2,000 per day, around the same as the figure for malaria.

This did not answer the question of when the figure of 56 deaths per day worldwide would be from. So I took a look back, using the WHO’s daily situation reports. There are, of course, issues with these reports, as different countries report in slightly different ways with different lengths of delay, but they are the best data I had to work with. According to the WHO, at the end of February, there had been a total of 86 deaths reported worldwide, but by end of March it was over 36,000 and worked out at 400 per day. The last day that I went to work on campus was 18th March, a week before the UK’s national lockdown. I did the calculation for that date – 100 per day. By my reckoning, the last possible date when the figure could have been true would have been 15th March.

I then grew curious about the other figures given in the viral post. Were they accurate. The first alarm bell is that most of these sorts of figures are only available retrospectively – there are very few diseases for which anyone keeps a daily global tally. Generally, such statistics are collated and released after year end. So it seemed unlikely that they were up-to-date stats from 2020. But were they accurate at all?

Surprisingly, yes. I did a few spot checks on the higher totals by finding reported yearly deaths from various diseases and dividing those totals by the number of days in that year. They checked out, roughly. I wasn’t able to identify the exact year in most cases, but they were in the right ball park.

But then I looked further down the list at the diseases with lower figures than COVID-19 and found SARS was listed there. I was fairly confident that there has not been a SARS outbreak recently, but wanted to be sure, so I checked the WHO, the CDC and a number of other sources. Indeed, no outbreak since 2004. The low figure given did match up to the 2002-2003 outbreak, but at this point it was clear that the data was a complete hodge-podge from different years and not worth anyone’s time.

My Facebook friend who shared the post had done it with the best of intentions – to spark a debate about whether it was accurate. But it still concerns me when such obviously bad information is shared, hence not sharing or linking to it here.

I would agree that there are numerous issues with COVID-19 data, particularly how it is counted and categorised, and there are absolutely arguments to be had about the economic impact of measures against COVID-19, not to mention education, societal and mental health impacts. But these figures were not the way to do it.

Still a librarian

These are, to say the least, uncertain times. I am one of the lucky ones, at least so far, but the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly affected me.

The Singing Librarian at work
The Singing Librarian at work in more normal times

Like all libraries in the UK, mine is now closed. The doors are shut for an unspecified (and unspecefiable) amount of time, the study spaces are unoccupied and the books remain untouched on the shelf. And yet, the library is open. As much as we possibly can, we have moved online. And many of the things which make the library a library are still there. Services, resources, support. And most importantly, people. That’s all still there. It’s just that “there” has a different meaning.

When I have told people I’m working from home, to a pretty normal pattern of hours, some have been confused. How can a librarian possibly work from home? I would say that a library needs librarians (in the broadest sense), otherwise it’s just a building full of books, but a librarian doesn’t need a physical library. However much we might love it and miss it and long to get back to it.

So, what do I do from home? For some of the time, the answer is the same as for everyone else who has had to move what they’d normally do face-to-face into the online world. Grapple with technology. Manage the flood of notifications. Say “yes, we can hear you” many times a day. But beyond that, what can I do? I can support, I can advise and I can teach.

Support. The library already provides online guidance, but this has become more important than ever. So a good chunk of my time has been spent creating additional guidance for those students and staff who are working off campus for the first time. Reassurance, instructions, information. I have also begun informing different subjects about the resources available electronically, including some which have been made available temporarily during the pandemic.

Advise. I can answer queries. A trickle at first, as everyone had other things on their mind. But a steady stream now, and no doubt a torrent eventually. The usual sorts of questions I would get in the library, just answered by email, through Skype calls, or (after carefully blocking my caller ID, as I don’t have a work phone when at home) by telephone. It takes longer, particularly for telephone calls where neither of us can see the other’s screen. But this essential part of my role remains essentially unchanged.

Teach. Universities across the world have been plunged into an online-only model of teaching and learning for the time being. The three I work for are included in this. I had some teaching planned in for the coming weeks, and am in the process of taking what I would have taught face-to-face and seeing how I can teach this electronically. This is not a simple process, as simply recording a video lecture and telling the students to watch it isn’t really teaching. I have to think about what I want students to learn, how this can best be achieved, and how to engage with the students as people.

Soon, I will be able to get to some of the routine things – making sure our book budget gets spent (on ebooks, obviously!), maintaining online platforms etc. Hopefully do some CPD. Develop our online guidance in a more planned way rather than just reacting. Write a journal article. For now, the most urgent things are the only things getting done. And that’s fine. Everything is taking longer, so I am being kind to myself and just getting done what I can get done. The rest can wait. I’m not going anywhere. Nor is anyone else. But it is good to know that I can be a librarian from home just as much as I can in a library.

Reflecting on The Emperor’s Clothes

So, it has been a week since we closed the wardrobe doors for the time being, and stowed a tremendous variety of clothing items away after the final performance of the debut production of The Emperor’s Clothes. I have come back down to Earth after a tremendous post-production high, and therefore I feel I can write about the experience.

A blue wardrobe with a yellow interior. The clothes inside show the title The Emperor's Clothes.

It was magical. Absolutely magical. No theatrical experience I have had can compare to experiencing an audience reacting to something you have created. Hearing people laugh at jokes or funny moments I dreamed up, or hearing the (sometimes incredibly sustained) applause following my friend and colleague Phil Hornsey’s songs was thrilling. Seeing the characters take three-dimensional form and continue to grow over the five performances, and experiencing the amazing company spirit from everyone involved was heart-warming as well.

The audience reaction was phenomenal, beyond anything I could have expected, and we are quite determined to take this show (and specifically Legacy Performers’ production of it) further.

But first, we need to reflect. The saying “Plays are not written, they’re rewritten” is attributed to 19th-century actor/playwright Dion Boucicault. And it is certainly true of The Emperor’s Clothes. The script that was performed was at least the third complete draft, and won’t be the last. We now have a much better idea of what plays well and what doesn’t, which moments land with an audience, which don’t, and which could if they were set up differently. So the rewrite pencils need to come out. Thankfully, we don’t think we need to do major surgery, just a few nips and tucks. Mostly because the show needs to run a bit shorter, so we need to shave off 10 or 15 minutes. We know the songs all work, though we may trim one or two reprises. The majority of the editing needs to be from the book.

So how will I go about that. In a few ways.

First, repetition – experiencing the show with an audience made me spot areas of repetition which read throughs and rehearsals simply didn’t highlight. There are a few things which we get told twice. So my job is to work out which telling is funnier or more essential to the characters. The other one will need to go.

Second – unnecessary utterances. Looking back over the script, I can now see lines which really serve no purpose. They don’t advance the plot, set up a laugh or expand the characters. So they can go.

Third, pace. We can review the recording we made of the show (for our own purposes) and see where the pace flags. The director and performers did an excellent job of maintaining energy, so any flagging in pace is likely to indicate that the script could be tightened.

Finally, being brutal and asking the question of “do we really need this?” Some exchanges are there because they’ve always been there, but do they still need to be? Or they were written to serve a particular purpose in drawing the characters, but that purpose may now have been answered somewhere else. For example, during the first act we make sure that the audience really doesn’t like one particular character – he is consistently unpleasant to other characters (other than the Emperor) and even if he doesn’t do anything technically villainous, he makes himself very easy to dislike. But do we need every instance of this? Are some of them overkill, or have we got just the right amount of nasty?

Editing is going to be tricky, but ultimately rewarding if we can make this piece (described to me by one enthusiastic audience member as “a gem”) eve better. I would not have missed the Emperor’s experience for anything, which was as much to do with the talented and lovely group of people who came together for it, and it is certainly not going to be the last time my work gets performed.

Onwards and upwards!

Weaving the Emperor’s clothes

I don’t have words to describe how exciting today is. I will soon be leaving the house to go and help get the set and costumes in to the theatre for a show. Not exactly unusual for me, you might think. But this time, it’s a new show which will debut on 28th February at the Arden Theatre in Faversham. And I wrote it!

A blue wardrobe with a yellow interior. The clothes inside show the title The Emperor's Clothes.

Back in 2017, my good friend Phil Hornsey (composer, choir master, musical director and all-round excellent person) asked me to be involved with workshopping some songs for a new show he was working on, based on the fairy tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. A few months later, he asked if I could help him with the book (musical theatre-speak for the script), and eventually the book became my thing. I was (and am) so honoured to be asked – the score for this show is, if I may say so, amazing. “A Thousand Footsteps” in particular needs to be heard by as many people as possible – it’s a real stunner.

Now, three years later, we are fast approaching opening night. We held a workshop of a few scenes in the summer of 2017. We then deleted two characters (one was particularly sad to lose as they had some funny lines which we had no way to give to anyone else), and developed it as a show for seven performers, each playing a main role and doubling as a member of the Emperor’s court. We lost the New from the title of the show, as it really is about all of the Emperor’s clothes, not just his new ones. We held a road-through which helped us get to grips with the trickiest characters. And now here we are. With five performances this coming weekend, our show is being brought to life by ten amazing performers, plus the usual small army of musicians, backstage crew, technical wizards and front of house staff.

As I write, about 250 people have booked their tickets to come and see the show, and we’ve had a great reaction to the teaser videos we have put out, even with my very basic video creation skills!

Teaser video 3: “Everyone Knows” (Music & Lyrics by Phil Hornsey).

Seeing these characters come to life, having spent years developing them, is a very special feeling. Which is why I am brimming with excitement (with grace notes of terror) to start getting the set in place. Some brilliant people have helped us out by designing and constructing a centre-piece wardrobe, and our poor producer has tracked down what feels like every possible item of yellow clothing (there’s a reason for that).

I plain to write more about this experience over the next week or so, but for now here are some links:

The Singing Librarian’s 2019 in review – Theatre part 2: doing it

As ever, I haven’t “just” watched theatre this year, I have also been actively involved. I attended the NODA Summer School for the second year running, this year doing a brilliant course on Directing Musical Theatre. I haven’t yet had a chance to put this into practice, as all my theatrical activities this year have been on the stage.

A number of concerts have happened throughout the year, which have seen me sing songs including ‘True Colours’, ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’, ‘Anthem’ and ‘Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive’. The latter was part of Singalong Christmas, which sees us tell the story of the birth of Christ through a wide variety of songs – this one is sung by one of the shepherds, in case you were wondering.

I also performed in two musicals, and I am going to take them in reverse order.

A close-up of a pair of eyes, with the word EVITA written across them.

Promo image of Magaldi in Evita.

First, Evita, which was performed in the Autumn. This was my first time performing in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and rather handily is my favourite of his well-known shows. I played the role of Magaldi, and became accustomed to saying “you know, the role played by Jimmy Nail in the film…”. I didn’t try to emulate Jimmy Nail (never try to copy a performance!), but tried to put my own stamp on it. The character doesn’t have much stage time, but he does memorably sing ‘On This Night of a Thousand Stars’. Twice. This role allowed me to unleash my vocals in a way I don’t usually do – the character is a singer, and a show-off at that. So I put every ounce of volume and embellishment into his big solo that I could find. I also had to hit some ridiculously high notes (without switching to falsetto) in one of the other numbers, which took a few people by surprise. The show was not easy, with tricky harmonies and some super-fast costume changes, but it worked really well.  The direction and design, along with the performances, created something rather special.

A man in a brown cardigan opening a large book.

The Singing Librarian as Henry Higgins.

And before that was My Fair Lady, performed in the Spring. Yes, I’ve done this show before. But this time was different. Last time, I played Freddy Eynsford-Hill. This time, I played Professor Henry Higgins. This really was the role of a lifetime for me. I’m a character actor, not a romantic lead, so although I have played a fantastic variety of parts, the leading male role in a musical never seemed very likely. And what a role! So many fantastic actors have tackled this part before, and everyone thinks they know the character. He is, I realised, not a very nice man at all. His linguistic snobbishness is quite funny, as is his disdain of certain social conventions such as dressing properly for Ascot. But his attitude towards women, although often played for comedy, really isn’t funny, a fact which audiences can perhaps see more easily now. So a challenge – be true to the character without making him a villain. Enjoy the role and the songs without excusing his behaviour.

And I think it worked. I am as proud of my performance as Henry Higgins as I am of anything else I have achieved in the theatre. It was incredibly difficult, bringing me to tears at times, and I frequently doubted that I could carry it off (not least because at 40, I felt rather young for the part, even though the actor portraying him on Broadway at the time was about the same age as me). But on the night(s), it felt right. As the curtain came down, I knew that we had put on a great show, and that I had done the part justice. We got some fantastic feedback, too, including a glowing show report from NODA.

So two very different roles, which allowed me to prove (if only to myself) that I definitely can act and sing. 2020 has some excitement in store already in terms of my involvement with theatre. It has a great year to live up to!


The Singing Librarian’s 2019 in review – Theatre part 1: Watching it

About 20 theatre programmes scattered atop each other.

Some of 2019’s theatre viewing.

This has been quite a year for seeing shows. I have seen 4 West End musicals, 2 Broadway musicals (thanks to my most amazing housemates) and a whole host of other plays, musicals and pantomimes. This has included probably the best show I have ever seen, along with many other memorable moments.

When I see a show, I try to just enjoy it as an audience member. But parts of my brain inevitably end up watching it as an actor, a director, a stage manager, a writer. My mind is awash with “why did they do it like that?”, “nice lighting effect!”, “I wonder how often people spot that switch?”, “fantastic juxtaposition!”, “why was that scene needed?” and “ooh, cool segue!”. As well, of course, as the usual “wow!” and “yay!” and the occasional “bored now…”.

A couple of the shows I saw in London are fairly new musicals which have already established themselves as smash hits and likely to be classics that future generations revive over and over again. Hamilton was one of the slickest productions I can remember, with excellent timing, choreography and company work. Brilliant writing, too, which forces you to pay attention to lyrics delivered at breakneck speed. It struck me that there were many things in this very American show which echo some of the big issues in British society today – certainly I felt that there were things which would resonate with both Remainers and Leavers. And Come From Away, telling the story of Gander, Newfoundland in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, is both uplifting and heartbreaking. This too had brilliant company work, using simple costume changes and a few chairs to create a wide variety of people and places. Definitely the best thing I saw in the UK this year…

Locally, I saw some excellent productions as well. The Lindley Players at the Whitstable Playhouse produced some cracking plays this year. Beautiful ThingThe Woman Who Cooked Her Husband and Frankenstein were all engrossing and memorable with some spot-on performances. I saw Frankenstein in rehearsal (as I was on stage elsewhere during all of its performances), but even without lighting or full costume it was haunting and moving. I saw some original writing as well, which ranged from the sublime to the awkward. This included a brilliantly unsettling piece of site-specific theatre, Left Behind, performed in an attic, plus an unconventional murder mystery. I also saw a rare thing – a musical that I didn’t think should have been a musical. I won’t name it, but it was a case where the piece would have worked much better as a play which would have allowed the potentially fascinating story to live in a different way.

I travelled around England to see friends perform, direct and musical direct a range of shows. One of my friends turned in an astonishing portrayal of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar (yes, I’m probably biased, but he was quite incredible). Others wowed me as fairy tale princesses in Disenchanted and a wide variety of jesters, fairies and more ordinary folk. I love a good pantomime (oh yes I do) and got to see three of them this year. Some of these were quite far away, but well worth the travel time to see friends being amazing and to shout, cheer and boo my head off.

Over in New York, we were lucky enough to take in 2 musicals – both excellent, but so very different. There was a different atmosphere to theatre in NYC, perhaps an extra crackle of anticipation in the air. The first show we saw was Frozen, which is brilliant at what it does. It takes a film which already had a highly theatrical score, and makes it work in a very different medium. The new songs add to it, with the standout being the bizarre ‘Hygge’ and the necessary ice and snow effects make for several “wow” moments – the most impressive being when Elsa’s ice powers spread across the theatre’s proscenium arch.

We then saw Hadestown. Definitely the best thing I saw this year and quite possibly the best thing I have ever seen in my life. It takes ancient myth and creates a tale for our time – despair and hope, victory and defeat, love and art and fear are all beautifully drawn. Someone near me in the stalls, probably around 20 years of age, said that she had been several times and this was her generation’s Rent. I didn’t get this at first, but when I talked about if afterwards, it made sense. There is a message of defiant hope, of perseverance against impossible odds and of faith when all seems bleak. This can speak so powerfully to the up and coming generation – a generation who have it all, and who have nothing. The richest ever generation materially, who often seem so poor in other ways, and who legitimately fear the future. These lyrics in particular speak to the growing feeling that there’s a battle which may be hopeless but will be fought nonetheless:

Some birds sing when the sun shines bright.

Our praise is not for them.

But the ones who sing in the dead of night.

We raise our cups to them.

I can’t explain why I loved Hadestown so much, but have never managed to articulate it. Everything just worked – writing, direction, performances, choreography, design, band, sense of occasion. In some ways it is so simple, in others so profound. It contained moment after moment after moment that I will never forget and which keep me thinking about them. About how these ancient stories seem so contemporary, and how hope can bloom in the darkest places. Perhaps it is impossible to explain, and perhaps that is the essence of live theatre – you simply have to be there.

To everyone involved in anything I saw this year, from the very best to the least impressive, and whether I have specifically named it here or not, I say a huge thank you. I was privileged to be in the room where each and every one of these performances happened. I can’t wait to see what the live stage brings in 2020 – if it’s even half as good as what I experienced this year, I’m in for a treat!

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