Ginger Hibiscus | Ginger Hibiscus | Songs from the Playground - An Evening of New Writing from Rebecca Applin
Ginger Hibiscus | Songs from the Playground - An Evening of New Writing from Rebecca Applin
Ginger Hibiscus | Songs from the Playground - An Evening of New Writing from Rebecca Applin
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11 Apr Songs from the Playground – An Evening of New Writing from Rebecca Applin

We have talked, at length, about the challenges faced by composers of new musical theatre in London, in getting their work staged and developed into a show that theatregoers might take a risk on going to see. It’s just one of the reasons why Fairground Theatre’s Songs from the Playground programme is so fantastic. Fairground select one musical theatre writer each year, providing mentoring, constructive feedback, the opportunity to put on a concert of a selection of work, and finally the chance to take a piece to full development. An undoubtedly exciting programme, this year’s chosen writer was Rebecca Applin.
Applin has a strong background in musical theatre composition, having studied music at the University of Cambridge, and continued her studies at the Royal College of Music. But more than this, her writing is also beginning to be recognised, as her musical Sex and the Village has now been licensed to Perfect Pitch, and she recently won a commission from the George Bernard Shaw estate with Kate Ferguson to adapt The Devil’s Disciple into a musical.
Having been selected by Fairground Theatre, this event was the first of Rebecca Applin’s showcases, featuring songs from no less than six (!) musicals, including both Sex and the Village and The Devil’s Disciple. The evening was opened by the titular song from The House of Tea, a new concept in musical theatre that Applin hopes will be performed in settings where tea can, and will, be served with the show, with guests sitting at tea tables rather than in neat theatre rows. A rousing opening ensemble number, it sparked a definite intrigue into where this show could go – particularly for my inner (and outer) tea addict that literally can’t think of anything more perfect than combining team and theatre.
We moved on to a couple of songs from a musical adaptation of Helen Cresswell’s novel, Moondial, which is being republished this summer by Faber. It follows the story of teenager Minty, who reluctantly goes to stay with family in Belton House, after her mother is severely injured in a car crash. In the garden of the ancient manor house she’s drawn to the moondial, which leads some strange encounters with some of the previous inhabitants of the house. The first of two songs, You Will Be Happy is a pretty, empowering song, encouraging Minty that she should make the journey, performed by Victoria Serra with the kind of excellent vocals we’ve come to expect from her. The second, Moondial has a marvellous ability to draw the audience in, gathering in pace as it evokes powerful images of a night time lit by moonlight. With an incredibly mystical, timeless feel about the score, it’s an incredibly intriguing proposition which would bring with it an incredibly unique set of creative challenges.
The Devil’s Disciple is another adaptation, but this time of a play, from the vastly more widely recognised Bernard Shaw. Written over 100 years ago, it tells the story of outcast and “Devil’s disciple,” Richard Dudgeon in colonial America, who unexpectedly inherits a sizeable estate. The first of three songs from the musical, Hold Back the Night is a cry for courage from a vulnerable man performed by Keith Ramsay, followed by You Are a Gentleman, a funny, upbeat scene in one song as two men show off their one-up-manship, insulting one another as harshly as each dares, whilst, of course, imploring the other not to take offense. It’s the kind of song that you can imagine a director having so much fun with, and turning into a really memorable moment of a musical. Finally, the lively finale, Anderson’s Return was performed by the full company, with soaring harmonies, and a toe-tapping, skipping beat that would guarantee theatregoers leave smiling.
Next was Jabberwocky, a musical which surprisingly isn’t just an interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, featured in the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass. First created with YMT for 40 girls, with lyrics by Susannah Pearse, it’s actually a celebration of characters from all the way across nonsense verse. The section began withBeyond the Mirror, a fantastical song where characters Flora and Jessica cross through a mirror for the first time. Stretching the upper reaches of any female vocalist’s range, the female ensemble piece has a gorgeous choral quality, in stark contrast to the silly hokey-cokey-like The Flobble that seems to match the musical to a much younger demographic than the other shows. Finally Brillig gave us what we had all been waiting for – some of Carroll’s poem.
Possibly the most interesting in concept is Here Be Dragons, a coming of age musical written with Nigel Ward for the performing arts students at Anglia Ruskin. In Aboriginal culture, spirituality is inextricably connected to the landscape, so much so that there’s an ancient Aboriginal tradition of songlines (or dreaming tracks), where communities create songs that can be used as a map by someone knowledgeable of the area, culture and spirituals beliefs of the land. By repeating the lines of the song, the person could find their way around, with reference to the geography and mythology of the area. Adapted for the East Anglian landscape, a journey using song lines is used as an allegory for personal development – moving into unchartered territory – much like the “dragons” and sea monsters that inhabited the unchartered territory of medieval maps.
A group of intrepid adventurers set out on their travels in Reveal the Way, gathering in momentum as the song progresses, strongly evocative of the English countryside. The pop-rock inspired I Breathe Again and the titular Here Be Dragons both have epic – and very different – feels about them, the latter sounding a lot like it could be accompanying the film credits of a big budget fantasy film. It’s exciting music, though if it’s selected for further development, one of the challenges will be getting the sound levels right with the drums, electric guitars, and most likely un-mic’ed vocals which have a very real chance of getting lost.
The final musical, Sex and the Village, has already been licensed to Perfect Pitch, and is a musical comedy about a small country village that’s about to be obliterated by a new supermarket. As the villagers rally around to save their homes, they have to convince the planners that a small piece of land is the “village green” where they regularly hold village fetes. The sense of community that’s central to the musical’s soul is exhibited in It Takes A Village, a high energy opener to act II performed by the whole ensemble, buzzing about with their preparations; it could be incredibly exciting – and a little quirky – to stage. White Elephant Stall contrasts, as it stirs the soft recall of a memory of the protagonist and her late mother, preparing for their own “White Elephant Stall” years ago, sung brilliantly by Natasha Barnes whose fusion of poignancy and comedy is perfect for the piece. Closing the night, just as it does the show, The Light of Love has a true clap-along rhythm, guaranteeing that every audience member is on their feet for the encore, and leaves with a smile on their face and a spring in their step. In other words, feel-good, epitomised.
As well as being a fantastic, cabaret-style event with some great music and performers, it’s one with a purpose – to narrow the six musicals down to the four that will be further developed. Having already said that tea plus theatre is my idea of heaven, I’d be incredibly keen to see House of Tea further developed, and Here Be Dragons is such a fascinating concept that it has to make the final four. There’s also something about the haunting beauty of the Moondial score, coupled with interesting historical references that put it on my shortlist, along with the Devils Disciple – because I want to see You Are A Gentleman staged in full costume, and hear Anderson’s Return again. With that in mind, the four-show showcase can’t come soon enough. Good luck to both Rebecca and Fairground Theatre!

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