Vee Tames

“Do you want to listen to some of the synth-sounds? I might go and grab the stage-piano – oh no wait, I have a mini keyboard with me”. I’m thoroughly impressed by the enthusiasm and readiness of James Mitchell, the Musical Director of the Week 6 ADC Late Show The War of the Worlds, who is clambering out of his chair to give me a live rendition of his computer-programmed sound-effects. I’m in a circle of sorts in the dimly-lit Dressing Room with Mitchell, lead actor Archie Williams who plays the Older Journalist, and Co-directors Ruth Harvey and Jade Franks. The room is oddly futuristic: there is a small fuzzy television screen of the live action happening on the main stage in the corner. But I can also see Costume Designer Valentin Foley busily at work on their vintage-looking sewing machine, surrounded by an ornamental patchwork quilt of nineteenth-century ruffles, embroidered silk waistcoats and ivory blouses. I remember Harvey telling me “The music is modern, but everything is still within the Victorian imagining”, and I wonder if this back-stage parallel is purely coincidental.

“The idea is that the orchestra is the centre-piece of the whole thing”

If you hear "The War of the Worlds" in passing, your mind might drift to aliens, sci-fi thrillers, and maybe H.G. Wells, but not necessarily music – and certainly not an 18-piece band (“featuring six keyboards, three guitars, bass, drums and a string orchestra”), which is what this production has in store. Harvey’s and Franks’ theatrical re-interpretation of Jeff Wayne’s 1978 Musical Version of The War of the Worlds promises to be an impressive showcase of completely live orchestral and techno music, compelling acting and singing, and confusingly elaborate stage-tech. In short, as Mitchell summarises, “It’s a rock album that has been adapted to the stage”. “The idea is that the orchestra is the centre-piece of the whole thing”, explains Harvey, to which Franks adds “We found that a lot of Cambridge theatre tended to put musicians in the pit or on the side of the stage, so we wanted them to be at the forefront. With our production, you can just listen to a full minute or two of instrumental music”. Mitchell admits that accommodating for an on-stage band proved to be a challenge because of the spatial constraints of the auditorium, but the team managed to tackle this by shuffling people around decks.

Of course, although the music is crucial, that is not all that there is to this production. “The storyline spotlights the different people affected by the invasion”, Franks explains. Harvey emphasises that this led everyone to “work beyond these snapshots, and try to work out 'Where have you [as a character] been before now? Where will you go in the aftermath?'” Each cast member has a chance to shine through their solo or paired musical numbers and – in Franks’ words – their “incredible acting”. I’m lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this during the tightly choreographed ‘Brave New World’ sequence, which takes place in the Dressing Room. Although there are no props and most of the actors are wearing their own clothes, this does not interfere with their swift and seamless movement into character. It’s quite late for a rehearsal – just past 8 pm – but the actors and the directorial team are jubilant, sharing plenty of inside jokes whilst exchanging constructive criticism. There’s healthy laughter, lively chatter, and a general buzz of creative fervour. Archie Williams’ narration practice is perhaps a little more sombre as a result of the discordant piano chords that layer his speech. This device epitomises the interplay of drama and sound which lies at the heart of the ADC The War of the Worlds. He loves the fact that his role is modelled on the ‘voiceover’ by Richard Burton in the original Wayne: “it’s an iconic thing about the album because it’s so beautifully written …  very nineteenth-century, stylistically speaking, with lots of syllables. It was quite difficult at first to synchronise my words to the music – I had never done anything like it before – but it has been extremely worthwhile, and now here I am”.


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Mountain View

Harrogate preview

The War of the Worlds is Harvey’s directing-début and Franks takes on a critical directorial role as a fresher, but they are admirably confident, and do not seem to be daunted by this ‘Brave New World’. They are aware that their production is “definitely ambitious” – Harvey adds jokingly that “it’s a word that’s been thrown around a lot” – but that gives them all the more reason to take the challenge in their stride. “It’s going to be something different that people in Cambridge have never seen before – especially for a late show slot”, says Frank excitedly. “And there’s going to be lots of surprises”.

 

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