March 17, 2012

I sometimes sit and ask myself: “What the hell am I doing here when I could be sat at home with a glass of beer and my feet up, watching some rubbish on the telly?” Tonight I got my answer.

The little run of The Hammerman at the Phoenix Theatre, New College, Swindon, came to an end with a nearly full house – the other two nights had been just over half full. The whole thing has been steadily consuming more and more of my time over the last few weeks, and especially this week.

Tonight’s show went extremely well, and while it’s a relief that it’s all over and was the success it deserves, most of all I feel immensely proud to have been involved with it.

I don’t know what’s better – to be involved with a large group of people who are overflowing with their own individual talents, or that those people are – almost to a fault – also so nice.

I’m not just talking about the performers, whose talents for singing, acting, hard work and seeing a project through is – and not to exaggerate here – quite awesome. Their skills are self-evident as soon as the curtain goes up. I’m also talking about all the other people – set designers, set builders, props manager, stage crew, technicians, front of house volunteers, etc, on who the show also relies if it is to work.

Even more impressive is the sum of all these parts. I reckon more than 40 people worked together on this crazy project. That’s a huge team that needs to pull together.

And it was a crazy project – to put on a musical about somebody who is virtually unknown (Alfred Williams) by an amateur composer (John Cullimore), featuring almost unknown songs, so that the audience not only don’t know what they are going to get, but can’t hum along with the songs like they do with other musicals (although they were certainly humming them on the way out). And to do it without financial back-up (unlike the last time, when we had a Heritage Lottery Fund grant) and put it on in the current economic climate in Swindon, where far too many people are content to sit at home on a Saturday night with a glass of beer and their feet up, watching some rubbish on the telly.

All the best ideas are crazy ones.

I may be biased but I think The Hammerman is one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen, with one of the highest counts of show-stopping songs, and the cast of this production – albeit mostly amateurs – were one of the best I’ve ever seen. And having spent a few years reviewing and then a lot of years paying to watch various different shows, I’ve seen a lot.

This project featured some seriously clever and successful people. The composer, John Cullimore, is a consultant surgeon (writing brilliant music is only his sideline); the director, Maria Jagusz, has sung with nearly every major opera star of a generation and every major opera company you could name; Paul Bradley, who didn’t so much play Alfred Williams but become him over three nights, is a former centre forward with Kidderminster Harriers and all-round gifted sportsman who is now finding a new vocation, which is performing.

But it’s not these people’s talents and accomplishments that is most impressive, nor those of the rest of the team’s; it’s that they are all such nice people with it – genuinely down to earth, caring and friendly.

To take just one example: John MacGregor, the professional who was employed to mix the sound, did an incredibly efficient and creative job, but when he presented his bill it was light by £100. This, he said, was because we hadn’t had full houses and he didn’t do as much work as he had quoted for. Of course, the amount of work is actually the same for him, whether there is one person in the audience or 150. But he said he was also knocking some off the bill because he loved the music and the show, believed in it and wanted to support it. Half an hour later he was taking £20 out of his wallet and asking how many bottles of (commemorative, fundraising) beer it would buy him – and went home with a crate of it.

And that is why the hell I wasn’t sat at home with a glass of beer, with my feet up, watching rubbish on the telly.

I should add a footnote about Alfred Williams and why John and I, along with another unsung, clever and thoroughly nice person, Caroline Ockwell, founded the Alfred Williams Heritage Society in 2009. It was merely to make more people aware of this inspiring character and the precious literary legacy he left us. The Hammerman is a great vehicle for this, as well as being a worthwhile artistic project. We don’t do this in a Born Again Christian, tub-thumping way, and we aren’t nerds who think of nothing else (whatever teenage daughters might think). We know – just as Alfred himself knew – that some people are never going to be interested in the extraordinary qualities of other people, but when they are open to it, it is a pleasure to educate and entertain them.

Alfred Williams would have been proud to have been associated with The Hammerman. He would have been far too modest to be really comfortable with watching it, but I’m sure he would have been proud of our efforts. And because he really understood people and what can be achieved when they put their energies into creating worthwhile things, he would be especially proud to have been associated with the people who made it happen.

Always judge people by the company they keep.

The picture, below, is the said John MacGregor at his mixing desk. There are lots more rehearsal and backstage pictures here.