New Woley Theatre sings songs that stand the test of time

The cast of Midsummer Songs in rehearsal at the Wolsey Studio.
Peter Rowe and Ben Goddard

The cast of Midsummer Songs in rehearsal at the Wolsey Studio. Peter Rowe and Ben Goddard - Credit: Lucy taylor

Suffolk theatre director Peter Rowe is well known for staging musicals and writing rock’n’roll pantos, but he’s never written songs of his own . . . until now. He talks to Andrew Clarke about his first musical

The cast of Midsummer Songs in rehearsal at the Wolsey Studio.
Ben Goddard, Glenn Carter and Peter

The cast of Midsummer Songs in rehearsal at the Wolsey Studio. Ben Goddard, Glenn Carter and Peter peverley - Credit: Lucy taylor

For New Wolsey artistic director Pete Rowe, this season’s big opening production, Midsummer Songs, is the realisation of a long-held ambition.

Although he has written many rock’n’roll pantomimes, provided the script for stage biographies of people like Marc Bolan (20th Century Boy) and Ellie Greenwich (the reworked Leader of the Pack), this is his first fictional play created from scratch.

Speaking on the eve of rehearsals he’s anxious to get the cast working on the dialogue so he can actually hear how it sounds.

The play is a collaboration with New Wolsey musical director Ben Goddard, who has written the music for the songs. The pair have been reading the script aloud together, but now want to hear other people play the parts.

“It needs to go into a rehearsal room so we can get a real feel for it. We have gone as far as we can with just us reading to one another.”

The play follows the lives of a group of university students who rent a house on a remote Welsh mountainside after exams and during a boozy, hedonistic week record a set of songs on to one side of a C90 cassette tape.

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They bury the tape in a box and pledge that in 25 years time they will return to the house and record songs for the second side. The play is a look at how people change and how relationships and friendships evolve over time.

The play is based on the experiences of Ben Goddard and a recent university reunion he attended.

“I was in this situation. I went away with a group of chums to the Lake District after I had finished my finals at university and I recently hooked up with them again. I was telling Pete that it doesn’t matter whether you own your company, or you are a senior executive, you automatically revert to the same relationships banter whether you like it or not.

“It didn’t seem to matter that 25 years had gone past. You find yourself hitting someone around the head like you did when you were 20 and then you discover that he is now a surgeon.”

He said that this provided an interesting dynamic which helped shape the feel of the show.

“I think it’s both good and bad that people can get back together and put aside all that has happened over the last 25 years of their lives, and yet at the same time you want that acknowledgement of what you have achieved – and you are not the same person you were 25 years earlier.”

Pete says that the penning of this show feels like a big step and has admitted in the past he has shied away from writing a completely new work. “I have always had that fear about facing a blank piece of paper – what on earth do you write about?

“I think Midsunmer Songs works, it doesn’t have that fear factor, because we had talked about Ben’s experiences and knew where we were going with the story. We had a story and a structure before we started writing.”

Pete is also clear that the production is a play with music rather than a traditional musical. “It’s not like traditional musical theatre where one character has an idea and the idea is continued or explored further in a song. I don’t think that the dialogue ever stops, it keeps going through the song. We see the songs being made as part of the action of the play.

“In terms of which convention we are operating in, we are entirely naturalistic. We are not operating in a heightened musical theatre world where characters suddenly burst into song. That never happens. We always have a context within the story for a song to appear.”

Ben added that the fact that these university mates were all members of a band allowed them to have actor-musicians in a naturalistic setting. The pair were also thrilled to be writing their own songs.

“I have written musicals about people writing songs and about dead rock stars but they have always had other people’s music in them. This is the first entirely original show that I have written and it is very exciting for that reason alone. We have been messing around together with other people’s songs for quite some time and now we want to take it on to the next step – which is creating something which is completely our own.”

Although the Pete and Ben have been working together since 1997, it was the writing of the song Angel of Soho for the 2012 musical Mods and Rox that provided impetus for the pair putting their heads together to come up with a full length show with a dozen new songs.

“Mods and Rox was the first time I had ever written words for a song. Coming away from that we both said we should try and find an opportunity to write more songs together. The process of creating a song was incredibly exciting and that has carried on through the development of this show.

“There is an element of autobiography not only in terms of characters but also in terms of the process I suppose. There are characters in the story who get very excited about making songs and it is fair to say that we are still very excited about making music.”

Midsummer Songs by Peter Rowe and Ben Goddard is at the New Wolsey Theatre from September 4 to27.