Can the promise of a gig lure music lovers to the theatre?

Published in The Stage on June 2, 2016

Singing along loudly, dancing till you sweat, whooping at the drop… this behaviour belongs at a gig or a club, not a theatre, surely?

Not if the play is With a Little Bit of Luck, Paines Plough’s touring production by Sabrina Mahfouz that celebrates the 1990s dance music genre, UK garage. If you’re sitting quietly in your seat, you’re probably not getting it.

But this is far from a one-off gimmick: overlap between gigs and theatre is a rising trend. Not every show is quite as foot-stomping as With a Little Bit of Luck, but many theatremakers are increasingly producing work that blurs the boundaries between theatre and gigs, finding it not only enriches their material, but can also shake up audience demographics and behaviour.
National Theatre Wales’ Christmas show The Insatiable, Inflatable Candylion was a collaboration with Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys, while London’s Young Vic recently staged Jane Horrocks’ love song to post-punk, If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me. National Theatre of Scotland’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, which Lee Hall described as being closer to a gig than a musical in its use of Electric Light Orchestra songs, is on a major tour.

And if ‘theatre gigs’ are becoming mainstream, their popularity was arguably first proved on the fringe, with shows such as Kieran Hurley’s Beats (2012), Lucy Ellinson, Chris Thorpe and Steve Lawson’s Torycore (2013), Brigitte Aphrodite’s My Beautiful Black Dog and Middle Child’s Weekend Rockstars (both 2015) all hits at the Edinburgh festival.

For Mahfouz, it was obvious that, in a play about UK garage, music would be the medium. “The whole impetus behind the show is to celebrate what that music meant to the people who made it. It’s less a show with music – the music is the show,” she says.

The story – of a young woman who sells ecstasy in the summer of 2001 to fund university – is performed by Seroca Davis, flanked by Gabriel Benn on decks and vocalist Martyna Baker performing live reinterpretations of garage classics that often help underpin the narrative (expect to hear Craig David and Artful Dodger’s Re-Rewind, Rosie Gaines’ Closer Than Close and the title track by DJ Luck and MC Neat).

The show is touring widely around the UK, and is attempting to attract new audiences. For this is one of theatre gigs’ strengths: tapping into a beloved genre or collaborating with a musician can massively widen your audience pool, but it can also help break down barriers to theatre among audiences who fear it’s ‘not for them’.

“A lot of people talk about attracting new audiences, but this is a genuinely realistic way to make that happen,” insists Mahfouz. “Most people have been to a gig: a guy with a keyboard and a strobe – it’s recognisable, not intimidating.”

Not that she wrote the play to attract a specific audience; it’s just a natural by-product of employing writers interested in wider pop culture. “You write about what you’re passionate about, and it attracts other people interested in that subject,” she says. In this case, With a Little Bit of Luck has been popular with teenagers into UK garage as a precursor to today’s grime scene, and with former-clubbers reliving their youth.

Such nostalgia has also helped make Graeae’s Reasons to Be Cheerful a bankable success. The show is set over a memorial evening in a pub, where a father is remembered and celebrated by his friends and family singing his favourite Ian Dury songs, from Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll to Spasticus Autisticus.

“The audiences have always been a wonderfully diverse mix of traditional theatregoers, Ian Dury fans and young punks,” says artistic director Jenny Sealey. “I remember, on our first night at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 2010, feeling puzzled that there were so many city men in suits, but as soon as the music started they loosened their ties, took off their jackets and knew every single lyric; once a punk, always a punk.”

Innovatively, Graeae offers three different versions of the show, allowing it to easily be sold to different sizes and styles of venue and festivals: it does a full-length play with songs; just songs, set within a ‘memorial’; or a gig with short extracts from the play.

“It has always been a hard one to define, as both the genres blur, creating something that is pretty unique. But however we do it, the story is always the central element and wherever we do it, it always ends up as a gig with the audience singing, dancing and doing the sign language.” It returns for this year’s Latitude Festival: a dedicated theatre stage at a music festival has unsurprisingly become a major platform for theatre gigs.

Gigs come with a much more relaxed code of behaviour than most theatre – moving around, having a chat, singing along, using your phones – which would get you loudly tutted, at least, in a traditional auditorium. And muddying the genre boundaries can bring challenges as well as joys. Mahfouz says there have been times you struggle to hear the story of With a Little Bit of Luck over the enthusiastic singing along. Audiences stood for NTW’s Candylion, which prompted criticism of practical issues such as sight lines (an issue that any concert-goer under six foot is all too familiar with).

But theatre gigs needn’t necessarily draw on the anything-goes vibe of raves or rock concerts: there’s overlap too with more sedate genres. David Greig’s first production at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, part of the Edinburgh International Festival, is Wind Resistance, by acclaimed folk musician Karine Polwart.

The show is an opening statement of intent, with Greig wanting music to be central to his programming, “to help break apart some of the fustiness of a big old theatre”. Still, even as dramaturg on the project, he’s struggling to know how to label it.

“It’s an essay or personal reflection, with songs, about this moorland near Edinburgh; she uses the birdlife, the history, the botany, her own life, and weaves it into a story which is tremendously moving,” he offers, before adding that “if it’s hard to describe something, that can be really good: it means you’re truly doing something new, something that’s breaking boundaries. But it is difficult for audiences – trying to get a picture of what they’re going to see – so I am searching for the right language”.

Wind Resistance is directed by Wils Wilson, a theatre gigs veteran now – she directed Candylion and Greig’s ongoing smash, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, a raucous ceilidh show staged in pubs. That show has also proved that a combination of music and non-traditional venue can help win new audiences; it’s been touring since 2011, and won many fans. But that’s not the only way to approach theatre gigs, Greig insists, and Wind Resistance will take a very different tone. “This is not home-made or rough-and-ready at all, it’s becoming something quite crafted.”

And even if he struggles to know how to label it, he also cheerily points out that we might be overthinking all this: combining storytelling and song, narrative and music, is a technique as old as time.

“If you think about the 60,000 years of human history before the little crust of the last 100 years, actually what Karine’s doing would be completely obvious to every human being: she stands up, says a bit, sings a bit. That’s art. In some ways, it’s the simplest thing you can imagine.”

With a Little Bit of Luck tours until June 18; Wind Resistance is at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, from August 6-21; Reasons to Be Cheerful is at Latitude Festival, from July 14-17, and Milton Keynes International Festival, from July 21-22


5 theatre gigs

Kieran Hurley’s coming-of-age show told the story of a Scottish teenager around the introduction of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act – which effectively outlawed raves. It opened at the now defunct venue the Arches in Glasgow in 2012, and featured its in-house DJ Johnny Whoop lining up the techno, before playing the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and touring. Murmurings of a film adaptation by Ken Loach’s production company have gone quiet.

Brand New Ancients

Kate Tempest – rapper and performance poet, who has won Mercury music prizes as well as Ted Hughes poetry prizes – brought her skills thrillingly together in this 2012 show that started life at Battersea Arts Centre. Over a live soundtrack of jazzy music and beats, she rhythmically delivered her “everyday epic”, finding the mythic in the story of two families in south London.

If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me

Jane Horrocks, accompanied by a cast of dancers, sang her favourite songs by post-punk, northern bands of the late 1970s – the Smiths, Joy Division, the Buzzcocks et al – at the Young Vic, London, earlier this year. Critics mostly damned it for lacking raw edge or any emotional story, but see for yourself when it plays at Latitude Festival in July.


After the success of With a Little Bit of Luck, Sabrina Mahfouz is working on another collaborative show with music at its heart for theatre company Nabokov: Slug is made with British beatboxers Bellatrix and Grace Savage, a show of stories about women from history who disguised themselves as men. It opens – you guessed it – at Latitude Festival.

Putting the Band Back Together

A new show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer, starring Ross Millard of the Futureheads alongside Maria Crocker and Alex Elliott, it promises to be part riotous gig, part tender storytelling, all exploring our relationship with music. Part of Northern Stage at Summerhall, it rocks out from August 6 to 27.

Where next?