I stand at the top of The Royal Mile and look out across the mass of faces pushing through the throb of people. As flyers glide about of their own accord, seemingly bereft of owners, more paper is pushed into my reluctant hands. I filter in between shoulders, searching for a familiar face. My luggage is pulled tight against my back as I tackle the swathe head-on. Acting troupes strike poses; the roller-skating dancers spin mid-split; a girl sings next to a boy with a slide guitar. Street artist after street artist, performer upon performer, the next Big Thing follows me wherever I go. “See The Rebirth of Renaissance theatre: 50 Shades The Musical!” Over there is a topless man in a kilt juggling knives whilst balancing on an upright ladder. “Come get your tickets for The Best Worst Show at The Fringe!” The topless man taunts his audience and takes off his kilt. “Do you like words? This play has words.” Earlier, someone had offered to read my mind in exchange for their flyer – I think I prefer the bizarre sells. “What do we want? Hearing aids. When do we want them? Hearing Aids.” It’s all rather disorientating.
No sooner had I escaped the immediate craze of the throng did I come across a melee of a cappella groups, housed by temporary stages. Each choir bands together on their platforms, moving with the arrangements, singing-out to an instrument-less beat. I’m looking for one a cappella group in particular, The Oxford Gargoyles. If you’ve been to The Fringe anytime these past nine years, or live locally in Oxford, you might have heard of them. They sing jazz a cappella and they’re always dressed to impress. Whatever time the show, it’s evening wear without fail.
I spot current Gargoyle Elsa Field and walk over to make myself known. She guides me to C Venue on Chambers Street for this afternoon’s performance. I expect a bowtie song and dance, with singers doubling as instruments, whooping like trumpets and twanging like guitars. Call me a sceptic of the a cappella tradition, but I’m not much a fan of anything remotely similar to the American television smash hit Glee. It seems fair to say that that particular wave has peaked and subsided, fascination and all. Whilst many groups still ghost this tradition, conversing more or less exclusively in Top 40 remixes, The Gargoyles hit up a refreshing concoction of swing, funk, and jazz. Dosing dulcet licks and soothing energy, this bunch of singers are your remedy to the Old Hat Copycats of a cappella.
Having seen them scat previously in and around Oxford, I prepare myself for the usual recital and recline. I didn’t prepare myself for lightshow theatre, or choreography that winks and ribs you into smiling, or the occasional brandish and swish of a prop. I have a good time. And it isn’t too musical hall either. The production sounds like a soft big band who play easy on the ears, but who aren’t afraid to fool around with up-beat tracks or wail high notes like they really meant it. The Gargoyles open with In the Mood and rub you just so. Next they Pass Me the Jazz, followed by a slick rendition of blues classic Fever. A take on Tower of Power’s Diggin’ On James Brown is certainly a highlight; gilded with scat and full of strut, the tongue’s placed firmly in cheek with this one. A few songs later, three couples in the rows ahead cradle one another during the closing moments of Unforgettable. It is an unusually bare and vulnerable arrangement of a song popularised by sweeping strings and Nat King Cole; a version that may prove to be marmite for many. Wonderfully choreographed, Disney’s Friend Like Me is a crowd pleasing encore as well as a fitting finale. From Glenn Miller to Top Cat, there’s something in the set for both the jazz veteran and virgin.
I managed to catch up with three of the Gargoyles later that week. Elsa Field, Sam Galler and current musical director Caroline Hall answered a few of my questions about their Edinburgh Fringe run, the Gargs’ future, and the possibility of a music video.
Check out the interview below.
Amongst the talk of the recent Edinburgh Fringe festival, it is important not to forget the International Festival: starting a week after the Fringe with a three week run, the festival is known for larger scale shows, in contrast to the backstreet venues that characterise the Fringe.
Back to Back Theatre’s production of Ganesh Versus the Third Reich is a particularly poignant, controversial and moving piece at this year’s International Festival. The company is based in Australia and is made up of actors with intellectual disabilities.
The play follows the Hindu God Ganesh in his attempt to reclaim the swastika (originally based on a Hindu symbol for wellbeing) from Hitler, making the journey from India to Germany. Along the way he befriends a boy who is Jewish and disabled, a prime victim of Hitler’s regime.
It is beautifully staged with a bare stage turned into layered forests and skies of scattered stars, using curtains of plastic sheets which are drawn across the stage. The actors stand between these layers of plastic, the lighting creating an ethereal atmosphere.
It is presented as a play within a play, so that this ethereal lighting stands at odds with the rehearsal room. Here the director is the only actor without an intellectual disability, leading to a sinister moment when he turns upon another member of the cast because he is unable to communicate successfully with him.
The rehearsal process is perhaps the more provocative counterpart, when the director demands of the audience why we have come to see these disabled actors, if not for a voyeuristic curiosity directed towards people who are different to us. It is a brave piece, addressing intellectual disabilities and the Holocaust simultaneously, as well as commenting upon the process of creating a piece of theatre.
At times it is funny, at times it is devastating. Most moving is the final image of Mark Deans hidden beneath a table in a game of hide and seek with the director. As the director walks away, footsteps fading, still half-heartedly calling Mark’s name, Mark is left on stage waiting, excited to be found.
A chance to see theatre from companies across the globe, the International festival is not to be missed, and Ganesh versus the Third Reich is a thought-provoking highlight.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until the end of the month
Summarise REPLAY in one sentence.
The play is the confession by a lonely music teacher of her intense attachment to a student, but this confession is highly stage-managed to the extent we can never be sure of the nature of the ‘relationship’.
In what ways will the experience of performing REPLAY at the Fringe be different from when you performed it in Oxford?
Oxford of course has a strong drama scene but nothing to compare in size and buzz to the massive theatre community now descended on Edinburgh. It’s a really thrilling, fun atmosphere. Lots and lots of competition for audiences — though hopefully a fair amount of collaboration between companies too! The most significant thing for an actor here I suppose is the necessary stamina. Performing 26 performances is no easy task. With only 5 minutes generally for get-in (compared to at least 30 at the BT), it’s really fast-paced and you have to be on the ball. And then there’s flyering, technique for which you have to pick up as you go along. We’re really finding it invaluable training for learning how to market yourself as a performer (or writer, whichever it may be).
What were your influences in writing REPLAY?
I’ve always wanted to write and have always written bits and pieces, but I was determined to write something whole. I suppose I chose to write for the stage because I was eager to work quite collaboratively on this – writing is a very solitary game – and drama certainly gives you a lot of scope for working on writing in a company and making it as good as it can be. Actual influences are multiple but no single one overwhelmingly significant. I am a Woolf fan so her prose has definitely influenced my writing in terms of its intense interiority, but in terms of content there’s definitely a hint of James’s The Turn of The Screw about REPLAY. At the moment, the desire of an older person towards a younger is very topical and of course controversial, and this is certainly influencing how we’re talking about the show with people, and it gives another context in which an audience might respond to us.
What have you enjoyed most about being a part of REPLAY?
We’ve all loved working in such an organic way and it has been a collaborative process in which we’re constantly (even now we’re into the run!!) honing the writing, the ideas, the staging. And this ‘collaborativeness’ is particularly important when you’re presenting a piece involving a chorus which is virtually always onstage. Since the Oxford run (and before in the very first stages of the project), the script has gone through numerous subtle edits allowing to see a whole host of new things in the text. The play has been a veritable leopard always changing its spots.
What challenges have you come up against in the rehearsal process?
I suppose the biggest challenge has been working out the role of the chorus. We wanted to do something experimental here, so that we’re neither Greek tragic chorus nor highly choreographed Noh Theatre nor naturalistic ‘players’ to be drawn on scene to scene. All roles save for Freya, the protagonist, are represented by the chorus who move fluidly out of naturalistic characters to more abstract symbolic figures. Some characters we chose to represent through multiple as-if-disembodied voices and others through one voice but multiple bodies.
Why should people see the show?
People should see the show for a quirky script that goes beyond the slightly clichéd idea of a teacher-pupil relationship to explore the psychological effects of loneliness, the unreliability of desire and memory, fictionality, how one goes about telling a secret, the need for family — Freya tells of (and most probably fictionalises) the death of the pupil’s sister to suggest he needs her as a surrogate (twisted, I know!). Also on the topic of quirkiness, you should see the show for the crucial role a Victorian hip-bath plays throughout — and for a rather juicy scene involving a highly seductive sandwich!
What else are you looking forward to seeing at the Fringe?
I’m looking forward to seeing lots of comedy – there’s so much brilliant (and often free) comedy here that you’re spoilt for choice. The English student in me wants to see the more bizarre literary mash-ups on offer – a play hybridising T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and Chekhov’s Three Sisters is piquing my curiosity. The Alchemist, Dolls of New Albion and Lysistrata, all Oxford-exports, will all be compelling I’m sure!
REPLAY runs from 31st July to 25th August at C Cubed in Edinburgh
A hugely popular phenomenon in the US, the university a cappella craze has spent the last decade steadily spreading across the UK. Glee helped to boost it; so did 2012 film Pitch Perfect – and it seems now that the genre has reached its peak. Known for an inexplicable level of competitiveness for such a light-hearted craft, the UK scene is at its biggest here in Oxford, with seven full-sized, and very popular, a cappella groups.
Out of the Blue is the most successful group in the city; all-male and relentlessly serious about their professionalism, they performed at the Edinburgh Fringe this year to a 500-capacity venue. Also at Edinburgh this year were the mixed-gender jazz-specific Gargoyles; the The Alternotives, Oxford’s oldest group; and the all-female In The Pink. In The Pink’s fellow female group, The Oxford Belles, weren’t up there this year, but have been in previous years. The Ultrasounds, Oxford only all-male all-medic group, always perform in scrubs and are, by their own admission, “Oxford’s most amateurish a cappella group”; and there is Resound, a new ‘supergroup’ (as one singer described it to me) formed by an ex-member of the Gargoyles and Out of the Blue, and made up of hand-picked voices from across Oxford. Resound hasn’t made any music yet, so I can’t comment on its alleged superiority.
Before approaching any groups for interview, I asked some friends what they would want to ask Oxford’s a cappella groups if they were me. “Do they take it seriously?” asked one, and another said “Why is doing a song written for instruments with your voices better than doing it with instruments?”. Most abruptly: “What’s the point?”
All seven groups were asked a set of questions, hoping to shed some light on the murky world of 4-part harmony pop singing. Is the world of a cappella a serious place? Why do they do it? And how friendly is the competition? Hack-like stirring aside, there are also some innocuously interesting questions which you’ll hopefully find informative. Interviews over, are these groups being ironic? I’m still not really sure. Everybody got very evasive when asked about it – almost as evasive as they were when asked to comment on each other. Anyway they’re probably all very good friends and take themselves just the right amount of seriously. To be fair to them, even if they don’t, they all sound pretty great.
Let’s begin with the basics. What’s the most exciting thing about a cappella?
ALTERNOTIVES The feeling you get when you really nail an arrangement. Like when everyone’s tuning is spot on and it sounds kind of sexy.
BELLES How enthusiastic people get about it. It’s really exciting to be involved in something both performers and audience find so intriguing.
IN THE PINK All the male fans throwing themselves at us.
ULTRASOUNDS Being able to mash up Beethoven’s 5th and Ylvis’s seminal ‘The Fox’ (What Does the Fox Say?). Watch this space.
What’s the most exciting thing about your group?
ALTS My tagline at the Freshers’ fair stall was ‘Alts, an a cappella group for people who don’t necessarily like a cappella.’ I know that sounds a bit bizarre but what I mean is that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s really not like Glee. I swear.
GARGOYLES Bringing a new genre to audiences who don’t necessarily have a notion of what jazz is or sounds like.
ITP Definitely our crew-date sconces. Wink wink.
ULTRASOUNDS That we are all CRB checked and available for children’s parties.
[caption id="attachment_46246" align="alignnone" width="614"] Alts, an a cappella group for people who don’t necessarily like a cappella[/caption]
What’s the Oxford a cappella scene like in comparison to other places?
ALTS Jam-packed. I have no idea how such a small city can have seven a cappella groups, but it’s quite fun; we’re all good friends… most of the time.
GARGOYLES In comparison to USA universities, it’s really very small – at Yale there are 13 a cappella groups.
ITP Cut-throat, dog-eat-dog, full of people who will stop at nothing to have the last ‘dum’.
ULTRASOUNDS Probably better than most of the DRC and Mogadishu. Probably worse than New York and California.
Do you think you are the best group in Oxford?
GARGOYLES It’s very difficult to compare the groups when we’re all singing such different repertoire.
BELLES It’s not really that fair to compare the groups with each other as each are so different.
OOTB I’d say we’re in the top 1.
[caption id="attachment_46226" align="alignnone" width="538"] Out of the Blue at Edinburgh: ‘I’d say we’re in the top 1′[/caption]
If you could be one other group in Oxford, which group would you want to be?
ULTRASOUNDS Ideally the female half of The Alternotives.
RESOUND The Alternotives, they’re really fun.
OOTB The Oxford Belles or In the Pink purely on account of sass.
ITP Out Of The Blue. I’ve heard they have great ties with this super-fun group called In The Pink.
If you had to be one other group in Oxford, which group would you least like to be?
RESOUND The Ultrasounds, they’d all be cleverer than us!
ITP The Ultrasounds. Those scrubs would do nothing for us, darling.
ULTRASOUNDS Homeless people. Conditions really are quite shocking for people with no fixed abode in Oxford, especially at this time of year. Please consider donating to a local homeless charity.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="614"] Tasteful jokes and CRB checks: The Ultrasounds at Leefest, where they were mistaken for Out of the Blue[/caption]
What are the benefits of being all-male/ all-female/ mixed-gender?
BELLES (all-female) Sometimes it’s fun to be girly! I also think it encourages people to stretch themselves vocally, to prove that we can be as loud and have as big ranges as mixed or male groups – which we achieve. Obviously.
OOTB (all-male) The ‘blend’ is much better with just male voices (no voice sticks out). All-female groups suffer from a lack of bass, and can’t produce as full a sound as a guys’ group.
GARGOYLES (mixed-gender): Sexual tension between members.
Do you fight over who gets to sing what?
BELLES No! It’s all done very diplomatically.
RESOUND No, I decide: it’s a dictatorship.
ITP Definitely not – this is not a democracy.
ULTRASOUNDS We have frequent scuffles with In the Pink about who gets to cover the latest song about strong independent women.
OOTB The soloist of a song is always a coveted position, but we always have enough variation in repertoire so that everyone has a chance to have a solo that suits their range and the style of their voice. Last year we were incredibly proud of producing our album ‘Blueprints’, in which all fourteen of us had a solo. I think that this is another unique attribute of Out of the Blue.
How do you arrange your songs?
ITP Generally start simple, with the clearest or most stand-out bits from the original song – then keep polishing with anything that sounds good, maybe bits from other songs, or anything really – this is when the creativity truly comes in.
ULTRASOUNDS Usually alphabetically.
How do you choose which songs to arrange?
BELLES A definite part of our image is singing songs that everyone will recognise and can jam out to, but if someone’s got an arrangement for something they love, we’ll sing it!
OOTB We always try and sing a range of genres so that everyone amongst our highly varied audience will recognise something.
ULTRASOUNDS We survey our target market of teenage girls to see what they would like to hear. Or just see what Out of the Blue did last year.
[caption id="attachment_46229" align="alignnone" width="445"] A Belle, jamming out[/caption]
Is beatboxing all the way through a song boring?
BELLES No, it isn’t; not only is it fun to play around with different beats at different parts of the song to see how everyone reacts, it’s a great ab workout.
GARGOYLES It depends on the style, but it’s never as interesting as singing.
How far is your tongue in your cheek? Please give answer in mm(length of tongue in cheek)/mm(length of tongue total) and supplement your figure with a written explanation.
RESOUND 30/120. [ed: these guys have long tongues] We’re not really going for full cheesiness so I guess our tongues aren’t that far in our cheeks.
OOTB I would say that we’re looking at an average of a solid 5mm. Our Beyonce choreography is 100% genuine.
ALTS Our tongues are flexible, although they are normally at least some way ‘in cheek’, as we don’t approve of the Miley Cyrus look.
ULTRASOUNDS How long is a piece of string?
ITP 30/30 – like, did you see what we’re called? [ed: these ladies have really short tongues]
BELLES 40/80mm. We are a 50/50, fair kinda group, with average sized tongues. We’d rather keep the readers guessing as to whether we’re being ironic are or not.
GARGOYLES sent in a picture of a member of their group with his tongue stuck out, not even in his cheek.
[caption id="attachment_46230" align="alignnone" width="303"] A member of the Gargoyles demonstrates how far his tongue is in his cheek[/caption]
How ironic do you think the other groups in Oxford are on a scale of 1-10?
ITP You’d definitely have to ask them. Oxford a cappella is a close-knit community, where we try not to speculate on each other’s levels of irony.
BELLES 10/10, but secretly we’re all just wishing we were in ‘Pitch Perfect’.
GARGOYLES Is there some link between a cappella and irony that I’ve just never noticed before?
But seriously now, how important is a cappella on a scale of 1-10? Where 1 is, like, what your facebook friends had for lunch, and 10 is finding a cure for cancer?
BELLES 6/10: It’s not going to save lives but it enhances them, definitely. I’d say that it does hold a special place in people’s hearts. Even if they won’t admit it.
OOTB 8/10: I don’t think that a cappella is essential – but it definitely cheers people up and I think that this is important.
ULTRASOUNDS 8/10: As people who cure cancer every day, sometimes more than once a day, we can say with confidence that a cappella is about an 8.
[caption id="attachment_46235" align="alignnone" width="576"] In The Pink: enhancing lives since 2003[/caption]
And… What plans are in the pipeline for this year?
RESOUND Hopefully a CD, a ball or two in the summer and making sure the group continues on after us.
ALTS A tour to America and possibly a new album. Then there’s the edgily named “VFUK” (Voice Festival UK) at some point in the spring.
ITP It’s our tenth year at the Edinburgh Fringe, and we’ll also be recording and releasing another album!
GARGOYLES A lot of gigs in Oxford; recording our 12th album, a two week tour to Asia and returning to the Edinburgh Fringe for the 9th consecutive year.
BELLES A Christmas concert, gigs around Oxford, recording new singles and music videos, new outfits, and, hopefully, a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe.
OOTB A UK tour at Christmas, a USA West Coast tour in Easter, and a European extravaganza in summer! We’ll have our traditional introductory G&Ds gig in 5th week, and a full concert at the Union in 8th week.
ULTRASOUNDS We’ve been booked for Wilderness Festival 2014.
PHOTOS / Facebook
Strolling up Jowett’s Walk, bound for a preview of the upcoming Playhouse take on The Producers, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of dread. Previews are never the full shebang; nine times out of ten they’re poorly executed, and everything can feel a bit too rough-and-ready. And so, in discovering that the Michael Pilch Studio has this ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ thing going on, I wasn’t getting my hopes up.
If you treat humour like a temple, or find Neil Patrick Harris tolerable, then its unlikely you’ve come across Mel Brooke’s shits and giggles masterpiece. Ironically turned into a bestselling Broadway musical, The Producers tells the tale of two desperate bozos in the Big Apple with the genius plan of scamming their investors by staging the worst show on Earth. Hilarious stereotypes come and go. Expect swastikas and gay men galore.
When you hear Oxford’s going to give slapstick a go, it’s hard not to wince. My most recent experience of Oxford comedy was up at the Edinburgh Fringe, a musical on Rawls’ Theory of Justice: far too stupid to follow anything, I feigned laughter, referring continuously to the PPE postgrad beside me. Oxford has a knack for taking itself too seriously – would my favourite farce be butchered by kids who find functionalism funny?
Fear not! The Producers is in fact in very good hands. Director Illias Thoms emphasised his vision to stage this comedy classic as “an escape” from the humdrum mechanics of intellectual theatre. Fortunately, he’s not precious either, and if anything has tweaked the script to make things more gauche.
Leading cast member Jack Herlihy, starring as larger-than-life schmuck Max Bialystock, deserves a big shout. He captures all that wheeler-dealer charm perfectly, and his Carry On Klutz rapport with fellow lead Stephen Hyde had me in stiches. Hyde, who has his whiney, nasaly, nerdy character down to a T, manages to bring out all the original Gene Wilder neuroses, whilst Philip Rigley, playing Hitler afficianado Franz Liebkind, obviously took the Basil Fawlty master-class on flamboyant Nazism.
All Broadway musicals are a feast for the eyes. It follows then that the forte of The Producers, written as a parody of the glitz and glam of Broadway, is the visual aspect; however, the Pilch Studio preview couldn’t permit much on this front. I was able to get to grips with odd song and dance: choreographically, the cast were phenomenally sharp, with seamless switches from Horah to jazz hands. Diverse and dynamic, the showtune numbers were a real treat.
My feeling, especially given that this show has had the largest budget in Oxford student production history with which to play around, is that the set will be fabulous. I am put at ease when Thoms assures me that everything from the hustle and bustle of New Yawk to 1930s moody lighting, reminiscent of Riefenstahl, has been meticulously designed. Equally, whilst the keyboard in the preview sufficed, the audience at the Oxford Playhouse have a 28-strong Big Band orchestra to look forward to. All in all, I am wholly convinced that this farce will be very far from a flop.
The Producers is showing at the Oxford Playhouse from 30th October-2nd November (3rd week). Tickets are available here.
PHOTO/ Kjetil Bjørnsrud
A common theme of many shows at this year’s Edinburgh Festival was the difficulties of coming to terms with human acts of outrageous violence. While Yael Farber’s Nirbhaya exposed abuse of women in India and Sean McCafferty’s Quietly confronted the deep-set hostilities still remaining in Northern Ireland, the subject matter of David Greig’s new play, The Events, is the aftermath of a shooting massacre. While clearly drawing on the 2011 Anders Breivik mass murder in Norway, Greig sets his event disturbingly closer to home: the victims are members of a church-led community choir for the vulnerable on the East coast of Scotland. The play focuses on the emotional, spiritual and ethical struggles of one survivor, Claire, the choir leader and parish priest. With a cast of only two, accompanied by a different local choir every night, the play expresses the human need to understand the reasons behind any atrocity.
However, it also shows that all too often human inflicted suffering lies beyond the realm of the comprehensible. Over the course of a continuous 90 minutes, we see this quest to understand the killer’s reasons wrack Claire, played superbly by Neve McIntosh. She reveals to the audience the full range of her character’s competing emotions: rage, confusion, frustration and guilt. Mackintosh’s performance is particularly compelling for the way it marries an almost selfish obsession together with a maintained, genuine commitment to her community and to those who died.
Greig raises many possible reasons for the killer’s homicidal desires: parental abuse, bullying, repressed sexuality, or extremist ideology. However, as Claire finds out to her frustration, whilst he may have had some experience of all of these, none were severe enough to mitigate his crime. We certainly aren’t allowed the comfortable let-out of mental illness – unless one counts “mass shooting syndrome”. Instead, we are left, together with Claire, questioning the possibility of evil.
Rudi Dharmalingam is particularly impressive in his performance as the killer, ‘the Boy’. In the long-awaited dialogue between him and Claire, he dispels ideas in the audience’s mind of evil, while still unsettling us with the disassociated communication of the outsider. In accordance with Greig’s script Dharmalingam also plays almost all other characters other than Claire. The breadth of discussion with these characters is wide but it can, perhaps because of Dharmalingam’s insufficiently differentiated characterisation, make the storyline quite difficult to follow. This is exacerbated by an almost chaotic progression of scenes. However, the fragmented narrative does successfully convey a sense of Claire’s own fractured post-traumatic mind-set.
In addition to beautiful music, the choir provide the background and continuing community against which Claire’s story is set. It is sometimes difficult to gauge which community they represent at any given moment – whether that of the dead choir members, of fellow survivors likes Claire, or the wider community, including ourselves. However, their non-professional status and local specificity not only gives the production a chilling feeling of reality, but also serve as a reminder that such atrocities can happen anywhere.
This play in its unusual non-naturalistic telling of the effects of a tragic event explores intense psychological and philosophical questions about evil, suffering and forgiveness. As a play of ideas, rather than one driven by character or plot, The Events asks searching questions: should we ever stop trying to understand that which is opposed to us, and instead just class it as evil?
After a sell-out run at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and a successful national tour,The Events is opening at the Young Vic Theatre on 9th October. Tickets are available from the Young Vic’s website.
PHOTO/ Wikipedia Commons