Nightmare Songs was jointly commissioned by Makin Projects and Queen's Hall Arts Centre, Hexham, and was first performed at Queen's Hall, Hexham, on April 11 2007.
A play by Jeff Clarke
With songs by Gilbert and Sullivan
The patter man SIMON BUTTERISS
The musician JEFF CLARKE
A theatrical boarding house in Preston, Lancashire. 1942
The characters in the play, and all those referred to, are entirely fictional (with the exception of Martyn Green and Rupert D’Oyly Carte).
This production is dedicated to all those performers who could have been stars, but, through no fault of their own, never were.
If You Wish The World To Advance
When George Grossmith had a dodgy oyster at lunch during the first run of The Mikado in 1885 and his understudy, Eric Lewis, replaced him at short notice, Lewis nevertheless managed to get his performance reviewed by the national press and have his photograph taken in Ko-Ko’s costume for distribution as a commercial cigarette card.
Understudying needn’t, as we know from Joseph L Mankiewicz’s marvellous1950 film, All About Eve, be a passive pursuit but, ironically, Eric Lewis’ ambitious nature was the very thing that prevented him from eventually taking over the patter roles. Grossmith was hardly ever ‘off’ and The Mikado’s run was a long one. Gilbert and Sullivan evidently had no plans to write roles for so reliable (poisonous word) an understudy, so Lewis left the company at the end of the run. The next piece, Ruddigore, had barely opened when Grossmith was taken seriously ill and his new understudy, Henry Lytton, went on for a substantial run of performances. Lytton ultimately went on to inherit the patter roles, stayed with the company for half a century, was knighted and became a national treasure.
Even though the D’Oyly Carte no longer has a monopoly on the repertoire, it is still only a comparatively small handful of us who play these roles and the tradition of passing the mantle to the understudy died with the old company. The idea that an understudy is suffi ciently devoted to the pieces to be happy to watch, wait and admire the principal, may be a romantic one (and I’ve been berated by at least one of my understudies for standing in the way of his success), but when, still a student, I bamboozled my way into the auditions for the fi rst West End production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane and, six gruelling recalls later, was cast in the chorus (with a few precious solo lines) and as understudy to Tobias, I thought I’d gone to heaven.
I adored Michael Staniforth’s performance as Tobias while being absolutely certain, with the arrogance of youth, that I could sing it better - even though I simultaneously recognised that the way he sang it enhanced the astonishing vulnerability with which he played the role. When, one day early on in the run, the company manager came into the men’s chorus dressing room at the fi fteen minute call to tell me Michael hadn’t arrived and that I was ‘on’, I vividly remember the confused paralysis of excitement and terror that I felt. When I was dressed, miked up and ready to go on at the beginners’ call, Michael arrived, having been stuck on a train and, with characteristic generosity, said I must go on. Michael having arrived, I wouldn’t have dreamed of playing his role, but I was also aware that my relief exceeded my disappointment and was extremely glad to give him back his costume and retreat to the safety of mine.
I daresay that if I were still waiting to go on, all these years later, I might be a little less starry-eyed and considerably more lemon-lipped but, luckily for me, Ned Sherrin heard me sing Tobias’ song at a party and cast me as Ko-Ko in his Metropolitan Mikado.
Eric Lewis, incidentally, went on to have an extremely distinguished career in plays and musical comedies but, as any diehard Savoyard will tell you, that can have been no substitute for the real thing.