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Nottingham Playhouse's ambitious new play 'Charlie Peace: His Amazing Life and Astounding Legend' uses music of the era to evoke the time and place of a Victorian criminal and legend. Erik Petersen spoke to composer and musical director Jonathan Girling I've heard Charlie Peace described as a play with music in it and a work that you don't think is a musical until you get into it and realise it is. How do you see it? Charlie Peace is a very musical play. Lots of plays have music in them. This play has songs and music all the way through so the music is far more than incidental. I think any play that has 23 songs in it, five brilliant actor-musicians and another three fantastic singers is probably a little more than a play with music in it.
The play features a number of found songs and popular folk songs from the era. Tell me about the process of finding and arranging them.
The songs are incredibly varied. Many of the songs have been suggested by Michael Eaton, the writer, in the script - such as Nottingham Town and Young May Moon - and have tunes we already know; I've arranged these for the scene, and for the talented singers and musicians in the play.
These are interspersed with original songs based on fragments of lyrics or words that come from the era of Charlie Peace, such as Most Cruel Murder from a 19th century Sheffield Broadsheet, that I've set as a barnstorming Music Hall song.
Watch out for Peter Duncan's Who's for a Ride as he woos the lovely Katherine and Mystic Clock that Normal Pace opens the second half with.
Do the songs in Charlie Peace drive the narrative in the way more traditional musical numbers do? How do the songs fit into the play? The songs fulfil different functions in the show. Some of the songs are proper numbers that situate us in Nottingham during the 19th century, some songs describe a scene, like the fairground in Who's for a Ride, while others like I've Been Thinking give us a glimpse of the inner world of Charlie Peace during his final incarceration in Act II.
Then there are off-the-cuff songs (like New York Gals) that Charlie uses within a scene to impress, woo or shock. The show ends with the song that started this whole project off - a lovely tune Michael's grandmother sung to him as a boy that ignited his life- long interest in the villainous Charlie Peace.
The play involves so many different elements - a large, complicated set featuring video projections, a play-within-a-play conceit, lots of physicality and, of course, your music. What's it been like working on a project with all these moving parts? The show is made up of all different types of elements - and I've loved reading your articles about the writing, the design, projection, and other elements of the show in the last couple of weeks in the Nottingham Post - and everything has to work together to make sure the story is told in as clear and engaging way as possible.
There's a fantastic chase near the end of the show from a moving train that a lot of the linking and underscore music has been based on, with a brilliant moving animation from Will Simpson. There's also some creepy, dark scenes and some fast-paced riotous moments.
Although things always get shortened and cut as we refine the show, I can also be found furiously writing a few extra bars when required. Whatever happens, [director] Giles Croft always has the final word!
How has this compared to working on a more traditional straight musical? I've never worked on a more straight musical, although I've written song-cycles, operas and large choral works. Every project has its own unique challenges, but I've loved working on Charlie Peace, and love coming to work in this beautiful city.
Charlie Peace: His Amazing Life and Astounding Legend is on at Nottingham Playhouse until October 19. Book on 0115 941 9419.
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