Described as a ‘musical in three acts’ each section of Glorious is woven around the same ‘core’ material which includes: a suite of songs performed by Rajni Shah, monologues created for the show and read out by six local speakers, a ‘set’ that consists of various chairs, microphones and flowers and Shah’s monumental costume (designed by Lucille Avecedo-Jones) that holds her immobile in the centre of the stage In each section elements are added or subtracted or the various bits are re-arranged. Chairs and flowers are moved around in different configurations; more and more sections are added to the costume; the monologues unfold a piece at a time; on each repetition the lyrics of the songs are truncated while the accompaniment expands from simple piano to dense and complex orchestration, performed by 28 musicians drawn from Off the Rails, a local music group and from first year music students at the University.
On the small scale arts council funded circuit as part of a greater trend to various modes of ‘participatory performance’ (and alongside what in Lancaster in particular appears to be a boom in ‘site specific interactive walking performances’), touring projects that draw on local residents as live performers have become increasingly common. While as a trend this all may be traced back much earlier, from perspective of a spectator at the Nuffield Theatre, it started to became noticeable about 2006 with Herman Deiphuis’s Apres J C, carrying on through Mem Morrison’s Ringside and A2’s The Future of Death in 2009, Nic Green’s Trilogy in 2010, and in 2012 a couple of months previous to Glorious, Ockham’s Razor, who recruited local singers to take part in their show When We Are Lost. While without question in the UK this development has at least in part been influenced by arts council policy, in many cases this inclusion of local volunteers can be seen as part of a commitment to exploring possibilities for a contemporary radical social and/or political theatre. As has often been the case in radical theatre in the past, these shows also often draw on popular forms (such as the musical) but deployed in conjunction with ‘experimental’ aesthetics, and this is very much the case with Glorious.
However, in this context there are several things that make Glorious distinctive, most notably the extent to which, as a show, it exists as a framework to be re-imagined and re-invented in collaboration with local volunteers and therefore the necessary lengthy run up to the show with the company based in the town. It might also be argued that rather than purely constituting ‘preparation’ or ‘rehearsal’, all of the activities that took place during this period might be understood as an ongoing ‘social’ performance, in which the show that took place in the Nuffield theatre described above is just one element.
In fact, Glorious started in Lancaster and Morecambe in 2009 when workshops took place as part of its research and development. After productions in London and elsewhere, in November 2012 the company moved to Lancaster for a month. During this period they set up a stall in the local library and shopping centre encouraging passers-by to write and receive a letter from a stranger (and receiving a cup of tea and a flower from the company), ran workshops for those who from as a result of these activities expressed an interest in writing and performing the speaking parts in the show, made contact with local artists and academics, worked with the volunteer musicians, and held two social events.
For those of us who even in a very small way participated in these ‘run up’ activities they provided opportunities for encounters with local ‘strangers’ which were sometimes delightful, sometimes funny, sometimes unexpected and always thought provoking. To this extent they very much reflected my experience of the final production.
On the night of the show, a free bus ferried people from Lancaster and Morecambe to and fro form the theatre. On the way there they were accompanied by Shah, who then made a speech in the foyer welcoming everybody to the theatre and introducing all the performers, who were mingling with the audience. Cast and audience therefore entered the theatre to take up our places at the same time. Like the ‘run up’ activities, this might be understood as a signalling a desire to create a sense of shared ‘ownership’ of an event, which in fact, constituted a celebration of ‘us’. This signified ‘us’ who live in Lancaster and Morecambe but even more specifically ‘us’ the people (performers and audience) in that theatre on that particular night. For me there was something glorious in the fact that as a piece of theatre not only was this production ‘unique’ in being re-invented through the context of this geographical place but also in being for one night only. In a sense, this added to the idea of it being a ‘community owned’ as much or more than a ‘professionally’ owned event and this mix was very much core to its charm.
In the first ‘act’ Shah introduces the songs in their full version and in their ‘original’ settings accompanied by the piano, played with skill and energy by musical director Suzi Shrubb. Possibly because this doesn’t seem to have been mentioned in reviews of earlier versions of this show in other locales, I was pleasurably surprised by the clarity, power and range of Shah’s voice. In fact I found myself thinking that she could easily have a career singing Sondheim, an idea perhaps prompted by the mix of jazz and vaguely French Impressionist influences evident in the score.
The lyrics of these songs are in the present tense and addressed to ‘you’, referring to people, places, actions and relationships in a fashion that is abstracted and poetic enough to allow them to apply to the here and now, especially when juxtaposed with the ‘local’ monologues. These told of an encounter with a burnt forest on holiday, of feelings of love, pride and exasperation for Morecambe as a place, of an unfinished sculpture and time running out for the sculptor, of love for family and friends, of ‘ten things you must know’ and of a busy but fulfilling daily routine. This latter was especially touching in its sense of gratitude for the simple pleasures and challenges of living, and a couple of these accounts contained welcome flashes of humour. Together they gave a sense of being offered a genuine glimpse into the some of the preoccupations and emotions of the people we pass everyday on the street, who might in many ways be ‘different’ to ourselves but ultimately not alien to us.
These stories also opened up possible interpretations of the significance of Shah’s sculptural costume. Starting off (in the words of performance practitioner John Fox who was sitting next to me) looking something ‘like the trunk of a pantomime tree’ in which Shah was trapped (nymph like?) this developed into something that might be a city scape and then a mountain (or volcano), with these different images overlayed on top of and continuing to show through each other.
Dedicated to idea of bringing a wide mix of very different people together in a spirit of openness and generosity and to embracing eccentricity as well as commonality, polyphony as well as harmony, this event (process and product) brimmed over with warmth and integrity. In these terms, if the monologues served as an important focus for identification, and her singing and positioning as part of a shifting sculpture rendered Shah the (remarkably, monumentally) still and calm centre of the piece, much of its energy came from the 28 strong musicians and their wild and wonderfully contrasting re- imaginings of the score. Mixing the brash, the beautiful, and the downright bonkers and led by Shrubb’s impish, balletic conducting, their music romped and rolled around the theatre irresistibley pulling us all behind them. All together now…..
Here’s to all the people here
Here’s to those that can’t be here
It’s for us right here and now
It’s for us right here and now
It is glorious
It is glorious
It is glorious
It is glorious