Brighton Year-Round 2023
A gentle tribute to singing, its people and touching disabilities that affect us all (in this case one in seven), it’s a major sixth in Siobhan Nicholas’ own augmented chord of plays. If you’re attracted by any of the themes, it’s a must-see, but it’s worth anyone’s 90 minutes.
Directed by Sian Webber, Dramaturgy Chris Hannan, Set and Costume Design Ellen Cairns, Sound and Lighting Design Paul Phillips, Filmmakers Eve Marie Johnson, Mark Collicott, singing Coach Mary Hammond, Production Manager Paul Phillips, Production and Press Photos Mark Collicott, Rehearsal Photos Damian Evans.
Cast on Zoom and Film Footage: John Ramm (John Allwood), The Vicar (David Fielder), Deodora (Joe Ramm), Taxi Driver (Vince Cousins). Norman’s Choir: Julia Lynn, Diane Sherlock, Andrew Branch, John Caddie, Colin Morgan.
Production Mentoring and Support Judith Hibberd, Press and DSM Claire Smith, Admin Support Mark Bryant, Graphics Robert Littleford.
Thanks to Helen Jewell, Laura Scobie and Mark Gordon of The Old Market, Jane Corry at Nordern Farm Centre for the Arts, David Fielder, Richard Barnes at Cathedral Music, Barbara Habberjam, Jack Lynn, Chris Cage, Polly Irvin, Jude Arnup, Malcolm Rennie, Mary Alice Stack, Johnny Worthy, John Vidal, Rupert Rowbotham, Vicky Nangle.
Supported by Art Council England & The Unity Theatre Trust
Touring to Nordern Farm Centre for the Arts. Consult website for further dates.
Educating Niamh? If there’s the power of goodbye in Siobhan Nicholas’ Goodbye Jolene directed by Sian Webber at The Old Market (TOM), there’s a hello too. A play of endings and beginnings, of overcoming disability and transforming thorough the power of singing, it’s one of the joys of this summer. Touring the south, it’s one you’ll need to pin down, using the Take the Space company website. But this being a Nicholas play, easily worth it.
Set in very recent times, inspired by lockdown and zoom choir rehearsals, it’s a departure too. Nicholas is known for a few powerful plays, usually historical: Sam and I (2005, about Elizabeth Pepys) Dolce Via (2009, about dream-catchers and filmmaker Fellini in the 1950s), Hanging Hooke (2007, 2010 Chichester Minerva) about Newton’s rival scientist; Stella (2012) about astronomer/singer Caroline Herschel, oscillating between the late 18th century and Arab Spring; White Feather Boxer (2016) about a WW1 conscientious objector, also a boxer – and coach to a young woman in the 1960s.
Goodbye Jolene though does commemorate a moment, but because it bridges lockdown to normality, it’s not dated as such works have. And its zoom element means an essential two-hander can be populated by other voices and faces; like the choir’s septet – including onstage protagonist Niamh (Siobhan Nicholas) twice integrated with the others – as onstage choirmaster Norman (Chris Barnes) conducts them all.
Aided by singing coach Mary Hammond, they give excerpts from Spanish composer Victoria and others too, rather beautifully: Julia Lynn, Diane Sherlock, Andrew Branch, John Caddie, Colin Morgan. It’s an essential jump-off for the music that evolves through the play.
It’s an adroitly-managed synchronisation, used frequently throughout this video-rich play. There’s video footage throughout, shot by filmmakers Eve Marie Johnson and Mark Collicott, depicting rail journeys across the country, meetings with Vicar (David Fielder) and a host of other well-known actors: fleeting, evocative, underpinned by music. And there’s three appearances by tea-drinking angels? Enough. You’ll see.
Ellen Cairns’ elegant set and costume design fit the TOM space perfectly, a prosc-arch feel where downstage-right the lectern keyboard and one might put it Norman’s place sprouts briefcases and scores. And little else, as the large-scale video-projection shifts scenes, with rapid-costume changes, some you won’t quite believe. With Paul Phillips’ sound and often subtly spectacular lighting design there’s elegance and dispatch in this touring production.
The plot’s blissfully simple, without spoilers; surprises have to be seen. Niamh (Nicholas) is overheard picking up Victoria’s Miserere after zoom choir practice conducted in the church by Norman (Barnes). It transpires Niamh is an aspiring country-singer with a fine soprano voice.
Norman’s been pummelled by shrewd, warm-hearted if opportunistic friend and choir-member John Allwood (John Ramm) that if Norman doesn’t diversify, the choir’s dead. People are leaving, they’re down to a quintet, if that. And there’s a looming Arundel Festival they need to be in.
With this ringing in his ears Norman recruits a slightly reluctant Niamh into the choir, brushing over the fact she hasn’t got spectacles just now and needs to memorise music, which she does know.
What she can’t do though is suddenly revealed when Norman insensitively singles Niamh out in practice, asking her to read the English words below in her copy. Her Fleabag-worthy expletive is one of two such moments, and the choir, sympathetic, seeing more than Norman, boycott him. Full of apologies, Norman gets everything on a cantus firmus as Niamh seeks out library help in literacy, a promise she made to her Rumanian friend. She can write a letter.
Meanwhile the choir can look forward to that competition. But, John notes, there’s a USP here, an opportunity for publicity, a bit like that moment in Fisherman’s Friends: but does everyone want it, do they even know? And there’s another competition Niamh wants to attend: one for herself as country-singer in the north-west.
Norman writes the song. Appropriate for sadness, even tragedy, D minor’s Niamh’s key, Norman says. It’s a fine original song, which with a folksong and an end-title classic will have you curl up with feel-good.
One of the joys of this plays is the way Nicholas and Barnes use their singing voices too. This play has both enormous heart and elegance, a balance that only comes with dramatic gifts honed over many years and productions. It avoids the sentimental, but not true sentiment.
A gentle tribute to singing, its people and touching disabilities that affect us all (in this case one in seven), it’s a major sixth in Nicholas’ own augmented chord of plays. If you’re attracted by any of the themes, it’s a must-see, but it’s worth anyone’s 90 minutes.