Interview with the cast of Barbershopera, the Three Musketeers, and a review of the show at the Drum, Theatre Royal – 15/12/2012

From day one, the point of this blog was to celebrate my love of the eclecticism within music and maybe open a few minds and ears to something a bit different. Barbershopera are something very different but also something very, very good. Although they perform their shows within a theatre and go under the guise of musical theatre, the songwriting ability and the vocal talent possessed by the four folk behind Barbershopera would be impressive in any arena. Thanks to a bit of cheeky journalistic opportunism on my part, I managed to arrange a brief chat with the four vocally talented members of Barbershopera before one of their performances of the new show, the Three Muskateers, at the Drum, Theatre Royal, Plymouth.

The Barbershopera crew relaxing in the Theatre Royal bar
I sit down with all four members in the bar and their camaraderie is immediately obvious for all to see. Right to left (see photo) I am chatting with long serving members Lara Stubbs and Pete Sorel-Cameron as well as new additions Tim Sutton and Minal Patel. Now, these four have absolutely no connection with Plymouth but the Barbershopera crew are now on their third Drum Theatre Christmas residency and the first question I have to ask is, well, why? Why Plymouth? Why Christmas? Pete kicks us off, “The Theatre Royal is really supportive and is massive as far as theatres in the Southwest go. Cornwall has some really nice theatres but nothing on the scale of the Theatre Royal. The first time we played they just offered us the chance to do our Christmas show here and we really enjoyed ourselves so that’s why we keep coming back. It’s a nice way to build up to Christmas too. We’re staying in a new area this year out at Devil’s Point which is quite close to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall so we’re hoping to get some nice lunch tomorrow”. Lara is keen to jump on the Plymouth love-in too, “The Drum has a fantastic reputation with new writing and new plays so it’s great to be involved and to be invited back”. The traditional image for barbershop music is four chaps in straw boaters with red waist-coats and waxed moustaches and one of them has a voice like Brian Blessed. Therefore, you might expect a certain kind of audience but the average audience for a Barbershopera show literally covers that 8 to 80 spectrum that advertisers seem to love so just how have these guys managed to make their appeal so broad? Wearing a rakish new hat, Tim is keen to explain, “I think this is a show which has intelligent humour, hopefully quite contemporary humour and a lot of it is modelled on and influenced by contemporary comic style. So there are lots of different levels for lots of different people who might want to come along. Also, a lot of people appreciate the effort that’s gone in to the show musically”. Lara is perhaps the calm, decisive ‘Spice’ of the Barbershopera clan,”It’s actually really lovely to have such a wide spectrum of audience because it sort of, oh God this is going to sound really cheesy, it sort of brings everyone together”! “There are no fans we actively discourage”, quips Pete, clearly the livewire of the group both on and off stage. “Every show is different. This show, just to warn you, contains some French. So there are some people who really dig on the really niche GCSE French jokes while some people really like some of our more bawdy gags and some like the more subtle, political jokes. So depending on the age or the taste of the audience we can have a completely different show every night which, as a performer, is amazing.” Tim “For instance, last night we had 50 members of a Plymouth ladies barbershop choir who come because they love the style and the harmonies”.

You're for the Barber-chop-era.....sorry
Anyone going to Barbershopera show will realise after about 10 minutes that these guys never stop moving or singing for the entire show and with no microphones, no stage breaks and sparse props they really have to sell the story through their talent and a few wigs. The energy and commitment to performance that they put in requires an awful lot of stamina so surely they have a rigorous, Rocky-esque training regime, yes? No. “Punching meat is pretty much all we do”, deadpans Pete, smiling wryly from under his moustache. Minal Patel speaks up for the first time,”We don’t really do anything. There’s a term that we use called show fit and that’s what we have to be. We have two weeks of rehearsals which is nothing, especially for a show like this and especially for me as this is my first professional job since leaving drama school. I was used to having 4 or 5 weeks to rehearse for a part in a musical and then suddenly you have 2 weeks to prepare for a show where you’re doing the acting, the singing and all of the musical elements. So you just go past a level of being human and you work such long hours because you just have to do it right. There’s no way I can avoid the work or side step it because once you’re on the stage there’s no getting away from it, you have to perform”. Cheeky Pete butts in again, “The show keeps you fit as well. It’s basically an hour and a half of sweating with some funny stuff thrown in as well of course. It’s more exciting than just watching us sweat. I don’t know whether the dancers from the panto would say that we have a hard job though. We just watched the panto today and they work pretty hard but then they get time off stage which we don’t and their costumes are better than ours”.

Being funny night after night is often  said to be something that turns comedians in to bitter, morose recluses so I’m keen to know what keeps the show fresh for these guys after a 10 date tour followed by a long residency. “During rehearsals I always go through a stage of thinking that the material is hilarious and really worrying that I won’t make it through a show”, admits Lara, “but then it just becomes....not so much dead as just another line. Then, to bring it to life again, you have to get it in front of an audience so that you can almost remember where the jokes are. Every night people laugh in different places which also gives everything more freshness”. Tim,“There is one bit that really makes me laugh and in the first show that we did in the Midlands I was laughing too much and I couldn’t sing the line. So I have to remind myself that it’s not my job to laugh but to deliver the laughs and let the audience take care of the rest.”

Listen With Monger is a music blog so I had to get to the music question sooner or later. Although barbershop is the underpinning style of the shows, the quartet do work in a lot of different styles from R’n’B and Pop right through to Opera and Doowop. But away from the stage, what really gets their heads a’bobbing and their toes a’tapping? Pete suddenly turns serious (I’m scared), “Barbershop is quite a static genre really, there aren’t really many contours of emotion. It’s either quite cheerful or quite mournful all the way through. So me, Rob [Castell, writer and sometime performer] and Tom [Sadler, writer] were at Uni together and sang a lot of close harmonies, because we were really cool, and thought it would be really funny to write an opera in the barbershop style which has evolved in to this group. There isn’t a lot of pure barbershop in the show now but we had to play around with it to fit in with the humour”. That’s all very well, Pete, what about after the show? What do you kick back with after the after party? “We’re all going to be doing a bit of karaoke later actually”! Lara explains her background, “I’d always sung lots of Soul, Pop and Rock as well as songs from musicals but never any barbershop. Lots of close harmony stuff but nothing like this.” Pete’s moustache twitches again, “I’m an Indie kid. I like to sing the brand of Indie Folk that is terribly in right now. I am a big fan of playing my guitar and singing songs that people can’t dance to.” Tim, “I studied classical music at University and am a composer as well as an actor so a lot of the time I’m writing for choir or opera with a variety of arrangements.” “Musical theatre is my passion,” Minal humbly admits,” but there are so many styles within musical theatre that saying that isn’t as limiting as it perhaps used to be. That variety makes me want to sing.”

As the bar is filling up with children carrying the stuffed carcass of Basil Brush (it’s a panto thing I later find out, not some sort of fox hunting ritual), there is only time for one more question. So what of the future? Will we be seeing Barbershopera on our television any time soon? “It would be nice to do some TV. We are in talks and something is bubbling away but nothing is confirmed just yet,” teases Lara. “We are airing on Radio 4 on Christmas Eve at 2.15pm which is going to be great, really excited about that. We’re also going to try working on our online presence more because our Youtube music videos have gone down really well, they are great fun to make and it’s a really good way to reach loads and loads of people.” Does this mean a follow up to the Will and Kate video from last year (see above), possibly featuring a royal baby? “Possibly, you’ll have to watch this space....”!! That, people, is as close to an exclusive as we’ve had on this here blog!

Without further ado, the quartet make their way backstage to prepare for the show and, after a swift pint, I make my way in to the theatre to await the show, The Three Musketeers. As the lights go down, four figures in white, puffy shirts slide across the stage. They tell the story of the famous Christmas Pudding embargo placed on the French town of Pissypooville (there’s that bawdyness) and one young girl’s quest to infiltrate and eventually win over the infamous Three Musketeers. This is done through the medium of song, naturally, some evocative dancing and various moments of cross dressing.  The characters number an extremely camp Duke of Buckinghamshire (Sutton), the evil Cardinal Richtea (Stubbs), a strangely giddy M’Lady (Patel) and a golden plum obsessed King Louis XIII (Sorel-Cameron). All four cast members change character seamlessly and switch between languages, accents and wigs like they were born to the stage. The energy and fun coming from the stage is infectious whilst the humour is superbly timed and extremely well observed – the moment that the French consider replacing the Christmas pudding with their own, substandard delicacies at the ball is wonderfully ironic and beautifully performed. By the end of the show, the cast are indeed sweating (there’s that training paying off) but they are also beaming as are the audience. The climax of the show is a medley of reworked Christmas favourites, from carols to Aled Jones, and some audience participation that manages to get everyone involved without the usual, British reserve. These are a talented bunch and after seeing them live again I’m glad I didn’t get to ask the one question that I had to leave out because of the crowds in the bar; would you ever take your act on to Britain’s Got Talent? Britain has got talent but we don’t need a text vote to prove it, just get out there and find it for yourself.

More information:

Check out Barbershopera’s the Barber of Shavingham as Radio 4’s play of the day on Christmas Eve at 2.15pm