Interview – Dougal Irvine, composer of Teddy at the Southwark Playhouse

Rehearsals for Teddy. Rehearsals for Teddy. Dougal Irvine (composer) and Tristan Bernays (writer). Photo credit Darren Bell (7)

Composer Dougal Irvine and writer Tristan Bernays in rehearsal for Teddy at the Southwark Playhouse, London. Picture: Darren Bell

Teddy is an original piece of writing set around London’s Elephant and Castle in the 1950s. Opening tonight at the Southwark Playhouse, just a minute’s walk from the Elephant’s infamous roundabout, the piece is described as a play with an original score and new songs. The show, produced by Snapdragon Productions and Theatre Bench, is the brainchild of actor/writer Tristan Bernays and has a score provided by fellow performer/writer DOUGAL IRVINE.

Irvine has a fascinating and varied CV that encompasses the study of psychology at University of Birmingham, a further education in performance at Mountview, and a professional career in acting (he played, among others, Mark in Rent at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Manjiro in Pacific Overtures at Leicester Haymarket, and understudied Fiyero in Wicked at the Apollo Victoria). He also enjoyed a spell in training as a playwright at the Royal Court, and over recent years has turned his talents to the creation of book, lyrics and music for a number of pieces of musical theatre.

Teddy, his latest project, sees the versatile Irvine reimagining 1950s rockabilly for a modern audience, while staying true to the era’s songwriting style.

Irvine spoke to Craig Glenday prior to the show’s opening and began by attempting to describe exactly what Teddy is:

I definitely wouldn’t call it a musical, but it’s not quite a play. I think I’d describe it as a gig that happens at the same time as a play. There are songs, and that form is set up all the way through, but actors come on to engage in the play, so the two kind of cross over a little bit.

A bit like The Commitments, where the music is a natural part of the drama?

Yeah, definitely, there are similar elements. And also like the show Backbeat, which tells the story of Stuart Sutcliffe [the original bassist for The Beatles]. So there are elements of that sort of thing – the songs are not integrated in the way that they would be in a musical.

Does the drama inspire the music, though, even subconsciously?

Yes, absolutely. I’m very used to coming from a place where the music tells the story, so a lot of the music does what a musical score does. I’ve used a lot of the techniques that I’d normally use to write underscoring to punctuate the drama. But when the songs start and the lyrics come in, they’re different. Bits of the show are obeying the rules of a musical, bits are obeying the rules of a play, and bits are obeying rules of a gig. It’s this weird hybrid… an interesting little hybrid.


Teddy plays at the Southwark Playhouse until 27 June

Did you have to do a lot of period research?

It’s set in Elephant and Castle in the 1950s, so yes. I love rock‘n’roll. Well, it’s early rockabilly really. What’s interesting is that the ‘doo-wop’, the cheerful sounds, were happening in the States at the time, but in England it was quite grim; it was post-war, there was a depression, most of Elephant and Castle was bombed out, and there wasn’t much in the way of opportunity. So these guys making the music scratched together their instruments, they knew three chords to get up and running, and they knew how to get their mates dancing. It had this rawness to it and I love that. It’s really celebrating simplicity, and allowing the creativity to shine out of those few instruments.

Was it commissioned especially for the Southwark Playhouse?

I wish it was. No, it was made on spec, I suppose. Tristan wrote the play based on an idea and conversation he had with one of the eventual producers. Then they brought me in to help turn it into a show rather than a play, and it’s developed into what it is.

Do you know the Southwark Playhouse well?

I love the Southwark Playhouse! It’s really hot at the moment – they’re doing some fantastic work. There’s been great buzz around it, everything sells well, and it’s the perfect venue for this show. Especially as it’s near to Elephant and Castle, it’s the right kind of show for it. I haven’t worked here in London since 2012 so it’s lovely to be here, creating it for a specific, knowledgable audience, I’m just hoping people will come and see it.

I understand that you’re offering more than just a show?

There’s a load of extra fun things we can do with the show: there’s ‘Swing Patrol’, which is organising swing dances before the show. We’ve tried hard to create a band – Johnny Valentine and the Broken Hearts – and they’ll be doing a pre-show/post-show gig, very much like Once did. So we’re encouraging people to get their tickets, get a drink, listen to the songs before the show starts, and hang around for a boogie afterwards.

What can you tell us about the story then without giving too much away?

There are two characters, Teddy and Josie, and they’re basically stuck in their post-war-depression lives looking for a good night out. They wander the streets and meet each other, and stumble in and out of a few adventures, but end up at this secret gig played by Johnny Valentine and the Broken Hearts, who’ve been playing throughout the show. So yeah, two kids wandering around the streets of London trying to find a gig… I suppose if you’ve seen [the movies] Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, or House Party, where kids go looking for a good night out, it’s got that kind of a feel to it.

Except that it’s set in the 1950s… Will it be relevant to theatre audiences, and especially the younger audiences at the Southwark?

Absolutely. That’s really what we’ve tried to write. I think it’s a show about the youth trying to find a way to release all that pent up energy they’ve got. Anyone who grew up on this music will be in their 70s, and while we’d love them to come see the show, we’re really trying to re-imagine this music for the next generation, which is why we haven’t done a jukebox show. The post-show gig might have some Bill Haley [and His Comets] in it, but in the show the songs are all original. I’ve tried to re-invent that 1950s style for this generation.

I’m pleased to hear that it’s not just another jukebox musical…

What’s great is that we don’t have to honour any particular memory. I’m quite proud of the songs, so hopefully we’re going to record them and get them out as much as we can. I think they’re quite catchy! Our band, Alice Offley, Alexander Bean and Harrison White, are superb musicians, and they have a great sense of the ‘now’: they play in a contemporary fashion – they automatically play it for now – so I’m really excited. They’re doing something quite fresh.

How was it working with Tristan?

He’s been really great, and has authentically replicated the voice of those 1950s rockabilly songs. The words have an implicit rhythm and melody to themselves which I just picked up on really. It’s been quite a natural fit in a sense. It’s come together quite quickly.

You’ve got a very interesting background; you trained in psychology, and then converted to acting.

Ha, yes! I had an epiphany at 21. I saw two paths, really: I either went into a lab and became a psychology researcher or practitioner, or I tried performing as a career. Up unti then, I’d only ever sung in bands, but a friend of mine was producing Jesus Christ Superstar, and I got the part of Jesus – opposite a friend of mine actually who’s now doing very well called Hadley Fraser [last seen as Stine in City of Angels at the Donmar]. It opened my eyes to musicals – and pop-rock musicals initially, like Rent and Chess shows with great pop tunes. So, I come to musicals from a very ‘pop’ place. I want to create songs that people can take away, but while making them part of the story.

Do you have a favourite musical or musical theatre composer?

When I was acting, I got a chance to work across a huge variety of shows, and I think three of the shows I worked on influenced me more than any others: Miss Saigon, Rent and Pacific Overtures. When you work on a Sondheim score, you absorb a lot. Overtures is a less-well-known Sondheim, but I did it in Leicester in 2007. I was in that with Hadley again, believe it or not! He was Kayama and I was Mangiro. I got to kill him seven years after he killed me!

You’ve been an actor, book writer, composer, lyricist, arranger, MD. Are you on a career path or are you just trying to stick your fingers into as many pies as possible?

Performing was how I got into theatre, and I did that for six or seven years. Then when I got married, I wanted to tour less so I turned to writing. Weirdly enough, all of the psychology came back then; acting plus psychology led me to writing. I’m very happy where I am now, writing stuff, whether it’s music or lyrics or scenes.

Did your psychology training help you as an actor or creative?

Maybe it did, yes. When I first started writing, I fell back a lot on my psychology degree. Finally, the stuff I’d studied was becoming useful! After jumping around on stage for six or seven years, and ignoring my previous 20, the two did somehow meet. You try to use everything that you’ve learned in life. One thing I realised when I was acting was that I’d quashed my academic side for about five years. So when I started writing, it was a real release – I remembered how much I loved getting into the minds of people, working out what makes people tick. It was stuff that I was really into when I was 17 and 18 but that I’d since forgotten about.

What’s next for you after this? Any more musicals?

I’ve got quite a big year ahead. Britain’s Got Bhangra – which I was lyricist on – opens in Manchester in September; The Snow Queen, which I did the music for, will be at the Royal & Derngate this Christmas; and I’ve got lots of bits and bobs that I’m kicking along. I’m hoping to be able to say something about The Busker’s Opera soon, which is the piece I’ve done book, music and lyrics on. That’s the one I’m most invested in, but I can’t say quite say anything about that now!

Is it possible to make a living as a musical theatre writer?

It’s really hard. Musicals either make a gazillion bucks or they make nothing. “You can’t make a living but you can make a killing”, somebody once said! It’s true. And the people who make the killing tend to not look at musical theatre writers any more. These days, if I was thinking like a commercial producer, I’d bring in Gary Barlow to work with the country’s best playwright to create a show. I think this is a shame.

There’s a lot of talented people who’ve been working on musicals for the past ten years and who have the skills but just need the rights to a story for a West End show that people will come and see. It’s sort of up to the people at the top to allow them the opportunity. It’s hard to get a show that will sell – that really takes a commission. It takes a Sonia Friedman to commission someone like myself, or Andrew Lloyd Webber saying: “I won’t write another show, I want to give back to the next generation.” All we need is the opportunity.

We’ve had a few success stories recently, though. Take Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary’s Adrian Mole musical…

Yeah, to sell tickets, you need a name that everyone can get behind. What Jake and Pippa did was get the rights themselves, which enabled the whole production to happen. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tried to get the rights for something, but they won’t look at you unless it’s matter of luck or timing, which happened for Jake and Pippa. If the people holding on to the rights were able to connect with those wanting to write those shows then more might happen. And it all comes down to the audience; ticket prices are so expensive. I take my son to the theatre now, and he’d rather see Octonauts live on stage than a new musical. It’s getting something that audiences will trust.

It’s amazing that shows like Pacific Overtures ever got made.

The thing is, Sondheim’s shows all lost money, but we don’t have that kind of opportunity these days. Sondheim kept plugging away at it, and then more and more people picked up his shows. There’s hope in there somewhere. I’d much rather see something with a brand new story where you don’t know the ending. But I think I’m in the minority. I think for most audiences it’s such an investment of cash, they want to see something they already know. But if I’m adapting something I try to give them something they know as well as something new.

* Teddy by Tristan Bernays, with music by Dougal Irvine, runs in The Large at the Southwark Playhouse until 27 June.

Dougal Irvine is an award-winning composer, lyricist and writer. Credits as a bookwriter/lyricist/composer include Departure Lounge, In Touch, The Other School, Angry Birds and The Busker’s Opera. As a lyricist his credits include Britain’s Got Bhangra (The Off West End Award for Best New Musical), Laila and The Lighthouse. As a composer, his work includes The Snow Queen (Nuffield Theatre/Royal & Derngate), The Bacchae, Blood Wedding (Royal & Derngate during the Cameron Mackintosh/Mercury Musicals Resident Composer Scheme), The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors (Changeling Theatre) and Captured By the Dark (StopGap Theatre).


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