The Liberation of Colette Simple (part of the London Festival of Cabaret) featured the talents of actress/singer and creative producer of Spatfeather Theatre Company, Nathalie Carrington. Here, Fiona-Jane Weston interviews her.
The Liberation of Colette Simple’s journey has been particularly interesting. In the beginning, there was a young student actress in her third year at LAMDA, cast as Sally Bowles in Cabaret. She became “obsessed”, in her own words, with all things cabaret, researching everything she could on the Weimar and 1930s work, loving the edgy anarchic quality.
Not long after graduating, she was auditioning for Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton. The actress/singer got to the third round, was unsuccessful, but the opportunity led to further research on the playwright. She came across a volume of little known one-act plays, featuring The Case of the Crushed Petunias about a young woman fighting for liberation from small town attitudes and prejudices.
This struck Nathalie Carrington forcibly as a great premise for a one-woman cabaret show and took the idea to close friend Robert Holman, former resident dramatist at the National Theatre and at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was also excited by the prospect, but pointed out there could be a problem with securing the rights. Fortuitously, his agent happened to be on the board of the Tennessee Williams estate and was able to start a conversation with them.
Soon after these initial discussions, Carrington approached her fellow LAMDA classmate Adam Byron, director Matt Peover and composer Vincent Guibert and they formed Spatfeather Theatre. This was no longer an idea for a one-woman show, but the start of an exciting collaboration. She describes The Liberation of Colette Simple as “a new music-theatre/cabaret hybrid for two performers and five-piece band”, inspired by the Williams play and reinterpreted by eight different lyricists. They include playwrights Robert Holman and Amy Rosenthal, lyricist Adam Meggido, cabaret artist Desmond O’Connor, spoken word artist Charlie Dupré, director Matt Peover, and actors Honeysuckle Weeks and Adam Byron.
So, from a one-woman show to a company project – how does that feel?
“This collaboration is so much more exciting than working on my own – and it really is a collaboration. I think what makes the show interesting is the eight different lyricists reinterpreting the Tennessee Williams play in their own distinct voices, and it all being brought together by composer Vincent Guibert’s coherent musical vision. I may have spearheaded the idea, but we are now a theatre company dedicated to reinventing musical storytelling.”
Not only has the team grown. The work itself has developed from a small one-woman piece to a musical in its own right, with choreography, structured design and dramaturgy. The music is conceptualised by French musician and composer Guibert who utilises a variety of styles, including hip-hop influences and work reminiscent of Kurt Weill – “very edgy, a big merge and meld of everything”.
Carrington uses the word ‘anarchic’ a lot. It describes the play itself, the style of piece she and her team have worked on, and the way they work together. It is the capturing of this spirit which inspired the Williams estate to not only grant the rights to the play, but to allow a musical interpretation of it and extend an invitation to stage it at the Tennessee Williams Festival in Cape Cod in the States.
The show at St James Studio was a concert version of the concept album, which worked as a stand-alone piece, given the show was almost all sung-through. It was the company’s first opportunity to present the fruits of their labours before the show is fully staged in September at London’s Jacksons Lane Theatre.
Well, what an intriguing piece! I know what Nathalie Carrington meant when she said ‘anarchic’.
One thing that must be said is that there is no way this work can be described as a cabaret. Although there were moments of stage direction given as narrative for the benefit of the audience, there was no breaking of the fourth wall, and neither were the songs given an individual interpretation to serve a particular concept. While the word ‘cabaret’ has a very wide range, these elements are essential for the songbook kind. It was, thus, a curious inclusion in the London Festival of Cabaret.
The show was best reviewed then as a concert of songs in an emerging musical theatre piece with relevant movement for clarity and visual interest.
The work is almost a contemporary opera in terms of style, if not sound. The story is tantalising on one level, yet bizarrely didactic in another, telling us how important it is to be true to oneself. The music is Sondheim-esque in its atmospheric quality, reflecting the rather menacing arrival of the strange, prophet-like young man with his portentous message, and exploring Colette’s psyche as she works up to her liberation from the tight little world she inhabits both physically and mentally.
The performances by both Carrington and Adam Byron, who played all the other parts to Carrington’s Colette, were powerful and highly watchable. Carrington portrayed her character’s journey from childlike bewilderment and small pretty-mindedness, through fury and madness to clear exuberant freedom.
While the music is not especially moving or affecting, it is arresting and very evocative, and enhances the drama most effectively. I particularly liked the opening song, and the piece was entertaining and interesting throughout.
As it stands in concert form, there is a French feel to this work, both in its look with simple chic black costumes, and in the internal exploration of Colette’s belief and growth. This is perhaps unsurprising given the play it is based on by Tennessee Williams, stemming from French-influenced New Orleans.
I enjoyed the sparseness of this concert version, as it forced the audience to engage with the central character’s developing state of mind, and am interested to see whether a fully-fledged stage production will add to the show as a whole, or take away from it.
An experimental and quite daring piece.
Readers may also be interested in:
David Bedella & Friends – St James Theatre Studio – Review
Fascinating Aida – Charm Offensive – St James Theatre – Review
Julie Atherton – Tempting Fate – St James Theatre Studio – Review