Musical Theatre Review’s Lisa Martland talks to singer/songwriter Peter Skellern about his new musical You Can Always Hand Them Back, playing at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester.
During a successful and incredibly varied 50-year career, singer/songwriter Peter Skellern’s musical vision has encompassed everything from brass bands to the classics of Fred Astaire, from television theme tunes and mini-musicals to touring with long-time collaborator and fellow performer Richard Stilgoe. Some readers will remember his hit singles ‘You’re a Lady’ (1972), ‘Hold On to Love’ (1975) and ‘Love is the Sweetest Thing’ (1978).
Having retired from performing – although I believe he can be tempted to sing a song or two occasionally – Skellern has hardly rested on his laurels. In addition to pursuing his passion for painting, he has also penned a musical that has just opened at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester.
A comedy of songs and stories, You Can Always Hand Them Back (music and lyrics by Skellern and book by Roger Hall) is a celebration of the heroes of any family – the grandparents. Kath and Maurice are self-confessed old-duffers who are settling into a comfortable retirement. For Kath, however, there is just one fly in the ointment – she wishes they heard more from the kids. However, that all changes when four nappy-wearing grandchildren come on the scene.
You Can Always Hand Them Back had its world premiere in New Zealand in 2012. The Colchester production, directed by Andrew Brakewell, is the first time the piece has been seen in the UK.
How did You Can Always Hand Them Back come about?
My son and his family moved to New Zealand not far off ten years ago and my wife Diana and I regularly go out there to visit (home is Cornwall). About five years ago, while we were on one of our sabbaticals, I met the writer Roger Hall and we instantly got on well. Roger tends to write about what is happening to him at any given time and the subject of being a grandparent came up [Skellern has five grandchildren aged between eight and 17].
The story is very much from the grandparents’ point of view. There are three people in the cast, Kath and Maurice (played by Kate Dyson and Paul Greenwood) and a pianist who happens to live in their front room and who they occasionally have a chat with. Later on in the show, the pianist even moves in to the retirement home with them.
When the grandchildren come along, the audience sees Kath and Maurice interacting with them, but it’s all suggested through the imagination. Theatre’s wonderful because you watch the characters talking to the children, from the time they are babies and as they get older, and you see them in your mind.
What kind of themes does the show cover?
There are those tensions between parents and grandparents because every generation brings children up differently. At one point the grandparents are irritated that they are always giving presents and never receive a thank you note. When they’re told ‘we don’t do thank you letters’, grandma suggests that they might not do presents either.
There are also songs about going deaf (each thinks the other’s hearing is worse) and toddlers who seem to slip through your fingers as you are chasing after them!
And there is sadness as well as comedy?
On the whole, it is a light-hearted evening, but unless there is big sadness one can’t have big happiness either, the story has got to have different colours. The end is extremely poignant though because both the main characters are getting older and the grandfather is not very well.
You are probably better known for the songs and albums you have recorded as an individual artist, do you like writing in the musical genre?
Since training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, I have always enjoyed writing for shows. In the 1970s I was involved with a musical revue called Loud Reports at the Royal Court Theatre, and I wrote a couple of musicals, one of which, Dirty Giant, played at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry and starred Geraldine James.
I suppose my best-known project in this area was my BBC series Happy Endings in 1981. I was asked what I would like to do and I wanted to create something different to a concert, so I suggested a series of half hour musicals, each featuring five songs. There was a repertory company of four or five actors and it was very successful, getting more than six million viewers every week. I loved doing it.
Did you come from a musical background?
Not really, although my mother could play the piano, as of lot of people did then, and we used to have singsongs. When I was well into my 30s and had been quite successful for a while, I was surprised to find out that my Grandfather Skellern was a very good pianist in the Fats Waller style.
What are some of the musicals you like and would you be keen to write some more of your own?
I have always been a fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein as well as shows like Guys and Dolls. I was brought up on the music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and of course many of their songs came from musicals. I have often returned to those songs and recorded them.
After this season at the Mercury, I hope there is a chance that You Can Always Hand Them Back might be picked up by other companies. It is being staged in Christchurch, New Zealand this August. The piece has been described as a play with music, I would love to write a big flat-out musical in the future too.
You Can Always Hand Them Back continues at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 28 June.