Henry Bird meets composer/lyricist Gwyneth Herbert and librettist Diane Samuels, the writers behind the brand new musical The A-Z of Mrs P (opening at the Southwark Playhouse on 24 February).
The London A-Z, the map that has guided lost Londoners for almost 80 years, is said to have started life one night in 1935, when bohemian artist Phyllis Pearsall got lost on her way to a party. Frustrated by the lack of a detailed, street-indexed London map, Pearsall decided to create her own, dedicating the next five years of her life to walking and mapping all 3,000 miles of the capital’s 23,000 streets.
It’s a great story, although, sadly, it isn’t true. The account, which originated from Pearsall herself in her 1990 autobiography From Bedsitter to Household Name, was intriguing enough to capture the public imagination (a quick Google will find it presented as fact on websites from the BBC to the NY Times), but it’s now thought that the A-Z was adapted by Pearsall from an earlier map by her father, the cartographer Alexander Gross.
A new musical, The A-Z of Mrs P, seeks to explore both the fact and the fiction behind the map. According to the show’s composer, Gwyneth Herbert, the story focuses on Pearsall’s own history as much as it does on the story of the A-Z. (‘Lovely London Town’, a song from the score, has already won the Stiles & Drewe Best New Song Prize.)
“It’s about one woman’s journey,” says Herbert, pun very much intended. “As we explore the streets with her in her imagination, and the labyrinths of her very complex family journey, we follow her on the journey from lost to found.”
Herbert sits in a central London restaurant with her co-writer, playwright and novelist Diane Samuels (Kindertransport – West End/Broadway), the two of them enjoying a break from rehearsals. They have an easy rapport, sharing side dishes as they pass the thread of the interview between them.
“We worked from the autobiography,” Samuels continues, “and we’d start with Phyllis’ own words. We’d be constantly shaping and cutting and adding our own, but we always started pretty much every scene with her words. So she’s in there intrinsically.”
They speak of Pearsall with real affection, having found out what she was like from the people who knew and worked with her. They discovered someone who was eccentric, garrulous and generous (“If she’d got into a lift, by the end she’d have everyone on her postcard list,” one former colleague remarked), and it’s perhaps out of deference to her that they’ve chosen not to dismiss her account of the map’s creation entirely. Instead, The A-Z of Mrs P embraces both the myth and the reality, with Pearsall’s account sometimes running concurrently with what we now believe to have happened.
According to Samuels, this approach allows them to get more of an insight into Pearsall’s character. “It’s through the stories people tell that you actually get at some kind of real psychological truth. You don’t necessarily get psychological truth from the facts of anyone’s life. You get to it through what they imagine,” she says.
While focusing only on the fact or the fiction would seem like the more straightforward approach (and certainly one taken in Sarah Hartley’s 2002 novel, Mrs. P’s Journey, which recounts Pearsall’s story unquestioned), it makes sense in the theatre, particularly musical theatre, which is stylised by its very nature. As Samuels points out, people don’t tend to break into song mid-sentence in real life.
The writers have enjoyed playing with the different layers of reality. Their eyes light up when they mention one of the scenes being set in Elephant and Castle, five minutes’ walk from the Southwark Playhouse – a route many members of the audience will take on their way to see the show, possibly even using an A-Z.
This site-specific aspect was a happy coincidence, as the writers didn’t know where the show was going to be staged when they started the project. As well as opening in London, the piece has the city woven into its fabric. Herbert claims to hear melodies and rhythms in everyday sounds (“I can’t turn it off, so it gets a bit noisy sometimes!” she says), and she’s used this ability to capture the sounds of the capital, from the screech of a black cab to the chimes of Big Ben.
“It’s really a tapestry,” she says. “So you hear the clink and the clunk of the docks and the foghorns of the Thames.”
The sung and spoken sections of the musical are interwoven, the writers drip-feeding ideas into the piece; fragments of dialogue later crop up as song lyrics, and lyrics later appear as dialogue. The choreography from Nick Winston is also interwoven, with the chorus using physical theatre to represent shades of Pearsall’s subconscious or the fabric of the city.
It’s a demanding piece for the performers, with the whole ensemble on stage from beginning to end. The writers have immense confidence in their cast, which includes Isy Suttie (Peep Show, Shameless) as Phyllis, Frances Ruffelle (Les Miserables, Pippin, Piaf) as her mother, and Michael Matus (Martin Guerre, The Sound of Music) as her father, as well as in the rest of the creative team, including producer Neil Marcus, who conceived of the project in the first place, and director Sam Buntrock. A female dominated creative team also includes musical arranger Sarah Travis and designer Klara Ziglerova.
The subject matter seems to have resonated with everyone involved, and Samuels believes they all share some of Pearsall’s eccentricities. This has given the piece a real authenticity, despite the amount of fantasy it contains. “Everything in it is not naturalistic,” Samuels says, “and yet it feels so utterly true.”
* The A–Z of Mrs P continues at the Southwark Playhouse, London until 29 March (press night is Monday 24 February).
* The cast also includes: Stuart Matthew Price as Phyllis’ brother Tony Gross, Sarah Earnshaw, Max Gallagher, Dawn Sievewright, Sidney Livingstone and Ian Caddick.
* The A–Z of Mrs P was conceived by Neil Marcus who produces with Paul Tyrer & Jamie Clark for The Booking Office and Michael Peavoy Productions.