The Bhagavad-Gita from Hindu mythology and a working class rock band from Coventry sound about as disparate as you can get – but not if you’re playwright Geoff Thompson. His latest show, We’ll Live and Die in These Towns, blends the two together to create an original story, forming a musical that features songs from The Enemy’s number 1 debut album of the same name. Running at the Belgrade Theatre’s B2 venue for three weeks, it’s the start of the city’s celebrations leading up to taking over the title of UK City of Culture in 2021; the theatre will be giving a voice to the city’s stories in the run-up to this.
Argy has made it out of his old life, hitting the big time with his band and about to play a massive homecoming show: the biggest gig of his life. However, when he sees the crowd that is gathering for the concert he has a panic attack – and thoughts that seem to have been at the back of his mind for a while take over, engulfing him in fear. Conscious of the clock, his manager gives him four hours to revisits the people and places from his past before making a decision about what happens next. Visiting his terminally ill brother and bumping into his wayward sister starts to put things into perspective, but it’s clear there’s still something that’s really bothering him – and it all rests with the mysterious Jane.
Whilst this show is far from being the finished article, there is an incredible amount of potential there. The main issue is time. It currently runs at around 2h40 (including an interval), which is around the average length of a show these days – but when you consider that the album weighs in at only 37 minutes, it’s clear that there is room for a bit of trimming. As The Enemy’s music is generally quite punchy and dynamic I’d quite like the show to try and echo this; the plethora of lengthy two-hander scenes saps the energy out of proceedings quite a bit – the contrast between these moments and Argy’s encounter with Shelly, Danny, Sammy & Megan (Molly Grace Cutler, Adam Sopp, Andy Burse & Meg Forgan) is clear.
The actors playing these roles double up as the band, but it feels like their acting skills have been a bit wasted by not giving them any lines as members of the band. It also takes far too long to get to the point where Argy is sent out from the arena to try and work out what he wants – or perhaps it feels like that because it’s only the manager who’s trying to talk him round, rather than his bandmates having a bit of a go. A slightly leaner version of the show, with perhaps a bit more focus on the music, and then we might be getting somewhere.
Because it’s the songs that really fire things up, and retain audience interest – Music for the People, if you will… The Enemy’s Tom Clarke is on board as MD, and he & the onstage band have come up with some terrific new arrangements of the songs, including several incarnations of This Song and a great acoustic duet of It’s Not OK. This really breathes new life into the songs, and shows their great versatility & continuing relevance; Clarke’s songwriting demonstrates a brilliant storytelling ability and a gritty kind of poetry. Though it’s depressing that songs like this from 2008 still speak to us ten years with alarming accuracy, it’s also something of a comfort to have them performed so brilliantly by the band of actor-musicians assembled onstage. Indeed, in the more ‘typical’ versions of the songs, it’s eerie to hear leading man Tom Milner let rip a rock snarl reminiscent of Clarke himself – with drummer Andy Burse recreating Liam Watts’ pounding, technical rhythms.
I do admire the fact that Thompson has taken the approach of trying to create a solid drama, rather than simply finding ways to segue between songs – too many jukebox musicals fall into this trap at the cost of storytelling. Usually I come out in a rash when characters’ names are drawn from the songs, but for once it just about works here; the logic is that the songs in the show were written by Argy, and he writes exactly what he knows (not even changing people’s names, as one of the other characters remarks). On the whole, it just about retains credibility.
The B2 has been moved into a thrust formation especially for this show, creating an intimacy between cast and audience. Patrick Connellan’s Coventry-inspired concrete block set blends in rather well with the auditorium itself. As well as being symbolic of the struggles Argy needs to overcome, it’s also very low maintenance, meaning they can seamlessly move from one scene to another without much rearranging being needed. The back wall is used for a range of projections (Shanaz Gulzar), which include some great images of modern-day Coventry – this is a great way to swiftly reset the scene, as well as provide some recognisable locations for Coventry natives. Grant Anderson’s lighting design also comes into its own, splashing the stage in vivid colours one minute and focusing a stark spotlight on events the next. The coloured lights on the stage itself (inspired by the phrase “blood on the streets” from Aggro) is also particularly effective.
It’s a shame that Hamish Glen’s direction occasionally hides the cast away at the back of the stage behind the drum kit, also facing away from each bank of seats. This creates a bit of a gulf between the audience and the action, making the performance space feel a lot bigger than it is. Aside from this issue, the rest is well thought out and makes good use of the stage and the various entrances/exits available in such an auditorium.
A fine cast has been assembled, comprising old hands and new graduates alike. The show is led ably by Tom Milner, showing a great maturity in his performance; he captured the fragility and confusion in Argy, and also has a bit of a bite. His angry rendition of Away From Here aimed at his manager is unconstrained and rather intimidating – a definite highlight, particularly for me (this is probably the most personal song from a deeply important album). Milner shows great character as Argy starts to find himself again, also creating some very moving moments when he confronts the more painful episodes from his past.
I really hope that this is only the beginning for We’ll Live and Die in These Towns. It is chock full of promise, and with a bit of tweaking & trimming I’m certain there is a truly great show that’s waiting to come out. If it can be tightened up and become a little more focused, there should be a bright future ahead.
My verdict? Full of great promise, this show has a blistering soundtrack that is masterfully performed by a band of talented actor-musicians – a real audiovisual gift from Coventry, to Coventry.
We’ll Live and Die in These Towns runs at Belgrade Theatre until 20 October 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.
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