Fans of Noël Coward should love the hilarious Me And The Girls at Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, this month.
Not only is the evocative new production based on a story by the debonair playwright, it features many of his classic songs, such as ‘Mad about the Boy’ and ‘Sail Away’.
The show is at the venue from Tuesday to Saturday, September 17-21, and is directed and choreographed by Stewart Nicholls. The stage adaptation is by Richard Stirling, the best-selling author of Julie Andrews: An Intimate Biography.
Me And The Girls tells the tale of vaudeville star George Banks who, with his six girls, has been touring the music halls of Europe since the end of the Second World War.
But now it’s 1960 and the ageing performer is near the end of his life, looking back on his best days.
“I’ve never played in Coward before,” says James Gaddas, who’s having a great time as George. “As an actor you think ‘hang on a second, I’ve done this, this and this but I’ve never done a Coward’.”
After appearing in West End hits like Mamma Mia and Spamalot, as well TV dramas like Bad Girls (as Governor Neil Grayling), James felt it was time give Coward a go.
“The storyline was a sort of song and dance man from the time that was quite poignant,” he adds. “So it was quite a pull in that sense too.”
And the chance to work with some extraordinary actor-musicians was too good to pass up as well.
“They’re playing all of the instruments,” James marvels. “We have three in the band at the back – drums, bass and keyboards – and the saxophone, cellos, flutes, oboes, violins are all played by the girls, including while they’re dancing as well.”
Originally, the play was just a short story by Coward, but it’s been adapted to have music in it and the Noël Coward estate allowed the team to choose from his entire catalogue.
“The songs are very tuneful,” James says. “I hadn’t realised just how many good songs he’s written.”
So, moving on to the drama, what’s George Banks like as a character?
“He’s gay and he’s quite camp,” James begins. “And on the whole he’s a man who never fully achieved what he set out to be.”
“He says himself, you know, ‘I’ve worked hard, I’ve enjoyed myself most of the time and I can’t ask for more than that’, but there is still that slight annoyance within him that he never became a big star. He’s toured all over the world, he’s worked with the girls, he takes them out on tour with him and everything else, but there was always still that ambition to be something, which he never quite became.”
He’s acerbic at times too, says James, though never unpleasant, and it’s very clear that he really cares about his girls.
“There is a sense, certainly towards the end, where it’s quite moving,” James continues. “There’s no two ways about that. Anybody coming along will hopefully enjoy the music, will enjoy the comedy and still also be able to feel that there’s been a fully rounded sense of the character being on a journey.”
As James explains, the audience will get full access to George’s mind as he looks back on his life from a Swiss sanitarium.
“It’s all in his imagination,” he says. “He has the visits from a couple of the girls who go to see him, but the rest of the girls are...well, in a film it would be a flashback. But in this, they’re there, he’s there and it’s kind of playing out his memories.”
The show also offers an insight into a older era of comedy, one that is generally believed to be over. But, vaudeville or music hall, call it what you will, James doesn’t think it’s disappeared completely.
“It’s a strange thing because many, many years ago when alternative comedy started, I used to do The Comedy Store in London, improvised comedy and stuff. What was fascinating was all of the people you talked to, mostly comedians who are still around today, people like Paul Merton, if you asked them for their favourite comics they would say people like Tommy Cooper and Eric Morcambe.”
“I think comedy is comedy,” he states, highlighting the similar ways vaudeville stars, ’70s comedians and more modern stand-ups all talk directly to their audiences. With that in mind, James muses, it’s possible that someone like Michael McIntyre, or even Jimmy Carr, might not be too out-of-place in front of a ’40s crowd.
So overall, James is having fun recreating this era of entertainment and bringing Coward’s story and music to life on stage.
That’s not too say it’s been easy though, and I ask what the biggest challenge has been for him.
“Trying to get my feet into the right place,” he laughs. “The choreographer’s very kindly made it as simple for me as possible because the girls are ridiculously talented. They sing, they play their instruments at the same time and they dance...and then they all go off and put tap shoes on and come back and do a big tap number as well as the acting.”
The cast of Me and The Girls includes Nicola Bryan, Jessica Brydges, Stephanie Cremona, Lara Lewis, Natalie Quarry, Lydia Shaw and Tom Self.
Evening performances start at 7.45pm with Wednesday and Saturday and matinees at 2.30pm.
Tickets cost £22-£29.50. Concessions and group tickets are available.
Call 01323 412000 or visit www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk.
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