Day Twenty Four

Posted: 2020-06-12 12:00:00


12th June

As I write this I can hear the melodious but quite loud and hard to ignore sound of an accordion playing on loop from the upstairs room. The source of that very unique sound is my flat mate turned musical director the equally unique James Findlay. 

James is one of the most talented musicians you are likely to meet. He seems to be able to play anything (at any time of day or night) in a myriad of styles and is a walking musical encyclopaedia.  His background is traditional English folk music, he has won BBC’s young folk musician of the year, released albums and his trophies and accolades sit modestly amidst all manner of musical instruments, trinkets and music books in our lounge. 

Now in theatre traditionally musicians in theatre were kept down in the orchestra pit, well away from the actors or ‘turns’. Offstage they had their own band room and basically often never the ‘twain would meet. Not very collegiate and certainly helped perpetuate a them and us attitude.

Things have of course have largely changed for the better. Music and musicians remain an essential part of almost any production from a big West End musical to a small fringe production and everything in between. These days a new breed of actor musicians have really blurred the lines and shown that the two art forms need not be kept at arms length from the other,

In our stage production of Birdsong music has always been central. Our original musical director who is advising us on this version is another genius called Tim Van Eyken who in 2012/2013 put together, composed and arranged an array of music which helped transform the production into the success it became.  Tim handed over for the third incarnation of the show to James who raced across London for his audition in 2014 having little idea what it was he was coming in for or to where it would lead…which is effectively here in his bedroom in our shared house in Barnet mid pandemic some 6 years later.

We had been searching for someone to take over from Tim, to play the music in the show and also to take on some smaller acting roles. It is quite a prescriptive job description and after Sam (who plays Evans in this version and who played the role in 2014) and Tim we were really struggling to find the right person for the 2015 touring production.

At the 11th hour on a dark December night James came in and blew us away as soon as he started singing. He has a unique voice- which although I live with it and hear it far too frequently from morning until night- is unquestionably sensationally good. Although if you asked me at 1am there other day  as his dulcet tones drifted in from the upstairs window I might have confessed to being able to get too much of a good thing.

Although united in many ways, in my experience musicians do approach performance and productions in a different way to actors. In truth it is two very different dialects of the same language- or maybe even sometimes two completely different languages. It took some time for James and I to learn a bit of the others language- but helped by Tim and Charlotte through rehearsals he soon fitted in and became an intrinsic part of our show. Although his numerous practical jokes mid performance became the stuff of Birdsong folklore and the bane of my life as his director.

So naturally when we started with this mad idea- he was the first person I spoke to and not just because he was fiddling away in the adjacent room at the time. He’s been working away less than quietly for weeks now and having now recorded the two big set pieces for the show, playing all the instruments and doing all the different voices and harmonies- a job for 10 people in itself really- we are now entering new territory and looking at more specifically how to adapt and indeed what to adapt from the music in the stage show in to the music of this new format for the production.

I don’t pretend to know very much about folk music. What I do know, I have learnt from Tim and from James. I can only tell you that at it’s best and speaking personally it provides a main line to a connection with an elemental force, something ancient and transcendent. The songs are often wonderful stories wrapped up in tunes passed on from one generation to the next in a rich aural history. The songs bring people together, are often long, sad and rich in their use of language and its symbiosis with the melody.

The music in Birdsong connects the characters to each other, to their families and to their homes. The soldiers holding onto it tightly as they prepare to head over the top and into battle. Yet that music was also written for a sweeping and we hope epic staging. This version is much more delicate, intimate and  out necessity all seen at close quarters. So we now have the complex job of trying to find a way to adapt that stage music anew. Charlotte, James and I today spent a rigorous few hours over the zoomosphere talking through each potential cue, beginning to piece it together. But it’s given James another mountain to climb.

It all explains why he is now locked down in his bedroom- playing tunes in loop on an assortment of instruments ranging from one his myriad of violins to an original WWI bugle which alas made an outing at 11pm last night. The bugle is not the loveliest instrument. It’s pretty loud. And unless played pitch perfectly a little brash to the ear. I’m amazed our neighbours haven’t started knocking frankly. It isn’t the thing you might expect to hear as you wait for the shipping forecast.

Like everyone involved in this endeavour- James is working all out to make this happen. Our professional and personal spaces are already so confused as to be indistinguishable. Mealtimes (which seem to be getting later and later) are spent throwing about ideas- playing snatches of tunes and trying to remember what went where in the original show. Maria his girlfriend possibly now regretting moving in at all as Birdsong consumes the house.

So much as the accordion or indeed that bloody bugle may bore its way into my brain, ear worming itself into my every waking moment- you won’t find me complaining too loudly about it. His music alone is well worth the price of a ticket and frankly I’m very lucky to have it and him in the show... and indeed the house.