There is a moment in this show when two actors in a tableaux give voice to a clarinet which has been boxed up and forgotten for 20 years. As it pleads to be picked up again, the clarinet tells us that ‘physically AND metaphorically it is in pieces’. This moment tells you quite a lot you need to know about Unfolding Theatre’s new piece but I feel compelled to say more.
This is not a review. Or a dramaturgical essay. It is maybe a personal/ professional reflection, a reminiscence, a piece of learning. It is, in the spirit of the show itself, a sharing. An act of community-practice, if I might coin a phrase. And no one in the UK does community-practice better than a Geordie. I say that as someone – a stranger – who lived in Newcastle for a bit.
You might have heard of Annie Rigby’s show, on at Northern Stage at Summerhall this August. It’s a show that gives audience members an opportunity to pick up again an instrument they might have left behind, for whatever reason. At 3pm every day those interested in being in the show meet up for a bit of practice with the cast members, and off they go on stage for that evening’s gig two hours later. That in itself is a brilliant act of sharing, an empowering, generous, life-affirming gesture forming a premise for a theatrical interaction. Interactivity has become a thing in theatre in recent years, but this show is so much more. It is a cross between interactive, gig theatre, storytelling and real life. Above all it is an homage to the healing power of music.
The initial idea for the show presented itself when director Annie had a drink with someone in a pub and discovered a sense of regret for having abandoned her accordion at the age of 20. But the show’s main subject – the ‘core’ – is Mark Lloyd, an actor and musician from Newcastle, played here by his colleague and friend Alex Elliot. The other performers are musician Ross Millard, actor Maria Crocker, and director Annie Rigby herself, as well as, to various degrees – us, the audience.
Even though we start out on a relatively innocent journey of putting a band together, as the show progresses, we find ourselves sharing in so much more together. For those who happened to know Mark Lloyd, it is also about sharing bereavement.
I knew Mark Lloyd. He and his wife Kylie, who is another invisible heroine of this piece, as well as Annie and Alex and I all used to worktogether at Northern Stage in the early 2000s. This was the time of the Northern Stage Ensemble, a big dream that Alan Lyddiard made come true for a bit. Mark was one of a dozen actors forming the permanent ensemble, most of whom were also musically accomplished. Even though as a company dramaturg for three years I was a relative outsider for much of the time, my time with Northern Stage was so intense it felt to me like I had packed at least ten years into it. As a result, watching Putting the Band Back Together was a peculiar experience, one of those which prompts a simultaneous mental reel of flashbacks: Mark as the groom in the Gypsy piece, Annie’s thinking expression, Mark as a 19th century Russian doctor having the idea of a heart transplant, coffees with Kylie in Edinburgh, Mark and Kylie snuggled together in the theatre foyer, Annie’s buoyant hugs, Kylie’s efficiency, dinner parties, wedding photos, Mark as a bus driver learning Sanskrit in a vision of Newcastle modeled on Barcelona. We also did a few play readings together, one of them even in the form of a gig! I can’t claim we were close friends, but I do cherish Mark’s trademark greeting to me: ‘You are my favourite dramaturg!’. It was a running joke, because – how many dramaturgs do you know? How many do you think might have existed in Newcastle in the early 2000s? But when I do think back to my humble career beginnings – like this show has made me do – the main thing I think is: I wish I could have been more generous more often. As a dramaturg, your job is simply to be rigourous, to be critical, to be the purveyor of tough love. When someone has gone for ever, you wish there was just love. Pure and simple.
Two years ago, Mark was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I am not giving anything away, this is pretty much the inciting incident of this piece. In May this year, Mark passed away. Annie has been making this piece for two years, with Mark (and Alex and Ross and Maria and writer Chloe Daykin and designer Lily Arnold), probably knowing that this was going to be Mark’s swan song. Or more precisely – an (concept) album. Deep, haunting, opulent in its range.
Putting the Band Back Together is a show about loss and hope. In another memorable moment, Mark is writing an email to a band mate of his he hadn’t been in touch with for twenty years because he wants to do a charity gig together. It is a classic ‘where do I start’ sort of palimpsest of false starts. It also encapsulates another one of the show’s underlying themes – the remorse you might feel about having dropped something or someone for no particular reason (other than maybe self-doubt) can also easily be overcome. Face up to and just pick it up again. Or let it pick you up.
So ultimately Putting the Back Band Together is a masterful study of acceptance and an understated act of grief, with not a drop of cheap sentimentality in it. It has clarity, it has depth, it has humour in abundance, and above all – it has genuine warmth for everyone involved. Both physically AND metaphorically, it guides us through the process of picking up the pieces in order to find happiness.