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The swashbuckling new show bringing joy in a time of Covid

Wind back the clocks 12 months, and Mark Chatterton and Sarah A Nixon were in the middle of organising a tour of The Show Must Go On - their big new two-hour musical extravaganza “with a cast of thousands.”

Their musical collaborator Ben Beer meanwhile was on an aeroplane bound for Australia where he was due to take part in a charity gig with Robbie Williams.

Then the pandemic struck, and all their plans came tumbling down.

“I was doing two gigs,” Ben recalls. “The first was cancelled mid-air and the second one was pulled pretty much as I arrived.”

As for Chatterton and Nixon, the husband-and-wife creative team behind the hugely popular annual Everyman rock ‘n’ roll panto, they were left with a new show with no venues or audience and wondering what to do next.

“We picked ourselves up pretty quickly,” writer Nixon says. “Partly for our own sanity.”

Once the scale of the Covid crisis became clear, the trio regrouped and decided to rework the original full-length production – which still exists as a separate entity - to create a new, shorter standalone version with a pared down cast of five.

Two sets of workshopped rehearsals at the Unity Theatre later, and the aptly titled The Show Must Go On is now set to receive its premiere in a two-week run at the Bombed Out Church starting on May 17.

The team are currently busy fundraising to help with production costs, and they already have a core cast secured, with rock ‘n’ roll panto favourites Adam Keast and Danny Burns all on board.

Above: Adam Keast. Photo by Robert Day. Top: Mark Chatterton, Sarah A Nixon and Ben Beer.

“We’ve worked with Adam for 17 years and I find it a very lovely understanding of how we all work together,” says co-writer Chatterton, who is also directing the ‘lavish spectacular’.

Keast plays Gareth, a role written specifically for him. He's the Welsh director of a show which faces a series of catastrophic problems including missing set, props, costumes and even the orchestra – but like the troopers they are, he and the cast decide despite all the setbacks...the show must go on.

When we meet, it’s during the first week of autumn workshops, which for many turn out to be their first time in a rehearsal room for many months.

Keast laughs: “It’s the most people we’ve had in one room since March, and then from a standing start to throw yourself into…it’s fast paced and it’s multi-roling.

“We were all exhausted at the end of the first day and we’d only been sitting around a table reading!”

The project has been a huge learning curve for Chatterton and Nixon who are more used to working as part of a wider team which includes producers, stage managers and marketing specialists.

But, they say, friends and colleagues have been generous with their support as they navigate ‘uncharted territory’.

The Unity offered free rehearsal space, a producer friend helped them with drawing up a budget, and they have had support from venues like the Everyman where their regular panto had to be postponed last Christmas because of social distancing practicalities.

Above: Stephanie Hockley with Adam Keast and Danny Burns. Photo by Robert Day.

While the cast and staging of the show being premiered at St Luke’s Church in May might be more modest than the original full version, Beer points out that “we’ve done it with the same kind of vision we would if it was in a big theatre that was packed and none of this had ever happened.”

“As writers you have to be really flexible. I just didn’t realise you’d have to be flexible because of a pandemic!” Nixon jokes.

“But it’s quite empowering. You think, well if we can’t have a live band, we can’t have this, we can’t have that, what can we do?”

She adds: “There are massive sword fights in the original. The joy has been how do we create that with five people and no props? How do we create that enormous swashbuckling adventure?

“And actually, it works.”

Keast says: “It’s the anarchy and music and fun and all the things people would associate with what we do at Christmas. And we need some fun at the moment, we just do.”

And Chatterton agrees: “People want to laugh – people have missed laughing."

The Show Must Go On opens at St Luke’s, the Bombed Out Church, from May 17-30. Tickets HERE


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