Swallows and Amazons – we speak to Musical Director Tarek Merchant

Tarek (at piano) in Swallows and Amazons. Photo by Simon Annand

Tarek (at piano) in Swallows and Amazons. Photo by Simon Annand

I start the day by leading a vocal warm up with the cast, which takes about 15 minutes. This makes certain the cast are in good voice, and won’t injure themselves. Then we do a tune up. Then come any individual instrument calls, where all the actor/musicians might split off from the rest of the company to focus on something with a fine toothed comb. As with everything, the director has a dramaturgical eye with the music. I’m responsible for keeping the music on track, but now the show is open my main focus is to lead the musicians on stage each night.

When we first got into the theatre it was wonderful to finally hear the music in the space, it gave us a glimmer of what it might be like in performance. In the rehearsal room, with it being an enclosed space the sound rings a little more – which in a way is encouraging as it makes it sound like we are making a huge sound – you can lose the beautiful detail of the score. When we got onto the stage, we could hear the individual layers, everybody’s parts much more clearly. The way we are able to open up that music, and fill the theatre with it is really exciting… there’s nothing to hide behind.

The music is composed by Divine Comedy front man, Neil Hannon. As the show has had previous incarnations, it’s had various gestation periods – so I’ve been given lots of different arrangements to play with. I’ve worked mostly from the tour arrangements – but the line-up of actor/musicians we have this time is different even from the line-up on tour! Our job is to work out who does what. We’ve gained a trombone, which we haven’t had before, so instantly we had to think – right, where can we use this?

Our cellist is also our flautist, so we had to work out how to partition those parts. A lot of it has been a logistical juggling act, but it’s definitely part of the beauty of this show. It’s about picking things up and making things work, it’s been similar with the instruments. We have a pallette of sounds, rather like toys, which we’ve had to think about – how do we use all these colours, these sounds together?

A couple of the arrangements are new. They’ve slotted in very well, and we’ve had lots of fun playing with them, seeing how much dramatic mileage we can get out of them. When Titty is stranded alone on Wildcat Island, she rises to the challenge of being on her own in a scary new world – the music is an incredible reflection of the way that she feels and it’s been fantastic to explore that.

I feel like I’m trying to get the most out of this wonderful score that Neil has built. The Amazons’ sound is so different to that of the Swallows. The Swallows are elegant and precise whilst the Amazons are filthier and aggressive. We have some real gritty sax parts for them. With so many intricacies in the score, I feel like I’m excavating it and polishing it up.

The Mother (Saskia Portway) has moments in the show where she has to play quite onerous cello lines – I think having a character play an instrument like that is just like giving a character a line. What she doesn’t say is felt through that haunting sound, and as an audience you can put the two things together. There’s an extra richness, a depth to the story that you can’t quite capture in words.

Being a musician that is also acting in the show, it’s great that we aren’t stuck in an orchestra pit every night. There’s something about playing live on stage, there’s more of a connection with the drama of that particular performance. You’re constantly plugged into the action on stage. There’s something for the audience too as you can physically see the music being made – I feel like you hear the music differently when you can see its origins.

There’s a huge demand on the performers. They have to memorise all the music, there are no music stands to read from… but that’s what’s exciting about it – you’re not tied into your physical score. You’re tied to the actors in front of you, performing a scene. Originally, we were all a little bit freaked out by the rake on the stage! Trying to ‘row’ on a dolly with wheels, in between playing, we were finding ourselves slipping down towards the front row of seats. It took a lot of practice to get that right!

I’m playing the piano myself in the show, so it’s been very hectic. I’ve had to learn my own parts, lead the band, teach the vocals, and bring everyone in at the right time! Juggling all of these things, I hope it still has the beauty and integrity of the previous productions, but a personality that reflects the wealth of talents we have in the cast this time round.

Swallows and Amazons is showing until Saturday 17 January. Tickets and information here.

Swallows and Amazons
27 Nov 2014-17 Jan 2015
Theatre
£5-£30
Tickets

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