It’s been a long slow summer. A holiday spent on a house boat, at Bembridge in the Isle of Wight, with little but eating, and walking, and reading. But then last week I ventured back into a busy London life, with a trip to Exposure The Musical, staged at the St James Theatre.
At this point, I must admit that I was going along to see the show because of my daughter’s involvement, when she'd worked with the brilliant Timothy Bird in creating visuals for the sets. And what an amazing set it is, with so many stunning visuals sourced from Getty images, all of which bring Mike Dyer’s show (Mike wrote the book, music, and script) to a vividly dramatic life.
Here are Timothy Bird’s own words, from an interview with What’s on Stage:~
"The big challenge in designing Exposure the Musical has been how to bring photography alive on-stage. The photograph is a fabulous medium for capturing the moment. Conversely, theatre is not a moment, but a flowing piece of storytelling – or is it? Conceptually we made the decision to try and capture a series of moments throughout the show, which can be both still and in motion in equal measure.
Who is the 'we'? In this case the visual collaboration over the design of the show is very much a combination of what I'm up to with the scenic and video team, interwoven with Carla Goodman's process in conceiving the costumes and characters. All of this has evolved from the on-going conversation with writer Mike Dyer and director and dramaturg Phil Willmott, and tempered by creative thinking from Lindon Barr the choreographer, Ben Cracknell the lighting designer and Ben Harrison the sound designer. Not only that but we've been very fortunate to be collaborating with Mark Collins as MD, who, almost more than any other, is holding together the structure of the storytelling as guardian of the score.
It's important to reference this complex collaboration, because with Exposure the set is not just the surface or backdrop where the story takes place - the scenery is as much a performer as the cast themselves. The intricate timing involved in enabling photographs to come alive is thus intimately intertwined with the musical work.
Our other key collaborator for the show has been Matt Butson at Getty Images – a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of some of the world's most iconic imagery. Using projected imagery, much of it from the Getty collection, is our practical means of bringing photographs to life on stage and thus telling this unique story. It's a story about a father (who is a photographer) and son (Jimmy, who becomes a photographer), a story of unrequited love (Pandora – a pop-star who is much photographed), a story of love found (by a girl who doesn't want to be photographed), faith lost but at last regained… you'll have to come and see it.
Even more practically, the physical set is designed to come alive with video projection. It has a simple finish, which hints at photographic film grain. It has some simple mechanical elements – shutters, sliders, deftly moving floor – which serve to reframe the theatrical space and provide appearances and disappearances like a magical cabinet. I suppose there is an extent to which the whole thing has some of the qualities of a deconstructed camera, with its light-trap box and shutter.
The focus of the scenery is always the story. The story is itself a visual dance between moments played by the cast and moments expressed by ever-changing imagery. Sometimes this is a photographic location, telling us where a scene takes place, but we also play with images in sequence, which tell their own story, or by their nature express a concept or a mood. Sometimes the imagery gives itself over to the pure exuberance of the music, like any good rock-show. We hope that we've woven together something not quite seen before, whilst revelling in all the connotations of truth, lies, nostalgia and spectacle embodied both by photography and theatre."
This musical is all about the power of visual influence, and how our society uses that power to mislead, corrupt, sometimes destroy - such as in scurrilous news reports, or to give the illusion of glamour and joy, when beneath the glossy surface there lies a grimy sordid heart. Rock stars who seem to have it all, such as the drug-addled Pandora (played by Niamh Perry) are pursued by the paparazzi, whose underhand activities are set against the worthy work of drawing attention to parts of the world where atrocities may be going on - such as in the war photography against which we often close our eyes, unable or unwilling to face the truth of the horror then exposed.
Using a Faustian device, with Michael Greco playing the devil in the guise of the ruthless Miles Mason, the lure of money, greed and fame gradually becomes the net in which Jimmy Tucker, a young photographer (played by David Albury) is captured and may well lose his soul.
Reviews have, on the whole, not been very positive which led me to go and view the show with some degree of trepidation. However, I can honestly say that this was great entertainment, at the end of which many members of the audience gave a standing ovation. Yes, here and there in the first half the dialogue was a little strained. There was one scene that - for me - didn’t really work at all. But the songs and the choreography were truly immersive and drew me in. The cast gave their all with such energy, creating a fabulous spectacle that provided lots to think about. Some smiles and - yes - a tear or two in some genuinely affecting scenes.
A few observations to end with. Just some things that struck me. Things I particularly liked, having been writing a novel that features photography and film from the turn of the twentieth century. And perhaps, because of this, I saw some clear allusions to the dawn of this visual age of ours.
One was the set at the start of the show, when the back of the stage was filled with the image of an enormous eye, observing the audience through a lens - which immediately put me in mind of G. A. Smith’s silent film that was made in 1900 and called Grandmother’s Reading Glasses.
But then it could just as easily have echoed Vertov’s 1929 drama, The Man with A Movie Camera. Both of those dramatisations play with the visual mechanics of photography, and in ways which were at the time really quite astonishing.
Next is the character of Pandora. Not only are all the evils of the world unleashed when she plots with the devil to made her own pact for fame and fortune, but she mirrors a masterpiece of film that was made in 1929 - when Pabst’s Die Buchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box) demonstrates through the acting of Louise Brooks how scandal and voyeurism can descend into madness and nightmare.
And finally, there is the line from a song that occurs near the start of the show, when Jimmy, a babe in his mother's womb looks out through his belly button window. Some reviewers condemned this lyric as being rather silly ~ but I feel sure Mike Dyer must have known exactly what he was doing when he featured Jimmy Hendrix’s words, from the song: Belly Button Window ... and with all of the sad connotations formed from our knowledge of Hendrix's tragic life.
Well. I'm up here in this womb
I'm looking all around
Well, I'm looking out my belly button window
And I see a whole lot of frowns
And I'm wondering if they don't want me around.
What seems to be the fuzz out there?
Just what seems to be the hang?
'Cause you know if ya just don't want me this time around,
Yeah I'll be glad to go back to spirit land
And even take a longer rest,
Before I'm coming down the chute again.
Man, I sure remember the last time, baby
They were stlll hawkin' about me then.
So if you don't want me now,
Make up your mind, where or when.
If you don't want me now,
Give or take, you only got two hundred days
'cause I ain't coming down this way too much more again.
You know they got pills for ills and thrills and even spills.
But I think you're just a little too late.
So I'm coming down into this world, daddy
Regardless of love and hate.
And I'm gonna sit up in your bed, mama
And just a grin right in your face
And then I'm gonna eat up all your chocolates,
And say 'I hope I'm not too late'.
So if there's any questions,
Make up your mind
'Cause you better give or take.
Questions in your mind
Give it a take,
You only got two hundred days
Way up into this womb
Looking all around.
Sure's dark in here.
And I'm looking out my belly button window
And I swear I see nothing but a lot of frowns
And I'm wondering if they want me around.
Exposure The Musical is running until August 27 at the St James Theatre in Victoria.