'Sounds of England' is a short season of works in progress staged by the Lowry in collaboration with Mercury Musical Developments with the intent of assessing how suited they are as musicals.
An adaptation by writer Geoff Page brings out the theatrical potential of Charles Dickens’s The Signalman. This is an eerie tale of a railway signalman struggling to live with the guilt of being unable to prevent disasters of which he is given supernatural warning. The simple structure, small cast and strong story make it ideal for the stage.
However, Page does not convince that the musical is a more appropriate format than a dramatic presentation. It is hard to imagine any of the songs satisfying an audience outside of the context of the show. The lyrics are expositional, telling the story rather than moving the audience by their power or structure.
As such they describe a sense of foreboding that really ought to be conveyed by the dramatic tone of the music. This places limits on the performers and although Chris Corcoran and Ryan Greaves are fine singers the material requires that the songs be delivered to each other as dialogue rather than belted out to the audience.
The music, performed live on keyboards by musical director Mark Goggins, lacks variety providing a sense of momentum but none of the spooky atmosphere that the show really needs to succeed as a musical vehicle.
Considering that the show is intended as little more than a rehearsed reading, director Roger Haines gives a good idea of how a final production might look. The actors scramble over the limited props and sound effects help provide some of the ambience lacking in the music.
‘Moving On', the second part of the evening, is an original story by Michael Dresser. The odds and sods left behind in a lost property office provide the framework for the stories of three people who discover the need to leave certain objects behind and move on. An ambitious entrepreneur (David Hunter), an embittered sex worker (Alison Burrows) and a grieving widow (Maria Gough) each reach a sort of epiphany.
Although not as dramatically satisfying as the first part of the evening, 'Moving On’ works better as a musical. The performers sing as a group as well as individually so that the sound of their voices meshing together provides a richer, more satisfying result. There is greater variety in the music and the pieces work as songs rather than just moving the story forward. As a result it is possible to appreciate the simple pleasure of just listening to the performances.
Again Haines provides a fully realised production with the discarded objects forming an abstract structure centre stage from which the cast emerge and around which they perform. It is possible to envisage how a complete version of the show might look from this limited but imaginative staging.
‘Sounds of England’ lets us see two works in progress. One of which is theatrically interesting but does not work in the current format whilst the other shows potential as a full musical.