Bob Carlton takes a shine to "Gunmetal Blues"

Bob Carlton, artistic director of the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, explains why he is staging the European and UK première of this musical.

What makes this former off-Broadway hit so attractive that the Queen's Theatre is staging its British and European première?

Bob Carlton (foreground)
Bob Carlton (foreground)

Programming the seasons at the Queen's Theatre is the hardest of jobs. Our grant aid is so small that we are heavily reliant on box office income. I see and read scores of plays every year.

My task is to find shows that will attract as many people as possible and this normally comes down to titles that people are familiar with, or lesser-known work that offers "exactly what it says on the tin". I think that Gunmetal Blues falls into that category.

It's a great title, has a clever plot, wonderful songs and I believe that the appeal of film noir is cross-generational. The older members of our audience will remember all those wonderful black and white, "gumshoe" movies on late-night TV.

Hopefully it will also attract a younger audience, who have become fans of neo-noir movies, such as Sin City. It’s also the perfect show for our permanent company of actor-musicians, cut to the chase…, to do what they do best.

Tell us something about Gunmetal Blues creators Wentworth, Bohmler and Adler, please.

I know very little about the writers, except that they wrote Enter The Guardsman, which was nominated for an Olivier. I do know that the book writer, Scott Wentworth, played Sam Gallahad in the off-Broadway production and Marion Adler played The Blonde. Craig Bohmler was the musical director.

I am also told by Bernard Harvard, the artistic director of The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, who has directed him, that Scott Wentworth is "a great guy". Apart from that all I know about them is what I have read on their websites.

Will a 2015 east London audience pick up easily on the film and pulp thriller nuances? And why?

I think that the whole film noir genre has a universal appeal/language and, as I have already said, it is cross-generational. Raymond Chandler is now recommended reading in schools. It's gritty, hard boiled and sexy.

While the show is a hommage, we don't send it up. The humour comes from the witty things the characters say as opposed to sending the genre up. Thrillers have always appealed to our audience and this is definitely a thriller, with a very intelligent book.

I suppose Casablanca will be most people's point of reference. Is this how you see it?

Yes Casablanca is a big reference point in the show; there are some famous quotes (as well as a famous misquote) littered throughout the piece, but there are references to many film noir classics, such as Murder My Sweet and The Maltese Falcon.

It is full of those wonderfully witty, gritty similes and extended metaphors so beloved of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, which define the literary style of film noir.

We have immersed ourselves in the films and have been passing around my rather large collection of film noir classics to watch in the evening. If nothing else I think that I have converted the cast into fans of the genre.

Your cast is the company one of singing and instrumentalist actors. Have they found any difficulties?

The cut to the chase… company is the UK’s only resident actor-musician ensemble and this show was written for actor-musicians – so they are not experiencing any difficulties at all, they’re tremendously enjoying doing what they are born to do!

As one of the instigators of the whole actor/musician "movement" at the Bubble Theatre in the early 90s, one of my big disappointments is the lack of writing specifically for actor/musicians.

Most of the productions using actor/musicians are adaptations of traditional musicals and often suspiciously look like a way of doing a show without employing a band.

This was not the intention when we developed the idea at the Bubble. The Bubble Theatre was an evangelical troupe, who played, on the whole, to people whose first taste of theatre this was.

Most people don't understand the craft of acting. Most people believe that if they had the "bottle" to stand on a stage and could remember all the words, they could do exactly what the actor is doing. However you play three chords on a guitar and suddenly you are a trained musician and the respect is somehow different.

Music is a populist form and we were – and are – at the Queen's Theatre a populist theatre company. We were and are wooing an audience, for whom theatre-going is not a natural habit.

Do you see Gunmetal Blues as falling within the Queen's Theatre well-established sequence of musicals? Or is it something outside this?

While not every show we do is a musical, most of our work has live music in it. It is our house style, even when we do straight plays. Matt Devitt's production of View from the Bridge had a wonderful jazz underscore, improvised around "Paper Doll", and Carol Sloman's live playing of Rachmaninov during our production of Brief Encounter are just a couple of examples.

We play to a very diverse audience and our policy is necessarily one of variety. I often say that our programme is a bit like the English weather. If the present show doesn't appeal to you, hang about because something very different will come along any minute.

As such, Gunmetal Blues falls exactly into our programming policy. That’s the beauty of our repertory system – it’s fast-paced, bursting with energy and offers an enormous range of popular theatre.

Bob Carlton was talking to Anne Morley-Priestman. Gunmetal Blues runs at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch from 29 August until 20 September.