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Brief Encounter With ... Matthew Strachan & Bernie Gaughan

Husband-and-wife team Matthew Strachan and Bernie Gaughan co-wrote About Bill, a "one-woman one-act musical about one man", which has its world prermiere, starring Mamma Mia! leading actress Kim Ismay (pictured), at the Landor Theatre from 15 November to 20 November.

Strachan is best known as the composer of the multi award-winning theme to the TV quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. His wife, Bernie Gaughan, has had several novels published under the name of Bernadette Strachan.

Tell us how About Bill came about?

Matthew: We'd worked with Kim Ismay on the workshop of our first musical Next Door's Baby. She was unavailable for the actual production and we rather glibly suggested we write a one-woman show for her where she got to play lots of characters. It's five years on and here we are.

Bernie: We said, on a whim, “Oh Kim, we should write a play for you” and then we had to do it! So this whole lovely piece came about as a kind of consolation prize.

It covers several decades, did you have to write songs in the style of that era's music?

Matthew: Absolutely. It seemed clear that's how the score ought to progress chronologically, not least to help give each scene a sense of time and place. So it moves from Vaudeville and Ragtime through forties ballads, cool jazz, sixties R&B and beyond.

What's your working process?

Matthew: We always create an original story rather than adapt. So we generally start out making a plan for each piece to give us a sense of structure and then retreat to our own workrooms: Bernie writes the scenes, I write the lyrics and music and we gradually piece the whole together. A surprising amount is done via email!

Bernie: We have very different ways of working, so we don't sit together too much. I'm all giggles and Matthew is all frowning concentration. I blurted out a monologue for each character and the songs and scenes kind of grew from these vignettes.

How different are the characters she has to play?

Bernie: The poor woman has to transform herself nightly into ten radically different women. They're not the run-of-the-mill one woman show stock characters, they go a little deeper and ask rather more of a performer. My favourite changes all the time. One day it's the battleaxe aunty, the next the torch singer, the next the South American gold digger.

You're performing this for a week as a staged show rather than just a one-day try out. Are you planning to make changes to it based on any feedback you get?

Matthew: I'm sure it will change. Putting things in front of a paying audience is the ultimate feedback. There's always scope for improvement and refinement. I think they say that musicals aren't written so much as re-written.

The Landor has a great reputation for staging musicals, is this what attracted you to the space?

Matthew: Definitely, along with the fact that it's such an intimate space. I often like paired-down productions of bigger musicals. I preferred the Cottesloe production of Sweeney Todd to the original, for instance, because I got to see the whites of the characters' eyes. I think, particularly where a musical has plenty of characterisation, it can have more impact in a smaller venue.

Bernie: Absolutely. We'll see all the emotions chasing across Kim's face. I love live music that isn't miked, too – that helps with the immediacy of the characterisations.

Is it going to remain a chamber piece for studio-sized theatres or do you have other plans for it?

Bernie: This little show has huge potential, as a vehicle for one actress or more – it could be split into three quite easily. Hmmm ... perhaps the Redgraves might consider it!

You wrote the theme music to Who Wants to be a Millionaire and you worked on the score to Slumdog Millionaire. Was it easy to write?

Matthew: In a sense yes because we had so little time do it and didn't have the luxury of double guessing ourselves. Once we'd cleared the main theme with the producers and ITV, we had just nine days to create a total of 95 separate pieces which make up the soundtrack. It fits together like a sort of musical jigsaw with a different cue for almost every eventuality in the game. And it was a thrill to have so much of the music included in Slumdog.

What are you working on next?

Matthew: Bernie's working on her seventh book, I'm about to work on an album of spoof 1980's electro-horror music (yes really), and we have another two musicals in the pipeline.

Bernie: Our house is a creative factory – constant scribbling and singing.


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