Back with a bang

'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' Tour

The Chitty car as it appears in the show

 

When Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flies into The Marlowe this summer, she’ll be winging her way home. We take a look at the Canterbury connections of the famous car.


If you’ve ever walked down St Radigund’s Street in central Canterbury, you may have noticed a blue plaque on the disused building next to The Dolphin pub. It says: “Count Louis Zborowski constructed two Chitty Chitty Bang Bang racing cars here in the former Bligh Brothers Coachworks 1921-1922″.

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Count Zborowski was the son of a Polish count and a wealthy American mother, Margaret Astor Carey. He inherited his fortune – and Higham Park, a large country house just outside Canterbury – from her aged just 16, his father having already died in a motor racing accident. Despite this, Louis followed in his footsteps.

He and his engineer designed a series of cars, known as Chitty Bang Bang 1-4 (The extra ‘Chitty’ was added by Ian Fleming when he wrote the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang novel), constructed around aeroplane engines. The ‘Chitty Bang Bang’ name is said to have come from the noise made by these engines (although an alternative theory suggests it comes from a rude saying amongst soldiers during the First World War). The noise of these massive engines was so loud that Canterbury City Council reportedly considered passing a by-law to ban then from being driven within the city.

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Zborowski died aged just 29, in a car crash while racing at Monza in Italy – driving a Mercedes, not one of his own cars. But the story of Chitty didn’t end there, thanks to Ian Fleming.

It’s thought a young Fleming may actually have seen Zborowski racing the first of the Chitty cars at the Brooklands circuit in Surrey. Certainly, he knew Zborowski’s estate at Higham Park, which eventually passed into the hands of Walter Whigham, the business partner of Fleming’s grandfather Robert.

The novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was written in 1961, when Fleming was recovering from a heart attack. The dedication read: “To the memory of the original Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, built in 1920 by Count Zborowksi on his estate near Canterbury.”

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: Wednesday 24 August to Saturday 3 September. Book here.

 

Present Laughter: Phyllis Logan

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Phyllis Logan as Monica Reed with Samuel West as Garry Essendine in Present Laughter. Photo by Nobby Clark.

Noël Coward’s sparkling semi-autobiographical comedy Present Laughter will be joining us later this month. We speak to one of its stars, Phyllis Logan, who’s probably best known for her role as Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey. Here, she’s playing Monica, the long-suffering secretary to actor Garry Essendine (Samuel West).


How would you sum up the character of Monica Reed in Present Laughter?
She’s a long-standing and long-suffering secretary to Garry Essendine, who is being played by Samuel West. She’s got a fairly ready wit and is quite acerbic so she’s a good foil for him with his shenanigans and his egomania.

Have you performed in the play before?
No, I haven’t. I have done a Noël Coward before but that was about 100 years ago in rep when I was far too young to be in Fallen Angels but, even though I was still only in my 20s and ought to have been older, we made a fairly decent fist of it I would say.

And have you worked with Samuel West before?
No I haven’t so it’s really lovely getting to work with him. The only person in the cast I’ve worked with before is Zoe Boyle [Joanna], who played Lavinia on Downton Abbey.

What are the joys for you as an actress when it comes to Noël Coward’s sublime writing?
He’s just a master of his art and it’s great to churn out those fantastic words and swan about in beautiful costumes. It’s a bit scary, mind you, getting back to the theatre. It’s been a long time since I’ve done it.

Why do you think Coward’s work in general, and this play which was written in 1939 and premiered in 1942 in particular, has endured?
I suppose good writing always perseveres, doesn’t it? It’s a very witty play and people love going back in time. My husband [Kevin McNally] has being doing a lot of remakes of Tony Hancock scripts for the radio and he’s just done one for TV. They were written in the 50s and they’re still as fresh and as funny and as relevant today. I think the same applies to Noël Coward. He’s very fresh and very witty and he’s got all these great characters and it’s lovely to reintroduce them to the modern-day public.

What is it about the era in which the play is set that appeals to people?
Well, even though it was written in 1939, there was no mention made of the world-shattering events of that time. They were completely ignored but of course the play isn’t a social comment on the world. It’s a bit like P.G. Wodehouse. Coward has created his own world peopled with all these eccentric characters and people seem to crave simpler times. It wasn’t that simple then, certainly not in 1939, but prior to that in the 30s I suppose to some degree it was more straightforward and simpler. People like to hark back to that.

Are there any big challenges for you in doing this play?
Just being back in the theatre is a challenge in itself, as is touring. I don’t know when I last did that. [Laughs] I’m getting too old for this malarkey. It’s been decades since I did a touring production.

How is it returning to the stage after doing six series as Mrs Hughes on Downton Abbey?It’s so nice to do something that’s really quite different and I’m pleased about that, not that I resent Mrs Hughes at all. She served me very well, but it’s nice to move on to something else.

Monica is a secretary. Have you ever done the job for real or do you think you could?
Funnily enough I did shorthand and typing at school for one of my O-levels. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do with it, but once upon a time I could have played a proper secretary doing Pitman shorthand but of course I’ve forgotten all that now.

What’s the one thing you have to have on tour with you? Decent teabags maybe?
I haven’t thought about that yet as it’s been so long since I did it. It’s a bit like Desert Island Discs and I don’t know what my luxury is going to be. Finding good teabags generally applies when you’re in America but I think I’ll manage to source a decent teabag in Bath. But I definitely need my mobile phone and my little laptop so I can Skype with my husband.

Do you have any pre- and post-show rituals?
I don’t know about rituals but I like to get in in plenty of time in case the make-up goes pear-shaped and they have to start all over again. And after a show? Oh, it’s just a huge sigh of relief and a large glass of Gavi di Gavi.

What sort of reaction do you get from fans when they bump into you?
A lot of people still think of me as Lady Jane in Lovejoy and they say “We just loved you in Lovejoy” but of course I’m recognised for Downton Abbey too. I get letters from all over the world – from China, Australia, all over the States – from all the Downton fans.

You’ve had such a long and varied career. What have been the highlights?
I must say doing Lovejoy was great. We laughed like drains for the whole however many years it was. It’s the same with Downton Abbey. It sounds like an old cliché but we did become a bit of a family with the crew as well as the cast and it was a joy to go to work every day. It’s six years of your life and that’s quite a substantial percentage of one’s working life. Then there are things like Secrets & Lies with Mike Leigh. That was phenomenal because I’d never done a Mike Leigh film before and it was such an extraordinary working process that it was certainly a highlight. And also back in the early days when you didn’t know where your career was headed, just to be doing theatre and little tours and maybe picking up a telly job here and there – those were more innocent days. Those were the days before mobile phones when you actually wrote letters to one another, some of which I came across recently. We used to write endless letters. [Laughs] I don’t know where we found the time but we used to write screeds of letters to each other. I’ve got many a fond memory and I feel very fortunate to have so many good memories and positive feelings about the whole business. 

And are there any jobs you’d rather forget?
[Laughs] There probably are but I’m not going to tell you that!

Stacked!: The Writers’ Tales

 

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To whet your appetite for this year’s community production, Stacked! we’re talking to some of those involved in the production. In the spirit of The Canterbury Tales, the production is made up of several stories, told – appropriately – by a group of people stuck in The Canterbury Tales pub (for the uninitiated, that’s the one just across the road from our theatre). The tales were written by members of our writers workshops. Here, a few of them discuss the inspiration behind their tale.


Barbara Woodhams: The Nun’s Tale.

“In the original Canterbury Tales, Chaucer wrote about a Prioress called Eglantine who was the head nun of a convent. She spoke French and ran a boarding school.

I chose this story because when my mum was at school she was chosen to read the part of Eglantine, and also because I enjoy writing parts for children.

It’s about two nuns from a convent school in Paris who are smuggling a group of immigrant children from the Calais camp. By pretending they were a school group, they had managed to get the last ferry out of Calais and are making their way to their sister convent in Thanet. They arrive at the Canterbury Tales after following a boy from their group who has run off.

The nuns ask to stay overnight and the landlord reluctantly agrees. Some of the customers are hostile at first, but change their minds after the children tell their stories.

I support a charity in London which is run by nuns. As well as being kind and compassionate they are down-to-earth and humorous. I hope my story will do them justice!”

Sally Allen: The Alien’s Tale

“When our writing class were invited to contribute towards the community production, Stacked!, it felt like a great opportunity but also a big responsibility.

I thought about who could represent the ultimate immigrant and eventually came up with the idea of an alien.

The first draft I submitted was far more adult led and Andy later asked if it could be tailored more towards the younger actors and to include more children. That proved to be great news for me as writing for children is fantastic – there’s nothing they won’t say, no need for subtlety and tact, it was game on.

My favourite character is John, ‘the wild one’ who ironically has a non speaking part. He came about naturally but I later realised it could provide the perfect part for a shy beginner.

Overall, it was great fun creating these characters and I hope the little aliens come across as ordinary kids, with extraordinary lives.”

Ribs Norman: The Widow’s Tale

“My contribution to Stacked! is based on The Wife Of Bath’s Tale. I chose to put a modern twist on The Wife Of Bath, the most interesting of Chaucer’s female characters. Knowing that she had multiple husbands, I thought it would be fun to change her into a murderous femme-fatale. I first tried a parody of Seven Ways To Leave Your Lover before settling on a cabaret number along the lines of He Had It Coming from Chicago. The end result was the lyrics to a five-verse song and pretty vague stage directions for a composer and choreographer to work their magic on. I’m really looking forward to seeing the end result and how it fits into the narrative framework that Andrew Dawson has created.”

Stacked!: Wednesday 13 & Thursday 14 July. Book here.

Meet the funders: Riki & Sara Samuel

 

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Here at The Marlowe Theatre, we don’t just put on great shows – we’re committed to working with our local community as well, whether that’s through our annual community production, our youth theatre or our schools programme. Our schools programme is funded by The Samuel Feldman NEC Fund. We spoke to its founder Riki Samuel, to find out why they decided to become involved.


Why did you decide to fund this work?

Both Sara and I were very blessed as children to have been given the opportunity to experience theatre in two wonderful, though very different environments. Sara was brought up in Budapest, and hugely benefited from the Communist regimes absolute commitment to the performing arts. Her love of theatre, opera and ballet are based on her youthful experiences.

I was brought up in Milngavie, but schooled in Glasgow, and was so fortunate to have been at a school that had a similar commitment to the arts. My own love of theatre, classical music and opera was inculcated by my parents, and thoroughly endorsed by many school trips to the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre, and the then famed St Andrew’s Halls.

For both of us, we recognize the widened emotional and cultural horizons that these experiences created for us, and they live with us till today, and will forever.

We now live in a different world, where resources for school activities are limited, and the costs of attending theatre rising to be beyond the reach of those many who have to live on restricted budgets. This means that many children and young students may never have the opportunity of being touched by the magical world of theatre!

Sara and I, and indeed our sons who are also Trustees of our family charitable trust, are committed to inclusivity, and we feel that The Marlowe’s innovative approach to inclusion through its Schools’ Programme is something we have to support. Through it, many youngsters will now have the opportunity to be touched by, and become involved in theatre’s magic, rather than being denied this life changing experience.

What do you hope the effect of this programme will be?

We hoped to widen opportunities for children and young students to experience theatre. Part of our funding covers the ability to provide tickets free of charge to schools with children and families who find themselves in financially challenging circumstances. We are proud that hundreds of children have been able to take advantage of this.

Similarly, we are delighted to be able to support the innovative programme led by Andy Dawson, that engages schools and teachers as well as students, with the hoped for outcome of engagement that will prove to have a lasting effect. This is one of the effects that we most strongly desire, and it seems that this is being realized.

Being outcome-based in much of our thoughts, Sara and I gave a challenge to the programme leaders, to help us find a provable outcome that would let us all know that what we were doing was having the desired effect. As a result, we have sponsored bursaries for students that have been touched by the Schools Programme, and the most talented, and committed, of them have been granted bursaries to the youth theatre, and we are delighted to say that one of the first bursary holders has now secured a place at University in London to study Drama. What a validation of the approach; what a wonderful thing it is to have had a small part in enriching someone’s life. We also know that other bursary holders have similarly won places at university, and we revel in their success.

You ask what we hope the effect of this programme will be? Our answer is that we can all help more youngsters follow the steps already taken, and for them to continue to flourish.

 

 

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 “Murder, greed, corruption, exploitation, adultery and treachery… all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts.” So begins the musical Chicago, coming to us this autumn. But was Chicago in the 1920’s really all that bad?


Well, quite possibly, yes… The 1920s were the time of Prohibition in the USA, when the manufacture and sale of alcoholic drinks was prohibited – hence the name – by law. But the legislation couldn’t remove the demand for alcohol, and one of the main results of Prohibition was to create business for organised crime, who manufactured alcohol illegally, or smuggled it in from Mexico or Canada.

With Canada just across the waters of Lake Michigan, Chicago was perfectly placed to be at the heart of this illegal trade. Add in corrupt politicians and public apathy, and Chicago became a city of organised crime, with rival gangs fighting it out to control the lucrative trade. The most famous of these gangsters was Al Capone, but there were many more.

The then, was the background to the two real-life murder trials which inspired Chicago. The story of murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly and their companions at the Cook County Jail were first told in a 1926 play of the same name, written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, and based on two actual murder trials she had covered as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

The first of these was that of Beulah Annan, the model for Roxie Hart. Beulah was tried and acquitted for the murder of her lover in 1924, despite changing her story several times. According to reports of the trial, after the shooting, Beulah sat and listened to a foxtrot record for several hours whilst her victim died. Like Roxie, Beulah’s husband stood by him, and just like Roxie, she unceremoniously dumped him when she regained her freedom. After her release, Beulah – who was dubbed ‘the Jazz killer’ by the press – married and divorced again before her death from TB in 1928.

The inspiration for Chicago‘s other lead murderess came from another unrelated murder case in the same year. Like Velma, Belva Gaertner was a cabaret singer, performing under the name Belle Brown. Estranged from her husband, a wealthy industrialist, Belva was accused of shooting dead her lover, Walter Law, a married man with one child. Law was found in Belva’s abandoned car, a gun and a bottle of gin on the seat beside him. When she was found at her apartment with blood-soaked clothes, Belva admitted she had been drunk and driving with Law, but had no recollection of what had happened to him. Her defense, which the jury accepted, was that Law could have killed himself.

Maurine Dallas Watkins, the writer of the original Chicago play, interviewed Belva, who told her: “No woman can love a man enough to kill him. They aren’t worth it, because there are always plenty more. Walter was just a kid—29 and I’m 38. Why should I have worried whether he loved me or whether he left me? Gin and guns—either one is bad enough, but together they get you in a dickens of a mess, don’t they?”

Sound advice… Although we’re not sure Roxie, Velma and their friends on the cell block would ever be able to follow it…

 You can book for Chicago here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dreamland

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Earlier this week, more than one hundred local school children took part in a very unusual performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Margate, produced by The Marlowe Theatre in partnership with King Ethelbert School and The Royal Shakespeare Company. We look back on an unusual day by the seaside.


It’s midsummer in Margate, and some strange solstice magic is stirring… There are fairies by the sea front, and runaway lovers hiding in the dodgems of Dreamland…

This could have been the most unusual productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream ever staged. All of the children who took part are pupils at schools who are part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Learning and Participation Network (RSC LPN to those in the know). We’re their regional theatre partner, working closely with two ‘clusters’ of schools. The first group, led by Canterbury High School, performed their version of Midsummer Night’s Dream, called The Dream:Met By Moonlight, in our auditorium back in March . This week’s performance was a chance for the second cluster, led by King Ethelbert School in Birchington, to show off what they’ve been working towards for the last year.

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The performances started at the Turner Contemporary (whose forecourt did a remarkably good job of standing in for the palace of Theseus, Duke of Athens).  The action then moved to two sights on the King’s Steps, before continuing in several parts of the town’s famous Dreamland amusement park. At each site, a different school performed a key scene from the play. So, as well as the court of Athens outside Turner, we also witnessed the craftsmen of Athens (the play’s famous ‘rude mechanicals’) planning their play to entertain their Duke, the four runaway lovers and their encounters with Puck in the dodgems of Dreamland, and the Fairy Queen Titania holding court at the bottom of the helter-skelter!

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The enthusiasm of the students was very clear, and their complete mastery of Shakespeare’s language impressed all of their audiences (including the accidental ones who’d thought they were having an ordinary day out in Margate!).

But – other than a day out of school – what benefits has this whole experience had for those involved. Felicity Henson, a teacher at one of the participating schools, St Mary’s Catholic Primary, says of her pupils: “They’ve really enjoyed it, they’ve had such good fun. The confidence as well, in some of them who maybe haven’t done this kind of thing before. They’ve really come out of their shells some of them. They’re now really used to using Shakespeare’s language and they were really unsure to begin.”

Now that, surely, really is magic.

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Stacked: The Musician’s Tale

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Yannis in rehearsals for Stacked!

World music comes to Canterbury after strings were pulled at a guitar lesson.


Andy Dawson, The Marlowe Theatre’s Head Of Creative Projects, was being taught to play by Yiannis Zaronis, a Greek-born musician, now living in Canterbury.

Yiannis works with people from different backgrounds who are often in difficult circumstances, including offenders, detainees, and young people at risk – “environments where music is not accessible”. He also works at youth centres and in schools. He taught music at Canterbury College for two years, and is a familiar face to many in the city for his live performances. These include Greek music nights at Zeus Ouzeria and Taverna, in Orange Street.

As director and co-writer of Stacked! this year’s Marlowe community production, Andy immediately spotted Yiannis’s potential and signed him up to write the music for the show, and appear in it.

The 35-year-old began learning the guitar at the age of nine, and in 1998 enrolled in the jazz programme of Fillipos Nakas School of Music in Athens, where he studied guitar with Takis Barberis, a highly-regarded and popular musician.

Yiannis and his partner made their home in Canterbury in 2003 (the couple now have two young children). He completed his BA Music at Christ Church University, followed by a Masters degree in Ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London, and a PGCE (teaching qualification).

“For my Masters, I studied the anthropology of music, which means I know a little bit about world music,” says Yiannis, modestly. “And this is important for Stacked!”

Stacked! is a modern-day Canterbury Tales, interweaving different stories with a common theme – a gridlocked city, where everyone is stuck in a pub (the Canterbury Tales, of course).

“I know of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and my first thought was to make Medieval English folk music for Stacked! But Andy didn’t want it to be so predictable, so I had to think again! It was challenging, but not so difficult.”

The different stories that make up Stacked! will feature music from different eras and of different styles – jazz swing from the 1940s, European waltzes, Middle Eastern drumming – and will be played live on stage by Yiannis and fellow musicians Roberto Soto (Venezuelan), Mark Camateras (half Greek/half English), and Thanos Ahtipis (Greek).

The musicians will accompany the singers: there are six songs, written by Andy, and performed by the actors (all from The Marlowe’s various creative workshops). While the songs have more of a western feel, the music will have stronger elements of world music, including the instruments played: the oud (necked bowl lute), bouzouki (necked bowl lute), and yaylil tanbur (bowed long-neck lute), among others.

“The music will take you to all different places and that’s the point of it, to travel through space and time,” says Yiannis, whose favourite music is traditional Greek, and Mediterranean – “music with soul”.

He adds: “I urge everyone to come along to see Stacked! Its topics are so very relevant to now and the large, passionate cast are all giving their 100 per cent. It’s going to be very entertaining.”

Stacked! : Wednesday 13 & Thursday 14 July. Book here.