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Susan Boyle, lunchtime Mass and the Dramatists Club: a week in theatreland

Susan Boyle (Getty)

Ten years ago I devised a stage musical based on the film Priscilla Queen of the Desert. We developed the script in a workshop in Melbourne where everyone was invited to suggest ideas, songs and scenes. A most relaxing kind of writing ensued where the author simply jotted down the best notions. My favourite was:

Sad Female Impersonator: “Why do we go on, enduring insults and being overlooked like this?”
Flamboyant Female Impersonator: “It’s so we can be more like real women.”

I stopped commuting to Australia after the show opened and it went on to conquer the world. But that season was spent in a blur of jet lag, made worse by trips to California to negotiate and acquire rights from MGM.

“Blur” is an inadequate description of hefty jet lag. The brain ceases to function properly, and gives one the symptoms of a marginal stroke victim. You reach for strategies to conceal the deficiencies, like victims of early dementia.

It’s the pilots I worry about.

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I’m involved in a workshop for a new musical. A workshop is a strange hybrid. Actors and singers rehearse hurriedly and then perform for a producer-invited audience. There is a certain unsteadiness to the whole event. Someone reads aloud and/or describes events: “We are in a large sitting room … George steps through the window …” It is vital that the participants collaborate by using their imaginations.

The best workshops yield an excited idea of what might be. But most, despite the huge effort committed to them, are merely glimpses of an outline. This one went well.

A few strides from where we rehearse in central London is the French church off Leicester Square (Notre Dame de France). I’m fond of the occasional weekday Mass, for which the homeless are conducted elsewhere, with only a handful of them remaining. The snuffling and snoring of those sleeping off a hangover can seem like music, especially if, as was the case on a recent visit, the Gospel is inscrutable.

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I loved A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter at Nicholas Hytner’s amazing Bridge Theatre. Written by Martin McDonagh, it is dazzling, funny, serious and deeply affecting. Those four adjectives are the source and heart of all good theatre.

Jim Broadbent is brilliant as a dim-witted and vengeful Hans Christian Andersen. The play operates on a level of high fantasy which commits the audience to the reality of the human soul. It ended its run a few nights ago, so will someone please revive it? It’s a work that changes the way we see.

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Christopher Hampton is an acquaintance through our membership of the Dramatists Club, open only to those who have had a play in the West End. Founded a century ago by George Bernard Shaw, JM Barrie, Arthur Wing Pinero and others, it comprises a bunch of playwrights who dine together four times a year. I envy Christopher his ability to earn a living by his skill translating the work of others, enjoying a run of success at the moment with plays written (in French) by Florian Zeller. Christopher dazzled previously with his translations of Art and Dangerous Liaisons. But we must not ignore his own excellent original plays, including The Philanthropist.

Money is not the root of evil but it can evidently reduce the availability of good original work. I speak purely from envy.

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I’m enjoying working with Herbert Kretzmer, lyricist of Les Misérables. Herbie translated lyrics from the French but not literally. “J’avais rêvé d’une autre vie” is rendered more powerfully by “I Dreamed a Dream”. He has a large photograph of Susan Boyle discreetly on a wall at home. As you would if she had sold 40 million copies of your song.

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Some time ago I attended a concert version of a show called Cristina. It has not yet been produced in London by our cowardy-custard producers, despite its music being composed by Benny and Björn (of ABBA), despite running for years in Sweden and despite Kretzmer’s superb lyrics. It includes one of the most powerful songs ever heard, the impact of which can’t be felt without the music, but You Have To Be There is religious in its intensity and intention. The heroine, abandoned and desperate, sings:

Who when I die will throw open his arms to receive me?
Who will forgive me and take me and show me his face?
When I go to my rest, who will watch me and wake me?
When my time comes at last, will you grant me your grace? …
You do have to be there, you have to
My life I have placed in thy keep
And without you I am drifting on a dark and stormy sea
You have to be there, you have to
Without you I’d drown in the deep
Too far, too far from land
The waters drag me down
I reach for your hand.
It’s a hand we all hope to hold one day.

Allan Scott is a screenwriter and producer