Armada: a voyage to the Fringe

423 years ago the Spanish Armada encountered a turbulent but determined journey across stormy seas. Three years ago, in 2009, Rob Winlow’s Armada the Musical first set sail with comparable determination, epic journey and narrative – but with the additional grandeur of song and choreography. This year, Armada sets forth again, on its maiden journey to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The York Musical Theatre Company was reluctant at first to allow this Armada to “sail”. However, this just provoked Winlow, a devoted member of the company for 10 years, to fight for its cause. The Armada progressed to a rehearsed read-through in November 2009 and two years later, a performance at the Rowntree Theatre, York, with a cast of 25. Now, Winlow is about to transport his Armada‘s raring troops (now only eight of them), under the new name of the Old Hall Theatre Company, onto a Scottish battlefield with approximately 2500 contenders and one million thirsty spectators, including those notorious for the ‘make or break’ of many theatre companies. Aka: critics.

Luckily, the eight of the “last men standing” have formed a strong camaraderie. Professional musician and cast member Jessa Liversidge, who plays a feisty Queen Elizabeth I, informs me it’s irrelevant that there is a 34 year age gap between the oldest and youngest in the cast. Everyone is a professional with creative opinions wholly valued: “Rob really values everyone’s say”. Liversidge has been a member of the York Musical Theatre Company for 17 years and it’s clear that the company has played a huge part in her life. Although she wanted to study drama at university, this was seen as “frivolous” and subsequently acquired a BA in Chemistry. After graduating, she joined the company and proceeded to prosper in lead roles, fulfilling a “lifelong ambition” to play Maria in The Sound of Music. “It’s been fantastic and professional,” she enthuses. “Amateur groups are an essential breeding ground for young talent. It allows young people to experience performing and the technical aspects in a non-threatening, supportive environment. Without amateur theatre I’m not sure what the first rung on a career in theatre would look like.”

Just look at the credits behind the York Musical Theatre Company, proving age has no bounds when it comes to talent: from recent RADA graduate Samuel Edward Cook (who recently appeared in Ella Hickson’s Boys at the Nuffield and Soho Theatres and will soon be seen in BBC1 drama Land Girls) to Winlow himself – not only writer, director and performer but a BBC Radio 2 Golden Oldie nominee, nominated for two of the songs in Armada. This 110-year-old company is proving that “amateur” is not to be underestimated.

Winlow’s Radio 2 nomination is a source of pride for the entire cast. The song ‘Once in a While’, performed by Russell Fallon as a flirty Sir Francis Drake and a cantankerous Spanish commander, is full of tenderness and aplomb. For Reese McMahon (only 17), this will be his singing debut of ‘If I were you’. Liversidge praises McMahon for playing his role as romantic lead with innovation, creating a character who “is posh, awkward, funny: not what you’d typically expect”. The Queen Elizabeth actress affirms the entire cast’s pride at “how completely special it is to do something newly written”.

Winlow devised the concept whilst reading his son’s history homework on the 1588 Spanish tragedy. Though Winlow is the main brain behind the concept, it is also, rather specially, a Winlow family creation, as he explains: “My son, Edward, gained a first in music composition and has arranged the vocal parts, supplied the backing tracks and even wrote the music for a couple of the songs.” His daughter Lally helped to edit the newly formed script to get it ready for the Fringe and his 16-year-old son Will is tackling the roles of Lord Walsingham and King Philip. So how did Winlow get started on the project – and what advice can other young musical theatremakers take from his experience? He advises, “Find the story you want to tell; have a beginning and an end; decide how you are going to tell the story – i.e. retrospectively or real time or with narration etc. Then fill in the bits, in between deciding how the story breaks up into workable chunks. Then make these your scenes.” When you have these, he suggests getting a group of friends and a couple of people from your local theatre group to show them your work in progress. “Ask them what they think and would it be something they could possibly develop.” With the support of friends and a tightly formed cast, the Armada is proof that one person’s idea has every potential to flourish.

Whilst Armada is full of historical events and real people (Kelly Derbyshire, 21, and Ben Williams, 15, play other notable figures Mary Queen of Scotland and Lord Burghley) Liversidge emphasises that it is a story.  The retelling in fact follows fictional protagonist Sarah (played by Stephanie Bolsher, 16) who is caught up in turbulent proceedings both fictitious and historic. “The audience will have to use their imagination throughout the story,” Liversidge divulges. “Sarah has the power to transport herself and communicate with people in a different place.” How she has the power exactly and how this will be enacted remains to be discovered.

Winlow adds: “As the story has two characters with supernatural powers it’s really great we can perform a couple of magic tricks on stage.” This other mystical character he talks of is Doctor John Dee (played by Winlow himself), real life English citizen and intellect. “It was a real find to discover Dr John Dee, the Queen’s astrologer/alchemist/mathematician/bogus magician, as a real historical character. Elizabeth I tolerated him because he regularly visited her when she was incarcerated in the Tower in her youth. And I get to play him as a likeable rogue!” Liversidge chuckles as she offers a glimpse into the humour of the play, describing how the Armada’s creator dances and rejoices in his love for Sarah in a fashion which plays on West Side Story.

Clearly there’s lots at play here, and Liversidge affirms, “It is difficult to put into one category: it has romance, it is comic and there is drama.” Her character, Queen Elizabeth I herself, is a gutsy go-getter, determined to do what she thinks is right. “She also feels quite lonely: that she doesn’t have anyone to turn to.” With an emotional depth and a comedic take on historic events, Armada ensures there won’t be any of the yawns that populate GCSE history lessons at school. You never know, you might learn something this time.

Armada the Musical plays at Paradise in Augustine’s from 6 – 11 August at the Edinburgh Fringe, performed by Old Hall Theatre Company / York Musical Theatre Company. To book tickets, visit www.edfringe.com or for more information about the show itself visit www.armadathemusical.com.

Image credit: Rob Winlow

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