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With Robin Hood & Marian now taking centre-stage, here’s an interview with composer James Atherton at the very start of rehearsals…
“We’re doing a show!” beams James Atherton to whoops of delight from the 24 children gathered in front of him.
It may only be September, but this is the first rehearsal for the Robin Hood & Marian Young Company. Musical Director, James, is sitting behind a piano putting the performers through their paces.
“It’s really great to have such a strong young company,” he says later: “They work their socks off to bring our songs to life.”
Film, television and theatre composer James, has composed for big name documentaries such as the BBC’s Around the World in 80 Faiths and Tales from the National Parks. But our theatre-in-the-round is like a second home.
He has created breath-taking scores for every Christmas show since The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in 2009, with a fair few other productions in between. He’s even made it on to the elite of the theatre’s running squad.
“Yes, I’m part of the New Vic running team, they’re a force to be reckoned with!” James laughs, continuing: “It’s only a matter of time before I combine both things and write a musical about running!”
Today’s rehearsal space – the New Vic’s Stephen Joseph Room – is large enough to jog around, unlike the minuscule music store in which he and Artistic Director Theresa Heskins have been holed up writing songs.
“We start planning really early; it begins even before the previous Christmas show has finished,” James says: “It starts with Theresa giving me a clear vision of what she wants to do with the production. In our early conversations we talk about style and genre – sometimes you get the genre straight away; with The Hundred and One Dalmatians we knew from the start that we needed 1950’s music.”
He adds: “By the time rehearsals begin, all the songs are written so the actors bring it together; it’s only then that I can decide what the arrangement is going to be.” Stockport-based James explains the techniques used to take Robin Hood & Marian audiences on a journey through the production.
“We’ve got quite a big filmic score this time, it will really swing through the high drama of the story,” he says: “In the past I’ve recorded some shows rather than play live, like Around the World in Eighty Days. These scores feel very filmic as the recording takes place in a studio so you can sound as if you have an entire orchestra at your disposal.
“Often, when pieces are played live on-stage there is me and a few actor-musicians playing. For Robin, it will be a fusion of the two things; live music alongside very clever music technology which you normally only find in a studio, plus the actor musicians.
“From beginning to end it will take the audience with it. Ten minutes into the production the music will become an underscore to the whole show.”
James, a father of two and married to writer Sarah Nelson, is a pianist by trade but dabbles in many an instrument. He fondly recalls his grandfather teaching him to play the piano: “My grandfather was a pianist and we lived with them for a while; my grandparents had the upstairs of the house and we lived downstairs. I had a piano but didn’t really play it.
“When I was around seven-years-old I went to see a show and I loved the music so when I got home I sat at the piano and worked out how to play this one song.”
And it all started from there.
“My grandad and I used to play together; when I started getting better I would join in when I could hear him playing upstairs.”
After pursuing an interest in drama at school and as part of numerous youth theatre groups, James went to Central School of Speech and Drama to study theatre.
“It was a little bit like being at school, I was the person who played the piano and created the atmosphere. I started writing my own music and songs around this time too,” he recounts: “I stumbled into musical directing, doing a placement with English Touring Opera and, when I left Central, they gave me a job. I worked all over the UK, making new work with young singers.”
James’ first foray into working with the New Vic came in 2009 when he composed for Youth Theatre production, The Garden.
“At that time Theresa was starting to think about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and was looking for composers. She sent me the lyrics and I wrote the music,” he says: “I was really nervous, I’d already fallen in love with the space and I was desperate to work here with a professional company. The show was set in World War II so it connects to my grandad as he taught me the songs of that era. I did get the job and one of the pieces in the show was written by him.”
In all the years he’s been associated with the theatre-in-the-round, does a favourite show stand out?
“I’ve got two…actually I’ve got loads and loads! I’ve got a little bit of love for them all,” he replies: “I really loved Alice in Wonderland and Around the World in Eighty Days was such good fun. In terms of Christmas, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is up there too.”
A man whose talents are quite clearly in demand, James frequently works in television and film and although he describes the big screen as ‘very exciting’, he is quick to point out that theatre is his first love. Alongside his composing expertise, he is Artistic Director of Oldham Theatre Workshop, a community theatre organisation which clearly gives him a lot of joy.
“I’m passionate about work with young performers and how theatre can help people see the world in different ways,” he says.
In addition to working on Robin Hood & Marian, James is currently collaborating with aerialists Upswing on their latest highflying project. He also recently revived his musical, Eyam, a production which was originally the subject of a BBC documentary and tells the story of a small Derbyshire village hit by the plague in 1665.
It’s certainly a busy life, and definitely never dull.
As the interview draws to a close, I wonder if he ever ponders joining actors on-stage as he sits in the music corner that he so regularly calls home?
“Never!” he laughs: “All the actors are so brilliant it wouldn’t occur to me to want to be in their shoes. I love being on the stage but at the side, connected to it that way.”