The arts world could never be accused of being over-funded, so to set up a new venture is always a bold move. Despite this, confidence is high among the team at newly formed production company, Northern Ricochet.
Helmed by director James Baker, musical director Tom Chester and the upcoming artistic director of Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre, Bill Elms, Northern Ricochet has big ambitions. The trio in charge first worked together on productions at Hope Mill Theatre, including the award-winning Parade, where they discovered a joint passion to create high-quality theatre outside of London, giving a platform to Northern actors and undiscovered Northern talent.
Starting a new company doesn’t come without challenges. “The hardest thing is that you feel you have to take the risk yourself,” admits Baker. “Years ago, when Arts Council funding was more readily available, you knew you might be able to access some of it, but now you’re very much the driver of your company’s success or failure.”
Elms adds: “You’re more exposed because it’s a gamble setting up any company, really. You have a vision and a passion for it, but nobody really knows how well something is going to do or how well audiences are going to connect with it.”
There may be less margin between success and failure in the current climate, but the company’s first project shows no lack of ambition. Jerry Springer – The Opera caused a storm when it first hit the stage in 2003. Written by Richard Thomas, with additional lyrics by Stewart Lee, the musical is based on US TV’s infamous Jerry Springer Show. The programme was one the first daytime shows where members of the public got the chance to air their dirty laundry in a bear-pit style environment. The stage show sees the host faced with some of his most challenging guests ever.
“We had a lot of discussion about what that first show would be,” says Chester. “We all decided on Jerry Springer – The Opera because we think this is a show people really wanted to come back after an absence of more than 15 years.”
Baker agrees. “You don’t see this show very often, so catch it now because who knows if it’ll ever get another revival. It’s also an expensive show and, although we’ve been very intelligent about the way we’ve produced it financially, the market doesn’t sustain shows at this scale.”
He continues: “Hope Mill is a perfect fit for us. It offers the chance to do small-scale work but with big ambition. Working with the team on Parade, and the success it had, put us on the map and created a new musical theatre community up here. We’re accessing new work and reviving work in a new and unique way.”
It’s clear that celebrating talent north of the Watford Gap is the biggest driver for the company. Elms explains: “The way musical theatre is going outside of London at the moment is that we’re seeing this growth back into rep with northern producing houses offering the chance for actors, who really deserve the employment, to base themselves up here.”
Baker adds: “There are still so many places that feel that you have to be in London to get all the work opportunities. What we’re trying to do is give options and let people know we’re here for them. It was important when we regrouped after Parade, that we focused on how passionate we were about the North. The values and ethics we share in making a show are crucial to us. We want to celebrate the North to its core and put its creative talents on the map. This show includes a choir of singers from places like St Helens, an area that hasn’t really been tapped into before.”
Which brings us to the complexities of mounting such a massive musical project. The show merges a playground of different styles and genres. “We’ve got a chorus of 12 plus 14 principles so it’s going to blow the roof off,” says Chester. “It’s very much event theatre and the coming together of all these forces will be quite an overwhelming experience. Stylistically, the show is so varied in its sonic palate. There’s not only the opera strand but there’s a very heavy rock element to it as well as the ‘show’ feel so you get this real melting pot of styles creating a blistering sound.”
The musical examines a genre of TV that recently hit the headlines in the UK when the controversial Jeremy Kyle Show was taken off the air following a post-show tragedy.
Chester believes that people appear on these shows to be heard. “They wanted to find understanding as well as celebrity, but ultimately they were just exploited for entertainment.”
“This piece of work is topical and relevant,” Baker says. “Theatre has to represent the audiences who are experiencing it, so while this show is about America, its position politically also says a lot about our climate, our world and our politics. You might see yourself represented or have your values challenged in a way you haven’t had before. Theatre is as much about asking questions as nourishing someone’s needs. If it’s divisive in its approach, so be it.”
The world has rarely been as baffling and insane as it is at the moment. I wonder if the show will shock as much as it did 16 years ago now that the real world has pretty much caught up with the general madness?
“That’s the point we’re making,” says Baker. “We’re holding the mirror up and questioning what it all means now. You can demonise TV producers all you want but it’s about supply and demand. If you click onto that channel you instantly make a moral contract with that piece of television and you have to accept that responsibility. I never watched those shows as the results were only negative. Kyle was all about conflict resolution, who was good and who was bad, defining what was right and wrong. Springer celebrated the entirety of the human race be it good or bad. Inevitably, it all got ramped up to attract bigger viewing figures.”
It’s safe to say that the stage show is not for the easily offended. Nine venues pulled out of the touring production after members of Christian Voice threatened to picket while others had protesters outside. In addition, a BBC2 broadcast of the show resulted in more than 50,000 complaints. They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity so I asked Elms – who also runs his own marketing and PR company – if it would be a sign they’d got the show right if people picket or walk out.
“It’ll be interesting to see if we get protesters outside like they did before,” he admits. “Because that controversy was a huge part of it first time around, especially when it toured. We’ve actually had great feedback on the project already because of the time that’s elapsed since the show was last on, so we’ll see what happens.”
Chester adds: “What I’d hope is that members of the audience are exposed to a piece that is quite liberated as well as profound, where they leave realising the show has hit them unexpectedly hard. There was a shock value initially and we’ll see how far the real world has now caught up. If it has, it’s only taken a little over 15 years and it makes you wonder what’s going to happen in the next 15.”
“One of the scary things that has happened is digital compliance and our ability to digest and not think,” says Baker. “In the show we engage with the idea of how technology has changed. When the piece was originally performed, social media was still in its infancy but now it’s unavoidable not to talk about it in the show. Freedom of speech and opinions are everywhere.”
As the show is being performed in the same city which produced the Jeremy Kyle Show, will the much-maligned host receive an invite? “We do want to invite Jerry Springer,” says Elms, “as we believe he’s in the UK at the time working up in Edinburgh.” Meanwhile, Baker says: “I’d love to invite Jeremy Kyle to the show and have a wonderful conversation with him. Great art creates a reaction, be it good or bad, with the right intention and merit behind it, so I’d love to see him there.”
Jerry Springer – The Opera is at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, August 9-31, 2019. For more information or to book tickets, click here.