Saturday, 8 October 2016

Sweeney was Smooth – Sweeney was Subtle

Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
88 London Road, Brighton, 4 – 29 October 2016.




Aficionados of this weblog may note a couple of disturbing trends: the only books I seem to review are about Jack the Ripper and the only shows are productions of Sweeney Todd.

Perhaps this reflects something of my macabre predilections, but the basic reason is that I only like to review subjects that I really know something about, and I’ve seen sufficient productions of Sweeney Todd to make even professional stick-shakers back away in fear.

There have been big productions of Sweeney Todd and small ones, and director Conor Baum’s interpretation is definitely at the small end of the scale, with just eight actors covering all the roles and the work of the chorus. Productions of this size can flounder, but Baum exploits the limitations entirely to his advantage. The small, claustrophobic space at 88 London Road is perfect for the gothic atmosphere and is used flawlessly to convey the variety of scenes visited as the story progresses, whilst maintaining its centre of Todd’s tonsorial parlour glowering above Mrs Lovett’s pie shop down below.

The mechanics of that set are vital to any production of Sweeney. It needs to work for Pirelli’s semiconscious body in the trunk, his hand reaching out and grasping; for delivering Todd’s victims down from his chair; for those victims to arrive in the cellar below. And on top of that we need a convincing bake-oven to boot. For any production that does not have an infinite budget, these can be a sticking point. Some ignore the problems; others bodge the solutions. Here, Cath Prenton’s set combined with some clever direction worked excellently, showing those things that could be achieved on stage and smoothly allowing our imaginations to fill in what couldn’t.

The cast did astonishing work in covering their own main roles plus countless minor parts. All sang wonderfully, though some seemed to get into the skin of their character a little better when singing than when speaking. Clear exceptions to that would be Alice Redmond (Mrs Lovett), Samuel Clifford (Beadle Bamford) and Alistair Higgins (Tobias), all of whom gave entirely convincing performances throughout. Indeed, Higgins was one of the best Tobys I’ve seen, avoiding the pitfall of being too sweet and just a bit too ‘musical theatre’. Anthony is always a difficult role to cast, and while Dale Adams sang it wonderfully, his presence on stage was more than a little too graceful to fit in with the grittiness of the rest of the cast. A bold but effective decision was made to cast Rebecca Bowden as both the beggar woman and Adolfo Pirelli. Pirelli requires a high tenor voice which is sometimes rewritten or simply fluffed. It was wonderful to hear Bowden hitting those notes clearly and beautifully – a full octave higher than the score. 

Alistair Higgins
Like the cast, the orchestra was similarly pared down to just three: cello, keyboard and piano, from which musical director Ellen Campbell conducted. At times this led, understandably, to a few gaps in comparison with the Broadway recording with which many in the audience will be familiar, but at others it was fascinating to hear individual musical lines that are often lost in the hubbub. The same was true of the choral numbers performed by just eight voices. Here nothing was lost (except perhaps the occasional oomph of a choir of sixty emitting a forte fortissimo ‘Swing your razor wide, Sweeney!’) and everything was gained. Each vocal line was clear and could be appreciated either on its own or as part of the overall harmony. As anyone who has sung them will know, these choral numbers are fiendishly tricky, and without exception the cast performed them brilliantly, in many cases with only a single voice on each line. As far as I could tell the score was complete with the exception of the tooth pulling (which is commonly cut) and The Tower of Bray, which I have to say I’d have liked to hear.

Alice Redmond
For any show as well-known as Sweeney cast and director must be working constantly to keep things interesting for an audience who for the most part know exactly what is coming next. Here there were always subtle and interesting things going on, such as the changing newspaper headlines for each scene and indeed the whole setting of the story as being some kind of newspaper report. And it’s always a treat to hear a new joke in a familiar text, in this case from Alice Redmond – prima inter pares of a hugely talented cast – during By the Sea with ‘I’ll be there slipping off your [pause] slippers.’ It may have been done before, but it was new to me.

I’d always recommend to someone who’s never seen Sweeney to go and see almost any production, including this one. The stronger recommendation is to those who have seen the show before – and Brighton’s full of them. This production really will add something to your appreciation of the show. And the good thing is it runs till the end of the month.



Links

88 London Road's website.
My review of English National Opera's 2015 production of Sweeney Todd.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

A Toe in the Water – Part One

Self-publishing.

Sounds a bit like self-publicity, doesn't it?

Others may disagree, but I think I'm rather poor at the latter (though I'm trying to do better, literally at this very moment). The question I'm currently contemplating is whether or not I'll prove to be any good at the former.

Late Whitsun Cover
My new detective novel Late Whitsun is due out next Thursday, October 13th. Everything’s ready to go, pretty much, and so now I’m faced with a hiatus; the calm before the … well, let’s hope for some kind of storm.

And so now would seem like a good time to share my experiences so far, and I choose this moment before publication specifically because I have no idea whatsoever if what I’ve done will prove to be effective or otherwise. The proof of that pudding will be reported here later in A Toe in the Water – Part Two, when I hope to be describing the spectacular success of the whole venture – or its desperate failure – or something betwixt the two. Then, perhaps, will come Part Three in which with the wisdom of hindsight – the only kind there is – I’ll look back and consider what I should have done. Hopefully it will consist of just four words: ‘Exactly what I did.’ Some hope.

But for now my head is still full of what I’ve been working at over the last few weeks and months: the mechanical rather than creative process of turning the original script into something that can be sold to and read by the world at large. I’m lucky in that I’ve have previous books that have gone out through a mainstream publisher (The Danilov Quintet from Penguin Random House). That means I know what needs to be done – know what the steps are and to some extent have seen others performing them. There are pros and cons of having people to do things for you. Obviously it’s less work, but sometimes you have to bite your tongue when you think you can do better. Doing it yourself means doing everything yourself – or delegating it, though it’s still your responsibility. Some of those tasks are fun, others tiresome.


Danilov Quintet Covers
The Danilov Quintet

So here’s what had to be done:

First, as Mrs Beeton might have put it, write your novel. I hardly need to go into how you do that – it’s very simple – but it does count as one of the fun tasks and no one else can do it for you (James Paterson notwithstanding).

Second, in discussion with various mainstream publishers decide that self-publication is the best route for you. Again, we don’t need to go into details, but switching genres (in my case from horror to crime) is a big factor here.

Third, get feedback. The problem is not finding people who’ll read your work, but finding those who’ll give you honest, useful feedback. The risk is that your friends and relations will be wary of causing offence, and may not have the expertise to judge anyway. Again, I think having been published previously helps here for several reasons: it gives you a better idea of how to fix any problems identified, it gives you a better idea of who to get feedback from and it makes it easier for the reader to treat you as an author rather than just as a friend. On this front I have particularly to thank Katie Piatt, Chris Horlock and Helen Casey.

Fourth, get the script copy-edited. This is a job for a professional. You can find organizations who will do this for a fee online, though I was lucky enough to have a friend (the inestimable Peter Lavery) who is an expert at such things. It’s always astonishing to discover from a copy-edit just how much rubbish one is capable of writing – and reading again and again without noticing. Even if you don’t agree with the editor’s suggestions, the benefit is that you are forced to think individually about every sentence – every word – you’ve written.
The Copy Edit
The Copy Edit
It’s worth noting a subtle but significant difference in the process here between self-publishing and going through a publisher. With a publisher, you get the copy-edit and you go through it and approve, alter or reject the changes suggested. Your notes go back to the publisher and get incorporated into the script. When you’re self-publishing, every change you make has to be incorporated into the script by you yourself – extra work for you. It can make you tend to reject more of the suggestions than you might have done, but it does also encourage you to think in depth about all of them.

Fifth, proofread. You have to do this yourself, but it’s essential to get others to do it too. Call in favours and perhaps call in professionals.

Sixth, choose your platform. Maybe I should have though more about this one, but went for Amazon (Kindle Direct Publishing for e-book and Create Space for print) on the basis of ‘No one ever got fired for choosing …’ (A phrase originally applying to IBM – whatever happened them?) I’d originally thought Kindle only, but using Create Space for a print version is only a little more effort and it seems like a waste not to exploit all the effort you've put in so far.

Seventh, proofread again.

Eighth, design a cover. For me, this is one of the really fun bits. I’ve absolutely no artistic talent, but I have become pretty handy with Photoshop. Alternatively, platforms like Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) provide some good cover templates, but even then I’d suggest doing some customization yourself. Again there are companies online which will do this for you, but by the look of a few such covers I’ve seen, they really don’t have their heart in it like the author would. Obviously you can get someone to do it for you, but a good cover image would be expensive. As with things like the copy-edit, pull in favours if you need to.

The First Blurb - By Gelett Burgess
The First Blurb
Ninth, write your back cover copy – your blurb. Odd word that, but used throughout the industry (see here for its origins). I’ve seen companies offering to do this for you too, but that seems very odd to me. If you can put together the tens of thousands of words that make up a novel, you ought to be able to manage a couple of paragraphs to sell your story. I suppose my publishers would have written the blurb for me, but I’ve always done it myself, in collaboration with my editor. And bear in mind, of course, that’s it’s not just going on the back cover – the kindle edition won’t even have one. This is what is going to make people want to read your book.

Tenth, proofread yet again. It always astounds me how many minor errors I find on every iteration of proofreading. For me it’s mostly missing words (‘he went the shops’) mistaken words (‘it was and very interesting book’) and homophones (‘it was all to much’). I think I’m more aware of them when self-publishing. With a publisher the last time I read my work is with the page-proofs and I might catch a few mistakes there, but I know that a team of professional proof-readers is also going through them. I presume they do a good job, but I can’t say for sure, since I’ve never read the final printed version of one of my own books. It’s always been someone else’s problem. Now it’s my problem.

One thing I’ve always done is read the text out loud, usually at least twice, once much earlier in the process while I’m still drafting, and again at around this point. It’s good for checking that the style is working, particularly with dialogue, but it also tends to catch different kinds of mistakes from those you’ll find when reading to yourself. But still errors get through, because you autocorrect as you’re reading, before the words even get to your conscious mind. For this book, I tried a further trick of using text-to-speech software to read the book back to me. The software makes no mistakes and then you process it with a different part of your brain (I reckon) from when your reading. I certainly caught a few errors this way – though obviously not those of punctuation and homophonic spelling. Don't get too depressed by the monotonous delivery making your story sound dull.

The Formatted Page
The Formatted Page
Eleventh, format. At this point your script is going to split into an e-book version and a print version. That means you really want to have finalized your text by now – from here on any mistakes you discover (and you will) will have to be corrected separately in both versions. The e-book version is fairly easy, since the actual formatting is done on-the-fly by the e-reader itself; just follow the guidelines that KDP (or your chosen provider) gives. Print formatting is more work and actually, I found, rather fun. You can download a template, but then you’ll have to copy over your text and fit it to the new page size. For me it’s interesting work and the exciting thing is that at this point your work starts to really look like a book – the same as when you get page proofs from your publisher.

Twelfth, yes, proofread again. All that mucking around with formatting, you’re bound to have made some mistakes.

Thirteenth, upload. This is pretty quick and easy. For both e-book and print you’ll then be able look at an electronic version of the finished product. For an e-book, this is exactly what your customers will be getting, whereas of course for the print version it’s not quite the same thing. Order a physical proof for one last check, not so much for content but for formatting, cover and print quality. Mine’s due to arrive later today.

Quick rant here. Amazon’s Create Space charges for proofs and other author copies; that’s perfectly fair. They also charge for postage for these copies; again, no problem. However, they only print these copies in the USA, so the shipping costs to the UK are huge, particularly if you want to get them in any reasonable timescale. Customer copies are printed in the UK, so it’s not a problem in that case, but I’ve found no good reason they can’t do that for author copies.

And finally, publicize, which is perhaps a better subject for a later article. For now, I’m following the advice of others: get reviewed online, use social media, tell your friends.

And, of course, blog.


LATE WHITSUN is available from Amazon.