It’s a brand new musical, not yet in full production, and of enormous interest to me. That’s because it features the songs of Soft Cell, and singer Marc Almond – and effectively they’ve been the soundtrack to my life! So in my opinion, this piece – which gives many of their songs a complete recontextualisation and reinterpretation – should be fascinating for anyone who knows and loves them as much as I do.
And for me personally, attending the showcase gave me an intriguing insight into the production process for a musical of this kind. And I was delighted that – from a travel blog perspective – it also gave me the opportunity to experience again The Vaults – a totally fabulous and quirky hidden London venue!
How did Tainted come about?
As a non-theatrical (well, only if I get upset – haha!), attending the Tainted showcase has given me a fascinating insight into the process of putting on a production such as this. That’s been augmented by reading the showcase book (programme), and chatting to the writers and others involved, to learn how this piece came into being.
Tainted was originally the idea of stand-up comedian, writer and broadcaster Charlie Ross MacKenzie. And that was after a chance meeting with Marc Almond in a London TV studio led to him – and journalist, writer and playwright Michael McManus – attending Marc’s gig at the O2 Shepherds Bush Empire on 1 May 2015.
Both Charlie and Michael had been big fans of Marc Almond and Soft Cell for years. And so after the gig, as they chatted into the night over around 5 pints(!), the Tainted musical concept was born!
Having got Marc Almond’s blessing for the venture, Charlie and Michael then developed Tainted over the next 3 years. That process included many meetings in Soho – like in the Admiral Duncan pub, with Marc Almond music on the jukebox in the background, to create the right inspirational atmosphere!
There were many intensive workshops and rewrites, and then things really took off for Tainted in late summer 2017. At this point, Guildford School of Acting became involved to workshop the piece intensively – and Marc Almond said he wanted to see a showcase production.
And so it came about that two showcase performances of Tainted took place on 24 October 2018. One in the afternoon was primarily for existing/potential backers and producers. And one in the evening was for the public – made possible by their generous Kickstarter campaign donations.
The Showcase Venue – The Vaults, Waterloo, London – a very special place!
The Tainted showcases took place at a very appropriate venue indeed – The Vaults, set in a maze of disused railway arches under Waterloo Station in London! It describes itself as ‘London’s home for immersive theatre and alternative arts’.
Before you even get inside The Vaults you should admire it from its Leake Street entrance! Leake Street is a fabulous 300m long tunnel where street art is proactively tolerated by Lambeth Council, despite it being technically illegal. On almost any given day you can go down there and see someone up a ladder spray-painting! It’s also known as Banksy Tunnel, after it came into being during the May 2008 Cans Festival that Banksy organised.
Street art in ‘Banksy Tunnel’ – Leake Street, Waterloo, London in October 2018 (click on individual images to enlarge)
The Vaults itself is a fabulous theatre venue and bar. I’d been delighted to encounter it for the first time when I went a couple of years ago to the enormously fun and gruesome interactive dining experience Dinner at The Twits’, based on characters by Roald Dahl.
Dark and grotto-like, The Vaults manages to pull off feeling raw – and yet sumptuous – at the same time. Dimly lit with multi-colours, and full of velour and shabby chic furniture, for me, its mood is both avant-garde and glamorously seedy. In short then, it’s a magnificent backdrop for a story based on the music of Soft Cell and Marc Almond!
And even better, The Vault’s team have now opened the bar Vaulty Towers across the road on Lower Marsh, and decorated it in a similar vein.
Have a look at The Vaults’ own web page for more great images of productions and installations that have been put on in the context of this wonderful venue.
Dave Ball, Marc Almond, and other special guests at the Tainted showcase!
Soft Cell music man Dave Ball came to see the Tainted afternoon showcase. And singer Marc Almond came to the evening performance. The word on the street is that Marc Almond loved it!
In the afternoon, I also spotted Soft Cell saxophonist Gary Barnacle, and Su Pollard from Hi-de-Hi!
The Tainted showcase production
So finally, let’s get on to the showcase itself!
I’ve got no pictures of my own of the performance itself, as the performers’ contracts prevented me from taking them. I’ve been promised some official photos, and I’ll add these to this blog once they’re available. But I was allowed to take pictures of the set etc.
The point of a theatrical showcase is to give the feel of a piece before it goes into full production. Indeed, it’s intended to make a full production more likely, by attracting backers and producers.
Therefore the Tainted musical showcase was a semi-produced piece, with a partial set, scripts in hands, and no choreography or costumes. To compensate for all that – and to move the story along – for the showcase only, there was a narrator who told the story between the songs.
On the day, Caitlin Ricaud was official videographer for the showcases, so that the Tainted team can review and improve the production. Caitlin is a young filmmaker, currently taking a BA degree in Film and Television at the London College of Communication. She is no stranger to working with Soft Cell’s songs. That’s because she was recently asked to conceive and produce short films as backdrop visuals for five songs at Soft Cell’s 40th anniversary last ever concert at the O2 in London on 30 September 2018. What a fantastic start to her career!
The Tainted storyline
I’m not going to recount the whole Tainted storyline here. In case, and in the hope that, the musical does go to full production – I want to avoid too many spoilers, and just give a feel of it.
The songs of Soft Cell and Marc Almond are frequently mini theatrical dramas in themselves. Often, one song will tell a story – neatly encapsulated, end-to-end – of defiance and triumph in the face of tragedy and adversity.
And so at its heart, Tainted is about the people who are the themes of Soft Cell and Marc’s song lyrics. They are those who dare to be different – the marginalised and the excluded. So this musical contains characters – and they certainly are characters! – who work hard to win acceptance, while also being true to themselves, and surviving against the odds.
Therefore the overarching story arc of Tainted is a relatively thin one, with the themes of friendship, love, loss, diversity – and ultimately, survival – provided throughout it by the songs. The storyline seemed to me more like a skeleton – but that is all that was needed – on whose bones hung the flesh of the interweaving stories of Tainted‘s individual characters, as told by the songs.
The Tainted story is actually told across six decades, with all the action in the same bar venue in Soho, London. Flashbacks to three time periods – the 40s, 70s and 80s – are mixed around and interwoven to tell the stories of some of the faces who frequented the bar. And in doing so, they give us a commentary – both on the changing nature of Soho and London – and on the changing nature of British society and tolerance.
The setup device for this at the start is someone coming to view the – by then – derelict bar, intending to reopen and reinvigorate it, after the previous owner left quickly with unpaid bills. If you’re a lover of Soho – as I am- then it’s an uplifting start, as I would love it if more of the old bars reopened, to reverse Soho’s increasing gentrification.
And back to Tainted, we quickly learn that this potential bar purchaser is none other than Marcia – the very person who had been the owner of the bar all down the decades – and who we then see in all the flashback action. So if your maths is good(!), you’ll have realised that – in a suspension of reality and disbelief – Marcia – being a constant thread throughout the bar’s different guises – is seemingly ageless and immortal.
So the action starts in 1944 in the bar’s incarnation as a burlesque joint – Le Grand Guignol – which attracts, protects and cherishes the waifs, strays and misfits of the time.
The action kicks off when a Polish RAF pilot – Misha – enters, and declares he is looking for ‘vodka and entertainment’! Aren’t we all dear, aren’t we all!
And Misha does find entertainment – and more – in the form of lost soul Nathalie, the club singer. Although we see these characters themselves only briefly – their chance meeting sets off a chain of events that reverberates down the years throughout the rest of the musical.
By 1972, the bar has morphed into the Gutter Hearts Club, who’s feel captures the early stages of glam rock.
We’re introduced to my favourite character – Neville – played brilliantly in both a young and older guise by actors who coincidentally pass off convincingly as younger and older versions of each other. The whole storyline involving Neville is a strong and highly poignant thread throughout the musical.
Actors Christian Lunn and Simon Green who play very convincing younger and older versions of my favourite character – Neville. Photo credit – Tainted musical book
When the action moves to 1989, the bar by then has become The Pink Flamingo.
Another key storyline in Tainted is the mixed-race relationship between George and Daphne. The Gutter Hearts Club is the place where they take refuge from a judging world. But ultimately, can their love conquer?
And the other key character in 1972 and 1989 is jack-the-lad Alfie. But deep down Alfie is hiding a secret, even from himself – that we never even guess at – until it is revealed at the end….
So throughout Tainted, the main characters’ stories and lives weave and intertwine as they support each other across the years – with the bar, and Marcia, always there to catch them when they fall.
Overall, the production has some entertaining camp humour throughout. Older Neville, for instance, pithily defines a straight man who has sex with a gay man as ‘a straight man after 5 pints’! But his persona is a front for the sensitivity and complexity that he carries underneath.
As Michael McManus told me – and I soon found out myself – in Tainted, Musical Director Matt Malone had not been reverential towards the original arrangements of Soft Cell and Marc Almond’s songs! And I think that you wouldn’t really want that – or the production would’ve ended up being akin to the Michael Jackson musical Thriller, or a tribute act, or merely karaoke.
Matt Malone felt his rearrangements of Marc Almond’s and Soft Cell’s songs had to reflect the relevant time periods of the action in the 40s, 70s and 80s. So there were no synthesisers in the 1940s, for instance!
Matt has gone on record as being petrified at how people – for whom, like me, the songs have been the soundtrack to their lives – would receive his arrangements. He hoped we would see that they’ve approached the songs with a love for them. And I absolutely did!
I’m hugely impressed that Michael McManus catalogued and made notes about pretty much every one of Soft Cell’s and Marc Almond’s songs, to extract their individual stories, and then to see which ones would be best interwoven into the musical. And there’s ended up being a list of over 20 Soft Cell and Marc Almond songs in Tainted. But I’m not going to run through here every song that was included. You want me to hold something back in case one day you go to see the musical fully produced!
This is just a few personal highlights of songs that worked very well, and a few that, for me, didn’t work so well. No doubt the musical arrangements, aswell as the theatrical production, will get some reworking if Tainted gets fully staged. And my perspective comes from knowing many of the original song arrangements (which are in my links here) note-by-note. And also I’m someone who – somewhat incongruously – adores music, but has generally not been fond of theatrical musicals. So your view may well be different.
The absolute highlight song for me – and I know I’m not in the minority for thinking this – was Lavender – sung by older Neville. Matt Malone says this song moves even him as they start to play it in the musical.
In its original arrangement, Lavender is a woundingly poignant song full of ruefulness and defiance centred on personal memories of prejudice and violence against homosexuals in previous decades. But the Tainted version arguably takes the song to even greater heights of piercing beauty. There was hardly a dry eye in the house.
For completely different reasons, I loved A Lover Spurned, as sung by young Neville and his estranged wife. Their impassioned and high camp performance made me – and many others in the audience – chuckle. Similarly, I liked the humour, cabaret and camp on Nathalie the club singer’s cockney accent version of Entertain Me!
I also loved the harmonisation on Gone But Not Forgotten. It’s a song I always narcissistically tell everyone who’s even vaguely close to me (and now, even readers of this blog!) that they must make sure is played at my funeral!
Another complete highlight was Daphne and George’s slowed down duet version of Loving You Hating Me. Sung at a tortured time in their relationship, it takes on a completely different meaning to that I’ve always envisaged during the many many times I’ve listened to it.
And a snippet of Mr Sad – sung beautifully by Alfie – had a tremendous retrospective poignancy after his secret was revealed at the end of the musical.
Just a few songs that worked less well for me were mostly ones sung as ensemble pieces. For me, Say Hello Wave Goodbye was just too weak as an overall piece, because the singing of single lines by different individuals didn’t allow it naturally to build to the heights of emotion that I think the song commands.
Scar is another song that for me personally didn’t quite work as an ensemble piece. And in particular my favourite line – ‘You never really loved me at all’ – which to me pretty much neatly encapsulates everything that Marc Almond is about in the way that he himself delivers it (give it a listen!) – isn’t desperate or heart-wrenching enough.
And for my taste, the Tainted version of Bedsitter was just a little too ‘musical theatre’.
But overall, I relished the new treatment of these songs I know and love. Their rearrangement and recontextualisation – e.g. hearing songs I’ve only ever heard sung by Marc Almond sung by a woman – gave some songs a complete, and welcome, freshness.
In particular Tainted Love – that song that everyone knows, and that has become a parody of itself – had all the cliché removed when sung as a pared down love torn duet by Daphne and George. Having adored this song initially back in the day, for many years I have grimaced at hearing its opening bars. But I absolutely loved the totally fresh Tainted version! So much so, that I could forgive – and even sing along with! – the audience participation version of Tainted Love at the end!
So did Tainted work?!
Obviously, the version of Tainted that I saw was a fledging production. But it really impressed – despite the performers having had only two days of rehearsals. And for me, that speaks volumes about the quality of the writing and musical arrangements, and of the direction and musical direction, aswell as of the performers themselves.
It was actually the production team’s first opportunity to hear much of the dialogue out loud. And some songs were necessarily excluded at the showcases, because of a tight rehearsal schedule.
And perhaps surprisingly then, the style of story telling – of flashbacks backwards and forwards between the decades – worked extremely well, even without strong visuals having yet been developed to carry it.
Part of that is undoubtably down to the wonderful Vaults as the showcase venue, which helped it to ooze sleazy Soho, and give a real sense of a clandestine joint – which is what the Tainted bar is. But how much even better then will the production be with costumes and different sets corresponding to the different time periods in which it’s set?
And I’ve already said that – overall – I thought the new arrangements and recontextualisation of the songs of Soft Cell and Marc Almond, worked brilliantly – even for a diehard fan like me!
What next? How can you help?
If Tainted is to make it to full production, then its time is now! The team are very much hoping to stage it fully in 2019. And no doubt, nearly two weeks after the showcase, the writers and production team are now in discussions with backers, funders and producers to see if they can make that dream a reality.
And I for one really hope that they do! Having seen it in it’s early stages, I absolutely can’t wait to see how this musical will have developed once it’s a full production!
If you want to help them, then the Tainted team are asking people to help spread the word. You can follow them and share their posts on Facebook and Twitter, or you can share this blog, for instance! And I’m sure the Tainted guys will bite your hand off if you want to contact them via social media to offer funding or production help! And in the meantime, it just remains for me to wish the Tainted team lots of luck and success as they take this venture forward!
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