In this 100th anniversary year of the end of the First World War, a new musical is commemorating the stories of those who fought, as well as those who were left back home.
Using the music of the era, Alan Bowles has created the show, Keep The Home Fires Burning, which is currently touring the UK, and comes to Portsmouth next month.
The show was born out of Alan’s long-held interest in the period, and now seemed like the right time to put something together.
‘I’ve been a producer of pantos and Christmas shows with a company called Little Wolf Entertainment for about 10 years, which I co-founded with a friend. We’re still doing that – we’ve got three pantos this year but I didn’t think I was quite busy enough,’ he laughs, ‘so I had been looking to do something away from panto for a bit. I had always been interested in the First World War and the music that came out of it.
‘I think it’s really interesting in something that’s such a traumatic and horrendous period of time that people create so much – the poetry and music – so I thought I would put something together, and that’s where the show comes from.
‘Everybody’s heard of Long Way To Tipperary, and there’s a few others that are really well known, but there’s a lot of other really interesting songs.
‘I’ve been looking at this for two years now, researching and listening to an awful lot of music. The Imperial War Museum has been doing a lot of incredible work, looking at the old sheet music you can’t find anywhere else, but there’s a lot out there on websites and YouTube that you can find as well.’
And Alan was pleasantly surprised by how much of the music was upbeat and comic in nature as it satirised the powers-that-be and the German enemy.
‘The key fact of the show for me is that it’s not just melancholy, it’s not gory, it’s more of a celebration of the music that was created at the time. I don’t want to say it’s entirely positive in that sense, but it’s not a downtrodden piece.
‘It has been a labour of love.’
The cast is made up of actor-musicians: ‘the idea being that there are loads of performers on stage, all of whom play as well as act and sign. So one song might be a six-piece band behind a girl singing a fantastic jazz number, and then the next one is a single piano with six-part harmony with the guys in the trenches doing beautiful harmony work.
‘The idea is that each song sounds slightly different - there’s a real change throughout the evening. I don’t want it all to sound the same.’
The musical’s plot also draws on true life stories.
‘I haven’t based the characters on specific people, but I’ve read a lot of individual stories, so it’s a bit broad strokes in that it’s little bits of the stories of different people. It’s all set at the right time in the right places and based on real people, but it’s not one particular story, it’s more of an amalgamation.
‘I found all of those different things I could pursue. I could have a show that’s four hours long! It’s very hard, when you find amazing numbers that you want to include, trying to pare it back to what we can fit into our two and a bit hours is quite tricky.
‘There’s plenty of material to add to it and build it, but we’ll see how this one goes first.’
And at each date on the tour the company is joined by a local choir – here it is The 50 Plus Singers.
‘The choir are on board to be our ensemble. There’s five times they come on, a couple of medleys - those homegrown songs that kept the spirits up, and then in act two when they’re in the trenches, and then the finale.
‘There’s a lot of voices and a lot of layers of harmony in there, it should sound impressive.’
KEEP THE HOME FIRES BURNING
New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth
Sunday, November 4