Friday, 6 February 2015

Paxton Pits; The Musical.

The Waterboatmen
Paul Claydon
I'm always amazed by the breadth of skills and talent to be found among our volunteers and staff, never more so than on Wednesday evening when we put together our own variety show.

The original plan was to put together a series of sketches, readings and songs on a theme that broadly related to the venue, but that would have meant script writing, forming a cast and rehearsing together.  The easier option was to find people who already had a party trick or two and ask them to do it. The result was a sort of "Paxton's Got Talent" show, but with no auditions, screen trials, sound checks or joint rehearsals. A recipe for disaster, obviously, unless you are really lucky, an eternal optimist, or both.

The Rug-Cutters.
We advertised for talent in phone boxes, shop windows and bus shelters and we had some interesting replies, none of which I have taken up yet! On safer ground we put a request in our own volunteers' news letter, The Bridge, but no-one volunteered and we found ourselves with a month to go before the show. It was worse than trying to fill the Sunday afternoon slot, but I was already aware of some major talent in the team and so I did some gentle arm twisting. That's how I managed to get Paul Biggins, who runs our website, to come along with all of his equipment and his band The Waterboatmen. Of course, I had never heard them play, so this was a bit of an act of faith on my part, and it paid off handsomely. They could have done the whole evening on their own.

Thank-you for the Music: Faith and Clare
How can you have a musical without dancers? Paul Claydon is a Countryside Ranger by day and a dance instructor by night. (I don't know what he does with the rest of his time.) I did know that his troupe "The Rug-cutters" had recently performed in Denmark and had done some film work, as well as summer festivals and 1940's hanger dances. Well, all of us were flabbergasted by Paul and his team who formed two couples and gave us a very slick show in the absolute minimum of space. Paul not only knows his dance moves, but also everything there is to know about the music and the fashion of the times. I remember hearing lots of music from the 40s and 50s on the gramophone in my childhood. My parents were keen jazzers but I bet they were nothing like as athletic as Paul's team. You can see a video clip that I posted on You Tube: Prepare to be amazed.

The crowd went wild! 

Christina Christmas has the best name of anyone I know. (Obscure note: I used to know Keith Christmas too, before he met David Bowie and became a regular Glastonbury feature.) Christina is a stalwart voluntary warden and she sidled up to me near the toilets one day and told me that she would do some limericks if I liked, and she quickly reeled off a few Milliganisms while drawing on a fag (if you are American, it means cigarette but, these days, who cares what or who we draw on?) Then we lost contact and I got a whisper that she had been pulling my leg. Blow me down with a kipper, she turned up in the "green room" (the Rangers' Office) on the night ready to perform, so what could we say?

Trevor Gunton and Marjorie Chapell
Down at the Old Bull and Bush.
Well the rest is history, they say. Christina doesn't just tell jokes, she wrings every last nuance out of them because she has a great voice and impeccable comedy timing. There's an added frissance because you never know if she is going to go too far. We laughed ourselves silly.

Christina Christmas.
My biggest shot in the dark was to invite Faith Darlow to play some songs by Abba and Chas and Dave. I knew she used to have an electric organ and that she sometimes played requests at the local old-folks homes, but could she still do it? Well, she no longer had a keyboard, so that was a problem but I said we could borrow one. Then she found that her hands were too arthritic so she recruited a young couple, Clare and Dom to accompany her on guitar and vocals. Other complications intervened so I really didn't think she was going to make it, but she did. Her act in the first half was a real highlight of the show, marking the point where the audience really lit up. During "Thank-you for the Music" we shifted our virtual location from a polite concert hall to a working-man's club on a Friday night. I almost had to expel Ray Matthews' table for rowdiness!

Nicholas Stevenson
To be sure that we would actually have a show on the night I was heavily reliant on my own family for back-up. Hanna and I used to sing in folk clubs and pubs, but that was mostly before our son Nick was born 25 years ago. We still have a few songs we can do without much rehearsal, but we are very unreliable guests in that we sometimes simply don't turn up! That's because we depend on carers to look after our son Dan. If one carer drops out, one of us has to stay home. If both carers drop out, we both have to stay home. As you might imagine, this means that we always have to have a Plan B.

If Hanna had stayed home, I would have relied on a limited repertoire of sea-shanties and folk songs from which our audience was thankfully spared. If Hanna had not come, I knew that our son Nicholas could fill in for us, so I hauled him up from London for the occasion. I'm so glad that I did. Normally he plays in his own four-piece band with a full drum kit, electric bass and the works, probably a bit much for our little venue. At London gigs they have to push the volume up to cover the chatter of the crowd and the clattering behind the bar. In our intimate setting, Nick could use his voice to full effect and his Fender Telecaster guitar, squeezed through a little Vox portable amplifier sounded like a 1000 watt Marshall stack. Stadium rock in miniature! He writes his own songs and you can download them from iTunes. Some of his music has been used on TV programmes like "Come Dine With Me" and on adverts. When he left Hinchingbrooke School we wondered if he was going to make a living at music or through illustration. It turns out that he does both, but it is the illustration work that pays the bills. See

Dom from Faith's band.
I asked my Grandson Jake to come as well. He is training to be an operatic bass and is currently rehearsing for Iolanthe, I think. Unfortunately he would have needed his accompanist who would need to be paid, so that was that. (We are a charity after all!)

But, "No Worries," as they say in Australia. Ranger Matt Hall not only offered, but almost insisted that he would perform Monty Python's Lumberjack Song as long as we provided the backing. Of course, this had to be the finale. How could you top it? After safety head-gear was issued, we all launched into the song with gusto. It was literally a "timeless" masterpiece with Nick and Paul Biggins hammering out the chords and Matt ignoring them. We even got an encore, which was "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" performed in a similar manner. It brought the house down.

John Rockett
If you have ever tried to run  a Ceilidh or concert of any kind, you will know that you can't just book the bands. You need a licence from the Council and you have to think about refreshments, tickets, advertising, fire doors, a stage, sound, printed programme, lighting and all that jazz. Thankfully Margaret Wright and David and Marjorie Chapell (after an afternoon on duty too) offered to do the teas and Trevor Gunton acted as bouncer on the door. Ranger Sophie Walpole did the risk assessment (I don't think it included the stage being invaded by groupies, but that was just wishful thinking on my part).

As organiser, my original plan was to compere the show myself, but what if I didn't make it?

John Rockett was recommended to me because he had previously hosted one of The Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve's social evenings. He was a big hit, so I gave him a bell! (Ding-ding).

Amazingly he accepted the job, and what a good job he made of it! The whole evening could have been a disaster and John would still have walked through the rubble telling jokes to keep us all amused. He also kept us to time so that we finished dead (well I was)-on 10 pm.

Jim and Hanna from Ambridge?
I have already been asked if we can do it again and I have to say, it was such a delight to be reminded of the great leveller that music can be and the sheer pleasure of making music with other people that I think we just might.

There will be more photos later.