For Bill Deamer, Olivier Award-Winning Choreographer of FOLLIES, Everything’s Looking Up

In-flight entertainment. Bill Deamer, photo courtesy

Bill Deamer is simply in a class of his own. He has choreographed the greatest stage shows – the National’s current and definitive FOLLIES, TOP HAT (for which he won the 2013 Olivier Award), EVITA, CATS, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and many more. On TV, you’ll know his choreography for STRICTLY, ALL STAR MUSICALS and SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE. In showbusiness, the name Bill Deamer is synonymous with creativity, elegance and the hard work that makes sheer perfection. I caught up with him for lunch before he dashed off to the National Theatre for a two-show FOLLIES day.

Thank you very much for talking with me, Bill. How did it feel to win the Olivier Award for Best Theatre Choreographer in 2013 for TOP HAT?

It was an amazing moment in my life. People forget that TOP HAT was a year of my life choreographing it, creating it before it ever went near a stage so yes, the Olivier was just a wonderful icing on the cake for a show that I absolutely adored to do – and actually to do my version of Fred Astaire’s choreography, and my tribute to him and Hollywood.

Because you had done a Tribute to Fred Astaire show previously, so you could say that that is one of your areas in which you specialised.

Yes, it is and because of that everyone then decided that I was a Fred Astaire expert. Of course, I love Fred and Gene Kelly and all of those wonderful stars -and styles- but I wanted to do my own version of that. And then TOP HAT came out of the blue, Kenny Wax phoned me and said we’re doing it, I laughed – I couldn’t believe it! The number of times that I have been asked about doing shows that Fred Astaire made famous, and of course Ginger Rogers too, so it was a wonderful journey. Now the Olivier sits on my mantelpiece and I look at it every day. I’m grateful.

Bill winning the 2013 Olivier Award for Best Theatre Choreographer for TOP HAT. How we cheered!

You trained as an actor at Guildford. Did that training inform your work as a choreographer?

Oh hugely! I was already a trained dancer before I went to Guildford. From the age of 8  I was training at a local dance school, and then, going to Guildford, in those days Guildford had an acting course, a musical theatre course and they did a dance course so you got the best of all worlds; so I was allowed to actually train as an actor and work on my acting and singing skills and also then every morning do my ballet class and all my other dance classes so it was the best of all worlds. It really allowed you to be informed as a choreographer, as a dancer, to bring the acting into your dance, and indeed that’s where it all started. I remember in my first year I decided to direct and choreograph a version of CABARET with all the first year students and we did it, and I knew then that eventually I would be on the creative side, although, of course I performed a lot before getting to that point.

FOLLIES at the National Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson

“…the dance music arrangements tell me what to do, they just conjure up pictures to me….”

Coming on to your current big National Theatre success, FOLLIES; had you choreographed the show before?

I did a concert version at the London Palladium in 2007, and Imelda Staunton did Broadway Baby, she played Hattie, Maria Friedman was Sally, and Liz Robertson was Phyllis and Philip Quast was Ben. I directed and choreographed, but this was a concert version so the scenes were much shorter, but the numbers were all there. I realised then what an incredible score it was, because the songs are such one-offs, they’re done in cabaret constantly, but in the show they’re so totally different, they’re masterfully written acting pieces before you even get to the music, just genius.

On FOLLIES, how was it choreographing actors of a more mature age than those you might normally work with in a musical?

It was an absolute joy. When I agreed to do the show I said I would only do it if every one in the show could move and all those ladies, everyone in the show went through a rigorous dance audition and indeed those ladies who were lucky enough to get the job went through  a week long tap ‘boot camp’ before we started rehearsal, and they worked and worked – and worked!

To great acclaim, as we saw. So FOLLIES won everyone over at the first night, won the Olivier for Best Musical revival, you got nominated yet again for Best Theatre Choreographer; how did it feel then to find out that you would have another season of the show in 2019?

Just wonderful. We knew that some of the casting was going to change, and that’s another challenge because you can’t just do a replica of what you did before, you have to build on what you’ve done and go down other avenues with the actors and actresses who were taking over, so we looked at it in a different way; we kept all the concepts, but we went down other avenues with it and developed it.

“…for FOLLIES we had nine weeks rehearsal and I literally did not sit down for nine weeks…..”

Having seen it in both seasons it definitely feels like a different show but equally rewarding, almost more so now; it’s a show that people will want to return to.

The main thing about the choreography is that I took it all back to the original Broadway dance arrangements – they ain’t broke so don’t fix them! They are absolutely brilliant. John Berkman who did the dance music arrangements and Jonathan Tunick, they are just incredible arrangements and they tell me what to do, they just conjure up pictures to me; I was talking to Stephen Sondheim about it and I said the pictures are there, what I do with it after that is up to me, and I’m really grateful that he liked it so much, but they are the original arrangements.

FOLLIES at the National Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson

“…a Follies girl must never look down!”

Can we talk about this massive stage at the Olivier, and the beautiful set design, and especially the fact that there is such a lot of use of the revolve during the show. That obviously has a huge impact in terms of what you do, in terms of every single piece of movement and choreography. Literally everything is moving most of the time. So in terms of what you are doing, how are you working with that movement?

All the choreography was created without using the revolve and then I put it on the revolve, that’s the only way you can do it, because at the National Theatre you have a revolve exactly the same size in the rehearsal room. When we did the show originally, we had nine weeks rehearsal and I literally did not sit down for nine weeks, because you’re up and you’re working on, say, two characters a day, and working them through, and working and working, and through previews. Everywhere you sit in the Olivier auditorium there’s a different view, and everyone is telling a story throughout, and it’s a divine way of spending your time working out all these stories- I just love every second of it! And every time I see the show, I think, oh yes, I remember that; oh yes, then that comes around there, and all the time, it’s building and building. The cast, they simply love being there, and everyone’s telling their story.

And what’s so impressive is that its so beautifully woven together like fabric, the music, lyrics, movement and the visuals, everything is fully and completely integrated. To me, its the definitive FOLLIES production.

It’s a great honour, but the team were just so, so wonderful, there was never a cross word; the creative team lead by director Dominic Cooke, a dream to work with, who allowed everyone opportunities to discuss and develop. I loved going there, I can’t wait to get over there now- because everyone wants to be there. The show has had a standing ovation at every performance, both versions.

Bill Deamer at lunch, a very happy occasion – such an inspiring and lovely man.

Set design defines the space that you have to work in as a choreographer, Bill, so I wonder whether you have had direct input with the set designer?

Absolutely. Vicky Mortimer, the brilliant FOLLIES designer, would come in with a design and say “how do you feel about this?”; she’s always in rehearsals watching what were doing and it all just comes together. When the ladies, the young ghosts, come through all the rubble, all of that is actually marked out and built for their feet; that was a day in the studio with the rubble, and Vicky and I walked it and Vicky taped my feet and then we marked out all the different ways you could walk through it. Because you don’t want it to look easy, but they are literally walking through all the rubble; there’s an old theatre seat but it’s actually solid so they can stand on it, it doesn’t move at all, and just every little detail is attended to like that, because “a Follies girl must never look down!” If I had a pound for every time I’d said that!…”Look up, look up”,…. and nobody ever looks down.

And then it’s the same for the ladies on the fire escape, that’s high, that’s really high, and when you go out and up, then come in through the darkness into the light, it’s very frightening; that was another day of getting the ladies used to that, “Don’t look down!”

As FOLLIES’ second successful season draws to a close, what’s next on your schedule? Can you tell us yet?

No, I am waiting for the final ‘go’ on a couple of projects which are very exciting , but after FOLLIES it’s hard to find ones that really excite you equally…..but of course any musical is exciting to me, I love them all! There are a few that I am really keen on doing – we are in negotiations – so watch this space. We can talk again after they’re agreed!

We’ll look forward to that! Thank You so much for talking with me, Bill.

You can learn more about Bill Deamer’s choreography and movement direction work by visiting his website

FOLLIES plays its final performances from May 6-11. If you haven’t seen it, GO! – any lover of intelligent musicals should make sure they don’t miss this last chance to see this definitive production. More information and tickets here


Jane Clegg runs at the Finborough Theatre until May 18. Information and tickets here

IN BRIEF Deceptively strong, like its heroine, this 115-year old play still resonates through sensitive performances and direction

In London in 1913, Jane Clegg is little more than a utensil in her husband’s life. She endures his dishonesty, infidelity and neglect, as well as his demanding mother, as she valiantly tries to raise their two children alone. Henry, the husband, Iooks a dashing fellow, but is, in the parlance of the play (written in 1913), ” a total rotter”. We would definitely use stronger words today. His character, a travelling salesman, is a poisonous ball of weakness and cowardice who has no surviving redeeming features. Jane, on the other hand, is all restraint, sense and logic, keeping a firm lid on the continual pressure-cooker of her emotions. Both characters symbolise the status quo of the time, of the massively unequal power balance between men and women.

Money drives the action of the play as Henry’s gambling and womanizing threaten the survival of the family, and of Jane’s plans for herself and her children..

Writer St John Ervine (a staunch supporter of women’s rights, the inspiration for this play) has knitted his characters in a web of interdependence, which ratchets up the tensions felt by both the characters and the audience, although in skilful and sensitive direction by David Gilmour the humanity always comes through the writing. Here are (mostly) characters you can empathise with, each in a tricky situation of someone else’s making.

As for the women, the author skilfully presents us with three very different generations of womankind. The older, Henry’s Mother, inculcated by the belief that a wife is her husband’s “property”; the liberated and curious child, Jenny, stealing a kiss from a stranger and steadfastly refusing to listen to a boy’s bedtime story ; and Jane, literally in the middle, trying to navigate her own way forward in a world where the odds are set against her.

As an audience, we feel the absence of anyone in the play to speak up for Jane, and so, in a sense, that is the position that we assume.

Jane’s high breaking point evidences her strong desire to believe in her husband, but his absence of any redeeming feature makes it logical that she must break, and break away. The tension created between the characters is echoed in the tensions Jane feels within herself.

Alix Dunmore as Jane Clegg. Photo by Carla Evans

Alix Dunmore is quietly eloquent as Jane, a model of superhuman restraint. Constantly teased, tortured and tested, her final acquiescence to the reality of the exit of her husband, although driven by her, is still very moving to watch. A huge catharsis, and just in time.

Brian Martin gives a skilful and detailed performance as the deficient husband Henry, a mess of insecurity, all casual diversion and wafer-thin bonhomie, constantly threatening to snap into violence. His masculine arrogance is the shield for his own impotence.

The supporting cast are also well-chosen and of a high standard, each playing with absolute conviction, giving a roundedness to their characters that is satisfying to watch.

Alex Marker’s miracle of a set, an Edwardian drawing room, is a shining example of creativity, ingenuity and hard work over budget and the space constraints of the tiny Finborough.

Thanks again to producers Andrew Maunder, Neil McPherson and The Finborough for this rediscovery. How astonishing to find that a play from 1913 can potently remind us of the injustices of inequality and the necessity for strength in the face of adversity.

Jane Clegg runs at the Finborough Theatre until May 18. Information and tickets here


Programme cover (above) for AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ now playing at Southwark Playhouse until June 1st. Details here

IN BRIEF Hard-working, talented cast and band make the joint jump, and this delightful revue fly

Running just the right length at two hours including interval, this is an infectiously good-natured stomp around the song catalogue of the great Fats Waller. The excellent band of five (including unseen but heard percussion) pump out an authentic, just-right sound for this revue starring the popular songs of the man who made jazz fun- the great Fats Waller (at his height in America in the late 1920s and 30s) whose engaging personality made him that rarity- an all-round entertainer who sang, wrote songs, played piano and who lit up his own songs, singing in that distinctive gruff voice, with a twinkle in his eye. You can hear it, right there in the music. And the audience hears it in the maestro’s own inpromptu (recorded) words which kick the show off.

This is the first revival in almost 25 years of this musical revue, a compilation of numbers with little or no connecting dialogue, almost a show without a book (well, at best, a pamphlet)- and credit where its due, this production gets it right everywhere it matters. The set, the band, the singers, the costumes are all well-chosen and lovingly presented.

Entering the auditorium your eyes are bathed in an ingeniously-crafted boutique-sized, shimmering gold and bronze Art Deco-inspired set (by designer takis). The gold and bronze dance floor thrusting out gets a good old workout, and I loved the piano truck which, though simple, made me smile. The theatre’s main house space has rarely been used so well.

AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ . Photo from Southwark Playhouse website, photo copyright Pamela Raith

From the standards like “Honeysuckle Rose” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” to the comedy-slanted numbers like “Your Feet’s Too Big” and Fat and Greasy” to the narcotically-stylised “Viper’s Drag” (and its attendant sinuous choreography) and the heartfelt, soulful “Black and Blue”, pretty much everything comes off at its best, with perhaps a couple of time-specific wartime numbers (“When the Nylons Bloom Again”, Cash for your Trash”) wearing not as well as the other, earlier works, being my only slight reservation. Still, the show’s structure and placement of songs is otherwise well-balanced and smart. The occasional slower pieces are well-spotted and give a welcome variation to the pace, the scintillating close harmonies of “Black and Blue” being my particular highlight.

The very talented singer and actor Tyrone Huntley’s debut here as a director shows him managing the pace and focusing on the presentation of the songs, whilst also investing each song with some subtext of interactions between the cast, which all pays off.

It is the twinkle in the eye of the music that the hard-working cast of five mostly succeed in reviving. It would be unfair to single anyone out as they work so well as an ensemble. All have their chance in the spotlight, and all shine. Three women and two men, dance-strong (in Oti Mabuse’s vital, sometimes frenetic but always interesting choreography) who know when to belt out a good song, and when to inject some soul into the telling. My only reservation here was just in the opener, “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, the vocal choreography was a little over-embellished, fine for those who knew the song well, but for new audiences, my thought was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. A mention, too must be made for the carefully designed and crafted costumes (takis again) which are a joy to see – all tailored with laudable attention to detail.

At the end of it, the audience leaves uplifted, with a smile on its face and a spring in its step, having had a toe-tappingly good time. You can’t ask for much more than that, can you?

AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ plays at Southwark Playhouse until June 1st. More information and tickets here

An Appreciation of CARNATION FOR A SONG; LGBQ-inspired “sharing/show” about ageing finds common ground with all ages

CARNATION FOR A SONG programme image. Photo copyright Rob Boulton

I rarely attend (or review) community/non-professional theatre, as I just don’t have the time. However, I was drawn to CARNATION FOR A SONG, which was presented for six performances over four days in early April at the Young Vic’s Maria space, which seats around 200. The show was sold out but I managed to get a ticket.

The pull? This was a community show inspired by a professional show. The participants are ordinary people and not trained actors. The show first came to light last year, starting as a Young Vic Taking Part production, a community-created response to the musical FUN HOME which played a sold out run in the Young Vic’s Main House. FUN HOME’s story – about a lesbian comic book artist telling her story about growing up in the family’s funeral parlour in America – was accomplished, from a cast including Jenna Russell and Zubin Varla, to the Janine Tesori score (she wrote “Caroline, or Change” as well). That show definitely connected with the audience we saw it with, and the local LGBTQ community who got to see it were similarly enthused. In fact, they created their own response to the show, a short piece telling of their own lives, which was quickly given a stage at the smaller Maria studio at the Young Vic itself.

I was aware of this at the time but due to its short run, did not have the opportunity to see it.

By one of those funny coincidences, I was recently looking around the theatre websites in a break from my other work, when I noticed this new incarnation ( ! ) of the show. Perhaps “show” is not the best term to use, maybe “sharing” might describe it more efficiently.

The first performance was Wednesday afternoon and the audience queueing were a very mixed crowd, old to young, no doubt friends and relations, but also others curious to see what it was all about. The fact that all the tickets for the run were free, courtesy of two anonymous donors (thanks to you both) was an added incentive. Upon entering the flat, unraked auditorium, seating was arranged on three sides of a square stage where about fifteen participants sat holding long stemmed green carnations, reclaiming this aged and mostly forgotten coded symbol for homosexuality.

shaping the experiences shared here through their own work in taking the shared experiences and creating a work directly relating to that experience. Their format, professionalism, care of the participants and hard work have been memorable.

The show itself was a mix of songs and monologues about the older LGBT experience. All participants were over 50. Using songs and monologues specially written for them by Writer and Director Megan Cronin and Composer/Lyricist/MD Joseph Atkins, they shared their personal experiences. Funny songs were tinged with reality (a great song entitled “Straightening Up The House”, explaining that when visitors are expected you pop all the “too gay” stuff in a drawer- I know, I’ve done it), to the song about neighbours talking about a gay couple but never quite talking directly to them. The stories, by turns, funny, sad, angry, defiant – highlighted universal feelings and drew a strong connection from the audience.

The stories which stay with me most are the lesbian district nurse tending to the many AIDS sufferers in the 1980s, who told her story carefully, with enormous love and compassion. Also, the clubber reliving his youth in a wild frenzy of a dance which evidenced that inside ourselves we can be many different ages, not just one. But for me, the most poignant of all was a lanky, dark – haired man who did not speak but listened with us to his own recorded voice telling us about himself, for this gentleman was coping with the ravages of Alzheimer’s. In touching and straightforward manner, he told us about his life and partner of (as I remember) 37 years. What was particularly moving, though, was to see him reacting to the words he himself had spoken, evidencing a degree of detachment that he was dealing with on a daily basis. This brave man who was doing his utmost to enjoy life to the full despite the odds was a symbol for everyone of us, whatever their background. It also of course made one realise that we could so easily be in his shoes.

What was also very rewarding was the way that the speakers took time to look after each other. They had created a special bond with each other through participating in this show. One of the many values that this group demonstrated was that living is about making connections, not building walls.

As far as I know, none of them were professional actors or had had professional training, but that essentially was the point – they were you and me, ordinary people with their own stories to tell. One lady talked about the “double invisibility” of being both a lesbian and an older person, which resonated with the audience, and the everyday pain we have to live with as people mis-sex our loved ones by sheer assumption. Still more, stories of intense love, hedonism and eroticism, triumphs and failures, fury and pain, love and loss, and the simple inexorable fact of time passing were all common ground between the audience and the participants.

The group got a genuinely appreciative standing ovation at every performance. Speaking to the young staff afterwards who had crowded in eagerly, standing at the sides of the auditorium to see the show, they were hugely enthusiastic and supportive. For fellow LGBTQ+ people, it was a reminder of how far we have come, but also how far we still have to go, and that prejudice is not limited to the LGBT community. For those who were not LGBTQ+, it was a stark reminder that in the universal test of ageing, there is much more that unites us than divides us.

CARNATION FOR A SONG was, in essence, the best of times.

Thank you to all the cast, to Writer and Director Megan Cronin and Composer/Lyricist/MD Joseph Atkins, and all their creative collaborators for an experience that we shall all long remember and cherish.

Alexandra Palace Theatre reopens after a lifetime shut away

The auditorium in its current state of “arrested decay”. Photo, with thanks, from Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, architects.

The regeneration of the East Wing of Alexandra Palace was recently crowned with the reopening of the 900-seat, nineteenth century theatre space.

The Palace sits in Alexandra Park, opened in 1865, to the North of London, part of the wave of fashionable outdoor spaces where Victorian society desired to be seen.

Opened in 1875 (after a fire which destroyed the original built in 1873), the Alexandra Palace was a place to see and be seen. Designed as North London’s counterpart to the Crystal Palace (which lies to the South of London), its aim was to be a public centre of recreation, education and entertainment for everyone. The theatre was home to all manner of stage entertainments, with technologically cutting-edge stage equipment (for its time) creating breathtaking effects which dazzled audiences for many years.

Falling upon hard times as the West End competed ever-stronger, the venue later saw service as a cinema, and was eventually used as the first TV studio complex for the BBC in 1935, and later still a props store.

A Victorian jewel, misused, mishandled and then simply forgotten for decades, the return of Headlong’s RICHARD III to the hall in March this year represented the first theatrical use in eighty years.

Saved, stabilised but not restored, the definition of “arrested decay”. Photo, with thanks, from Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, architects.

Architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios have done a remarkable job on a project costing almost £27 million. There have been a number of chapters in this building’s history (not least two savage fires). Keeping what is left of the original, and then providing modern interventions where necessary is a bold move but it reminds us that all buildings have stages of life, rather like our human lifespan.

The decision not to restore but simply to stabilise what remains and preserve its faded glory are conscious decisions which make this rebirth special. It might be said that the “unrestored” auditorium starkly reminds us of how precious our national heritage buildings are, and furthermore almost a campaigning call, a warning not to take them for granted.

Let’s all wish Ally Pally a long and successful life ahead!

FINAL THOUGHT The fly in the ointment then, as now, to “Ally Pally”‘s survival, is how venue bosses and local authorities will resolve the crippling lack of public transport options to get audiences to and from the 900-seater auditorium to rail and tube services quickly and efficiently. Considering all the investment that has gone into this revival, I do hope that both sides will work together to throw Ally Pally the transport lifeline it needs to survive, and thrive!