All the small things
The musical Ordinary Days eschews 'big fancy numbers' and 'jazz hands' for intimate moments and everyday experiences, director Sophie Forster tells Kate Wyver
Warren: Hey. This one.
Warren: Yes, this one.
Sophie and Meriel had never played table-tennis before. They met when they both tried out for their college’s team. They bonded over their lack of skills and left early for a coffee. Isabelle and Becky worked together on a performance in a castle, Isabelle then met Alex in the cast of Kiss Me, Kate and Becky met Alex at a fresher’s event, surprised he was both a bassoonist and a rugby referee. Several years after the table-tennis encounter and a month after brushing up their Shakespeare, the cast and crew of Ordinary Days began to form.
Ordinary Days explores the extraordinary ordinariness of the lives of four adults in New York. It’s about the off-chances, the what-ifs, the I-can’t-quite-believe-we’re-actually-here moments. As Claire (Isabelle Horler), Deb (Meriel Killeen), Warren (Alex Mackinder) and Jason (Luke Blacklock) navigate their days, they sing their way through ups and downs of relationships, into memories and around art galleries. They paint the stage the colour of an ordinary day.
Sophie didn’t originally plan to direct the musical. Shows at Durham University are selected by the heads of the societies for the following term, and Sophie is usually a performer. Having been a fan of Adam Gwon’s 2008 musical for a long time, she jumped at the chance to try her hand at directing when Durham Light Opera Group chose it. “When I saw it I knew I had to get involved.”
As her first stint as a director, Sophie has found it a challenge replacing her performer hat for a director’s one, but says: “It’s such a fulfilling feeling seeing an idea in your head coming together onstage.” Her performance background has helped inform her understanding of the show, as she is constantly spotting ways to improve it. “It’s great to be doing it again,” she says.
It is the intimacy of the piece that Sophie believes makes the show so special. “It’s such a simple premise. There are no big fancy numbers, and it’s not about the jazz hands.” Instead, she says, it’s about the everyday experiences that make up a day, the precious little moments you want to grasp onto. “You can watch and feel like you’re a part of it.” (Just to comfort any nervous audience members, there’s no audience participation.) As Alex’s character Warren sings at the end of the show, the piece is “simple, familiar and full of feeling”.
The straightforwardness of the musical is reflected in the staging. “The cast are on stage at all times. We decided to go with a minimalistic set, so as not to overcrowd it.” This allows the focus to be on the actors and their voices. “I want the audience to appreciate the simplicity and the power of the music,” she says.
Warren: It’s beautiful, right?
Deb: No, it isn’t, it’s plain.
The landscape of contemporary musical theatre is fast-evolving, and Sophie notes how it is coming to the forefront of conversations, with shows and movies like Hamilton and La La Land. She is “and always will be” a huge fan of the old classics, but says she gets excited every time she hears a new piece of music from a contemporary show. She loves that it is a genre “that will keep changing over time.”
Ordinary Days, Sophie comments, is in its own way something very different. As the musical is a song cycle, it’s a tough ask for the pianist who plays non-stop throughout. The form also “links it back to the older classic musicals, which tend to be sung through.” At the same time it’s a very contemporary show, “so it’s a good crossover between the two.”
“There are only two or three numbers which include all four of the cast singing at the same time,” she explains, “and the harmonies in Rooftop Duet/Falling are just wonderful.” Over the phone, she uses every excited adjective to describe the sound of their voices blending together. “It’s honestly amazing.”
Without giving any spoilers, one of the songs uncovers a gut-wrenching history for one character. “You don’t expect it at all,” Sophie says, “there’s always that ‘ooh’ moment.” We talk about the events behind it a little. What’s so shocking, Sophie says, is that “it could happen to anyone.” What follows but remains unsaid is that you never think it will happen to you.
This is exactly what the play is about. It’s the sad things that happen to us as well as the joyful that make up our days, and on a wider scale our identities. In this Instagram generation it is easy to simply pay attention to the parts of our lives we want to show to others. This musical embraces the good and the bad. “It’s an ordinary day and these are ordinary people.” Ordinary people have ups and downs.
The play reminds you of how different it could all be, if you hadn’t turned that corner, decided to turn the other way, or gone into your office that day.
It’s the ordinary things that chuck people together. The auditions, the dinners, the table-tennis tables. At NSDF new friends can be made in queues, in the bar or while rigging lights. So keep an eye out, because you never know who you’ll bump into.
Deb: Well, it’s a little bit boring.
Warren: Then you must be ignoring the most important bit.
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