Monday, 5 June 2017

Dramaturgy is Close to You: Matthew Floyd Jones @ Edfringe 2017

Richard Carpenter is Close to You


2 - 27 August (Not 15)

Richard from The Carpenters used to be on top of the world looking down on creation, to the left of (and slightly behind) Karen. Now, he's back at the piano once more in this razor-sharp tragicomedy that takes you on the ultimate ticket to ride. 

Cos solitaire really is the only game in town! Written and performed by Matthew Floyd Jones, the piano player from Frisky & Mannish.

Richard Carpenter is Close To You – Written and performed by 

What was the inspiration for this performance?

At last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, I was feeling blue - the beard I grew for the play I was in not only itched like a bitch but my boyfriend clearly didn’t like it, I had no work lined up after August, and every time I walked down the street I saw my erstwhile partner Frisky plastered across huge posters looking (as always) sensational. My worst nightmare had seemingly come true: the peak happened and it’s all downhill from here. I started pretending I was in a film and my character was played by Mackenzie Crook, just to find humour in it. 

As I walked past YET another poster of gorgeous Frisky, a Carpenters song came into my headphones - ‘Superstar’. The deep love I bear for them is akin to my love for ‘Anne of Green Gables’ or ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ - I don’t give a shit if they’re not cool, they remind me of home and parents and being a child and other warm things. 

But the feeling I got this time was more than a flood of comfort - it was a slow, profound realisation that Richard Carpenter is my kindred spirit, and the perfect subject for me. Now, I could go into all the myriad reasons why, but I’m sure you can figure the obvious ones out, and the rest will be in the show!

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

It’s a space for ideas, that’s all I’m prepared to commit to! Whether the public “discuss” it in any meaningful way is sort of up to them really. I’m ok with that - I honestly don’t need every piece of theatre I see to involve me in an obviously “interactive” or participatory way, and challenge me to respond there and then. But I’m a firm believer that a performer doesn’t have to be actively discussing a particular “idea” for that idea to come through - Frisky and I were always gently ribbed for being a superficial act, all glitter and no depth, but even just the fact that we were a sexy woman and a gay man in comedy was often enough to spark discussions of gender and sexuality. 

All those people (not just men) who felt compelled to tell us how much they enjoyed our work “despite” our femininity - it definitely opened my eyes. When we started, I was basically trying to channel Steve Coogan, despite the leggings and eyeliner, and once a guy complimented me on being just straight enough to not alienate the men - I remember being so pleased with that. Now I look back and wish I’d challenged him a bit more, like saying “Oh gurl, you want some mince in that bolognese?” and then Vogueing off stage left.

How did you become interested in making performance?

Pure childhood vanity and narcissism, I’m sure. I just really don’t understand anyone who says they’d be horrified to go onstage! Like, I don’t get it. Are you ill? If not, sing out Louise, you can be a pretty girl for the next 60 minutes. That show-offness gradually transitioned into something a bit more mature - I loved it when people would come up to us after gigs and say something like “I had a really terrible day today and I wasn’t even sure about coming, but I feel so uplifted now - thank you!” 

And that’s the thing I always come back to whenever I feel like this whole job is just super self-indulgent and unimportant - I still think doctors, nurses and sewage people are champions of the world, but I get the value of what I do a little bit more now.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

This is the second solo show I’ve made actually, and I think I’ve done literally everything differently this time. I brought in collaborators and advisers from the very beginning, as opposed to working for months in isolation to get it “ready.” I scheduled a work-in-progress showing before I’d even written the script, to give me something to work towards - something which in the business is called “doing a Tina Fey.” But the main obstacle to overcome has been the issue of the real Richard Carpenter. 

He is still alive, and famously litigious - in fact I believe he’s currently suing his own record label for unpaid digital royalties, and in the past he has got other projects nixed by refusing permission. I thought about contacting him, but I worried that would create an unhelpful pressure to make it a certain type of show that he would “approve” - when in fact, I wanted that to be the furthest thing from my mind. So I got some advice and it turns out that I don’t necessarily need his permission to do a show inspired by him, I just need to make sure it’s presented as clearly fictional and doesn’t make any seriously defamatory claims. 

The only thing I needed permission for was the use of actual Carpenters songs - and luckily for me, my entire career has been built on my ability to manipulate music so that it sounds like something but isn’t. So, fingers crossed, we good!

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

It definitely has a broad thematic overlap, in that it is a lovingly unsparing pastiche of a pop music artist. But that’s probably where the similarities end. 

There’s no Karen to provide the stonking star power and megawatt charisma, and that’s really Richard’s ultimate struggle - how to either continue in the role that you played before your partner left, when it’s not really enough on its own, or convince people to see you in a new light when they’ve already made up their minds. In terms of genre, it’s always hard to pin it down exactly, and both this show and my previous show have straddled genres - Frisky & Mannish across comedy and cabaret, and Richard Carpenter across theatre and comedy - but if I was pushed to choose a side, I’d say that it’s a comedic piece of theatre. With music. And a touch of cabaret in some of the interactions. Ugh, I don’t know. IT’S A SHOW!

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

Fulfilment, joy, stimulation, the tender caress of a person who loves you… Oh, sorry, you meant at my show in particular, duh. "I hope that they like me, they really, really like me" is what the vain kid version of me would say, and he’s still in here. I hope that they get it, and what amuses me most about doing this is that I find you are always more worried about whether they’ll get it then you need to be, and they always surprise you by being intelligent perceptive beings with the ability to discern - who knew? 

I hope that, the next time they hear someone say “God, there’ll never be another Karen Carpenter” within earshot, they might consider adding “Mmm, and it was wonderful that her brother Richard, the oft-forgotten Carpenter, was so instrumental in arranging such beautiful songs that showed such intuitive understanding of how her gift might best be displayed, so props to him too!”

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

That sounds like a military operation - I wish I was that disciplined! All I’ve done is taken my ten years’ experience of making people laugh, and applied it to a story that I think is incredibly poignant and affecting, and I hope I’ve come out with something that will uplift you as much as it might unsettle you. I have no interest in making an audience feel shit, ever. 

Even though I myself personally love prickly, difficult, hard-to-enjoy drama. It’s just not what I like doing onstage - it’s not my jam. If I do have a strategy, it’s that I want this show to be equally as engaging to a non-Carpenters fan - yes, it’s about the Carpenters, but it could just as easily be about any partners, any siblings. 

To that end, I’ve been doing a lot of research as to what is generally known about them, and what is “niche,” and treading the line carefully. I’ve already had multiple responses of “I don’t really know or even like the Carpenters but I loved your show” which means a) some people have weird masochistic ticket-booking habits, but also b) I’ve struck a good balance!

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