The University of Manchester Musical Theatre Society swept away all expectations and won prizes and fans at the regional NODA awards. NODA stands for National Operatic and Dramatic Association, and their aim is to keep amateur theatre successful and sustainable. The UMMTS received 13 nominations and won 3 prizes at the 31st of January at the North West District One Awards for Best Programme (Basic Class) by Tom Durrant for Sweeney Todd, Best Supporting Actress in a Musical by Jess Ewart as Joanne in Company and Richard Aaron Davies received a prize for Best Director of a Musical for his outstanding work as the director of Sweeney Todd. I met Richard and Tom to talk about their experience working together and how the award ceremony gave the society more recognition.
The amount of recognition the society received was unexpected but Richard mentions that the cast was great and they knew that it was going to be a really good show. “We were lucky that we had a great set team, a fantastic band and I was really passionate about the show. It was a very enjoyable show to rehearse and to perform. The nominations were just a really nice pat on the back. We didn’t expect to do so well because of the standards of the other shows.” Being affiliated with NODA, he was able to see many shows and he deemed them all as great.
Reuniting after such a long time was a good experience that both Tom and Richard mentioned. Sweeney Todd was performed over a year ago and Richard says that it was nice to be back together at the Palace Hotel. “We had two tables for the society and every one of the team was there. Some of the team have already moved on, Tom who played Sweeney is now at Guild Hall in London and other people who are in London now came back up. It was a really nice reunion. It was a really lovely evening and we had a good time”.
Although it was a very enjoyable experience to put Sweeney Todd together, there have been a lot of challenges: “Sweeney Todd is inherently a difficult show, musically and generally. It’s so easy to slip into melodrama while I was really aiming to keep it gritty and real. I was aiming to keep it relevant for the audience, that’s why we reimagined it in the 1950s. The challenge was not making it like a pantomime because it can be very easily over the top. Although I wanted it to be real and gritty, it should also stay funny since it is a black comedy. There are great funny moments in it. Keeping the balance was important. It’s such a hard working cast; everyone gave their best and tried to fulfil the vision I had for it”, Richard remembers.The Sweeney Todd cast worked hard and was rewarded for their efforts. Photo: Meg Watt
“Company was an entirely different story. It was rather an amusing comedy in a series of scenes. The story didn’t have a linear narrative and it was much easier to put together, but still very challenging. Comic timing was very important. It was a really good experience and a lot of fun”.
Being in the third year, Richard is a Music and Drama student with a full schedule. Most people cannot cope with university stress itself, now imagine how difficult it must be to be president of a society and to regularly direct award winning shows. Richard shrugs it off and admits that he thrives on having a lot to do. “I take each week as it comes.” Momentarily, he prefers being on stage and this is the direction he wants to go in the future. He plans on taking a year off and then applying for a postgraduate theatre degree in London. Although he has not entirely decided on the direction he wants to take, he is fully occupied with directing Titanic at the moment which is a different kind of vision entirely.
Being in his third year and studying Music, Tom does not shy away from challenges either. The NODA awards had a category for the ‘unsung hero’, which Tom was nominated for, but unfortunately didn’t win. Richard elaborates: “We nominated Tom because he did a lot behind the scenes and held everything together. Parts of the set literally nearly fell off and Tom was holding it together.”
Tom was very happy to receive the award for Best Programme although he did not expect it. “Obviously it’s nice to win an award and I did put a lot of work into the programme but I think the highlight for me was – because the production happened quite a long time ago- to get together and cheer each other on” For him, it was not necessarily going up and winning the best programme, “No, that really doesn’t mean much to me. The atmosphere of the evening was more important. They announced ‘Sweeney Todd’ and everyone got up and cheered and you have to get on stage and get the award. And it’s a really delayed pat on the back for work we did so long ago. It was just so nice to cheer Richard on and he really deserved it.”Photo: Meg Watt
He also emphasises that the UMMTS is now seen as a credible society with a lot of enthusiastic people. “We got more recognition due to the awards and raised our profile throughout Manchester. It was also a good networking opportunity; you would talk to people and visit their show. We got aware of what’s going on and who’s doing what. It was quite nice in that respect. Although it was an award ceremony it was not a very competitive environment.” Tom adds laughing: “We were all cheering very loudly. It’s always nice to get recognition. I’m more pleased for Richard although best programme is obviously amazing. It was a really good night and hopefully we’ll go again for Titanic.”
Richard is especially pleased that the society is going into the right direction of what he had hoped for. “Artistic excellence is of course very important. We also try to give opportunities to people who are just there for fun but also for people who are interested in a career in this direction. It’s completely inclusive. We’ve especially been successful with Sweeney Todd in providing a platform for people to really explore what they want to do. Furthermore, the showcase performance we did was completely unauditioned, anybody could take part. The audience was especially supportive.” He emphasises that that is actually not very common since young people who are still in training tend to be quite competitive. “Especially in High Schools and Universities, it can be quite horrible, but I’ve never experienced any of that.”
A big hurdle for the society was the lack of academic support from the department, which meant that searching for a venue was very difficult. Richard comments: “Obviously putting together a show is quite a demanding thing so in terms of booking a space and kitting it out with all the stuff like costumes is really a nightmare. Sweeney Todd was a huge leap for the society in general. It really set the benchmark. Now the Union knows to which standard we work and the expectation we have is that we usually have spaces to work in. Artistically as well, it shows what is actually possible to achieve in little time with very busy students.”
“I certainly learnt a lot from doing it I learnt a lot about how you have to be prepared for all eventualities and how much the glamour of the theatre does not extend beyond the stage.”
Working behind the stage meant to have an entirely different experience for Tom. “There are so many menial things. You have to go into a dark industrial estate at the outskirts of Manchester to pick up a gun. That turns out to have a lot of rules coming with it and if I lost it, I would have been in a lot of trouble. It turned out to be the wrong gun because the Sweeney Todd we did was set in a different era.”
But apart from the many hurdles they faced, they were very pleased with the costumes. Surprisingly enough, the costumes that the blood thirsty Sweeney Todd and cunning Mrs. Lovett wore on stage were all from the Vintage Kilo Fair. “Most of it was done quite cheaply. The Royal Northern Colle of Music was extremely supportive. They’ve been very helpful, especially with Sweeney, I’m very indebted to them”, emphasises Richard.
Tom also acquired great skills that won’t look good on the CV but should have required a separate award. “The chair was difficult because Sweeney Todd needs a special catapulting chair. It was constructed from an old car seat. We upholstered it with blue fake leather and then bolted the frame to the stage. At one point it was wood, but literally three days before the show we had to change it to steel. I also had to set a contraption on it to let the blood out. That was probably what I am most proud about, never mind the programme, if there was an award for making a chair that throws people off and squirts out blood without looking cheap, I should have won that award,” he says with a smirk.
The important final question is where they keep their awards. They are probably on the mantelpiece or somewhere on display. Both have to laughingly disagree. “I don’t know! It might be in my kitchen. I have the award in the kitchen to remind my flatmates of how important I am”, Tom says with a chuckle. “Yes, I think mine is in the kitchen too. We sadly don’t have a mantelpiece”, Richard adds.
Statement by Jess Ewart
Joanne in Company was probably one of the most enjoyable roles I’ve had – she’s a lot of fun but also a very complex woman. Her song in the second act, ‘Ladies who Lunch’, was a real challenge for me, not only vocally but also in terms of acting and so to have won a NODA for my take on the character was absolutely amazing! I am so glad that the hard work of all those involved with the society has been recognised, especially Rich Davies (winner of best director for Sweeney Todd) who is the most deserving winner I know. It’s a great society to be a part of and as someone hoping to peruse a career on in theatre winning the NODA was an amazing feeling! The whole cast deserved an award so my win is theirs too! Oh, and come and see Titanic!
Don’t expect the film, it’s not based on the film. It’s based on the real people who either lived or died on the maiden voyage. The music is extremely epic. You just get swept up by the production because it’s just so intense. There is the third class who aspire to have a better life, and running away from poverty. They go to the new world. The first class is revelling in the gold rush in America. And then suddenly they are all normal people and confronted with their own morality and inner depth. And it’s how they deal with that makes it just such an incredible show. Seriously involving and emotive people. When the ship actually sinks, there is only one person on stage and he goes a little bit mad.
About joining any dramatic society at the University
Contact the societies and show your interest. Go and see a lot of theatre, as much as you can; especially the cheap student theatre. Find stories that you’re really passionate about and think about how to bring them on stage. You need to be able to communicate properly with people of course, but the vision for the production is most important.