With a score by Belle and Sebastian’s Mick Cooke, an all-new musical in which men are shipped to Mars to satisfy the planet’s demand for human flesh could be the perfect summer show
FOR the Scottish theatregoer, the summer months are a case of feast or famine. Head to Pitlochry Festival Theatre just now and you can clock up four plays in three days. Wait until August in Edinburgh and you can see that many in an afternoon.
Elsewhere, by contrast, the choice is more limited. In the past couple of days, the National Theatre of Scotland has said goodbye to Calum’s Road, Let The Right One In and Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner, and it will be well into September before all the major producing theatres are back in action with in-house shows. Received wisdom has it that if summer audiences are going to be tempted away from their barbecues, they need to be offered something special, such as this week’s Edinburgh International Magic Festival, or at the very least, something light and amusing.
That’s why we get the Surge street theatre festival, the Merchant City Festival and the outdoor Bard In The Botanics season every July in Glasgow. It’s also why A Play, A Pie And A Pint rounds off the month in frivolous style with a summer panto (A Bit Of A Dick Whittington, seeing as you ask).
Andy Arnold, artistic director of the Tron, shares the same instinct. When he took over the Glasgow theatre five years ago, he wanted to keep the building permanently busy, but he reckoned there’d be little appetite at this time of year for anything too weighty. He didn’t go to the extreme of a panto, but his solution was heading in that direction.
Since 2009, he has brightened our Julys by programming Cooking With Elvis, Lee Hall’s black comedy about a quadriplegic Presley impersonator; Valhalla, an outrageous vaudevillian frock-fest; Casablanca: The Gin Joint Cut, a witty celebration of the classic movie; and Stones In His Pockets, the funny two-hander by Marie Jones about an Irish village turned Hollywood film location.
It is in this tradition that the Tron is bringing us Cannibal Women Of Mars, an all-new musical with a score by Belle and Sebastian’s Mick Cooke. Like the previous shows, it does not ask to be taken too seriously – although with a cast of six plus a four-strong band, it’s one of the company’s biggest ever productions.
“Andy always said this was perfect for a July show,” says Cooke, who plays trumpet and bass for Belle and Sebastian and has worked as an arranger for Franz Ferdinand, Jon Fratelli, Phil Cunningham and Jason Donovan. “We met a few people, but he was the guy who really got it.”
So while bandmate Stuart Murdoch puts the finishing touches to his God Help The Girl screen musical, Cooke has been branching out in his own way. “It’s a total cliché,” he says. “There’s a time in life when all your friends get married and when all your friends are having kids, and now it seems to be the time in life when all my friends are writing musicals or doing a stage show. Stuart was working on God Help The Girl back in 2006 and that made me think I could probably do this.”
Having come up with the merest sliver of an idea, Cooke approached his childhood friend Alan Wilkinson and musical pal Gordon Davidson to see if they’d like to collaborate. Wilkinson is a sub-editor and children’s author; Davidson is a news editor and leading light of ska band the Amphetameanies. For all of them, it was a first venture into theatre.
“I had the phrase ‘Send more men’ and I knew it was going to be set on Mars and that was pretty much all I had,” says Cooke. It was Wilkinson who suggested the cannibal women. “Why are they sending for more men? They’re cannibals,” he said and set about writing the lyrics for the title song.
They batted the material back and forth between them and came up with an epic tale of star-crossed lovers circa 2113. The Earth has got too crowded and any excess men are shipped out to Mars where they will satisfy the planet’s demand for human flesh. That’s how jobless 21-year-olds Jaxxon McGhee and Largs Lido come face to face with Martian princesses Yasmin and Pippa. Before we know it, the course of true love has triggered an interplanetary crisis. “There’s a conventional love story running through it – just in an unconventional way,” says Wilkinson.
Whether this adds up to B-movie pastiche, as the poster would suggest, or some other genre altogether has clearly been a matter of debate. They were insistent, for example, that the cannibal women should be “of” Mars. If they had been “from” Mars, the show just wouldn’t have had the feel of Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure yarns such as Tarzan Of The Apes, Pirates Of Venus and The Gods Of Mars. “There’s a fair bit of B-movie in it,” says Wilkinson. “We want that fun feel to it. The Rocky Horror Show would be a touchstone, but also things like South Park, Team America and The Simpsons.”
At the same time, they’re not really in Return To The Forbidden Planet mode either. “I made a point of saying, ‘Let’s steer away from sci-fi,’ because that puts me off,” says Cooke. He’d been inspired by seeing Avenue Q, the hit West End comedy, although he has been influenced less by stage musicals than by stand-up.
“I’m a big fan of musical comedy like Flight Of The Conchords and Bill Bailey,” he says. “What we were doing isn’t traditional musical theatre and it isn’t a sketch show because there’s a narrative arc, but it takes more from musical comedy.”
For Wilkinson, who went to nursery, primary and secondary with Cooke, it was a particular thrill to hear the songs as they were written. Fans of Belle and Sebastian, however, should not go expecting the delicate pop confections for which the band is famed. “I’ve always been in awe of Mick’s musical ability, so I was expecting him to do well, but I was surprised at how he turned his hand to so many different styles so easily.”
Cooke has taken the chance to pay tongue-in-cheek homage to some of his favourite artists and genres, some of which are surprising. “There’s a Barry White-type number and some post-punk parody,” says the musician. “What’s great about Flight Of The Conchords is that everything they do is so well executed, it’s not taking the piss out of the original thing, it’s very respectful. I love Barry White – so it’s taking something that’s great and putting a comedy spin on it. It’s absolutely nothing like Belle and Sebastian. It’s not an indie musical by any stretch. We’ve got Latin songs, there’s even a Bonnie Tyler rock ballad – we do actually love that stuff as well.”
At the same time as indulging his eclectic musical tastes, Cooke has had to be mindful of the demands of writing for the stage. For the audience to get the jokes, he knows the lyrics have to be intelligible. “We were conscious right from the start of getting the words right so you can’t misinterpret them in any way,” he says. “In Avenue Q, they always stop the band for the big gag – that’s not what we do in Belle and Sebastian.”
• Cannibal Women Of Mars is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 5-20 July. www.tron.co.uk