Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ novels have sold a staggering 85 million copies around the globe. They are translated into 37 languages and run to 40 volumes (41 now as ‘The Shepherd’s Crown’ was published posthumously last month). Discworld novels have been made into animated cartoons and 14 of the series have been adapted as plays. As yet no film versions have been made but that may be only a matter of time.
This extraordinary popularity – which rivals that of J K Rowling – comes from the novels’ universal appeal and rich comic value. Pratchett’s Discworld may be an alien, fantasy landscape inhabited by troll, druids, elves, dwarves and wizards but the inhabitants all have recognisably human traits which allows him limitless scope for satire and wry social commentary.
‘Soul Music’, now realised in dramatic form by Wellington Theatre Company, is a narrative with two threads. The main plot follows three hapless musicians – an ‘elvish’ Welsh bard, a dwarf and a rock-playing troll drummer who form ‘The Band With Rocks In’ accidentally when a guitar ‘adopts’ them. The band achieves stardom in defiance of the controlling Musicians’ Guild. Here, Pratchett happily plunders the music industry for gags, many of them genuinely – and delightfully – funny. Pop culture, song titles, band names, the gullibility of fans and the greedy exploitation of music promoters and managers all become targets for satire and wit, so too are Discworld’s patrician class and the wizard ‘academics’ of the Unseen University – which include an orang utang.
The subplot involves Susan, Death’s granddaughter, who is required to take over his role when he goes missing. This narrative thread is more philosophical in allowing Susan and her grandfather to debate (and disagree on) the subject of immortality and their own role in saving or ending lives. The band’s death in a coach crash – being pursued by enforcers from the Musicians’ Guild – threatens to make them immortal. Death intervenes, destroys the guitar that has brought them fame and distorts time to wipe the band from history.
Wellington Theatre Company’s Rebecca Beard and Mike Leach have chosen to adapt their own version of ‘Soul Music’ for the stage and have injected their personal Discworld enthusiasm into the script, preserving Pratchett’s comic flair in puns, gags and witty satire. Rebecca is also directing the show, her first production for the company, formerly the Civic Players.
As drama, the effectiveness of this adaptation of ‘Soul Music’ depends on the strength of individuals’ characterisation for it is mainly through dialogue that the narrative is delivered. The technical team’s responsibility is to convey descriptive elements in setting, lighting and sound which, given Pratchett’s extraordinary inventiveness, is no small task.
Ian Jones has already excelled in recent productions in the town. As Imp y Celyn he conveys wide-eyed, earnest sincerity and the role’s youthful glee when the magic guitar adopts him. Kirk Shepherd, whilst not exactly dwarfish, is appropriately droll as Glod Glodsson, his deadpan delivery suited to the role. Rob Spurway as the giant Troll Lias Bluestone delivers the necessary slow-witted cloddishness and lumpen enthusiasm. As the The Band With Rocks In their performances are central to the drama.
From a long cast-list Maat Ward as CMOT Dibbler is outstanding. His self-serving entrepreneurial glee is a delight and his character’s eager sniffing-out of an opportunity is physically well-defined. Colin Marshall’s Albert, Death’s PA, has an appropriate indolent detachment in spotting his master’s defects. Dawn Morton and Hannah Green appear as members of the City Watch – complete with Vikings’ helmets and chainmail – then individually as beggar Foul Ole Ron and pub landlady Hibiscus Dunelm, delivering confident, well-observed performances.
Where other members of the large cast are able to determine the major characteristics of their roles and expand them in performance, they provide an effective accompaniment to the central action. But, such is the outrageous power of the writer’s imagination, those whose characterisation is less well-crafted are not so effective. Being larger than life (but still essentially true to it) is essential in communicating Pratchett’s mischievous observation. Marck Pealstone as Lord Vetinari is an actor who achieves the right balance between parody and realism. He also manages to perform a guitar riff dressed as an ape.
An outstanding feature of this production is Penny Bradnum’s costuming. She has managed to fill the stage with delightful inventiveness creating a galaxy of very weird wizards, grungy heavy metallers and odd schoolgirls – one with a beard. Pratchett would approve of the visual oddity assembled. Whilst not strictly costuming, the array of fright wigs and daft beards deserves a special mention as being entirely appropriate.
The technical team effectively manage their difficult task of executing quite complex sound and lighting cues – and the opening night should see outstanding problems solved. The use of projected clues to settings is helpfully explicit, particularly for those new to Discworld.
Director Rebecca Beard has taken on a demanding task. As her first production for Wellington Theatre Company she is dealing with a large cast and 37 scenes – and scene changes – which present a considerable challenge to continuity, especially as she is using a conventional, curtained stage. Managing the play’s progression demands an attention to dramatic shape and tempo and, on the evidence of the dress rehearsal, there are moments of uncertainty when the pace falters and the events on stage seem to be hesitant and lacking coherence. The sparkle and vibrancy that an audience brings to any production is needed now to bring to life a script which is genuinely funny.
Choosing ‘Soul Music’ as the company’s project is a brave – and unconventional – move. That is to be applauded and could attract newcomers to local drama. Discworld fans will enjoy seeing the novel’s characters and landscape realised on stage and those who have yet to sample Pratchett’s unique style and vision could be tempted to reach for a copy after enjoying this production.
‘Soul Music’ is at Wellington Arts Centre, Eight Acre Lane, from Wednesday 3rd to Saturday 7th September at 7.30 with a matinee on Saturday at 3.00pm.Tickets from Tickets from the Box Office: 0844 997 9000 or from Nurtured by Nature, South Street, Wellington.