Fred Lawless on writing Scouse Pacific, a non-Christmas Christmas show
Staging a traditional panto isn’t always the right choice for a theatre at Christmas, particularly if there are several other pantos being staged nearby. That’s why for the last few years Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre has been staging Christmas shows for adults. And for those of you thinking that must be Jim Davidson territory, you’re very wrong.
The Royal Court is the only full-time producing theatre in Liverpool and has established itself as a theatre that primarily produces comedy plays, many with a local flavour. Having already had a couple of plays staged there, I approached them in 2009 and pitched an idea for a play. They liked it, but asked if I could write it in a format that would meet their Christmas show brief, which was that it should be a comedy musical with a local setting, and while they didn’t want anything that resembled panto, some panto elements could be incorporated as long as the play was definitely for an adult audience – they wanted to make sure their core audience returned at Christmas. Several days later I returned with a new synopsis, which they immediately commissioned.
The play I delivered was Merry Ding Dong, a story of two childhood friends who fall out over Christmas and cause their families grief as their animosity towards each other grows. Meanwhile, their teenage children fall in love. Romeo & Juliet in Liverpool? Well, not quite. The play used song and dance and was very well received by both audiences and critics alike. The theatre bosses also seemed pleased. So pleased, in fact, that they asked me would I write their 2010 Christmas show. As I already had another new play due to open in April, I did wonder if agreeing to write three new plays in just over 12 months was a good idea. However as a freelance playwright you never know when the next commission will arrive so I decided to accept their invitation.
When I started devising the show I had a dilemma. Last year’s show had a big Christmas feel to it; it used well-known Christmas songs, was set at Christmas and the set was awash with Christmas decorations. I wanted this year’s show to have a different feel, but I was worried audiences would feel cheated if it wasn’t ‘Christmassy’. Then it suddenly struck me that panto stories are never set at Christmas time and don’t usually feature Christmas songs, so why was I worrying? Would it be possible, I wondered, to set a play on a South Pacific island, not set it at Christmas time yet still offer it up as a Christmas show?
The South Pacific island setting wasn’t just a random thought. I’d been toying with an idea for a comedy about a Scouser in the 1800s who gets shipwrecked on an uncharted South Pacific island inhabited solely by women (a freak wave having drowned all the menfolk when they were fishing). The Scouser is encouraged to ensure the island race continues, and as he breeds he teaches his offspring his Scouse ways and tongue. Fast-forward to today and the island, which is called Secosu, is home to a community of Scousers who have never set foot in Liverpool.
I decided to pitch the idea to the theatre bosses and they loved it, in particular the title: Scouse Pacific (well, what else?). The show met their Christmas brief as it would have comedy, song and dance and would also be a local play (albeit set on a South Pacific island!). They were, however, a little concerned about how a show set on a desert island would be received by a Christmas audience, in particular the tinsel-festooned works parties who came in their droves to see Merry Ding Dong.
They needn’t have worried. Scouse Pacific had the audience on its feet applauding most nights, and picked up some great reviews. The show went down so well that instead of ending on 8th January it was extended to the 15th, and when that week sold out it was extended again until the 23rd. Last year we’d seen audiences dip in the new year, but as this wasn’t a ‘Christmas’ show people still wanted to see it in January. There was even talk of extending it until February or even further! One journalist wondered whether I’d written what he called ‘The Scousetrap’ (groan!).
There were 51 performances of Scouse Pacific and most nights there were few empty seats. When you consider the theatre holds 1,100, that’s a lot of tickets sold. It was great fun to write and rehearse and it will hopefully return to the Royal Court in the not too distant future.
And so to next Christmas. I’m hoping to be back at the Royal Court with another Christmas show. Will there be tinsel and Christmas songs? Of course not. This time I’m thinking about a comedy Western. ‘At Christmas !’ I hear you all exclaim. Well, why ever not?