I wasn’t really expecting a discussion about death on such a sunny afternoon. Musician Neil Hannon is cheerily pointing out to me that, in most depictions of death in modern media, it’s the more extreme demises being portrayed. A bullet-strewn shoot-out, the spectacular destruction of a car crash or the fear-packed shuddering before a violent end is what fiction generally depicts. All of them distant from the reality surrounding the final moments most of us will endure.
Somehow the common threat of cancer gets overlooked in modern storytelling. With over 320K new diagnoses a year in the UK, it’s perhaps a more realistic possibility that we shy from. “In a way it’s quite mundane, but somehow more real because of that,” Hannon muses.
We’re charring ahead of his new show coming to The Old Market this week, as part of Brighton’s SICK! Festival. Called ‘In May’, it brings together a unique group of international artists. Written by Berlin-based writer and theatre producer Frank Alva Buecheler, the piece was translated and facilitated by actor/musician and linguist Tim Clarke. Hannon has provided a sumptuous score for the show, which is complimented by incredibly beautiful projected images (below). Together these form the backdrop for a fearless narrative about the end of one young man’s life.
This thought-provoking piece of musical theatre follows a series of letters from a son to a father. The letters describe the experiences of a man undergoing chemotherapy to combat the advanced stages of cancer. Sung from the perspective of Anna – his bereaved lover – the show is a meditation on life, family, fathers and sons and the perspective that death brings to our world.
Unlike his collaborators on the piece, Hannon’s main motivation for the piece didn’t revolve around highlighting people’s experience of cancer. Instead a desire to produce work that is real was his driving force. “It’s about what it is to be alive, and that it is always heightened by knowing you’re not going to be alive for much longer.”
As leader of cult pop act The Divine Comedy, he gave us a band trading in uplifting potential hits. Armed with eccentric lyrics and adventurous arrangements, the band strived to give the public a slick slice of classic British pop, but Hannon wasn’t content with only composing chart ready music.
Since starting ‘In May’, Hannon worked on a show which became its thematic polar opposite – Swallows and Amazons. War Horse’s Tom Morris approached Hannon, trying to inspire him to compose a piece of musical theatre. At the time Hannon was reading the book to his daughter, and the story of some kids enjoying the freedom of summer holidays on Lake Windermere offered the perfect subject matter. “In a way it offered an easier entry to doing a musical, because it is slightly more kids orientated.”
After a few years of writing with Helen Edmundson, it went on to be staged at Bristol’s Old Vic before touring around the country. Now amateur companies across the land are performing it. “I only write about things I have no experience of,” Hannon jokes. “I’ve never really camped, never gone sailing, in fact never did much of anything as a kid.”
Ever the musical chameleon he also wrote an opera, based around a Tolstoy essay on the Crimean War, called Sevastopol. “If only it came out now, it might have made an impact.”
The piece didn’t come out the way Hannon hoped, giving him his first experience of truly negative reviews. He says he doesn’t mind bad coverage, if it speaks the truth. Now agreeing with much of what was said about the show, he accepts he had pushed himself to the limit, but didn’t quite get there.
Nevertheless his big ambition is to write a full-on orchestral piece. But it’s difficult to compose on this scale without being commissioned, due to the expense of hiring all the musicians needed. He has managed something a little smaller in this direction, with a piece for organ, choir and strings called ‘To Our Fathers In Distress’. Based on Hannon family Sundays in the 70s, it’s being performed at Royal Festival Hall on Sat 22 Mar.
Our conversation drifts onto classic pop records, from Stock Aitken and Waterman to the great Phil Spector. Hannon points out that both of these production powerhouses had plenty of bad records, but we only get to hear the classics. “The most challenging area to write for is out and out pop music.”
Hannon’s had an issue with modern pop, which stems from his perception of what modern producers have dispensed with actual songs. “It’s all about this stuff… this ear sludge. It kind of makes me feel old.”
We both agree there’s a basic lack of humour in modern pop. Artists from yesteryear didn’t necessarily have comic songs, but you have to possess a sense of humour to dress like Adam Ant. “It’s like they were playful back then. Nowadays everyone is so desperately afraid of looking uncool, that it’s become boring.”
‘In May’ comes to The Old Market on Wed 19 March, 2014, as part of SICK! Festival; a ground-breaking new event which explores the physical, mental and social challenges of life and death.