“The moon on a string.”
My moon on a silver string. Steven Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.
“Oh look Johanna, a star,
A shooting start!”
10 years ago today I was involved in the greatest theatrical experience of my life to date. Steven Sondheim’s gothic masterpiece of musical theatre ‘Sweeney Todd – the Daemon Barber of Fleet Street at the Concordia Theatre, Hinckley.
Now I am living in London as a professional actor, I forget almost everyday how lucky I am to be creating the life I had always dreamt I would live, as I sat in the Concordia’s rehearsal rooms, listening to Sondheim’s words echo through the walls…
“Hush, love, hush, think it through
Once it bubbles then what’s to do?
Watch it close, let it brew
I am striving everyday to follow my heart and my happiness – I owe most of who I am today to the opportunities that were offered to me at the Concordia Theatre. What was once an abandoned knitting factory is now transformed into one of the greatest armature theatres in the country. The Concordia opened its doors in 1969, the year Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon and the first steps were taken in Hinckley towards creating this unique theatrical space.
A world where the ordinary and mundane melts away to reveal the extra-ordinary, it reveals a window into another world – a world of creation, imagination and artistry. What once must have looked like a monument to industrial decrepitude – a crumbling disused hosiery factory up a side street in Hinckley that had been empty since the end of the war – is now the physical result of the hard work born out of the skill, enterprise and sheer resolution of a group of people and volunteers, to whom the word ‘theatre’ must have meant magic. Magic is tangible in every corner of that building.
“But the work waits!
I’m alive at last!
And I’m full of joy!”
To me the Concordia stands a living, breathing, and sparkling monument to the power of following your dreams. It was a magical playground, a microcosm where I could escape – it seems like I spent my entire childhood there living and breathing art. This theatre almost seems to posses a soul, warmth and an all-enveloping love; the walls drip with ghost stories, legends and endless mystery. It’s where, as a child I fell in love with the stage, the connection with the audience and telling stories – It is the root of all my creative inspiration. Laughter and community is its heart – and the miraculous shows it produces is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit and the epitome of deliberate creation.
The Concordia is where I first felt that spark of anticipation backstage, I can remember being as young as 7 years of age and feeling that thrill just before the curtain rises – when the flute calls, and the trumpet answers. Those corridors and stairways that are filled with raised voices, practicing passages of songs, anxious repetition of dialogue, and good luck wishes. The air feels charges with an endless sense of joy and possibility. As a child growing up this feeling of tangible joy and adventure was intoxicating. It has always kept me connected to my creativity and allows the dreamer I am at heart to have endless freedom. It feels like home. The tannoys squeak with disembodied instructions that echo through the corridors. Backstage, the adults suddenly become children – full of happiness and excitement. Amidst the hustle and bustle, the hum of chatter – the orchestra moves to the pit, ‘Act 1 beginners’ are called and the musicians check their pitch. I hear the flute calling me…
“Silly little nit.
Had her chance for the moon on a string…”
Back at home, 2005. Still fresh from my west end debut at the age of 11, I was stumbling into adolescence.
The jolt of my adventures in London assured me of my wonderful destiny to be a creative artist, and live in that wonderful city one day. In order to distract me from the mundane, I delved back into the world of the Concordia Theatre. Daydreaming and giggling my way through the school day meant I was closer to rehearsing and escaping in my evenings – I was alone at school and wanted it that way, no one understood me the way actors did in a rehearsal room, or the way I felt standing around a piano learning harmonies with my fellow actors. Nothing could compare to being in a creative space where I felt like an equal, working as an adult and immersed a world of my own imagination. I lived for the end of the school day – to shed my uniform and rush to the Theatre. Whilst I was finding a way to integrate myself back into the sleepy town of Hinckley, the universe delivered a miraculous gift – I was given ‘the moon on a silver string”
Auditioning for and being offered the role of Tobias Ragg in Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ changed my life forever. I was unknowingly propelled into a world I hardly knew existed. The genius and endless complexity of this man called ‘Sondheim’, I found myself out of my depth, but rising to the challenge – working with adults being at the heart of this dark, gripping, roaring funny, hauntingly poetic, enigmatic and mysterious tale. It was exhilarating surfing on the waves of this monumental operetta, a mad waltz of murder, mayhem and meat pies. One man changed everything for me, our director Tom Goodluck.
Tom was giant. He seemed giant to me in size, generosity, and talent. A wonderful and inspiring artist – formidable and unendingly passionate about truth and storytelling. He had vision combined with a lovable, almost tangible flare for the absurd, the dark and the dangerous. As big has a house, with more love and passion to fill the whole rehearsal space, he expected from me all that that miraculous score demanded – his presence commanded me to be better that I ever though I could be. I was immersed for the first time into Stephen Sondheim’s dark and exquisite score. He, (both Sondheim and Tom) pulled out of me something I never knew I possessed. Tom gave me the courage and the belief to know I was good enough without uttering a word.
His laugh was huge and wicked; I knew I had done a good job when he gently hit me on the arm – no words necessary. Another important lesson ‘No Words Necessary’ seeing him smile in the audience when he knew I had done him proud, filled me with joy. That show was me at my most fulfilled and happy, pulled into a wonderland of possibilities, feeling adult and like a vessel for something far greater than myself. I felt an unsaid understanding between us both as if we were on the frequency, as if he saw something of himself within me – I felt honored.
Before my last entrance I descended the stage to emerge through a trap door. My heart was pounding as I stood on the ladder leading up to the stage, awaiting my queue. I braced myself as the lights around me began to glow; the smoke machine whirred, filling the space with a thick fog ready for my entrance. I swung open the trap door – audience screamed. I climbed out like a spider; I delivered my monologue relishing every word. I felt the blood burst from the razor and began to sing – “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd‘’ I was soaring.
“Swing your razor wide! Sweeney, hold it to the skies!”
I felt a sudden awareness of size. Of the whole theatre itself, more that the great stage and set that surrounded me. A place where so much history had been absorbed, a place where darkness contains mystery and the light has meaning. The light, to be engulfed in it, to swim in it – the dust had a smell so thick I could almost have eaten it – make up, sweat, paint and perfume. Everything felt but unseen. The music, a surging wave that moves through you and makes you attempt things you never would have dared!
There is no more magical and powerful feeling than being filled from head to toe with joy, being used fully in something that brings awe and wonder, sparks inspiration and creates something out of nothing.
Sometimes is hard not to feel underestimated and undervalued as a working actor. But I look back to what we created in that theatre and I know what it is like to work with a fellow artist, and to be given the freedom and permission to be an artist myself.
My Dad and I will forever treasure this musical, and the first time I think my Dad ever recognized in me my talent for storytelling. He now has a love for Stephen Sondheim’s genius as an artist, which is something we will always share. ‘Sweeney’ is now our musical; it is rich with wonderful life changing memories. My moon on a string.
“Poor Thing” – Sweeney Todd, the daemon barber if Fleet Street – Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim