The Mayflower, previously The Empire Theatre (1928-50) and Gaumont Theatre (1950-1986), boasts of being the 3rd largest theatre in the UK. I don't know if they mean by seating, building size, volume, stage and I assume that opera houses, concert halls and more modern entertainment arenas aren't counted, but still with almost 2,500 seats it is definitely a gurt big building. They were holding an opening gala to celebrate the completion of a £7.5million refurbishment.
I used to go to the Mayflower Theatre quite regularly as my former housemate Peregrin worked there and would occasionally get us free tickets. The last time I was in the Mayflower was in summer 2012, when we saw The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show Live! together there. That was the last time I saw him before his sudden death shortly afterwards, so the day held mixed emotions.
The Show Must Go On
My work choir was invited to perform as part of a show to celebrate the re-opening of the Mayflower Theatre following a major refurbishment. We were only there to perform two short songs, then leave the stage as a couple more acts perform and then return to the stage to provide backing vocals for the very last song in a 'let's see how many people we can fit on the stage for the finale' way.
The choir I am in is based where I work at Solent University in Southampton, and headed by Dan who leads a number of workplace choirs in the Southampton area, including one for the staff at the Mayflower. He teaches all the choirs the same songs so that occasionally the various different small choirs from around the city can come together to form a larger choir and perform somewhere. There's usually one concert a year and we do other bits and bobs here and there to support the local community, as well as flash mobs.
Anyway, our choir was only to be on for about 10 minutes, singing two songs:
Coldplay's 'Fix You'
'Fix You' by Coldplay I'm delighted to announce has the accolade of being listed in Johnny Sharp's excellent book Crap Lyrics for having a truly terrible chorus, but people seem to find it moving nevertheless. This is a song we had performed a couple of years earlier for a flash mob in the West Quay Shopping Centre.
Imagine Dragons' 'On Top of the World'
I expect this song to appear in Sharp's revised edition. It tries desperately to make the crap lyrics grade. Lyrics include:
I coulda gave up then but then again I couldn't have 'cos I've travelled all this way for something.
Or is the song just trying desperately hard to be terrible; truly bad lyrics have to have a purity that comes naturally straight from the heart. This is another song that we have sung as a flash mob, in this case earlier this year as part of our students' final graduation ceremony.
The Mayflower Opening Gala night consisted of alternating between professional acts that will be appearing soon at the theatre in the near future and local acts, mainly various children. So the Welsh National Opera were there, the Royal Ballet, the Barely Methodical Troupe of Experimental Acrobats straight from the Edinburgh Festival (they were certainly impressive), as well as West End and Broadway stars. The local acts included extracts from youth productions of Shrek: The Musical and Les Miserables and lots more. Including our choir. I think we were invited mainly because the non-theatrical Mayflower staff have their own staff choir run by Dan, and it would have been rude to re-open the theatre with a community event that didn't include the theatre's own staff. As the Mayflower choir is quite small, the other Southampton work choirs were invited too to make up numbers, so in other words I was there to be a support act to a support act.
Refer to it as Refurbishment
The opening gala was held to celebrate the completion of a £7.5million refurbishment for the 90-year-old theatre. For this they'd upgraded the lighting rigs and other technical stuff, and moved the orchestra under the stage. They'd put new chairs in – still not enough legroom, though1 - and some low-level lighting to help people see where their seats are and read their programmes.
The theatre staff were particularly proud that they had changed the wall colour from turquoise to '11 different shades of red'. The thing is when you go to the theatre, all the lights are turned off and the whole place looks black except the stage. So to be honest you can't tell the difference.
This didn't stop the theatre representatives constantly repeating the phrase 'it isn't merely a refurbishment, it is a regeneration for the next generation'. Changing the paint colour from turquoise to red doesn't count as a regeneration. If in Doctor Who they announced there'd be a regeneration and all that happened was Peter Capaldi dyed his hair red, fans would make it perfectly clear that that isn't a regeneration.
For the first half of the show we were allowed to watch from the Upper Balcony (which takes 84 steps to get to as the sign at the bottom of the staircase proudly points out). Sadly there were far too many long, long speeches thanking the sponsors, the architects, the legal department and so on and so forth ad nausea by lots of different people. The speeches were so long that though the whole show (which started at 7pm) was due to end at 9pm, that was the time the interval started. The whole night finished about 95 minutes late.
Many of both the audience and performers were children on a school night, so having it overrun so long was really unforgiveable. Surely in the 21st Century you don't need to actually give a speech to thank people in person, just bung it on the Facebook page instead without ramming it down the audience's throats. It isn't as if anyone other than the people being thanked paid attention and can remember the name of the firm of the accountants, architects and so on who were mentioned at length.
The show's host, West End and Broadway star Earl Carpenter, gave a long speech at the start about the importance of knowing the audience, and then did a Frank Spencer impersonation which went down like a lead balloon. Frank is a character on sitcom Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em2 (1973-8), which ended 40 years ago. This not only means the children in the theatre were too young to get the reference, their parents didn't get the reference either.
For the second half we had to vacate the seats and stand about in the foyer for 45 minutes or so. Eventually we were led out of the theatre, down the dark, narrow alley round the back and into the stage door heading our star dressing room – which an estate agent would describe as the theatre's unique indoor/outdoor space with period features. Everyone else would call it the lorry loading bay, which had a skip filled with the old broken chairs and cushions that had been refurbished, as well as the old exit signs, in the middle. We really appreciated the VIP treatment.
We then eventually went on the back of the stage during a speech, there were about 170 of us in our combined choir so we barely took up any room at all on the stage. After being introduced as 'workplace choirs where people come to sing and perform, regardless of talent' we sang our two songs, 'Fix You' and 'On Top of the World' and within ten minutes left the stage. A smoke machine meant that there was a haze between us and the audience, so all we could see were fog and lights and no faces at all.
After that we spent another 20 minutes waiting for the finale. Bobby Davro off the telly told the same jokes as he did 20 years ago, showing exactly why he's now off the telly. He is starring in this year's panto, Dick Whittington, along with Joe McElderry, one of the night's main stars. Joe McElderry is famous for being the worst-ever reality television programme X-Factor winner. He won in 2009, but is the one who was so unbelievably bad everyone decided to go out of their way to buy Rage Against the Machines' 'Killing in The Name' in protest instead3. He only has one song (presumably his talent show career didn't stretch to a B-side), so after he sang that he sang a couple of other people's. While he was on the front of stage 'singing' we lined up behind the black curtain behind him in time for the finale song.
For the finale the plan was for the star, in this case West End and Broadway star Jacqueline Hughes, star of musical Wicked, to begin singing the song and then have as many people from the rest of the show providing occasional basic backing vocals for the chorus. So our choir was right at the back of the stage, with the various youth choirs in front of us so there were a few hundred people on the stage at this point in total. Far in the distance at the front of the stage was Jacqueline Hughes. As she hadn't been at the rehearsal the day before I hadn't heard the song's lyrics as we'd rehearsed with the orchestra.
It turns out you don't need to know a song to sing it to 2,500 people. It takes seconds to learn to do what my job was. This was simply to know when to sing 'o o o o, o o o o, o o o, o o o, this is me' during the chorus, know when to step left and step right in time to the music when the tempo increases, know when to clap along with the music when it increases more, when to stand perfectly still for the quiet bit and know when to punch the air dramatically on the last word, in this case 'me'. Simple.
During the actual performance it sounded great, but as Jacqueline Hughes was right at the front and singing facing the audience, and not singing to us behind her, I only caught an odd word here and there. So when my wife asked me when I got home what songs we'd sung, I was confident about telling her the two our choir had sung on our own, but unsure over what I'd sang at the end. I told her that I think it is a song about someone called Bruce who is brave, with a lot of 'o o o's in the chorus, which ends 'This is me'.
She gave me a look and said, 'Is the song 'This is Me' from The Greatest Showman?' I honestly replied that as I've not seen The Greatest Showman I didn't know, but if the showman's name is Bruce then probably.
She gave me a second look, and asked me to explain further. So I replied the lyrics of the chorus seemed to be,
I am brave, I am Bruce, I am [where?/when?/who?/how?] I'm meant to be [something, something, something, something etc and finally] o o o o, o o o o, o o o, o o o, this is me.
She told me the lyrics are actually 'I am brave, I am bruised', and it isn't a song about Bruce Wayne4 after all. Which is a shame as, na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na aside, there just aren't enough songs about Batman.