Performing Abroad: But The World Goes Round
I've enjoyed some success performing my one-man shows (and the one-nun shows too!) on the London cabaret scene since 1997. I've been lucky enough to perform at some fabulous venues, from The Purcell Room to Pizza on the Park, and at one of my second homes in Theatreland, the Jermyn Street Theatre. There's also been the excitement of performing in international venues, such as two seasons at Don't Tell Mama NYC and even taking my alter ego, Sister Mary McArthur, to open The New Space Theatre 2 in Cape Town.
In this business, though, there are a fair number of discussions and meetings about projects and opportunities that may or may not take flight - sometimes they do, but sometimes they disappear into the black hole of show business pipedreams....
Four years ago I was hosting Cabaret at Lauderdale House in Highgate and a gentleman approached me discreetly and gave me his card, asking if we could meet for a coffee the following day. His name was Khor Seng Chew. He was from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and loved musical theatre. We chatted over a not very exotic green tea and a chocolate brownie about his dream to open up a cabaret venue in KL. My new fan from afar asked me if I would be interested in being one of the first artists to perform there. I was extremely flattered and replied, "Yes, of course" - not entirely sure of where KL was, I'm ashamed to admit, but nodding politely, before off we went, on our separate international ways. We did however keep in touch over the next three years via email.
Last summer I was playing Sister Mary playing the Mother Superior in Nunsense at The Landor Theatre. The show started, I looked out, and there I spotted Seng Chew. After the show, we chatted away happily and he was delighted to inform me that they had the venue and it looked like it was all systems go. Could I really be going to Kuala Lumpur? No I thought, I will only believe it when I am there standing on that stage, belting out But The World Goes Round.
We arranged to have a business meeting in Edinburgh the following month where I would meet Seng Chew's business partner Pun Kai Loon. I was reeling around the Scottish capital, directing Newsrevue at the Pleasance, dashing around seeing dozens of theatrical pieces for my radio shows and now fitting in an international meeting. Love this business we call show!
The meeting was very exciting. The new venue was to be called The Theatre Lounge Café (TLC for short!) at Plaza Damas, in the Sri Hartamas district of KL, a stone's throw from the new royal palace. Could this be really happening?
Over the next four months various projects happened and by the time I set off for my season at Hereford playing Dame in panto, my KL dates were in the diary. I would be flying off to Malaysia on 1 March 2014, to appear at The Theatre Lounge Café opening on 7 March, for three nights only!
Serendipitously, Aaron and Andy who run the wonderful Ye old Rose and Crown pub theatre at Walthamstow, where I have directed several shows, asked me to perform a one-man show there in February. So I decided to use that date as a try-out gig for my forthcoming KL debut. I had to consider a Malaysian audience, in close association with Kai Loon, as the choice of songs was important. Musical theatre is a bit of an underground passion in KL. There are very few theatres in the city, and musical theatre, while it has a devoted following in KL, does not have the history and wide range of audiences as we have in the UK, the USA or Europe.
I arrived in KL early on a Sunday morning, full of excitement and a little trepidation - I felt a bit like Julie Andrews about to embark on a unknown journey, only I had sheet music, dickie bow and brand-new sparkly shoes in my bags. The heat was intense coming from cold, wet Blighty - and the time difference proved to be quite a challenge in the first few days - I occasionally found my face nodding into my noodles!
As performers, we have all done our time, over the years, acting in run-down, slightly shabby theatrical establishments, places that we can't help loving, no matter whether the toilets don't work or the damp is terrible, or that you have too climb a ladder and over the roof to get back-stage. In contrast, Theatre Lounge Café is a spacious, modern, air-conditioned black gem of a cabaret / performance space that I am sure would turn many a small London theatre owner green with envy. In fact, I joked often throughout my stay, saying that I knew many renters of venues in London who'd wish I could pack it up in my suitcase and take it home to them!
Two days before opening, I met my delightful musical director Samuel Tan. He recently completed a PhD in music at Birmingham and now teaches at University of Malaya in KL. His training, however, is in classical music and he had never played a musical theatre song in his life before! We talked through the repertoire, discussing style, emotion and performance, and I have to say that Sam did wonders. The day before opening was a day full of press interviews and rushing round between various radio stations, one presenter slightly more hip and out there, the other more serious, so I had to put my grown-up head on, but we ended up having a great laugh together, and quite a few listeners came to see my shows.
So opening night came. All sorts of questions were going through my head: What if they don't like my songs? What if they don't like my singing? What if they don't like me? I had only three people in the audience who knew my singing. This was going to be a good test of my ability to win over new audiences. Then I thought, just be you, tell the story of the songs, sing as best as you can and enjoy the whole experience - how lucky are you to be given an opportunity like this.
Well, what can I say - I had a ball. The audiences grew considerably over the three nights and I met some amazing people - including a secret patron of the cabaret season, who invited us to her gorgeous pad for a late night steak at 1am in the morning. The audiences generally were warm and so encouraging. As to Seng Chew and Kai Loon, as well as being fantastic hosts and looking after me so well, showing me KL and taking me out to sample the manifold culinary delights of KL, they work incredibly hard to make their passion for musical performances come true. Although at the moment there are limitations on getting the word out to the underground movement of fans of musical theatre in KL, if anyone can do it, it's these two fantastic lads, with their commitment and love of a genre that we all hold near and dear to our hearts!
What's that, Seng Chew - you're opening a new 400-seat theatre in two years and you would like me to perform/direct there? Why not?