Caro Meets Music Interview

Geoff Aymer: The Wonderful

By | Published on Friday 26 November 2021

The moment I heard about Theatre Peckham’s Christmas show ‘The Wonderful’, I was entirely seduced: it’s a fab sounding musical which melds ‘The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz’ with a world reminiscent of Wakanda, while addressing themes of self love and acceptance.

It’s a show that’s aimed at young people, and was developed in response to ideas generated during one of the venue’s Learning Academy classes.

To find out more about the show, and the creative behind it, I spoke to writer Geoff Aymer.

CM: Can you start by telling us what ‘The Wonderful’ is all about? I understand it’s based on some familiar sources…?
GA: It’s based on L Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz’. It’s more of a nod to the original book than the well-known musical, although there are obvious references to the musical too. The idea is to make a story that has timeless themes more relevant to today’s audience.

So, we start in Peckham and end up in a magical, futuristic fantasy land that is part Oz, part Wakanda – the mythical African land from Marvel’s Black Panther stories. The basic story is, a young girl who’s feeling out of sorts about who she is, and out of place in the environment in which she lives, finds herself suddenly transported to an alien environment where she gradually learns to appreciate herself and the people/community she’s left behind.

CM: What themes are explored through the show?
GA: The main theme is all about self-love. Learning that we all have within us, something that makes us special and unique. It’s simply figuring out how to tap into it and make yourself shine. There are other things as well. For instance, that it’s okay to make mistakes – it’s not the end of the world. It’s all about learning from your mistakes and using the experience to help build your character. There’s also a little nod to the idea of being true to yourself and not necessarily bowing to pressure from others.

CM: Can you tell us about the music? What style, or genre, can we expect?
GA: This is more of a question for the two brilliant composers, Jordan Xavier and Nick Bowers-Broadbent, as they could probably articulate better what they’ve done. But I’d say there’s a reasonably eclectic style of music here. We have what some would describe as traditional musical theatre type music, a little bit of grime, some afrobeat stuff, a bit of soca/calypso, a 70s funk style tune, and some stuff that’s been influenced by bashment/dancehall vibes.

CM: What was the inspiration for this? What made you want to create a show with these themes and this story?
GA: As mentioned earlier, it was influenced by ‘The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz’s story. Suzann McLean, the Artistic Director of Theatre Peckham, asked some of the young people who regularly attend classes at Theatre Peckham’s Learning Academy what type of story they’d like to see and perform in, given a choice.

One of the responses was “Wizard Of Oz meets Black Panther”. When she presented me with the overall premise, I practically jumped at the opportunity as soon as I heard the Marvel reference – I’m a long-time fan of all things Marvel.

In terms of the themes, I’ve tried to stress here, we’ve all been teenagers and had to deal with peer pressure and the need to fit in at all costs. As I know that there will be a lot of young people watching this, I wanted to give them a tale that lets them know it’s alright to be yourself and know that someone loves you and appreciates who you are and what you have to offer the world even if you yourself can’t always see it.

CM: As the writer of the show, how involved in the production are you? Did you hand over the script and step back or are you going to be there for rehearsals?
GA: I have attended some of the rehearsals already and plan to attend some more. But it’s only to help clarify certain aspects of the story. I think sometimes it is helpful for the writer of a new piece to be on hand to answer any questions the creatives or cast have about the text.

However, I completely trust the judgement of the creative team ie, Suzann, the director; Ben, the musical director; and Chris and Hannah, the choreography team. From what I’ve seen so far, they’ve absolutely got a handle on interpreting what I’ve written. Not only that, but they’ve also brought their own ideas to the table which have enhanced and improved upon what I’ve written. And the cast have played their part in this process also.

CM: I understand it’s a while since you wrote a show – what made you decide to do it now?
GA: I didn’t deliberately stop writing, I sort of lost my way for a bit and it took me a while to feel like I could get back on track. I’ve known Suzann for a while and I performed in a Christmas show at Theatre Peckham about three years ago. She then floated the idea of me writing a show for the theatre, and as lockdown hit, we found ourselves having more than enough time to pursue the idea.

CM: What has it been like getting back to writing? Do you think you will write more soon?
GA: It’s been great. In the early days, I’d sometimes find it quite daunting having to create something from nothing. And as I have leaned towards comedic things, that’s doubly hard – writing jokes is no easy business at all. And then, I have to complicate things even further by writing stuff that has songs in it, so I’ve got to write lyrics or, on some occasions, entire songs, lyrics and music.

However, once you build up a head of steam it’s so much fun, and I find I’m a lot more chilled and a lot less anxious about having to create new material these days. To answer your second question, ‘The Wonderful’ isn’t the only writing project I’ve had on the go these past eighteen months or so. There are a couple of other projects in the pipeline. More on those as and when they come to fruition.

CM: You are also a prolific actor, of course. Did you always want to be a performer? How did your career begin, and what made you pursue it?
GA: I did one play during my last year in secondary school and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was something I thought I’d do as a hobby in my adult life. However, many years later, having participated in a couple of amateur dramatic and youth theatre projects, I got a taste for it and decided I’d give it a go for real.

CM: You also used to be a comedian. What made you leave that behind? Can you see yourself ever doing that again?
GA: I love making people laugh but I don’t think I ever quite had the same passion for being a stand-up comedian as I do for being an actor or writer. Despite what many people may think, these are very different skill sets. I still have friends in the stand-up world and I have immense respect for what they do. Comedy is not an easy business and I do find myself getting irate with people who think it is. I’m happy doing what I’m doing now and I don’t think I’m going to go back to stand-up anytime soon.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
GA: I’m going to break my highlights into three categories. First, as a stand-up, I have two notable highlights: performing a 30-minute set to a 900 strong audience at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham, when me and my then comedy partner, Marcus Powell, had been in the game for less than six months; then doing a guest appearance on the ‘Real McCoy’ TV series a couple of years later.

Secondly, as an actor, too many to choose from, so I’ll have to go with two musicals: ‘The Big Life’, the first black British musical ever to hit the West End back in 2005; and more recently, ‘The Color Purple’ musical up in Leicester and Birmingham a couple of years ago.

Thirdly, as a writer, probably ‘The Oddest Couple’, a two-hander I wrote for Messrs Robbie Gee and Eddie Nestor back in 2004. It was very flattering to be approached by those two to write something for them.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
GA: As an actor, to just keep working, hopefully more TV/film work to go with the growing body of theatre work I’ve already got. And as a writer, to write more theatre-based work to begin with, then move into film and TV stuff.

The idea is to build two separate careers. I’ve yet to write a theatre piece that has a part for me in it – my aim as a writer first and foremost is to create the story and characters, and then only if I and other casting people think there is a part for me in it do I consider that possibility.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
GA: In terms of writing, I have a couple of other projects in the pipeline so watch this space. In terms of performing, I will be part of a one-off performance of the musical ‘Sunset Boulevard’ at the Royal Albert Hall on 4 Dec.

‘The Wonderful’ is on at Theatre Peckham from 1- 22 Dec. For more information, and to book, see this page here.

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