True grit: London musical aims for Swede success

A villain standing in front of a Union Jack has been glowering at Stockholmers from billboards across the city in recent weeks. Kathleen Harman looks at how a hard-edged British musical is looking for success in Sweden.

True grit: London musical aims for Swede success
Photos: Peter Knutson

I like my villains to be butch, seductive men who positively exude knicker-removing pheromones. I want to be rooting for the bad guy and hoping that that the boring old goodie comes to a sticky end so that I can go running off with Mr Baddie and help mastermind even more audacious and evil plots, until he dumps me for a younger, more exotic Eastern European model with much smaller, less reinforced knickers than the ones I wear.

Those of you living in Stockholm may well have seen such a villain glowering in front of a Union Jack, gracing the posters for ‘London – The Musical’ due to open at the beginning of February. The character is called ‘Warrior’, played by Anders Ekborg, and I have been told that he is a nasty, but very attractive piece of work, who makes good people do bad things. And I’m not talking about reckless shoe shopping incursions which I’m sure a more camp villain would be spurring the sweet and innocent to do.

It would appear that musical theatre can be a whole lot edgier than my preconceived notion of saccharine goodie-goodies prancing around, or indeed roller skating around, in furry costumes. This production has a modern day story, which encompasses characters ranging from morally compromised City bankers through to charity workers, with Machiavellian agitators like the aforementioned ’Warrior’ preying upon the fears of desperate immigrants. In the end, good does conquer evil, but only sort of, and there is the theme of true but mainly unrequited love interwoven in the plot.

The titular London is a real, gritty, multifaceted, multicultural London as opposed to a touristy pastiche – no double decker buses, no black cabs, no Americans with dogdy accents playing cheery cockney chimney sweeps.

“The cast is very good looking and sexy and the whole production has a raw, urban feel to it,” says Andrew Pattie, the show’s British lyricist and producer.

“The choreography is modern and stylized and the scenery includes an eighteen metre wide backdrop that we project split screen video footage onto. It will be an entirely different theatre-going experience and absolutely stunning to look at.”

The show has been a long time evolving – Pattie wrote the first song lyrics back in 2001. Needing a composer, he struck up a working relationship with Stockholm-based David Hynes, after which Pattie found himself collaborating more and more with other Stockholmers – this is a a European hub for music production, after all.

There followed a ’beta’ run of the show back in 2006 at a small theatre on Södermalm, but since then the script and music has been considerably reworked, ready to pack the 1400 seat auditorium of the Filadelfiakyrka in central Stockholm for its run until mid March.

Musical theatre in Europe commands big money if you get it right. The Society of London Theatre announced a record breaking £400 million ($780 million) spent during 2006 in the West End alone. Add in the fact that there around five hundred and fifty thousand European venues performing amateur musicals on an annual basis, all paying royalties, and you’d have to have the brains of Dorothy’s Scarecrow not to see the possibilities.

On top of this, the sale of musical theatre-based media accounts for six percent of the total world entertainment spend so it is no wonder that Andrew Pattie and his British financial backers are hoping for a winner.

Sweden is a good test market for many products, ‘London -The Musical’ included. Both the script and the songs have now been translated into Swedish and with a well known cast of home grown performers such as Anders Ekborg, Malin Berghagen and Jakob Stadell, Pattie is hopeful of a positive reception by the Swedish public. The next logical step would be to take the show to Germany, followed by a UK tour, with Andrew Pattie’s ambition to have songs from the production performed at the London Olympics in 2012.

And he might just be heading in the right direction. The worldwide success of the ‘Bourne’ films show that the cinema -going public is ready to eschew European glamour for grittiness. Even the rather effete role of James Bond has been given a kind of brutishly virile overhaul by the casting of ‘tasty geezer’ anti-hero, Daniel Craig. With musicals still residing largely in the camp ‘camp’, as it were, it could be that theatre audiences are ready for a change too.

London the Musical premieres at Filadelfiakyrkan, Rörstrandsgatan, Stockholm, on February 1st.

More information and tickets:

Kathleen Harman


Opinion: Why English theatre can boost integration in Sweden

OPINION: It isn't always easy putting on English-language theatre in southern Sweden, but presenting plays in their original language has huge value – not least for integration – writes Playmate Theatre member Vanessa Poole.

Opinion: Why English theatre can boost integration in Sweden
Boel Marie Larsson (left) and Vanessa Poole in Lettice and Lovage. Photo: Diego Monsivais

Living as we have done for years with our Swedish partners of choice, we are all happy enough to be settled in Skåne, but oddly for such an expansive and cosmopolitan region, there is one thing missing: there has never been an established English-language theatre in southern Sweden.

As performers the three of us (Vanessa Poole, Robin Gott and Playmate founder Kevin Benn) have a lifetime of experience on and off stage, and in Sweden regularly do commercial work in English. Vanessa also does English theatre in Copenhagen, founding an English-language theatre there, while Robin does film work and Kevin has 26 theatrical productions under his belt.

However, as non-native Swedish speakers, institutions like the National Swedish Theatre in Stockholm are not exactly beating down the door to cast us on stage.

So our solution was Playmate Theatre Malmö, now presenting its third play in a varied season of quality English theatre at black box theatre Bastionen, just opposite Malmö Central Station.

We firmly believe that there is enormous value in presenting plays in their original language: you get to savour the full flavour and brilliance of the playwright. It cannot be compared to a translation.

Imagine you are a Swede. Try watching Strindberg on stage in English, once you know the original in Swedish. It is such a pale comparison in terms of deep, nuanced complexity and richness of language. Similarly, Noel Coward for us Brits, or Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, performed in Swedish – will always be a far cry from the original snap and weave of the masterful dialogue the way it was first written.

Not that Swedish is inferior in any way, it is just that language and culture are inextricably entwined, one feeds off the other. So there will always be something “lost in translation” once you depart from the original. Bringing the best of Anglo-Saxon plays to Sweden in English, compared to a Swedish translation – can only be a bonus.

Most Swedes already definitely understand if not speak English excellently,  so it is not a question of us providing language lessons on stage. Far from it! It is also no secret Swedes already have huge affection for the best of English-language humour, drama and culture – Monty Python, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers and House of Cards among others are hugely popular, as well as costume dramas such as The Crown.

Photo: Diego Monsivais

The hope is that Swedish theatre-goers will get to see Playmate as an opportunity and an alternative: a chance to hear work in English, whether originally British, American or something else. A further idea is to introduce plays to Sweden that have not been translated into Swedish at all.

Here in Malmö, there is already a thriving international vibe in the city. Our English-language theatre is only one possibility in a wave of culture we hope can help integrate the Swedish speakers and non-Swedish speakers, the haves and the have nots, through a cultural forum which is affordable theatre. Malmö has a colourful history of fringe theatre groups. There are some performances in Arabic and other languages in the area, all of which helps ease integration in the city.

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There is a large expat and international community in Malmö, Lund, and all of Skåne – including an immigrant community of new arrivals – for whom Playmate is the only opportunity to see live performances in English outside of Stockholm or Gothenburg. But at Playmate we really need a wider audience to make producing successful theatre commercially viable. Funding is hard to come by, and we sincerely hope to attract both Swedes and non-Swedes. We feel non-Swedish language theatre can be a meeting point for all and any culture lovers, old and new, any background. Our prices are more affordable too than at the large dramatic institutions, which are heavily state-subsidized.

Now in January 2018 we have chosen a bubbly, very British comedy, Lettice and Lovage by Peter Shaffer. A runaway success at the Globe Theatre, it was nominated for the 1990 Tony Award for Best Play and Best Direction on Broadway and written specifically for award-winning actress Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey, Harry Potter). Maggie had apparently complained to Shaffer that there were no good roles written for women of her age, then 53.

Lettice and Lovage is a gem of a piece, celebrating a love of history, theatricality and Britishness. Directed by Robin Gott, starring Boel Marie Larsson, Vanessa Poole and Kevin Benn, we are still grinning our way through rehearsals. The play is as funny as it is clever and we hope audiences will have as much fun watching it as we do playing it. Fingers crossed.

Lettice and Lovage opens at Malmö's Bastionen on January 18th.