Philip Barton is a Trustee of the Friends of the G&S Festival and has been a regular visitor to the Festival in both Harrogate and Buxton for many years. He also performs in, and co-ordinates, the SavoyNet Performing Group’s production at the Festival each year.
Philip, with his wife Kathryn, retired to Buxton in 2012 to be nearer to children and grandchildren. He is also a charity trustee of the Buxton Festival Foundation, a director of Vision Buxton, and treasurer of Buxton Town Team CIC and Buxton Markets CIC.
Philip – we say retired but from the list above you are certainly an extremely busy man! Can you tell us about SavoyNet and how you became involved with the group.
We first came to Buxton for the 1998 and 1999 festivals when the Savoy Singers, Camberley, for whom I served as treasurer for over twenty years, brought The Sorcerer and The Mikado. During our second visit, we saw Ruddigore, the very first full-length Savoynet show, and followed the instructions in the festival programme on how to join Savoynet. Starting with The Yeomen of the Guard in 2000, I have been in the chorus of each show ever since and have all the T-shirts to prove so. Besides meeting our G&S friends at the annual festivals, we have attended Savoynet events around the UK, and in Europe and USA.
The director of SavoyNet Performing Group’s 2018 production of Patience (The Royal Hall – 16th August) is Robert Ray from Australia and performers will be coming to Harrogate from all around the world to take part. How many countries will be represented in this year’s production?
As well as performers and crew from around the UK, the following countries will be represented this year: Australia, Belgium, Canada (Alberta and Yukon), The Netherlands, Switzerland and USA (Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington).
How do you cast the show and how long does the planning take?
After the steering group has chosen the stage and music directors, an audition call is put out on Savoynet and other social media in the Autumn for the principal roles. Interested participants are required to send a YouTube link with their audition pieces (the dialogue and music for each character are selected by the directors). The principals are then chosen by the directors, assisted by the Savoynet list-owner, although they may be offered roles other than those for which they auditioned. Generally, we will consider anyone who wants to apply to be in the chorus, although in recent years the group has had to restrict the numbers being on stage in Harrogate. As you can see, this mirrors the process used generally by other amateur societies except that individual participants may be separated by thousands of miles.
Costumes, scenery and props have all to be sourced, made and measured and this is not an easy task when everyone is in the same town, so how do you go about organising everything when directors, conductors and performers are on different continents?
These tasks are coordinated by the production manager but responsibility for some of the jobs is shared between members of the steering group and others. Email communication is the key here, but this is sometimes supplemented by Skype or Facetime conversations. Getting measurements from all the members of the cast is a challenge; regular members of the cast now know that their costumes will fit better if they don’t lie to the wardrobe mistress. The stage directors normally send blocking to the principals prior to meeting them in Harrogate, and the musical director will often send details of any changes or additional music. This is supplemented by midi files learning materials kindly supplied to us by Musical Solutions.
Can you tell us a little about this year’s production and what our audience can expect?
“Traditional with a modern twist” whilst respecting Gilbert’s words is probably a good description. Also, this production reflects the first performance of Patience after it transferred to the Savoy Theatre in 1881. Many of the so-called “lost” musical numbers have been restored and the group has invested in hiring the additional orchestra players necessary to give full justice to Sullivan’s score.
Philip, you obviously have a love of Gilbert & Sullivan. Were you introduced to G&S at an early age and have you always enjoyed performing on stage?
One of my earliest theatre memories was being taken by my mother (who was a professional dancer, choreographer and ballet teacher) to see the D’Oyly Carte performing The Mikado at Bristol Hippodrome and being told by her that I was going to like G&S. I had just turned four at the time. Having recently looked up the details in Rollins & Witts, I now realise that I would have seen Peter Pratt as Ko-Ko and Donald Adams as the Mikado.
After G&S performances at school and at college, I have performed in all the G&S operas (over 60 different productions), operetta and musicals with amateur groups in Birmingham, Stamford Lincolnshire, Camberley Surrey and Ridgewood NJ, as well as Savoynet, for almost 50 years. I also enjoy meetings of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society, originally in London, briefly in New York, and now in Manchester, and my membership of both the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society and the W S Gilbert Society has helped broadened my interest beyond the traditional canon.
I hear that you have discovered a personal G&S connection.
Yes, one unexpected fact we found out after we moved to Buxton was that the house we bought was originally connected to the now-demolished Spa Hotel. The owner used to entertain important hotel guests in his private library. According to published diaries, Kathryn and I can now boast that during one of his visits to Buxton to treat his gout, Gilbert was entertained in what is now our bedroom. If only walls could talk . . . !
Do you have strong views about a “traditional” G&S versus “non-traditional” G&S and do you think there is room for both?
I really have a problem recognising this distinction. Almost every so-called “traditional” performance will nowadays have some topical reference or twist, and I can recall some “non-traditional” performances which worked, and others which didn’t. As a committed lunatic, I’m a great fan of Opera Della Luna’s unique interpretation of both G&S and other operas, as we’ll see at this year’s Buxton Festival with their production of Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment on motorcycles.
And your favourite G&S opera?
This is really a tricky one to answer. As a member of the chorus, productions of Thespis and The Grand Duke have been among the most enjoyable. However, if I was exiled to that mythical desert island, I would probably choose the double chorus from Act 2 of The Pirates of Penzance.
SavoyNet have been performing at the Festival since 1997. Have you a favourite production?
Those productions where we have been fortunate to have Gary Slavin from New York as our director have always been fun. The week the men spent on what was, in effect, basic army training under David Duffey’s command was certainly memorable; this resulted in a special award for the dragoon guards in our 2001 production of Patience.
And have there been any nerve-racking moments that you can share with us?
My wife, Kathryn, has been Savoynet’s wardrobe supervisor for most of the years we have been coming to the festival. Many of the most nerve-racking moments have involved costumes which when delivered just before the performance, were not as ordered. She remembers the time when the costumiers – who were closed for holidays when we discovered the problem — mixed up the measurements of our slightly built Sir Joseph Porter with those of the six-foot burly Ralph/Captain Corcoran. Just as well we always take the sewing machine on our annual holiday, especially when uniforms have to be remade.
On stage, I recall when the time when I “rescued” a production of Gigi at the Birmingham Hippodrome. During the duet “I remember it well” I was the only other person on stage, playing the role of a hotel receptionist. I noticed one of the flats gently falling forward onto the stage. Just before it hit from behind our principal man (a resting Crossroads star), and in front of 2000 people, I walked across and supported the scenery until the end of the song. Thinking about it now, he was probably used to dodgy scenery anyway!
If any of our readers would like to join the SavoyNet forum how do they go about it and if they are not taking part in the Festival production can they meet up with other Savoynetters in Harrogate or Buxton?
We are always pleased to receive visits from other Savoynetters at our rehearsal venue (St Luke’s Church, Franklin Mount, Harrogate) during the week before the show. Otherwise, we are normally visible in the festival club after each evening show, usually identified by wearing a Savoynet T-shirt.
To join SavoyNet, or to find out more about the SavoyNet Performing Group, visit: savoynet.oakapplepress.com.
Do they have to be very knowledgeable about G&S to join SavoyNet?
Of course not. There are almost 1000 members of the combined “classic” and Facebook Savoynet groups. These range from academics who know more about the lives of Gilbert and of Sullivan than probably our heroes ever knew about themselves, down to mere mortals with just a passing interest in G&S, either as an amateur performer or as an audience member. However, just following some of the discussions as they unfold will provide members with a far greater appreciation of the works as their detailed knowledge increases. It’s also a useful resource for getting to know when any special performances or other Savoynet events are to be put on, as well as any subsequent reviews.
Philip, thank you for your time. We look forward to seeing SavoyNet Performing Group’s production of Patience in The Royal Hall, Harrogate on Thursday 16th August at 7.30pm.