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Stef Smith - And The Beat Goes On

When Stef Smith met Johnny McKnight, the playwright who first made her name scripting international hit, Roadkill, and the co-founder of the Random Accomplice company had quite a few things in common. Most of these, they discovered, were musical, and while their ongoing debate regarding the musical merits of Madonna looks set to run and run, their mutual fondness of Cher has already borne fruit. This comes in the shape of And the Beat Goes On, Smith's new play for Random Accomplice which is about to open at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in a co-production with Perth's Horsecross organisation.

“Mine and Johnny's entire friendship was founded on a mutual love of Cher,” Smith confesses. “I remember saying to somebody at the time that I don't think I'd ever met another Cher fan before. My love of her comes from when I was a child and my mum used to play all her albums, and I guess something stuck. There's something there as well about Cher being a strong independent woman and a survivor. Johnny loves a diva as well, and he said then that one day we'd make a show about her, and now we've finally come through.”

Rather than attempt some cheesy biopic of the singer, actress and all round showbiz icon formerly known as Cherilyn Sarkisian, Smith has opted to tackle something darker that even goes beyond Cher's ill-starred marriage to the late Sonny Bono. It was with Bono as Sonny and Cher that the star of Mermaids scored one of her biggest hits of the 1960s with I Got You Babe, the couple's 1965 debut single that in part defined its era, even as it was parodied by the Rolling Stones on TV pop show, Ready, Steady Go! and later covered by UB40 with Chrissie Hynde.

“It's a song that's become bigger than life itself,” says Smith, not overstating things in any way. “It's a song about love, but which has transcended its origins to have earned its place as an important part of pop culture.”

This is no doubt a view shared with Peter and Lily, the couple at the heart of And the Beat Goes On who have been rehearsing their Sonny and Cher tribute act in their garage for eight years.

“Nobody's ever seen Peter and Lily's act,” says Smith. “The play is set in the 1980s, so it's before reality TV and X Factor, but for me the play is about escapism, and of dreams of getting away from your normal life through celebrity. It's also about the effect that grief can have. For Peter and Lily, who on the face of things look like they have a perfect family life, it's a chance to be Sonny and Cher for an hour each day. Through that they're trying to deal with an impossible situation, but when a new neighbour moves in, slowly the house of cards they've built starts to fall down around them as the outside world enters into their own private domain.”

Like Peter and Lily, things weren't quite what they seemed relationship-wise with their inspiration. This was most notable in the double act's 1970s TV variety show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.

“Sonny and Cher lived in this big house in separate wings,” says Smith, “and only really met up on the TV shows, which would start with a song, and would then have them making jokes at each other's expense, then there'd be another song, and it would go on like this, with guest stars like David Bowie and Elton John appearing on it.”

The show ran from 1971 to 1974 when the couple split up, after which each would appear in their own solo TV shows. The couple went on to reunite professionally at least between 1976 and 1977 for The Sonny and Cher Show. It was here that the fallout of the once golden couple's divorce became palpable, with some of their comic barbs betraying a noticeable edge. It was all a far cry from I Got You Babe.

“Cher came from extreme poverty,” says Smith, “and fell in love with Sonny Bono, who promised to make her a star. She never had the coolness of Madonna. She was quite cheesy, and that makes her a bit more real, although it doesn't make me want to like Sonny Bono anymore when he went off and became a Republican politician.”

Despite some of the obvious scope for camp with such a subject, And the Beat Goes On, named after the chorus of Sonny and Cher's Bono-penned 1967 hit, which became the opening theme for Sonny and Cher's Comedy Hour, isn't a comedy.

“I've resisted using that word,” Smith says. There's definitely lightness there, but it gets darker. Like the Sonny and Cher TV show, the humour becomes really diluted. I suppose here we're looking at this idea of celebrity lives, and how we can become fascinated with what we think we know about these other lives in order to help avoid our own. People can think they own a part of somebody, and because of that artists like Sonny and Cher can end up as no longer seeming like they're real. There's something there as well about how if the life is very bright, the darkness is even darker.”

Since the Olivier Award winning Roadkill, Aberfoyle born Smith's writing has gone from strength to strength through plays like Falling/Flying for the Tron The Silence of Bees for the Arches. Smith has just returned from Korea, where a new play under commission to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh was given a rehearsed reading. Smith also has plays on the go for the Royal Court in London and the National Theatre's Connections programme.

“I've changed a lot as a writer,” she says. “I've grown up a lot. I read as many plays as I can, and the few times I've re-read Roadkill I can see the changes I'd make now. One thing that gets me excited is looking at how to make changes in structure and form, anything to help get me out of my comfort zone as much as possible.”

While Smith's fandom for Cher holds no bounds, only occasionally can she be persuaded to don a long dark wig and take the stage herself.

“After a few glasses of wine I can be persuaded to do If I Could Turn Back Time as my karaoke song,” she says. “Like I say, I like to get myself out of my comfort zone as much as possible.”

And The Beat Goes On, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, March 24-28; Perth Concert Hall, April 2-4

 
The Herald, March 17th 2015

ends

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