It took a trip to a graveyard for the members of Biff Smith’s band A New International to realise that the theatre show they’d signed up to do was for real. As it turned out, A Dark Carnival was the latest opus from Vanishing Point, the internationally renowned company that provides a vehicle for the dark visions of its artistic director Matthew Lenton. With Smith and A New International at its musical core, the seriousness of the project came as something of a surprise to the band.
“It’s probably fair to say the band are all sceptics,” says Smith. “It took them six months to believe this was actually happening. I remember we decided to for for a walk in the Necropolis, and afterwards going for a drink, and the penny finally dropping when one of them said, ‘You didn’t tell me it was a real theatre company’. The music industry and the arts world in general does tend to attract blowhards and people who promise you the things that never materialise, so I dare say that informed their attitude.”
This is a fair enough assumption to make. Lenton, after all, had originally had a notion for Tom Waits to provide the score for what looks set to be an absurd and tragi-comic pop opera which goes beyond the grave to unearth a community of the dead, while angels watch from above.
Things changed, however, when Lenton heard a New International’s song, Valentino, on the radio while driving. Lenton tracked Smith down, they met, and Smith “started to become part of the world of the play.”
As the video to a song from the show, Necropolitan, A New International’s flamboyant mix of nouveau cabaret with retro sensibilities was a theatrical marriage with Vanishing Point in waiting.
“It was kind of a no-brainer,” says Smith. “I always liked theatre. I appeared in Dracula at Cumbernauld Youth Theatre when I was a raw nineteen-year old, and when I met Matt I Immediately started having ideas. I love things with a dark sense of humour, macabre, Tim Burton, Rocky Horror. Fagin always appealed. I love those songs I grew up with them. This is the first time I’ve written for a brief, and I found that quite liberating. It’s almost like you’re halfway through the creative process, like I had a head start. So I started writing, and couldn’t stop for a while.”
The first fruits of this unholy collaboration came a year ago with A Night at the Theatre, three bijou concert performances of the sixteen songs penned by Smith for The Dark Carnival, punctuated by short monologues written by Lenton and performed by actors Pauline Goldsmith and Peter Kelly. Since then, the show has been expanded to feature eight actors working alongside a parallel eight-member version of A New International.
There has always been an innate theatricality to Smith’s work, ever since his early days fronting indie-pop troubadours The Starlets, who released three albums before the band morphed into A New International. This gave full vent to Smith’s penchant for mixing up music hall, showtunes and French chanson, all laced up with gypsy, flamenco and epic cinematic strings.
“We were struggling a bit with our third album,” Smith admits, “so when The Dark Carnival came up it was a breath of fresh air. I love theatre that isn’t snobby or exclusive, and is for everyone. That’s why I love Oliver and Lionel Bart. Kurt Weill as well. Mac The Knife, people sing that at weddings and stuff. That’s filtered through to popular culture, and I like that.
“I think there has to be that connection, otherwise it becomes exclusive. It’s one of the things Matt and I have spoken about. It would be great to get people who may not usually consider the theatre as being a good night out to come along, people who might normally go to gigs or concerts, because that’s what it is. It’s part gig, part theatre show, and in some small way we can try and dissolve that boundary, and have an environment where people aren’t afraid to sing along with the songs or laugh at the farcical moments and not be afraid of being farcical or funny. Sometimes that suggests you’re not being serious, but just because you’re being funny doesn’t mean you’re not.”
This is an attitude Smith has carried with him since he was a teenager.
“I remember going to see Elvis Costello perform solo at the Pavilion,” he says. “My mother’s hairdresser took me, actually, but that’s another story. I remember seeing him perform on his own, moving between guitar and piano, and I thought that was amazing. It just so happened there was a BBC2 Arena programme on either the week before or after, and that was the punk rock moment for me. He’s theatrical too. It’s as much about his lyrics as his melodies. I’ve always thought that melody’s the thing that draws you in. It’s like someone with good patter, but after that you want to know what’s going on about them.
“But it doesn’t feel like a leap to me me to be working in theatre. I remember, one of the first lightbulb moments for us as a band, we’d been together for years at this point, trying to impersonate an indie band, but we never quite fitted in with that. We were invited to perform at literary cabarets which were a mixture of spoken word and music and suddenly realised we were probably a better fit for this audience than we were for indie venues.”
Later in the year, a pocket-sized unplugged version of The Dark Carnival will tour the country as part of the Touring Network’s BRAW initiative. This will just feature Smith providing the music while actor Robbie Jack tells stories. Has Smith’s descent into full-on theatre runs on apace, has his appetite been whetted for more?
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “A door opened I didn’t know was there.”
Given the world The Dark Carnival conjures up, let’s hope that door doesn’t lead him straight to Hell. Smith cackles at the prospect.
“I’m already there,” he says.
The Dark Carnival, Citizens Theatre at Tramway, Glasgow, February 19-March 2; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 6-9; Dundee Rep, March 13-16. The Dark Carnival by A New International is available now. The Dark Carnival:Unplugged will open on the Isle of Eigg on May 13 and will tour to Theatre Royal, Dumfries, May 16, Paisley Arts Centre, May 17, Lyth Arts Centre at Latheron Hall, May 22, Burgh Hall, Dunoon, May 24, The Barn, Banchory, May 26, Byre Theatre, St Andrew’s, May 27, Eden Court, Inverness, May 29, Birnam Arts Centre, May 30, Music Hall, Aberdeen, May 31.
The Herald, February 5th 2019