Monday, 28 November 2016

INTERVIEW Benji Bower - musical director, Peter Pan at the National Theatre

The first thing I notice when stepping into the National Theatre’s rehearsal room for its production of Peter Pan is the most enormous skip. It dominates the room and has all manner of things on it to make it resemble a pirate ship.
The second thing I notice is a multitude of gongs. Suspended on a series of horizontal strings and comprising different sizes, colours and styles, they belong to the show’s musical director, Benji Bower.
“I have rather a large collection,” he laughs. “I have been collecting them for about five years, and so far I have about 17 from all over the world.
“Everywhere I go I always look out for more - the ones here are from Nepal, Vietnam, Lao and Thailand - you can never have enough gongs!
“I was determined that they were going to play a part in the show so here they are.
“They all sound different too and can evoke different atmospheres,” he adds and gives me a musical demonstration to prove it.
The gongs - and indeed the other instruments that are situated together in one corner of the room - are an integral part of the show which opens on the Olivier stage next week and for which Benji is devising and composing the music.
It is being directed by Sally Cookson who was responsible for the phenomenally successful Jane Eyre which was staged at the National last autumn and which Benji also composed the music for.
Indeed Sally and Benji have history - they’ve worked together collaboratively on various projects for about 10 years including on Peter Pan which he tells me was first conceived about four years ago and staged originally at the Bristol Old Vic.
And he is clearly delighted to be part of the ensemble cast and crew “giving it more life” and bringing it up to the National for the three month run although he admits that it’s gone through a few changes in that time.
“It’s great because it’s such a fantastic story and we’ve had a lot of fun creating this show so it’s brilliant to be giving it more life,” he says warmly.
“When Sally and I were thinking about creating it we wanted to go back to the influence of JM Barrie’s text and explore the darker side of it.
“Sally went away to research it while I played about with the music before we started knitting it all together. 
“Because of the way we work, when you get to rehearsals, you realise some of the things work and some don’t - some of the music didn’t get to see the light of day! And although the music is a really important part of the show, it’s not a musical!
“However, it was liberating for me to be able to write lots of different styles so we have a bit of ska, dubstep, pop, jazz influences all sorts of stuff - it’s eclectic and I should think there will be a lot of musical styles that people won’t expect.
“I actually wrote most of it when I was on a trip to Sri Lanka so there is probably a bit of an influence from being there with the sun and that relaxed vibe!
“Since we staged it originally at the Bristol Old Vic, the production has got bigger and bigger and now we have a large band and are taking it to one of the biggest theatres in the country so we are delighted,” he adds warmly.
“We have had to change things around in order to fit the space too. The Bristol Old Vic has a proscenium arch whereas the Olivier is a huge and wide open space which comes out into the audience a bit.
“We are still tinkering with it,” he adds laughing. “With Jane Eyre, we kept on working right up to wire - but that’s what I love about Sally and the way she works, it’s all so collaborative and you don’t go with any preconceived ideas of what it should be like - it just evolves as it needs to and as it’s meant to be.”
Benji and I chat surrounded by his multitude of musical instruments, score sheets and a couple of laptops. 
In fact he’s been surrounded by music his entire life and says he’s not surprised it’s been his career - both in terms of composing music for theatre and forming a band with his brother Will, who is also in the Peter Pan cast.
“My folks were very into music and my brother and I were always used to listening to it and having instruments of one sort or another in the house,” he says.
“They were also very supportive of us. We both started playing piano and other instruments and I began writing and composing stuff. I was given lessons by a local music lecturer who helped me score out some of my ideas. It was a wonderful opportunity because I ditched the piano lessons as they got too boring!”
But it was when he met Sally about 10 years ago that he began writing for theatre and he’s not looked back since although he says he still plays with his brother in the band and writes and produces for other singers and musicians.
We chat while the rest of the 16-strong cast take a break from rehearsals. Most of them have been with the company since the beginning although there are a few new members.
Benji himself is also part of the cast - as are all of the musicians - something he clearly enjoys.
“Being part of the ensemble is great as we all help each other out creatively and we trust each other,” he says. “There is a really wonderful collective energy.
“It’s also a fun way to work but it does get a bit hairy sometimes when I get so immersed in the composing, creating and performing of it!”
And he’s also excited to be back at the National, an organisation he says is “amazing” and for whom he would like to do more work.
“It’s brilliant being back,” he says smiling broadly. “Jane Eyre was fantastic and they’ve let us in the door again which is great. 
“And I love making stuff with Sally - creating live theatre together is a wonderful thing.”
The production itself is a modern take on JM Barrie’s classic tale but still has the original story and its themes at it’s heart.
And as well as the actors and musicians it features puppets some of which are made out of recycled materials.
“It’s a wonderful adaptation, it’s inventive and really magical,” says Benji. “It’s quite dark in many ways and you shouldn’t come thinking that it’s going to have a that Disney happy ending.
“Although it’s got a modern day slant on it, the heart of the piece is about love, the loss of mothers, trust and not wanting to grow up and we wanted to tap into that.
“We’ve aimed the show for those aged seven and up and I think it’s fine. Too often we try and shield kids from dark stuff but actually they can take it more easily than we give them credit for. 
“I do think it will smack people in the face though as it’s very raw,” he adds. “There is the darkness of people like Peter and Hook and the longing of Wendy and the motherless boys.
“It isn’t all dark though - it’s also a lot of fun with some very warm and funny elements to it and it’s actually a chance for kids to experience it and use their imagination - Neverland is really whatever any child wants it to be like.”
As well as the dance, music and song, Benji promises there will be plenty of flying - and points in the direction of the numerous ropes and pulleys that are suspended from the ceiling.
“There is a lot of flying and at the moment in rehearsals they are having too much fun getting to grips with it all,” he laughs. 
“The audience will get to see everything, all the wires and so on, which is great.
“And I imagine for the actors, the view from the top is pretty awesome!”

Peter Pan is at the National Theatre until February 4, 2017. Tickets from £15. Visit for full listings.

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