Photo Andrew Billington Photography

James Frewer in conversation with Kate Hainsworth

KH: This is your second Christmas Show at Hull Truck – what is it that draws you?

JF: It’s the biggest family show of the year. Children, parents and grandparents: you have a responsibility to give them a fantastic experience. For the kids it could be their first experience of theatre, and you need to give them the magical experience that will keep them coming back for more. I’m so lucky to work with a great team – Mark (Babych, director) and Mike (Kenny, writer) but also the actor performers who are and absolute pleasure to work with and so skilled. It’s about collaboration. You can’t be precious on a project like this – you need to listen to everyone’s contribution and incorporate the best bits wherever they originated.

KH: You’ve had several collaborations with Mark Babych now, starting with A Taste of Honey in 2014. What makes a good collaboration?

JF: Lots of chatting! Talking things out, trying things out, and letting go of things that don’t fit, however much you like them! I’d experienced Hull Truck as an undergraduate studying music at Hull University, and did some youth work then, but only really started to work with the theatre when Mark become Artistic Director. Now we’ve worked on several pieces we have learnt each other’s methods and he trusts me to deliver the piece that he needs. I leave my last song until just a few weeks before opening – I seem to need that pressure – and Mark has been OK with it because he knows it will work out. And it has! It’s my favourite song.

At the start of the project, back in the summer, I jam with Mark to get some ideas going. Then I tackle the choruses. I record them on my phone so that I live with them, give them time to evolve, then back to Mark for input. It’s an organic process, and very collaborative. Even into rehearsal and early performances we’re still lifting or altering phrases – it keeps it fresh.

KH: How was it working with Mike Kenny?

JF: Sleeping Beauty was already written – and had different music written for the previous run. I didn’t listen to that because I’d rather respond to the text uncluttered with other ideas. The key piece for me was Phil Spector’s Christmas Album – lots of drum reverb, that’s really got the sound of the ‘60s for me. Mike wrote Sleeping Beauty with Hairspray in mind, but we’re taking it in a different direction.

KH: Do you treat young people’s theatre differently?

JF: Yes. While Phil Spector was the anchor sound for this piece, I’ve woven in lots of other influences, like Frozen and Wicked and pop tunes to keep it accessible. As I said, you have a responsibility to the next generation to be accessible to them – and ‘for’ them. We’re still evolving with the audience – you find out what really works when they’re in front of you. In this piece I’m performing, but when I’m not I like to watch the audience and see their reaction. If you get some foot-tapping, you know that’s a good sign. There’s nothing better than people singing your songs back to you!

KH: What’s different about this Sleeping Beauty?

JF: Just as last year’s Cinderella took a very different angle, this Sleeping Beauty is all about the magical musical Nanas who look after Princess Briar Rose and everyone. It’s been great working with such a strong ensemble, many of whom were in last year’s show too, so I was able to write very individually. Laurie’s song as the Prince is really comic because I know he can deliver. The actors all play and sing and become different characters. Kieran Bagnall’s set and lighting are simply beautiful. I shared the draft songs with Kieran back in the summer, and when he produced the model box my heart gave a bit of a flutter because he had made visual the mood and tone I was exploring musically. I’ve also worked really closely with Matt Clowes, the sound designer too.

KH: It’s been a busy year for you, congratulations. What do you think is the greatest challenge in making a career of music theatre?

JF: I saw a lot of theatre as a child and the more you see, the more you understand the rhythm of theatre. I also sang a lot in church choirs, and played in and wrote music for an indie band at university. Those influences were pretty useful to create the kind of anthems that make a good musical. The biggest challenge is being versatile and good at lots of things. It’s not enough to be good at computer music, you have to be able to write a melody and harmony and perform and understand dramaturgy, dramaturgy with a tune – that’s my job! I’m trying to remain really open to influences. I worked with Stephen Warbeck who did his time to writing music for theatre learning the craft before moving into film scores – Shakespeare in Love (Oscar), Billy Elliott, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin etc.

KH: Next plans for James Frewer?

JF: Got some interesting projects in the pipeline – Get Carter with Northern Stage and a new play by Tom Wells, Folk. I like making things – so I just hope to be busy, but right now I’m feeling really lucky to be working with a great team of actor musicians and creatives of all kinds on a really good show.