Mamma Mia! theatre star Simon Slater heads home to Scarborough to create music for Treasure Island Christmas production
It’s the time of year when Chris Rea will soon be thinking about his annual pilgrimage back to the North East; meanwhile Simon Slater has already driven home for Christmas. Indeed, he’s been back to his roots since November and has prepared a delightful festive treat for others to share in his home town.
Slater is the Scarborough born and raised multi-Olivier-nominated composer, actor, audio-book-voice-providing son of a renowned one-legged yachtsman. There’s a lot to talk about with Slater.
“In America they don’t seem to mind as much if people do lots of different things, but here in England we seem to like to label people, put them in a pigeonhole,” says Slater, of the many different facets that make up his career.
“I think if you can do lots of different things to a reasonable degree, then you’ve got a chance of staying employed. Ultimately I feel very lucky that I’ve always been able to make a living out of doing things I enjoy doing.”
The things he enjoys doing are a smorgasbord picked from the world of performance and we will go on to talk about his time playing the ‘Pierce Brosnan’ role in Mamma Mia! and watching Jake Gyllenhaal in a play for which he composed the music.
Right now we’re talking about the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s Christmas play.
The festive play is a big event for all theatres in the region and each takes a different approach. York Theatre Royal, down the road, has relied on Berwick Kaler’s unique pantomime talents for a number of decades.
Sheffield tends to go for a big musical and the Stephen Joseph Theatre has, for several years now, plumped firmly for family fare. While the plays are for all the family, there is much in the SJT Christmas show that will appeal directly to the younger members of a clan.
“There are plenty of fart and bum jokes,” says Slater.
For a number of years the plays have been written by former Hull Truck associate Nick Lane, who returns this year with a version of the Robert Louis Stevenson story of Treasure Island.
Slater is providing the music, which will be played by a company of actor-musicians, for the production.
Slater, the composer (director, musician, etc) has been involved in the SJT Christmas show since he was asked, four years ago, to provide the music for the Nick Lane’s Pinocchio, by the theatre’s artistic director Paul Robinson.
“I’ve known Paul for years and when he got the job he asked if I would come and work up here. I was born and bred on the Filey Road, I used to go to the SJT building when it was a cinema – what I’m saying is that even though I have worked all over the world, I have this sense of loyalty towards Scarborough, so when Paul asked me to come and work on that show, I had to say yes,” says Slater. “It only took me 46 years to get back home after I had left.”
There are, he says ‘ghosts’ in the town.
“Yesterday I bumped into a cousin who I haven’t seen in 25 years. Last weekend I was in Whitby, which Scarborough always felt like the poor relation to, and I remembered being there when I threw my dad’s ashes in the harbour.
“I’m now an associate artist at the theatre and tend to work on two shows a year, including providing the music for the Christmas show, which I’ve done every year for the past four years.”
Once he returned, however, the place that Slater calls home exerted the pull that place has on all of us and he committed to his hometown.
The show this year, as is the case with Lane, sticks loosely to the original text in some ways, and veers dramatically away from it in others. The production promises songs, swords, talking vegetables, and a giant mechanical crab... called Susan.
“He is bonkers and irreverent in the best possible way,” says Slater.
“And when he needs to be, he is quite respectful of the text. He manages to bring a sense of Vaudeville to it, the script reminds me a lot of the Marx Brothers in parts. It’s very skilfully done and is really quite eccentric.”
What about Slater’s role?
“I do the tunes. I find it quite difficult to get the lyrics down. First drafts tend to be wordy and unwieldy, but I find I just have to sit there and do the work,” he says. Whatever he is doing, the formula appears to be working. Despite being ‘reasonable’ at a number of different things, on paper he excels. He has composed original music for over 300 theatre, film, television and radio productions. He was the musical director of the National Theatre’s highly regarded recent production of Amadeus and for Constellations, which starred Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins in the West End and Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson on Broadway.
“I’ve been nominated nine times for an Olivier. Nine times! Maybe you could have a word,” he says. He doesn’t really mind that he hasn’t won – he’s having too much fun. Just as he was when he spent four years in the West End playing the role in Mamma Mia! which went on to be immortalised on screen by Pierce Brosnan.
“That’s a lovely job to have, being on the West End stage, in a lovely show like that,” he says.
So what brings him back, annually, this year for the fourth time, to Scarborough?
It’s the audiences, the shows and the fact that he gets to work on songs that: “Can include jokes about Peasholm Park, the kind of thing that only people who know this place will get.”
He means home, where a little part of Slater will be this Christmas.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson was originally serialised in the children’s magazine Young Folks from 1881 to 1882 had the original title Treasure Island, or the mutiny of Hispaniola.
It was first published as a book in November 1883 and tells the story of Jim Hawkins and his quest with sailors, including Long John Silver, to find buried treasure.
Treasure Island is at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough until December 29.
Tickets and details www.sjt.uk.com or call the box office on 01723 370541.