The Theatre of Dreams (ThoD)

Lantern Theatre, Sheffield, 9 September 2006

by Richard Bleksley

This latest in the series of gatherings of the Midnight Voices, the Internet community of Pete Atkin aficionados, was something a little special right from its conception. For one thing, it marked the return of Steve Birkill, founder and Webmaster of this site, and his wife Carole as event organisers. Having organised the first three MV conventions — the Monyash Festival of 1997, the show at Buxton Opera House in 1998, and the original Field of Dreams (also at Monyash) in 1999 — they had cried “Enough!” and handed on the baton. It was taken up by Andy Love (the School of Dreams, Milton Keynes, 2000), Mike and Mel Powell (the Cinema of Dreams, Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, 2001) and, after a bit of a hiatus, by myself, Richard Bleksley (the Pub of Dreams, Sutton, Surrey, 2004). But now Steve and Carole had decided to step forward again.

For 2006 was a significant year. It was ten years previously, in August 1996, that Steve and Carole had gone down to Eastbourne to see Pete perform in a folk club there, the event which resulted in Smash Flops and all that has followed, and they felt that this anniversary shouldn’t go uncelebrated. Accordingly, Midnight Voices checking in to the Forum had the greyness of February brightened by Carole’s preliminary announcement of a forthcoming “bash” in Sheffield, where the Birkills now lived.

Furthermore, its format was to be a new departure. Previous *oDs (as it has become customary to refer to them) had been day-long functions with a variety of supporting acts and events; but Steve and Carole sensibly decided to scale down their venture to match the small venue they had chosen, the Lantern Theatre. It was to be for the evening only, featuring Pete on his own, and the capacity of the theatre limited the number of tickets to 80. It was only after over half of those 80 tickets had been bought within a week of their going on sale that the event was, in celebration, brought into line with the earlier ones by being officially christened the Theatre of Dreams, or ThoD for short.

So it was that Saturday 9 September, a warm and sunny Indian summer day, saw numbers of expectant Midnight Voices, together with a selection of friends and family members, converging on the Sheffield suburb of Nether Edge. With its quiet tree-lined streets and substantial stone-built houses, once the homes of prosperous Victorian business and professional people, this is not the sort of district where you’d normally expect to find a theatre. But the Lantern is by no means a normal theatre.

It was built as a private venture in 1893 by William Webster, a cutlery manufacturer, on a plot of land he had bought for the purpose, adjoining his house at 40 Priory Road. The story goes that this was to fulfil his daughter’s desire to go on the stage. As a respectable middle-class Victorian father, Mr. Webster found the idea quite horrifying, and seems to have determined that if a daughter of his were to walk the boards it would be on his own private stage, where he could keep an eye on her.

Mr. Webster died only two years later, and, apart from being used as a dance studio for a few years in the early twenties, the theatre stood empty and unused for many years. By the time the Dilys Guite Players, an amateur dramatic group, started renting it in the fifties it was almost derelict. But the Players set to with a will, doing much of the restoration work themselves, with such results that Mr. Richardson, the owner since 1934 of 40 Priory Road and of the theatre, was impressed enough to present it as a gift to the Players, who christened it the Lantern (after the structure that decorates the roof) and who use it to this day.

The consensus of opinion among the arriving Midnight Voices was that the place is a real gem, probably the best venue yet found for a *oD. Not very much bigger than a large private house, it is nevertheless a complete theatre in miniature, with a proper proscenium arch stage, sound and lighting equipment, a foyer and bar, and even a tiny circle. Furthermore, recent refurbishment work meant that the Midnight Voices were greeted by pristine new seating and carpets.

On the stage was a suggestion that Pete’s set might be as interesting as its setting was delightful, for on stands next to the Roland keyboard were no less than three guitars: the Atkin, the National Steel, and a Taylor NS (“Nylon Strung”) which Pete had bought on E-Bay not long after selling his Taylor 716CE to Dave Brown of the Shrinks. The display offered a promise of plenty of variety to come.

In the event, what the eager audience got was, literally, a rare treat. Although there were none of the cover versions which have been a feature of previous *oDs, the set consisted almost entirely of songs which might fairly be described as “rarities.” There were new songs, very old songs, and songs, which, though familiar enough on record, have seldom been heard live, at least during the ten years that were being celebrated (and several of these were given arrangements differing markedly from the recorded versions). Consultation of our resident statistician Janice Sim’s performance spreadsheet reveals that 13 of the 23 songs performed have been heard live less than five times since 1996, while only four reach double figures. Of these, two are new, so far unrecorded songs included in the last Pete and Clive tour. Of the other two, Dancing Master is also comparatively recent, which leaves only Payday Evenings to qualify as an “old war-horse.” And that was the encore.

Introduced by Steve Birkill, Pete took the stage at 7.30 to warm applause. Obviously agreeing with his audience’s assessment of the venue, he glanced around the small, atmospheric auditorium and remarked: “Wonderful, isn’t it?” before launching into the first song, a nifty version of Eye of the Universe, played on guitar, rather than on keyboard as it was on The Lakeside Sessions. He then changed over to the nylon-strung Taylor to get the softer sound appropriate for Sunrise — a very fortunate choice for me, as it is a favourite of mine and had been played only twice before in the last ten years.

There followed a real rarity, an early song, never released on record, that Pete unearthed recently while going through some old papers, variously known as The King Is Dead, King For a Day or The Way to Be Alive. Although Pete describes it as “just a pop song,” Clive remarked on hearing it again after many years: “I can’t write any better than that.” Whatever your opinion on that score, it remains a deceptively simple but very effective song with a lively, infectious piano accompaniment.

The recorded version of the next song, Frangipani Was Her Flower, has always reminded me irresistibly of the late Jake Thackray; but Pete made it his own on this occasion, transforming it by slowing it right down and playing it on the keyboard, which gave it an entirely different, less flippant mood.

Pete then announced that he was going to set the audience a bit of a poser, saying that he was going to play some pairs of linked songs, and see if we could spot the connections between them. The furious debate that might have erupted on the Forum has since been forestalled by Pete saying that each pair could be considered to be about the same character. The first example was The Hypertension Kid (somewhat less frenetic than the recorded version) and The Shadow and the Widower.

As Pete picked up his National Steel nearly everyone in the audience must have been convinced that the song of that title was to follow. And nearly everyone was wrong! In fact he was rising to the challenge thrown down by Paul Gunningham on the Forum, back in March, to try playing something else on the instrument. Tonight Your Love is Over — another song seldom heard before, and never like this — was his choice, and it got a delicate slide accompaniment. It was followed by Dancing Master, which, although it dates back only to 2003, already seems set to become one of Pete’s “old war-horses” — not that many will regret that.

Then came the next pair of linked songs, You’d Better Face It, Boy — another very old and unrecorded song, whose inclusion must have pleased Carole no end, since it was her special request at PoD — and Get It out of Your Head. The Taylor NS came back into play for I’ve Got Me to Thank, a new song first heard at Walthamstow in 2005. It’s a quiet, reflective, rather chilling piece. As Pete said the first time he played it, most of the nasty memories that come back to haunt you in the middle of the night are of things that are your own fault.

The mood abruptly changed as the first set came to a rousing end with an excellent rendition of Driving Through Mythical America, a very rarely performed song which has now featured at both of Pete’s last two gigs.

Pete once said (and I only wish I could track down exactly when and where!) that every performer has a song that is a personal favourite but never seems to get requested. Maybe this was why he opened the second set with The Pearl Driller, for that was the example from his repertoire he cited on that occasion. It was followed by A King at Nightfall (played, he said, in memory of an old friend no longer with us) and the relaxed, jazzy-bluesy Landscapes.

This time when Pete picked up the National Steel he really did do National Steel. This is a song that seems to evoke sharply divided reactions among MVs; but those in favour were grateful to hear it again, as neither the song nor the instrument get outings very often. After the final pair of linked songs, which were The Rider to the World’s End — a very effective transposition to the keyboard — and Tenderfoot, we came to what was arguably the most special item of the evening.

This concerned the other song premiered at Walthamstow in 2005, But Here We Stay. Usually introduced by Pete as “a survivors’ song,” this is another of Clive’s enigmatic “history songs.” Like Sunlight Gate, it deals — at least on the face of it — with war and warriors while leaving the identity of the war and warriors to the listener’s interpretation. To this listener it brings to mind the French troops grimly holding on amidst the horrific carnage and devastation at their dogged defence (“Ils ne passeront pas!” — “They shall not pass!”) of Verdun in 1916, but to others it will undoubtedly evoke something entirely different.

Pete explained that Clive had been “unusually iffy” about his first musical setting of the words, saying that he would prefer something more up-beat and march-like. Pete had duly obliged, and this was the form in which the song had been performed up to now. But now Pete performed both the “authorised” version and what he called the “ur-version,” back to back. The original tune, slower and more melodic, creating a more reflective mood, has won many friends in the debate that has followed. One can’t help but wonder what Clive is making of it all; but in any case I must agree with Pete that this lyric is right up there with his best.

After another dedication — My Egoist, for Ian Chippett in Paris — I found to my pleasure that Carole wasn’t the only one to have a special request repeated, for the next number was Amy’s Blues (Just for Me) from Pete’s play A & R, which I asked Pete to play at PoD. There followed the only real glitch of the evening, as Pete lost his musical way for a moment. Before starting he’d told the audience how the song had been finished in a last-minute rush: now, as he hesitated, a voice called out: “Are you sure you finished it?” Any tension dissolved in the ensuing laughter, and the number proceeded in fine style.

Pete then announced that he would finish with something that, if it was very politically incorrect these days, was at least upbeat and in a major key. There followed Little Sammy Speedball, which was not only in a major key but was also a major rarity, this being only its second airing since 1996.

As he finished Pete called out: “To the Marriott!” (where the post-gig reception was to be held); but the audience, applauding loud and long, were not ready to leave until their demands for an encore had been satisfied. Asking for requests, Pete received such a welter of shouted suggestions that he turned to Steve Birkill instead. Steve nominated Payday Evenings, and so the performance finished, fittingly enough, with the song from which the Midnight Voices take their name.

There can have been few if any feelings of disappointment as the audience dispersed to reception, hotel or home. Pete had been in fine form throughout, eschewing easy crowd-pleasers and delivering instead an adventurous set with variety and interest in abundance — something truly special for a special audience. It had been an evening to remember with relish.


The set-list (k = keyboard; ga = Atkin steel-strung guitar; gt = Taylor nylon-strung guitar; gn = National steel guitar)

1.   Eye of the Universe   (ga)
2.   Sunrise   (gt)
3.   The King Is Dead   (k)
4.   Frangipani Was Her Flower   (k)
5.   The Hypertension Kid   (k)
6.   The Shadow and the Widower   (ga)
7.   Tonight Your Love Is Over   (gn)
8.   Dancing Master   (k)
9.   You’d Better Face It Boy   (k)
10.   Get It out of Your Head   (k)
11.   I’ve Got Me to Thank   (gt)
12.   Driving Through Mythical America   (ga)
 
Interval
 
13.   The Pearl-Driller   (ga)
14.   A King at Nightfall   (k)
15.   Landscapes   (k)
16.   National Steel   (gn)
17.   The Rider to the World’s End   (k)
18.   Tenderfoot   (k)
19.   But Here We Stay (“authorised” version)   (ga)
20.   But Here We Stay (“ur”-version)   (ga)
21.   My Egoist   (k)
22.   Just For Me (Amy’s Blues)   (k)
23.   Little Sammy Speedball   (k)
24.   Payday Evenings (encore)   (ga)


The thanks bit

Acknowledgements wing their way to:
The web page at http://www.grant2222.freeserve.co.uk/Lantern%20Theatre.htm
for the history of the theatre;
Janice Sim, for the set-list and the spreadsheet; [Download HERE — Ed]
Pete Atkin, for information about the Taylor guitar.

And of course another big thank-you to Steve, Carole and Pete for giving us such an enjoyable and memorable evening.
 


High resolution shot (3456 x 2304) of Pete HERE
Front of house photos A K Birkill (more HERE); Wings shots S J Birkill
ThoD NAVIGATION PAGE now public
A page of EXTRACURRICULAR PHOTOS from the ThoD weekend

Eastbourne, and *oDs previous:
The Crown, Eastbourne, July 1996
Monyash Festival (1997)
Buxton Opera House (1998)
FoD99 (Monyash 1999)
SoD2k (Milton Keynes 2000)
CoD (Hebden Bridge 2001)
PoD (Sutton, Surrey 2004)

Birthday card for Master S. Flops, Age 10:
 

 

Pete Atkin icon

Back to the Pete Atkin home page