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Bridport’s ukulele orchestra

Sally Vaughan first picked up a ukulele about eight years ago after her three-year-old niece had disregarded it as her Christmas present. She is now producing an opera, for performance by the local community, whose subject matter is ukuleles – and fleas. Tony Burton-Page explains.

Producer Sally Vaughan in the FLEA! production office

Producer Sally Vaughan in the FLEA! production office

The ukulele is such an evocative instrument, conjuring up images of Hawaiian beaches, warm sunshine, dancing, garlands – and perhaps also for those of us this side of the Atlantic, the sound of George Formby. The reality, as so often, is a little different: the instrument actually owes its origin to the island of Madeira (from where the early makers emigrated to Hawaii), and Formby’s preferred instrument was a banjolele (a cross between a banjo and a ukulele). But the popularity of the ukulele is not in question, thanks to its relative simplicity, its portability and its inexpensiveness. Indeed, in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s, it was used as a teaching instrument in schools in the same way the recorder was used in the UK.
Bridport would seem to be a far cry from Hawaii – there are 7000 miles between them – and yet it is the Dorset town which can claim to be the birthplace of the world’s first full-scale ukulele opera. Those last two words can rarely, if ever, have been linked: opera, a form dating back to the 1600s, described by Dr Johnson as an ‘exotic and irrational entertainment’, and the ukulele, a Johnny-come-lately in the instrument world, first seen in the 1880s. However, Sally Vaughan, a Bridport resident who plays the ukulele, is determined to bring the instrument into the world of theatre.
It all began in 2010 when she put a note on the board of Bridport’s music shop: ‘Desperately seeking ukulele players for fun and friendship!’ The only response came from Jane Mowatt. Together they founded the Bucky Don’ts (named in affectionate tribute to the town’s Bucky Doo Square); it became well-known and immensely popular in its six-year lifespan. Although it no longer meets, its success led to Bridport’s becoming a lively scene of ukelele activity, so Sally felt it would be interesting to go one step further and involve even more of the local community.

Salud, one of the dancers from the 'shoe chorus'

Salud, one of the dancers from the ‘shoe chorus’

She spoke to Anna Golding, who founded the No Limits dance group in Bridport for people with learning difficulties, and suggested joining forces to create a ‘Dance of the Jumping Flea’. Why a flea? Rather surprisingly, fleas and ukuleles are connected: ‘ukulele’ means jumping flea in Hawaiian and the word was attached to the newly-invented instrument because of the jumping motion of the players’ fingers. That, at least, is one story – and there are several. Moreover, the mnemonic for tuning the instrument’s four strings is ‘my dog has fleas’. Anna Golding was intrigued, and the idea morphed into a flea circus, ‘and suddenly,’ says Sally, ‘there were four threads – ukuleles, fleas, circuses, dancing.’
Sally had been encouraged in her work with the Bucky Don’ts by another Bridport resident: the composer, Andrew Dickson. Andrew is well-known for his work with the unorthodox film-maker, Mike Leigh, having composed the music for no fewer than six of the director’s films, including the BAFTA-winning Vera Drake (2004) and High Hopes (1988), for which he won the European Film Award for Best Composer. But he is also familiar with community theatre from his days with the Colway Theatre Trust, which had been set up in Lyme Regis in 1978 by the playwright and director Ann Jellicoe (nowadays a near neighbour, in West Bay) to explore the whole concept of community plays. So when Sally told Andrew about her ideas, their thoughts inevitably turned towards a musical theatre project involving the local community.

Director Niki McCretton helps 'Grub' get to grips with his unicycle

Director Niki McCretton helps ‘Grub’ get to grips with his unicycle

As yet, there was no money to support such a project, but fortunately a generous friend of Sally’s lent them a house in France. Andrew and Sally went off to work on the idea. The story tells of the fall and rise of Madame Celine, the devious and exotic mistress of an extraordinary flea circus. Also featured are her sidekick, Vladimir, and Grub, a young flea who, according to Andrew Dickson, ‘goes from star-struck naïvety to ukulele mastery. A story about the power of small over huge, of simplicity over celebrity, it also proves that musicality is in all of us and that the so-called X Factor is available to everyone. But Andrew and Sally tried turning expectations around – for example, in this show dogs don’t have fleas, the fleas have dogs…. They devised the plot together and Andrew wrote the music and lyrics. All that was missing was the right female lead.

Community involvement with participants of all ages has been a great success

Community involvement with participants of all ages has been a great success

At this point in the project, there was a wonderful coincidence. Sally received an email from Hester Goodman, who had just moved to the Bridport area. She had seen Sally’s advertisements for ukulele lessons on noticeboards around town and wanted to introduce herself, as one ukulele player to another, for she herself was a well-known ukulele player and a member of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. The UOGB was formed ‘as a bit of fun’ in 1985 but has since become something of a national institution (or as the Independent put it, ‘an irrational treasure’) and has been credited (or, as the UOGB website puts it, ‘blamed’) with the current worldwide ukulele revival. Sally told Hester about the plan for a ukulele opera, and to her delight she showed great interest in the project. Hester soon became fully involved and was the natural choice to play the role of Madame Celine.
The next step was the one on which so many artistic projects founder (and this one so nearly did) – the funding. Bridport Town Council and West Dorset District Council gave small sums to help with venue hire and setting up a community outreach programme, and then Arts Council England funded the research and development phase of the project. However, an application for full funding was unsuccessful and the project had to be put on hold. As Sally explains: ‘The Arts Council loved the project but the competition was intense!’
But in August 2016 the Arts Council eventually came good, and with more funding from Bridport’s own Electric Palace, West Dorset District Council and Bridport Town Council, the project (now known as FLEA!) was re-launched in January this year at the Bull Hotel. So casting could begin in earnest – and, since only one part had been cast, there was plenty of opportunity for the local community to be involved. There are about a hundred on-stage roles, plus all the backstage, front-of-house and other helpers needed to mount such an ambitious production. Apart from Madame Celine, Vladimir and Grub, the roles include the Tiddlywinking Toffs (the game of tiddlywinks is known as ‘the game of fleas’ in most European nations and features largely in the show), the You-Chorus (ukulele players and singers) and the Shoe Chorus (dancers). It will be apparent from the joyous word-play that the show is rather less than entirely serious. The added presence of a flea parade, circus acts, dog-handlers and puppeteers will certainly ensure a light-hearted atmosphere.

As well as the 'shoe chorus' of dancers, there is a 'you chorus' of ukulele players

As well as the ‘shoe chorus’ of dancers, there is a ‘you chorus’ of ukulele players

As a community opera, it is designed to attract participants and audiences of all ages, backgrounds and abilities and to bring a variety of strands of the community together through a range of art forms including dance, acting, circus skills, design and making, digital media – and even dog agility.
The show is directed by Niki McCretton, of the Stuff and Nonsense Theatre Company, which creates family-oriented productions and which in 2010 bought Bridport’s then disused Lyric Theatre, saving it from being developed into flats and using it as a base for their own rehearsals and experiments and allowing other groups to do the same – indeed, the casting auditions for  FLEA! were held there.

Months of rehearsal have gone into creating what is still very much a community play, but with rather more of a professional bent than most

Months of rehearsal have gone into creating what is still very much a community play, but with rather more of a professional bent than most

Sally Vaughan’s idea has taken three years to turn from a dream into reality. As a former primary school teacher and now a ukulele teacher providing workshops, tuition, talks and performances, she sees how active involvement in artistic activity can bring people together, promote social cohesion, build communities and give participants an insight into aspects of life that they might not otherwise encounter. Her hope was that the project would nurture and develop partnerships between existing arts practitioners and community organisations, drawing on Bridport as a hotbed of creativity and talent. Who would have thought that the humble ukulele could bring people together through participating in the joy of communal music-making!

  • FLEA! will be performed on Tues 23/05 – 1.00 (general public & schools matinée); Wed 24/05 – 1.00 (relaxed performance* & general public); Thurs 25/05 – 7.30; Fri 26/05 – 7:30; Sat 27/05 – 1:30 & 7:30 at the Electric Palace, South St, Bridport. DT6 3NY. Tickets £6-£12 from Bridport TIC (01308 424 901) & www.electricpalace.org.uk
    *The relaxed performance is open to everyone, but especially welcoming for those with an Autistic Spectrum Condition, individuals with sensory and communication disorders, those with learning disabilities and anyone who would benefit from a more relaxed environment. It’s fine to make noise, move around or leave the theatre.

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