Preparing Mary’s debut

It can seem like a great luxury to have a try-out performance of a show before it even reaches the public domain; but in my experience it is always worth the considerable effort.

Clare McCaldin as Mary I

Photo by Robert Workman

At the end of April we ran Mary’s Hand with a half-finished costume and three generous instrumentalists who learned the piece on the day and were unfazed by the idea of the music’s order changing mid-performance. We were delighted and reassured by a very positive response from our invited audience. We have used that feedback and our own impressions from two intensive rehearsal days to improve and tighten up the piece. Some discoveries can only be made in front of an audience and we were grateful to our friends and colleagues for their input.

Mary’s sumptuous dress is now finished and brilliantly captured by Robert Workman in some wonderful shots of me in rehearsal (left). After the show opens in Chester on 21 June, there will be two performances in London on 1 and 2 August. We are also in discussion with various venues outside London for dates in 2019 and hope to take the show to locations connected with Mary’s story.

More information about the performances is available here.

Mary’s Hand try-out run

Last night we performed Mary’s Hand for an invited audience of friends, colleagues and supporters. The successful performance came at the end of an intense week of rehearsal, with writer Di Sherlock also directing the staging, and Martin Bussey conducting the ensemble (trumpet, oboe/cor anglais and cello) in his own composition. The run was also the crucial first test of Andie Scott & Sophie Meyer’s meticulously re-created dress in the performance situation. Clare was tireless in her work throughout the week and especially on the day, giving a fine, forthright and affecting performance as the maligned Queen Mary. We’re really pleased that our audience enjoyed the show and had engaged with it sufficiently to make all sorts of illuminating comments about it afterwards.

More work is now needed, not only to finish the dress with the money raised during our successful crowdfunding campaign (the goal sum achieved on the morning of the run) but also to review the performance and fine tune its component parts before the public performances from June.

Crowdfunding the Dress for Mary’s Hand

This year, McCaldin Arts will premiere a new work of music theatre. With words by Di Sherlock and music by Martin Bussey, Mary’s Hand gives voice to Queen Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII and sister to Elizabeth I, in a unique and innovative staging for mezzo-soprano and three instruments.

In performance Clare McCaldin, singing Mary, will wear a dazzling recreation of Mary’s state dress (as seen in the famous portrait by Hans Eworth in Burlington House, right). This meticulously researched and hand-sewn costume will be the centrepiece of the staging.

In order to meet the considerable cost of completing this essential costume, which will also be the de facto stage set, we have decided to run a crowdfunding campaign. We last used a crowdfunder in 2013 to meet the production costs of Vivienne, which went on to have a successful run to critical acclaim. This public-pledge model of funding the production costs proved a popular way for people to become invested in the process and feel more involved with the finished show.

You can view the project history and early designs of Mary’s Hand, and support us with a donation towards the costs of completing this remarkable dress by visiting

Bohemia in Soho

Bohemia is alive and kicking, we discover, thanks to Celine’s Salon, which we attended last night at the Mediterranean Cafe on Berwick St. Salon curator and Mistress of Ceremonies Celine Hispiche (far right in photo) has been hosting evenings at a range of venues for the last few years. She presents her own material and generously opens the floor, encouraging anyone who wants to try out new work in front of a supportive crowd. Having started in London, Celine is now looking at taking the model further afield to give a much-needed voice to writers based outside London. At last night’s Soho event we heard poems, songs and an absinthe-soaked extract from a novel, all linked by the theme of Bohemia.

My work tends to involve interpretation rather than my own original writing. I am always impressed when I encounter the desire for self-expression that gives people the courage to stand up and present their own stuff. This is not least because in writing about what moves or frustrates them, they unavoidably show a portion of themselves, whereas I like to hide behind other writers’ genius. I sing some of the finest songs and texts ever written, which is not only a privilege in itself, but I rarely feel that I could have said it any better. However, without last night’s Salon, we wouldn’t have enjoyed the glorious quirkiness of Manifesto of the PLO (Pedestrian’s Liberation Organisation, complete with balaclava and zebra head-band), and other louche delights skewering the agonies of the human condition. Happily, and in spite of of gentrification in the area, certain Soho characteristics remain eternal. Drink continues to be a central, celebrated element of the Bohemian life as we encountered it last night and oils the wheels of some fantastic creativity. I suspect the juices were still flowing long after we retired for the night.

For more information about Celine’s Salon and future dates, see Twitter @hispiche
For Celine’s musical in development about singer and dancer Betty May @BettyMayMusical.


The Future of Knowledge

I’m delighted to have been invited to speak at the Future of Knowledge conference at the British Museum on Monday 12 February 2018. The conference is organised by the Knowledge Quarter to mark its third year of promoting productive partnerships, fruitful networks and creative interaction between its member organisations.

I will talking about McCaldin Arts’ project Mary’s Hand, which is in development for performances in 2018. In dealing with historical issues around the life of Queen Mary I, the show considers how her reputation was posthumously manipulated by her half-sister Elizabeth I, and the partial treatment of important facts and truths. As it turns out, fake news and PR spin are not a recent invention.

Soho Radio – Jessie, Tracey and Betty May

This morning I joined Clare Lynch and Leslie Hardcastle OBE at Soho Radio to talk about my connections with the area. Clare and Leslie co-host The Soho Society Hour on Thursday from 9-10am. Under Leslie’s indefatigable Chairmanship, The Soho Society lobbies for a local community voice in discussions affecting everything from planning consent and heritage to licensing and events. Each week, alongside Leslie’s updates on the current issues in the area, Clare interviews a couple of guests about their work and life in Soho. Appearing with me today in the studio was singer, writer, curator and Soho resident Celine Hispiche and, down the phone, playwright Martin Murphy.

As it turned out we all had a one-woman show to talk about. I was there mainly to talk about Jessie Matthews, born and raised in Soho, whose story I narrate and perform in Over My Shoulder. In addition to curating a salon for new performance work, Celine is also developing a show about a notorious London Bohemien, Betty May. Martin’s latest play, Victim, is a one-woman show about the relationship between a prison guard, Tracey, and an inmate.

We began by discussing Joseph Haydn, whose blue plaque at 18 Great Pulteney Street is visible thanks to the campaign by The Haydn Society of Great Britain, in which I played a small part back in 2015. Although I had frequently visited Soho in the past to enjoy its many restaurants, it was only through this project that I really got involved in the history of the area. Researching my second Soho story in Jessie Matthews has led me to all kinds of discoveries and people, not least the lovely group with whom I spent this morning.

You can hear this morning’s full Soho Society Hour online here

Over My Shoulder is at St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge on Thursday 15 February

Celine’s Salon is on at the Mediterranean Cafe, 18 Berwick St on Wednesday 21 February

Victim (sold out at the Soho Theatre) plays at the King’s Head Theatre from 31 March – 21 April

Over My Shoulder – the extraordinary lives of two twentieth century stars

Born in a Soho slum, Jessie Matthews rose to become a superstar of stage and screen throughout the 1930s, and was often described as “the English Ginger Rogers”Elisabeth Schumann was a German opera and song specialist whose popularity with British audiences remained undimmed even after Germany and England had fought a war. Both women were hugely famous in their day, and yet their names are hardly recognised now by
younger generations of music-lovers.

Over My Shoulder sets out to remedy this by weaving together the stories of these two singers around their unexpected intersection here in London. In a strange twist of fate, Jessie and Elisabeth now lie buried in the same churchyard. Could they also have met years earlier in Covent Garden at the height of their fame?

Paul Turner (piano) & Clare McCaldin (mezzo)

Clare McCaldin (mezzo-soprano) and Paul Turner (piano) combine story-telling and singing to celebrate the lives and work of Jessie and Elisabeth. Tales of romantic scandal, tragedy, falls from grace and triumphant come-backs are inseparable from the remarkable artistic contribution of these two women.

The performance includes music by Felix Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Hugo Wolf, Johannes Brahms, Otto Klemperer, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Noël Coward, Harry Woods and Rodgers & Hart.

15th February 2018, 7.30pm
St Paul’s Church, 32a Wilton Place, London, SW1X 8SH

Tickets £25, £15, £10. Interval drinks will be served (donation requested).
Click here to book in advance or buy a ticket on the door. 

Life on the London Stage, London Met Archives

This morning we were given a special short tour of the Life on the London Stage exhibition at the City of London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell. We’re grateful to the Knowledge Quarter for organising the morning, which gave us a chance to be led through a part of the City of London’s resources that can often be overlooked.

The single floor exhibition uses material from the Archives and some specially donated items (some correspondence with Kenneth Williams) to mark out a history of theatre in London. Highlights included: documents registering the movements of William Shakespeare’s son Edmond and his short-lived son Edward; audio and video educational arts recordings, from hyper-local TV reports to study-readings of Shakespeare plays; photographs of actresses notable for their relationships with the monarchy; and various displays with photographs and potted histories of figures familiar (Burbage, Garrick) and unfamiliar – the likes of Ethel Barrymore, an actor reputed to have rejected a proposal from an admiring Churchill (and some relative of contemporary Hollywood actor-producer Drew) and Ira Aldridge, a black actor famous for taking on Othello in the 19th century (whose life and work was also the subject of the Tricycle Theatre’s Red Velvet in 2014).

This is an interesting exhibition in its own right. It also tiptoes around the subject that we at McCaldin Arts find so absorbing, that of the richesse of the biographical narrative as a way of framing & illuminating both contemporaneous and today’s works of art.

More to the point, the Archive stages exhibitions such as these as showpiece events to draw people to the Archive itself. The building has a hundred kilometres of shelving for its collection, which can be accessed in a light-filled reading room separated from the exhibition simply by a glass wall. It is free to register and access the collection.

It is a strong period for theatrical exhibitions in London at the moment. In addition to Life on the London Stage, the V&A’s Opera: Passion, Power & Politics exhibition works as a strong counterpart to its own Theatre Collection (and Opera Collection). It’s a good time to take stock of the heritage of the artform in the crucible of the capital as the popularity and diversity of theatre in London continues to expand.


Hell, we’ve got to sell that body!

For the final scene of the film version of Evergreen

Trying to cram two lives into an evening concert is a challenge, and in writing Over My Shoulder about the lives of Elisabeth Schumann and Jessie Matthews, I inevitably had to leave out a lot of lovely detail. One of subjects there wasn’t space for was their wardrobes and the outfits that caused a stir.

In my show I quote director Victor Saville who said “Hell, we’ve got to sell that body!” in reply to press comment on Jessie’s scanty outfits in one of his films. His response was to commission the silver sequinned bodysuit on the left for the next film.

Jessie was famous for wearing clothes that left little to the imagination, and not always by design. In Evergreen she had accidentally gone onstage one evening having forgotten the special skin-coloured leotard that should have been worn under her chiffon pyjamas. The audience saw rather more of her at that performance than they expected.

Chiffon was ideal for Jessie’s dresses because she loved to exploit the fabric’s floatiness as she moved, as in this video of Dancing On The Ceiling from the film of Evergreen (this sequence is 1’10” in if you are watching the whole film).

Elisabeth Schumann’s concert attire was generally more sober, although she did create a sensation in a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in Vienna. It being a midday concert, an evening gown was not appropriate and Elisabeth felt that the purple dress she finally agreed on was still rather too smart. So she ‘softened’ it with the addition of a matching hat. This startling choice attracted as much press attention as her singing: “ES made an entrance…as if she had just popped in from a stroll on the Ringstrasse for a moment, to sing about the heavenly life. With a hat. Let us hope that (Richard) Mayr will not appear for the Ninth in a top hat…”

Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

History doesn’t record what the conductor, Bruno Walter, thought of Elisabeth’s outfit and sadly I haven’t been able to find a photo of it. But I particularly like this one of her and Richard Strauss, with whom she toured the US in 1921. Elisabeth appears in many publicity shots in a fur coat and holding her favourite pet dog, Sorry (so named after the English habit of apologising, which she found hilarious). This lovely shot seems to catch her mid-rehearsal and more relaxed in her casual clothes.




Schumann & Shakespeare – 16 July 2017

Schumann & Shakespeare by Clare McCaldin Stephen Dickinson has written a new group of songs for me entitled A Shakespeare Quartet, which we will be premiering together on Sunday 16 July at 3pm. The songs are settings of speeches from four different female characters in Shakespeare’s plays: Rosalind’s teasing of Orlando (As You Like It), Viola to Duke Orsino (Twelfth Night), Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s watery death (Hamlet) and Hermia’s dream (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Stephen will be accompanying me in these new songs, as well as in a duet he wrote last year for baritone Paul Sheehan and me, setting Prospero’s closing speech from The Tempest.

Stephen has also written a new Benedictus duet for us, commemorating the death of his great-uncle Oxley Jones Frost, who was killed in action on 15th March 1917 aged 24. This will be performed alongside a Pie Jesu which Stephen wrote in 1997.

Paul will also be performing Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring, accompanied by Michael Papadopoulos, and the three of us will open the concert with three duets by Schumann: Tanzlied, In der Nacht and Ich bin dein Baum.

The concert is at St Paul’s Church, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge at 3pm on Sunday 16th July, and lasts an hour without an interval.