Swinging with the Singing Butler

Making a musical inspired by the art of Jack Vettriano

Theatre is a visual medium.  As a director, producer, playwright and teacher, that phrase was always my primary axiom and coining it was a moment of liberation in my desire to make compelling productions.  As a youth, a love of drama was often poisoned by witnessing boring shows. It was crucial to work out why that happened.

Audiences go to see plays, but British drama in particular had become fixated on spoken language.  This was largely a consequence of drama being classified as a species of literature, when it is not.  It is an entirely different animal altogether. In fact, a play script is not written to be read at all, except by the cast and production team.  Concentrating primarily on what is being said is to risk sending the listener to sleep. An effective director knows that if you keep the spectators’ eyes happy they’ll be much more engaged with what goes in their ears.  For this reason, it is best to view stage works as pictures with added sound, and a fertile seedbed for starting that process can be found in the visual arts.

Jack Vettriano is a divisive painter.  His work is loved and deplored.  Few critics favour him, but his paintings sell in vast quantities in reproduction, and the originals bring significant sums.  His output has been criticised for its technique, content and a fetishist treatment of his subject matter. His fans praise him for rendering a stylish representation of desire, romance and heartbreak.  From a dramaturg’s perspective his paintings are a rich resource for one very simple reason – they are theatrical.

bird on a wire
Bird on a Wire, and its recreation in Dancing with Vettriano in 2006

Scotland’s most successful modern painter was born Jack Hoggan on 17th November 1951 and grew up in a mining village near Kirkaldy, Fife.  His father was a miner and Jack trained to be a mining engineer. He took up painting aged 21 when his girlfriend gave him a set of poster paints.  It was only when he was in his thirties that his paintings really began to sell.  He moved to Edinburgh and adopted his mother’s maiden name of Vettrino, adding an ‘a’ when he became a full-time artist.  His works swing between the nostalgically romantic and the illicitly sensual.  Some of his paintings have been compared to the bright railway posters of the mid-twentieth century, whilst others probe the deeper and more sinister seams of male/female relationships.

The critics might not rate him, but the public certainly do, and sometimes the public make wiser decisions. The person who first purchased The Singing Butler paid just £3000 for it. Twelve years later it went for £744 800, a Scottish record at that time.

the double butler
The Singing Butler original (left) and on stage in at the Charter Theatre Preston, 2006

His work is theatrical on two levels.  Firstly, as outlined above, his paintings provoke strong reactions – for or against. Secondly, and much more importantly, they suggest a narrative.  That narrative is episodic and confined.  The seduction to use his work as the spine of a musical lay in trying to string a number of those episodes into an interlinked sequence.  If that could be done, then a musical could be constructed that might replicate the graphic-novel feel of his canvases and amplify the emotion buried in them.

When fantasy becomes reality, reality becomes fantastic. 

Dancing with Vettriano was staged by Cardinal Newman College Limelights at the Charter Theatre, Guild Hall, Preston, England in June 2006.

The starting point for the script was The Singing Butler. It typifies the theatricality of his work, inviting the viewer to invent the circumstances that have brought about the bizarre escapade in which a couple dance on a deserted and ominously overcast beach, whilst attended by a maid and the eponymous vocalising manservant.  In addition, the painting evokes a period feel – and its associated social awkwardness.

That image was the creative staring point, but it was too well-known and too loaded with quandary to open the show, so other images by Vettriano were assembled into a potential storyboard.  Fortunately his cast of characters is narrow and that aided the conjectured narrative. In following this path, it quickly became clear that his visual canon fell into two distinct mood ranges – the bright and the dark.

Vett triptich
Mad Dogs, The Shape of Things to Come, and a beach scene from the musical

The former is dominated by outdoor beach scenes, often filled with umbrellas being used as parasols or fashion accessories, and the latter, by interior private spaces, or public/private shady rooms. This contrast provided the key to the overriding moods for acts one and two respectively.

charles and edith4
Night Geometry and its recreation on stage

Scripting for a large cast has its challenges.  Scripting for a student cast has even more. The constraints are different to those for a fully professional production.  Budgets still rule – but at least there is no need to consider actors’ fees.  However, that doesn’t mean to say actors are not a consideration.  There needs to be a good range of roles, and that often means creating a large number of parts.  Those parts are primarily there to put the young performers on stage, but that cannot be at the expense of the enjoyment of the audience.  The quality of performance must be delivered, but the company must not outstay their welcome.  Time is the enemy, and if truth be known – the friend.

pauine2 and charlesMaking a musical compounds those problems.  If songs and dances are to be included, then dialogue must be significantly trimmed.  If dialogue is economised its ability to convey character, story and – most important of all – emotion is compromised.  A two-hour show with 14 musical numbers leaves less than an hour for dialogue.  The full cast of this production was over seventy persons – but the speaking cast was sixteen – giving each actor just under four minutes of dialogue each on average, and that’s presuming a story can be told democratically, which of course it can’t. So some actors have only a minute or so each to put across their roles.  That’s very tricky.

The time demands alone make the scripting extremely difficult, but they also force brutal editing, and that’s no bad thing, unless you cut too much and leave the audience ill-informed.  That may have been a flaw in this work.

pauline's fav bookTwo stories were harnessed together.  The contemporary protagonist – Pauline – was preparing for her wedding while her fascination for Vettriano’s paintings enabled her to wrestle with her misgivings via a fantasy set in the 1930s.

Both narratives grew darker as the play progressed with Pauline’s wedding being disrupted by a former lover who then lured her into seedy depravity, while her imagined self became embroiled in her paramour’s less than legal debt-settling behaviour.

Being a family musical it all ended on a positive yet yearning note as the fantasy is blended into the reality via the melancholic longing of Leonard Cohen’s ballad Dance Me to the End of Love,  which also inspired one of Vettriano’s best known paintings.

The music numbers were chosen primarily for their mood, some to evoke the imagined period, others because their melodic style seemed to fit the visual ambience of the paintings selected for that section of the show.

There was a certain resonance with the 1980s TV series The Singing Detective  written by Dennis Potter and starring Michael Gambon, and that was acknowledged in the names of two of the imaginary characters: the butler and the police inspector.

To this day Dancing with Vettriano remains the favourite of all my productions with respect to visual style.  It is the most beautiful show with which I have been associated, and that is largely down to the teams that created the very limited but very high quality scenic components, the costumiers and choreographers, and the lighting designer and technical team.

dance me
Dance Me to the End of Love on canvas and on stage.

The story may have been pared down a tad too far, but the overriding recollection is of images that were intensely memorable, or is it that, once again, nostalgia is not what it used to be?



Production photographs by Tobias Rose.

From the production programme:




More of the same

My thoughts regarding the nature of theatre and tricks for creating compelling examples of it can be found in:

Drama cover DH

Drama: what it is and how to do it

More dangerous nostalgia for times I never knew can be enjoyed in:


Untitled paperback


Untitled eBook





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