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You are in: Beds Herts and Bucks > Entertainment > Theatre and Art > Theatre and Dance Previews > The show that keeps on giving

Below Stairs

Below Stairs

The show that keeps on giving

Alan Lewis tells us about the show he wrote to keep him sane while suffering from cancer. Now if you stage it, you can help a good cause.

Below Stairs

This is a believable show about life below stairs in a large London home in 1914. The story revolves around the life of Lucy Ambleside, a ladies maid. She is a bright, intelligent young woman with a will to succeed and a gift for mimicry. Lucy has ideas above her station and uses her talents to appear at a society ball dressed as an American heiress where she meets the Hon Edward Waterflower, an apparent gentleman but not all he seems.

Below Stairs requires a minimum cast of 12. Excluding minor roles, there are named parts for six females (one early teens) and eight males (one also early teens). The premiere had a cast of two dozen, a comfortable number, and subsequent productions about the same.

The chorus is easily augmented by involving more kitchenmaids, suffragettes, bathers, etc. This gives the show a useful versatility, in that, for example, it is easily adapted for schools.

When Alan Lewis from High Wycombe fell ill with three cancers he certainly didn't sit around feeling sorry for himself. He took the chance to do something that he'd been thinking about for a while and wrote a musical, a process which he says kept him sane through successive – and successful – major cancer surgery on the colon, liver and lung.

The result was Below Stairs, a musical set in 1914 and, as a result of the journey that Alan has been on, amateur societies can perform it royalty-free in return for money being raised for Cancer Research UK Ltd.

It's had six productions in five years and now Alan is calling for more societies to put it on and help a very worthy cause. 

He told Katy Lewis what the musical was all about.

You've written a musical and are now looking for more companies to stage it - so can describe what it's all about?

Alan: Yes. It's set in 1914 and is the story of Lucy Ambleside, a young lady's maid who has ambitions not to remain a lady's maid. Her first idea is to find a rich suitor who will marry her and keep her in a manner to which she has yet to become accustomed. And the alternative - which is the one that pans out - is to go into the music hall as she fancies herself as an entertainer. The setting is similar to 'Upstairs Downstairs' except you see nothing of upstairs - it's all below stairs. You meet the butler, the cook and the rest of the staff and the people who come into her life - the policeman and an Irishman who, like her, is looking for a rich spouse. And then she ends up on the stage.

What sort of style of music is it?

Alan: Well - I would describe it as appropriate to the time, and it's a cross between musical theatre and music hall. If you know shows of the 50s like Salad Days and The Boyfriend, it's that sort of feel. And it's very funny, it's tuneful and it's got some sadness in it too. For example, in the second act, we see the leading man on sentry duty in the First World War. He goes off thinking that Lucy isn't interested in him and sings a ballad called 'When I'm Alone At Night' and projected behind him is black and white footage from the First World War. It's a very moving scene if it's done well.

There have been six productions so far. It started in 2002 with the premiere and it's had six productions in five years which isn't bad going for an amateur show, because the hard thing is finding societies prepared to take the risk to get bums on seats.

Yes - they tend to go for the more well-known fayre don't they?

Alan: Yes - that's right. When you're spending £10,000-£30,000 on putting on a show at your local theatre, you want to be sure of getting it back so therefore they tend to go for things like 'My Fair Lady', 'Me and My Girl' and 'Oliver' - that sort of thing - where they know pretty well that they can sell out.           

Jennifer Dewar, the first-ever Lucy

Jennifer Dewar, the first-ever Lucy

Can you tell me why you decided to start writing it?

Alan: The idea had been mooted by a friend of mine, Trevor Pillings, some years before but he was bogged down in work and nothing really became of it. But when I became ill with my first cancer, which was colon cancer, we started writing in more earnest. At first we didn't have the idea that we would put it on for Cancer Research UK, that came later, but slowly the show developed and it was premiered in 2002.

It was the first of three cancers - I had colon, then liver and then lung and throughout that time, working on the show or trying to promote it (because it was finished before all the cancers were finished) helped keep me sane. The main thing to keep me sane was my wife who looked after me and was sympathetic, but being able to distract my mind at other times by thinking about the show was a big, big help.

We finally decided that we would take no royalties for any production put on by an amateur society. So, to begin with, no society would have to put their hand in their pocket for royalties to stage the show. They would have to pay for a certain number of librettos and scores which we would sell at cost. But then, all we say to them is, by whatever means you choose, be it a collection, a raffle or a bucket by the door, could you please raise some money for Cancer Research. We don't give them a figure - it's up to them.

So that's a very good reason for companies to put it on then?

Alan: Well - the main reason [to put it on] I would always say is that it's a very good, entertaining show and the reviews we've had say as much. We have a Website and there are extracts from reviews on there.

So it came out of a difficult time but it's been a kind of therapy for you?

Alan:  Oh yes - and it still has been because this year [2007] I've been in hospital for a different reason - I've had serious heart trouble. Luckily there were two productions and my wife drove me to the first one in Cumbria in May, almost exactly the 5th anniversary since the premiere and I was only just able to watch the show after spending the day in bed and going there in a wheelchair. Then by the one in South London I was well on the road to recovery.

You have been through it haven't you - how are you now?!

Alan: I'm better than I have been for years! I have to see the consultant cardiologist in January but the hope and the expectation is that I will come off all my tablets and be able to live a normal life.

And something good has come out of it all as well?

Alan: Yes. It will never make the West End though, because the world and his wife are all writing musicals hoping that someone will put them on. There are simply hundreds of them out there like mine and a lot of them never see the light of day. The problem for this musical is that it needs at least 12 people prefereably double that, and before they go into the West End shows like to be taken on tour and you can't afford to pay a minimum of 12 people plus all the stage hands to take an unknown show round the country.

So you are looking for amateur companies to stage it - how many are in the cast?

Alan: A minimum of 12 but preferably 24 and it could go up to 36 or 40.

In the lead roles what's the divide between men and women?

Alan: It's a fairly even split - six females and eight males but you can cut some parts out. All the five leading ladies have said that Lucy is the favourite role of the many that they've played. They'd taken parts like Eliza in 'My Fair Lady' and Dolly in 'Hello Dolly' but without exception they have all loved taking on the part of Lucy and it is a big, big part - they are hardly ever off stage.

It sounds very versatile?

Alan: Yes it is - and what I enjoy is seeing it put on. There's no greater thrill. Nothing will match the first time we went to see it - I just had to pinch myself - seeing a stage full of people singing the songs we'd written.

last updated: 02/01/2008 at 15:56
created: 02/01/2008

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