Gwyneth Herbert, March 2014

'I Fell In Love With Phyllis': Composer Gwyneth Herbert On The A-Z Of Mrs P

Interview by Glenn Rice

Navigate your way to London’s Elephant & Castle this March and you’ll find a bright new addition to the pantheon of British musicals in the form of The A-Z of Mrs P, now in a limited run at Southwark Playhouse. Spotlighting a winning central performance from stand-up and Peep Show star Isy Suttie, with top-flight support from Michael Matus, Frances Ruffelle and Stuart Matthew Price, it’s charming, eccentric, funny and bracingly fresh. 

Gwyneth Herbert is the show’s lyricist and composer. Having established herself over the last decade as an outstanding jazz vocalist, of late the 32 year-old Hampshire-born artistic multi-tasker has flown ever further from her jazz chanteuse pigeonhole into eclectic areas of songwriting, performance and dramatic presentation.  

Her effervescent score for The A-Z of Mrs P is an extraordinary achievement for a first-time composer of musicals, especially one who admits she disliked the genre until she worked on a show of her own. Onto Diane Samuels' witty, skilfully structured script, Herbert has draped a sonic crazy-quilt of clockwork waltzes, lovely legato melodies, tooth-rattling alliteration and deceptively complex harmonies that vividly conjure the outer world and inner life of Phyllis Pearsall, the boho painter who, legend has it, walked every London street in order to create the original city street guide.

I meet Herbert pre-show, and as we head for the pub across the road from the Playhouse where it’s quieter, her unfakeable love for the new musical and everyone in it is glowingly apparent. A petite explosion of energy and enthusiasm with an edge of huskiness to her voice, she cartwheels from one idea to the next at a mile a minute, completely smitten by the thrill of creativity and possibility.

The show's about Phyllis Pearsall – not quite a household name. Who is she?

Phyllis Pearsall was an eccentric, bohemian, vulnerable, stoic, determined artist who, in 1936, as myth would have it, walked every single street of this city and invented the A-Z. In actuality, her father was a successful cartographer and a Jewish Hungarian immigrant who came to Britain penniless in 1900 and made a huge amount of money making maps. Her mother was a pre-suffragette feminist who unfortunately suffered from severe mental illness and stabbed a guy down by the Thames. 

There are a lot of people, myself included, who want to make their dads proud, and Phyllis’ father had this idea to make the London street guide. She didn’t actually invent the first one, but she came up with the idea of adding house numbers, which hadn’t been done before. She spent a lot of time in government buildings going through all the records, comparing them to what was actually true. She also ran the A-Z company until she was 93 years old. 

She wore terribly mismatched clothes all the time. She would get into a lift and fall in love with everyone in it and by the end of the journey have everyone on her Christmas card list. She spoke too loudly and quickly and was a real human being who built a company that created one of the great icons of British cultural history.

What drew you to her story in the first place?

Neil Marcus is the producer and conceiver of the project. He came to me five years ago as a fan of my singer / songwriter work. He knew I was fascinated by strong, eccentric, quirky, determined women who had fallen through the cracks of history. He said 'I’ve stumbled across the story of this woman, and I think you should write a musical about it'. I said, 'don't be ridiculous. I’ve never seen a musical before. It’s all rubbish'. I wrote the entire genre off, in that ignorant, prejudiced way that a lot of people do. Now, it’s very different.

I fell in love with Phyllis. I fell in love with her eccentricities, with the storytelling, with the conflict between fact and fiction. And also, it’s the secret, human, family, tragicomic story behind an iconic part of our culture.

It's pitched as a fable based on truth, but how much is truth, and how much is fable?

With Sam Buntrock's direction and Nick Winston's choreography there isn't really a moment of proper, grounded realism in it. It's all heightened. We are asking people to dive into the labyrinth of Phyllis' own imagination, the twists and turns of her history and her parents' history, her potential future and the psychological echoes of that. But it's absolutely true in wanting to deal with the authenticity of intent and feeling, and it embraces many different kinds of factual and emotional truths.

Coming to it from the self-contained, self-determining situation of working as a singer, as a composer you're now in the position of having to hand the reins to someone else.

Yes, and that's a totally new experience for me. It's something I don’t find that easy, because I get nervous before every gig that I do, then I go on stage and shake out my nerves and I'm involved in the telling of it. The saving grace of doing the musical, that stops me chewing my arm off, is that I know we have an amazing creative team, and actors are different beings.

Isy's job - and Michael Matus as well, he’s such a craftsman – is to be so unbelievably focused on the dramatic intention, the journey, the theatrical language, on every articulated thought, every sung melody, that they’re obsessed with them. That’s the wonderful thing about seeing something like this come to life, because they’re questioning all the time. As an author your job is very different. Of course you’re concerned with the specifics, but they bring a level of detail and craft that I’m just not versed in, and it’s magical to see that come to life.

It must be a thrill to have such a prestigious cast and team for your first major work.

They're incredible. Every day is a revelation, and that’s what makes the relinquishing of control absolutely justified. More than that; actually joyous. They’ve made the world that’s been inside mine and Diane's collective heads come to beautiful, imaginative life beyond our imaginations. Frankie’s amazing. Michael Matus brings an unbelievable level of skill, always mining, always looking to find. His character Sandor is difficult to play. It would be easy to think of him as a generic, stereotypical bullying father, but he’s not – he’s a human being.

I’ve been working very closely with [musical staging director] Nick Winston in terms of thinking about the specific rhythms of the industry and rhythms of the language, and that now has translated into every physical moment of it.  I mean, I’ve been sitting in my kitchen for three years with this stuff – I’ve been singing every single part. To hear that brought to life by so many ensemble voices is really wonderful.

You could have kept working solely as a vocalist, but evidently you’re not one to be put in a box.

Increasingly throughout my career I've done things that are difficult to put in a shoebox and categorise. It makes it quite confusing for people writing about it from a particular slant. 'OK – how would you describe this? What genre do you fit into?' That question comes up so frequently, and last week I was writing a film score for a load of toy orchestra clowns and next week I’m doing a Swahili storytelling theatrical happening in Mombasa! It's not about genres for me – it’s about making things and telling stories.

You say this is your first foray into theatre, but in fact you've created some short works prior to it that were very well received.

I have, but this is my first fully-realised musical. It's certainly my first experience of even contemplating writing for the genre. In the last five years, yes, I’ve written two one-acts: an adaptation of a Rattigan, After Lydia, and Peter Barnes' Before The Law, which won awards.

Having been so nonchalant and dismissive about the whole genre of musicals, it now completely influences everything I do. My last album, The Sea Cabinet, was a concept album, and when I toured it, it had a theatrical bent and a visual element with water sculpture and live flash mob pirate choruses and everything.

I’ve become a complete addict to the theatrical world. I can’t imagine making a normal album now, it seems so facile and one-dimensional. It’s just so exciting and so innovative, so engaged and involved – and the hardest medium that I’ve ever attempted.