Monday 3 April 2023

The Land of Might-Have-Been: a new musical merges the story of Vera Brittain with songs by Ivor Novello

Vera Brittain
Vera Brittain

Buxton International Festival and Norwich Theatre Royal join forces in producing a delicate, moving and deeply intense show about love, life and hope during the First World War. Norwich music writer, Tony Cooper, reports  

A new musical The Land of Might-Have-Been - which promises an intriguing, unforgettable and thought-provoking show - is coming our way next month through a fruitful partnership being forged between Norwich Theatre Royal and Buxton International Festival. The book and lyrics have been written by Michael Williams, co-creator of the UK Theatre award-winning opera, Georgiana, a work surrounding the goings-on of Lady Georgiana Dorothy Spencer.  

The eldest daughter of John Spencer, 1st Earl of Spencer and Georgiana Poyntz, makes Lady Georgiana the great-great-granddaughter of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. By all accounts, a flamboyant and highly controversial woman, she did not respect the conventional mores of her day and embraced the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and free love.   

In stark contrast to the goings-on of this free-spirited aristocrat, The Land of Might-Have-Been focuses on a very different kind of person, Vera Mary Brittain, an educated, fair and strong-minded individual with her feet most definitely on the ground. But unlike Lady Georgiana, Vera Brittain did respect the order and conventions of her day but, of course, was faced and frustrated with the prejudices and conventions of her day, too, like so many of her peers.  

Although The Land of Might-Have-Been is admirably built around the songs of Ivor Novello, who, incidentally, was born in the same year as Vera Brittain in 1893, the scenario is strongly based on the early lives of Vera and her brother Edward before and during the First World War.  

A writer, feminist, socialist and pacifist, Vera Brittain’s war memoir of 1933, Testament of Youth, was a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic. Ivor Novello, on the other hand, was a best-seller, too, on both sides of the Atlantic. He was one of the most successful British musical theatre composers of the 20th century and penned, when just 21 years old, the famous British patriotic song of the First World War ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ which brought a bit of cheer to the nation at a dark and gloomy time.  

Ivor Novello
Ivor Novello
And bringing more than a bit of cheer to Vera Brittain was the time that her father decided to move his family wholeheartedly to Buxton in 1905, one of England's finest spa towns nestling among the Derbyshire hills on the fringe of the Peak District. Nine years later, in 1914, over the course of a long hot summer, Vera and Roland (Leighton) unexpectedly fell in love.  

In fact, it was in August of the following year that Roland (a Lieutenant in the 7th Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment) became her fiancé. Sadly, he died of wounds in action on the Western Front later the same year, aged 20, while her brother, Edward, was killed in the trenches towards the end of the war in Italy in June 1918 aged 22. This terrible family tragedy formulated the final passage of Vera Brittain’s outstanding memoir, Testament of Youth.  

Dedicated to the war effort and showing duty to King and Country, Vera Brittain abandoned her studies at Oxford and returned to Buxton in 1915 to work as an English Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse at the Devonshire Royal Hospital tending wounded soldiers coming from the Front. Later she transferred to the London General Hospital, Camberwell, a military hospital based in south-east London.   

Although these bright, determined and ambitious young people all harboured adventurous ideas about their future lives, the war in Europe completely shattered their hopes and dreams and, in this respect, it rapidly changed Vera’s political thinking, too, that propelled her into a life-long campaign for peace, equality and justice.  

Therefore, those halcyon days of that long hot summer of 1914 in Buxton will be fondly, richly and movingly recalled in The Land of Might-Have-Been, a time when the syncopated rhythms of ragtime were sweeping through every ballroom in the country, débutante balls were raging like no other and chaperones were the curse of every young woman in love. The call of King and Country stirred the imagination of young men everywhere and the power of love kept one’s hopes alive in those darkest of times.  

And in such dark and dismal times, music is of paramount importance in lifting one’s spirit and Iain Farrington - who, incidentally, played the piano at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, performing ‘Chariots of Fire’ with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle and has been commissioned to write a piece for the King’s Coronation - has come up with some fabulous new orchestral arrangements of such well-loved Novello songs as ‘My Dearest Dear’, ‘Waltz of My Heart’, ‘My Life Belongs To You’ and ‘Why Is There Ever Goodbye’ that will surely stir and ignite the senses while recapturing a past that changed the world for ever.  

Playing the pivotal role of Vera Brittain is West End star, French-Canadian actress, Audrey Brisson, who has appeared in a multitude of musical theatre productions including the title-role in Amélie the Musical (Criterion Theatre, West End) for which she was nominated Best Actress in a Musical for Olivier Awards 2020 and Best Performer in a Musical for UK Theatre Awards 2019.  

Other roles by Brisson include her one-woman show, Jekyll and Hyde (Reading Rep), Cinderella in Sondheim’s Into the Woods (Theatre Royal, Bath), Dr Seuss’s The Lorax (Old Vic, London), Marina in Pericles (National Theatre), Bella Chagall in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (Bristol Old Vic and Kneehigh/Edinburgh Festival) and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (Rose Theatre, Kingston). 

Joining Brisson in the leading role of Roland Leighton, Vera’s doomed fiancé, is Alexander Knox, who has appeared in numerous productions including A Merchant of Venice (Playground Theatre), Into Battle (Greenwich Theatre) and The Tempest, Henry V, (Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, York) as well as the musical adaptation by Susie McKenna and Steven Edis of The Silver Sword adapted from Ian Serraillier’s best-selling novel. 

The star cast continues with George Arvidson playing the formidable role of Edward Brittain, Vera’s brother, who courts death rather than face being court marshalled for his sexuality. His numerous West End appearances include Les Misérables, Evita and Carousel. And playing Bobbie, Vera’s devoted friend and Edward’s secret lover, is Kit Esuroso, who recently won Best Actor for his role in AKONI for the Australian Screen and Industry Network Awards. Other highlights include Showboat (Crucible Theatre, West End), TINA (original West End cast) and West Side Story (Royal Exchange Theatre). 

Other roles are played by Stuart Pendred, Bernadine Pritchett, Elin Davies, Julie Teal, Boaz Chad, Richard Woodall, Helen Maree, Julia Mariko, Tobias Camposs Antinaque and Charlie St John.      

A show promising great things it’s directed by Kimberley Sykes who has worked at the RSC, Donmar and the National Theatre while 16 members from the Northern Chamber Orchestra are in the pit under the baton of Iwan Davies, formerly staff conductor at the Salzburger Landestheater where he conducted such famed musicals as My Fair Lady. Davies is also Head of Music at Buxton International Festival where in 2021 he led a critically acclaimed production of Pauline Viardot’s Cendrillon which played to sell-out audiences at Buxton in 2021 and was well received on its visit to Norwich Playhouse earlier this year.   

A grand and lavish set has been created by Nicky Shaw (who has designed opera and musical productions worldwide for the likes of the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and Welsh National Opera) with a wardrobe to match that should fit well the period of the show’s setting while Jake Wiltshire’s lighting will surely add that necessary voluminous touch to the overall stage effect.   

As an aside, Ivor Novello was a big hitter of his day and penned a host of such well-loved songs as ‘Rose of England’, ‘Someday My Heart Will Awake’, ‘Glamorous Night’ and ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’. Such was his presence in the musical world of the first half of the 20th century that this great Welsh-born tunesmith was honoured by the music industry who renamed the British Academy of Songwriters Composers and Authors (BASCA) to the Ivor Novello Awards. They have been presented annually in London since 1956 at two high-profile events by The Ivors Academy: The Ivors for songwriting in May and The Ivors for screen composers in December.  

Another honour bestowed upon Ivor Novello came by way of Sir Cameron Mackintosh who in 2005 renamed the Strand theatre in London’s West End, the Novello. The composer, in fact, lived in an apartment above this theatre from 1913 to 1951.   

A most fitting tribute and, indeed, a marvellous legacy. As for Vera Mary Brittain, her legacy comes down to her duty, kindness and generosity of spirit that, in so many ways, was carried on by her daughter, the former Labour Cabinet Minister, later Liberal Democrat peer, Shirley Williams, Lady Williams of Crosby, one of the ‘Gang of Four’ on the Social Democratic wing of the Labour Party who founded the SDP in 1981. Sadly, she passed away in 2021.            

On an historical note, Ivor Novello’s musicals were popular throughout the country, especially in Norwich, therefore the first of his big shows to play Norwich Theatre Royal was Glamorous Night in November 1936 followed by further productions in December 1949 and February 1971 while Perchance to Dream came in October 1968 and February 1972. Interestingly, Perchance to Dream (the show’s title coming from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) was the only musical for which Novello wrote the lyrics.   

In fact, Novello wrote a couple of plays, too, which toured to Norwich: The Rat (March 1928) focusing on the criminal underworld of Paris and Fresh Fields (May 1933) focusing on two sisters who inherit a stylish London townhouse in Belgravia without having the necessary income for its upkeep.  

Another big hitter, The Dancing Years, came our way in December 1948 starring Nicolette Roeg as Grete and Odette Field as Maria Ziegler/Lorelei while this famed musical morphed into an ice show in the 1950s returning to the stage for a couple of outings in May 1975 and July 1984.  

However, the last Ivor Novello musical seen in Norwich was King’s Rhapsody in October 1988 revisiting the city in 1952 starring Olive Gilbert, who, incidentally, made her début in musical theatre in Ivor Novello’s Glamorous Night at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in May 1935. She remained with Ivor Novello until his death in 1951. Such was the popularity of King’s Rhapsody it returned to Norwich for a couple of more showings in 1953 and 1975. 

The Land of Might-Have-Been premières at Buxton Opera House on Friday 7th July (7.15pm) with further performances on Tuesday 11th July (7.15pm), Saturday 15th July (2.00pm and 7.15pm), Tuesday 18th July (7.15pm) and Friday 21st July (7.15pm). Box office: 01298 72190 -  

The show then plays Norwich Theatre Royal from Tuesday 25th to Sunday 30th July, nightly at 7.30pm, with matinees on Thursday 27th (2.30pm) and Sunday 30th (2.00pm). Tickets can be booked online at or by phone 01603 630 000 or in person from Theatre Royal box office.        

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Reclaiming Handel's first thoughts: Peter Whelan directs Irish Baroque Orchestra in the Dublin version of Messiah - concert review
  • Korngold looks back: the lushness & extravagance of fin-de-siecle Vienna evoked in The Dead City at English National Opera - opera review
  • Focus on Manchester:
    • A joy in telling stories in music: the Manchester Camerata, the Monastery & music - feature
    • Successfully integrated into the same eco-system, The Stoller Hall and Chetham's School of Music - feature
    • Let other pens dwell on misery and grief - a joyous ensemble performance of Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park from RNCM Opera - opera review
    • The latest in Manchester Camerata's Mozart, Made in Manchester series featured a lovely creative dialogue between Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Gábor Takács-Nagy and the players - concert review
    • Henning Kraggerud & RNCM Chamber Orchestra in RNCM's Original Voices Festival concert review
    • Every phrase has a story behind it: Gábor Takács-Nagy on conducting Mozart and more - interview
  • Handel in Rome: Nardus Williams and the Dunedin Consort at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • After Byrd: HEXAD Collective launches its concert series exploring hidden music for voices - concert review
  • The go-to place for information about opera performances across the globe: we chat to Operabase's new CEO, Ulrike Köstinger - interview
  • A lockdown success story: St Mary's Perivale and its amazing programme of 120 recitals per year, viewed live and online - interview 
  • Home



No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month