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Gretel: Ex-Herts & Essex girls Liv Warden and Charlie Turner pool talents to create new musical

Gretel (8504995)
Gretel (8504995)

Tom Ryder caught up with singer-songwriter Charlie Turner and playwright Liv Warden ahead of their London show's opening...

Charlie Turner and Liv Warden are well-known Bishop’s Stortford creatives who have known each other since they first started at Herts and Essex High School.

Charlie is a multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter who has performed regularly in the town and written tracks for global artists, while playwright Liv recently completed the debut run of her first show, Anomaly, at The Old Red Lion Theatre in London.

The pair have come together and created Gretel, a new musical that draws on some of the themes of popular German fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, which was recorded by the Brothers Grimm and published in 1812.

The show will have its first outing on Friday and Saturday (April 19-20) at The Other Palace, and its proceeds will be donated to LGBT+ anti-violence charity Galop.

Director and writer Liv Warden, standing, with composer and MD Charlie Turner at the keyboard (8504997)
Director and writer Liv Warden, standing, with composer and MD Charlie Turner at the keyboard (8504997)

How did you meet? Have you collaborated before?

Liv: We met at school, on the first day of Year 7. Because our surnames are Turner and Ward and teachers love a seating plan, we always ended up next to each other in class!

Charlie: During our time at Herts & Essex we worked together on lots of projects through drama and music, but our first professional collaboration was in 2014 when we wrote two musicals for children. One was a Nativity and the other was called Little Io and was based around Greek gods and goddesses. They were both performed by the children of Birchanger Primary School, where I was teaching and Liv was an ex-pupil.

What different skills do you each bring to the table? What makes your partnership work?

Liv: The fact that we know each other so well is the key ingredient in our partnership. It's always felt very natural to work together and we intuitively know where the other person is coming from. We both find the same things funny (and sad) so it means that putting a piece of theatre together is really instinctive for us.

For Charlie, her intuition with music is something that I have never seen before. She knows how to elevate a piece to the next level. Her musical ability with several different instruments would normally be enough to make her a great MD, but the songs she writes are beautiful. Some of the songs in Gretel I honestly believe are world-class. Also she’s a good laugh, so that helps when things get stressful!

Charlie: It’s a massive help that we come from different professional backgrounds. Liv’s experience across the industry makes her incredibly valuable as a writer, because she understands how it feels to be on both sides of the casting table, having acted for several years before she became a playwright. Her first play, Anomaly, was a huge learning curve for her and provided a lot of useful insight for Gretel in terms of how to create a show. She's also one of the funniest people I know and has a natural knack for translating that into her writing. People effortlessly connect to her work.

How did the idea for Gretel come about?

Liv: A good friend of mine was a victim of a homophobic attack last year and received extensive support from Galop, an anti-violence and hate crime charity. In the aftermath of the attack, a group of creative friends rallied around and wanted to give something back to Galop for the support they showed him, and we decided that the best way to do this was to stage some kind of performance to raise money. Initially this was going to be a pantomime, but when I was approached to write it I said I would prefer to involve Charlie and write a musical instead.

Composer and musical director Charlie Turner (8504993)
Composer and musical director Charlie Turner (8504993)

Charlie: I jumped at the chance to get involved, partly because it’s such a worthy cause and partly because it gave me a great excuse to work with my best friend again! And who doesn’t want to write musicals in their spare time?!

How would you summarise the plot and key messages?

Liv: Gretel is a tale of childhood, loyalty and the power of fantasy to arm us against a dark reality. In a world where your past and future are written out in a storybook, it’s a reminder that we all have the power to create our own fate.

I've chosen to set it in 1940s wartime, so the themes of stolen childhoods can be linked to the fairy-tale land that Hansel and Gretel inhabit. With children being sent away from their parents to the countryside to be evacuated, now more than ever do they need the magic escapism of a fairy-tale story.

Was it fun/challenging/stressful/all of the above finding the right team?

Charlie: My musical background is from the songwriting industry, so musical theatre is a whole new world for me. I’ve never worked on a professional show before, so this has been a huge culture shock.

Thomas Duern as Ginger and Roxanne Applebee as Lavender in Gretel (8504989)
Thomas Duern as Ginger and Roxanne Applebee as Lavender in Gretel (8504989)

I've been pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm we encountered from the actors auditioning for the show. They explained to us that they viewed this as a great project to be part of because it's for a very worthy cause. It also gives them the opportunity to originate a role in a new musical in a Lloyd-Webber theatre.

The standard of the performers is incredibly high – they're all graduates from prestigious performing arts colleges – so it’s a privilege for us to have them working with us. Of course, there have been stressful times, but it’s been a lot of fun too.

Liv: Due to the time frame that we were given, time was definitely of the essence when figuring out rehearsal schedules. But since we've got in the room it's been a pleasure seeing this story come alive. I'll never get tired of that feeling. I get to work with some great friends too, which is a bonus. Sleep, for both of us, has become a thing of the past, but it will all be worth it when we see our vision come to life on stage.

Has the music or the script provided the most difficulty?

Liv: The biggest challenge for me was that I was trying to write Gretel while Anomaly was playing at The Old Red Lion. They’re very different projects and I found it hard to commit fully to either one at the time. I also had some initial teething troubles with the storyline because it was difficult to link the fairy-tale world with the real one, but when the wartime element came into my head it all seemed to make sense.

Charlie: For me, when Liv first mentioned the World War II concept, I thought she’d lost her mind! I had absolutely no idea where it was coming from, but I’ve learnt to trust her over the years – there’s always method to the madness – and when I read the first draft of the script I knew she was absolutely right.

Musically, the writing of the songs was very simple. Liv’s storyline and guidance was so strong that I knew exactly what the songs needed to do. My challenges began later when it came to arranging, recording and scoring the music. Oh, and I’ve never been an MD before so I’m definitely being kept on my toes here!

What have been your highlights so far?

Liv: I’m used to giving my words to someone else and watching their interpretation, but this time I was able to create exactly what I wanted because I am also the director. Highlights for me have been watching the process of the script and music coming together. The music is especially exciting, because it’s completely different from what I usually do.

Elle MacAllen plays Gretel, with Mina Dahle, in background, as Rosemary (8504991)
Elle MacAllen plays Gretel, with Mina Dahle, in background, as Rosemary (8504991)

Elle MacAllen, who is playing Gretel, auditioned for a role in Anomaly and unfortunately wasn’t quite right for that part, so it’s lovely to watch her bring Gretel to life.

Charlie: I’ve loved hearing the actors breathe life into the songs. I’m so used to singing them that it’s a real treat to hear a team of talented professionals take over. I had a particularly emotional moment watching the final scene for the first time. It's a very poignant moment in the show and the girls performed the final trio so beautifully that both Liv and I felt overwhelmed.

What are your hopes for the show?

Liv: I truly believe that Gretel is of a comparable standard to any other show that’s out in the West End right now. It’s a story that is relevant in these troubled times and will speak to audiences of all ages. I’m not usually known for my happy endings, but I think that people will enjoy a good night out with this show.

Charlie: Somewhere down the line it would be lovely if Gretel had a bigger and brighter future, but at the moment we just feel fortunate to be able to share this story with so many people in a beautiful environment for a great cause. The team we've put together is a pleasure to work with and we're very glad to be raising awareness for the invaluable work that Galop do.

Why should people come to see Gretel?

Liv: Supporting new writing is very important. Some West End shows have been on for decades. Maybe it’s time for new and fresh stories to come to the forefront. Look at Six! It started at the Edinburgh Festival and now it has a US transfer and multiple Olivier nominations. Not only that, but Gretel is for a good cause, so please bring your change for the buckets.

Charlie: Ultimately, we want people to come along and have a great time. This is a charming story which is appropriate for the whole family, and we want to give people the opportunity to lose themselves in a fairy tale and feel a little magic, something that as adults we rarely do.

+ Gretel is showing at The Other Palace theatre, a short walk from Victoria Tube station. There will be an evening show on Friday (April 19) and matinee and evening performances on Saturday (April 20). To book tickets, priced £20, visit https://lwtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/gretel/#book.

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