So the question was posed: should singer songwriter Roy Arbuckle proceed with a new full scale musical telling the story of his beloved Fountain?
The answer was a resounding yes, based on the reaction of the 70 or so people who packed into a sneak preview of the proposed project in the new Holywell Trust building in Bishop Street last week.
Cathedral Youth Club community worker, Alan Warke, gave his reaction after watching Seamus Heaney, Nicky Harley, and Diane Greer, perform first draft scenes from what will hopefully develop into an all-singing, all-dancing theatre production.
“I think it was very moving to hear the words of the songs, the drama and the history of the area,” he said.
“It would be good for the young people of the Fountain to learn about the Fountain of the past.”
He added: “This should be taken all the way to the major theatres. Let the world see it. We’ve had some great events here, plenty of big gigs, Radio One, the City of Culture, we’ve taken part in the Fleadh and so on. So hopefully this is rolled out as a major priority for the community.”
Former Governor General of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, Alastair Simpson, was equally impressed: “It was even better than I thought it would have been to be quite honest. I thought it would have been a dour thing, you know, all death and destruction but having seen it, I’d like to be there for the full production, when that happens.
“I’d like to see this spreading over the whole city. When you throw a stone into a pond, the ripples going out. Some time in the future, if I’m still alive, I’d like it if different communities came together and gave their ideas of what they think, because, I’ve a funny feeling that what was our heartbreak was their heartbreak, and that this was a common denominator.
“We want to remember the Troubles but we’ve got to get further on down the line and for the young people of the city, I don’t want them to be growing up in the atmosphere of the last 40 years.”
Fountain historian Willie Temple also gave the project a thumbs up: “It has a future okay. It depends on what way it runs. Are you going to have a West End story, which is tragic? Or are you going to have one that’s mixed, good times and bad times? But I think it should get the green light. It should be given the chance to surface.”
Based on last week’s airing, the new musical has the clear potential of developing into a remarkable piece of work. The departure’s a natural and seamless outgrowth from Roy’s cracking 2008 LP, ‘Songs of the Fountain,’ a tribute to the streets and people, that were the backdrop of his formative years.
That record, by the way, was produced by none other than Tom Newman, who sat at the mixing desk, for Mike Oldfield, when he was creating ‘Tubular Bells.’ Tom’s helping out with the musical arrangements for this ongoing work.
‘Songs’ as Roy explained is his personal ‘Chavez Ravine,’ a nod to Ry Cooder’s psycho geographical lament for a Latino community dispossessed for the benefit of a baseball franchise in Los Angeles in the 1950s. Roy said he was very pleased the draft scenes of the new work were so well received.
“Anything you do like that, the first time out it’s a risk and you’re holding your breath, you know, to see if people like it,” he said.
“I know the cast was moved and the audience were very moved, especially by the second song and the reaction we got, the things people were saying were just brilliant, it’s given me great heart, great hope, and we’ll carry on and get the whole thing done.”
The ‘second song’ Roy’s referring to is ‘They All Knew Him On The Street,’ a tribute to Bobby Stott, a UDR man from the Fountain who was shot dead outside his home in 1975.
Sung by Seamus Heaney it exposes the internal emotions of ‘Robbie,’ a returning émigré nostalgic for the people, friends and places he once knew, especially Sam, a friend murdered during his long exile.
Remarkably, actor and community worker Seamus’ brother Denis, a member of the IRA, was shot dead by the Army in 1978.
Kate Nash, whose brother William was amongst those killed on Bloody Sunday, was first to react to the performance.
She said it was a poignant reminder of how the people of the Fountain had suffered alongside their nationalist neighbours during the Troubles.
Roy said one of the themes he was trying to get across was how, prior to the turmoil of 1969 and beyond, the city was much more of a united community.
“One of the themes is going to be the way the city was a shared space, pre-69/70,” he said.
“All around here - the city centre, Fountain, Bishop Street, all those streets were mixed streets, people lived in the same streets, they knew each other, it was a shared space, I’m trying to get that across too.”
Roy’s signature tune, ‘The Factory Girls,’ certain to form an integral part of the finished production, epitomises this togetherness.
“The women in the play [Kitty and June; played by Nicky and Diane] all worked in the shirt factory,” said Roy.
“So ‘The Factory Girls’ is going to be in there. That’s a sure thing. And the shirt factories were very much a shared space.
“All the women in the town - at lunch time at Tillie and Henderson - all the women that worked in the Creggan and the Bog, they all walked down through the Fountain, you know, thousands of them you’d have seen. That shared space that’s one of the themes.”
But that’s just one aspect. Roy’s also trying to harness the emotional draw of home.
The performance kicked off with a rendition of ‘Took A Walk Up Wapping Lane,’ which has Robbie overpowered by the pangs of nostalgia upon a bittersweet return home.
It’s something Roy’s gone through himself, having spent the best part of a decade in North America in years gone by.
“That scene with the character Robbie saying, I don’t know what, but there’s something, something calling me. I mean I experienced that myself as an emigrant. That yearning for home.
“I know I had an uncle who left here in the 30s, you know, and he went to New Zealand. He came back when I think he knew he was dying and I think that’s in all of us.
“People who had to move anywhere from where they were born. It’s even, you notice, a thing with people with dementia, they want to go home but they’re in their own house.
“It probably goes back to when you were three years old or whatever, an emotional attachment to where you were born.”
Michael Nangle, who is helping out with the direction, is delighted to be involved.
“We worked together on a production of ‘Home for Christmas’ in the late nineties in Tullyally,” said Michael. “It was about young Protestant lads going off to the Somme. So Roy and I have a bit of history in terms of working on projects like that.”
Michael said he was thrilled with the feedback.
“We didn’t know really how it would go down. There is a bit of a risk but we’re absolutely delighted, with the encouragement we got, you know, it’s very important.”
Although, the venture is still a work in progress the core songs are all there and it’s now just a matter of getting the arrangements in place.
“We’ve done all the songs. Some of them still need to be arranged better for musical,” he added.
Another new element is the love story that has been thread through the theme’s already developed in Roy’s ‘Songs’ suite from 2008.
“It’s actually a personal story about this Robbie going back and about his life as a young boy,” said Michael.
“There are flashbacks back into the Fountain and the way it used to be.
“There’s a kind of Romeo and Juliet thing that goes on. He meets a girl from Creggan. They actually try to have a relationship but then the Troubles and everything else breaks it up.
“The script, it’s a very basic draft, it’s skeletal, at this stage and we really need to develop that.”
Roy said he’d written for the stage before but it’s not something he has a great deal of experience in.
“I found it difficult enough but the dialogue and stuff, I’m not doing anything I don’t know,” said Roy.
“You know, anything you heard there, is stuff I’ve heard, I heard my mother say, I heard people in the street and the task was to connect up the songs. The songs are all telling a story.
“You know, like that first song, ‘Took a walk up Wapping Lane.’ I got this notion of this older guy coming back and home walking and meeting people and they start quizzing him about why he left and we deal with that kind of dialogue.
“I’ve had most of the songs from the album but I’ve added three, is it three or four more? At the moment they are all still a bit in flux, will they or won’t they actually make it into the show?
“I had to add in a love story, there’s no musical without a love story, and so it’s going to be a tender love story, a cross-community love story,” he said.
Eamon Baker from the Towards Understanding and Healing (TUH) project, which facilitated last week’s trial run, said: “This isn’t a musical just for the people of the Fountain, it’s primarily for the people of the Fountain but it’s a musical for the whole city and it will work as a window into the Fountain and it will increase the understanding of people who are not from the Fountain.
“It’s a great moment for Roy to test out the words, the script and the songs. To find them so well received, virtually a standing ovation.
“I work for TUH so it’s a great moment for us that we have helped support this, promoting understanding, promoting healing, which takes me right back to what Kate Nash said.”
Roy ended last week’s trial run with a performance of ‘Dancing Down the Street,’ his rock ‘n’ roll ode to the 11th nights of yesteryear.
He said: “One of the lines from that is: ‘Billy Jackson, Boogem’s Doherty, jiving and singing.’ My memory of Boogem’s Doherty was a Teddy Boy from the Brandywell, but he was up the Fountain jiving on the 11th night.
“Trying to make that kind of point that we weren’t always this divided.”
It certainly struck a chord with Alan Warke a few generations behind Boogems but reminded nonetheless of the simpler days of youth.
“I remember running about the streets of the Fountain and going to St Columb’s Cathedral school, walking down and getting your tuppenny biscuit in the shop,” he said.
“Everyone’s door was open for everybody. People used to just walk in and out of one another’s houses, you didn’t have to knock or ring bells.”
The ‘Songs of the Fountain’ musical project looks set to continue.
Buy a copy of the album by contacting Roy at: http://royarbuckle.com/
Anyone who wishes to sponsor the project can also contact Roy via the website.