In the words of Ken Dodd I’ve not been lucky, I have been blessed. I have had the chance to sing all over the world. I’ve performed in some strange locations too, from open air Forest Amphitheatres in Germany to after show barbeques in Mississippi. I can remember Sunday night at the London Palladium, selling out the Wales Millennium Centre for a week and backing Max Boyce at The Sydney State Theatre. There have been great nights at the Glyncorrwg Hall, and unforgettable audiences at the now sadly long gone Maerdy Working Men’s Hall. But there’s one venue that holds a special place in my heart and life and that’s The Grand Theatre Swansea… and I’m singing there again tonight.
My love affair with the Grand goes back to my childhood. My first Grand memory, the magic of Wilfred Bramble, the ‘dirty old man’ from Steptoe and Son, playing Ebenezer Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’.
There have been countless pantomimes over the years, starting with Ryan and Ronnie and now starring Swansea legend Kev Johns. I’ve been to, or been in, Gala nights, Musicals, Fashion shows, TV and Radio programmes but every time I walk into the theatre I still feel the same thrill and excitement.
Throughout the 1990’s the Grand was a regular venue on my tours with my band the Jacks. Over the years we tried to push the boundaries further and further. Having a friend like Ed Thomas, the Film and TV production designer, meant we were never short of ideas. After initially using the well-trodden path of putting the band on various different height risers and staging we knew that for subsequent return concerts the audience would expect something new.
On one occasion Ed designed a whole Swansea skyline made from scaffolding and on another we had a Chrysler PT Cruiser centre stage. The scaffolding was surprisingly easy to organise, tricky in terms of timing but there again scaffolders know how to work quickly. The car proved a little more involved as for insurance purposes it had to have its tank drained before being pushed onto the stage.
Amazing Grace at the Swansea Grand
In the 2000’s the Grand became my home for a series of musicals I had written. ‘Amazing Grace’, a musical about the 1904 Welsh Revival brought together so many local talents and it was a joy to see the theatre buzzing as we rehearsed in various rooms and spaces throughout the building. That was repeated in 2007 for my musical about the boxer Tommy Farr, ‘Contender’.
It was plain to see that there was a difference between a show arriving for a week compared to an inhouse production which involved hosting rehearsals and production meetings. An inhouse show meant everyone in the Theatre felt ownership. That was probably best summed up for me when at the end of the first week of ‘Amazing Grace’, I pressed the button to get into the car park and Tina at Stage Door shouted at me ‘We’ve done it’. What she meant was we had just gone over £100,000 of tickets sales and we were all part of the show’s success.
In recent years I’ve had a couple of other musicals in the Grand and the odd one night stand, but I must admit I have worried about the future of the Grand. Nobody saw the pandemic coming and fair play to the management and staff they soon found a new role in the community as a Covid testing centre, but how do you breathe new life into a theatre when people have almost forgotten what it’s like to go for a night out.
What the Grand needed was an ambitious new vision.
Grand Ambition- Steve Balsamo, Michelle McTernan, Christian Paterson, Richard Mylan
I can’t remember if it was Steve Balsamo or Richard Mylan or Christian Paterson or Michelle McTernan who first contacted me to say there was something new happening at the Grand. It was probably all of them, the new Swansea Grand Fab 4, who one by one sent me an invitation to pop in for a chat to hear about their bold plans for ‘Grand Ambition’.
With Covid still very much in the air it was a couple of weeks before I made it into their office. By that time they had really well and truly got their feet under the table of their newly decorated room.
What struck me first of all was their passion, secondly, I noticed that everyone I bumped into at the theatre also seemed to have a new spring in their step.
I’d known all 4 of the ‘Grand Ambition’ team for some time. I’d been on a journey with Steve Balsamo from wishing him well on his first audition visits to London to giving him a standing ovation at the London Lyceum for ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.
Christian Paterson should have directed my last musical at the Grand but being the in demand TV star he is he had had to pull out late in the day…I still haven’t quite forgiven him!! Over the years I’ve regularly bumped into or seen Michelle McTernan on stage as she has always been involved in theatre here in Wales and although I didn’t know Richard Mylan I had seen him on TV so knew he was good and well respected.
Each member of ‘Grand Ambition’ brought a different, world class, set of skills to the team and it was hard not to feel inspired after chatting to them.
One of the first things on the agenda was a celebratory concert to mark the 125th Birthday of the Grand Theatre. Between the 4 of them they had a pretty good hit list of potential guest artistes they wanted to invite to the birthday party. Looking down at tonight’s running order it looks like just about everyone said yes.
I was asked what I would like to sing, and it wasn’t a hard decision to make. The wonderful thing about my time working with the director Michael Bogdanov was he knew how to pace a show, how to make people laugh and cry but also how to send them out of the theatre on a massive high. I still remember the afternoon he came into the room to direct the final song for ‘Contender’. I had written the script and songs but even I was shocked and in tears as he brilliantly directed a finale which brought a standing ovation every night.
He had done something very different but equally moving for the end of ‘Amazing Grace’. The real story of the revivalist Evan Roberts ends on a down beat, sad note. After having a breakdown at a Revival meeting in Liverpool he rarely spoke again in public. How do we send people out with a smile on their face? That’s when Michael suggested we end the show with our own Revival meeting taking the final song in the show ‘Warm Wind’ and turning the theatre into a church.
Rehearsing with Valley Rock Voices
So tonight I will try to recreate that moment, but I won’t be alone. I will be joined by 120 members of Valley Rock Voices who will share my joy of performing in front of a sold out Grand Theatre audience.
This birthday party has been a lot of work and it will be a celebration and a statement of intent that as the theatre celebrates its 125th birthday there is still life in the old lady. There is Grand Ambition again at the Swansea Grand Theatre and I’m delighted to be a part of this Revival.