Composing The Witches
Laura Cartledge talks to composer Oli Jackson about working with The Witches.
The music builds then, with a creak of a floorboard, there is silence as the door handle slowly starts to turn.
If you are anything like me you’ll already have the pillow over your eyes before anything has happened on screen.
There is no doubting the power of sound when it comes to watching a good film. However it is often so subtle you are more likely to notice your heart beating that little bit faster, or your eyes welling up as the long lost couple embrace and a song bursts in happiness.
Pulling at your heart strings, with musical strings, is part of the day job for composer Oli Jackson.
“Music is all about tension and relief,” he explains. “You have to build it up, create the atmosphere then – it’s like the snap of a twig in a horror film.”
Oli’s latest challenge is helping to cast the spell of Roald Dahl’s The Witches on to the stage at Chichester Festival Theatre.
“People will have read the book, seen the film or the stage adaptation,” he says. “It’s about working out how you can put your own take on it.”
When we meet the production is still in development, but you can see from the grin on Oli’s face he is already enjoying every second.
“The plans are exciting,” he smiles. “It’s the kind of show you always want to work on because you have grown up with it [the story] it is so ingrained in your mind.”
Oli is no stranger to this theatre and it was at a workshop here that Dale Rooks, director of the youth theatre, asked him to be involved with The Witches.
“That was last October so it has been in my head festering since then,” he laughs. “It’s been really nice being involved right at the beginning. Working with kids is exciting. They don’t know what is wrong or right which means the results can surprise you.
“I like to give them flavours of what the music might be – theatre is all about collaboration.”
Working with people is one of the main reasons Oli came into his current profession.
“I started training to be a classical pianist but it is a solitary life,” he admits. “Whereas this is about responding to what other people bring. That is why it is so great we have ten weeks of rehearsals.”
One of the biggest challenges has been working within the adaptation by David Wood, who has written eight of Dahl’s stories for the stage.
“This is not a musical,” explains Oli, “there is one big song and we’ve not been allowed to alter the words in the adaptation. It has been about finding out what the rules are, negotiating and finding out how many musicians we are allowed.
“At the moment we are looking at a band of five which is quite big for a theatre of this size,” he adds. “I’ve got to watch the levels especially as the cast are not going to have a mic which I think is brilliant – if you pipe it from speakers it doesn’t feel live, it doesn’t seem real.”
Hoping to build on this means Oli is planning for the band to also be on show to the audience.
“I hate being off stage, it feels so disconnected,” he explains. “It’s lovely responding to things, different nights might have a different pulse to them.
“I did Chicago on and off for five years and in that the band is on stage all the time. I had more lines than some of the cast,” he recalls. “What I do changes from job to job, but basically I play with music – working theme to theme.”
While in the case of The Witches this also includes working character to character.
“With the grandma I’ve gone for a feeling of family, of home,” he explains. “While the grand high witch is referenced a few times so I want the music to act as a thread to join it together building to her grand reveal, a moment of terrifying grandeur – well, that is the theory anyway.”
Embracing Roald Dahl’s fondness for things “not to be sugar-coated” means The Witches has to balance frights with laughs.
“It is still for children but if we can scare a few adults as well that would be good,” Oli says with a slight cackle. “You have got to have the light to make the dark work which is why the comic elements are so important.
“Bit like a rollercoaster,” he adds. “You let yourself be scared witless but at the same time you know you are safe, it is a journey.”
Capturing the imaginations of all ages is certainly something Roald Dahl was an expert at so the fact his story is to be performed by the youth theatre on the main stage seems to be a fitting tribute.
However not many theatres would be so bold as to offer the main slot of the festive season to a cast of children.
“I don’t know any other theatre that does youth productions so well. It is theatre which just happens to have youth in it,” Oli admits. “At times like this I have the best job in the world.
Pictures by Mike Eddowes
The Witches will be performing at Chichester Festival Theatre December 7 – January 4. To find out more, please visit
www.cft.org.uk or call 01243 781312
December 6, 2013 Culture and Events