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Feature: The Ukulele Man

Ahead of its opening next week, artist Marcel Cole talks with Manan Luthra about his show The Ukulele Man.

Manan: What is your show about?

Marcel: The Ukulele Man is all about a guy called George Formby! He was one of Britain’s most popular entertainers in the 1930s and 40s and their biggest film star for nearly a decade. He entertained over 3 million troupes during WW2 and toured the world in the years after, including a tour to Australia in 1947, which my great aunt still remembers! The show weaves together his classic songs to tell the story of his life. 

Who was George Formby, as a professional and as a person?

George Formby was as an amateur of the old smoking platform who rose to become a music hall professional of genius! He was known for his unaffected intimacy with his audience; he gave them what they wanted and they loved him for it. His songs are riddled with cheek and innocent innuendo, and despite being slammed by critics and banned by the BBC, the public couldn’t get enough of it. So he thought ‘to hell with the snobs’ and he played to his real fans, the working class people. In that respect, he was a real people’s comedian.

George Formby’s personal life is another kettle of fish entirely, but suffice to say that his stage and screen persona was an extension of his off-stage personality. He often said that on stage he was always lucky enough just to be himself… and the people loved him for it.

When did you start preparing the show?

This show has been in the making on and off for exactly a year now. I have been performing Formby songs around the place since early last year, but the idea to do a full show show about his life came out of a two week cabaret workshop I did last September. After that, I read his biography a couple of times and then actually started writing the show in January, when I had some time to kill in London between the London International Mime Festival and a month at Ecole Philippe Gaulier in France!

How did you approach studying the role and embodying the character?

After having read his biography many times and watched as many of his films as I could get my hands on, I felt his character really spoke to me and so I just tried to channel that part of myself. I guess the result is a kind of Marcel/Formby hybrid, but then I guess that’s kind of every role ever haha.

What parts of the process have been difficult? How did you overcome them?

I have found it a very solitary process, which has been difficult sometimes. Up until about a month ago, when the director (Mirjana Ristevski) and my fabulous mother got involved, it was still all just me working on my own. So I tried to get out and about to libraries and public spaces to work on it so as not to go crazy! When you’re writing on your own you can get very stuck in your own head, and often it was hard to tell if what I was writing would be of any interest to anyone else, or if I was just obsessed with this guy. Having regular showings to family and close friends really helped with this. I found that a great formula was to write up a draft and then perform it to a couple of people, talk about their impressions, take some notes, and then get back out the pen and paper and rewrite again, and again, and again. After a preview for a home crowd in Canberra last week we went through our notes and as we rehearse, the script keeps developing.

What about Formby has surprised you most? Is there a certain attitude, or personality trait he has, which stood out to you?

One big thing is actually his ukulele playing; he is so good! When you think of him as a comedian or as a ukulele player, neither of those tags particularly suggest any musical talent but he is really brilliant! He is known for his super intricate right hand strumming and the better I get on the uke, the more admiration I have for his playing. He is so fast! No matter how fast I get, he’s still always faster! We’re talking intricate strumming patterns at 250bpm plus! And totally effortlessly too! Smiling and flirting while his hands move at lightning speed.

What should audiences most be looking forward to in your show?

Something different. I don’t want to spoil anything but I will say that it is about much more than just the ukulele.

Sell the show in a sentence.

A homage to the days before Netflix when live entertainment was king.

The Ukulele Man plays as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival from 12 – 16 September at the Emerging Artist Sharehouse, Marrickville. Tickets start from $7, and are available here.

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