Offbeat Festival 2017: Richard Carpenter is Close to You
"Dickie Beau does kind of operate on a very heightened plane of genius that I’m alien to. But I think if you do just go with him, and see what comes out, it’s really exciting – it’s kind of other-worldly."
I didn’t realise at the time. But I saw Matthew Floyd Jones on stage at Edinburgh Fringe last year, as Kenny Everett in Desmond O’Connor’s Royal Vauxhall, a raucous and, at times, touching depiction of the night Everett and Freddie Mercury dressed Princess Diana as a man and took her to Royal Vauxhall Tavern. The night I saw the show microphone difficulties led to Diana coming off-script and sending Mercury to the tech box to “sort the electrics out”. I mention the occurrence to Floyd Jones, to be told by the performer that this tech conundrum was not a one-off. “If only that was one night,” he says. “Actually we had an entire week where if it wasn’t something it was something else. There were some issues with the mics, and they couldn’t figure out what they could do to fix it. Each night we tried swapping mics around, we tried getting replacements, but there was something odd about the tech setup in that room.” The way the fault I witnessed was dealt with worked well though, it was funny, I offer. Incidents such as the above, the actor replies, “challenge you to find a way of getting everyone on board. The audience can tell it’s happened, they’re not stupid. But they also want you to champion through it, and it’s almost like they’re on your side even more, which can be a really lovely feeling.”
One of the most moving and beautiful theatrical experiences I’ve ever had is watching Dickie Beau’s Blackouts: Twilight of the Idols at The Unity in Liverpool. Beau is a self-described “drag fabulist” who Floyd Jones has worked with on two occasions, “two very different projects” the latter says. “One was his own piece that he was doing at the Barbican (I was in a play that he created); and then I hired him to be a director for one of my shows. You never know what he’s thinking, which can sometimes be unsettling. But ultimately what happens is you’re going down a path, and you think you sort of know where you’re heading; and he’s quite quiet and measured, and won’t necessarily talk over you or be the first to say something.” You’ll remain on said route, the cabaret artist resumes, becoming really sure of the direction the piece is headed in. Then Beau will “sort of lean in” and suggest something else. “And it will turn out to be a brilliant observation that takes you somewhere you didn’t know you were going to go. He does kind of operate on a very heightened plane of genius that I’m alien to. But I think if you do just go with him, and see what comes out, it’s really exciting – it’s kind of other-worldly.”
Plenty will know Floyd Jones as the pianist in the androgynous pop-cabaret duo Frisky and Mannish. But he’s currently touring with a solo show – Richard Carpenter is Close to You (coming to Oxford’s Offbeat Festival in June) – in which he appears as Richard Carpenter, or rather (as he puts it) “a character based on him”. I’ve always viewed Floyd Jones as this eccentric, Dresden Dollian figure, in make-up, on stage with Laura Corcoran (the other half of Frisky and Mannish). I’ve also thought of Carpenter, perhaps wrongly, as the opposite of this – loved by mums and grannies, a bit twee even. So I suggest Floyd Jones has made an odd choice in using him as the focus for a piece of theatre. “I hadn’t thought about that,” he answers, “I guess anyone who knows me from Frisky and Mannish would think of me in a different way because of, like you say, the image that Laura and I present – that cabaret, glitzy, glamorous, punky vibe. That was very much an odd product of the time Laura and I started doing stuff together, of what was really going on in the cabaret and burlesque scene at the time we found ourselves in. That’s probably not what I would have done without working with Laura.” He’s actually “quite plain in real life,” he goes on. “I like dressing down, I like being comfortable.” And he has a love for older music, “I’m not a big current pop fan, which is sometimes a surprise to people who would think: ‘If you did Frisky and Mannish, surely you must always be listening to Radio 1 and the pop charts?’ When I was a kid, me and my best friend at school were obsessed with The Carpenters. We just loved them, and we listened to them all the time, sang their songs in the playground – we were odd children.” So actually, he says, “Richard Carpenter is a really obvious choice for me.”
But what essentially is the show about? “I don’t think it’s really about Richard Carpenter in the end,” says Floyd Jones. “For me he’s a vessel through which to look at some issues that are very universal and feel quite poignant to me – things to do with sibling rivalry, competition within relationships, and how difficult it is to be supportive and happy for someone when you feel that their success negates yours, or their talent overshadows you or the reception of your work.”
The production apparently recognises what “[Richard Carpenter’s] contribution to The Carpenters was. When I talk to people about what I’m doing,” says the show’s creator, “loads of people know who I mean when I say Richard Carpenter. But they don’t really know anything about him beyond that he was in a band with his sister. Some people don’t even realise that he arranged the music, and wrote a lot of it.” He continues: “It seems everyone knows that Karen Carpenter had an amazing voice, that seems to be a given, and because she died tragically early, and was so charismatic and popular, she’s become an icon beyond The Carpenters; Karen Carpenter has transcended that to become her own icon. But it’s interesting how it’s not even occurred to a lot of people that Richard Carpenter might have had a fascinating, frustrating, tangled life.” The show is a tribute to the man in question, he says, and not one that “I would want you to go away from thinking Richard Carpenter is a laughable figure, and that it was a comedy show that basically ripped the piss out of him for cheap laughs. I have such a deep love for him, I sympathise with him, I get him.”
As the earlier part of our conversation featured the advocating of another artist, it’s fitting that Floyd Jones ends it with “a little shout out” for one more, Jessica Barker-Wren, who is bringing her one-woman show Cow (directed by Lucy Wray) to Offbeat. “This is the first outing of this play before it goes to Edinburgh [Festival Fringe],” he tells me, “and I just think that Jessica is the definition of offbeat. She’s so quirky, funny, and interesting, and weird, wacky and crazy in all the best ways – and I’m really looking forward to it.”