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Interview: Run For Your Lives, The Aliens Are Coming

CUMTS tell us all about Invasion! An Alien Musical

Sci-fi and musicals is a combination that we don’t see too often on the stage, so we certainly had to take a second look when the press release for Invasion! An Alien Musical dropped into our inbox.

Invasion! is the latest show from Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society, and if that name sounds familiar, it’s because that was also the starting place for Six.

So we thought we’d grab a little time with Jon Powell and Jasper Robin (the writing/ directing team) and composer Lily Blundell to find out just what to expect when the show lands at Camden People’s Theatre from 31 July as part of this year’s Camden Fringe.

What can you tell us about Invasion! An Alien Musical?

Jasper: INVASION! is an action-packed adventure about family, nostalgia, and alien toys set in Lotus Land, Britain’s most magical theme park!

Jon: Essentially the three of us set out to make a musical marrying blockbuster storytelling, heartfelt drama, and family-friendly appeal.

Jasper: We think when you have strong characters, a clear message, and you boil down your genre material into practically achievable story elements, you can achieve the impossible: bringing audiences into an epic new musical world in a black-box theatre.

Lily: We hope.

Aliens and musicals aren’t a common combination, what inspired you to pair the two up?

Jasper: We’re genre geeks, so an alien invasion musical genuinely didn’t seem like an odd choice! Sci-fi has always been used to tell resonant, contemporary stories – in our case, exploring modern nostalgia culture and social class with human relationships at the heart.

Jon: That’s what sci-fi does best, you only need to look at films like Back to the Future to see that it’s really just about a boy meeting and understanding his parents for the first time. The time travel stuff just makes it fun! In our case the heart of the show is a boy and his step-dad trying to understand each other after a tragedy, but in the context of an alien invasion!

Lily: Being a musical also elevates the story to a new level where an audience can suspend their disbelief further than they otherwise would, and really immerse themselves in .

Can we assume you’re big sci-fi fans then? Have you slipped in a few nods to your favourite shows in the script?

Jon: Well we were born and raised on Doctor Who. But we’ve drawn inspiration from I think quite unexpected places, like Finding Nemo and Toy Story 2. In that way INVASION! evokes the emotional honesty of classic adventure stories while being told in a distinctly modern way.

Jasper: Yeah we’re crucially trying to work against the very odd thing that’s happened to blockbuster storytelling in the 21st Century, in that ironic detachment has become the new normal and emotional sincerity has gone in the bin.

Lily: So it’s not just another self-referential sci-fi spoof, we’ve always been keen for INVASION! to stand on its own two feet. Even with the music, the temptation is to go down the route of a Stranger Things inspired 80s synth score and lean into the sci-fi stereotype but that didn’t feel right for this show because at its core, it a story about family and memory, so from a musical perspective, that’s where the foundations must lie. I think that’s why scores like Finding Nemo work so well – the music focuses us on those interpersonal relationships and steers us away from genre tropes.

And will we be seeing any singing little green men?

Lily: You’ll have to buy a ticket to find out.

Jasper: Spoilers.

What’s the writing process like, do you write together, or is one given the words and another the music?

Jasper: Jon and I wrote the book and lyrics together over about six months, constantly communicating alongside work and degrees as we wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

Jon: I routinely come home from work to spend another full working day with Jasper writing the thing, I dread to think how many hours we’ve racked up over the last six months.

Jasper: We’re massive perfectionists and care about quality, for our own sake but also because that’s what paying audiences deserve. That requires putting the hours in to make the best possible show.

Lily: Jon and Jasper are truly obsessive in their work – I feel like they’ve been living in the magical Lotus Land theme park they’ve dreamt up! But once they’ve nailed down a song’s lyrics that’s where I come in, trying to turn one large jumble of lyrics and ideas into something resembling a musical.

How are you planning to bring sci-fi to the Camden Fringe stage, is it going to be lots of flashing lights and beeping noises, or do you have real flying saucers planned?

Jon: We’ve sent a beacon into space, hoping for a response any day now.

Jasper: Failing that, we’re leaning heavily on light and sound: we’ve got video projections, original soundscapes, comprehensive lighting set-ups – and, of course, flashing lights and beeping noises!

Lily: I’ll also be there playing live on the piano as the cast box-step around me. However, it won’t just sound like lonely old me – through the magic of technology it should sound like a pretty explosive score!

Jon: But absolutely key to making this show work is our amazing alien toys, made as hand puppets by our production designer, Niamh Howat. Even high budget alien costumes so often look awful, whereas puppets have a certain something that help people suspend their disbelief. Plus, toys and the idea of being a toy – a plaything for people in power – has become an emotional cornerstone of the show.

CUMTS has a remarkable record in turning out great musicals, is there something special in the water around Cambridge?

Jon: There’s a lot of limescale in it, is that special?

Jasper: Trolleys, sewage, God knows what else. Cambridge has historically been a bit of an entertainment talent factory, but the main reason for this is because theatrical opportunities are institutionalised. There’s a university-owned theatre and half-a-dozen college theatres all constantly programming shows, which purely statistically increases the chances of great shows getting made and hard work paying off. It’s a very, very unique – and bizarre – ecosystem that we’re lucky to have taken part in, and we hope our hard work will show in INVASION!

Lily: I think you also meet such a diverse range of talented, imaginative, and usually slightly bonkers people (the first two definitely apply to our writers, the third, who knows…) that you inevitably start forming those creative relationships that usually result in projects or ideas – anything to procrastinate on your degree!

Six is very obviously the one everyone remembers, does that create extra pressure for those that are now tasked with making the next show?

Jon: I think Invasion! is so incredibly different in every way to SiX that I’m not too daunted by the comparison (he says with his fingers crossed behind his back).

Jasper: Yeah, INVASION! is very different: musically, narratively, all that jazz. There’s pressure, but there’s always pressure to tell great stories.

Lily: And I think it’s encouraging to think that Six started very much the same way we are – a group of students doing a small-scale show out of love and excitement for theatre. Anything is possible!

Camden Fringe is a great place to try out new work, so is this just the start of the Invasion story?

Jon: We hope so! We’ve certainly put too much work in just to end it here. I really hope the story will resonate with people and they’ll see it as more than just another sci-fi romp!

Jasper: Fingers crossed! Before this, I’d never written a musical, but I’ve absolutely loved working in the medium and telling this story. If audiences like it, then we’ll be back.

Lily: If people leave with an annoying little earworm to accompany them home, that’ll be a success to me.

Our thanks to Jon, Jasper and Lily for taking time out of rehearsals to chat about the show.

Invasion! An Alien Musical plays as part of Camden Fringe at Camden People’s Theatre from 31 July to 3 August, 9pm each evening. Further information and tickets here.

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