Thursday, February 29

Musical director Harry Blake talks about Say Yes to Tess at Leeds Playhouse

One of the first-time candidates in the 2017 general election was Tess Seddon who stood for the Yorkshire Party in Leeds North East.

Not surprisingly given it is a safe Labour safe this political novice didn’t win with her 303 votes, but she has now turned her experiences as a candidate into a musical comedy, Say Yes to Tess.

Unexpectedly thrust into the political maelstrom Tess takes her newly formed party’s passion for Yorkshire devolution to the streets, but with the election day looming her play follows the candidate as she starts to question whether she’s doing the right thing.

Our Yorkshire Editor Paul Clarke caught up with the show’s musical director Harry Blake to find out more about a show that attempts to make politics fun, and maybe just a bit more accessible.

Tell me what this new musical is all about?

It is the true story of Tess Seddon, who is the writer, co-director and playing herself, when she stood in the 2017 general election as the candidate for the Yorkshire Party.

So how did she end up as a candidate in such a bitterly fought general election?

She literally contacted the Yorkshire Party as research for writing a play, and then as that process evolved, she got to know more about them, and they persuaded her to stand. She understood their cause, which was to fight for an independent Yorkshire parliament, and Tess became swept up in the case for stronger regional devolution.

Photo: Zoe Martin

And does her political career develop?

We are telling her journey from meeting the Yorkshire Party for the first time through to election night. It’s really about her struggle with trying to be an agent for change in a broken system, and the price that you have to pay when you’re stuck on this very combative two-party political system. If you can remember back in 2017 it was Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit, which all feels a long time ago.

A lot of people are turned off by politics so why should they come along to this show?

It’s about how we can be better represented, represent ourselves and how we can find agency and power in this modern world. It’s very funny, it’s got a lot of heart to it and I guess the reason why Tess wanted to use this genre and approached me to work on it as a musical, is that she wanted that popular appeal of a musical.

What sort of musical is this?

We’ve gone all out on the musical numbers, so we’ve got disco, we’ve got a big Broadway show tune, we’ve got power ballads, acapella, we’ve got we’ve got it all. We’ve got a choreographer coming in to do some fabulous dancing. it’ll be bright, bold and powerful, as well as having that truthful heart.

Were you tempted to write the sort of big political anthems that some countries have composed for the downtrodden masses to sing?

There is a rousing Yorkshire anthem number called Listen, which has a sort of Land of Hope and Glory element. But the emphasis is rather than being about nostalgia and jingoism, it’s about listening to one another instead of using some of those tools that might have been misappropriated in the past.

One of your other challenges is working with a central character who is a self-professed ‘talentless’ singer.

That is accurate. Speaking as someone who has been in shows themselves, and is also not a great singer, I felt I was very well placed. Because this is a show about self-expression, we’ve used the idea of Tess finding her voice, finding her singing.

And how do you pull that trick off?

A lot of musical numbers happen around her, certainly at the beginning, and then as she becomes swept up in the show and the sort of excitement of feeling like you can actually make a positive change, she begins to tap her foot and sings. I won’t ruin the surprise.

Like so many shows impacted by the pandemic this one has been a long, long time coming.

We were ready to go in 2020, we got to the last week of rehearsals when lockdown happened, and we were rightly all send back on the train so that was obviously very sad, but understandable.  I’ve added a couple of songs, and I’ve tweaked some lyrics, so Sue Gray and her report are in there.

What do you hope people will take away from Say Yes to Tess?

I hope they will feel a sense of empowerment to make changes to the world around them, and a better understanding of one another.

Say Yes to Tess opens at Leeds Playhouse from Thursday 24th March – Saturday 2nd April 2022 and Camden People’s Theatre from Tuesday 5th – Saturday 16th April 2022.–A-New-Musical