Such a description isn’t a reflection of any adherence to associations with the Medway “sound”, “scene” or “delta”. As readers (yes, there’s a shameless plug coming) of my book will tell you, I’m not entirely convinced a Medway sound, scene or delta ever really existed. Instead, this is more a question of geography. From the band’s names to the lyrics Oliver Burgess sings, Theatre Royal are full of Medway.
The band got their name from the crumbling entertainment venue of the same name in Chatham which finally fell victim to the bulldozers (only the front remains) in 2009. The demise of the playhouse coincided with the decline and fall of the Medway band, The Long Weekend, who had once competed for the attention of record labels with the likes of Hard Fi.
Having performed songs alongside Lupen Crook and Billy Childish in a guerrilla video filmed in Chatham’s Theatre Royal shortly before the demolition took place, Burgess was struck by the parallel between the final curtain of the venue and The Long Weekend. And so, Theatre Royal, the band, featuring Burgess alongside ex-Long Weekenders Robbie Wilkinson and Jon Gibbs and non-Weekender, Brendan Esmonde, was born.
While the band’s debut LP, From Rubble Rises (2010), was an introspective affair, meditating in veiled terms on what had gone wrong with the old band, Theatre Royal’s music has since moved away from what could have been described as a period of mourning and blossomed.
By the time we get to their latest EP, You Sleep, there are still elements of self-doubt and uncertainty for the future (it wouldn’t be a Theatre Royal record without such characteristics) but there are more patches of sunlight than found on earlier outings from the band. The four track offering provides a buckling down of their styling as a jangly, indie pop band with varying degrees of light and shade and depth of texture.
The title tune is a damning indictment of someone completely lacking in self-awareness. While “you sleep: that’s all you do”, our doom merchant narrators point out how “we will see those walls fall down – falling down on you”. It’s a short, snappy tune, whose bright riffs and radio friendly melody provides an intriguing contrast with the dark message beneath.
It’s a formula which reappears on ‘Until the Morning After (Riley’s Basement)’, whose title provides an acknowledgment to the owner of Ranscombe Studios, Jim Riley, where the EP was recorded. It’s a song which appeared in an acoustic form on the band’s third album, We Don’t Know Where We Are. Here, plugged in and raring to go, ‘Until…’ opens with a guitar introduction that recalls Jake Bugg’s ‘Lightning Bolt’ before moving to reference Creedance Clearwater Revival’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’. But amidst all the jaunty guitar work, there’s sorrow aplenty as Burgess sings of being left behind:
I should have seen it from the start
That you would have a change of heart
Still I waited till the morning after.
By contrast, there’s a fair bit of optimism in ‘The Days Go Hotter’ (an appropriate thing to be listening to when we’re already in the hottest July on record). “I’ve got thoughts of the future and I hope that I never learn” runs the chorus of the cheery pop of the EP’s second song. There’s no bleakness or undercurrent of lingering misery here – just a wilful naivety that makes the song a perfect summer tune.
‘The Days Go Hotter’ is a typical of the sort of song that makes Theatre Royal the Medway band referred to in the introduction. You can go far through a Theatre Royal record without hearing a reference to the river. During a chat with Oliver Burgess in the What the Dick Inns (geddit!) pub in Rochester, the vocalist once explained how:
‘I really love the sea. I really love rivers. Big powerful things that go out to nowhere. I think it’s quite mesmerising…The river’s a thing that’s always in your head. I think about it all the time… When you’re walking past of load of shit buildings, you look at the river. And it’s not shit.
‘When we realised how many songs we had [about rivers], we said: “Let’s push this further. Let’s do more.” It’s kind of just natural and partly it’s informed by the other songs to make it quite thematic.’
In amongst the lyrics about hoping they’ll never learn and people having a change of heart, there are references aplenty to the sea and waves. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the EP’s closer, ‘Blue Teardrops’. It’s a stripped back affair with a detuned piano playing soft, rhythmic chords beneath Burgess’ heart-on-sleeve vocals
I feel like my life is like a teardrop,
falling to the ground inexorably,
washed out by the river to the ocean,
never to find its own peace.
It’s a beautifully subdued ending to a short collection of self-assured in its own self-doubt, far from scared to admit -in the most beautifully fragile of ways – that not everyone knows all the answers. And maybe that’s ok.
You can find out more about Theatre Royal and The Long Weekend (along with plenty of other bands and artists) in my book, Do It Yourself: a History of Music in Medway, available now.