The QT

Wednesday 19 June 2024

Frognal & Fox —  harmony out of disharmony

Can hits by Porter, Gershwin and others patch up deep-seated differences? David Whetstone hears about Fiona Ellis’s new musical show
Zoe Lambert and Jane Holman as Frognal & Fox

You might envy the Northumberland neighbours of Fiona Ellis and Cinzia Hardy, writer and director respectively of a new touring show called Frognal & Fox  A Life in Song.

Before getting to grips with the script, actors Jane Holman and Zoe Lambert had to learn the songs promised in the title.

“We’ve had the rehearsals here in our house with the windows open and the neighbours are all delighted,” says Fiona.

“No complaints at all.”

This augurs well for a show which premieres at Alnwick Playhouse on May 30 and 31 at the start of a regional summer tour of 19 theatres, village halls and community centres, including Queen’s Hall, Hexham (June 5-6), Gosforth Civic Theatre (June 6), The Exchange 1856 (June 12) Bishop Auckland Town Hall (June 13) and winding up at Newcastle’s Prohibition Cabaret Bar on June 28.

It’s best described, perhaps, as a show within a show.

“I really wouldn’t call it a play,” says Fiona.

“It’s a kind of musical revue. It comes out of the music. My task was to pick from among the numerous songs that we love the ones that I could knit together in a very loose storyline.

“We couldn’t just have two actors singing lots of songs. There has to be a bit of plot to drive it along so there’s a little bit of tension in the show that has to be resolved.”

Out of the original idea, and with the input of the actors, has emerged the double act whose on-stage harmonising can’t quite mask the fact that it comprises two inharmonious characters.

“One is pretty stable,” says Fiona, “while the other one is a little bit crazy and inclined to go off piste. That creates a kind of tension between them.”

Zoe Lambert and Jane Holman with Declan Flannery at piano

Zoe Lambert plays the “little bit crazy” Adele Fox, aka ‘Foxy’, and Jane Holman is the rather more grounded Margaret Frognal, aka ‘Froggy’.

There’s no question that the actors can sing. Holman and Lambert have performed many musical roles on stage and also sung in bands. They know exactly where their fictional alter egos are coming from.

Of the characters they play, Fiona explains: “They’ve built their careers together.

“They met a long time ago doing amateur productions and have known each other for a really long time but their lives have taken them in different directions because that’s life in the theatre. 

“The idea is that there’s a show and they’re touring it around village halls but there’s this unresolved friction which, in a sense, is both off and on stage.

“They’ve both been musical theatre performers and I think it becomes clear quite quickly that they didn’t have quite the careers they’d hoped for —  but they’re doing their show and they’re troupers.”

The show has been a labour of love.

Fiona Ellis, the writer of Frognal & Fox

Fiona says it has been simmering for a long time in her mind and that of partner Cinzia who founded theatre company November Club and is now a freelance director.

For Fiona, the love of the music goes back to childhood.

“When I was growing up in Belfast there was one night of the week when, quite late at night, there would be an American musical on television and I was allowed to stay up for it.

“I’d then sing those songs all week until the next one.

“They’re songs by Cole Porter and George Gershwin. Then, later than my childhood of course, came Stephen Sondheim who is just, in my view, the best of the best.

“I completely love Sondheim songs.”

It had been difficult to choose which of her favourites to include and which to leave out, although they had to fit the narrative.

Jane Holman, Zoe Lambert and Declan Flannery

“It’s not like Mamma Mia! or anything like that. The songs don’t carry the narrative like ABBA’s did but they did have to fit into the story so that meant there were some we loved that we couldn’t put in.

“Also you’re limited to the number of songs by any particular composer that you’re allowed to put into a show.

“It’s quite tricky. You have to seek permission and fill in forms. I would have had the whole thing by Sondheim but you can’t do that.

“Also, of course, you’ve got to think of what’s the appropriate register for the actors to sing in.”

At this point, enter “brilliant” musical director Declan Flannery who has no character name in the show —  “We never got round to giving him one,” confesses Fiona —  but is the on-stage accompanist to Frognal & Fox on their village hall tour.

Not that Fiona or Cinzia knew that Newcastle-based Declan was brilliant when they first met him, nor indeed had ever heard of him.

“He’s a classical pianist but he loves jazz and this repertoire,” says Fiona.

“We were looking for a musical director and were struggling to find one. Then Jane was having a chat with her gardener and he said, ‘Oh, I know a bloke who’s really good’.

“At this point we’d seen a few people and some of them were good but not quite right. We thought we had nothing to lose so decided to see him.

“It became immediately clear that he could work with the actors and that they’d respect each other. Although he is half our ages he just blends in really well.”

Moral of the story —  always listen to the gardener. They know stuff!

Zoe Lambert and Jane Holman in rehearsals for Frognal & Fox

Asked for her favourite songs from the show — perhaps setting Sondheim aside —  Fiona says she’s fond of the love song Bill, from the musical Show Boat (by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern), which Jane Holman gets to sing as ‘Froggy’.

And also, from Zoe Lambert’s ‘Foxy’, there’s the Gershwin number, Someone to Watch Over Me, the music of which Fiona used once before in a show performed at Wallington.

Frognal & Fox – A Life in Song is presented by Cinzia Hardy in association with CaroleW Productions.

For the full list of performance dates and venues in the North East and Cumbria, and for more about the show, go to the website of CaroleW Productions,


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