Blog: Boff Whalley

Founder member of Chumbawamba, musician and writer Boff Whalley has composed new music for Red Ladder’s 50th anniversary production, Mother Courage and Her Children

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Red Ladder Theatre Company is 50 years old this year – a company that began life in 1968 by performing street theatre at the Grosvenor Square demonstration against the Vietnam War. All it had in the way of props back then was a ladder, painted red, which meant that the actors could clamber above the crowd to make themselves seen and heard.

That red ladder now stands in the corner of a huge disused warehouse in Leeds city centre, a fitting venue for the company’s downright dusty ‘n’ dirty version of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, with Pauline McLynn (Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle) in the title role.

I’ve been working with Red Ladder for almost 10 years now and for this production I was asked to write completely new music, teaming up with Beccy Owen as MD. She tarts the songs up and makes them sound better, frankly, chucking in choirs and Arabic percussion. When I visit rehearsals, there’s accordion, darbuka and sax being played by musicians hugging the warehouse’s dark edges, back where the old ladder is leaning against the bare brick wall.

I first discovered Mother Courage, and Bertolt Brecht, when I was employed in 1978 to put up staging for the play as a 17 year old in Burnley. I knew little about theatre, and even less about the politics of the play. I watched from the wings and learnt one basic thing – this stuff, it was like the punk music I was enthralled by. It was direct, political and it talked of the world we live in.

I’m not grappling with pieces of aluminium staging anymore, but all these years later I have that same sense of wonder about this play – I’ve grown up with it – and the idea that I get to compose the music that Mother Courage sings is a dream come true.

I can’t help thinking that Brecht himself might disapprove of these compositions. I don’t care. This production isn’t about honouring tradition or mimicking style; it’s about telling a timeless story – of war and migration – to a modern audience. The songs are there to invite the audience in, to be welcoming and inclusive. Basing the song’s rhythms on Arabic percussion was a way that me and Beccy thought could open up Mother Courage’s world and land it firmly in the present day.

I’m all about melody. I want musical theatre to be about memorable tunes – tunes and words that you leave the theatre humming and singing. This story of Mother Courage, a tale that translates the ongoing slaughter of war (look around, it’s still going on) into a tale of resistance and survival, is a hard story to put a tune to. But too often Brecht’s songs are typified as austere and difficult, bare and caustic, when they don’t have to be. Brecht’s lyrics here, as translated by Lee Hall, are mostly storytelling, often peppered with huge moral declarations, so I was determined to avoid that bareness and find melody in the words. It helps when the cast all have great voices, and when there’s a community choir to add power and dynamics. To end on my favourite Brecht quote:

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”

Mother Courage and Her Children runs at Albion Electic warehouse in Leeds until 20 October (

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