Words by:

Bringing her uncompromising vision to a Dickens stage adaptation, PJ Harvey’s London Tide score captures the period play’s eerie atmosphere and elemental themes. Reflecting on their collaboration, Musical Director Ian Ross discusses her tenacity and integrity in subverting musical theatre’s well-established forms.

Set in the smoggy haze of 19th century London, a new National Theatre production explores life along the River Thames. Backed by a specially created score from PJ Harvey, London Tide adapts Charles Dickens’s final novel, Our Mutual Friend, telling the stories of two young women as they navigate life in the Victorian-era British capital city following the disappearance and apparent death of protagonist John Harmon.

It’s a striking noir that explores class, poverty, family and gender roles 200 years ago, but also themes that hold poignancy in today’s landscape. Harvey’s 13 raw songs (co-written with Ben Power, who adapted the play script) provide a fitting soundtrack, while also forming an eerie counterpoint to the typically dynamic and expressive tracks of musical theatre. Along with pared-back set design that adds to the melancholic, creepy atmosphere, the music provides a dark view of the British capital – from the rousing, lo-fi anti-ballad of Eugene Alone to highlight closer Homecoming.

With London Tide running at the National Theatre until 22 June, we caught up with the production’s Musical Director, Co-Vocal Arranger and Musician Ian Ross to chat about working with Harvey and the process of bringing her music to the stage.

How did PJ Harvey come to be involved in the music?

PJ Harvey and director Ian Rickson go way back as he’s a long-time fan and also has directed [many] of her live shows.

Why was she the right artist to bring London Tide to life?

Because theatre needs shaking up! In one of the workshops early on, PJ said to me: “If we think we’ve got the right answer, then we’re probably wrong.” She has a fierce tenacity with her ideas and integrity with her feelings which means she’s willing to make mistakes to honour them. To have her next to Dickens, who is such an institution, was inspired. 

Musically, London Tide is unmistakably PJ Harvey. She has a rare quality of timelessness, and when she sings it’s impossible to imagine where her voice comes from. It’s from the earth and the stars, from the past and the future. That’s how London Tide feels to me.

What was the creative process of working with her like?

She’s playful and serious. Sometimes unmovable, but always kind. It was an absolute privilege and quite exhausting!

How different is working on something like this ­– essentially a score, compared to say, an EP or an album?

I think PJ wanted the songs to stand alone in the play, and this has really held its own now we’ve recorded it. As a collection of songs it is really cohesive, and I think we’ve honoured that in a theatrical setting. It’s another bold, and rarely sighted choice on stage.

Can you explain how the music explores the themes that feature in the play, such as poverty and class?

We paid a lot of attention to choosing sounds. The Prophet synth we use was chosen because it sits in a world between analogue and digital. It manages, in my opinion, to represent the elemental themes in the play – fire, water, dust and smoke – in a timeless way, like how PJ Harvey’s and Ben Power’s lyrics poetically reflect the Dickensian themes, almost from a distance.

And how about capturing the energy of London in the 19th century?

We wanted the music to reflect the movement of the river, the moments of light through the smoke and the breaths between submergence. The songs come through that like the inner life of the characters, distinct from the scenes and looking at London from above.

What about bringing it to life during performances in the theatre? What’s the process been like there?

PJ was certain about who she wanted to sing. In her original notes, she wrote: “Not trained voices, lots of character. We don’t want over singing or ‘too confident’ acrobatic/ technique driven singing.” This meant we were asking a lot of the actors, some of whom were inexperienced with singing at all, let alone onstage. It created an environment of bravery and care and, I think, a wonderfully human musical experience that is unseen in theatre at this level. 

How was set design influenced by the music, and vice versa?

The set is sparse, dark, tonal and undulating. There’s some incredible automation on the lights and stage which are groundbreaking. I think there was a pioneering spirit in the air when we made this, and for me personally that came from PJ Harvey and her music.

London Tide is at the Lyttelton, National Theatre until 22 June.