Roger Marsh Composer

Dumb Show

Vic Hoyland’s Dumb Show made a huge impression on me when I saw one of the premiere performances, by ‘Vocem’, at the Warwick Arts Centre in 1984.   In 1989 Anna Myatt and I decided to attempt the work and, with Brendan Renwick (percussion), we spent several months learning it.  The obstacles to performance in this piece are extreme.  The score demands the memorisation of precisely notated vocal sound (fragmented Anglo-Saxon) together with precisely notated rhythmic movements around a prescribed grid, all synchronised with a complicated percussion (drum kit) part. A further challenge is presented by the need to lay down the floor grid – two giant chessboards side by side – with masking tape stuck to the floor. This is necessary not just in performance, but for rehearsal too.  We left the outline of two giant chess boards on quite a few polished floors, including the main seminar space in the music department at York, where we did our first months of rehearsal.  The cork floor in room E106 bore the mark of our project for about a year afterwards, before it was re-polished.

It was worth the effort. We performed the piece at York, and subsequently in Midland Music Theatre (MMT) programmes around the country. It remains, to my mind, the most original and uplifting piece of music-theatre of the period.  Andrew Clements, writing in the Musical Times, agrees with me:

Of all Hoyland’s work so far Dumb – Show shows the least indebtedness to external models. That may seem like meagre praise, but in the overheated and much-imitated music of recent music- theatre it is a considerable achievement; pieces that are truly sui generis are rare indeed, Kagel is perhaps the progenitor at one remove, and Hoyland acknowledges that working on a staging of Pas de cinq with Northern Music Theatre helped him to develop the gestural vocabulary of Dumb – Show. Yet the final conception seems utterly seamless, at once touching, intriguing and extremely funny. (‘A Report on Progress’; The Musical Times, August 1987).




Pages 1-3 of the score and plan for female movement around the grid (click to enlarge). The male and female parts are notated on 2 staves. One is for the voice, the other shows movement of the feet (bottom line) and the stick/parasol (top line). Indications ‘F1, G1, E3 etc’ refer to the square arrived at on the grid (A-H; 1-8).  Other indications detail use of the hat, facial expressions etc. The derivation of this notation from Kagel (Pas de Cinq) is obvious. Later head movements are also indicated in a notation reminiscent of Orton’s Mug Grunt.



Dress rehearsal images from 1989 performance in York.  Anna Myatt, Roger Marsh, Brendan Renwick (percussion).




Vic’s programme note.