Worlds apart but voices in unison

Alex Wright is on his own performing Helios in New Zealand. Photo: supplied
Alex Wright is on his own performing Helios in New Zealand. Photo: supplied
Like Batman and Robin, Abbott and Costello or Tom and Jerry, Alex Wright and Phil Grainger, of Orpheus and The Gods, The Gods, The Gods have always come as a duo — until now. Wright and Grainger talk to Rebecca Fox about the decisions success forces upon you.

For the first time ever, longtime mates and co-creators Alex Wright and Phil Grainger sat in different rooms to write a show.

In fact they were in different countries — Wright in Australia and Grainger home in North Yorkshire — when they realised it was time to write another show.

Wright proposed doing a one man show re-telling the story of Helios, the sun god who drove a golden chariot daily from east to west across the sky. He wrote the script bringing the story into the modern day — a young lad growing up in a small place setting out to understand how he fits in — and sent it to Grainger to write the music.

"It’s a journey of discovery of self and in relation to where you are, where you grow up, in surroundings both physical and social," Grainger says.

He read the story, doing his best impersonation of Wright, and began to compose.

"Obviously, I’m a big fan of Alex’s words and as I read them I was feeling awful lot, understanding what he was feeling and imagining the places he was talking about.

"It immediately felt quite cinematic, maybe because a lot of the images, of driving a car down a lane or a teenage party, are images that feel cinematic to me — you could picture them. So I decided to write a score rather than a series of songs."

Grainger decided to create the score completely digitally on his laptop rather than on any live or acoustic instruments as he has done in the past.

"Sometimes you can hear that, other times you can’t. That’s how impressive digital technology is these days."

He hopes his feelings come across in the score and nudges the audience towards the feelings the pair hope they feel during the show.

"I don’t think it could have worked better. I’m not suggesting that in future we don’t write in the same room, but this was a surreptitious thing. That worked out as well as it could have this time."

Alex Wright (left) and Phil Grainger perform Orpheus in Dunedin in 2019. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Alex Wright (left) and Phil Grainger perform Orpheus in Dunedin in 2019. Photo: Gregor Richardson
It turns out they will be performing the shows separately as well. Wright is touring Helios around New Zealand, while Grainger is doing the same in the United Kingdom.

Taking on the main performance role usually held by Wright is something Grainger is both excited and nervous about.

"I’ve never been much of an actor. I’ve performed a lot but never had to take on a character. Thankfully, these shows don’t do being a character. They’re about being yourself and telling a story, so that makes me feel OK about it."

It does mean he will have to "chill my heart out a bit" to refrain from crying too much as he does when Alex performs the show.

"I do cry an awful lot when Alex does it ... I need to get a bit more unfeeling."

He thinks the emotional punch the show has for him comes from writing the score while experiencing the "emotionally deep" moments in the show.

"When I hear what I wrote for the show the feelings come back to me in a really big way. I don’t know if that will increase or decrease when I say the words. I suppose I’ll soon find out."

Grainger is confident he can make people feel at home with the story.

"Alex is a very good talker and I’m a very good singer but there’s not any of that in this one so I just have to channel Alex. I have 10 days to figure out how Alex does what he does, because I’ll be telling the story with my own music backing me, and find out how Alex does it in a good, timely fashion conveying such incredible things.

"It’s all right because we’ve got a three-hour rehearsal tomorrow, so that’ll do the business."

Having to go their separate ways for a time is the result of the pair’s success — Orpheus won Best in Fringe, Dunedin Fringe 2019), Eurydice Best Theatre, Adelaide Fringe 2020 and The Gods, The Gods, The Gods Critics Circle Award, Adelaide Fringe 2023 and Helios winner Lustrum Award, Edinburgh Fringe 2023 — and their dislike of saying no.

When an opportunity for their Great Gatsby production to be staged in New York came up, Wright headed there to direct it while Grainger headed back to the United Kingdom to carry on a tour of The Gods, The Gods, The Gods which they brought to Otago last year.

Photo: supplied
Photo: supplied
They met back up in Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival to premiere Helios, keen to put The Gods on the backburner for a while. Meeting another producer convinced them otherwise so they decided to keep the big show on the road as well as the smaller Helios.

"The smaller show is easier to tour in a campervan around whatever country we are in but we don’t want to give up the larger-scale show either."

Aware that it would be easy to scale up what they do, they do not want it to be at the sacrifice of the little shows in the shop fronts and village halls which is what got them together in the first place.

"That is such a big part of who Alex and I are and what we want to be doing, so we’re going to keep that up."

To help them do that, they are training an Australian actor/musician to be able to do Helios, which gives them another option when someone in Australia requests the show.

"It’s a lot easier than us coming from UK. It is the first time we are getting ahead of that game and teaching it, so we are all able to do the show separately when we have to."

It also gives Wright the opportunity to return to New Zealand, something he is always keen to do, even if it is on his own.

"I spend most of my time trying to bend all the touring so I can get back to New Zealand — that is my main aim. If I can drive around New Zealand for three and a-half weeks I don’t care who I’m not travelling with," Wright said.

Although he does admit it will be slightly "peculiar" not to have the presence of Grainger with him on tour.

"Of all places to land on my own, your two outstanding sets of islands is the best of them."

To see

Helios, Lake Wanaka Centre, April 6, 6:30pm and 8:30pm; New Athenaeum Theatre, Dunedin, April 9, 7:30pm; Settler Theatre, Oamaru, April 10, 7:30pm.