NICOLA LISLE talks to the stars of Nightmare Songs, a new piece coming soon to Oxford's Old Fire Station

Imagine the scene. You are the official understudy to the principal patter man of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. You rarely get the chance to perform, but then you are given a day's notice that you are 'on'. Result? Sheer panic, followed by a sleepless night that develops into a real nightmare.

This is the premise of a new music-theatre piece, Nightmare Songs, which opens shortly at the Old Fire Station in Oxford. Penned by Opera della Luna director Jeff Clarke, and starring renowned patter man Simon Butteriss, this promises to be a real treat - not just for Gilbert and Sullivan devotees, but for anyone who enjoys a good drama.

The seeds were sown a few years ago at the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton, Derbyshire, where Simon was performing A Song to Sing-O!, a one-man show based on the life of original patter man George Grossmith, written by Melvyn Morrow and performed during the 1980s by arguably the last great D'Oyly Carte patter man, John Reed.

"Simon asked me to direct the play," Jeff explained, "but we found it a little dated in the way it presented the material. Personally I have never been that interested in the life-story, one-man show that so many actors do about dead or forgotten performers. So I tried to make it more interesting as a psychological, introspective piece and presented it as a nightmare. Simon liked it and said we should start from scratch with a new idea.

"I didn't want to present anyone's life story, so I have invented a fictional character who is an understudy to the patter man in the D'Oyly Carte Company and explored various issues that his plight presents, in a wider context.

"The understudy is told as he leaves the theatre that he is on the next day as the Lord Chancellor. In the middle of the night he has a panic attack, and fears he cannot remember the Nightmare Song. I play a variety artist who is the next room, and is woken up by his panic and who tries to help. During the night a lot of his fears and phobias come to light as he examines his life and unburdens something of a mid-life crisis."

It's a crisis that is unlikely to hit Simon Butteriss, now widely acknowledged as the natural successor to John Reed. I caught up with him shortly after rehearsals for Nightmare Songs started, and found him in buoyant mood.

d=3,3,2'It's going extremely well," he enthused. "Neither of us really knew how it was going to work, and how it was actually going to lift off the page. You can read a script and think it's funny, it's moving and it's fast-paced, but when you get up on your feet and deliver it, it can be a completely different piece. We did some good work yesterday, and we were both feeling very optimistic and very excited by the end of the day."

Is this a dream role for a patter man, I wondered, or is it going to be a real nightmare trying to get through so many patter songs in one evening?

"It absolutely is a dream role. But it is daunting learning the script - learning a two-hander is an enormous amount of text. So it will be quite a feat of memory and stamina for both of us, I think.

"In a way the patter songs are the easiest bit because they're already in my memory - I hope!" he added with a laugh.

For someone who has recently been performing at the Châtelet in Paris, and who will soon be heading off to La Scala, Milan, Nightmare Songs might seem a bit of a climbdown, but Simon clearly feels this is not the case.

"It's really lovely to do," he insisted. "What every actor dreams of doing is a great role in a small, intimate theatre. That's such a luxury, because it's like the intimacy of television but better, because the audience is live."

One of Simon's previous forays into the world of television was a drama-documentary film about George Grossmith, A Salaried Wit, which he wrote and presented, as well as playing Grossmith. The film was first shown on Sky Artsworld last summer, and has since been regularly repeated. He has also ventured on to the big screen, appearing in Mike Leigh's Gilbert and Sullivan film Topsy Turvy. But he is happiest on stage, playing the roles that have earned him such widespread admiration, and is delighted that Nightmare Songs makes full use of his talents as both singer and actor.

"The patter roles are what I like doing most," he said. "So to have a play like this written about those roles is a great gift."

Ultimately, of course, the piece is a wonderful opportunity to indulge in a feast of music from the Savoy Operas. And it's not just the patter songs - so be prepared for a few surprises.

Nightmare Songs is at the Old Fire Station, Oxford, on April 17 and 18. Box office: 01865 297170. For more information about Opera della Luna, visit