Clarke Peters may be known for his roles in police drama The Wire and tear-jerking blockbuster Marley and Me, but in theatreland, he’s probably best known for penning the hit Louis Jordan musical Five Guys Named Moe, which is set to make a triumphant return to London this summer.
Five Guys Named Moe centres on Nomax, who's down on his luck after his girlfriend leaves him, but finds comfort in the smooth voices being transmitted by his radio at 5am. They are Big Moe, Four-Eyed Moe, Eat Moe, Know Moe, and Little Moe who serenade him with some of Jordan’s most recognisable, soulful tunes: "Is You Is or Is You Ain't Ma' Baby", “Choo, Choo, Ch’boogie” and “Saturday Night Fish Fry” to name a few.
The show started life at the Cottesloe Theatre in 1988 at the National, where Peters was performing in the UK premiere of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and asked if he could use the space. On the third and final night of the exclusive run, there was a queue that stretched around the building following the buzz the show had created. Confident the show had a life, Peters found a creative team and mounted a production at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. The rest was history, as the musical transferred to the Lyric Theatre in the West End where it ran for four years and won the Olivier Award for Best Entertainment. It has since enjoyed runs in New York, Edinburgh, with Peters playing Nomax himself. But this time around, there is more than just the musical itself to be excited about.
"When I got the call to say we’re going to put this on in Marble Arch", Peters recalled, "I said 'but there’s no theatre in Marble Arch', and they told me, 'we’re going to build a theatre'. Can you imagine how that feels?"
This new production will be shown in a brand new, pop-up venue where the show musical be performed in-the-round in a 1940s New Orleans jazz bar, complete with live band and cocktail bar for pre and post-show drinks. The prospect of performing in the round is one that may put off some performers, but it’s something this cast have taken in their stride. "Sometimes you get chastised for having your back to the audience", said Dex Lee who will be playing Know Moe, "but in the round, someone somewhere is going to see your back. We call it back-ting."
It keeps the cast on their toes, too, which is important during a high-energy show like this. "It does keep you really alert at points where sometimes your concentration can drop", said Edward Baruwa who plays Nomax. "You can’t let that happen because you’re so aware of everything around you."
Louis Jordan paved the way for rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s. Peters describes him as a precursor to the likes of Elvis Presley, James Brown and Chuck Berry, but while this musical isn’t a biographical tale of the singer’s life, Peters promises “that when you leave this show, you will know who Louis Jordan was”.
"We move forward from Louis Jordan’s time when those songs really resonated with young men and they made our grandparents and great-grandparents the way they were. But now we’re taking those songs and we’re flipping them on their heads."
That’s just one part of what will make this new production fresh and timely. The new takes on the songs, new direction (by Peters) and choreography by Andrew Wright (Half a Sixpence), the brand new theatre space to explore. It’s set up to be an ambitious piece of theatre, as well as one hell of a night out.