Bob Carlton (1950-2018) was artistic director of Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch for about seventeen years – whenever I happen to attend one of their shows, he’s usually spoken of with fondness and reverence by people who have been going to Queen’s for long enough. I even recall speaking to a guest who said he and his wife had been coming to shows at Queen’s for decades. “Oh, did you know Bob?” I casually asked. “Who’s Bob?” came the reply, in all seriousness, and I immediately and instinctively knew the guy wasn’t exactly being truthful about the length of his patronage. To this day, Carlton’s legacy of staging actor-musician productions lives on, with their 2022 season including the likes of Kinky Boots and the pantomime Sleeping Beauty.
Callum Hughes had been a part of Carlton’s actor-musician ensemble, and it was interesting (at least to me) to hear what it was really like to work for the great man. Terrified of putting a foot wrong or dropping a line, even in rehearsals, Hughes knew what Carlton expected, and dreaded the day if and when, however marginally, he might miss the mark. He appreciated being in work, of course, but he would turn to alcohol to calm his nerves. Being healthy and in his twenties, his social drinking habits were hardly a cause for concern – he turned up on time, wasn’t moody or churlish with colleagues, and maintained his usual standards of professionalism in the workplace.
Eventually, a health scare landed Hughes in hospital – and, like all good autobiographical single-performer shows, what keeps the story going is the unique and minute details. In telling his story, Hughes likes to get the audience involved. I hasten to add that audience involvement is not the same as audience participation: nobody had to get up on stage. A question is asked, such as whether the audience knew about a particular topic, which would then form the basis for how much background detail was required to tell a story.
It’s a broad narrative, and far from being all about booze addiction and recovery, there are plenty of anecdotes about his childhood years and how, to the best of his knowledge, he ended up being a performer and musician. There were recollections of adulthood experiences, too, such as a star-studded New Year’s party hosted by Sir Trevor Nunn, during which he came face to face with his childhood crush (too much of a spoiler to say who it was). The audience is either treated or subjected to a contemporary Christian melody – something about someone’s name, presumably God’s, being blessed (for whatever reason, it was pronounced ‘bless-edd’). I can imagine what it was like for Hughes to attend ‘Easter People’, apparently an evangelical version of the Glastonbury Festival, at a time in his life when he practised religion. Guitars and alleluias – rather him than me.
It’s a very stagey story in some respects but without a hint of pretentiousness, and there’s a good combination in this show of laughter and reflectiveness. Hughes quickly establishes a decent rapport with the audience, which doesn’t let up throughout this steadily paced and charming performance.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Jimi Hendrix. Kurt Cobain. Amy Winehouse. All sadly members of the infamous 27 Club. In July 2018, two months shy of his 28th birthday, Callum Hughes was nearly added to that list.
Join the acclaimed writer and performer as he takes you on a journey from a small Oxfordshire town to the bright lights of the Big Smoke as he attempts to discover who he is without looking through the bottom of the bottle.
Featuring music original and familiar, Thirst is both a love letter to sobriety and a celebration of all things alcoholic.
This debut solo show from actor and writer Callum Hughes (One Man Two Guvnors, Godspell) charts the true story of his journey through addiction, recovery, sobriety and ultimately… acceptance.
Thirst is also a joyous and uproarious look at life, family, theatre, religion and most importantly, the positivity of the pub.
So pull up a barstool, order Callum a 0% lager and listen to his incredible story…