Tramp Steamer Tramp, full steam ahead 

NEWCASTLE musician and writer David Baker was searching last year for a setting for a cabaret-style play. And while watching a 1930s film starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, the idea came to him.

The film, China Seas, was set on a tramp steamer which is attacked by pirates while carrying gold from Hong Kong to Singapore.

The film was a huge hit when released in 1935, restoring blonde bombshell Jean Harlow’s status as a box-office attraction after a series of low-grossing movies. It was also, as Baker notes, full of clichés, stereotypes and things that stretch the imagination.

The dilapidated cargo ship’s few passengers, for example, always went to dinner wearing elegant clothes that would usually be found only in luxury magazines.

That sort of elegance will also be a feature of Baker’s work, Tramp Steamer Tramp, which premieres on February 16 at Newcastle’s The Royal Exchange performing arts venue.

The story, though, will be very different.

Baker has set it on a ship, the Shanghai Princess, trading in south-east Asian waters in 1937. The characters include a German captain, a beautiful French female passenger, an alcoholic musician and a crew member who is an expert at producing false passports.

And there are two spies on board. The Japanese have just invaded Manchuria, increasing tensions in Asia. The German captain likewise lives in the shadow of the Nazi moves against their neighbours.

The 90-minute, two-act show will be staged as a radio play-style cabaret, with the musicians and singers as the various characters. The narrative is interspersed with 20 jazz numbers that range from early 1910 jazz hits to 1930s swing.

This is David Baker’s fifth cabaret-style radio play. The first, Funny Valentine, a biography of 1930s composing team Rodgers and Hart, premiered at The Royal Exchange in 2007, and was followed by 1920s-set The Speakeasy, a tribute to the music of Fats Waller. Then came a 1940s film noir-style tale, The Medusa Kiss, with music from that era, and The Hip Gringos Guide to Rio, a look at the context of the bossa nova music of Brazilian composers in the 1950s and ’60s.

Baker was joined in writing Tramp Steamer Tramp by fellow musician Chris Gill.

The four musicians, who form The Smokin’ Chops Jazz Quartet, certainly have no idle moments during the staging of the show.

Baker (guitar and banjo) plays a passenger whose surname, Marsh, has him nicknamed Swampy. Marsh makes an in-joke reference to the fact that he has spent his life staging shows that have virtually no plot.

Gill (saxophone, clarinet and percussion) has four roles as the German captain, Indian and Japanese businessmen, and a gay man.

Marcus Holdsworth (double bass, sousaphone and trombone) is cast as Buster Brown, a long-time buddy of Swampy, and as an alcoholic musician.

Manny Serrano (trumpet and flute) is an illegal immigrant and a Spanish wireless operator who speaks little English.

The guest performer, singer Anousha Victoire, is a mysterious French woman who happens to be a spy. Baker said Victoire, like all non-English characters, has to use an atrocious accent – an irony, given her father is French and she is fluent in the language.

While Tramp Steamer Tramp is set in a 1930s radio studio, the band members and Victoire will be dressed in clothes appropriate for their characters, and background projections will be used to help set the scenes.

David Baker, as usual, has selected an amazing collection of jazz numbers, ranging from relatively well-known songs such as Dinah, It’s Only a Paper Moon, and Slow Boat to China, to less-familiar titles including Singing in the Bathtub, and Creole Love Call.

While the show is intended to give audiences a good time, Baker says they may see clear parallels to contemporary events, including the aftermath of the global financial crisis and the plight of the dispossessed who attempt to escape in leaky boats.

Audience members are invited to attend the show dressed in 1930s-style clothes.

Tramp Steamer Tramp, which is directed by Dean Winter, can be seen at The Royal Exchange, 32 Bolton Street, Newcastle, on Saturdays, February 16 and 23, and March 2, plus Friday, March 22, at 8pm. Tickets: $20. Bookings: 49294969.

ON HIGH SEAS: Anousha Victoire and Chris Gill in a scene from Tramp Steamer Tramp. Picture: Simone De Peak