The music of ME + Deboe

Folk duo ME + Deboe are well known on the Chester music scene for their lustrous vocal harmonies and their deft way with lyrics.

And now they are bringing both to Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre to create a sunny, sumptuously realised summer soundtrack for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

With the tragic love story relocated to 1950s Italy, their specially composed and arranged songs will pay atmospheric homage to the decade of ‘la dolce vita’.

This is the first time the pair – Mercy Elise and Sarah Deboe – have written music for the stage, although Halifax-raised Mercy reveals she did theatre studies, combined with music, at the University of Chester.

“One of the courses I did was composing original music for a theatre piece, and I did a one-woman show with another student,” she recalls. “I’ve never really spoken about it, but it’s something I’ve always been interested in doing, because I like writing for other people and other things.

“I was also part of a theatre school as well growing up. So, it’s always been part of my life, and the fact I can officially combine the two with someone that I work with now is brilliant.”

While Sarah wasn’t as immersed in theatre as a youngster, she admits to being a “massive fan” of soundtracks and soundscapes created for epic films like The Godfather and West Side Story, as well as the music of the 1950s and 60s.

So, when they were approached by director John Young to compose music for Romeo and Juliet, they both leapt at the chance, despite it being outside their natural comfort zone.

ME + Deboe thrive on live performance, and the acoustic songs they have written for the Grosvenor Park cast will also have the raw, immediate quality their audiences will recognise.

But how do you start to write songs for one of the world’s most famous stories?

Physically, like early Lennon and McCartney, they like to sit together in a room with their guitars and, in Mercy’s words, “develop, repeat, develop, develop, develop…”

As for creating a soundtrack for Romeo and Juliet itself.

“The core of it, obviously, is a love story that transcends decades and countries. So, I think it’s trying to modernise that, and making it as simple as we can for the cast, because they’re the ones that will interpret it,” says Sarah, who explains that the style of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and its use of music to underscore key scenes has been one background influence.

“And they’ve also got so much going on at that moment, we can’t make it complex for them.”

Mercy agrees: “The cast are also doing another two plays. We’re there thinking we need to do the music for this one, and they’re thinking my word we need to get the music and script for all three.”

“I’m genuinely excited,” adds Sarah. “But also, it’s out of our hands, whereas when we’re performing live it’s in our hands and we’ve got no one else to blame! With this it’s us handing something over and having someone else interpreting it, which can be quite nerve-wracking, but I think we’re both quite excited by it.”

Working with the cast to help them find their own unique way of performing the music has proved an invaluable and rewarding part of the whole process.

But are they not tempted to wander on stage, troubadour-like, with guitars and break into song themselves?

They both laugh.

“Never say never,” Sarah says. “We might do a one-off cameo, you never know.”

Songstress stage invasion aside, the duo – who first met on the Chester folk scene the best part of 10 years ago – are officially involved in the wider Storyhouse Outdoors programme surrounding this year’s Grosvenor Park season, performing an atmospheric acoustic set in the fairy light-illuminated tepee in August.

And if the stars align, it may not be the last time they write for the stage.

Mercy says: “As soon as John approached us we were really intrigued to do it, and it’s definitely something that we’d probably enjoy for years to come, working with different companies – but also with Storyhouse again, if they ever wanted us back!”