Following a passing remark in my last blog that Wolf Hall was my 150th production some folk have very politely inquired what have been the highlights over the years. Naturally this set me thinking; could I pick out just 10% of the shows in which I have participated over the decades? A tricky task but here are my fifteen most memorable productions. Please note that memorable is not a synonym for best (though the two are often interlinked); rather some aspect or other made them unforgettable in some way. I also decided that rather than do a ranked countdown (somewhat of an impossible task) it would be better to work through them chronologically.
(NB: I have not included my very first foray into the world of am dram – a farce called Caught Napping – but have already written about it previously. If you want the grisly details click here)
Production 26: Table Manners by Alan Ayckbourn (1981)
Ayckbourn looms large on this list – and quite right too – and Norman is one of his greatest creations. I’ve actually played him twice – a very rare revisit to an old favourite. This first time, as listed, I was probably too young and when I did it again in 2002 (Production 104) I was certainly too old. However, in both instances the sheer joy of saying the text out loud and playing such an exuberant comic role outweighed any misgivings I might have had. Alas I have never got to appear in the other two parts of The Norman Conquest trilogy and now it is definitely far too late…though I do harbour a desire to direct all three in rep.
Production 50: The Rivals by Richard Sheridan (1986)
It took me an age to be involved in my first period/costume piece but this is the one where it finally happened. I played the uncouth (typecasting?) Bob Acres and enjoyed myself no end when it came to the language. It was also the first time I had to undertake a formal dance onstage. Being born with two left feet this was not a particularly great experience. Indeed it became rather a bête noir which it took me some thirty years to shake off.
Production 61: Noises Off by Michael Frayn (1988)
Quite apart from this being simply the funniest play ever written, this is included because the production was the UK amateur premiere. The original touring production set was hired; this just about fitted onto the stage and it was all hands to the pump when it came to revolving it for the famous backstage scene which is Act 2. This latter was extremely difficult to rehearse but the outcome was tremendous fun. The set came complete with hampers of props and I remember unpacking endless plates of fake sardines – very central to the plot. I played the stage manager – not the real one – the onstage one, Tim Allgood who spent a great deal of time asleep.
Production 62: Woman In Mind by Alan Ayckbourn (1989)
Although I had directed before, this is the production where I really found my feet – at least I like to think so. One of those productions where you are blessed with absolutely perfect casting and a script which mixes high comedy with heart wrenching tragedy. Susan, the central figure, is a classic unreliable narrator through whose eyes the audience see and hear everything including the apparent (though not necessarily real) flaws of the other characters so it was a supremely interesting directing challenge.
Production 70: Man Of The Moment by Alan Ayckbourn (1992)
Ayckbourn again – directing again. Most memorable for being the one with a swimming pool and, hence, one which few amateur groups dare to tackle. If nothing else rehearsing scenes which are eventually going to take place in water is far from easy but I had a cast that tackled it with gusto. Our pool was a huge affair which totally dominated the stage. Highly memorable was that the production occurred in the midst of a heatwave and subsequent hosepipe ban which led to a degree of ingenuity when it came to keeping the water clean and usable.
Production 79: Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell (1994)
I gradually discovered that I preferred directing smallish casts in plays which favoured a strong central female role. So this was perfect; a cast of one female in what is essentially an extended monologue. There had to be real cooking on stage – “chips and egg” which took a lot of practice. Rehearsals were incredibly easy to organise – if “Shirley” couldn’t make it or I couldn’t make it then we simply rescheduled; I seem to recall rehearsing a lot of it in our respective back gardens.
Production 95: Neville’s Island by Tim Firth (1998)
I remember first reading the script for this on a train and basically showing myself up because of laughing too much. The production had simply the best set I have ever worked on – real trees, the edge of a lake and so on. I was Gordon who had all the most cutting lines. The other three actors and I created mayhem in the rehearsals and gave the director a tough time. She got her own back in the end – in our first entrance we had to appear totally drenched so we were made to roll in paddling pools in the wings until soaked to the skin. Fishhhhh! (You had to be there)
Production 100: Lord of The Flies adapted by Nigel Williams (2000)
I have many times been involved with that mammoth beast the school play but never to greater satisfaction than in directing this dramatic version of a great novel. Looking back I still can’t believe we were allowed to commandeer the school hall and cover the entire floor with sand (it ended up in the long jump pit afterwards) bring in masses of foliage and sit the audience in the thick of it all. The cast was just superb and for all their tender years carried off the whole thing with the verve that only youth can bring to a project. As a millennium outing and my centenary production I couldn’t have asked for anything more perfectly realised.
Production 102: The Rise and Fall Of Little Voice by Jim Cartwright (2001)
Directing this great piece of theatre took me way outside my comfort zone but I ended up feeling exhilarated by the results. I didn’t believe it could be done if only because it needed a young performer who could imitate the voices of world famous singers but the right person miraculously appeared (Jodie Jacobs who is now a pro performer). The rest of the cast was note perfect (pun absolutely intended) and all gave powerhouse performances. I remember having great fun choosing all the music to link the scenes together and which was used to comment on the action.
Production 116: Humble Boy by Charlotte Jones (2005)
Felix Humble is probably the most complex character I have ever played and certainly had some of the most complicated dialogue with references (barely understood by me) to astro-physics and other high minded concepts. So I felt some degree of satisfaction in being able to put such ideas across. It was also a challenge to balance the comedy and pathos that the piece requires. Being brutally realistic I was too old for the role; certainly my mother in the play was younger than me – sorry about that mum! Still it was a great opportunity in a great play.
Production 123: Glorious! By Peter Quilter (2008)
A friend once noted that many of the plays I have directed rely heavily on music and (although I have never directed an actual musical) this one was no exception. It is the story of Florence Foster Jenkins and her terrible singing and all the people who shared her life. Once again perfect casting occasioned a first rate outcome. To sing badly you actually have to be able to sing extremely well and as with 102 above, I fell on my feet. The script was just oozing with fun and zinging one liners and so were the cast. Glorious by name and glorious by nature.
Production 126: The History Boys by Alan Bennett (2009)
Hector has to be my most favourite modern role. Like me he is/was a Sixth Form teacher of English and the play was set in an era I could all too readily recognise – the early 1980s. Despite many false starts we were so very lucky to find a superb group of young actors to play the eight “boys” and, though I say so myself, the adults were all perfectly cast too. And, of course, it is such a witty and intelligent play to boot. It won me an award though actually that was very much a secondary concern. What I remember most is the endless fun and laughter at rehearsals and having to perform a whole scene en français. I would love to have another go at it if the opportunity arose.
Production 136: David Copperfield by (2012) adapted by Nick Warburton
This was my first production with Tower Theatre and within days of passing the company audition I found myself reading for the part of Mr Micawber and a fortnight later being cast. It was my debut at the Bridewell Theatre off Fleet Street and I recall the first night coincided with the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games –even though the fireworks that night were nothing to do with me it felt momentarily that they might have been. A second debut took me to the Minack Theatre in Cornwall; a truly wondrous place. That the play was based on a Dickens’ novel was the icing on an already very rich cake.
Production 143: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (2016)
Well, I know I started by saying that these selections were not in ranked order. But clearly I would be telling a massive lie if this one was not placed at the top of the pile. Put simply I got to play a central Shakespearian role (Nick Bottom) working for the Royal Shakespeare Company at both the London Barbican and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon. It simply doesn’t…and probably can’t…get any better than that. The casting process was nerve wracking, the rehearsals exhilarating and getting to perform in front of 10,000 people with consummate professionals was way beyond any normal amateur’s expectations. Full details can be found in the blog BottomDream16 (You are hereby warned that this is a very full and detailed account of the whole process but, I like to think, a unique view of life with the pros)
Production 150: Wolf Hall adapted by Mike Poulton (2018)
I am currently playing Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk and there are several reasons for including this production. Firstly, because it’s the most recent and because it is my 150th. Secondly, I found myself rehearsing it concurrently with Alan Bennett’s Kafka’s Dick – a state of affairs that I had never had time for in the past. Thirdly, because as well as being my longest run in anything (20 performances) we got to do it as a one off special in the magnificent Old Hall in Lincoln’s Inn… and have still got the Minack in Cornwall to go. Fourthly because the costume is probably the most splendid I have ever worn and that in almost unendurable temperatures during a prolonged heatwave. All in all, though, a truly memorable piece on which to end (for now).
So it’s thanks to St. Mary’s Players, HTYF, Actors Anonymous, Mark II, The Renegades, CADOS, Eastbrook Schol, Verulam School, Redbridge Stage Company (the other RSC), Kenneth More Theatre, Tower Theatre, SEDOS and The Royal Shakespeare Company (the actual RSC) for letting me do my thing for so long.