A bit of a farce

(As with the previous post this one was begun some time go but I never quite got round to finishing it – hopefully patience is now rewarded)

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When I finished A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation last summer it was some time before I could contemplate doing anything else in the dramatic line. The process had been so all consuming and, of course, so fulfilling that any other contemplated project seemed dull in comparison. But in time the pleasant memories remained and engendered a desire to create something new once more. At just the right moment Tower Theatre’s, then, artistic director Eddie Coleman asked me if I would like to take up the challenge of directing a show in the 2017 spring season. It had been some time since I had donned my director’s hat but the RSC experience had left me with a raft of new directing ideas and techniques that I wanted to try out so I agreed.

Eddie had heard that I was a great devotee of Ayckbourn and suggested I might want to think about A Chorus of Disapproval. Though this is undoubtedly a great play I did have one or two misgivings. Firstly, I generally prefer to work with small casts, if possible staying in single figures. I always (semi) joke that one of the best directing jobs I had was working on Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine. Unlike the film the play is a one actress extended monologue – this guaranteed full cast attendance at every rehearsal! Unlike this piece,  Chorus has over a dozen named parts (plus extras) so from that point of view I didn’t think it would be ideal. Secondly, the play is multi location and I thought for a first Tower show I’d quite like to keep to one set. Thirdly it is a play with music (the Pendon Players are rehearsing/performing The Beggar’s Opera). Again I  felt this might be a complication too far this first time out.

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Annie & Jonathan as Delia & Ernest

So, the challenge was to come up with another play by the same author. One glance at my directing CV will reveal that it is Ayckbourn heavy, this would make the tenth of his plays so far. I didn’t particularly want to revisit any previous ideas and the two front runners for a time were later plays such as Neighbourhood Watch and Arrivals and Departures. I particularly favoured the latter with its timely look at preventing terrorism but, alas, the performing licence for the play was not available at the time when decisions had to be made. I then begin to think about some of the more “classic” Ayckbourn pieces and it occurred to me that I’d never had a crack at Bedroom Farce one of the National Theatre’s early hits in the mid 1970s. The more I thought about it the more it appealed. Even the setting, three bedrooms side by side would suit the configuration of the venue, Theatro Technis in Camden. And so the choice was made.

Tower give a long lead in time, thankfully, so much of the autumn was spent in planning, preparing and gathering a team of creatives together. In this I was very fortunate and “twice blessed” to gather together the team I did – especially as they were taking a punt on a (to the company) untried director. Before I knew where I was it was time for auditions. Now, through most of my am dram career I have never had to run such an entity; usually it was simply a matter of selecting who one thought best for the role and approaching them individually so it was with a little trepidation that I readied myself for a far more democratic approach.

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Hattie & Ryan as Jan & Nick

All I hoped was that someone would turn up and at the very first audition that was precisely what happened – someONE turned up; that was a short evening and no mistake. The second audition brought a rather more substantial number of people forward but there were a couple of key roles to fill that I didn’t feel I could cast from the existing pool – talented though they were undoubtedly were. So a hastily convened third audition was arranged and even though it was a Saturday evening a good turn out occurred. Finally the pieces slotted into place; indeed 50% of the cast came from this third try out. Ayckbourn has said the biggest single element of a director’s job is in getting the casting right and I was pleased (and not a little relieved) to feel that this had been achieved. Little did I know that I was to be blessed in another significant way. It is one of the constant bugbears of am dram that busy people cannot always make rehearsal and in an ensemble piece like Bedroom Farce this could easily have proved fatal. However matters were able to be so arranged that there wasn’t one rehearsal where someone needed couldn’t or didn’t appear. I’m sure other am dram directors may look at this with a disbelieving eye but it really happened (it probably never will again) and I think the benefits showed clearly in the final results.

They really did turn out to be a crack cast, sympathetic to Ayckbourn’s vision and constantly striving to get to the heart of the text and make the characters really live. The decision was taken very early on to keep the play in its original time setting – 1975. Modernising would not have worked if only because a major plot thread relied on there being no such thing as mobile phones. Besides which we could then have some fun with costumes, hair styles and the settings (plenty of orange and brown!) It dawned on me quite quickly that the majority of the cast were not even born when the play was first put on and so there was a good deal to convey about social etiquette of the time – one intense half hour was all about how to use a land line phone with a dial (how quaint!)

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Martin & Hatty as Malcolm & Kate

At first we rehearsed the play crossways, concentrating on events in each bedroom in turn. This gave continuity to action and character and ensured there was a through line in each location. After a two week scheduled lay off for Christmas (and, to be honest, while I went to Cuba) it was time to put everything together. I was extremely gratified to find that the cast were pretty much on top of their words and that they enjoyed seeing the bits of the play that they weren’t in and where they weren’t privy to the work that had gone on. One aspect of rehearsal that I will recall fondly is the sheer amount of laughter that was generated – that and the site of adults deflating the airbeds we were using in rehearsal like kids on a bouncy castle. I even began to worry that rehearsals were progressing too smoothly and that we were in for a major crash anytime soon. However this didn’t happen and I was even able to cancel two of the later rehearsals as I  didn’t want the cast to go off the boil by peaking too early.

Early February saw us at our production venue and here things progressed unnervingly smoothly too. A last minute cancellation of a proposed tube strike helped the general mood and as I saw the magnificent set taking shape I could sense we were on to a winner. And so it proved.  It is not for me to review my own production. I’ll leave that in the capable hands of others – particularly as they have been so positive and generous, suffice to say that I thought the production captured the tragedy as well as the comedy of the protagonists’ situation and that these were real people caught up in real situations. A far cry from the “farce” indicated (ironically) in the title.

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Richard & Rachel as Trevor & Susannah

Despite early misgivings and concern that it wouldn’t live up to my dramatic odyssey of 2016, I’m glad I bit the bullet and created something new. Thanks to everyone who helped me to realise my vision – the cast who performed superbly, the creative and technical team who supported the whole enterprise and to the audience for coming along and enjoying the evening rather than opting for an early night.

(A full archive of the show including cast details, production pictures and reviews can be found here)

Wonderful 208

(This blog post was actually begun about six weeks ago, but what with one thing and another it never got finished….until now. Your patience is appreciated)

downloadThe number 208 may seem fairly random and innocuous and yet to someone of my generation there is a certain mystique about it. It was the medium wave frequency number of the legendary Radio Luxembourg. Long before the BBC ramraided the pirate radio stations and launched the good ship Radio 1 in 1967, Fab(ulous) 208 was broadcasting pop music from the centre of the continent and if you wanted to hear the latest hits that was what you tuned into….and retuned…and retuned yet again. The signal was fairly dire but at it was better than nothing – and nothing was definitley the alternative.  Even when Radio 1  did get going it only retained its separate identity during daytime and in the evening merged with the rather more staid Radio 2; so, not much use to those of us who were at school. Hence everyone I knew continued to tune into Luxembourg to listen to some of the biggest DJ names of the times – Kenny Everett being particularly notable….plus several others who have since become houehold names.

All this preamble is by way of introducing a recent swift three day visit to the radio station’s country of origin. An interesting hybrid of German/French/Belgian and Dutch influences, Luxembourg is both a country and a city while at the same time retaining the sense that it is like none of these much bigger nations. The Luxembourgeois (think that’s right) even have their own language – Luxemburgish – though I can’t say I heard it spoken…or if I did, I didn’t recognise the fact.

One big advantage is that the country is only a short hop by plane from London City Airport so no tedious flogging out to Heathrow or Gatwick and then only just over an hour later LuxAir (they are big enough to have their own airline) lands you in Luxembourg City.

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The Grund from above

The topography of the capital is somewhat strange. There is the main town built on either side of the bluffs and in between this, nestling at the bottom of a very steep gorge is the older “lower town” or “Grund”. This is not to be confused with the “old town” proper which is actually part of the main town and certainly not to be confused with the modern centre on the Kirchberg Plateau where we were staying. One tip for the intending visitor is to make sure you have all this fixed in your head before you attempt to walk anywhere…unless you particularly like behaving like the Grand Old Duke of York. A conventional 2D map isn’t that much help either. To be fair there are some spectacular views to be had in the city and you certainly get a feel for the olde worlde nature of the winding cobbled streets and the architecture of the private and public buildings. In the end nothing is really that far from anything else and with a highly efficient bus system plus public (free) lifts to transport you vertically it is difficult to go really wrong.

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Vikander in rush hour – note the Disneyesque castle above and the Hotel Victor Hugo below (apparently the author exiled himself here to escape Napoleon’s wrath)

Talking of the transport system, for the princely sum of €4, an all day travel card can be had. This not only gets you around the city but, amazingly, anywhere in the whole country by train/bus. Alright admittedly it’s a very small country but could you imagine going anywhere and everywhere all day in an area  the size of the Yorkshire Dales (roughly) for a shade over three quid? The second day was spent doing exactly this on some rail and bus journeys from almost the southern to almost the northern end of the country and back again. In between a couple of stops at picturesque Vianden (very German in a Grimms’ fairytale type way) and Clervaux (very Belgian in a chocolately/Ardennes pate kind of way) revealed a slow pace of life and a wonderful paucity of tourists. Mind you it was mid February so that might have had somethig to do with it. The northern reaches of Luxembourg were heavily affected by the World War 2 campaigns in the Ardennes which stretch across the Belgian border into northern Luxembourg so a good area for history buffs to see. Ettlebruck even has a statue to the American liberator General Patton.

As with the general culture the food in Luxembourg is an eclectic mix. Heavily influenced by French finesse coupled with German portion sizes (so the best of both worlds then) I was amazed to discover that they have more Michelin starred restaurants per head of population there than anywhere else in the world. Perhaps needless to say there was a plentitude of smoked, cured meats, sausages and pates. Öennenzop (onion soup) was ubiquitous and tasty, leberknödel (liver dumplings) with sauerkraut was perhaps less appealing. The national dish (which also went untried) is bouchée à la Reine – chicken and mushrooms in a large puff pastry case, so basically an XL portioned vol-au-vent; like the radio station, another hangover from the 70s. Dessertwise they are very into ice cream cakes plus they love their cheese: Kaempff-Kohler’s is the place to go if you’re in town.

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Of the fondly remembered radio station there was not a trace, though I gather at one stage that it was relaunched as an internet broadcaster…but subsequently seems to have disappeared again. Perhaps that is as it should be. Although in many ways quite a modern city there are definitely bits of Luxembourg that are stuck in a time warp..but that, of course, is part of its charm.

Our Man In Havana (and elsewhere in Cuba)

What a singularly strange place Cuba is to be sure. Caribbean – but not really, American – only superficially, Communist friendly – increasingly less so, a haven for Canadians – definitely.

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Much Cuban architecture has a Mediterranean feel to it

The first thing that struck me about Havana was the sheer lack of global brands – nada de Coca Cola, nada de Starbucks, nada de Macdonalds and nada every other big franchise one can think of. Why even Beijing has a KFC but not Havana. Ever since the Bay of Pigs “falling out” in the early 60s American capitalist products have been debarred from Cuban shelves. Even now Americans are not generally allowed to holiday there. Only visits to family members or trips for an educational purpose are permitted and even though the American embassy was reopened in 2015 it is still regarded with a degree of suspicion. Will the thaw continue now that Fidel has died? Possibly. Or, now that Donald J. has been inaugurated, possibly not!

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As a pink Cadillac was not in evidence a powder blue Chevvy had to do

So America is a no – no (hence all those Canadians??) One notable exception are the Chevys, Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, etc which fill the streets. All from pre the 1960s, lovingly restored and carefully tended with judicious use of Cuban Chrome (a type of foil duct tape) these blasts from the past act as family vehicles as well as the more obvious tourist trap taxis. They are there because Cuba imported them in abundance during the 40s and 50s but then came the trade sanctions so suddenly there were no more repair parts. The flood of  imported vehicles also dried up and a cottage/cabana industry grew up to preserve the largest collection of vintage vehicles you are likely to see outside the Brighton rally. And yes we did take a ride in one  – an open top 1943 Chevy. This took us all round the sights of Havana. Around Cuban Chinatown, out by Plaza de la Revolución with its huge murals of Fidel and Che, all along the Malecón (sea front and harbour). Perhaps the most unexpected sight was the statue of John Lennon sitting on a park bench (“they say you want a revolution!”). Designed with removable granny glasses there is now a lady attendant who looks after these and pops them on the statue for the tourist photos – apparently the original ones kept getting stolen.

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Imagine!

The only bit of Havana you can’t really see from a car is the old town – the expected mish mash of narrow cobbled winding strets and alleyways with cafes every few yards. Here also is the ancient cathedral and some very Spanish looking squares. There are many tourist shops and “regular” shops. The latter are often run by the state and featured queues of locals outside trying to get their hands on the latest delivery of fruit or toiletries. There are clear shortages of basics still and even if one is temped to buy something (cheap rip-off cigars, anyone?) there is still the notorious double currency to negotiate. Both local pesos and tourist money exists –  a cup of Cuban coffee might therefore cost 2 or 200 depending on the denominations you’re working in. And of course you can’t take currency in or out – neither are the airports particularly keen on resupplying your own currency when you leave. We had to make do with Euros rather than stirling before flying out – have these people never heard of Brexit?

Hotels are pretty acceptable though restaurants are less inspiring; Christmas dinner was half a chicken – the bottom half! But then, of course, the Cubans don’t really do Christmas. On December 25th it appeared to be just a normal day though it was in fact a public holiday. Markets were bustling, people were hustling. There is clear evidence of poverty in many quarxxxters but everyone seems remarkably happy and friendly. The apparently ceaseless sound of the song “Guantanamera” floated constantly above the crowds (although a love song it hails from the Cuban region of Guantanamo Bay and therefore now has distinctly unfortunate overtones to Western ears). Still, nudging 25 degrees in the middle of
December can’t be bad and reading Graham Greene’s famous novel set in the city gained a new resonance as the tale of Mr Wormald the vacuum cleaner salseman and reluctant double agent became all too believeable following visits to the places that are mentioned in the book.

After three days in the capital it was off to Varadero some 80 miles from Havana and a beach resort purportedly built by Russian oligarchs. This was a bit more recognisable as a standard Caribbean resort featuring miles of white sand, all inclusive hotels, and a laid back attitude for those seeking some holiday down time. It soon became evident that the vast majority of the peninsula was owned by just a handful of international chains notably the Spanish Iberostar which has links to the Nadal family (he of tennis fame). No room for poverty here – quite the reverse. Opulence, luxury and excess abounded. The hotel shop even had Coca Cola (though admittedly imported via Mexico and therefore quite expensive).SONY DSC

The beach area and hotel grounds was a haven for wildlife with many species of gecko and birds such as the tri coloured trogon, the national bird whose red, white and blue colouring is echoed in the national flag (and definitley nothing to do with the same hues on the stars and stripes!) There was also the bee hummingbird, at only 5 cm the smallest of the species and far too quick for me to capture on camera – though this guy seems to have managed it

. Most prevalent were the pelicans flying along the shoreline and dive bombing for fish; spectacular both at dawn and dusk.

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Like Christmas, New Year was relatively muted though there was a knees up for the internationals around the pool at midnight. There was intriguingly some little mounds of what I can only assume was talcum powder in the lavabos that evening – must have been a local custom!

It was rather a shock to come back to cold grey leaden skies and the freezing temperatures of London. Even more of a “shock” was the obvious enfranchisement (literally) of the streets by Costa Coffee et al. Ah well, I suppose there’s no avoiding it!

Every Inch A King?

Sometimes there seem to be theatrical trends which cut across various productions. Surely it was more than a coincidence that these were amply demonstrated across two Shakespeare productions which I went to in the last few days.

First it was off to the Old Vic for the much sought after production of King Lear with Glenda Jackson taking on the demanding central role after many years absence playing  a long running part in the soap opera cum farce taking place in a large auditorium in Westminster. It is pleasing to report that she has not lost her commanding presence on stage though my only point of comparison is seeing her in the late 70s in a play called Rose penned by Andrew Davis – now more famous for his television screenpays of classic novels (e.g. Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace).

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Jackson looked like she’d never been away, finding the full range of Lear’s character and was highly effective being particularly strong in the storm scene  – the one setting/design element I thought worked very well. She led a strong company: Jane Horrocks and Celia Imrie playing the wicked daughters (though the latter, it has to be said, played Celia Imrie), an anarchic Fool in Rhys Ifans, the ever dependable Karl Johnson as Gloucester and Harry Potter alumnus Harry Melling (cousin Dudley) as a hyperactive Edgar/Poor Tom.

Deborah Warner’s  production itself I found wearing even at times gimmicky (did Glouceter’s eyeball really have to be thrown into the audience?) The set was modern(istic) and costume non-existent. Some of the actors were dressed as though they’d turned up for a rehearsal and hadn’t bothered to change. Before the start and during the interval the actors (as opposed to the characters) roamed the stage chatting to each other before the work itself began. And I suppose that was the point. It was all “designed” to point out that this was a play – not reality. Most annoying of all was the seeming necessity to project act and scene numbers throughout the action. Why in the name of all that’s holy? Distracting and ultimately unnecessary. So far, so Bertolt Brecht!

But to return to the main event – it was undoutedly Jackson’s evening and probably the strongest account of the role I have seen. Not flashy/showy but by turns, virulent, pathetic (in the best sense of the word), superbly paced and vocally assured. There was no hint here of the gender being altered – the masculine pronouns were intact throughout – and the question of whether this was King Lear or Queen Lear simply never arose…which is just as it should be.

Less than a week later in was off to another 3½ hour Shakespeare in the  RSC’s Cymbeline. This was the first time I’d been to the Barbican since appearing there in A Midsummer Night’s Dream back in May so there were some nostalgic twinges on entering the auditorium – this time looking at the stage rather than out from it. It was also the first time I’d seen this particular play and I can’t say that I found it overwhelming though from a completist point of view it was satisfying to have placed a tick against it. Frankly it’s a bit of a mishmash – shades of Othello, Winter’s Tale, Lear and even As You Like It were evident and I swear blind I heard a line directly borrowed from Macbeth (Shakespeare doing his late career “Greatest Hits” album?). The plot was fantastical but not necessarily in a good way and shifted about between Ancient Briton, Rome and, rather more prosaically, Milford Haven. I couldn’t really engage with the heroine Imogen on Innogen or whatever we’re going to call her, the interesting villain Iachimo basically disappeared about a third of the way through and both the exposition and the final revelations were tedious and contrived.

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However it was, once again, some of the production choices that really grated. A dance number to introduce the Roman setting (why?). Cloten and his cronies doing a boy band routine to serenade the heroine (amusing but intrusive). Mute onlookers (once again to remind us we were watching a play perhaps). And, here we go again, sections of the text translated into Italian for the relevant actors to speak but then the text being projected onto the stage in English so the audience could follow it. I think we’ve all learned to accept that in a play actors playing foreigners won’t actually be speaking in “foreign” – besides by the time the second half rolled round all the “Italians” seemed to have mastered perfect English having apparently taking a crash Berlitz course prior to invading.

As with the production of Lear there was also some “gender bending” though, not that I could see, to any great benefit. King Cymbeline became Queen Cymbeline and this time the gender was definitely changed with all references to “him” being altered to “her” and so forth. It’s not even as if the title role is a particularly rewarding one. Changing Cymbeline’s gender meant that the monach’s consort had to be changed from the Queen to the Duke and as this is the possibly more interesting role it meant that (in my eyes at least) the male actor got the better deal which perhaps defeats the object of the regendering. Other traditonally male roles went to actresses but here they were females playing males so that lent an air of confusion to proceedings. I don’t have a particularly strong feeling about how males and females should be cast (as far as I’m concerned the best person should play the role) but if there is going to be tinkering – at least keep it consistent thoughout the production.

So have we found ourselves now in the midst of an era of concept theatre where everything is up for grabs and alterable according to suit the director’s/designer’s vision? Maybe … and maybe there will be the inevitable backlash (cf. what’s happened with Emma Rice and the Globe theatre). Although I’m not a traditionalist (after all I’d been in Dream which was updated to the 1940s with an androgynous Puck and assorted males and females playing the mechanicals and fairies) I begin to carp when the production tries to take over from the author’s intentions. Let’s remember “the play’s the thing”!

 

A theatrical “meal” with the prolific Sir Alan Ayckbourn

When you  have written so many pieces for the stage and reached your late seventies you’d think it would be time to slow down…wouldn’t you? Not a bit of it in Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s case. As I have done many times in the past it was off to Scarborough and the Stephen Joseph Theatre last weekend to see his latest productions, two of which were born this year.scar

Scarborough always seems such a long way away – even when you get to York it’s still another good hour to the Yorkshire coast. So perhaps approaching it via the Humber Bridge would be easier (??) Nope! Still a long way. But as seaside towns go it’s welcoming and manages not to be too garish and, of course, it has possibly the most famous theatre in the round in the world. Going to the theatre there is always a pleasure and I’ve been lucky enough to see a number of premieres at the venue including Wildest Dreams (my very first visit to the (old) SJT back in 1991), By Jeeves (the musical written in collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber and the first show at the current SJT), House and Garden (the two interlinked plays performed simultaneously in two different auditoria) and Impossible Fiction (in which I feature briefly as an offstage character – long story behind that one) to name but a few. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have attended summer schools run by the theatre and featuring the great man himself sharing his secrets about writing, directing and his very perceptive thoughts on the human condition.

So I’m definitely no stranger to the environs of this particular seaside town which has all the usual fish and chip emporia, seafood stalls, trips round the bay, donkeys (sadly not in evidence), rock manufacturers and bucket and spade shops. These latter seem to have been somewhat eclipsed by the new breed of PoundStore/Land/World/Whatever shops ubiquitous in most towns these days and which added to the air of faded grandeur. I was particuarly surprised to see the state of disrepair into which the Futurist Theatre on the South Bay seafront had fallen. Once home to premiers acts it is now permanently shut and faces the threat of the bulldozers.

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But of course I was here to attend another theatre entirely; one housed in the former art deco Odeon cinema and pleasingly dominated by the plays of the Amazing Mr A. This time round I was here for something called The Ayckbourn Triple – an all day event featuring his three most current productions. Reflecting on it afterwards, it felt like attending a substantial three course meal where tastebuds were tickled, surprised and ultimately satiated.

cpLate morning saw the hor d’oeuvre served up. This was Consuming Passions, two half hour pieces entitled Premonitions and Repercussions originally performed separately in the theatre Bistro at lunchtimes but now played sequentially in the McCarthy auditorium. Officially recognised as Ayckbourn’s 80th full length play, the storyline revolves round a murder plot which may or may not happen and may or may not be fantasy. The writer has taken to some cheeky self referencing of late so it was fun to see the setting of the Calvinu restaurant (from Time Of Our Lives) again with two of its many waiters – still being played by the same actor of course. The plot was straight out of Hitchcock so heavily referenced in both Communicating Doors and The Revengers’ Comedies and the central figure was definitely reminiscent of Susan in Woman In Mind.

After lunch at the traditional Scarborough haunt of Bonets and a wander round the town centre shops (identical in most resects to the shops in town centres almost anywhere else) it was time to return to the SJT. This was for a revival of the 1987 play Henceforward… ; it was definitley the most substantial of the three offerings. Set in the future (or is that now the present…or the past?) it paints a bleak yet very funny picture of life somewhere on the remote reaches of the Northern Line and features androids, synthsised music, roaming street gangs (the Daughters of Darkness and the Sons of Bitches, since you ask) and some pertinent ideas about the responsibilities of the artist. The play brought back some happy memories of my own production of the piece and the fun we had filming the video content; this meant I could both direct and appear in the production as one of the video only characters. I’s good to see that the play has (mostly) stood the test of time. The central part of Jerome is, I think a hard ask. Onstage throughout but often quite morose and taciturn I recall that it seemed to elude Ian McKellen when it was played in London. Hats off then to Bill Chamipon in this production who provided a solid centre to the piece and who even managed to elicit some sympathy for his hurt regarding his rarely seen daughter.

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Bill Champion and Jacqueline King as Jerome and Nan

So that was the theatrical main course, meaning it must be time for real dinner (following this?) This was at the highly recommendable Café Fish. Not noted for its cuisine in former years, Scarborough is certanly looking up gastronomy wise.

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The Karoke Theatre Company with mystery guest

Then back to the SJT for the theatrical dessert (too many food references!) a live semi-improvised entertainment  called The Karaoke Theatre Company. I didn’t quite know what to expect from this piece and I’m glad it came last as it was light fare which required less concentration. Part Whose Line Is It Anyway?, part Generation Game,  essentially it was a series of playlets (farce, regency drama, Scandi noir thriller etc.) with varying levels of audience participation. Well, having (dis)graced the RSC and Barbican stages this year I couldn’t resist the temptation to appear at my favourite small venue. So I found myself voluntering to be one of the narrators in the gothic horror piece and being encouraged to release “my inner Brian Blessed” – can’t think why they came up with that particular ACTORRRR! I felt thankful that I’ve had plenty of practice at sight reading over the years as there were some tricky phrases to get the tongue round. And I found myself losing the thread of the storyline as I concentrated on what I had to say next…so, not really “in the moment” there then. Anyway it was a good piece of fun and an ambition fulfilled so I enjoyed myself – even if nobody else did.

So there we have it, a meal for the mind and the soul in North Yorkshire. Sorry if the title of this piece was a little misleading. I didn’t actually have a regular meal with Alan Ayckbourn….. though I did once have afternoon tea with him…but that’s another story.

2012/2016

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With the Olympics kicking off in Rio I thought it was about time I paid a proper visit to the former Olympic Park – now the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – in Stratford (not, for once, the one upon Avon). I’d paid one or two fleeting visits in the past but never penetrated far past the original stadium and had certainly never got to the northern extremities. There are some official trails to follow but I soon abandoned these in favour of a more random and probably more rewarding approach. First though it was necessary to run the gauntlet of the “Westfield Shopping Experience” but I’d boxed clever and arrived early – before the stores were open – so I got through unscathed.

I refelcted as I arrived that the London Olympics opening ceremony had coincided with my first appearance in a Tower Theatre show when I was fortunate to be cast as Mr Micawber in their production of David Copperfield. As anyone who knows me will attest I’m a huge fan of Dickens so winning this part was, at the time, the proverbial dream come true. Little did I know then that this was to mark the start of my journey towards an even grander Dream – playing Bottom with the RSC. Anyway, I digress…as usual.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe most notable feature initially was the new façade of the main stadium bearing the legend “West Ham United”. The club’s move to its new venue has, of course, been the subject of some controversy which I don’t propose to rehash here. All I will say is that the present ground’s surroundings are much more conducive to a nice day out than those near the old Boleyn ground which I used to attend when I was a young shaver – it being within walking distance from (then) home.

Next I went to the Orbit, the sculpure/tower created by Anish Kapoor and described by Boris Johnson as “a giant hubble bubble pipe” and by the Daily Mail as a “catastrophic collision between two cranes” – take your pick. Having been in plenty of tall buildings in East London over the years and seen the views I wasn’t about to stump up the required £12 entry fee; neither was I tempted by the prospect of the newly installed slide which I imagine would be quite claustrophobic. Instead I preferred to admire the structure (and I think I do amire it) from the outside. I remember being similarly impressed by Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago (otherwise known as the Chicago Bean).

From there it was following the towpath nothwards past the various gardens looking quite spectacular (that’s the gardens – not me). You could really imagine yourself way out in the country – if it hadn’t been for the ever present noise of drills and lorries in the distance where construction is still in progress. My path led me past the Copper Box arena, Here East (the old broadcast/media centre), the Velopark and through to Hackney Marshes. It’s good to see the River Lea really being regenerated and not, for once, by a vast shopping mall. Instead it has become an area for rest, relaxation and a gentler approach to life. Various water based activities were taking place including paddleboarding – fortunately there was no sign of Orlando Bloom!

 

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I retraced my steps down the other side of the River Lea as far as the area called the Wetland Bowl/Wet Woodlands. They have done a fine job of this piece of the park and although there was little animal wildlife in evidence the gloriously sunny day and the display of wild flowers induced some lingering.

Studiously avoiding the temporary gaudy funfair/beach area I next headed for the Aquatic Centre – not for the watersports but to have a look at the display detailing the next phases of development in the area. The most exciting bit of this was the plans for the so called Stratford Waterfront cultural centre which will feature, among others, outposts of the V & A and Sadler’s Wells …if it ever actually comes to pass.

My longish ramble over I wandered back to the main gardens. The crowds had ramped up considerably but I found a quiet nook under a tree and idled away some time recalling more happy dramatic memories from 2012. Going with David Copperfield to the truly awesome Minack in Cornwall (a first – both the theatre and Cornwall itself) and finding myself in front of capacity crowds (750) for each performance. Then being rapidly cast in Joe Orton’s Loot (another ambition fulfilled) and the musical version of The Mystery of Edwin Drood had made me feel I’d hit the ground running with my new company. And by the close of the year I’d also already been cast as the homicidal chef in SEDOS’s stage version of Gormenghast – probably my favourite book ever. Yes 2012 had certainly been a year to remember; 2016 was too. Now roll on 2020!

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Sent to Coventry

Alright, confession time – I wasn’t actually sent… I was invited. But as “sent” makes for a significantly more eye catching title, that’s what I thought I’d go for! It was the day of the final post for my BottomDream16 blog, bringing to a conclusion a piece of writing which had taken 18 months to complete and which went into “some detail” about the whole experience of playing Bottom for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2016 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Naturally enough the conclusion of this particular project and the winding down of the blog was making me feel a little melancholy so a trip out was just the thing to keep the blues at bay. I had been asked to go to Coventry to talk at the NODA summer school – something which was going to keep the Dream alive for just a little bit longer. Realising that Coventry was not a place that I had had a really good look round, I decided to get there well ahead of the evening start time in order to have a root round.  I’d found a walking tour online which I planned to follow but as I left the train the brooding skies looked foreboding. Sure enough within a couple of minutes the heavens opened and that was pretty much the picture for the rest  of the afternoon with intermittent heavy showers and a level of humidity which might best be described as the wrong side of oppressive.

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Coventry under lowering skies

Maybe it was the weather but I can’t say I was particularly enamoured of the city. There were building and roadworks everywhere which made following the proposed route almost impossible. The shopping centre might have been anywhere else in the UK with identical-to-everywhere-else chain stores and somewhat mournful looking people. Spon Street, a preserved row of medieval houses, was interesting architecturally but looked a little seedy and neglected. But then as it had originally been the centre of the city’s dyeing trade, and therefore presumably reeked of the urine the dyers used in their craft, maybe it had always been that way. References to Lady Godiva and her famed bareback ride – and barefront and baresides – were plentiful.

Several frustrating detours later I found myself in the coffee bar of the Belgrade Theatre, so called because of a donation of timber from the former Yugoslav capital which had been used in the building’s construction. There appeared to be no shows booked in there for August and the rest of the year looked to be dominated by a ratherb tawdry collection of tribute acts, minor league touring shows and undemanding fodder. I suppose the theatre is catering to what the public wants (or is it?) but where was the vibrancy, the innovation…the joyfulness? However, I have to say they do serve a very nice cup of tea – and that, of course, is the main thing.

The rain had temporarily eased but was clearly due for an early return so I decided to abandon the tour and head straight for the number one Coventry attraction – the cathedral. The shell of the old bombed out cathedral and the new building standing next to it provided a stark contrast both to each other and the rest of the city. I wish I could have said more but the new cathedral wasn’t open at that particular time (it was one of those days!) so all I could do was admire Basil Spence’s structure from the outside and hurry for shelter as another downpour took place.

Cutting my losses I jumped in a taxi to Warwick University (not really in Warwick…or Coventry for that matter) to join the NODA summer school for the evening. If you don’t know about this event and are interested in amdram then you really should consider it. Here’s a short video which includes my good friend Jacquie extolling its virtues:

 

A bit late for this year, admittedly but they are already planning 2017’s event.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur session involved a small team of us (David and Patrick from Stratford,  Becky and Tom from Nottingham and myself) from the Dream project which had been gathered together to talk about our experience and answer questions from the assembled delegates. There were plenty of looks of amazement as we described the mega-opportunity with which we had been presented and some generous comments made by people who had been in some of the audiences up and down the country.  It had been three weeks since seeing any of my fellow Dreamers but it was very clear that the experience still loomed large with all of us – I think it will ever be thus. The session was chaired by RSC producer Ian Wainwright who hinted that other ideas were being explored to capitalise on the lessons learned through the innovative project – intriguing and tantalising in equal measure. If I hear more, dear reader, you will be the first to know.

PS – I’ve finally got round to starting an Instagram account and there are some more photos of Coventry to be found there; bet you can’t wait.

London Road

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It seems entirely appropriate that my first theatre review for this blog should be of an amateur production. I somehow missed London Road when it premiered at the National Theatre and although there has been a film since it stuck me, from what I had read about it, that here was a uniquely theatrical piece which deserved to be seen as intended – on a stage. Thus I was happy to learn that SEDOS were making the bold attempt to bring this piece to the intimate setting of the Bridewell.

It’s not the most obvious premise for a musical; a community in Ipswich dealing with the aftermath of a serial killer murdering several prostitutes. But then who would have thought that a musical set in 1840s Paris about the poor and disaffected would have had any traction? What makes this piece stand out is its use of verbatim theatre techniques where the exact words spoken by the original participants are transcribed and worked up into a script by a skilled dramatist – here Alecky Blythe. David Hare has written pieces in this vein and London’s Tricycle Theatre has produced verbatim theatre about Guantanamo Bay, the Hutton enquiry and the Tottenham Riots. I’m not sure whether it has even been tried as a musical before and that, of course, it what gives it such stunning originality.

I’ll confess it took me a good ten minutes or so to get my ear tuned in properly. We’re just not used to hearing hesitations, repetitions, half-finished thoughts and interruptions when set to music. By the time the narrative reached the Christmas market (“Everyone is very very nervous”) though, it all began to seem entirely natural and, dare I say it, even normal. The technique gave a rhythmic muscularity to the unfolding narrative and helped the audience to understand that these were real people struggling to come to terms with terrible crimes happening in their midst. I thought the first half was the stronger with a particularly chilling first half finale (“It’s A Wicked Bloody World”) which featured some explosive choral work. By the second half the techniques being used were less unsettling and (slightly) more familiar. Highlight for me here was the remarkably poignant silence, held for what seemed forever, as events were recounted from the point of view of three prostitutes.

The use of video (particularly in the “live” sequences) was extremely well done and lighting and sound enhanced the experience for the highly appreciative audience. As for the performers I can only wonder at their prowess. This was a true ensemble piece, cast perfectly, and one which must have stretched the capabilities of all concerned. I used to think Sondheim was tricky until I saw/heard this! It would be invidious to single anyone out and to do so, I think, would entirely miss the point. Director Matt Gould and his entire team can feel justifiably proud in pushing back the confines of amateur theatre – I’m even kind of glad that I did miss it at the National.

Rambling on

Charles Dickens, on top of everything else he was doing, used to walk miles every day. It was, of course, part of his nature to do nothing by halves so he would cover up to 20 miles per walk and use this as thinking time, planning his writing and his future activities.

I think I must be the descendant, at no great distance, of some irreclaimable tramp (C.Dickens)

Ever one to take a leaf from the book of a great literary figure, I decided today to try the same sort of tactic to try and rationalise where I was going to go metaphorically by going somewhere actually.

Main headerThe previous ten days had seen the final performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation and having been involved with this project for 18 months I found myself at a spiritual loose end, somewhat depressed by the realisation that everything was over but full of half formed plans and ideas for what might take its place. Not that anything actually could – and if all this so far makes no sense at all I would suggest you take a look at my previous blog Bottomdream16 where I tell the full (and I warn you, when I say full, I mean full) story of this glorious experience about the time when I got to play Bottom for the RSC.

So a good long walk was in order. Now I prefer to have a goal or purpose when I’m walking. Parading the same old route doesn’t particularly interest me so I wanted to see something new. You know how when you live near to something it’s the last thing you go and see? I never got to the Millennium dome for that very reason. Despite living slap bang next to Epping Forest for thirty years there are many bits of it I have never been to so I decided it was time to rectify that situation.

Beginning in Loughton I thought I walk would home the long way; a straight road would normally take about half an hour. This route (basically made up as I went along) took about three hours. To begin with I walked up to the area known as the Warren Wood. This was so named after the ground was used to breed rabbits regularly served up in pies at the local hostelry (once called The Reindeer but now also called the Warren Wood). The morning was warming up nicely though a little overcast and the forest was looking particularly lush– one of the few benefits of the rain that has fallen recently. Clumps of purple loosestrife were particularly in evidence and seemed to be attracting a number of generously hued butterflies. Despite it being the school holidays there were few people about. In my childhood we would have been trusted to go cycling or adventuring in this sort of area but the modern preoccupation with “stranger danger” seems to have put paid to that – understandable but still rather sad.

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Connaught Water

Soon I found myself crossing the main Epping Road onto the area known as Chingford Plain. Here I spent some time walking round and admiring Connaught Water which was rather a haven for wild birds and multitudes of dragonflies.  Suddenly the sun broke through and at the same time it immediately began to rain (gotta love the British climate!). Fortunately it was only a fleeting shower so there was no need even to take cover.

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Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge in Chingford (note authenic Tudor guttering/downpipe)

My ultimate destination was Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, a three storey building which I had always assumed provided an overnight stop over for the Tudor monarchs who caused it to be built. That turned out not to be the purpose at all. In essence it was a grandstand from which assorted lords and ladies could watch the royal hunt chasing down and exterminating the local deer population. Thus the first floor provided an entry chamber and the kitchen; the second floor was the dining area and a place where archers could join in “the sport” if the hunt got close enough; the top floor was essentially the viewing platform. It’s an interesting little spot, free to enter and doesn’t take long to go round. One local myth suggests that Queen Elizabeth I rode a white horse up the stairwell on hearing of the Armada victory – I think that’s probably more redolent of what comes out of the rear end of said quadruped.

After a refreshment break at the pleasant Butler’s Retreat café next to the lodge it was time to head home. How about those plans which were fermenting in my head? Well, I made some decisions, considered and rejected others, put some on hold and tried to think through the pitfalls of yet more. It’s probably a bit too early to reveal what they are yet and, in any case, I have to keep readers coming back somehow! Suffice to say that one decision I did make was to start another blog in which I might record the aftermath of playing one of the Mechanicals in a professional production….and what he did next. And here is the result. I don’t think it will be such a regular or even full blog as the last effort and neither will it have the coherence and continuity that writing about a single subject provided but as an outlet for my verbal incontinence it should pass muster. Look out for further adventures in the world of theatre, some drama, film, music and book reviews, educational musings, reports of outings and the occasional picture of a cat.  Thank you for joining me yet again (or indeed for the first time). I commend to your kind thoughts and gentle approbation this first post of 2ndFrom Bottom.

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