150 not out!

What has been the icing (and the cherry) on the theatrical cake?

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

gDirecting 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)

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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)

iA 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)

jHector 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

kThis 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)

lWell, 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)

mI 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.

In touch with the Tudors

Site specific theatre hits new heights in the Old Hall of Lincoln’s Inn

Lincoln’s Inn is a slice of the past in the heart of the metropolis. Part medieval, part Tudor, part Victorian it is essentially a home to the upper echelons of the legal system and a fascinating place to visit. It was an even more fascinating place in which to perform the play version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall especially as it was the stamping ground of one of the key characters -Sir Thomas More.

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Sir Thomas More (Julian) meet Sir Thomas More

Following a two week residency at the Bridewell Theatre off Fleet Street, Tower Theatre took possession of the Old Hall at Lincoln’s Inn for a special one off performance on Monday 30th July. Part celebration, part fund raiser for the company’s newly acquired premises in Stoke Newington the day turned out to be a special one and a very memorable way to mark what is my 150th production across quite a few years decades.

bh001webThe Old Hall, as you might suspect from the name, is, well, old and even the Lincoln’s Inn website acknowledges it as “the finest building in the Inn”. Full of intricate wooden carvings, heavy metal chandeliers, stained glass windows, portraits of the great and good and, at one end, a gigantic canvas by Hogarth it had atmosphere written all over it. The hall was originally constructed in the 1480s – though expanded since then – and was used both as a legal court and a dining hall; it’s most famous literary use was, perhaps as the setting for the opening of Dickens’ Bleak House. Most significantly it was often the setting for revels and masques; highly appropriate given the use to which it was about to be put. I got there relatively early and it was intriguing to watch others of the cast and crew arriving and drinking in the atmosphere in which they would later be performing. In an earlier blog I had aired some thoughts on site specific theatre and wasn’t, I admit, entirely complimentary. This, however, DID feel right and, even more than the previous twelve performances, I was anxious for it to go well.

However, practicalities first. Our time there began with arranging the seating in the hall itself. None of your fold up plastic chairs here – each had a substantial intricately carved wooden frame upholstered in blue leather with gold crests. Luxurious!

 

Then it was down into the crypt, part of which was to be used for the pre-show reception and part as our costume store/changing room. This was very narrow and cramped and was obviously normally used for bar supplies and catering equipment. Resisting the urge to crack open a bottle or two the costumes were racked and headdresses, shoes, jewellery and other personal props laid out. It was evident that we were going to have to change in relays and I made a mental note to ensure I was in the first tranche before the whole area became insufferably hot with heaving bodies.

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Dickon (Cromwell) and I run a scene

Next we needed to run through the play and make any necessary changes. Principally this was to do with entrances and exits as we had to downsize from the three we had been using to just two. As this also necessitated manipulating very substantial (oak?) doors – and closing them again – we needed to adjust when we came on and how we left the stage. The other main difference was that the throne was no longer on a dais – we had to be particularly careful not to damage the rather expensive stone flooring we were working on. Surprisingly the changes were all accomplished pretty quickly and by the time we had finished our highly organised stage management team, led by the ever efficient Dinah, had laid out all the props in the alley behind the entrances. The one thing that was lacking was anywhere for the actors to congregate during the show while waiting to go on. This was solved by moving some chairs into Gatehouse Court next to the grassy area by the side of the Chapel. Thus we had a very real green room and it was in the open air. Bliss! The weight of some of the costumes had been taking their toll on participants during the heatwave (yours truly included) so this was an absolute boon.

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Stage Manager Dinah surveys the magnificent panelled backdrop

Our guests started arriving at 6.30 and headed into the crypt for refreshments and to see a display about plans for the new venue and the 24 actors started the process of getting into full Tudor regalia. Soon it was time to “bring up the bodies” and at 7.30 promptly we stood expectantly outside the entranceways listening to the pre-show announcement, the opening music and then on we went. The entire cast appears in the opening sequence – I can only imagine how spectacular this must look from the audience’s point of view. My first main scene proper is some half hour in and as I don’t have any dialogue in this part I was able to drink in the atmosphere and take measure of the acoustics – very resonant.

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Curtain call

The show itself seemed to go by much more quickly than before. Perhaps this is because we were all much more comfortable playing at speed and the backstage/outdoor conditions were so much more conducive than they had been. All seemed to go very smoothly. In fact the only hiccough I noticed was when the throne got tipped over by error in a scene in which Wolsey’s place is ransacked. Knowing that Henry VIII needed to sit on it fairly shortly I bided my time and replaced the chair surreptitiously – well as surreptitious as one can be manhandling a piece of furniture. But that’s it. Despite the strange venue there were no missed cues or word stumbles, no misbehaving props or costume malfunctions; just a tale told with pace, vigour and a great deal of audience warmth. They were particularly generous with their applause at the end and the overall feeling was that they both they, and we, had had a thoroughly good night out in a magnificent venue. We now have a couple of weeks off (one rehearsal aside) to gather our thoughts and think about the final leg of the production. This will be at another iconic landmark, the Minack open air theatre in Cornwall; more treats!

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!

It’s infinitely more fun to play the baddie

It is a truth pretty universally acknowledged in the world of am dram that playing the baddie is infinitely preferable to being cast as the goodie. Who’d want to play Peter Pan (flying aside) when you could play Captain Hook? Isn’t Iago so much more satisfying as a part than his dupe Othello? Lady Macbeth or Lady Macduff? No contest! Heroes and Villains (coincidentally the title of the first single I ever bought with my own money*) are the backbone of any drama providing opposition, conflict and ultimately a sense of resolution. Thus I’ve been looking forward to playing a couple of real life bad’uns just weeks apart in two of Tower Theatre’s latest productions.

First up was Kafka’s Dick by the wonderful Alan Bennett. On the face of it an intellectual comedy (it’s perhaps the closest Bennett has ever got to being Tom Stoppard) I took on the role of Hermann Kafka, Franz’s dad and feted as being “one of the most notorious shits in literary history”. It is he who knows the real truth about Franz’s inadequacy in the trouser department and threatens to reveal all to the world in a desperate bid to get his own part in the biographies rewritten. My research revealed that he has been branded as a serial emotional abuser undermining his child’s confidence and keeping his whole family on a very tight rein. On one occasion he made the young Franz stand on a freezing cold balcony all night for the “crime” of requesting a glass of water. Towards the end of his short life the author wrote his father an open letter which although he claimed it would be “very incomplete” ran to some 43 pages and set out his feeling about the emotional abuse, confusing double standards and constant criticism and disapproval that he felt he had faced.

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Not that Bennett allows this to go unchallenged. As he cleverly points out posterity only has Franz’s version of the past to go by and it is perfectly possible that events recalled are as fantastical as some of his fiction. It’s certainly easy to see FK as a manic depressive with body consciousness issues who is unable to complete many of his literary projects or come to a state of finality with any of his intimate relationships. However, on balance, Hermann is a “wrong ‘un” and needs to be played as harsh, coarse and manipulative. This, of course, is where the fun lies. Cleaning his ear with a toothpick and then using the same implement to pick his dentures is bound to get a “Eww” from the audience. Bennett also gives him a very nice line in invective – “you teetering column of urine”, “shut your face, you wet dishcloth”, etc – which an audience can enjoy simply because it is watching someone else on the receiving end. At the end of the play Kafka Senior metamorphoses (see what I did there?) into God – for Franz this prospect is even more horrific than his ordinary father as he concludes “Heaven is going to be Hell”.

 

Kafka’s Dick is a relatively short piece which, given the heatwave that was going on and the Edwardian costumes that some of us were wearing, was no bad thing. It was difficult to have the windows in the dressing room open as most evenings there was the sound of World Cup watchers floating up from the pub garden below to the auditorium (the compact but very nice Upstairs At The Gatehouse in Highgate Village). Fortunately my appearance was confined to Act 2 only so I could sit in front of a fan undisturbed for the first fifty minutes or so. After that I was on stage pretty much non stop so there was plenty of dialogue to master and Hermann being a quick thinker and driving the action in the second part I had my work cut out. In the end, though, a very enjoyable experience with a delightful cast and production team and I’m glad to have added this to my Bennett CV along with The Madness of George III, The Wind In The Willows and The History Boys. By the way, I’d love to have another crack at the latter so if there are any casting directors reading this please feel free to call….

A short pause for breath and then it was on to the stage version of Wolf Hall. I’d actually been cast in this play first and found myself rehearsing both productions pretty simultaneously at the Tower Theatre’s new home in Stoke Newington (due to fully open in September**). But with two understanding directors and a strong sense of self discipline when it came to line learning it proved manageable. Just two weeks separated productions so with no rest for the wicked – appropriate in this context – it was straight onto final rehearsals for Hilary Mantel’s slice of Tudor history which has become something of a modern day phenomenon.

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This time I was due to play Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk – uncle to Anne Boleyn (and, incidentally, Katherine Howard). Once again a not particularly pleasant individual though by all accounts a skilled military strategist. In the play he is revealed as harsh, coarse and manipulative (yes, you have read that phrase before). However, unlike Hermann Kafka who reserved most of his spite for his immediate family, Norfolk takes a much wider approach. He despises (in no particular order), foreigners – especially the French, women in general and his wife in particular, the rest of his extended family, most of the Tudor nobility including (probably) the King, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, the common people and basically everybody who isn’t him. Essentially he is the embodiment of the recently much vaunted term “gammon” – red faced, choleric, vindictive and extremely prejudiced against all and sundry. Like Hermann he too has a great line in invective: “By the thrice beshitten shroud of Lazarus”, “Bet you ran away like a Frenchman too” etc. and again like Hermann will stop at nothing to get his own way – both Norfolk’s nieces, of course, were beheaded and having played a large part in initially advancing their causes he backed off rapidly leaving them to their unfortunate fates. So there is a definite overlap between the two characters although they are certainly differentiated by origin and class.

 

We’ve been playing Wolf Hall for a week now at the Bridewell Theatre just off Fleet Street – appropriately on the site of Henry VIII’s Bridwell Palace – and have reached the halfway stage as I pen this blog. Once again it has been phenomenally hot as the heatwave has continued and even deepened. I’m lucky enough to be wearing a high quality costume (previously it appeared in the film The Other Boleyn Girl) but, of course, high quality comes at a price. It’s possibly the heaviest thing I’ve ever had to wear onstage – basically it’s a thick overcoat topped by a portable duvet – so keeping cool has become a bit of an issue. Indeed at the dress rehearsal I confess I came close to passing out. Still no pain, no gain and my scenes are relatively brief and spaced out so I can afford to shed the heaviest bits in between appearances. Neither does it detract from the overall experience of being in yet another first class show with another superb cast, first rate designers and super efficient crew (“Sumptuous Hilary Mantel intrigue” 5* ) If you fancy a stimulating evening we’ve got another week to play yet and on July 30th we even have a special one off performance in the Old Hall at Lincoln’s Inn – very exciting. Finally we get the pleasure of taking the whole thing out into the open air at the world famous Minack Theatre in Cornwall in mid August. All details of performances are on the Tower Theatre website.

I’ve had a great time getting to grips with and playing these two horrors from the past over the last couple of months. There is something wonderfully cathartic about finding the beast within and unleashing it on the world … just so long as it’s only for entertainment purposes where it can do nobody any real harm. Now who should I go for next – Bill Sikes, Richard III or Lord Voldermort?

*The Beach Boys if you’re struggling to recall

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** If you’re reading this before 6pm on 24/07/18 please consider helping us at Tower Theatre by donating a tenner (or more of course) to The Big Get In our Crowd Funding Campaign

Education Education Education

Reflections on a play and events that inspired it

Early May 1997 was a big deal in the world of education, though not because of anything that was actually happening in schools but rather because of what was occurring in Westminster. John Major’s Tory government had been swept away after 18 years of power by the landslide victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour and a sense of optimism and a bright new future pervaded staffrooms up and down the land. I can well recall the feeling that in David Blunkett (new Education Secretary) there was someone who would fight schools’ corners and Tony Blair himself had promised us the earth, hadn’t he … so what could go wrong? A devised piece of theatre I saw last night attempts to provide some perspective on events.

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As someone who spent rather more years at the “chalkface” than he perhaps cares to remember I was fascinated to see what a production which looked back to the state of education in the late 1990s would make of this particular time’s contribution to the way we are today. The Wardrobe Ensemble’s Education Education Education premiered last year at the Edinburgh Festival and won awards as well as good reviews from the critics. It has now moved to Shoreditch Town Hall for a short residency.

Titled after what was, perhaps, Tony Blair’s most famous sound bite (“She was the people’s princess”, aside) this short sharp 80 minute play treats us to a very special day in the life of Wordsworth, a bog standard comprehensive just about avoiding special measures and saying goodbye to its Year 11s as they go on study leave and rampage around the school on muck up day. It is also the day following the landslide election victory which saw the Labour Party end 18 years of Conservative rule; the teachers are jubilant as they anticipate a much improved professional future. Our narrator figure is Tobias, the young newly appointed German language assistant; he thinks Britain is the coolest place on earth to be but finds just one day in his new job rather taints his optimistic view. For the pupils are evidently out of hand and the teachers are possibly more childish than their charges. Then there is misunderstood and rebellious Emily, a Year 10 girl with “isshues” who starts a protest in the canteen and eventually physically harms a member of the staff. It is Tobias’ first day in the school; it will prove to be Emily’s last.

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The actors are extremely energetic flinging themselves around the stage to the point where I felt tired on their behalf. The seven strong ensemble play all the characters, both adults and children using broad brushstrokes to delineate characters quickly and efficiently. Some of these are somewhat stereotyped – the weak head, the gorgon deputy, the well-meaning but ineffectual English teacher, the somewhat dense PE teacher. Having said that I certainly met those type of people myself and in this fast paced and short piece there is little room for subtle development of character. I was strongly reminded of the John Godber play Teechers which, coincidentally, also started life in Edinburgh. 

Staging is extremely minimal, though none the less ingenious, and the various locations – including the school roof – are cleverly depicted aided by appropriate lighting and a highly effective soundscape. The music soundtrack is very important to the action and the nostalgia laden classic late 90s pop drew murmurs of recognition from the audience. This and the extreme precision of the inventive choreography helped the piece move seamlessly from scene to scene. I don’t know whether it was the acoustics of the venue or some of the soundtrack being too loud but there were some parts of the dialogue that passed me by; however, I don’t think I missed anything too important.

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My main criticism is that the first 15 minutes or so failed to give the audience a central plot on which to concentrate.  Rather it was a series of comic sketches which painted a collage of school life. Amusing and droll as these undoubtedly were I began to fear that the whole piece was going to be little more than an excuse for the performers to demonstrate their abilities as comedians.  Then as we began to focus on Emily’s troubles and Tobias’ reactions the piece gained in strength and purpose. I think this can be a problem with devised pieces when there is no central writer with a clear idea of where the narrative is heading.  A rather heavy handed trope about King Arthur and the golden age of Camelot also did not add much to the experience in my opinion.

An undoubted strength, though, was a reminder of just how silly the late 90s could be. Cool Britannia, shag bands, Britpop, Tamagotchis, cheese strings, the Macarena, the UK’s last Eurovision win (yes, it was that long ago – Katrina and the Waves, since you ask). All the above and many more drew nostalgic beams of delight from the audience – the majority of whom would, I estimate, have been in school themselves at the time; as indeed was I, albeit on the other side of the staffroom door.

Does the play paint an accurate picture of May 2nd 1997 in comprehensive schools and their hopes for a new dawn? I’d say it does and it manages to do so in a way that is both entertaining and thought provoking. The secondary meaning of “education” is an enlightening experience – for Tobias, Emily and the Shoreditch audience it certainly was.*

The song “Things Can Only Get Better” brought the play’s proceedings to a close. An anthem of hope ironically used to highlight what has happened since. If hope has declined in the intervening years (and I think most people in standard education would say that it has) this play is a timely reminder of how things were when things had reached crisis point and how they might have been… if only.

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.

Divide? It Certainly Did!

The critics are divided over “The Divide”. It is a long haul but ultimately worth it

Have you ever read reviews after watching a show? And have you ever felt: “Did they see the same show, I did?” Or “Have they even seen the same show as each other?” Such were my feelings after going online to see what others thought of The Divide – “a narrative for voices” by the prolific Alan Ayckbourn currently at the The Old Vic.

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Some context first. As the astute among you will have seen this is not designated as a play and is not even listed as such amongst the official canon of works on Ayckbourn’s website. Even so it has now been presented on stage in both Edinburgh and London but it is more in the nature of a novel/graphic novel running originally to some 80,000 words.  Set in a bleak dystopian future where men and women are segregated, the narrative consists chiefly of the diary extracts of the two main protagonists, sister and brother (Soween and Elihu), supplemented by council minutes, court transcripts, emails and letters, etc. In keeping with the wide ranging freedom afforded by a full length work of prose, the piece ranges across a multitude of settings and contains a host of characters. The first rehearsed reading took 8½ hours. At Edinburgh the piece was divided (how apposite) into two parts which ran for a total of 6 hours. Its present incarnation at the Old Vic stops just shy of 4 hours. But then that’s what happens when a piece of prose is dramatized – the RSC’s famous production of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby ran for nearly 9 hours and this was seen as one of its strengths.

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Not so here for many critics. Edinburgh reviewers were consistent in condemning the piece as too long and this seems to have informed the decision to make the Old Vic version leaner. Yet there is still dissatisfaction. Trade magazine The Stage brands it “four hours long, and devoid of drama”. The Evening Standard opines that “it warrants further trimming”. Both reviewers award two stars. On the other side of the critical divide (!) both The Times and The Telegraph opt for four stars with the former stating “I’d say the time flies “and the latter claiming that “a lumbering dud has become a spry delight”. Plus ça change!

Of course length is not the only consideration. There are also comments that there is far too much exposition (sorry, but that IS the nature of the piece) that characters do not develop (true, some do not but that is by no means universal) and there is a lack of conflict (patently not the case). The problem here is that some critics are trying to impose the structure and tropes of a play onto something which is not a play and was never intended to be.

I wrote it under very extraordinary circumstances because I just wanted to write something I couldn’t even see myself directing. I just let my mind go into free fall – in the sense that I threw my constructional kit away – and I just wrote something that went on and on and which still hopefully obeyed the rules of narrative and character, but that was probably unstageable. It was like nothing I had ever written before. (AA)

The critics are pretty unanimous though when it comes to the staging, the design and the acting all of which come in for considerable praise.

download soweenSo where do I stand in all this? Difficult. I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m an Ayckbourn fan and I see this piece as the culmination of a long strand of dystopian fiction in his work – plays such as Henceforward…, Comic Potential and Surprises among others are all set in future imperfect worlds. However, they are still primarily about personal relationships and I don’t think there has been an attempt to picture a whole community in this way before – though the early 1960s piece Standing Room Only is set in a world where a family are living on a double decker bus with the whole country being in permanent gridlock. So it’s very wide in scope and there are a lot of characters and concepts to introduce. I think the current production actually does this with some verve and even wit. Whatever the feelings about overall length there is no doubt that the piece is pacy, energetically staged and beautifully lit. The use of video projections on curtains to suggest a waterfall and to display the various diary entries and Soween’s school essays are masterfully done. The small orchestra and choir provide empathetic underscoring at key moments and the monochromatic colour scheme of the costumes and settings enhance the key idea of the division between the genders. In all, director Annabel Bolton has done a remarkable job in pulling together something which even the author admits is basically unstageable.

divide1Nor do the performances disappoint. As Soween, Erin Doherty is utterly convincing as the young heroine who grows in both age and understanding. She is delightfully gauche in her dealings with others and convincingly bewildered about the changes that are staring to take place both to herself and the society she lives in. The rest of the predominantly female cast is universally excellent with the stand outs being Weruche Opia and Finty Williams. I was, perhaps, less convinced by the male characters – possibly because there were relatively fewer opportunities to observe their side of The Divide (a result of the editing?).

My only real gripe was the extended coda in the last twenty minutes when things were allowed to wind down far too slowly. While this gave a sense of what happened after the further shifts in this society, the tension evident earlier had gone and it all seemed a bit too cosy for comfort. In the main (though I wouldn’t go as far as this five star review which seems to have no criticisms at all) I’d say it was an interesting experiment, even a bold attempt to do something entirely different and, if forced to put a rating on it, opt for something like 3.5 stars. Personally I look forward to the mooted 2019 publication of the project in book form – far closer to its original intention and something which can be pored over at leisure. Whatever else it is heartening to see Ayckbourn still pushing back the boundaries of the dramatically possible – one thing on which, perhaps, we can all be united.

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Peeping Tom encounters

Back onstage at the Barbican for a brand new experience with Peeping Tom from Belgium

PTA museum where the pictures keep mysteriously changing until they are all identical; a printed diagram of a heart which spouts real blood; a young woman whose birth screams segue straight into a blues rock song called “Cry Baby”; a desultory seventh birthday party for a girl who has spent her entire life in an incubator; a woman singing a torch song to a recalcitrant coffee vending machine which then electrocutes her. These are some of the highlights of Moeder (Mother) with which I found myself involved last week at the Barbican.

Anyone who followed my previous blog (https://bottomdream16.wordpress.com/) will know that this is not the first time I have found myself onstage at this prestigious venue. However when I went through the stage door for the last time twenty months previously I assumed that that would be it as far as my professional stage career went (that’s the stage being professional – I would never make such exaggerated claims!). And then a couple of months ago a call went out for some stage extras “of a certain age” to take part in a production by the renowned – they won an Olivier Award in 2015 – Belgian physical theatre company, Peeping Tom (Sorry if you’ve read this far expecting something more racy based on the title!). This was to be part of the London International Mime Festival in early 2018. Well I thought about it for about three seconds but the lure of going back to an old haunt to relieve some cherished memories proved irresistible and I applied.

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A couple of weeks ago my participation was confirmed along with that of my theatrical colleague David Taylor. David had been our local director for the Midsummer Night’s Dream project with the Royal Shakespeare Company  and I had always felt just a little guilty that the rest of the team and I had the joy of getting on stage while David had not had that pleasure. So it was good to know that this situation would finally be remedied and that he could get to feel what it was like to be facing an audience in such a vast arena.

I wasn’t really sure what I was letting myself in for and the notion of physical theatre and mime were somewhat scary. But if I had learned anything from the RSC project it was to step up to a challenge and face it head on. I thought some research might prove enlightening; however, the Barbican’s own description of the piece on its website probably raised more questions than it gave answers:

Peeping Tom evoke a dreamlike universe, at once disturbing and oddly humorous. A production of astonishing physicality that defies characterisation. This non-narrative work draws on the memories of director Gabriela Carrizo and her performers to trigger disquieting reflections about motherhood. Suffering, desire, fear, life and death are unexpectedly intertwined. The soundscape has a cinematic quality, sometimes amplified to disconcerting effect. It is matched by surreal visual imagery and choreography of rare imagination where bodies bend, flip, isolate and contort.

As I was to discover, they sure got that right! Snippets and extracts of the company’s work on You Tube and pictures on their own website (www.peepingtom.be/en/) confirmed the enigmatic nature of their work. I did discover that Moeder is the middle part of a planned trilogy, that the company had already devised and performed Varder (Father) and that the final instalment, scheduled to be premiered, in 2019 will be Kind (Child). Beyond that I was pretty much in the dark about the work and what would be expected of us extras – or as we were rather more ostentatiously being called, supernumeraries.

 

So it was that last Wednesday afternoon I found myself once more signing in at the stage door of the Barbican. This unleashed a flood of happy memories of my time there in 2016; in a sense it was a bit like going home. As well as David there were three other mature participants equally unsure of what was to come as well as young Chloe and her chaperone. Eliza from the Barbican production team and Lulu, Peeping Tom’s tour manager, greeted us and took us up to the dressing rooms – a very familiar location-  and then we went onstage (another lump in the throat moment) and met director/choreographer Gabriela Carrizo who gave us a bit more information about our appearances in the show. We were first to follow the funeral cortege of the mother figure (the piece starts with her demise) and then become visitors to the museum where the majority of the action takes place. Costumes were then selected – these were quite plain and neutral – and after some sound check work a run through began.

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The supernumeraries – a new breed of superhero

Given that the first performance was scheduled that evening it was a steep learning curve but Lulu was constantly present to give us cues and remind us of what to do and when and so it flowed reasonably smoothly. Actually a lot of it was about maintaining a blank expression and keeping very still – in marked contrast to the eight main company members who couldn’t have been more animated if they tried. They were, of course, very well seasoned in what they were doing; it transpired that they had already performed the piece 83 times in their native Belgium and elsewhere globally. And they certainly needed to be slick, coping with multiple costume changes,  timing moves to a constantly changing soundtrack which was enhanced by Foley techniques (named after sound-effects artist Jack Foley, this is the reproduction of everyday sound effects that are added to enhance audio quality), and adding some incredible vocal contributions of their own. In one particularly harrowing sequence the mother appears carrying the supine body of a child and ululating (sorry, it’s the only word that will do) like a thing possessed. I didn’t know a human being was capable of such a sound and even now I’m haunted by it. If that makes the piece seem like a doom laden tragedy throughout then that is far from the truth. The actors had a fine line in deadpan delivery that was, at times, truly hilarious and the more surreal aspects wouldn’t have been out of place in a sketch by Spike Milligan crossed with a painting by Rene Magritte – I presume the repeated appearance of a tuba onstage was an homage to the Belgian master of the absurd.

 

In fact the varied nature of the work – intense, raw and savage one moment and playful, whimsical and quirky the next all added to the rich texture which was created. It was the sort of piece which revealed more of itself every time we watched as we extras supernumeraries did from the wings each performance. My admiration for the performers grew with repeat viewings not least for the almost extraordinary physical contortions that they were able to deploy to twist themselves into unworldly shapes. That said I’d still be hard pressed to say what it all finally meant. Perhaps you can decide for yourself by watching this video which seeks to give a flavour of what certainly ranks as one of the most extraordinary experiences of my acting life.

A National Institution

The National’s Amadeus scales the heights. A review and some reflections.

1a24832ccc71a06e4f4672c5145d153a--theater-posters-anonymousI’ve been going to the National Theatre now since the year it opened in 1976. The first production I saw was Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers (about time that was revived) and since then there have been many dramatic highlights along with one or two stinkers (Victor Hugo’s The Prince’s Play anyone?). I was reminded of the sheer breadth of the work done in the building when prior to seeing  a production I found myself browsing round their current National Theatre Posters exhibition. If you’re going to a production there anytime soon I’d certainly recommend getting there early to have a quick game of “How many have I seen?” But the real reason I was there was to see Amadeus. This was a play I’d first seen in 1979 (1979!) and was definitely one of the aforementioned highlights so I was looking forward to this revival with some anticipation. To me the National has recently gone through a bit of a downturn. Partly in its desperation to attract new audiences it has tended to alienate its core – at least that’s how I see it. So it was with high hopes that I once again took my seat in the Olivier auditorium to revisit a play I’d first seen all those years ago.

Posters of original and current productions
Posters of original and current productions

It can’t be often that I have been called upon to review a production that has already been granted a slew of four/five star ratings; it really does suggest that you are going to have a great evening. And so it was when I sat down in the Olivier auditorium last night for Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. First performed at the National Theatre in 1979 this production is a revival of a revival which appeared between late 2016 and early 2017. It was a complete sell out at the time and so, astutely, the National have brought back Michael Longhurst’s scintillating production for a glorious reprise.

As I am sure readers will be aware, the plot consists of the rivalry between court composer Salieri and the upstart crow Mozart. The former conceives an innate hatred of the latter and engineers his fall from grace and eventually his death – or does he? For this is, among other things, a memory play and we all know just how notorious that faculty can be. By making these claims is Salieri aggrandizing his own part in history as he struggles with being the mediocrity that he privately acknowledges himself to be?

 

The cast is universally excellent and of the less “senior roles” I particularly enjoyed Matthew Spencer’s Emperor and Christopher Godwin’s turn as the misanthropic Baron Van Swieten. A special mention also for Adelle Leonce as Mrs Mozart – Constanze. The scene in which she visits Salieri and he suggests “recompense” for advancing her husband’s career has real resonance in these post Weinstein times and I suppose that’s the point – thus it ever was! However, any production of this play stands or falls by the casting of the two central roles and, in both cases the 2016/17 production actors return to parts that now fit them like a pair of gloves.

Lucian Msamati is Salieri, at war with his fellow composer and with the God he feels has let him down. Well bedded into the role by now Msamati is a charismatic central figure and as an actor is certainly not the mediocrity which his character claims himself to be. He addresses the audience with a clarity of thought and diction that kept us hanging on his every word and is thoroughly convincing as both the old man in his wheelchair and his much younger past self.

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Adam Gillen reprises the role of Mozart, a shambolic man child with a potty mouth and a tendency to throw tantrums when he can’t have his own way. Nevertheless he is the musical genius who has survived the march of time and, especially towards the end, Gillen makes him a sympathetic figure who dies tragically young  and who could perhaps have gone on to even greater things. Some critics have pronounced Gillen’s characterisation to be too infantile and accused him of over egging the pudding but I would humbly suggest that they are missing the point. As well as being the central figure of the play, Salieri is also the (unreliable) narrator of proceedings. And so we see Mozart entirely mediated through Salieri’s point of view. Just as he is in awe of Mozart’s music, Salieri is appalled by the young man’s behaviour and demeanour. So it is entirely right and proper, in my view, that Gillen plays Mozart to excess.

The real coup of the production is the use made of the twenty strong Southbank Sinfonia playing all the music live. Nor do they sit quietly in an orchestra pit or, as is more customary, find themselves relegated to a corner of the stage. They are front and centre throughout, often playing on the move and interacting with the cast – indeed they are part of the cast functioning as an orchestral Greek chorus and adding a real edge to the proceedings. The whole is topped off with half a dozen actor/opera singers who perform snippets of Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, et al. I’m no opera buff but the gentleman sitting next to me clearly was and at the interval declared himself “entranced” by these elements.

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Magnificent use is made of the Olivier stage and for once there are enough performers to fill it; the recent production of Sondheim’s Follies took a similar tack and perhaps heralds a return to serious theatre as spectacle. Heaven alone knows what the wages bill for these two productions alone must have been! Lighting was suitably atmospheric and used to shrink the vast expanse of the stage when more intimate scenes were taking place. Costumes ranged from period (the actors) to modern (the musicians); particularly striking were Salieri’s golden outfit and Mozart’s pink Doctor Marten boots cleverly suggesting at the same time both the delicate and thuggish aspects of the character.

Shaffer’s play is rightly acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of 20th century theatre. I was lucky enough to see the original production with Paul Scofield, Simon Callow and Felicity Kendall and Longhurst’s production certainly gives that a run for its money; indeed the thrilling use of the live musicians might even give it the edge. Salieri may repeatedly claim his mediocrity and as a narrator be questionably unreliable; I am very happy to say that this returning production is definitely neither.*

After a bit of a sluggish period it looks like the National is returning to its former glory days. The last two productions I have seen there have both been of exceptional quality and really made use of the space available. Here’s to its continued revival.

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.