Bloody hell

A cause celebre revisited as @guildhallschool students tackle difficult play

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There have always been plays that challenge and divide opinion and the debate about censorship continues. Even in ancient Greece, where free speech saw its birth, the philosopher Plato regularly called for curbs on what was shown to the masses. British theatrical censorship ended in 1968 (and Hair! began performances the next day) but there have been regular calls for its return as dramas such as Edward Bond’s Saved, Howard Brenton’s The Romans In Britain and Sarah Kane’s Blasted have been subjected to varying degrees of moral opprobrium. Another playwright regularly in the firing line as “going too far” has been Phillip Ridley so I was intrigued to see how one of his “shockers” from 2005 had held up. Here’s my review of Mercury Fur.

Well, that was exhausting! I suppose I knew that watching a Philip Ridley play was never going to be a light hearted romp but Mercury Fur performed by final year students at The Guildhall School of Speech and Drama was about as intense as it gets. An unrelenting (two hours straight through) blitzkrieg of dystopian gloom and despair summed up neatly by the warning sign in the foyer: “This play contains violence, strobe, strong language and scenes of a disturbing nature. There will be smoking on stage, the use of haze, loud noises and cashew nuts”.

Definitely – though I’m pleased to report that the use of nuts was kept to a minimum – and much more besides! Social breakdown, predatory gangs, drug dealing, intense cruelty, casual violence, child trafficking, the gratification of extreme amoral urges and litres of blood also featured prominently and made for uncomfortable viewing. Back in 2005 when the play premiered it became a cause celebre in the vein of Bond’s Saved and Kane’s Blasted. It divided critical opinion (The Daily Telegraph called it “poisonous”), caused regular audience walkouts and the play’s publishers even refused to print the script.

DptgQRZXgAAAiCwSuitably braced I sat back to await the sensory onslaught. The play starts in relatively jovial mode. Two brothers, Elliott (Harvey Cole) and Darren (Joseph Potter), break into a sordid, rubbish strewn abandoned apartment which they plan to use as the venue for an organised party. Naz (Mirren Mack) from “next door” pops in and helps the siblings to tidy. They all banter with each other in a vein redolent of scenes and language in Trainspotting – this is reinforced by the copious references to drugs sold by Elliott from an old ice cream van. In Ridley’s world the drugs are live butterflies which cause hallucinations and/or amnesia. However, things take a more sinister turn in Naz’s heart rending yet strangely casual speech about her mother’s decapitation at the hands of a feral gang. It soon becomes apparent that the “party” is being held to satisfy the base instincts of the Party Goer (Oli Higginson) whose fantasy is to dress up as a Vietnam GI and then brutally torture the Party Piece (Ellis Howard) – a drugged child dressed as Elvis. Completing the picture are Lola (Brandon Howard), a transgender dresser (and Kinks’ tribute?) preparing the victim, vicious gang leader Spinx (Dominic Gilday) and his consort the blind and perpetually muddled Duchess (Isabella Brownson).

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The cast are to be congratulated on making such difficult material remotely palatable and engaging. Some of the early interplay between the two brothers was very skilfully carried out and helped the audience to empathise with the not altogether voluntary predicament in which they found themselves. I was particularly drawn to the scene between Darren and Naz which showed two youngsters almost cheerfully playing among the physical wreckage as they explored the emotional wreckage of their lives. Harvey Cole’s Elliott too inspired attention and he commanded the early parts of the play with a confidence that bodes well for his future acting career (apparently Ben Wishaw originated the role and now he’s the voice of Paddington Bear!)

Unfortunately I found it hard to empathise with any of the other characters though Ashford’s Lola and Brownson’s Duchess had some touching moments. This was solely down to the writing and the situation of characters within the action of the play rather than any lack of skill on the part of the performers. Frankly if they can repeatedly mentally put themselves through the situations played out in this piece of drama then they will be able to take on any part with alacrity.

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The direction of the piece (John Haidar) was taut and driven though I would question the use of shadow play for the torture scene. I’m sure if Ridley had meant us to actually see such horrors then he would not have put the action offstage and left it to the audience’s imagination to conjure up a picture of what was happening – far more effective anyway.

DptgQQdW4AAwE_hIronically (intentionally so I’m sure) as the piece reached its climax it was at its most beautifully lit. The abandoned flat has no electricity and so the party organisers fall back on Naz’s stash of candles. As the horrors play out the stage is bathed in the sort of light found in the Wannamaker auditorium at the Globe. And that’s when it suddenly hit me. What I was watching was a modern day equivalent of a Jacobean revenge tragedy such as Webster’s Malfi. The amoral world, the hapless brothers, the entire cast covered in blood; there’s even a character called The Duchess!

In all it was an uncomfortable, unsettling couple of hours but I was full of admiration for the way the students brought it to life. However, I’m still torn as to whether the play itself is a piece of gratuitously violent pornography or a work of genius – I guess Ridley himself would not be troubled by this apparent contradiction. Finally, despite intensive Googling I remain totally uncertain about the meaning of the play’s title. So if anyone could enlighten me….?*

As I indicated at the start of the review this was an exhausting watch and a more than salutary glimpse into a hell on earth. But do I think that censorship should return based on a viewing of this play? Probably not, though one thing I found out after seeing the show might just have persuaded me otherwise. Apparently in the original the character Party Piece – the intended victim of the other characters – was a ten year old Pakistani boy and the actual eventual victim Naz was supposed to be fifteen. Maybe that was going too far. Any thoughts, please do let me know in the comments section.

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

Open For Business

The new Tower Theatre venue in Stoke Newington opens with Shakespeare’s Henry V

409423So, in the last few days the new Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington has launched its very first production – Henry V of which more anon. The company has had a long wait to find a new permanent home but I think it has been worth it. In previous incarnations the building (formerly known as Sunstone House) has been a Methodist Chapel, a synagogue and a women’s only gym so there has been extensive work done to fit it out as a theatre space. The building has three levels with the air-conditioned auditorium itself situated on the top floor. There is also storage space for basic scenery/rostra, the lighting and sound box and a backstage area with dressing room facilities. On the ground floor can be found a large rehearsal space which will eventually double as a studio theatre, the box office, theatre office, a meeting room and an extensive social area/bar. Down in the depths (where an old swimming pool used to be) are two more rehearsal spaces, the costume department and storage areas for props and electrical equipment. If you’re interested in a fuller account of the transformation of the building please click on this link for details, pictures, videos and a blog account of the work carried out.

42543428_10156764183035850_5189673378201468928_nWhen I arrived on Wednesday evening it was with a sense of anticipation but, as a relatively new member (since 2012) it can have been as nothing to the excitement of those who had been with the company for a much longer time. I had arrived early to help with a vox pops video capturing the first night for posterity and I was surprised and delighted to discover that I had the “honour” of being the first customer to collect their ticket from the new box office. And then it was up the stairs and into the theatre for the main event. Here’s my review of the play.

The game’s afoot! The first night of the first production at the new venue in Stoke Newington and that of a play which Tower in its 85 year history had never attempted before – Shakespeare’s Henry V. While this review is not an attempt to evaluate the building itself I cannot help but begin by saying just how professional and welcoming the whole place looked. For long-standing Tower members particularly it must have seemed that our expectation hath this day an end as the venue finally went live. Understandably there was a buzz of excitement in the theatre bar as patrons, like greyhounds in the slips, awaited this momentous, nay historic, occasion to begin.

The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fifth with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France (the original and rather more unwieldy title of the play) is ripe with quotes which would serve in beginning any review – and the reader is hereby warned that a few of these may creep in from time to time! But the line that struck me as most apposite that evening is All things are ready, if our mind be so. Would this be production be able to bring off the challenge of one of the Bard’s densest history plays and use the new auditorium to advantage? Yes, certainly, and out of doubt and out of question too.

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It was clear from the moment of entering the playing space that this was to be a pared down and stripped back production. Members of the highly efficient stage management team led by Richard Davies were clearly on view sitting at the sides throughout and springing into appropriately well-drilled action whenever a scene change was called for. When the lights dimmed, one of this team stepped forward to address us with those so very well-known opening lines:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention….

henry4The Chorus of the play reminds us that we are watching a representation rather than a real event and returns repeatedly to guide us through the action. Penny Tuerk (deservedly taking the honours of uttering the first words in the new venue) made a splendid job of the linking speeches and her remarkably clear diction fully demonstrated the acoustic possibilities of the new space. If not quite the designated wooden O the octagonal shape had clearly provided some of the director John McSpadyen’s inspiration.

It was evident from the play’s opening alone that one of the key concerns of the production was to examine the inherent theatricality of the piece. Usually seen as a drama about power, politics, war and kingship Henry V is, also a play about putting on a play (“play” and variations of the same occur no less than 17 times in the text). In essence we were watching something akin to a late rehearsal of the piece with the stage manager/Chorus guiding proceedings and urging us to piece out our imperfections with your thoughts. Thus aspects such as props and costumes (Kathleen Morrison) were appropriately rudimentary and there was no set to speak of – this latter had the added advantage of showing the audience the full extent of the new space and helped us to concentrate our minds on the various characters.

henry24The production opted for a band of just fourteen players (We few, we happy few) and employed gender neutral casting to present a gamut of characters from royalty to low life and with many of the performers getting to play both English and French participants. Preeminent among these was the Henry of Dan Draper. The character, of course, has some of the most rousing speeches in the whole Shakespeare canon and Draper did them full justice. Most memorable was Once more unto the breach where we could really believe that his soldiers would follow him into any hazardous situation. We also got to see the lighter side of the character in the late scene where Henry woos the French princess Katherine – a delightful performance by Ailsa Dann.

henry6Rather earthier wooing was to be found in the scenes between Mistress Quickly (Anna Dimdore) and Pistol, a wonderfully coarse Ian Hoare. His interaction with his partners in crime Bardolph and Nym (Sangita Modgil and Ed Malcolmson) provided much of the black humour of the early scenes which took a chilling turn just before the interval. I also enjoyed Malcolmson’s supercilious turn as the Constable of France and the even more supercilious Dauphin of Luke Owen. Simon Vaughan’s doubling of Fluellen (channelling Windsor Davies) and Alice (channelling…well, I’m not quite sure) was another highlight. Other doubled and carefully differentiated roles were taken by Katherine Kennet, Sara Nowe, John Morton, Rosanna Preston and Andrew Plaistowe. I was afraid that, with such furious doubling, at some stage one of the players might have to end up fighting with her/himself but as is the way in most of Shakespeare’s history plays the actual battles take place offstage. The Chorus even deliberately deflates the audience’s expectations by pointing out that they will have to make do with four or five most vile and ragged foils. A little harsh on the cast, I thought.

I particularly enjoyed the linking music which was mostly late 70s punk rock numbers used to ironically comment on and underscore the action. This also highlighted the anger and aggression upon which war is contingent and I admit to a wry smile when I saw the “God Save The Queen” T shirt worn by (Sex) Pistol … see what they did there?

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Under some taut direction this was a pacey, muscular reading of the text which will, with repeated playing, gain in confidence and clarity. The Chorus’s early exhortation gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play proved unnecessary on the opening night; the repeated calls for the cast to return to the stage for a further encore was testament to the audience’s full involvement and enjoyment and provided a fine start to the Tower’s latest incarnation. It is to be hoped that this inaugural production will set the tone for forthcoming productions and continue to draw good audiences in its own right. Otherwise gentlemen (and ladies) in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here! 

I’ve just started rehearsals for the second show in the new season which will be Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird. I’m playing Horace Gilmer, the prosecuting counsel in the trial scene which is so central to the story; more details here. I can’t wait to try out the new space from the performance angle and hope to see some of you in the auditorium…. by the by – I can say, from experience, that the seats are extremely comfortable!

Production photography by David Sprecher

Cornish Cream

A wonderful week at the Minack Theatre in Cornwall

Mention the term “theatrical greats” and the name Rowena Cade probably wouldn’t be the first one to spring to mind. However, Ms Cade can lay claim to creating one of the most unique outdoor theatre spaces in the world; for her brainchild was the Minack Theatre in Porthcurno, West Cornwall. This 750 seater, literally carved out of the Cornish cliffs, is just four miles from Land’s End and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year who go to see a production or simply to look round and marvel that a frail woman and her faithful gardener had the vision, determination and ability to build this world renowned attraction. It has become the summit of many an amateur dramatic company’s ambition to put on a performance there and so it was that I recently found myself reprising the role of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk in Tower Theatre’s production of Wolf Hall. It really is a once in a lifetime experience.

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Actually, for me, it’s twice in a lifetime as I had already had the good fortune to play Mr Micawber there in Dickens’ David Copperfield. This was part of my debut for the same company in 2012 and left me with many happy memories and at least one anecdote on which I regularly dine out. This concerns one of the many tourists who make the long pilgrimage to the tip of the country in order to catch a performance. In this instance a long distance traveller from Japan turned up wanting to know if the show was the same one that “he had played in Las Vegas”. Cue much hilarity among the cast … but I digress.

Memories of first time round

Of course returning to somewhere so iconic was never going to be as mind blowing the second time round but the Minack is a very special place and it soon worked its magic. It was probably only as I travelled back to London that I had time to fully reflect on the full gloriousness of the experience and resolved to write it up.

I had decided, this time, to travel by train. The 5.5 hour journey was a good deal shorter than some flights I had been on recently and for company (totally unplanned but in the next seat) I had fellow cast member David Miller. An uneventful trip got us to Penzance at about 9.30pm and we headed off for our respective accommodation. Unfortunately the following morning was grey and ominous. Ironically after something like two months of sunshine and unremtting heat (both at home and in Cornwall) the weather had finally turned; as I breakfasted the rain began and persisted.

Working at the Minack is carried out to a very tight time schedule – particularly on the first couple of days – so rain or no rain there was nothing for it but to catch the bus to my final destination. It should take 45 minutes to get to Porthcurno but as Saturday is predominantly change over day for holidaymakers in this part of the world the bus soon became ensnared in traffic– if you have been to west Cornwall you will appreciate how difficult it must be driving a huge bus down single track roads in lashing rain with masses of vehicles all heading out of the peninsula. However, I had left in plenty of time so still managed to make it to my B&B to drop luggage and then head up the hill to the theatre before the appointed meeting time at noon.

Wonder of wonders the rain stopped just in time for my arrival though, it has to be said, as the theatre has its own microclimate you can never really be sure what’s going to happen next. Gradually the rest of the cast arrived and at midday we officially took posession of the space and began the “get in”. This involved forming a chain gang and passing everything down through the auditorium on the cliff face. This is the only way to achieve getting everything backstage and has to be done regardless of the meterological circumstances. We were lucky that it was dry throughout and also (very sensibly) minimal furnishings and props had been decided upon. We were using no scenery (apart from a decorative and symbolic Tudor rose); the Minack backdrop is sufficiently breathtaking and requires little adornment. The costumes were the bulkiest items – as I can attest my own weighed a ton; multiply that by a cast of 24 (plus those who were doubling up) and it was pretty back breaking. It all took less than an hour, though, and we found ourselves smiling with quiet satisfaction that we hadn’t fallen prey (as some groups invariably do) to bringing the proverbial kitchen sink with us. After all at the end of the week the even harder task of getting it all back up the cliffside late at night beckoned.

 

 

               

The rest of the weekend was spent in sorting out the dressing rooms (which must have the most wonderful view of any dressing rooms anywhere in the world – basking sharks anyone?) and in rehearsing and getting everything up to speed. Gradually everything fell into place and even though there had been a two week lay off all seemed to run smoothly. There was one minor rain delay but we were all hoping the weather would hold good for the performances and that we would not have to revert to the see-through plastic ponchos which are broken out when conditions warrant; performances are seldom, if ever, cancelled outright and 2018 had been a very good year….so far.

Performances run Monday to Friday (matinees on Tuesday/Thursday) and I am happy to report that we were almost entirely rain free – the only damp moment was at the start of the second half of the last night when it rained for about one minute and even then so lightly that it was more of a relief from the heat than anything else. There was one windy evening and one where it rained up until ten minutes before we started and then bucketed down again fifteen minutes after we had finished but, that aside, conditions were warm(ish), calm and, as clouds departed, starlit. The Thursday matinee was the hottest and driest and led to some uncomfortable moments in the heavy costumes. I even took to wearing my hat backstage (as exposed to the elements as the rest) but as it was of Tudor design with a large feather at least it was in keeping.

The final bows of the final show

A full album of production photos can be found here

How was it? Well, if it was not quite as thrilling as the first time round (how could it be?) it was still very special indeed. The Minack requires a big level of performance – something to which I could not be accused of being a stranger – and my character was, fortunately, very conducive to being played up. I think the harder job was for those whose characters needed to be understated – well done to them for achieving this particularly difficult balancing act. We generally played the first half in fading light and it is then that seals could be seen in the waters below the backstage area. By Act 2 full darkness had descended; that’s when the venue works its real magic. An evening breeze blows in off the sea; the incoming tide crashes into the Cornish cliffs making cuelines difficult to hear but heightening the drama; lights from fishing boats can be seen bobbing and shimmering in the distance; the occasional bat flies by no doubt pursuing the moths attracted by the stage lights; the audience starts to disappear into coats and hats and huddle underneath blankets. There is a real sense of communion as players and audience share some very special moments. As we concluded our twentieth and last performance at about 10.45pm on Saturday evening I reflected that this was, indeed, a truly memorable way to round off my 150th production; huge thanks are due to all those onstage and off who helped to make it possible.

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A sight to gladden the heart

Audiences were very appreciative and very strong in number. We averaged 91% across the week (about 4.5k bums on seats) which for a straight play is extremely good and applause was loud and generous. I think most of us in the cast had at least one positive encounter with an enthusiastic audience member during the daytime. Certainly one couple staying in the same B&B as me came into the dining room and declared “Well we must be going up in the world; yesterday we had breakfast with Thomas Wyatt and Mark Smeaton – today it’s the Duke of Norfolk”. Indeed the B&B clientele seemed to consist almost entirely of audience members or Dutch costal path walkers … I’m still intrigued as to why one of the latter proceeded to top a bowl of fruit with HP sauce (perhaps they assumed it was chocolate).

Other than when doing the two matinees, we were free during the days and able to go off and visit the sights. A big group of us spent the day at Sennen Cove (ruined sandals clambering down to the beach) and at The Tate at St Ives (preferred the building to its contents) and on one day I took open top bus rides to tour Mousehole, Newlyn, St Michael’s Mount and Marizon. Post show entertainment and activities were also well to the fore, largely to allow time for the performance adrenaline to subside – the pub quiz (winning team!) and the Tower Taskmaster competition (winning team!) were particularly memorable. And of course there was plenty of time to consume pasties, hogs pudding, saffron buns, fairings, Newlyn crab, fish and chips, Rattler (cider), Korev (lager), Kelly’s ice cream and cream teas – absolutely jam first, then cream; it’s a wonder that by the end of the week some costumes weren’t straining.

Backstage walkway and steps up to stage

That they weren’t may possibly be put down to the amount of physical energy expended. Simply getting from the dressing rooms to far stage left takes about two minutes and involves climbing up and down flights of stairs and passing along a clifftop walkway behind the stage. Nor when you are onstage can you afford to relax. Everything is made of concrete (including the usually wooden and sprung stage floor which has a reverse rake) and therefore is very hard on the calves and knees. Any moves have to start earlier than normal in order to reach the desired spot – especially with the weight of the costumes to factor in and a good deal of dialogue has to be played straight out with a tilted neck in order to catch the eyeline of those who are (seemingly literally) in the gods. Positioning can also be tricky. The strong spots are labelled A, B and C in the diagram  (upstage section A is the absolute “sweet spot”) and if you don’t want to unsight large sections of the audience then avoid the hatched sections (D) at all costs.

 

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Dressing rooms off stage right, stage management tent stage left and sheer cliffs behind

I was particularly grateful for the RSC training I had received during the Dream project in 2016. This had taught me all about playing to a large auditorium without resorting to shouting and wild gesticulation and about how to command an audience’s attention particularly when – as here – there were some spectacular scenic diversions to potentially cause distraction. So it was definitely with a sense of confidence  that I was able to deploy several techniques to good effect…. at least that’s what I thought.

After the Tuesday matinee I climbed the steep backstage steps from the stage door to the clifftop café. Halfway up there is a magnificent view of adjacent Porthcurno beach and I stopped to take a few pictures. I was joined by a couple also admiring the view who asked, “What’s down that way then?” I explained it was the route down to the backstage area and dressing rooms. “Oh,” came the reply. “We’ve just seen the show. It was extremely good. Were you in it?”

Any offers for ego reassembly will be gratefully received!

 

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 School, 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.