A bit of a farce

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

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

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

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Annie & Jonathan as Delia & Ernest

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

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

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Hattie & Ryan as Jan & Nick

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

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

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Martin & Hatty as Malcolm & Kate

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

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

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Richard & Rachel as Trevor & Susannah

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

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

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