Saturday, 26 April 2008

Being a Bastard

I've just started making character notes for Brian Hamilton in The Murder Game and this is what I've got: Ex-racing driver; drinks to excess; vain; misses being important; weak - easily swayed; dubious morals - content to live off wife and betray her trust whilst doing it.

I play lots of these blokes, so I suppose I must look like a bit of a bastard. You find that directors frequently cast you as similar character types if you work with them more than once, especially in film. In Folie a Deux I played the twin of a character from another of Sean's films, and you don't get more carbon-copy than that.

There's plenty of meat on these characters, at least. My nightmare roles are romantic leads - I played Jack Chesney in Charley's Aunt, years ago - drippy, insipid and uninspiring. In post-show discussions I'm always telling students that you can't do too much work for a part, but I confess that parts like that floor me.

Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses - now that's a part. What a shit that man is! Here's a scarily youthful me playing him at drama school last century:

Groundhog Day?

I just can't resist breakfast in a B&B, though it's usually a lonely business because Amy (Angela) and Alice (Bev) don't eat until lunch, and although I sometimes see Jamie or Anna, often I'm alone. Alone except for the cereal, juice, eggs, sausages and so on, because I have everything. Can't help it - it's compulsive.

It can be a bit awkward having breakfast in digs, though, as it's basically someone's house and you can't shake the feeling that you're in the way. I stayed with a couple in Winchester once where the husband insisted on talking to me about his AmDram days all through breakfast, every day, never actually meeting my eye, whilst my eggs congealed and my smiling face began to ache. In the end I just started to eat whilst he burbled - he didn't seem to mind at all.

I had a funny turn on stage last night in the middle of Act I - I suddenly felt dizzy and light-headed. Luckily I have a few minutes offstage to compose myself but it was a very unpleasant experience. Maybe my brain has finally revolted against the repetition of the lines and given itself a sort of negative feedback? My subconscious must certainly be wondering what the bloody hell is going on, with me going to this ghastly party every night and having a thoroughly awful time. Perhaps it's trying desperate measures to get me out - let's see what happens tonight!

Friday, 25 April 2008

More on Digs...

By the way, a much older actor told me many years ago, that you should always have a quick butcher's in the Visitor's Book wherever you stay, and if anyone's has written LTD, then the landlady's up for some late night slap-and-tickle. I've never seen this written, but I do know someone who had an uncomfortably close call in Dartford with a middle-aged lady and two of her drunken friends. Enough said.

Travelodge - We Don't Do Much, but We Do It Great!

It's another Travelodge tonight - but this one seems to have a dry stone wall cladding to fit in with the local architecture. Very nice.

I love Travelodges. They're everything I ought to hate - soulless, homogenous, roadside and a transatlantic import. But at midnight you don't want an interesting creaky four poster bed, you want a shower that works and cable telly.

I was trawling through some old photos of a tour I did in 2005 and I came across some pictures of my digs in Wolverhampton. Graseley Old Hall - Joe Cushley and I had an entire wing to ourselves and felt we'd really fallen on our feet. Here's a photo of the kitchen:



And that's one of the reception rooms. We didn't realise how scary it was going to be once the daylight faded and the low-energy lightbulbs were all there was to see by. Creaky old furniture and shadows are a bad combination, and the bathrooms were all downstairs, so going to the loo in the middle of the night, well ...


I wonder where the Wolverhampton rep cast stays?

No More Kendal Mint Cake...

I'm in Kendal much earlier than the rest of the cast - Maria (production manager) had some emergency root-canal work and was too zonked to drive the van, so Michael does and I drive his car. Our production crew obviously ate too many sweets as kids - Alex had some emergency treatment at some rustic backwater called Virginia in the ROI, where the drill was still operated by a foot-pedal, but she pulled through OK. She also has a hernia, but that's because she's moving huge bits of set around single-handed.
We're all a bit ropey, and we feel underenergised during the show. Everyone has had insomnia to some degree (different beds, late nights etc.) and some of us have specific complaints (me-dodgy shoulder and borderline IBS, Anna - intercostal muscle trouble ands so on...) all of which is to be expected on a long tour. It's a full house, and we're called back for three bows, though, so we can't be too far off the mark.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Captain Cabot

Full tonight, and the front row is composed of teens (it's on the curriculum) and their response is very interesting. They revel in the more blatant sexuality and broad comedy, but completely miss the sideswipes about marriage (as one would expect, and hope). However, there's no childish response to the bleaker moments - they're even more attentive than those for whom death is a more immediate concern.

Michael's here again until after Ludlow (which is a difficult get-out for Maria and Alex, and he wants to ease the pressure on them), and I find him on his laptop backstage. He's already organising the autumn tour (and has been for some weeks) and Humble Boy looks as though it's going to sell very well on the back of Abigail's Party. Nothing in it for me, but I figure I've had more than my fair share from him over the last year! He cast me in Pera Palas at the Arcola in Spring 2007 (being something of a visionary, he managed to see beyond my jungle-cat heterosexuality and cast me as a gay American tile designer), then as Laurence in the Autumn Tour of this, and so on until now.

He runs London Classic Theatre pretty much single-handed, with no funding whatsoever - and manages to pay his actors a decent wage without taking advantage of them. Because of this, he's not going to retire on the profits anytime soon, but that's not why he's doing it. He just loves directing, and he loves working with people in this industry. I dearly wish there were more like him, and it'll feel distinctly odd being out of his stable in the summer.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Dressing Room 3

...at the Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury is where Eric Morecambe died - or at least, experienced the heart attack that killed him. He came off stage and had a coronary; I have one on stage and then walk away. Gave me a bit of a queasy shiver.

What an awful place to go - and this photo makes it look better than it is. But then I can't think of many dressing rooms I'd like to die in. Those at Buxton Opera House are the original Victorian ones, and if you flush the loo too hard the cistern showers you with water! And at Listowel in the ROI there is no dressing room, you all strip off in the kitchen and enter through the audience.
The most you can hope for is that there's enough hot water for a shower and shave, some loo paper and above all, a plug for the sink.

Tewkesbury

Tewkesbury Abbey is outside my bedroom window! But there's no blind in my bathroom, so a tall person can see me on the loo. Ying, yang.

Invitation to Some Murders...

Arrive home after Westcliff stupidly tired to a cold and empty house - beautiful family is in Oxford at my parents' as Jake's back at pre-school tomorrow.

Although I can barely keep my eyes open, there's a big envelope of scripts for me which I tear open and take to bed. Can't resist speaking some of the lines aloud, imagining how they'll sound on stage and trying to picture the set from the stage directions (French's Acting Editions always have very pedantic detailing of this sort). For me, this is the most exciting and the most worrying moment of a new show before opening night, with a myriad trivial yet crucial questions:
  • Do I have the biggest part/funniest lines/best costume?
  • Do I have to kiss anyone/appear naked?
  • Do I have to die on stage?

And a flick through confirms:

  • Yes, in one/Yes, in one/Yes in all three!!!
  • Yes in one, but not enough to annoy my wife/No, thank God, but I might have to lose some weight
  • Yes. Bugger.

Plus there's a cast list, so I can scope everyone out on the web in the morning. Don't recognise anyone, though, so I probably haven't worked with them. Big sleep, no dreams.



Monday, 21 April 2008

Romford-by-Sea

As expected, our one night in Westcliff at the Palace Theatre is going to be busy - Essex being the spiritual home of "Abigail's Party". Mike Leigh states that he set it in "Theoretical Romford" but I've run into people exactly like Beverly all over the place, and I used an Oxford friend of my father's as a maquette when working out what Laurence should be like. So it's pretty universal.

It's early when we arrive and, with a few hours to kill, we mooch down to the seafront and eat ice-creams in the sunshine. There are some drawbacks to this job, but the upside can be enormous.

The downside is that sometimes your hands and mouth don't seem to function normally, and when your moves are being watched by a few hundred people that is a problem. I never intended playing L. as clumsy but tonight he's dropping bottle tops, clouting furniture, spilling ash into food and knocking things over. Plus he can't pronounce "Clittingham" anymore, a word which is an open manhole for an actor at the best of times. I am urged by Michael (director) to "just be a bit better" at the interval and, for once, he may not be joking...

There's a great moment tonight which will never happen again. It's scripted that Tony reappears in Act II and, when Ange asks him where he's been, he says "Southend". They go mad.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Norwich

Tonight, our only night at Norwich, is a sell-out and that always raises the stakes somewhat. Plus my in-laws, Cherry and Jeremy are here with friends so I feel the pressure a bit more than usual. I always think that if you can convince your family to lose themselves in the action whilst you're onstage then you're doing a good job. So I start my warm-up early.

Unfortunately, we've left our show relay off in our dressing room and as Jamie and I loaf around gassing, the half and quarter calls are made and missed. By the time we turn it on it's the five and I'm not even fully dressed. Consequently there's a certain urgent, breathless quality to my first entrance.

It goes down a storm, though, and the General Manager, Caroline, comes backstage to tell us how delighted she is. This is just as well, as she caught us doing the conga before the show to the strains of "We're going for a gang-bang" from Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Not the way you want to be remembered.

Reality Bites

I'm walking through Norwich today, looking for a tapas bar that Sue and I ate in about a year ago when I pass four teenage girls. Moments after, I hear one of them say "That bloke's got grey hair and a brown moustache". There's a pause, then her friend pipes up "Yeah, but he's old, isn't he?" Apparently age means I'm no longer culpable for my grotesque appearance and inconsistent hair colour.

Then I catch myself in a shop window and realise that I've accidentally dressed like a decrepit Freddie Mercury. Perhaps I shouldn't be allowed out, at least not during the day.

Culture Vulture

Just as I'm beginning to despair of Wakefield, I walk five minutes out of the city centre and find the Art Gallery. It's not much bigger than a large house, but they've bought or been given some

brilliant stuff. Great Barbara Hepworths and Henry Moores downstairs, with some really cracking Victor Pasmores, a Lowry and a Bridget Riley or two upstairs. And they were all bought within a year or so of being done, so they originally cost tuppence ha'penny and are now worth a fortune. Great Modern British collection.

And George Gissing, who wrote "New Grub Street" was born here. Doesn't say how long he stuck around for, though...


Friday, 18 April 2008

Folie a Deux

Just before I leave to do tonight's show I get a very welcome email from my filmmaker friend Sean about his latest project. Filming ended (for me, anyway) in 2006 and it's been in post-production ever since, but after lots of re-shoots and pick-ups, and ADR (extra dialogue) it's approaching completion.
This sort of delay isn't unusual for low-budget stuff. Most of them never get finished at all, in my experience. But Sean is determined, and thank God, tends not to listen to input from other people in the editing process. This seems to be the factor which derails most projects in the final furlong (well, that and money, of course), and the longer the delay the more the energy leaves the project, like a slow puncture in a balloon.

Self as Product

Spend a bit of time this morning on a publicity drive for Basingstoke - it's arguably near enough to London to attract the odd casting director/director, especially if they live nearby. In 20 minutes I manage to get 25 postcards ordered with a show photo on them plus a caption for less than 20 quid. The first time I did this, to publicise a film I did for Channel 4, it cost £50 in a print shop. The internet is fabulous. This is the shot I used:
I think Alice and I underplay our true feelings for each other beautifully here, don't you?

The chances of anyone coming are monumentally slim. You basically have to adopt the same attitude as you would for an audition - competition is breathtakingly fierce so enjoy it for its own sake and try not to worry if it doesn't work out . Difficult, but it can be done. And if anyone does show up, join your castmates in the feeding frenzy to get noticed. That said, Alice's friend Nick from Hull Truck saw the show last night, and we were all admirably restrained meeting him afterwards. I imagine he's often pursued down the street by actors waving CV's and 10x8 glossies so a quiet drink and a few laughs probably made a welcome change!

Thursday, 17 April 2008

The Joys of One-Night-Stands

We drive to Mansfield on performance day, which means we are there in time to have an early supper, set the props, do the show, strike and not much else. Some places just don't have a great theatre-going tradition - hence these one-nighters - and since Mansfield seats 500, of which we sell about half, any longer wouldn't be viable.
In spite of this, it's a great show. Very pacy, very on-cue and technically perfect. The audience are VERY vocal, too - commenting on the action, which I like (and which you don't seem to get down South) and finding some of the broader comic elements very funny indeed without losing the pathos.
Dinner is chips and Tommy K in the car on the way to Wakefield. Living the dream.

Turn down the gas!

Not in "Gaslight". Boo. But cast in the other three plays in cracking parts. Yayy! Get this information from Charles Vance lui-meme, who calls on Wednesday a few moments before I'm due to leave for Mansfield.
Charles in an extraordinary man - he's acted in and produced it all; West End, No.1 tours, films too, I think. As an actor he took over from Laurence Olivier in "The Entertainer", as a producer he has given huge stars their first jobs, and he now runs two of the last authentic summer rep seasons - at Sidmouth and Wolverhampton (I'm in the latter). I've already sourced one of the plays, "The Murder Game", so I speed-read it with a different perspective. There's a character called Brian who's described as "about forty, handsome in a florid way" which I guess is me - I'm certainly not playing Gerry, who "...is twenty two, but looks much younger" unless there's been a ghastly error or everyone younger than 30 is going to be in Edinburgh.
Michael Caine tells a great story about the ageing process of an actor, where you don't notice it in the mirror, but in your stand-ins. I suppose when I read "...he's about eighty, but looks much older, walks with two sticks and can barely speak for drooling" it might be time to call it a day.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

The Dogs Bark, and the Caravan Rolls On...

I get news, finally, of my next job (which I landed courtesy of my new agent, the saintly and preposterously youthful Andy Charles). It's a proper rep season at Wolverhampton - four plays in four weeks - and they're all murder mysteries. It culminates with the wonderful "Gaslight" by Patrick Hamilton, which is very Victorian and melodramatic, and with which I would love to be involved. The casting details won't arrive for a few days, but having read one of the others already and knowing a third, it does seem that there will be good meaty parts for everyone.

Getting more work to dovetail with the job you're doing is, of course, the holy grail of any freelance occupation but I think actors feel it especially keenly. The five of us started musing about what would happen once the tour ended when we were still in Ireland (weeks 1-6 of 22!) and as the tour accelerates towards Basingstoke (4-7 June) we become more uneasy. Well, I'm sorted for July but even so, I can't help wondering what'll happen in August - and this feels a touch meretricious when so many friends are out of work.

A Pox on You...

Sunday marks the start of a very generous three days off, and this would no doubt be relaxing if Jake hadn't just contracted chickenpox at nursery. When the first case was reported there was an unseemly rush by his chums' mums to get them all infected, which seems to me an absolutely barbaric practice when there's a vaccination on the market. Anyone who thinks it's a good idea is, I hope, brought up short by the sight of their little darling pustulating all over the place and throatily unable to sleep because of the agonising itching. Poor blighters.

And we discover we can't go to a lunch party on Sunday because the host has never had the disease! All that my time off has in prospect, it seems, is a sort of enforced quality time with fever. At least I get to watch a lot of "Thomas the Tank Engine".

Transport and Delight

It's a long drive from Stamford to Swindon, made slightly longer by having no music in the car. This is my only grumble about our tour waggon, a huge silver 1999 Mondeo, but other than that it's been stoical and reliable transport. In the Republic of Ireland, when things did go awry, it had the good sense to break down on a day off rather than abandoning us, say, in heavy snow (which we saw later in Enniskillen) or during a monsoon (Cookstown). And as we sat broken down outside Listowel, about a dozen of Kerry's finest sons stopped to offer us help (although several admitted later that without Alice, Amy and Anna in the car, Jamie and I would've been left to our fates).

The pressure of opening night in Swindon is doubly exacerbated by a visit from our producer/director Michael (who often watches when we open in a new venue) and the presence of my family, some of whom haven't seen me on stage since school (many would say my best work, actually). At curtain up I walk on feeling odd, and every gesture and word seems preposterously exaggerated for the first few minutes. This inital clumsiness I feel soon gives way to a cracking show, however, and the audience seems to grasp nuances which normally go unnoticed. It's a big theatre, though, and some interesting details between the characters are always lost in very large spaces.

No Travelodge for me tonight - much as I love them. Instead, the ample bosom of my family acts as a pillow for my vagabond's head.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Farewell, Stamford, and sorry about the sound...

Oh dear. A few technical difficulties tonight leave poor Alice (Bev) with a silent record player, so she has to float about the stage writhing to imaginary music whilst she prepares nibbles for the party - and this section opens the play. Things worsen when the volume climbs to absurd, distorted levels during the Elvis and sinks unexpectedly low later. All we can do is sit there pretending it's not happening whilst our Stage Manager (SM) Alex struggles with the sound desk, forty rows of seats away.
Still, such glitches are fantastically rare, and it's miles better than the days when every sound cue was on a separate tape, and if you knocked the pile over the actors might get birdsong, bongos or the Beatles, who knew? And there was nothing like the sound of a tape stretching to knacker the dramatic illusion.
In ten years I suppose all SM's will have the show soundtrack on a minuscule flash drive that you just plug and play - either that or they'll be hiring live orchestras again. Watch this space for news...but of course, I'll be replaced by CGI or a hologram long before then. Hmmm.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

It's tough having a mo' in 2008

Just had my hair cut by a lovely woman at "Beyond the Fringe" (no, really) in Stamford who mercifully remembered the 70's and so didn't ask why I was wearing this stupid hairdo. Which is exactly what someone asked in Cookstown, Northern Ireland a few weeks ago.

Jamie Matthewman - who plays Tony - (in photo with Alice Selwyn as Beverley) and I have a hard time with this. For example, it's stated explicitly in the text that I have a moustache and strongly implied that he has a full set, and the only real option was to actually grow them (falsies don't work well enough and are v. expensive). So we walk around with this hilariously outdated facial topiary which doesn't go with our clothes, the times, or anything else much, for that matter. It's a shock every morning in the mirror, my wife Sue hates it and no-one fancies me. On the plus side, I am in gainful employment, and my two-year old son Jake loves pulling it. It's a poisoned chalice.

Jamie says that he's overwhelmed with offers, though, so perhaps it's just me.

One day to go...

...until my family see it in Swindon! First flutters of nerves when I think about them being there.

But that's Friday. Today's Thursday, our second day in Stamford (Lincs) and it's the 12th week of the Spring tour of Abigail's Party. Well, it is for the rest of the cast - I've been with this show since August last year and I've clocked up 24 weeks, close to 100 shows and - since I play Laurence - that means nearly 100 agonising, tortured deaths at the end of the play.

Which is a scene that no-one ever remembers from the BBC version with Alison Steadman. Chiefly, I think, because her Beverly character SO dominates the play that it's difficult to remember anything else at all, the detail of her character was that good. It can't have hurt to be married to the guy directing it (although no-one would suggest she doesn't deserve every moment of that screen time).

We have a very balanced show, all the characters are strong stage presences because they're written that way, and also because there are some exceptional actors playing them. And I'm having breakfast with them in about half-an-hour at our Travelodge's Little Chef. Glamour.