Monday, 27 August 2012

Francis Bacon Opera

"A new opera based on transcripts of Melvyn Bragg's interviews with Francis Bacon" must be among the hardest of hard sells, but nonetheless I went to see that show yesterday and found it delightful. Two singers portray Bragg and Bacon - wisely stopping short of emulating the adenoidal speech pattern of the former in favour of a hilarious shock of black hair and some high trills at unexpected moments. Bacon reminded me of Gene Hunt in "Ashes to Ashes" and the whole things needed a bit more direction, but the singing was full blooded and brilliantly executed and the repetiteur was amazing. It lacked projected images of the pictures being discussed - some sort of copyright issue, I guess - but even so it really worked.

Friday, 17 August 2012

The Hard Sell

My friend Fi (ASM on "Equus") was the one who said that she'd known people make lifelong friends when flyering on the Royal Mile. I treated this notion with mute derision, as that sort of promotion generally makes me feel queasy both as as giver and receiver.
I suspect the quality of your flyering experience depends at least partly on the show you're selling. I heard a guy the other day punting a show he described as "a black comedy about brutalist architecture". Yeuch. And a few minutes later I watched someone dressed in a black wifebeater, khaki shorts and bare feet bound up to a prospective audience member saying "you look like someone who'd enjoy 45 minutes of challenging physical theatre". I don't know anyone who looks like that - not on purpose, anyway.
Our approach is different. We hand out Tunnocks teacakes as an incentive and go out in full costume and, when it's not raining, with the set to give a sort of moving tableau. Goes down a treat.

"Noel Cowards "Still Life" - falling in love right here...
The only problem is sometimes we cause a traffic jam because of a glut of photographers. But as Simon our producer would say, that's a high value problem!

A Funny Thing Happened in Charlbury

Since Edinburgh venues basically charge by the minute there's an enormous pressure to a) cut the show b) have a really pacy show or quite often c) do both. Still Life is probably a 50 minute show really but with minimal set changes and by keeping it slick we have it down to 43-45 mins. Perfect, in other words.
When you're presenting a Shakespeare or a musical though, it's cut or go bankrupt. I saw Sondheim's "Assassins" the other day, which seemed perfectly adapted at 90 mins. His "Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum", however, had been eviscerated to 70 mins by removing all the songs. It was like panto without the dame - and sadly, also lacked most of the humour. Choice of material is a thorny issue when directing young people and this show, with its double-entendres, seaside postcard humour and Frankie Howerdesque nudge-nudge audience interaction just feels a bit grubby when 16-18 year-olds are made to play it. I'm stunned at how only a couple of years extra maturity results in a largely credible "Machinal" from OUDS or, for that matter, "Still Life".

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Notices

Not having been to Edinburgh for a few years (OK, twenty) I was keen to take advice from younger and wiser colleagues before embarking on this project. It boiled down to this:

  • don't overrun
  • flyer every day for at least two hours
  • get the reviews in early
Oh God, the reviews. I don't doubt my judgement on my own show, or really care (to be honest I expected a harsher time than we've had) but I regularly seem to have seen a different show than the press. There's healthy debate in the flat, too - Josh (who plays Stanley) has tastes so polar from mine that I should organise my bucket list from his shit-list. Well, except for on the Sondheim show that generated David's troublesome review. There we have solidarity.
Josh Green meets his public
Our early reviews were healthy, but as expected the Broadway Baby/Three Weeks ones were less enthusiastic. They praise the general aesthetic but find fault with the central relationship, which is a problem in the script in my opinion, and Libby Purves from The Times said much the same. Three stars from her was a lovely surprise, although the review was constructed in such a way as to defy the extraction of a pithy quote except "Terrifically authentic hairdos". Not quite the way we wish to be remembered!

Roosting Chickens

Right. Further to my rant yesterday about how I have been misrepresented about my opinions re: a certain Shakespeare interpretation.
My entire cast and I were sitting in the very convivial garden of said company's venue having lunch today when the news arrived that they had received 5* review in a respected online magazine. Cue outraged shock from everyone (even those who hadn't seen it) and much guffawing about the temerity of foreigners doing Shakespeare at all. I get up to go to the cafe for a coffee refill and pass one of their actors at a neighbouring table.
We now need to find somewhere else for lunch.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Ricardo Garcia

It's easy to forget that this isn't just about the theatre. I saw a show last night called "Ricardo Garcia's Flamenco Flow" which just blew me away. Mixing Spanish guitar, djembe and tabla with dance elements including bhangra, jazz dance, breakdancing and of course flamenco, it was completely exhilarating and totally original. I never dreamt such diverse elements could be combined so seemingly effortlessly. Absolute 4*.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

At Least The Kids Don't Have Weapons...

Like Cold War Russia, the Fringe can be a dangerous place to express opinions. David - who plays Albert - is a reviewer for the online magazine Broadway Baby, and posted an entirely fair but tough notice of a youth musical group's efforts with a Sondheim musical. In fact his criticism chiefly centred on the director and MD, partly for their choice of material for such a young cast, but also for their very mixed results with the actors. For this he was pointed at in the street, stared out and subjected to an acid encounter with one of the mothers, vicariously injured by the coverage. Thank God they left after a week.
It's happened to me too - there's a lot of Shakespeare here, and the results are predictably mixed. I came out of a show yesterday with a barrelful of opinions - some about safety but also about some unintentionally hilarious moments - which I casually shared with someone at our venue. After the show today I learn that it's all over C that the "the director of Still Life thinks that show is SHIT". That isn't what I said at all, but still in less than 24 hours that's rumour travelling at a scary rate. If only my opinions about our show moved so fast.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Orientation

We've fallen on our feet with our venue and flat, which we picked almost at random when we visited Edinburgh in April. C-Aquila has a small studio and a large main space, and whilst it's not as groovy as C-main or Nova, it's a bit less frenetic which suits the tenor of our show well.
Our show is Noel Coward's "Still Life" which is a bizarre choice for Edinburgh in some ways. Not new writing, not out of copyright, and the way we're presenting it, pretty conventional in the staging - no clever reinterpretations or physical theatre and whatnot. Old School Quality Writing may have to be our Unique Selling Point, in fact. We're going after the older demographic in a big way, too, with a gimmicky offer of a cup of tea and a Tunnocks teacake to draw them in (inspired by the phenomenal success of Shakespeare for Breakfast). Let's hope they don't expect anything to match our press junket at the Balmoral, where half a dozen journalists descend on a sumptuous afternoon tea of finger sandwiches, cakes and exquisite scones. Setting the bar a wee bit high...

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Fringe

So I'm in Edinburgh. The last time I was here as a performer was about 23 years ago and to be honest I wouldn't recognise it. Nothing is familiar, nothing at all, except the Fringe poster from 1988 in the festival shop.
I don't remember flyering at all then - perhaps that's why we had such atrocious houses for "The Elephant Man" and "The Sea". Or maybe the titles were to blame - if I hadn't been involved in them I wouldn't have seen them. Anyway, I remember doing precious little back then except drinking and eating out every night in an Italian restaurant called "Luigi's" or something. No wonder my finances were shaky.
These days it's a very different beast, but for the moment I'll be concentrating of getting our show up. Not just metaphorically either, as the stairs to our space are steep, numerous and we have a LOT of set...

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

New Vic

Newcastle-Under-Lyme has been sitting in the programme like a beacon ever since the beginning of the tour - partly because it's our only two-week gig but also because the space is in-the-round - that is, a 360 degree audience experience. For 28 weeks we've been presenting this play end-on and inevitably there are different demands here, and that's why we're up a day early to re-rehearse.
Enough of that for the moment though. It's a very exciting place to be, this theatre. For a start it's a producing house, and they've just come down with their own production of "Far From the Madding Crowd", and there's all the remains of that show still in evidence, including puppet sheepdogs, discarded scripts and rustic costumes loafing around. Plus they're just going into rehearsal for another show, and the cast of three are getting to grips with the text, so there's lots of chatting over coffee during the breaks and so on.
It feels vibrant and involving and everything a theatre should be. The last time I had this experience was working on "Pera Palas" at the Arcola, where "The Silver Birch House" was in production during our rehearsals and club nights would happen in the studio downstairs. The cafe at lunchtime was a hubbub of creatives, with nervous actors awaiting auditons, designers with portfolios and funky haircuts, and directors maniacally gesticulating in the only way they seem capable of getting ideas across. A lot of wannabees used to show up at lunchtime - actors usually, networking madly and getting their faces seen in the vain hope of an audition or job. Great place to be.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Half Term and Three Quarters Done

I'm the only one in the company with children (except Fiz, and her daughters are both in their 20's) - and touring's not a natural environment for them, or a practical one with school. There have been some lucky coincidences with this one though - the Cork week falling on Spring half-holiday, the Easter week off coinciding with the holidays. And our split week in Wales and Chipping Norton means a family holiday can be cobbled together.
Today we managed to drop in on Fi and Kate at Brecon as they did the get-in with the resident tech crew, and since there's an almost limitless number of things to play with in the wings of any theatre, Jake and Molly find plenty to entertain themselves with whilst the work goes on, especially since one of the trophies removed from a recent theatre happens to be a rocking horse. This was, I think, an exchange for a life-sized cut-out of Sarah Michelle Gellar and I know which I would have preferred. As Sue keeps reminding me, though, it's not about me all the time. Jake has a great time showing the resident techies his Hero Factory model, and to be frank they seem just as interested in that than in rigging the show. Well, they are techies...

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Digging Deep

By the law of averages, sooner or later you're going to play a big hall with only a few people in it - especially if you're touring drama in tough times like these. Very occasionally the punters in a situation like that will pull through and actively enjoy the show, but often they won't be fully able to participate in it. Well, at least so the actors can hear them.
Such has been the case in Middlesbrough. It doesn't altogether help that the theatre's nowhere near the heart of the city, but one wonders whether that would have made any difference, as it's pretty much dominated by shopping centres anyway. We open to 33 and that's our biggest house. As I said, tough times.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Full Circle


The first proper tour I did was as an 11-year old, and I didn't really understand the mechanics of the company or the hierachy. I mean, I spent most of my time with my chaperone, who was a retired teacher from a girl’s private school so I wasn’t in the thick of it much but anyway, it bears reflection.
Most of my contact was with the stage management team – I hardly saw the other actors out of performance. No wonder - why on earth would want to spend their time with an annoying 11-year old? Anyway, I think I preferred the earthy, practical atmosphere of the green room and the SM’s. I now realise that the swarthy, magnetic, guitar-playing, earring-wearing CSM was almost certainly conducting an affair with the pretty, busty DSM whilst already seeing the Production Manager. You have to admire his organisational skills in keeping them apart in the heat of touring. And I had a massive crush on the ASM which I wasn’t that great at concealing, and which she must have managed with tact and sensitivity, because I don’t remember getting my heart broken.
The only actor I was close to was close to was Tim, who played the central character and also my father. Perhaps we had a natural affinity, but I suppose he made an extra effort because it was so important that we were close on stage, in particular in the sections when his character is on hunger strike and they bring his son to persuade him to eat. He used to make me cry every night in that scene and he often spent a few moments afterwards making sure all was OK. A lovely man and a quite brilliant actor.
And here I am 34 years later playing a Dad myself in powerful scenes with an onstage son. My boy Matt “Alan Strang” Pattimore fills my socks with talc and ties my jeans legs in knots when I’m out of the dressing room, and I change his Facebook updates to anti-Liverpool ones when he’s in the loo, but there’s a similar emotional charge to our onstage relationship.
Whether he has a crush on the ASM though, I couldn't possibly speculate.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Road Trip

If you're staying in Travelodges all week then you're technically homeless between 12 noon and 3pm which is the disparity between check-out and check-in. Me and the boys break our journey at Great Malvern and find a very traditional tearoom called the Bluebird - apart from satisfying our hunger pangs it also gives Stuart a chance to add another entry to his exhaustive UK tearoom guide.
We stand out a bit. We're men, for a start, and also we're under pensionable age. When the waitress takes our order there's so many options - there's seven jams to have with your scone, for God's sake - that each order takes forever. When the food arrives it's accompanied by a woman who is either struggling with some new teeth or an oversized tongue, but it's worth the wait. Even considering Stuart's hamless ham and coleslaw sandwich.

The Next New Things

I had a bit of an epiphany on our last show in Derby about a section at the end of my fourth scene. It's always a little bit surprising that the sense of a line or an inflection or even something as fundamental as a motivation can elude you for well over 100 performances but it sometimes does. You have to keep revisiting whether you're still on the right page, as it were, or you'll probably end up having the Eureka moment after you finish, God forbid. Anyway, something which has been making me vaguely uncomfortable for some while is in a better place and that makes me feel GOOD.
The thorny matter of keeping things fresh vexes us all, I suppose. I once saw Richard E Grant playing Algy in That Play in the West End and he confessed that it bored him silly to repeat the same thing every night - and it sort of showed, too. I haven't seen Mark Rylance in "Jerusalem" but after 1000 shows he's as fresh as a daisy, they say. Of course there are actors whose technique is to repeat the exact same performance, move for move and line for line, night after night and presumably the illusion of freshness is worked into what they do; but that seems too artificial to me. I've also seen people turn into automatons after a few weeks doing that; a good performance turning into an increasingly mannered one with ever more awkward moves and gestures as the other actors change but they don't. There's also a terrible danger that you'll stop listening to people - and a fellow actor's unexpected pause or pace change or mistake can have devastating effect if that happens.
I'm directing a show in the summer with a cast of students, and since most of them will never have done a full week before it'll be fascinating to see how they cope with doing a run of 25 shows without a break.  

Friday, 11 May 2012

Lovely People

The milk of human kindness hasn't gone sour in Derby. Jamie's digs turned out to be populated by cats and students when we arrived, meaning a panicked call to LCT HQ and a last minute scramble for something else. Mercifully our landlord, Martin, turned out of his rooms until the weekend and Jamie now has the use of a suite including a walk-in shower. Harrumph.
We've all has some problems with digs over the weeks. Malcolm seems to be the unluckiest, and bears it with a very Dysartian stoicism - and there are an astounding number of landlords who expect you to manage with very little. I had digs last year where the washing machine was situated on the other side of the wall behind my headboard, and with a newborn baby in the house it was programmed to go off at 3am. I found this out at 3am. In the same digs Anna was expected to mount a loft ladder in the dark and sleep in a cubbyhole in the roof. Bonkers.
Mercifully there are many, many exceptions. I've never even met some of them, like Mrs Brown in Cambridge and Mrs Blindel in Darlington, but their little notes saying "Help yourself from the fridge" and welcoming bottles of wine sort of stand out as beacons in the travelling firmament.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Stalking Horse

There's been some right odd happenings this week at the wonderful Belgrade Theatre. On Wednesday matinee there were disturbances in the auditorium resulting in shouts of "I'll smash your bloody face in!", closely followed by someone being ejected. A day later someone tried to invade the stage but was tackled by the FOH staff and removed, whereupon he said that he wanted to give one of the actors a present. He wouldn't be drawn on which actor and he refused to leave the present with FOH to be passed on.
And then Matt gets his stalker. Facebook really has taken all the tedious investigative part out of stalking - this fella just messaged with a fairly innocuous question, Matt replied and bingo! Half a dozen messages offering rides on the chap's horse asking questions about the meaning of ha-ha (as if it wasn't obvious enough from the show).
The worst that's ever happened to me was the hand-drawn picture that was sent to my agent, but that was rather charming if I'm honest. Anyway, I'm too old to get obsessional attention from people really, although perhaps I'll be the first person to get a silver stalker, you never know.  

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Boys

It's Stuart's birthday today. I expect birthdays are an odd thing when you're travelling (I wouldn't know - my birthday is always a few days after a tour finishes), not least because the only time when we're all together to mark the occasion is during the warm-up when it's not exactly logical to start eating cake. Logical or not, though, we do it anyway.
There's been an admirable restraint on the horse-related merchandise front lately. It was Jo's birthday a few weeks ago - a significant one between 39 and 41 - and not one pair of jodhpurs changed hands. I do think we're missing an opportunity here though, I mean Jameson whiskey is very nice and all that but there's a bottle of White Horse on the shelf just screaming to be bought.
Anyway, it occurs to me that I talk about these fellas a good deal but you can't put faces to them, so here's a picture of us resplendent in wife-beaters, auditioning for the new Yorkshire-based boy-band Vestlife.
from left - Malcolm, Jamie, Stuart, me and Matt. For shame.

Friday, 20 April 2012

There Was An Aul Fella From Oxford...


The road from Waterford is peppered with towns which are famous for one reason or another. Wexford and Cashel are where the cheeses come from; Tipperary is where the sweetest girl I know comes from; and Limerick is where the five-line poem comes from. Well, it may be.
 It’s definitely where Frank McCourt, author of “Angela’s Ashes” came from. I haven’t read the book or seen the film, but Lameys House, where rooms in the McCourt family home have been recreated by Onah Heaton, gives a strong sense of the incredible poverty and hardship of 1930’s Limerick. The building used to be the school where young McCourt studied until he was 13 - the walls are covered in maps where Yugoslavia is still a country; a dunce’s table faces the corner of the room; and a thin, springy can lies ominously on the teacher’s desk . As I leave Onah gives me a fragment of the building as a souvenir and I muse that, apart from the work, seeing gems like this is what touring is all about.
And that respectable middle-aged ladies say “feck” and awful lot in Limerick.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Among The Heathen

The trouble starts during the first half - a noisy radio playing the Irish equivalent of Radio 1 somewhere in the vicinity but so loud as to be clearly and irritatingly audible on stage. Malcolm, who's dialogue is most affected, soldiers on though. After a while I sense that we're not all on stage any more and I realise Jamie has gone off into the wings, and for a moment I wonder if he's been stricken by a stomach bug and been sick.
As we leave the stage after Big Horse we find there's a mechanic in the lane behind the theatre working under a car with a deafening radio playing, and he's completely impervious to any persuasion from Jamie, Stuart, me or ultimately Kate to turn it down. It's extraordinary. He just stonewalls us. Various strategies occur to us to silence this infuriating noise, from releasing the car jack to appealing to his pocket, all of which we discard and instead perform the second act with the disturbance. Oddly, silence falls shortly before the stable scene so Matt and Helen aren't forced to disrobe to the strains of Coldplay. Perhaps he has some artistic feelings. Or maybe his dinner was getting cold.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Waterford


We’ve returned to Ireland for a week, which involves ferries, rented cars and an awful lots of miles. It’s very odd being back after some time in the UK, and there are parts of Waterford which look almost like the continent so the effect is doubly disorientating.
Jamie and I have been here before with Abigail’s Party, and although the Garter Lane Theatre has to be the most hidden-away and poorly signposted theatre on this tour, it attracts a very respectable audience indeed. And not only that but responsive and warm. In fact if there’s one word which describes Irish audiences (in my experience) it’s warm. I meet a man in the supermarket the next day and he greets me like an old friend, completely wrong-footing me, until I realise he saw the show and wants to talk about it. At length. This willingness to engage in the arts spontaneously and regardless of environment is not uncommon, and it's a wonderful thing. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

What Might Have Been?


Richmond, where last night’s anaesthetic wine came from, is a really beautiful market town and having nothing really to do except go to another Travelodge later today, we go for lunch. Instead of lunch, we find the most gorgeous and oldest surviving Georgian theatre in the UK. The entire building is less than 9m wide and the interior is largely untouched, including some original paintwork and restored mechanisms for raising footlights and operating trapdoors. Apparently “Equus” was slated to play here today and tomorrow at some stage, and we can only imagine how extraordinary it would have been to work in this incredibly intimate space. You can literally reach the back row with a whisper.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Saddle Sore


There’s a freshness about the show since we got back after the Easter break. Not that it was getting stale, you understand, but after eight weeks on the road including 5 weeks in Ireland without any time at home I think we were all in need of a little R&R.
The Travelodge is a staple of the one and two night touring week, and before next week’s jaunt to Ireland we’re in four of them. We arrive at Scotch Corner in the late evening and, without being cruel, a motorway Travelodge is best taken with a substantial slug of wine so Fiz and I get some in before we check in. The lady on reception mistakes our arriving together for a more intimate relationship, but it takes us a while to catch on. This happens quite often, and the trick is to put the situation straight whilst not suggesting that the mistake is a ridiculous one. It’s a complicated manoeuvre. What’s more bizarre is that the receptionist’s FIRST name is Dineen, so if she and I were romantically involved she’d be called Dineen Dineen. This is, if anything, rather less likely than Fiz and I getting hitched.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Big People's Shoes

In Bury you find the only functioning Regency theatre in the UK, and what a delight it is, too. It's just perfect. From the macroscopic:

...to the microscopic. Isn't the detail of this script just wonderful?

And there's a nice surprise for us on our dressing room door, too. Although the gentleman in question really requires a "Sir" appending next time someone's passing with a paintbrush.

Hang on a moment, though. Didn't someone else have a stab at this, too?
Good try. But not quite.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Home Town

Our first week back in the mainland is split between Cambridge and Bury St Edmunds, and over the years I've been to Cambridge a fair bit, both for work and for play. I came to the Trinity Ball here when my brother-in-law graduated (in law, as it happens) and I ate an oyster which made me so sick I ruined some picnickers dinner by vomiting on the lawns. Also, it is home to an American friend of mine who lectures here. 

One of the Great Eternal Truths of Theatre is that when you get to my age, friends will only see a show if do it for them in their living room. But then they've seen you in so much unutterable crud over the years that they can't be blamed for being a touch wary. Now this isn't quite my friend's living room, but it's definitely on her doorstep and I confess I'm pretty surprised that she is too busy to come. When your job is showing yourself off in public, I guess you take it personally if people don't want to see the exhibits. However, as younger and wiser friends point out, perhaps she feels the limited time she has is better spent talking to me rather than watching me...   

I've never taken anything to Oxford, my real home town, except when I was a bratty child actor working for the Oxford Playhouse Company. However, I did tour "Dealer's Choice" to the seaside resort where I spent every summer as a kid. The venue had only just been built and had excellent facilities, it was a perfect summer evening and publicity was well in hand. Having played some very small and remote halls, we were looking forward to a bit of a treat.

No-one came at all. I still shudder now when I visit.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Bodhran

The Dubliners have never had anyone on bodhran, but since I don't play anything which involves moving up and down a musical stave it's my folk instrument of choice. It's enjoying a bit of a musical renaissance at the moment; there's a young female rapper called MissElaneous who does a bit of bodhran-beating, and when we were in Dundrum the marketing manager told me about a young rapper/bodhranist called Jim McConnell that I finally tracked down. Sadly he died a couple of years ago, but this brilliant footage remains:



RIP MC Lunitic, as he is also known.

That's how you play the thing. Quite how this old fellow I saw in Dublin playing on Grafton Street gets away with his double-beater flat playing style is a mystery.



Monday, 5 March 2012

Dubliners

When I was growing up, folk music was a bit of a joke. I mean, it was the sort of stuff that inspired the Vic Reeves spoof, where bearded men stroll about in tight nylon rollnecks which showed their nipples. There was a  bit of it on telly - the Spinners and Steeleye Span and what not, but it was noteworthy mainly for being hugely inoffensive and safe family viewing. When you recall that this was the era when Jim Davidson was on telly it makes you blench.
Then I discovered the Dubliners, and not the later incarnations but the Original Dubliners line-up of 1966-1974. Just a look at the album cover suggests they're a bit dangerous:



That dodgy-looking geezer second from right is Ronnie Drew and the wild-looking dude in the middle is Luke Kelly, and they were the heart of the group and sang many of the great songs. Then l-r John Sheahan, Ciaran Bourke and Barney McKenna. Hard-drinking, heavy-smoking legends. Bourke suffered a brain haemhorrage on stage in 1974; Kelly collapsed on stage because of a brain tumour in 1980; Drew died in 2008 of throat cancer - perhaps a million cigarettes are why his voice sounded "like coke being crushed under a door". Sheahan and McKenna are in the band to this day. In later years they started to self-censor a bit - the rebel songs like "The Old Alarm Clock" and "Rising of the Moon" largely disappeared from their roster, and for supposed reasons of decency you'll never heard all seven verses of "Seven Drunken Nights" on their albums.
But it's the Original Dubliners you want - the classic quintet - before the politics got in the way.


Fair City

I'm not gonna bang on about Dublin. It's a great city and you've may well have been there, although if it was for a stag night in Temple Bar then it's possible you haven't seen it at it's best. Instead I'll give you a couple of snapshots:

Molly Malone - the bronze (or brass?) at the top of Grafton St
Dubliners are fond of iconoclasm. They happy to nickname Molly "The Tart with the Cart" or "The Trollope with the Scallops", and they enjoy tearing into Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and WB Yeats in a similar vein. An expression of affection really. Although judging by the colour of Molly's boobs, they've been polished rather more enthusiastically than the rest of her so perhaps the affection isn't all innocent.

Dublin has a fantastic art gallery (although it seems to be beyond them to display anything like a reasonable portion of the collection when it's under refurbishment) and the Irish collection is magnificent. Jack B Yeats (brother of the more famous William) is especially well represented, with the Liffey Swim and other key works in the canon. My favourite picture, though, is this one by John B Yeats (father of the more famous William...): 

The sitter is the family priest and Irish language etymologist/lexicographer Padraig Ua Duinnin - or Patrick Stephen Dinneen in non-vernacular talk. Author of the definiive Irish-English dictionary and namesake of your gentle author. Nice looking feller, too.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Trade Secrets

You learn an awful lot about people on tour. I don't know whether it's because people let down their guards or what, but after a few weeks you generally have a suitcaseful of gossipworthy and possibly libellous information on almost everyone, and keeping a lid on it is sometimes quite a challenge.
However, one individual who suffered from astoundingly painful piles was only too happy to share. I heard about these during the first rehearsal week and I may well have been the last to know. We eventually came to regard this actor's affliction rather as you would an old friend.
We asked after their health often. We suggested possible reliefs and remedies.  If their owner had chanced to sit awkwardly on the arm of a sofa during a scene, or there was an unprecedented pause in their delivery we'd all exchange sympathetic and understanding looks which meant "Gosh, we'll be hearing about that at the interval." It all put my own mild IBS quite in the shade.
Of course, if I discover anything on this tour, you'll read all about it here. Names changed, naturally.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

From the Horse's Mouth

I met a group of Dublin actors today who had assembled for a workshop run by Michael on taking first steps in the profession. Mostly aged about 25 but there were three 16-year olds (including one from Limerick) and a lady of 43 with extensive tv and film credits looking to extend her stage experience.
It was a very inspiring afternoon in some ways, and humbling in others. The latter chiefly because the major sticking point for most of them was difficulty in reaching people who can help them find work, and they were saying that Dublin seems to be a rather closed-shop theatrically. Humbling too was the knowledge that they are probably working much harder than I usually do to stay employed, and that by any yardstick I am very lucky.
However, it was inspiring to hear Michael's strategies for maximising your chances of getting in the audition room and what to do when you get there, which have little to do with credits or experience and which buck the overwhelming statistics which send any rational actor into a tailspin. I think it was something that we all needed to hear.

It's a shame Michael can't stay to see the standing ovation after tonight's show; it brings the biggest smile to our faces and is the best way of signing off from Dundrum.Our next stop, Thurles, is horse country (so rumour has), and perhaps the first place where we might get thumped instead of feted...

Friday, 2 March 2012

See What I Mean? Mk II

This painting by Jim Partington hangs in the Mill green room.
The title was a surprise -even to the regular staff...


Thursday, 1 March 2012

Dirty Old Town

I don't know Dublin well - I was here for a week in 2005 with "Midnight", and then we were at the Dun Lagohaire Pavilion in 2008 with "Abs Party" but I scarcely spent any time in the centre, so I'm looking forward to a few days (including a weekend!) in the capital.
Our digs are fantastic, and only a couple of  miles from Dundrum and Dublin centre. My advice - get digs with the director if at all possible. Michael hasn't seen the show since leaving Cork after the first week, and he joins a pretty packed audience for our first night here.
There's a great energy to the show, an almost electric charge. It's partly the very positive response of the audience, who are very giving and enjoy the lighter moments very much whilst affording the darker stuff the appropriate attention. The fact that the show's been enjoying a period of intense development, both from us as individuals and as an ensemble, gives the show a tangible frisson now we're presenting it to the director. What he makes of the work we'll find out at notes tomorrow.

Monday, 27 February 2012

The Field

I'm told that it's not compulsory to go out drinking every night after the show, and having examined my contract that seems true, but it's damned difficult not to. Especially in Kilkenny, where there are six bars in a row directly opposite the theatre and dozens within a few minutes walk.
I may be generalising dreadfully, but in my experience a weekday night out in Ireland is incomparably better than one in the UK. Tonight we found ourselves listening to "The Briars" in a hurling pub and joked with the band, got bought drinks, spoke to a man called John who looked like D'Artagnan and pogo'ed with a guy called Nicky who was the bodhran player's brother - and who was more drunk than any man I have ever seen still standing. Maybe it's because we're visitors; perhaps being the sole man in the company of three young women in their early twenties doesn't hurt, but "there was yet no animosity no matter what persuasion" (in the words of the Dubliners), and a bonhomie which seemed genuine and inclusive.

Nicky strikes! The perils of being young and female in The Field.
Later Helen and Kate join the band for a farewell chorus of something forgettable and we end the night standing for the Irish national anthem. As you do. My penance will be a substantial hangover and a swim tomorrow morning, and a night "off the jar".

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Clothed Horses

And so to Enniskillen, which was a controversial stop in the past, and not for the reasons one might imagine. In 2008 this was the site of Cheesegate, where a conglomerate of cheese producers showed up at the venue to take some publicity stills of the cast of "Abigail's Party" with their cheeses, playing on the tenuous pineapple and cheese connection in the show. Only problem was they hadn't really cleared this with anyone first. A cheesy standoff ensued and slightly spoiled the day.
Today we arrive with the prospect of doing the show without the nudity, which is the first and only time this will happen on the tour (Lisburn cancelled their date because the Artistic Director refused to accede to demands for a clothed version of the show). The discussions which have led to this outcome are obviously far too detailed and prolonged to go into here - it is a fait accompli and whatever our artistic feelings about it, we need to respect their wishes - after all, they have booked and paid for the show.
Would it be a good thing if ultimately it doesn't matter? After all, it is a very small percentage of the action. Is it possible that in the final analysis, the nudity isn't all that important to the success of the show?
When the curtain falls, of course, it does matter. And it's reassuring that it does - for all of us who claim that it is justified in the context of the drama; for the two dedicated and brave professionals who disrobe publicly on a nightly basis (something which is the stuff of nightmares for most people); for the hundreds of people who have watched those moments with us and have seen how they throw the story into even sharper relief. Naturally I'm disappointed that the paying public of Enniskillen couldn't share those moments with us last night. I'm disappointed that they didn't get the "Equus" that perhaps they expected. I'm disappointed, too, that they might suspect for a moment that it was a creative decision. However, we go to Kilkenny, Dundrum and beyond with vigorous confidence and empirical proof that this is a story which is best told as we have been telling it - unveneered and unvarnished.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

See What I Mean?

No, I've no idea either. Nice clothes for 3 year old girls though....

Friday, 24 February 2012

School Trip

There's no missing the Giant's Causeway in favour of a shopping mall this time, although we're nearly derailed by an outlet village in Antrim on the way. We seem condemned to visit these monumets (eg Lindisfarne) in crappy weather, and we schlep along the footpaths to the stones in drizzly rain, variously grumbling about it (me) and striding out manfully (Malcolm).
It's a quietly spectacular formation. Seeing them from a distance is a but like one of those moments in films where you realise there's a higher intelligence at work - the columns seem so incredibly regular - but as you get in close and clamber over them the variations of shapes reveal themselves and pentagons, hexagons and a myriad of others. The legend is that the Irish giant Finn MacCool built the causeway to reach Scotland to fight his arch-foe Benandonner, and at Fingal's Cave on Staffa Island there are some similar formations.
Looking up at the Organ Pipes or Giant's Harp
There's a very tactile quality to the structures, and climbing all over them only adds to the enjoyment. I always think it's a shame when you can't get close to structures like Stonehenge, or touch sculptures like Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, where that has clearly been built into the design. In fact there are some very Moore-like rocks lying around which have been weathered over the millenia, but by the time we reach them there's only time for a quick pose before we really have to head on back for the show.
Stuart as Finn MacCool, triumphant over Benandonner

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Set Text

We're not usually free on a Tuesday, and it's only thanks to a cancellation by Lisburn that we have a chance to go to the Lyric in Belfast to see "Uncle Vanya". Fi knows the DSM there and we planned this a week ago, and by extraordinary coincidence we also ran into a couple in Dan Lowrey's on our last night in Cork whose daughter Orla is in the show.
It's a cracking show and a fabulous ensemble. The set's been pared down to a minimum, with none of the furniture and associated set dressing that normally accompany Chekhov. Afterwards, in the bar, Orla joins us for a drink and we discover that this paring down happened during the previews, and since a number of lines refer to the furniture, they had to be cut last-minute, too.
On shows like "Equus", where the set is non-naturalistic and the props minimal, when we come off stage that's pretty much job done for us. This isn't always the case. When "Ab's Party" opened we used to spend well over an hour packing up the bottles, glasses and other set dressing ready for loading into the van, because it just wasn't feasible for the stage managers to do it as well as the very intricate set. As the weeks wear on, though, the propping becomes so efficient that you can usually halve the time spent on it. By the time I joined the "Beauty Queen" cast I ended up staying out of the way and just did costumes, they were such a well-drilled unit.
There are limits to what a cast ought to attempt during a get-out, though. The "Vertigo" touring floor was constucted from huge sheets of plywood and massive scaff bars, and you can imagine the damage to life, limb, property and street furniture that used to result from dizzy actors wandering about with such things.


Monday, 20 February 2012

Up North

We're on the move again, after a fantastic couple of weeks in Cork, and Lisburn is a long drive into Northern Ireland. Two things happen after we cross the border - we instantly start checking our phones for home signal; and we start seeing signs for places which have strong resonance to people my age - like Derry, Enniskillen and Armagh.
It's a fact of theatre that you'll work with people of all ages, and I'm constantly astounded both by how little I know about popular culture and how quickly relatively recent history becomes clouded or forgotten. Stuart, who's in his mid-20's, admits to not knowing much about the Troubles, and Jamie and I suddenly find ourselves attempting a hamfisted potted version which skirts dangerously close to reinventing history. We lurch from trying to explain the Orange Order, Bloody Sunday and the Remembrance Day bombing to remembering how Gerry Adams had his words spoken by an actor on TV for years. I don't suppose we're the first to realise that a dot-to-dot approach doesn't work with a subject as prolonged and complicated as the situation in Ireland, but it's a humbling experience nonetheless.

Friday, 17 February 2012

The Rising of the Moon

Surely there can be no more unsuitable job than this one for a father of small children? Even when I'm around I disappear shortly before the bedtime hour - which requires Peace Process-levels of compromise and negotiations to get the bairns into their beds, and which is not to be tackled alone if possible. It also makes it terribly tricky for your missus to get along to see the show.
Cue the arrival and intervention of The Master Distractor and Entertainer of Small Boys, also known as Helen's boyfriend Bez - who has flown in  for a few days and is rewarded for this gesture by being saddled with my kids for a night. Not really, he actually volunteers and boy, is he qualified. So whilst he and Jake discuss matters like the relative merits of Megatron and Bumblebee, and whether it would be cooler to a) be invisible or b) have an eye on the end of your index finger, Sue is able to slip out for her first and probably only night at the theatre until July.

Bumblebee. The legend in Lego.
She sees a great show. Not quite as spectacular as the one the following night, when we get a standing ovation, but a solid, slick, pacy performance, variously highly charged and full of subtlety. Afterwards we're able to go see some diddlee-dee music at the Corner House and share a table with some really friendly Corkonians. This is the first time she's spent any time with me on tour since 2005, and obviously it's not entirely an accurate picture of what goes on, but it must be good to meet the people I work with and know basically what I do.

Just don't tell her that I normally get up at midday...

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Blarney

It's like a outing for a very dysfunctional family, our trip to Blarney Castle. The sensible parents are Malcolm, Fiz and Jo. Sue, Matt and I are somewhere in the middle and way down below Jake and Molly are Kate and Fi, who have come armed with a football and a determination to be very silly indeed. In understanding the needs of children on holiday they are absolutely unequalled.
It's a place rich in history and which trades heavily on matters magical and mythical, but which is basically famous for one thing and the ritual which surrounds it. The path to the Blarney Experience (as it would be called in the US) is a steep and challenging one, but this doesn't faze Jake and Molly, who explore the dark passages in the lower reaches of the castle with chuckles of delight, and emerge into the roofless upper halls with squeals of discovery.
Kate gives Molly a cwtch whilst Mrs Dineen examines the likely drop zone
God only knows how a chubby tourist manages to make it to the top, where the fabled stone is built into the castle wall. The stairway is barely wide enough to admit me, and the view from the arrow-slits is dizzying. Like most monuments of this type, the actual experience threatens to be a gigantic anti-climax, but there's an unexpected significance to the final moment which even the constant monologue from the kissing assistant can't ruin. We all pucker up for the rock except the kids - even Jo, who has kissed it before and has a slight fear that a second kiss might reverse the process. Jake almost does, but settles for a photo at the last moment:

Elsewhere there's a Witch Rock complete with offerings from all over the world, a Fairy Glade and some Wishing Steps, where Fi persuades both Molly and Jake to descend backwards with their eyes closed so they can make a wish. At the foot of the steps there's a pool formed by a waterfall, and in a moment of poetic inspiration Jake suggests this might be the wishes tumbling over the rocks. Maybe there's something in this Blarney flim-flam after all!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Family Ties

Sorry about the break. That's what happens when you throw a family into the touring mix!
Just prior to Sue, Jake and Molly arriving I spent the afternoon in Charlie's bar listening to an impromptu session of trad Irish music. I love the Dubliners, and I was hoping for some classics along the lines of "Seven Drunken Nights" and whatnot, but with no vocalist the repertoire tended to sound a bit similar. That's not to say the musicians weren't accomplished, but without a structure the centre doesn't hold.
Anyway, that's my application to be folk critic for NME done. Wide-eyed, wired kids arrived accompanied by their long-suffering mother on a turboprop plane at 6.45pm, and were pushed out straddling an airport trolley by  same a few minutes later. Lovely to see them again. Once we get to Vienna Woods and they meet potential playmates Kate, Fi and Helen it only takes a few hours to get them to go to bed...

Friday, 10 February 2012

Cork Notices!

I buy the Evening Echo (from the guy in St Patrick’s Street who calls “Ech-oh"!) and there’s a great review from Liam Heylin, saying it’s the best marriage of play and production LCT have brought to Cork. In particular it singles out Malcolm’s expert portrayal of Dysart, and it possibly works even better if read in a Cork accent. Try the following sentence and you’ll see what I mean:

"Malcolm James gives a fine performance as he offers himself as our conduit for the teenager's agonies".

One of many reflective moments. Photo by Sheila Burnett

Beautifully phrased. Malcolm gets mentioned and praised a lot, and along with Matt he really is the beating heart of the play. There’s not a single scene he’s not centrally involved in, and the prospect of tackling his monologues makes brave men blench. An injured shoulder wouldn't be a problem, but quite what would happen if he dislocated his tongue, no-one wants to think about.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Travelling People


I have a bit of a Cork history in my family. Dineen’s a very Cork name, and when we were here in 2008 we made much of this to promote the show - even to the extent that we invented an address and career (firelighter maker) and for my great-great grandpa John James Dineen. Well, details were sketchy…and it made for interesting copy.
Although there’s no Dineen bar in Cork to visit, there are several businesses with the name, and one of these, Dineen Crash Repairs, is on the way to our digs. Well, the cottages at the Vienna Woods Hotel aren’t really digs, they’re too luxurious for that. I’m sharing with Fi (DSM) and Kate (CSM) so consequently there’s a fair bit of drinking, late night dancing and drying underwear everywhere, but that’s no great hardship. In fact, as I write Kate is making a fantastic-smelling chilli for later so I’m not going to entirely waste away, either.
As usual there’s a young house (Helen, Stuart, Jamie and Matt) and a calm house (Malcolm, Jo and Fiz).  Since Jo and Fiz have the lion’s share of the new lines to learn and most of their scenes are with Malcolm anyway, this works out well.  And Stuart has a filthy sense of humour and enjoys working out, so he’s a perfect fit, too.
In fact, they all fit amazingly well. The dress rehearsal goes swimmingly and the first night, to well over 300, is almost flawless. There’s press in and expectations are high (we’re victims of our own success up to a point, I suppose) but for tonight, it’s Murphy’s, congratulations and swapping stories in Dan Lowrey’s Bar next to the theatre. Sla├Čnte!
Silly not to.

Monday, 6 February 2012

I'm a Rover (Seldom Sober)


Life doesn’t stop when you go into production week. It just seems to. You still have your monthly debits going out, junk mail arriving and so on at home – you’re just not there to see it. Or deal with it. If you’re me, you’re lucky enough to have a lovely if overworked partner handling all that. If not, I suppose it just piles up until you can’t open the front door.
This is doubly true in production week on tour, and triply (if that’s a word) on tour in the Irish Republic. The keenest loss is the freedom to contact home at will, which is something we iPhoneys are all used to in the UK, but it’s a habit you have to break if you want to stay even remotely  solvent.
Anyway, update. The Everyman Palace is our first stop - in the gorgeous city of Cork. It’s a bit dilapidated backstage – but the staircase is papered with show posters going back decades, and they’re fantastic reading. Local heroes featured here include the legend Frank Kelly (Father Jack in “Father Ted”) and Anna Manahan, the Grande Dame of the theatre, for whom the part of Mag in “Beauty Queen of Leenane” was written.  There’s a velvet chair in the ladies’ dressing room with a tiny brass dedication plaque to her on it. There’s also this:

I was here with Jamie in “Abigail’s Party” in 2008, and Sean from the stage crew immediately recognises us and says how much he loved that show. There’s a framed poster in the corridor to the dressing rooms, too, and these combine to cause a small degree of pressure. I imagine Michael feels it, too. However, there’s no time for that as we’re called to stage and begin our first run under the horseheads since November. 

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Chiswick! Fresh Horses!

So on Monday "Equus" started rehearsal again with a partially new cast. With only a week it's going to be a tall order (for "Abigail's Party" in 2008 we rehearsed for three weeks) but with Fiz, Jo and Stuart largely off book already, things are looking very positive.
Recasting these roles was always going to be a challenge, and none more so than the stallion Nugget. Whereas Aidan was dance trained, and this largely informed his performance, Stuart has a puppetry background including playing Joey in "War Horse", and so brings a wholly different angle to the part than we're used to. Especially in the horse sounds, which are arresting and are beginning to have a real impact on the stable scene. Whether the rest of us old nags can keep up is another matter...

Friday, 13 January 2012

Beginners, please...

I had a meeting today in town - not exactly an audition, more a discussion about a possible project - and the text under consideration is "Still Life" by Noel Coward. And it's sort of polite to read it before you go, I find. Now, I have three Coward collections and several single plays, but with tedious inevitability I find I don't have this one.
Since, though, I live in a village with a very active amdram group (apparently - I mean I don't go or anything, darling...) I call a friend who recommends another friend who may have it. So I shoot round and ring his bell and the door opens.
It's an OMG moment. There stands Mr Lance Bassett, which is a name you won't know. If you grew up here, though, he's a legend. He's the Man Who Got To Unzip Mrs Wilcock's Dress Onstage when we were at school. And watching him do that (in "Plaza Suite" if memory serves) had a profound effect on my fifteen-year-old self. It was electric. It was all we talked about for the rest of the week, and on the Friday I had my careers interview and confidently said "Mr Ross, I'm not interested in  being a solicitor. I want to be an actor".

On such shaky, hormonally imbalanced platforms as these, careers are forged. And Mr Bassett? You know, even now he looks a teensy bit pleased with himself.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Winterval

Did that last post seemed odd? I'm always left with some oddball photos at the end of a tour, things which have caught my eye which, in the cold light of a month's furlough, don't seem quite so compelling as they were.  Anyway, if you visit often - welcome back after the break; and if you're reading this for the first time, then errr....welcome!
I've been writing this blog on and off since Spring 2008, when I was on the second leg of London Classic Theatre's "Abigail's Party", and now - as then - I'm in the position of knowing what I'm going to be doing professionally for the first part of the year. This is not a common state of affairs though - mostly the New Year arrives with the prospect of unemployment tagging along behind like a ugly friend.
The job - as you may have guessed from the last post - is "Equus" for London Classic. I'm playing Frank Strang and we open in the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork on 6th February - a little over 4 weeks from now - and we'll be touring until early July. Which, as my missus will tell you, is a feckin' long time.
I never thought I'd be a touring actor, but that's pretty much how it's turned out. In fact my first year out, I made so many short films that I was sure I'd do loads of screen work, but in this dodge you tend to meet some key people who hugely influence the way your career progresses. People like Vicky Ireland and Michael Cabot.
But more of them later. I've gotta go look at some horses.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

All Over The Shop

I don't know whether this is common, but whenever I'm involved with a project my surroundings seem to go all relevant on me. By which I mean I see coincidence everywhere. Like, I went for an audition for "The Importance of Being Earnest" once years ago, and on the way I saw a billboard for a property company called Merriman - which was the part I was up for. An obvious signal that the part was in the bag. Absolute cobblers, of course, but there was a spooky sychronicity about it.
Since I've been doing "Equus", though (from which I'm on a break until early February) the world seems full of horse-related coincidence. Here's an example of what I mean:
Oldham's centre of equine fashion
Now perhaps it's only because I'm doing "Equus" that I even noticed this shop. Possibly. I mean, I noticed a boutique in Brighton called "Doggy Fashion" once, but that was because of the double entendre rather than because I was doing "101 Dalmations". Anyway, it's not an isolated occurrence. Look at this gentleman's outfitters in ummmm, Lincoln, I think:
.
Bizarre. But not as bizarre as them leaving a mannequin in the street all day.