Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Drowned Man (Punchdrunk) – Visits 4, 5 and 6

Seeing as my previous 3 blog posts about ‘The Drowned Man’ have covered what the show is and how it works, this one is more about the finer nuances and how, even after 6 visits, I’m still nowhere near done with Temple Studios.  Friends have accused me of having an addiction (perhaps they are right), but given that I know people who are already into double figures (some, well into the twenties), I think I’ve been remarkably restrained.  The truth is that a Punchdrunk show doesn’t come around very often and when they do, they’re usually small scale and tickets are like gold dust.  And even when tickets are readily available, the show can only last as long as the building – Crossrail has a compulsory purchase order on the site and their demolition works begin on 1st April 2014.  There will be no transfer, no finding of a new home for Temple Studios to reside in, no bringing it back in a few years – the building dictates the show that goes in it, so once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.  Perhaps this explains my resolve to make the most of it while it still exists.

I am still in awe of the set design, the richness of detail, right down to the lingering scent of TCP in the doctor’s office.  The fact that if you were to go through the filing cabinets, you’d find pens, pencils, rubber bands, paperclips, documents, files with personal details, CVs, bits of scripts, memos etc.  There is also the sheer logistics of a performance on this scale, the way that as you follow a character through a door, another character is walking through the door on the opposite side of the room and the conversation starts between them – there is a naturalism to this which requires so much precision to get right.  And as the action loops (each loop lasting about an hour and repeated 3 times over), there is the constant moving about of props and costume, tidying things up and putting them somewhere else to be found by another character later on.

The thing with repeat visits is that it gives you the opportunity to see different permutations of their actors in the various roles.  The lead characters (as well as some of the peripheral ones) have some very physically demanding choreography, so it seems that ‘understudies’ are switched in quite frequently to give the main actors a bit of a break in a smaller role.  But regardless of combination and role, all of the actors are working solidly for 3 hours without a break and it’s hard to know whom is understudying whom.  On Friday and Saturday nights there is a ‘double’ performance (5pm and 9pm), so that is 6 hours of performance in a 7 hour time slot – these people are without doubt the hardest working cast in London.  I’m yet to ‘do the double’ so I don’t know whether they switch the cast about for the second performance of the evening.

One of the things that fascinates me most is the how the number of audience affects the dynamics of the performance.  On visit 5 I managed to get into one of the first few lifts, so the place was largely empty.  I headed straight up to the desert on the top floor in the hope of finding the elusive and mysterious Dust Witch (I’ve tried to follow her before and in the split second where I’ve looked away from her, she has vanished into the gloom), but as she was nowhere to be seen, I was drawn across the sand to the lilting sounds of ‘Catalina La O’, one of my favourite salsa songs.  There I found 2 men (Andy and Miguel?) and a girl (Faye), who was dancing flirtatiously for them.  There was just me and two other masked audience, giving a real impression that we were out a long way from civilisation.  By sheer coincidence, I was back in the same spot when this scene was repeated on the third loop, but this time there must have been at least 30 masked audience encircling the whole scene, adding a certain sinister claustrophobia to that very same bit of choreography.

If you can get into one of those early lifts, you may well be the first person to stumble across a scene.  This happened to me on visit 6 when having walked out of the lift, I seemed to be the only person to have noticed all the movement going on in the drugstore on the main street.  I walked in through the door and there was salesman Harry Greener in the middle of a song and dance routine advertising Miracle Salve to the Drugstore Girl at the counter while she polished the glasses.  It wasn’t simply a matter of waiting for the audience to show up and then ‘doing a bit of acting’, they were both very much in full swing and performing to no one but themselves – it was a good 2 minutes before we were eventually joined by another audience member.  In those early minutes while the lifts are scattering people around the building, the actors could easily be kicking their heels until someone stumbles across them, but they aren’t.  The scene goes ahead, audience or not.  And when you’re the only person watching, it seems rude to leave.

The main thing I have learnt is that while I may have a list of characters whom I would love to follow for a whole loop, it would be wrong to make that my game plan for the evening.  Gut feeling and instinct will always take you on a far more interesting journey.  1) Being hell bent on finding one character will mean you missing all sorts of other stuff and 2) taking a chance on whomever you find first may very well lead you to the very person that you were hoping to see in the first place.  The Drowned Man is very much like a scratch card – with every return, you scrape off a little more of the silver foil to reveal the bigger picture underneath.

So where better to begin my New Year’s Eve celebrations than in my beloved Temple Studios?  If you’ve got £47.50 to spare and can be in Paddington by 5pm, I’ll see you in the queue tonight.  And my new year’s resolution?  To get myself over to New York to go and experience the wonders of ‘Sleep No More’, Punchdrunk’s riff on Macbeth.  I truly am hooked.  I would like to wish all of you a happy, healthy, prosperous and mischief-filled 2014.  Thank you very much for reading – I am always happily amazed that anyone wants to read anything that I’ve written!

‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ by Punchdrunk is on at Temple Studios, 31 London Street, W2 1DJ until Sunday 23rd February 2014.  PLEASE NOTE: This is a promenade (walking) production – comfortable footwear recommended.  Running time will be up to 3 hours depending on your entry time.  You will be masked for the duration of the performance (masks may only be removed in the bar area and at the end of the performance); contact lenses would be preferable over glasses.  Age restriction 16+ years.  All 16 and 17 year olds must be accompanied by an adult.  May contain nudity.

Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel – Leicester Square Theatre

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any person in possession of a sense of humour must be in want of an evening watching a spoof Regency tale.  Following their roaring success at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 and return in 2013, Austentatious! has been granted a monthly slot in London to help rediscover some of Austen’s lost novels, of which there must be hundreds.  It’s a simple concept: the audience are invited to submit Jane Austen-esque titles on a bit of paper, the cast pick one at random out of a hat and for the next hour they will improvise the whole story complete with period costume, lords, ladies, repressed feelings and proper manners.  Past titles have included ‘Pride and Predator’, ‘Fear and Loathing in West Hampshire’ and ‘Darcy and Bingley: Forbidden Love’.  You get the idea.

austentatious_photoby_idilsukan_drawhq_02

So I took in my modest selection ‘Die Hard With A Virtue‘, ‘Dude, Where’s My Carriage?’ and ‘Sense and Self-Assembly’ (none of which were performed, although they did later on Twitter announce ‘Die Hard With A Virtue’ as their favourite unused title!) and instead we were treated to a suspense filled performance of ‘Hostages and Halibut’ – the look of bewilderment on the faces of the cast only added to the ridiculousness of the title, especially as they get no say whatsoever in the title they’ll be improvising!

Our esteemed cast of 6 (Andrew Hunter Murray, Cariad Lloyd, Graham Dickson, Rachel Parris, Joseph Morpurgo and Charlotte Gittins) have clearly honed their improvisational skills over many years – the real trick to it is to throw yourself wholeheartedly into your ascribed situation and to aid rather than block your fellow cast members.  But equally, the big risk with impro is that it can very easily get carried away with itself and wander off topic – so given that the 6 of them have no time to discuss a plot or characters (and remain at the side of the stage when they’re not in a scene), it’s quite amazing that for the next hour we get a (very far-fetched) beginning, middle and end to the story.

The 3 sisters Miss Brown, Miss Brown and Miss Brown have noticed that all the male members of their family have mysteriously disappeared, so the eldest Miss Brown has sent her husband out into the dark, dangerous forest at night to go looking for them.  He and his companion are ambushed by ‘banditi’ (with caricature Mexican accents) and taken hostage.  It later emerges that old Grandfather Brown had overfished the lake and had made his fortune selling off all the halibut.  This gave rise to some truly awful fishy puns (“I’ve come from another plaice”, “I’m not taking any more of your codswallop”).  As the days pass, the hostages slowly befriend their captors, Chiquita and Raul.  The sisters become ever more distressed and start to develop deeper feelings for the houseservant George and policeman DCI Williams.  They hatch a plan and after thwarting the eldest Miss Brown in her attempt to keep the ransom money for herself, all the men are freed and the sisters are engaged to be married.  They all go to spend Christmas with Chiquita and Raul and live happily ever after.

There is a great deal of playing multiple roles and having to overcome the difficulty of requiring the same actor to be 2 different people in the same scene causing them to excuse themselves because they must “make haste” only to return as their other character by putting on a hat.  Their attention to detail on the language and characterisation is absolutely spot on.  They are all devastatingly polite and well-spoken and have truly mastered suppressed passion: “Miss Brown… I wondered… I mean… I couldn’t help but wonder… whether you would… perhaps… do me the honour of… if you would be so kind as to…”.  They also came out with some true gems “but he HATES cupboards!” and “Oh Cecilia!  Must you poke like a man?”.  Hostages and Halibut will never be performed again, but I will be going back to see another of Jane Austen’s most amusing lost novels sometime in the near future.

‘Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel’ is playing on selected dates (once a month) until December 2014 at The Leicester Square Theatre, 6 Leicester Place, London, WC2H 7BX.  For tickets and information go to http://leicestersquaretheatre.ticketsolve.com/shows/873485733/events

Events at The Apollo Theatre

It was while I was in the pub last night after a rehearsal that the news came through that the ceiling had collapsed in The Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue during a packed performance of The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time, with many people injured.  This would be truly terrifying for any theatregoer and my thoughts are with all members of the audience, injured or not.  It is a miracle that no one was killed and I hope it stays that way.  When you go to the theatre, you expect a certain level of safety – especially given the price of a West End ticket.

There has been much speculation over the cause of this and I think it is best to allow investigators to get on with their job of assessing the building before we cast any aspersions.  In the words of Shakespeare “truth will out”.  But I suspect that the owners of ageing buildings (including other West End theatres) will be calling in structural engineers in order to make sure that they are indeed fit for purpose.  I would hope that any theatre that does find structural issues would be brave enough to close its doors for a few weeks to remedy the problem rather than invite a paying public in for 8 shows a week and hope for the best.  It is a tragedy for something like this to happen at all, but it would be nothing short of corporate foolishness if something similar were to happen again in a few days/weeks/months due to penny pinching and/or complacency.  If legislation only requires structural integrity to be checked every so often in buildings of a certain age, then perhaps that legislation needs to be changed – those buildings aren’t getting any younger.

At my theatre we run 9 productions a year for 9 nights each, 9 cinema nights, a festival and a youth theatre show or two; our schedule is tightly packed and has to run like clockwork.  Over the summer we have to close completely in order for routine maintenance to be carried out which involves many things, including electrical testing, taking down the whole lighting rig for cleaning and testing and no doubt lots of other things which I am relatively unaware of (we are lucky enough to have a revolve in the stage, which seems to need some sort of maintenance after every show its used in).  But all these things are necessary in order to keep us legal and keep us safe.  We are routinely asked by members of the public why we don’t hire the theatre out to others “when we’re not using it” – but the honest truth is that we’re always using it.  In order to do things safely and properly, there has to be a level of ‘downtime’ which paying audiences don’t see, during which these vital works are carried out.  And I do wonder how the big West End theatres fit in that downtime when they’re running 8 shows a week for years and years on end in the same building.  I would hope that the weekday daytimes and Sundays are for precisely that.

But praise must go to the Front Of House staff at the Apollo Theatre who, by all accounts, dealt with the situation tremendously.  They would’ve been the first to see the utter devastation and have to attend to people in severe distress while waiting for the emergency services to arrive.  They too will need care and support as they come to terms with last night’s events and I hope that Nimax Theatres will arrange any counselling that may be necessary.  Praise must also go to the other theatres in the vicinity which opened their foyer doors to take care of the walking wounded – it must’ve been quite a shock to their FOH teams too.

The Good Neighbour – Battersea Arts Centre

On the weekend, I found myself back at the Battersea Arts Centre, surrounded by various adults and some very excitable children.  In December 2012, the BAC played host to The Good Neighbour and it was so successful that people begged them to put it on again in 2013.  So I went along to see what all the fuss was about.  George Neighbour is a young man who lives in BAC and has lost his memory (and is terrified of Christmas and all things Christmassy – and heights, and stairs, and windows…. and just about everything).  Aside from the name on his apron and meeting Queen Victoria, he knows nothing about himself; but he believes the clues to his identity all lie hidden in BAC, so it’s up to us to be ‘very brave’ and find them for him.

We are split into groups with a numbered sticker and assigned a guide to lead us through the building, with all groups taking a different route (although you run into each other quite frequently) and off we go on our theatrical adventure.  The whole format is rather more aimed at children than it is at adults, but is still good fun.  The kids around me threw themselves into the task with great enthusiasm and were absolutely enraptured with the whole concept.

We trailed up and down stairs and crawled through tunnels, searched for bits of paper with instructions and met various characters along the way, each with a small snippet of information which might help us recover George’s lost memory.  At one point, we even got to make lightbulbs in the basement (a line of D batteries, alligator clips, lead filaments and a glass jar) – an experiment that I haven’t done since secondary school!  In the main council chamber, there was a large map on the floor which kids and adults alike were encouraged to draw on with chalk with all the things they’d found out.

But there were also aspects which encouraged us to think about our own memories. One of my favourite rooms that we visited was home to character The Momentologist – he is surrounded by glass jars full of water, all representing the moments in people’s lives; there’s a great analogy here for adults and children alike in that everyone has a jar, but it’s up to you to fill it memories and it’s never too late to start.  He held up an empty jar to say one of the most profound things out of the whole show: “This lady’s jar is empty.  She won’t go outside in case something falls out of the sky and hits her on the head… and she won’t let herself fall in love in case her heart gets broken.” As we all walked out of the room, there was a great contrast between the uncontainable enthusiasm of the children and some very quietly reflective adults.

At the finale we all got to share our findings (my highlight of the evening was the child vividly telling us about “the… the funny lady! And she EXPLODED!!!”). Maybe its that I’ve been spoilt with other immersive theatre productions where you can wander wherever you like, but not everyone sees every room on their route (and if you come back, I’m not sure how you can guarantee being put on a route to see the rooms you missed last time). I for one would’ve liked to see the funny exploding lady.

George’s missing identity is revealed and it is with bittersweet amazement that we find out the truth about him.  There is a sad ending to the story, but it is told in such a way as to be life-affirming rather than upsetting – one hell of a challenge when some of the youngest in the audience were 6-year-olds.  And what a good, brave and kind Neighbour he was.

‘The Good Neighbour’ is on until Saturday 4th January 2014 at Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, London, SW11 5TN.  Suitable for ages 6 and up. For information and tickets, go to https://www.bac.org.uk/content/29759/see_whats_on/current_shows/tuck_in/the_good_neighbour

Robin Hood Panto – Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks

It’s December and panto season is definitely upon us, so I went to see Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood at the Stag Theatre for some festive fun.  This has all the expected traditional fare; man dressing up as woman – check. Girl dressing up as boy – check.  Goodies and baddies – check.  Singing and dancing – check.  But the script is a little unbalanced which presents a few challenges to this talented cast.

The highlight of any panto is the dame – and Robert Pearce is resplendent as Nurse Nellie in a series of increasingly ridiculous and cumbersome costumes.  He (she?) is complimented by Ant Payne as obligatory idiot Silly Billy Scarlet and they make a great double act; their scenes together are loaded with pace and the sort of inappropriate topical jokes which are part of any pantomime.  Andy Abraham (X Factor finalist 2005) is a cheerful and likeable Little John.

Full review continues here

The Upstanding Member – The Old Red Lion Theatre

When I did Boeing Boeing earlier this year, our director’s son emailed Mark Rylance to ask if he had any tips (Rylance had played Robert in West End and Broadway).  We did indeed get a reply of “Don’t play for laughs.  Play to terrify the audience about what might happen next.”  I would like to add to this the genuine sense that each character really is ‘winging it’ and desperately trying to keep up with the pace of unfolding events.  The Upstanding Member brings its fair share of terror.

The Right Honorable ____________ ______ MP has taken out a super-injunction against a young woman and when it turns out that she’s pregnant, he invites her to his second home on Christmas Eve to sort things out on the quiet.  Add into this mix some unscrupulous journalists/thieves, his lawyer, his wife and another man all trapped in the same room and the tangle of fibs becomes ever more muddled.  Playwright Gregory Skulnick’s typing fingers do seem to have run away with themselves at times, but when he reins them in, this is a cracking comedy full of lies, counter lies, mistaken identities and a light smattering of the sort of cheap laughs you can only get away with in farce.

The Man (Stephen Omer) is unapologetically pompous and quite happy to sort everything out with money.  But prostitute Gloria (Kate Craggs) is refusing to be bought off quietly and wants to go public with her pregnancy.  She treads a fine line between boldness and realising she may not actually get away with this after all.  Sorting things out is made rather difficult with the arrival of his wife, Beatrice (Carole Street) whose unfazed facial expressions tell us that this is a woman who knows exactly what is going on, yet she seems to revel in playing along just to watch her husband squirm.  His lawyer, Mr Graver (Ed Sheridan) cuts a desperate figure after all his hard work seems to have gone to waste overnight.

Alastair (Tim Dewberry) and Danny (Izaak Cainer) make a great double act as the pair of thieves who have to hide (slightly implausibly) behind a flag and coat when The Man comes home unexpectedly.  But they find themselves listening in on the juiciest details of his infidelity and when they are discovered, they deftly overcomplicate matters by announcing themselves as lawyers defending either party against the other.  A convoluted legal dispute begins which rapidly gets out of control, to hilarious effect, as neither The Man nor Gloria is prepared to admit the truth in front of his wife.  There is a real feeling that all of them are thinking on their feet and making it up as they go along.  A real challenge when this sort of comedy has to be rehearsed to precision.

This is a light-hearted bit of fun-poking into the world of politics, super-injunctions and the media, and you do begin to wonder “how are any of them going to get out of this?!”.  At the point when we seem to be heading for a stalemate, there is thankfully a break in proceedings which unclutters the stage and gets the story over a hump (where I really thought we were going to start going over already-used material).  There is room to tighten up the writing to make this really slick, but this is still an enjoyable laugh-out-loud comedy in one of London’s most intimate and quirky venues.

The Upstanding Member is on at The Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London, EC1V 4NJ,  until 4th January.  This is a one-act play with no interval.  For tickets and more information, go to http://www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk/the-upstanding-member.htm