Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Rivals – Arcola Theatre

When I think of classic Restoration comedies, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals is one of the first to spring to mind.  A tangle of mistaken identities, love, lies and of course, malapropisms.  As I walked into the Arcola, I was met with a hubbub of actors getting the stage ready and nattering to the audience, all bathed in a warm candle-like glow and a minimalist set, straight out of an 18th century illustration.

The dashing Captain Jack Absolute has created himself an alter ego, Ensign Beverley and in this guise is planning to elope with his lover, Lydia Languish (who has read one two many romantic novels).  Jack’s father, Sir Anthony and Lydia’s aunt, Mrs Malaprop have arranged that Lydia will marry someone else – Captain Jack Absolute.  You’d think this would make things very simple, but instead Lydia is mortified at the unromantic prospect of marrying someone who has her aunt’s approval.

My tickets were courtesy of Bargain Theatre.  To read the review in full, please click here.

The Rivals is on until Saturday 15th November 2014 at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL.  For tickets and more information go to www.arcolatheatre.com

Happy Stage Management Day

Amongst my favourite theatrical roles, I have a special place in my heart for that of Stage Manager.  Much as I love being on stage, I also quite like sitting in a dark corner, cans on and calling cues.  There’s something very satisfying about watching a slick scene-change of your own creation on a little screen.  But there’s also all the boring-but-essential tasks like checking fire exits and headcounting actors long before curtain up, plus the stresses of tech day and painstakingly writing precise cues into scripts (always pencil, never pen).  It’s hard work and great fun in equal measure.  It’s also possibly one of the greatest multi-tasking challenges known to humankind, especially when it involves a cast of children and young people.

I fell into Stage Management 6 years ago.  I’d put my name down to direct at my theatre.  I was a bit surprised to get a phonecall asking me to SM a production of My Boy Jack as the SM had pulled out at the last minute.  I turned it down.  I’d never done any backstage work in my life, what bloody use would I be in charge of all of it?!  But I was assured of a bit of tutoring and that it would be “a good experience” if I wanted to direct.  (As it turned out, no one had pulled out, they’d had me lined up to do it all along.  Sneaky….)

My Boy Jack is the story of Rudyard Kipling’s son who went to the trenches in WW1 and was reported missing in action (to this day his body has never been identified) and the years that followed as Kipling searched for the truth of what happened to his son.  This was a play that took place in the Kipling’s living room and in the muck of the trenches, so two separate sets.  It involved firearms, explosives – and children.  And the stage revolve.  I was in at the deep end, but in hindsight, it was possibly the best way to learn.  Stage management is a bit dull when it’s curtains open, lights up, doorbell rings…… 13 pages later…… dog barks…… 22 pages later…… blackout, curtains close, house lights up.  A cue-heavy show initially seems daunting, but it keeps you focused.  We meticulously choreographed scene changes so that no one bumped into anyone or ended up on the wrong side of the rotating stage.   At the end of Act 1, Jack Kipling and his comrades go over the top – every night I would watch with joy as the trenches set cleaved in two, both sides perfectly synchronised, sound effects of shelling and machine gun fire ricocheted around the auditorium and the boys slowly marched into the gloom of stage smoke as we faded to blackout.  It was beautiful.

I’ve since directed once (and am about to direct again), but I’ve been back at the Stage Management desk far more times in the intervening years, including every summer production of our youth theatre.  It’s where I started, so they too have a special place in my heart.  It gives us a chance to teach them a bit of stage craft and good habits, but in the gap between the matinee and evening, I let them come and play with the SM desk, press buttons, make announcements (It’s mostly them giggling and saying “heellllloooooooo” to the empty Front of House and imitating me with “this is your five minute call” in official-sounding voices to the dressing room).  I’d much rather indulge their curiosity when we have time and not be dealing with “what does this button do?” mid-show.  Their productions have an element of unparalleled chaos to them and there are times when you just have to let it happen.  I challenge even the calmest of SMs not to feel like they’re about to have a nervous breakdown in the middle of the show.  In addition to the usual of following the script and calling cues, there’s the occasional skipped line (or page), and all of the below is going on at the same time:

  • In my left ear, the ensuing (occasionally potty-mouthed) questions in my headphone from the tech crew asking what page we’re on
  • In my right ear, I have a 9-year-old asking if they should be wearing shoes for their next scene
  • Or telling me that their bucket of fish has gone missing
  • Whispering the occasional prompt
  • Operating the revolve every 5 minutes
  • Beckoning kids away from the edge of the wings where they can be seen by the audience
  • And away from the locked high voltage boxes before anyone gets electrocuted
  • Helping someone who’s got their sleeve inside out and has to be on in 4 lines
  • Figuring out how to retrieve a prop that has been left on stage
  • Endless shushing and stern looks with a finger to my lips
  • That sudden moment where everything on stage goes deadly quiet and having to make a judgement call on what to do
  • All of the above without losing my temper

But for them, it’s the culmination of months of rehearsal and their taste of the limelight in front of parents, grandparents, siblings, aunties, uncles and cousins.  They love it.  As they take their final bow, the roar of applause from family and friends is deafening and makes me unbelievably proud of them.  Their sense of achievement is tangible.  All is forgiven – and for some reason, I immediately want to do it all over again.

The last time I stage managed for them, they bought me these.  I nearly cried.

Ring – Battersea Arts Centre

Ring

Are you afraid of the dark?

I’m not talking a room with the lights off, I mean the sort of darkness where not even the faintest chink of light exists to allow you to see your hand in front of your face.  Where if you turn round, you really can’t see where the door is to find your way out.  Where your eyes never actually adjust.  The sort of pitch blackness that makes you feel nervous (and in my case, like I’m about to fall over).  So it’s probably just as well I was sitting down.

Ring by Fuel Theatre is a psychological audio experience that takes place in complete darkness, in Battersea Arts Centre.  Several rows of seats face each other, neatly laid out with about a foot of space between each seat, so that you’re not immediately next to anyone.  A man dressed in black gives us a few instructions and a taster session of the darkness, offering an opportunity to leave before proceedings start – no one does.  Once the wireless headphones go on and the lights go down, you feel very isolated very quickly.

The voice of the man, now standing further away, asks everyone to move their chairs into a circle.

I panic, wondering how the hell to do this in the dark without injuring myself or anyone else.  There is the rumbling and scraping of chairs all around me, the murmuring of the audience standing up and moving around – I’m about to join them when suddenly a voice very close to my right ear whispers “it’s alright, Frances, you can stay where you are”.  I jolt, because initially, it feels like someone is stood right next to me.*

If your name is actually Frances or Francis, I can’t even begin to imagine how bloody terrifying the whole thing would be.

This is an incredible feat of sound design, the like of which I doubt I’ll ever experience again.  The rational side of me knows that I’m sat in the same spot and the rest of the audience are also sat in the same neat rows, yet I’m completely fooled into thinking that everyone else has moved to sit in a circle and the voices seem to move around from my left, getting slowly further away, moving across to the right and getting nearer.  Every now and again, that whisper suddenly presents itself very close to my ear, sometimes reassuring and soothing, sometimes deeply sinister and troubling.  I did for a few seconds take the headphones off to see if any of the voices were coming from within the room or if everything was in the recording.  It was indeed all within the headphones.

We lurch without warning from one place to another – from a large room to a hotel murder scene (which I seem to responsible for) – there’s a barrage of questions, conversations and descriptions.  With no visuals to look at or to orient you, it feels natural to close your eyes and let your imagination be directed by the audio – the atmosphere it creates is very unnerving because you have no control over what happens and even when you try to take your mind off everything you’re hearing, that loud whisper yanks you back to the situation.  The final scene stood on the rotting wooden pier is quietly harrowing. Even though you know you’re allowed to call for help if you’re finding it a bit much, something stops you from doing so.

Then you’re aware that you’re now sat in a very low gloomy light.  You can just make out the shapes of the audience sat around you.  You’ve completely lost track of time – it could’ve been 10 minutes, it could’ve been 2 hours (we knew it was 50 minutes).

At times it does feel like a random collection of situations that don’t seem to go anywhere or have much relation to each other – it’s incredibly effective, but I would’ve liked them to use the narrative a little bit more – but perhaps the idea is to keep pulling the rug from under your feet and stop you from getting comfortable.  But that voice in the ear – that is going to stay with me for several days yet…

Ring is on until Saturday 11th October 2014 at Battersea Arts Centre. Age recommendation 16+. For this tickets and more information go to:
https://www.bac.org.uk/content/34498/see_whats_on/shows/shows/ring

Flowers of the Forest – Jermyn Street Theatre

You probably haven’t heard of Flowers of the Forest.  It hasn’t been performed in the UK in almost 70 years.  In the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, it is one of the lost plays from between the wars now being brought to a new audience.  The play starts on an afternoon in 1934: Naomi and Lewis Jacklin are in a marriage of convenience, having both lost their first loves during the War.  When an old box of records is brought down from the attic, it triggers a flashback to two evenings in 1914 and 1916, before returning to the same scene in 1934 later in the evening.

This first scene is a bit slow to get going – it’s mostly set up for things to come.  We have the conflicting opinions of two different generations; the naivety youth in the fervent pacifist, Leonard Dobie (Max Wilson) and the firm belief that the war was right and just by both Naomi (Sophie Ward) and Lewis (Mark Straker), otherwise their loved ones fought and died for nothing.  Naomi’s sister, Mercia (Debra Penny) comes across as a bit of a misery-guts, old before her time.  Lewis’ young secretary, Beryl (Victoria Rigby) is fixated with the poetry of Richard Newton-Clare (of the changing sentiments and his unfinished works), a man Naomi once knew before he was killed in the War.  Eventually, we get a much needed (and very clever) set change to take us back to the war.

Gabriel Vick and Sophie Ward. Photo by Hala Mufleh

My tickets for Flowers of the Forest were courtesy of Bargain Theatre.  To read the review in full, please click here.

Flowers of the Forest is on at the Jermyn Street Theatre until Saturday 18th October 2014.  For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/