And suddenly it’s all over: the highs, the lows, the terrible diet. Following our grinding theatrical war of attrition, rounded off by the Battle of Bosworth and a night in the pub, the actors woke up on Monday morning to the prospect of their very own personal reign of Henry VII: a tedious period of inactivity where not much happens apart from an urgent need to count the pennies.
Parting is such sweet sorrow. Especially after a gig like this. Sure, you attain a vague rhythm after a while – due to the production’s insane spin cycle & the ingenious mind of Jim Creighton (see below) – but, sweet Mary, those trilogy days wrung us all out good and proper. Much as we’re going to miss this ogre of a show, we damn sure needed a break. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. You end up running on fumes. I was into my third cold of the run by the end, a sweating, hacking germ-engine, with only Nurofen & the threat of public humiliation to sustain me through the day.
In George A Romero’s seminal 1970s zombie flick, Dawn of the Dead, the recently departed rise from their graves & take to America’s gleaming shopping malls: the only places their rotting brains can vestigially remember as providing any meaning & structure to their former lives. Well, I invite George to consider a sequel, based in 21st century Kingston & with a cast now eager for some work:
All last week, on repeat loop as if strapped helpless to a broken VHS tape, the company – arms outstretched, drooling – would stumble from their dressing rooms to the warm, inviting sanctuary of the stage, over and over and over again. Like a stricken moth to a flame, we’d gather in the wings panting to join the world beyond, glowing like Narnia at the end of the wardrobe, incongruous as a Waitrose in Lewisham. There, like Dr Jeckyll muddling his metaphors and showing up in the wrong horror film, our trusty old evil genius, Dr Theatre, would be waiting with hypodermic in hand, ready to re-animate the corpse with a shot of super-strength, Kingston-grade adrenaline.
The moment those dead feet staggered into the light, and before their owner could even say Oooh this feels nice, the groaning cadaver would flower startlingly into a vibrant medievalist with elastic lips & stunning breath support. Glorious acting would instantly ensue: mind and body in perfect sync, smooth, revivified actor purring like a Bentley in a follow-spot.
Then, as the scene drew to a close, slick Shakespearean would panic & look about him or her surreptitiously:
I wonder if anyone would, erm, notice if I, you know, just stuck around a bit. Hid behind the throne. Pretended to be dead p’raps. Anything really. I promise not to make a noise. Oh God, please don’t make me leave, don’t force me back to the dressing room, back to my other self, back to the coughing, the mucous, the strip-lighting, the never-ending cake!! Nooooo…!!!
And it would become sadly necessary for stage management to physically remove agitated actor from the stage to be man-handled protesting through the wings and upstairs to the dressing rooms, strapping him or her down as necessary. At which point, the cycle of horror would begin once more as Mr Hide reasserted his dominance into the depths of a damp, green handkerchief.
Such a strange but potent phenomenon is this public performance malarkey. It’s the best tonic money can buy. Being onstage in front of hundreds of people literally cures the common cold. For about five minutes.
But by crikey, what a job. I ask you, us and pornstars, eh? Both climbing in & out of sweaty clobber all day, both performing under heavy lights for the benefit of an eager audience, both catching some horrible virus due to the exhausting schedule, and both on roughly the same money.
Mind you, pornstars don’t get written about in the Kingston Echo, do they? Eh??
Well, not recently they don’t, no.
Wheels coming off
If any more proof were needed that the company was approaching the end of its collective tether and taking its eye off the ball, it came at approximately 8:30pm on Friday night during the first half of Richard III. I was in deep conversation with Larry and Olly in our dressing room regarding the price of the modern Mars Bar.
Suddenly, slicing through our deliberations like a scalpel, came the sound of Erin’s voice over the tannoy, urgent and brittle with controlled panic, communicating information no actor ever, ever wants to hear:
“MR COTTON YOU ARE OFF! MR COTTON YOU ARE OFF!”
Now, I have witnessed in my time many examples of the impressive velocity human beings are capable of achieving in extremis: I have observed a postman run from the advances of a Rottweiler down a narrow alley, satchel caught in the wind like a sail. I have seen a woman in her dressing gown hare after her husband as he drives off with their two year old on his roof. And I’d hazard a guess that most of us have watched footage of Ussain Bolt in all his sublime glory charge like a steam-train in pursuit of some title or other in the last few years.
Friends, I have never seen anyone move with such alacrity, power or command of obstructive furniture as 71-year-old, white-faced Oliver Cotton upon receipt of Erin’s apocalyptic pronouncement. Meeting her news with a small, tight-voiced Oh fucking sweet Jesus, Olly surged from the room like a tsunami of ermine, sending chairs and garments flying as he went. After he’d ripped through doors and clattered away down the stairs, the room was left in stunned silence. It was as if a small bomb had detonated, the remaining actors left mute and wide-eyed in awe.
Meanwhile, onstage, an ominous vacuum was coursing through the theatre, as Buckingham’s line, “Here comes the sweating lord,” directed at the wings and an (ordinarily) approaching Lord Hastings, was this time met with an actor’s second worst nightmare: an impenetrable, unforgiving void. Realising something was amiss, Buckingham & the Lord Mayor attempted to keep the ship afloat by making some incomprehensible small talk in cobbled-together verse (you try it, impossible); whilst Richard, Duke of Gloucester, stalked offstage to look for the tardy Lord H – aswell as whisper blue murder at Naomi stood in the wings on headphones.
It wasn’t long before everyone everywhere became aware of Olly’s approach, in the same way one might become cognisant of a piano collapsing down a flight of stairs regardless of whether you hear it from the kitchen or the downstairs loo. Skidding to a halt and meeting the Duke of Gloucester at stage left, the wild-eyed Lord Hastings took a deep breath, then both actors strolled on together.
“Found him!” chortled an inspired Robbie Sheehan.
I had family in that night, and my brother said he thought the bloke who played Hastings put in a brilliant performance.
“Off? What do you mean, he was off??”
Passing the time
By the end of the run, as the finish line approached, we had all successfully found things to sustain us and to keep us all alert: the girls kidnapped a member of the public and slowly ate him; Karé Conradi in the neighbouring dressing room was pleasured nightly by a Stormtrooper…
… and Jim Creighton developed a quite brilliant classical music quiz which tied Andrew Woodall & Oliver Cotton – both of whom seem to know more about classical music than seems wholly feasible for two gentlemen who aren’t internet search engines – into quivering bundles of competitive fury. Which was obviously handy as they prepared for the relative dispositions of Humphrey, Lord Protector, and the Bishop of Winchester.
Jim would stroll nonchalantly into our dressing room as we stood there in our underpants, press play and stand back with an inscrutable smirk. The challenge? The first actor to name the composer, his dates – and whether he had a beard or not. (Bizarrely, this was always more likely to be the bit that stumped Andrew & Olly.)
For an example of a fairly standard trilogy day music challenge, click here.
Before Friday night’s performance, we were called down to the auditorium to see Jerry, the producer. Now, there’s extremely vague talk of a future life for the show. And when I say vague, I mean the sort of vague that compels someone to suggest they can see France whilst sat on the beach at Folkestone. Might happen, but then it might not. And if it did, it wouldn’t be for at least another two years, if not three. And it’ll have to be a different set. And different community chorus. And I imagine the actors will all be in panto/Hollywood/prison by then, so any revival is unlikely to have the present cast in it. So, basically a different production. If it happens at all. Which it probably won’t.
Still, it was nice to see Jerry & come in to the theatre a little earlier than usual. Sit on the river and watch the ducks. Observe the fall of autumn leaves.
Care in the community
A big shout-out, incidentally, to our wonderful, indefatigable community chorus. They occupied an incredibly unforgiving space in the pecking order. Locked in the attic, there left to eat their own socks whilst rocking backwards and forwards in a corner, they were allowed out to occasionally run screaming across the stage or to take a brief bow at the end, before being bundled back upstairs to scratch at the door crying for mummy. And they did all this with supreme grace and good humour, and along the way, became our treasured accomplices and companions.
Guys, you all totally rock.
“We love you, Kingston!!!”
When the end came, it was the predictable knee-trembler we had all been set up for from the press night a month ago. If anything, it was even more insane. God love ’em, the audience went at it like monkeys on drugs. I am reliably informed that a lady rose from her seat, divested herself of her trousers and relieved herself in full view of Row H. I honestly haven’t witnessed the like since Judas Priest reformed ten years ago to play the Hammersmith Odeon. Or whatever the hell they call it these days.
As people clamoured, hooted & whistled, I briefly imagined myself the rock’n’roll star of my youthful dreams. I fear that at 45, it’s now the closest I’ll ever get to heavy metal glory, stood there in Sir Richard Ratcliffe’s leather jerkin & chainmail, being yelled at by eight hundred frantic souls. If you squinted & imagined me also holding a beaten-up old Rickenbacker, I suppose I could have passed for Lemmy from Motörhead, at a considerable stretch. Regardless, I’ll take it.
Then a big send-off in the bar afterwards. And an immensely bigger send-off after that in the Foresters over the bridge courtesy of Rufus Hound, who organised proceedings. I have to say, I’m hopeless at saying goodbye. Especially on this particular evening. My lips had difficulty forming the words. But that’s probably down to that second bottle of champagne. So I just hung off people like a sobbing koala bear until they were compelled to gently peel me off to get into their taxi.
Heroic promises were made to stay in touch. Most of them won’t be kept. Not because we’re two-faced bastards, but because that’s the way the business is. For a few brief months, we play, fight, dance & sing together, companions on our mighty theatrical journey, supporting each other up the mountain, keeping the ball in the air come hell or high water – and then we’re gone, lost in the mist. An actor’s time on this earth is characterised by these brief but consuming relationships that go on happening – if we’re incredibly lucky – throughout our working lives. It’s a strange hall of mirrors, the acting fraternity, where you know someone quite intensely but also not that well at all.
However, the bond forged is incredibly powerful – especially on this kind of show. Like a Second World War tank crew. Oh my God, we made it! I love you, brother. Have a great life. Maybe see you at a casting for a shampoo advert.
But hey. What a wonderful company. To have gone on such a long, hard trek, a gruelling and profoundly complicated nine hour odyssey, without a single pop of frustration or temper or fleeting ill-will is absolutely bloody remarkable. And testament to a truly delightful, good-humoured and down to earth body of actors.
I salute you all, compadres. And I already miss you like a lopped off limb. (You choose which one.)
A brief word (go here) from our director, captain, prime mover, totem and principal chum, Trevor Nunn, whose insane idea this all was. This production was a labour of the greatest love for him, and I hope we did justice to Peter & John’s original vision.
Trevor is a phenomenal director and a true master-technician of the stage who has that rare knack of trusting his actors to give of their absolute best in a given scene, as long as we trust him to put us exactly where we need to be. So many people who came to see the three plays remarked on the clarity and fluidity of the action, and thus how completely gripping the cumulative narrative was. That, folks, is the product of a consummate theatrical eye and fifty years honing your craft at the very summit of your profession. Aswell as a knack for inspiring huge affection and commitment from his actors.
He is the Rolls-Royce of British theatre directors. And we’ve been sat in the back simply loving the ride. Thankyou Trev.
There have been so many things to be proud of in this production, from the crystal-clear storytelling, the wonderful verse-speaking, the incredibly harmonious and sweet-natured working environment. To say nothing of the cojones of the Rose theatre management in staging this beast in the first place. Let’s be absolutely clear, doing this sort of thing if you’re the NT or RSC is one thing. Doing it if you’re a small, out-of-town producing theatre with delicate funding streams is quite another.
But actually, what I’m most proud of are our coterie of young boys who played one Rutland, two princes in the tower, and various little Yorkies, and who rose to the challenge and stepped out into our sacred space every night for six weeks without apparent fret or fear.
These little boys actually have quite a lot more going on in their young lives than you might expect or wish for them, and Ellie, our assistant director, was tasked with keeping them on point, engaged & in the fold. The picture she paints is of a little pack of cubs who were utterly over-awed and breathless, but who have had their eyes and ears pinned back and opened wide by the sheer thrill and delight of being part of this incredible ride.
I used to be a choir-boy when I was the age our Roses boys are now, singing in Pembroke College chapel choir, Oxford, under the tyrannical tutelage of one David Titterington, now a world famous organist. He used to take his terrified pups round to as many cathedrals as was legal in the late 1970s to sing yer Magnificat and yer Nunc Dimittis, along with a commensurate body of under-graduate lay-clerks (choir-men, if you will) sat at the back of a big old coach.
These gentlemen were impossibly exotic and sophisticated beings, who used to play practical jokes of exquisite hilarity on each other and would talk at length about Shakespeare, Shelley & Shopenhauer. And Monty Python. They managed to acquire the printed script in book format of Life of Brian and, on a long and arduous trip to Wells Cathedral in the summer of 1979, performed the entirety of the film, silly voices and all, for the screaming delight of the adoring boys gathered around them. We utterly worshipped these chaps in corduroy.
It was one of those singular episodes that made me think seriously for the first time about what I might like to do with my life, about what it was to perform for an appreciative audience. Inspirational mentoring for the godless middle class: it’s how the English used to do it in the 1970s – before the practice got outsourced to earnest charity workers & radical preachers. It left a big imprint, to say the least.
So, I’m very mindful of the kind of impact this production will have had on a few deeply impressionable young minds. Our Roses cubs will never have experienced anything remotely like these last couple of months, and to be able to say to themselves and others that they walked into our collectively imagined world within that bright, mysterious, intensely observed envelope of light every night will hopefully do immense things for their hearts and minds. A magic bean to take root in their lives and eventually flower, allowing them to climb up and slay a child-killing giant or two. Or maybe even play one, like Robbie Sheehan.
Theatre, like life, is a crowded cupboard. But a magic one.
Get climbing, boys.