29th November 2017
‘There will be more than this won’t there?’
I was looking out at the large hexagonal hall at Leighton Park School, Reading, where I was about to perform at the start of week 7 of the tour. It was 6.05 pm. We should have started at six. I could see maybe five pupils sitting timidly to one side and perhaps 20 adults: teachers, etc.
Peter, Head of Drama, who was standing next to me, was clearly embarrassed. ‘I think there’s a film on at the same time in the cinema club…’ he suggested by way of explanation. (Not ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, about an American CO, surely? That would have been ironic.) ‘Let’s begin,’ he said. And so I did.
Amongst the adults sitting out front was one of my dearest long-time friends, all the way back from drama school, Marcia, who has lived in Canada for oh so many years – it was she who gave me my good luck garters (see an earlier tour blog). The garters, along with my other good luck mementos, were in my dressing room – which on this occasion was the staff toilet. (Quite spacious though, I have to say.)
Marcia was visiting her mother in London and this would be her only chance to get to see the play – and she had come over with a young relative, Hannah – so their presence guaranteed that I gave it my very best. (Which I would always try to do anyway, in case you were wondering…)
A schools performance with no school pupils. Hmm. A novel experience. It went well, though. I enjoyed playing a hexagonal space (never done that before)… Audience on four of the sides and the other two sides behind me. The five pupils present didn’t seem to regret not going to the cinema club. ‘The way you changed characters,’ one of them said to me afterwards, ‘It was cool.’
Peter, Head of Drama, said that school performances should really be scheduled within school hours. If you want there to be school pupils present. Indeed. I second that.
Because of building works at the school I had had to have my crates shipped over to the hall by ‘buggy’, driven by the caretaker, from the car park some distance away. After the performance I phoned for the buggy to take them back to the van – but the caretaker sounded very hassled, saying he was tied up trying to get a coach out of a muddy field where it had tried to turn around, and could I come back tomorrow for my crates?
Erm, no, not really, I live in London and am off to north-west Wales tomorrow. Okay, he sighed, and leaving the coach in its muddy swamp, came and collected me and my set. Not the best start to week 7. Still, the audience members who had come all the way from Canada seemed to have liked it. Phew.
My host in Dolgellau, west Wales, about an hour from Caernarvon, where I would be performing on Armistice Day, was Peter Jackson. His large rambling house with orchards and bee-hives and a stunning view of Cader Idris – (a rather high mountain) is up some narrow winding roads with a couple of very sharp turns – thankfully the satnav gets me there perfectly in the dark when I arrive, and I am relieved to have completed this long journey.
Not sure where I would have been without satnav on this tour – finding a particular street in a strange town well after dark when you’re on your own and feeling a bit flaked out from hours of monotonous motorway is no easy quest. But good old satnav takes the hassle out of it. I was late to come to it but am now completely converted to it.
The next day, November 11th, is bathed in glorious sunshine – as is Cader Idris – and off I set on the very pleasant road to Caernarvon. Bertrand Russell had his last home, Plas Penrhyn, not far from here. Born and died in Wales – he who seemed the archetypal English intellectual.
I have two technicians to look after me at the Galeri Theatre, Ian and Dylan, which means we get everything set up and ready to go in double quick time. Which is just as well, as Wales are playing Australia in the rugby at 5pm. TV screens all through the theatre and its foyers relay the match – and the pre-match singing from the Welsh crowd sends a shiver down my spine – quite magnificent. Equally moving, in a different way, is the rendition of the Last Post. A few hours later, Helen Chadwick will be singing her own hauntingly beautiful take on that musical theme on the soundtrack at the end of THIS EVIL THING.
Despite the rugby, a hundred folk or more turn up to watch the play – and most of them are speaking Welsh as they come into the auditorium. I hear far more Welsh than English in this part of the world. And when I look out front, I am confronted with a sea of white poppies. Won’t have to win this audience over then, I think to myself.
Armistice Day is mentioned twice in the play, and as Helen’s Last Post Lament rings out, I place a bloodied handkerchief, in lieu of a poppy, on the tombstone of a nameless fallen soldier. It is always a very moving moment. On this day, profoundly so.
The show and talkback over, I pack up the props and crates, and Ian and Dylan ask if I can fill in a feedback form – now, if possible. I hesitate as I have an hour’s drive ahead of me in the dark – but I take the form, tick some boxes and then write: ‘Ian and Dylan should be given a pay-rise – seriously.’ They laugh and look very happy and wave me off into the night.
I feel a glow of content after a very special performance. Now I just need to let the satnav get me back to Peter’s house.
Which it does – until it decides on a cunning little shortcut three miles from the house avoiding the main road and nipping up some lanes. Some narrow lanes. Some very narrow lanes. Where there are no obvious passing places and thick hedges on both sides. Three miles. The van twisting this way and that. Bloody satnav, I curse. What are you playing at? Just three miles to go, it mockingly states, after another 15 minutes of tortuous thin lanes. PLEASE don’t let anything come in the opposite direction, I beg the darkling night. On and on. Will we ever get there? Can’t turn back – even if I wanted to. I’ll have to press on.
How far to go now? Three miles, still. The language I then explete would have made the Dean of Bristol Cathedral very uncomfortable he’d have cancelled the show if I’d planned to use such words in the Eastern Lady Chapel.
Out of nowhere! On the road in front of me – a small deer – I JUST manage to brake in time and avoid crashing into it. Where did that come from? It turns and looks at me – or at the full headlights rather – startled – and then proceeds to trot in front of the van for what seems like an age – as I crawl along in first gear. Is it showing me the way home? Does this baby deer belong to my host?
It’s so CUTE, with its big eyes, pretty face and delicate limbs. There is no way through the thick hedgerows and it can’t get past the van – so its only option is to keep trotting on -until finally it does find a gap and vanishes as swiftly and as strangely as it had appeared. Phew. What an adventure. If anything had happened to that deer it would have been the ruddy satnav that was to blame for taking me round the houses – or rather up and down the lanes. Not my fault. Honest, guv. Satnav! Who needs it?
But I am glad. Not to have added to the large amount of varied road-kill I’ve driven past in this part of the world. And finally, round a very sharp bend, there is the entrance gate to Peter’s property. I trundle up the track, and park the van, relieved, that after such a special day, I didn’t end up being the pacifist who killed Bambi.