10th December 2017
Week 8, and it’s Tuesday 14th November when I rock up to Northampton’s Royal Theatre, to play my one and only ‘main stage’ of the tour – a beautiful 500-seat Victorian theatre that I’ve performed in previously in big cast shows – but in a solo play? Just me and my nine crates? Plus two hessian sacks?
Some serious lighting equipment is available though, and some impressive sound equipment too – and so I ask Martin Curtis, who ran the show for me so brilliantly in Nottingham and at Greenbelt earlier this year, to pop down and take over the technical reins. He wants to add some ‘haze’ effects – which could be very atmospheric, during the ‘crucifixion scene’ for example – but alas, we run out of time just getting everything I normally need ready for curtain up – so Martin’s haze will have to wait till another day…
The theatre’s balcony seats maybe 200-odd and is often closed (apart from pantomimes), and the auditorium does have a very intimate quality, so when 125 people pile into the stalls, and a few dozen more into the dress circle (which it almost feels like I can stretch out and touch), there’s a lively buzz in the air.
The audience is half made up of, shall we say, the more mature theatre-goer, and half made up of under-twenty-year-olds – from the University of Northampton, and a couple of local schools – drama students, all keen to see what this chap’s about who claims to portray 52-odd characters in 75-odd minutes; a very odd experience altogether, they may well suppose…
It’s like I’m a stand-up comic! Laughter echoes round the auditorium in the early stages of the play, the coin-tossing sequences, some of the early amusing lines – Russell’s wit goes down a storm, and even Bert’s dad John Brocklesby gets a big laugh!
But the darker, more serious sections of the play also seem to hit the mark, and then at the end of the play, after the final poignant moments – with the sound of skylarks overhead – instead of applause, there is an eruption of whooping and cheering! I can’t help laughing and beaming all over my face. Whooping and cheering? For a serious piece like THIS EVIL THING. Of course, drama students! It would appear that they loved it!
After a lively Q and A, while I’m packing up my props, audience members come up and chat some more – one woman says to me that my moves reminded her of Jagger.
Mick Jagger? I ask, somewhat perplexed.
Well, not his brother Chris! (Who I did meet a few years back…but that’s another story…)
Really? Mick Jagger?
I assume she (whose name is Jerry, by the way) is referring to the moment when I almost dance the crates round the stage on the ‘journey to France’…anyway, it’s the most unexpected piece of feedback I’ve had all tour.
Leading me to toss and turn for half the night as I try to come up with alternative song titles –
“Hey hey you you get offa my crates!”
“I can’t get no…(dah dah dah)…soundeffectson…(dah dah dah)…
And I try, and I try, and I try…
(and honestly, I’m sure I’ve put all the plugs in the right sockets and switched everything on, but…)
I can’t GET no…(dah dah dah)…soundeffectson…(dah dah dah)
Hey hey hey!
Hear what I say!”
“Well, this could be the last time
This could be the last time
Maybe the last time I tour in a van!”
You get the idea.
During the next two days I visit one of the schools, and then the drama students at the Uni, to answer questions and run workshops on multi-role playing – immense fun – and a chance for me to sit back for a moment and see what others come up with by way of handling quick character transformations. The students are bursting with energy and roar with laughter at each other’s attempts – it feels like I’ve let them off the leash for an hour or two and they have permission to play and be incredibly inventive and at times just downright SILLY.
Then I’m off to London – home! And two nights at the magical toy-theatre-like Sands Films Studio Theatre in Rotherhithe, East London – a stone’s throw from where Dr. Alfred Salter and his wife Ada lived and worked 100 years ago – Dr. Salter, the Quaker pacifist whose controversial anti-war speech I quote in my play, as part of Bert’s sermon.
Then after the weekend, it’s over the river to north London and the equally magical Old Church in Stoke Newington – London’s only surviving Elizabethan church. I place my crates on raised rostra in front of the altar area, I climb some steps and use the beautiful canopied wooden pulpit to preach Bert’s sermon from, there’s candlelight throughout the church, and the air is filled with the sweet smell not of incense but of cinnamon – the volunteers have made mulled wine and mince pies for the audience! Most welcome, as the church, for all its atmosphere, is a tad chilly.
My changing room is the small ‘vestry’ to the left of the altar – (no-one asleep in it this time, like at Bristol Cathedral) and I muse on the word – and decide that would be a much better term for the places in theatres where actors change into their costumes. Rather than the plain and functional ‘dressing room’, actors could be assigned to different vestries.
‘Which vestry am I in?’
‘Vestry number 3.’
And when there’s a ‘big name’ appearing in the show, they would have the ‘Star’s Vestry.’
Next day, I’ve just time to catch my breath before setting off on the long drive to west Wales. Aberystwyth Arts Centre Round Studio will be the last venue in this, week 9 of the tour.
I stop about an hour away at the house in mid-Wales of my friends Jonathan and Chee – a house that has the River Wye running through its grounds – with kingfishers, brown trout and otters. (I didn’t spot all these on this occasion, but I have done previously).
Overnight there’s a hard frost – and my van’s windscreen is covered in ice. Jonathan suggests I take the scenic route into Aberystwyth – the mountain road.
Really? Will my van be okay? Won’t there be ice on the road?
You won’t regret it, he replies.
And so I head off on the B4574 (I think it is) to Devil’s Bridge, then on to Aberystwyth.
I only see two cars on the whole stretch of this mountain road and I do not regret it in the slightest – on this crisp clear late November day, it is a stunning drive that fills me with dizzy joy – Louis Armstrong temporarily supplanting Mick Jagger as I find myself singing:
“And I think to myself, what a wonderful worrrld…”
I arrive at the Arts Centre to be greeted by my technician for the day, Paul – who has a CND symbol round his neck.
I’ve worn some kind of peace symbol for maybe 20 years now, he tells me.
Do you know what my play’s about? I ask.
Not really, no.
Well, I think you’re going to like it.
We have a very productive afternoon together sorting out technical matters and also what exactly is wrong with the world.
The crisp clear weather however has turned during the afternoon – and half the audience is prevented from getting to the play by hail, sleet and driving rain. Fairly typical Welsh weather, I’m told.
Jonathan and Chee have made the journey – not via the mountain road, fortunately – but they relate hair-raising tales of driving rain and skidding all over the place – I can’t thank them enough for having made the effort but almost wish they hadn’t. Unlike the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s description of football – I do not believe seeing a play is ‘a matter of life and death.’
That night, I am staying with Peter Jackson at Dolgellau again – but there’s no sign of baby deer on the roads this time – because I ignore the ruddy satnav! Well, we do. Myself and Roxane, another friend of Peter’s, who has seen the play tonight and who knows him well and is also staying over at his house. She guides us on our way, making sure we avoid the B roads (the Bambi roads), and we soon arrive at Peter’s – where some fabulous Welsh cheese and liquid refreshment awaits us.
Then it’s each to their cold beds (but warm duvets) and next morning I drive Roxane all the way to her home in Shrewsbury. Like me, she is a huge Joni Mitchell fan and en route we recreate between us the whole of Mitchell’s seminal ‘Blue’ album. We pretty much nail it – with just the odd gap here and there (‘HOW does the second verse start?’) – and it’s some of the best fun I’ve had on a car (or van) journey ever.
Once I’ve dropped her off and had a quick cuppa and a Kitkat, it’s back in the van and off home to London – resuming my Mick Jagger persona as I drive along the M54. Alas, I don’t have any actual Stones music with me so I have to improvise… and the next venue I arrive at on tour, it’s all I can do to stop myself saying, nay, singing:
“Pleased to meet you – hope you guess my name!!”
To which the reply comes – ‘No, never heard of you. Been in anything on the tele recently?’