Call me Fred. Or Mick. I’m really not bothered.

17th December 2017

Five days off…to launder my costume, hang out my costume, iron my costume … to eat, sleep and catch up on the piles of admin … to be taken to the opera as a surprise … then it’s back on the road up north on November 30th for three full-on days of touring.

Five or six hours drive takes me to my first venue – Huddersfield Quaker Meeting House, who have kindly agreed to host the play in their beautiful dark-wood panelled Meeting Room (1812, I think…over 200 years old at any rate…). En route to Huddersfield,  I stop in Sheffield to collect young George, son of my great friend Mark Brignal.

George is studying biology at Sheffield University, and has agreed to operate sound for me tonight, and then tomorrow in Sheffield itself. Before uni he had been part of a four-strong ‘folk-rock’ band that was doing rather well and being compared favourably to Mumford and Sons. He has been missing his music somewhat, but is loving this opportunity to be ‘out on the road’ again – even if it is just in a white Peugeot van for two nights with Mearsy (as I am known in their household). He almost becomes my ‘roadie’ – helping lug in the crates and shift the heavy Meeting House benches into an appropriate configuration for the play.

The room is packed for the performance, George hits the sound cues with relish – and more importantly, right on cue. Afterwards he even says, ‘Mearsy, give me the van keys. I’ll load up.’ Which is a first on this tour. And which I am only too delighted and happy to let him do, while I talk to the audience.

Local man, Cyril Pearce, a great expert on WW1 COs, and also very knowledgeable about the position of COs in Huddersfield, joins me for the Q and A and is able to answer questions with far more detail than I could ever hope to.

Then it’s back in the dark to Sheffield, an hour’s drive or so, with sleet coming down and snow settling on the road, and very little by way of street lighting. It seems to take forever but finally we reach Sheffield, and by now we’re talking about Leonard Cohen, or rather I am, rabbiting away to George about how inspired I am by Cohen’s demeanour as a performer in his latter years. As we get near to George’s digs, he suddenly tells me to turn right.

Where, here?
No. There.
Is that a turning?
Yes, Mearsy, and you’ve missed it.
Oh sorry, George, it has been a bit of a long day.
And now you’re on the wrong side of the road.
Am I?
Yes, Mearsy, and that’s a bus that’s coming towards us.

Fortunately not at any great speed, thanks to the sleet and snow, and so I indicate left and manage to squeeze into the traffic trundling past on the correct side of the road. We find a place to turn round and I drop my roadie off –  I mean, George off.

Hope I don’t get fined for that bit of eccentric driving, I say.
You also went through a red light.
Did I?
Yes, Mearsy. Through a red light and then driving as if you were in France. But yes, hopefully you’ll have got away with it, he smiles.

I wave him goodbye, having arranged what time he’ll join me at tomorrow night’s venue, and head off to my digs on the other side of town. Ingrid, whose house I am staying in, has given me a key – as she thinks she’ll be back after me.  I find it easily (satnav behaving itself on this occasion), unlock the front door and make my way to the kitchen, feeling dog-tired and vowing to myself not to rabbit away so much when driving late at night in sleet and snow.

RABBIT!
What the- ? I nearly jump out of my skin.
Two of them, in fact! Or am I dreaming?
No! There they are. Taking refuge under the kitchen table.
As I stepped into the kitchen they bounded away from me to safety.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention them, Ingrid says to me over a cuppa, when she gets in later.

Ingrid saw THIS EVIL THING at Greenbelt Festival in August, and that’s why I’m here now- she wanted to get me to perform the play in her local church, Christ Church at Pitsmoor, and that’s what I’ll be doing the next evening. She has to get up at the crack of dawn to head off to Manchester where she lectures, but before she retires to bed, she gives me ‘rabbit instructions.’

In nearly 40 years of staying in theatrical digs, I’ve been told, sometimes in a friendly manner, sometimes in a far from friendly manner, how to work the heating, how to double lock the front door, why the shower curtain MUST be placed within the bath, which milk to use, which milk not to use under ANY circumstances, etc etc, but this is the first time I have ever been told when to let rabbits out into the garden and by what time to let them back in again.

Ingrid is VERY friendly, I hasten to add – and the rabbits are very cute and bunny-like, so it will be a pleasure to be of assistance. (Just glad I didn’t step on one of them – just as I was glad I didn’t run over Bambi the other week.)

Next day, Friday December 1st, having taken the van for a good scrub down and polish (much needed after the rigours of west Wales), and having ushered the two bunnies back into the kitchen, I drive the short distance to the church and set up for the evening show.

When George arrives, he’s thrilled to find that the place where he will be operating the sound cues is up a spiral flight of stone steps at the tower end of the church – a small balcony in fact, perched, God-like, high above the congregation, from where he can look down on the audience, and at me and my crates in the distance at the altar end.

A good crowd arrives for the 7.30 performance, and I retire to my dressing room – which again is another vestry. Named after a George Swann in fact. So it’s the Swann Vestry. Nice, but a not a match for previous vestries I’ve been in. (Apologies for the joke, those that get it – but it is the panto season…)

Once again George operates the cues perfectly and then does his roadie bit afterwards, loading up the now sparklingly clean van while I handle the Q and A.  I thank George profusely for his brilliant help and company these last two nights – and he says, Mearsy, if you’re ever on the road again, if I’m free, I’ll be there.

I drop him back at his digs, observing the red lights and remembering which country I’m driving in, and back home have another cuppa with Ingrid – she seeming very happy with how the whole event went. (The rabbits remaining under the table.)

I have to get straight to bed as in the morning I’m driving all the way back to south-west London to perform the play on home territory – just down the road from my flat – at Wandsworth Quaker Meeting House (which I have been attending on occasions this year).

The long wooden benches in Huddersfield and Wandsworth Meeting Houses are beautiful but so HEAVY. They are normally arranged in a square, in the square Meeting Room, with a table in the centre. So shifting them around into a suitable arrangement for a theatrical performance requires a great deal of core-strength…

The overhead lights in the room are rather dim but some of the Friends at Wandsworth Meeting House have offered to bring in supplementary lighting.
Will these help? I am asked.
Three angle-poise lamps.
Hmm. They’d be great in my office. But here?

Becky, who helped me at Sands Film Studio Theatre and at the Old Church, is helping me on sound effects again tonight. As she already knows the show, she can concentrate on positioning the three angle-poises in places which might help illuminate my face.

A far cry from the state-of-the-art lighting available at Northampton’s Royal Theatre the other week – but then that’s one of the things I’ve loved about this tour – the variety of spaces and venues and equipment on offer – all of which we have managed to adapt and utilise so that me and my crates can perform to the best effect.  The bottom line, I say to Becky, is that I just want the audience to be able to see me – that the experience isn’t (on this occasion) like listening to a radio play.

At 7.30pm, there is a packed room of over 70 folk, many of them Quakers from south-west London, so a very sympathetic audience naturally. Again, it is an old Meeting House, this one, with beautiful highly polished (and it has to be said, very creaky) wooden floorboards.

There is a frisson each time Quakers are mentioned in the play – particularly Bert’s journey from becoming disillusioned with his Methodist community, to choosing to go to Vienna in 1919 to help the Quaker relief operation there for orphaned children.

After refreshments (tea and tasty biscuits), and the Q and A, Becky helps me clear up.  We have to put all those heavy benches back ready for Sunday Meeting tomorrow, I inform her. But let me go and get the van first (parked a few streets away).

When I return – MIRACLE!

The Meeting Room is back to how it was when I arrived, all the benches in a square again, and in their proper places…with half a dozen Friends beaming at me seraphically.  Many hands make light work, one of them says.  I needed you lot on tour, I think to myself.  (But then I would have needed a tour bus and all that goes with that…)

And so Week 10 ends with my having, in the course of three packed days, performed the play once more in three distinctively soulful and spiritual venues.  I can hardly believe the fact that there are now just two performances remaining of my eleven week autumn tour – in Cambridge next week.

When I get back to my flat, I find an email waiting for me from Huw, the curate at the church in Sheffield yesterday. He tells me that he loved the play, found it very powerful, and that he was also very struck by the ‘choreography’ – he says he’s very keen on dance and that some of my moves put him in mind of somebody, he doesn’t say who, but provides a Youtube link.  Is it Mick Jagger again? I think to myself.

Intrigued, I follow the link and…NO! it’s Fred Astaire! Doing the most wonderful dance routine with a hat-rack, which I’d never seen before (from the MGM film ‘Royal Wedding’) – four and a bit minutes of choreographically-inventive and playful heaven…  Fred Astaire? You were put in mind of Fred Astaire – by ME?

I would never have imagined that my work on the First World War conscientious objectors would elicit such comparisons.

I go to bed, exhausted (the common cry from many an audience member after seeing the play: ‘You must be EXHAUSTED!’) – yes, exhausted, but happy. And amusing myself with possible nom de plumes – Mick Astaire, Fred Jagger…

But before you can say Jumping Jack Flash … I’m in the land of nod… zzz …

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