52 characters – all with a sore throat (highlights from my whirlwind tour of the UK – November 2018)

Sunday 4th November.
Performing smack-bang in the centre of London – at the charming off-West End venue Jermyn Street Theatre, a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus. Amazingly, not only do I manage to park the van nearby but being a Sunday I have found a free slot. Free parking? In central London?
For eight hours? Result!

I’m performing the play on someone else’s set at the theatre – which fortunately is also a World War One setting, but there is a plane cockpit, a piano and numerous photos on the wall and other bits and pieces that can’t be removed – and that I will have to fit my crates around.

A friend of mine who is in to see my play for the first time, Norman Coates, the theatre designer, congratulates me on the wonderful set. ‘But how on earth do you fit all that in your little van?’ he asks, somewhat perplexed.

‘No, Norman,’ I inform him, ‘Only the crates are mine. The rest stays here.’ ‘
He looks ever so slightly disappointed.

Monday and Tuesday, I have two days in London to catch my breath and attack the growing mountain of admin – including doing some more publicity for the weeks ahead, contacting Amnesty and other peace groups and the like, in the areas that I’ll be travelling to.

Wednesday 7th sees my return to Rotherhithe and the delightful Sandsfilms Studio Theatre, where I performed the play last November as well. This time I’m part of their series of events connected to the Armistice – ‘And they told us it would be the last war…’

Friday 9th, a short drive to the Brentford and Isleworth Friends Meeting House – which is very small and over 230 years old – and is helpfully located in Quakers Lane. I have to edit my crate moves a little and leave one or two of them out of the action at times – and at one point in the play I find myself leaping on to a 250-year-old bench instead – (I do check it can take my full weight beforehand – it’s probably a good job all this touring is keeping me slim…)

The next day, Saturday 10th, sees me in Brighton enjoying the crisp November sunshine by the sea before setting up in their larger Friends Meeting House, right in the middle of Brighton’s famous ‘Lanes’.

After the performance, a gentleman is introduced to me as a nephew of Bert Brocklesby, my main conscientious objector in the play. I am honoured to meet him, and reflect that exactly a week ago in Great Ayton I was meeting relatives of Bert’s C.O. friend Norman Gaudie, and a week later I’m meeting a nephew of Bert himself.

For a treat I take Becky, my brilliant sound operator, to one of my favourite tearooms, the Mock Turtle, before driving back to London in a torrential downpour, splashing through large lakes that rapidly materialise on the roads.

Sunday 11th November. Armistice day. 100 years ago today the guns fell silent and the First World War was finally over. I go to my local Quaker Meeting in Wandsworth, and after an hour’s silence we all shake hands. I shake hands with one person who seems to have a streaming cold. Then I dash off to Tavistock Square, where an alternative Remembrance Day service for peace is taking place – at which I will read out the speech Clifford Allen (chairman of the No-Conscription Fellowship) made to an assembly of conscientious objectors after the war had ended.

That done, I dash off to Rotherhithe and Sandsfilms once more, to hear the inspiring journalist and foreign correspondent Robert Fisk talking about the long-term effects of WW1 on so many countries – some of those countries still feeling the effects today. During his Q and A session, he strikes a rather bleak note – saying that for all the work he and his colleagues undertake reporting back from the frontline of so many wars, he feels it ultimately makes no difference at all.

I find myself spontaneously calling out in protest: ‘No! What you do DOES make a difference! You don’t know how or in what way your work, your reporting, may influence events, or inspire others to take action. You and your colleagues are shining a light in the dark, and that absolutely makes a difference.’

He’s rather taken aback by my comments – and somewhat gratified too. Whether it will make him feel any less bleak, who can say? As for my own modest efforts with my play – I have to believe it is making a difference, however small – just getting these stories out there, asking questions, provoking thought, challenging the prevailing ethos.

Afterwards, Helen Chadwick (she of the beautiful voice, heard twice on the soundtrack of my play) and I tuck into a superb roast dinner in the historic Mayflower pub next door which looks out onto the River Thames.

Monday 12th – more admin. And in the evening, it’s westward ho! For two nights performing the play in Bath, at the Theatre Royal’s Ustinov Studio. At the last minute my Quaker host there has to withdraw her kind offer to put me up – but asks her Buddhist friend Jude if she will oblige, which she does. Namaste.

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Tuesday. Have I caught something from the Quaker I shook hands with on Sunday? My throat is tightening. A full house tonight, people turned away, all very exciting – just wish I wasn’t feeling under par. But it goes very well. During the Q and A though, I become rather croaky. When I get home, Jude, my host, who was at the play, has left me an ‘invalid’s tray’ – with whiskey, paracetamol, Vick’s mentholatum rub and a few lemons. So thoughtful! I decide to go with the lemons.

Wednesday. When I wake I don’t feel great. It’s clear that tonight the characters in my play will have a sore throat – all 52 of them. (Must be something going round, I could say…) I have to use a radio microphone, discreetly hidden, to give me some extra back-up. A full house again, and once more it goes very well, but the Q and A has to be curtailed as my voice almost packs up.

Thursday 15th. A day off. Which is welcome. The only thing I have to do today is drive for 10 hours to St. Andrews in Scotland – the last four hours in the dark, and with rain slashing down. I arrive at my Quaker host’s house, and she is delightful and great fun – but also profoundly deaf. She can lip-read well, so I just have to make sure I’m facing her when I speak. But I don’t feel up to talking much as I have hardly any voice today – so she wouldn’t hear me anyway, even if she were able to.

Friday, I’m performing at the Byre Theatre, St. Andrews. The rain has gone and instead there is glorious sunshine, the sight of the blue sea is invigorating and there are a lot of American accents around (all visiting the home of golf…). I need to use a radio microphone again, but it’s fine. For this, the 100th performance I have given of the play. I can hardly believe it.

Saturday, more glorious weather and beautiful scenery which cheers the soul, as I drive south for an hour or two to Peebles, situated on the River Tweed, where I perform once more with a radio mic. A small audience here, but afterwards I’m told that one woman, a life-long peace activist, was in tears throughout pretty much most of the play. My hosts in Peebles are two more peace activists, but I feel so guilty bringing my germs to them – however, they are very relaxed about it all.

Sunday morning – a quick visit to the ancient little church, or ‘kirk’, at Stobo, next to my hosts’ home, then I set off through more stunning countryside, northwards to Aberdeen. There’s so little on the roads, and so much space up here, compared to ‘down south’, it’s a joy to drive.

That night I perform just outside Aberdeen, at Dyce, the place where the first work-camp for C.O.s was established in 1916 – a stone-breaking quarry. When Walter Roberts, aged 20, died of pneumonia there having already served months of hard labour, the workcamp was soon shut down.

The small parish church hall is packed with 50 or more folk and the scene in the play that takes place at Dyce and shows Walter Roberts’ ailing condition is starkly moving.

My host that night, Andrew, lives in a ‘straw-bale’ house built by himself and friends. He has apple trees, from which we have delicious fresh apple juice and home-made crumble, and he also keeps bees – and their honey is truly scrummy. I’m feeling better vocally and after our late-night crumble, Andrew shows me to an out-building.

‘Hope you don’t mind sleeping in here – there is a sofa-bed. But it’s really my storage room.’

‘Oh I don’t mind being stored away as an actor for the night.’

In the morning, before I head back down towards Edinburgh, he presents me with a jar of the scrummy honey. I feel happy as Pooh Bear.

Monday 19th is a travel day, and on Tuesday 20th I perform the play in a school hall in Edinburgh as a fund-raiser for the proposed ‘Opposing War’ memorial to be sited in Princes Street Gardens. For the Q and A we have the descendants of some WW1 Scottish C.O.s to share their stories.

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On Wednesday it’s a fond farewell to bonny Scotland (it was indeed bonny these last few days) as I cross the border, and re-enter England once more, bound for York. I am performing at the Theatre Royal Studio there on Thursday afternoon – and a packed and wonderfully warm audience greets me – the play always going down well in Yorkshire with its south Yorks protagonist and its scenes in Richmond Castle. No free parking in York though. £19 I have to stump up – yes, you read that correctly – £19.

I am told that after the play a woman had to go off into a corner and have a good weep. That’s two people in a week reacting to it like that. Clearly the subject matter is striking a deep chord with some.

That evening it’s back to London for two days off, feeling somewhat exhausted but needing to find something in reserve as on Sunday 25th it’s down to Andover to perform in a village hall, then a drive back to London again, then next day off to Norwich – with my great friend John accompanying me, who has offered to run the sound effects – to perform in the 1820’s Friends Meeting House there, a vast room, with a high ceiling, and with its companion room along the corridor, almost as large, serving as my dressing room. Without question the largest dressing room I have ever had in my life, or any performer has had anywhere, probably.

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After the performance it’s a late-night drive back to London and John’s house, then the next day, into central London again – this time with a congestion charge and expensive parking meter to feed – to perform at the Marylebone Theatre.

Pack up. Drive home. Sleep. Wake. Breakfast. Admin. Laundry. Iron.

Wednesday evening, it’s off to Bedford – to stay with my photographer friend Simon Richardson – which will break the journey to Doncaster the next morning, where I am to perform at McAuley’s Catholic High School to extremely bright students who ask very pertinent questions – on the moral conundrums and issues within the play, as well as wanting to know how on EARTH I manage to play 52 characters and not forget a single line or accent.

Then it’s over the M62 in heavy traffic to Manchester – and Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in the centre of town, where on Friday November 30th I will give the final performance of This Evil Thing for this month and for this year. Phew!

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Alison Ronan joins me for the Q and A, she being an expert on the anti-war movements during WW1 and also on women’s roles in those movements. She knows a lot about Catherine Marshall too and suggests that my portrayal of her is possibly a little too meek. I take note for next time, whenever that might be!

Alison hosts me for the night, and before I leave in the morning we chat at length over the breakfast table about the subject of conscientious objection – and then it’s back down south for the last time.

Arrive at home. Unload van. Take crates and all my other bits and pieces (taking care not to drop the scrummy honey) up to my first floor flat. This involves about 6 trips in all.

The van is now empty. I take it back to the hire place. And then I’m empty.

I get the train back to my flat, and head off to a friend’s pre-Christmas party that night, December 1st – after which any thought I had of putting my feet up for a few days and reflecting on everything that has happened has to be put on hold – because at short notice I have been offered a ‘regular’ theatre job in Northampton which begins straight away. A job where I will act with other people. Haven’t done that for a while. But that will be it. All I will be asked to do is act. Nothing else. Just act. (Well, if possible.)

But what an adventure This Evil Thing has taken me on this year, from Reading University in February to north Yorkshire just before ‘the beast from the east’ struck, then to the States and 17 venues in their historic peace churches, and finally this November 2018 tour around the UK, covering places I didn’t reach last year. 109 performances in all now. 109. How many more, I wonder. And when?

It’s been a truly heartening experience, the whole project – and as for all the wonderful hosts! Some of whom I haven’t mentioned – but you know who you are and I thank you SO much.

On the 11th November, Armistice Day, after I read out the Clifford Allen speech in Tavistock Square, I also read out a short poem, a haiku in fact, by Adrian Mitchell. I leave you with it:

Try one hundred years
Without any wars at all –
Let’s see if it works!

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