For the last three weeks or so my head has literally been exploding. All right, I know that is one of the most incorrectly used pieces of grammar, so let me put it another way: It feels as if for the last three weeks my head has been on the point of exploding from an excess of literary content.
There are occasional times of the year during which nothing much seems to happen. There are no shows to prepare for and a dwindling bank account to watch. During such times I am apt to say ‘Yes!’ to any offer that comes in, even if it means preparing a new show or re learning something that I haven’t performed for a year or so.
Then there are the times during which all of the ‘yes’s align in a perfect storm of bookings.
The period from Friday 12th September to Saturday 4 October is a case in point. Suddenly I have six different shows piling up to be performed. Each and every one of them seemed as if ‘it was a good idea at the time’ but now they just climb onto one another, their words fighting for space in my head.
The only way to get through a time such as this is to work methodically through the different scripts, making sure I am prepared for the next one up.
The first job was to relearn my PG Wodehouse golfing show Top Hole! I had first performed the script back in April at my home golf club in Oxford and had been very pleased with the way it had been received. I had then marketed it to various other clubs around the country and now the first results of that exercise are coming to fruition.
I had been contacted by The Faversham Golf Club in Kent to perform for them on the evening of Friday 12 September. After returning from our trip to Ireland and Wales, I got straight back down to working my way, line by line, scene by scene, through the script.
Some of the words just fall easily back into place, which is reassuring, but the order of them was a struggle. That isn’t quite as daft as it sounds: Top Hole! Is a show featuring four different short stories, and I have written it in such a way that the narrator gets mixed up with his telling of them, meaning he is forever hopping from one tale to another in a very random manner. That was a clever idea of mine, then, wasn’t it?
Top Hole! Is performed in two acts and lasts for a little under two hours. There is no other way than to just go over and over and over it again and again and again.
‘On the broad terrace, outside his Palace, overlooking the fair expanse of the royal gardens, King Merolchazzar of Oom stood leaning on the low parapet, his head in his hands and a frown upon his noble face…..’
As Friday night approaches the lines are getting better and by the time I pull up to the impressive clubhouse, nestling in a wooded valley, I am fairly confident that things will go well.
The audience is made up of members of the club and the show is well received. I am very pleased not only with the way that I perform, but also how the script performs, for when you adapt something it is the programme itself that is on show, not just the performer.
All of the lines stay in their correct place and I remember to say ‘Rather a quick tempered fellow, this Holmes!’, after ‘…and that is why this brave young woman hit you with her Niblick. She took what she considered to be the necessary actions.’ Which has always been my stumbling block.
As soon – and I mean AS SOON – as I finish Top Hole! I start work on The Signalman. Although I performed this eerie little ghost story at Kytelers Inn, in Ireland, it had been a reading there and now I had grandly decided to perform it as part of a Dickens Double Bill in my home town of Abingdon. I have precisely seven days to learn it.
In the car driving back from Faversham I am going over the bits of the script I know but the really hard work starts in the back garden when I get back.
I learn lines by pacing; I seem to have to be continually on the move otherwise they just do not stick. I take my script and start to go through the lines, as I walk around a sort of kidney-shaped circuit on the grass.
Six days to go and it is a struggle. I just don’t seem to be making any progress. Walk. Repeat. Check script. Walk. Repeat. Check script.
Two or three hours pass and my head is bursting with ‘deep cutting’, ‘strange attitude’, ‘Below there!’ ‘…ghastly nods.’
I stop for a coffee and a rest but still find myself trying to link apparently unconnected sentences and working on the language of complicated phrases.
Out into the garden again: more pacing, more repeating.
Five days to go and there is a semblance of shape to the narrative, although Charles Dickens may not recognise it as his own work.
Liz despairs as my kidney-shaped circuit is very visible in the grass now, a trampled down track. And still it goes on.
Actually Liz And I are in a similar state as she has a concert at the weekend too, playing at a Church near Ipswich with the Lyric Piano Trio. Rehearsals for her are very stressful and the atmosphere in the house is tense as we each concentrate on our particular pieces. At times like this it is good that we each understand the pressures of performing.
I am waking early in the morning and find that the hour between six and seven o’clock is a very profitable learning time. When I eventually get out into the garden later in the morning, the morning muttering has paid off.
Four days. I think it is going to be OK.
Three days and the trampled track is close to becoming a furrow.
Two days. I need a rest! My little brain cannot take any more. I decide to have a day off on Wednesday and play golf instead. But even as I’m walking between shots there is a little voice in my head: ‘….quickly changing to a violent pulsation and oncoming rush causing me to step back as though it had power to draw me down….’
Then, suddenly out of the blue I start mixing The Signalman with Top Hole! Every time I start with: ‘Halloa! Below there! When he first heard a voice thus calling to him he was standing at the door of his box, a flag, furled round its short pole in his hand…..’ I find myself continuing the sentence with: ‘….leaning on the low parapet, his head in his hand, a frown upon his noble face’, which is Wodehouse not Dickens. Oh dear.
Thursday, a day to go and the lines seem to be sticking and I’m at last confident that The Signalman will be fine but the show is a Double Bill and that means a whole second half, which is to be Doctor Marigold. Last time I performed it, in Llandrindod Wells the lines were not perfect and I got myself rather lost during it, so I wearily set off around my circuit (now a trench) and start working on the cheapjack’s story.
When I have finished that, I go back to The Signalman, just in case the effort of working on something else has driven the newly-learned words away, but no, they are still there, albeit a bit reluctant to show themselves.
Friday. The day of the show. The Dickens Double Bill is my own show: I am producing it, which means that everything is my responsibility. Friday morning is spent picking up the printed programmes, collecting ticket stubs and cash from Mostly Books in Abingdon who have acted as a box office for me, and buying large amounts of wine, water and fruit juice for the interval drinks.
I make sure I have a good sized lunch, as I know I won’t want to eat later and then go into the garden for a final descent into the line-learning canyon.
The show is to be in the Unicorn Theatre which is a converted grain store dating back to the 14th Century when Abingdon was dominated by a huge Abbey and was one of the most important towns in the area. That all changed when Henry VIII had his spat with Rome and destroyed all of the Abbeys and Monasteries in the country, so that he could create his own religion. Fortunately Mr The VIII’s cronies left some of the outbuildings in Abingdon untouched, so here we are.
The Double Bill is to be my first show at the venue and I’m hoping to make regular appearances there over the next few years.
On arrival I am introduced to John, who is going to look after the lighting for me. I have decided to have a few simple effects during The Signalman, including a representation of the much-mentioned red danger light. I go through the script with him and he sets the lights up until we are both happy.
Liz arrives and starts to set up the front of house area. I am getting nervous now and am rather snippy and short, which is unfair of me. I decide it is probably best to take myself to the dressing room and leave Liz to run front of house. She is to be assisted by her colleague Penny Durant and her husband Jon. Penny is an avid follower of this blog, so I now have the opportunity to say a huge thank you for all of your help last Friday.
Start time is drawing closer and I get changed muttering the lines over and over (shows are so much more relaxing when I am very familiar with a script).
As 7.30 approaches I make my way backstage and make contact with John through the intercom system. We are ready to go.
I step into the light, make my introduction, take a deep breath and begin:
‘Halloa! Below there….’
The Signalman goes very well and the atmosphere builds all the way through. There is one slight hiccup over lines which, frustratingly occurs around one of the lighting cues. Fortunately I am aware of exactly what I’ve done and realise that John is about to plunge me into a blackout, so I quickly double back, without any hint of a pause and John takes the hint, finds where I am in the script and we are back on track. It’s always nice to work with someone who understands theatre.
The Signalman finishes, hopefully leaving hairs standing on end throughout the audience, and I go back to the dressing room to get ready for Marigold.
After 20 minutes or so the audience file back in, having availed themselves of the wine, water and juice; settle back into their seats and Doctor Marigold takes over.
The evening is a great success I think. The audience isn’t big, as we booked the theatre only a month or so ago, but they all seem to enjoy the show and hopefully when I return with A Christmas Carol in December there will be more.
So: phew! That is the end of the line learning and at last my head can relax. It can let all of those words seep out like a sort or cerebral flatulence.
Oh, no: Still I have to learn.
Saturday is Liz’s concert and we set off for the three hour drive to Ipswich at around 11 o clock. Despite some traffic delays we arrive at the beautiful church in Rushmere St Andrews at the same time as the other two members of the trio, Beth Reed (violin) and Coral Lancaster (cello).
After a little while spent getting the performing area set up so that everyone can see everyone else and so that the piano does not drown out the two stringed instruments, Liz, Beth and Coral get down to their rehearsals and as they do that I…..learn lines.
Next Wednesday I am travelling to America to perform Mr Dickens is Coming, Nicholas Nickleby, Doctor Marigold, The Signalman and…..The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, which I have not performed for over a year.
While in the nave of St Andrew’s, the music of Ravel, Boulanger and Ireland drifts into the high vaulted expanse; in the vestry a muttering can be heard: ‘There was a deal table before the fire, on it a candle stuck in a ginger beer bottle, two or three pewter pots, some bread, butter and a plate….’
The Complete Works uses passage from every Dickens novel in chronological order, each linked to the next in such a way that the audience cannot ‘see the join’. It seemed like a good idea when I wrote it.
Liz, Beth and Coral rehearse for almost three hours, which is exhausting for them, especially with a performance later, and I mutter my way through The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and so on all the way to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Before the concert we are all treated to a high tea of sandwiches, pork pies, quiches and cake until the volunteers begin to arrive. With them comes the vicar, a cheery jolly man, although he rather dampens the atmosphere by announcing that it is a miserable evening outside and Doctor Who is on, so we probably won’t have much of an audience.
Those hardy souls who own raincoats and who are not desperate to follow the latest incarnation of The Doctor, make their appearances and The Lyric Piano Trio disappear to change and collect their individual and collective thoughts.
I, of course, cannot rehearse during the concert so I just settle back and listen. I love watching and hearing Liz perform – she is so talented and makes the piano ‘sing’ in a way that few pianists do.
The concert is called ‘In Remembrance’ and is made up of music composed during the years of the First World War. The programme is well received by the audience and the applause goes on and on and on. It is an extraordinary ovation from a small audience and fills me with an immense sense of pride.
It is only after the audience have left that Liz tells me that during the last piece of music she had begun to feel faint and dizzy, and could hardly concentrate. It is a testament to her professionalism and natural talent that I had no idea until now.
We pack up and get on the road. Fortunately we are not driving all the way home, but only as far as my brother’s house where the kitchen table is laid with cheese, pickles, relishes and wine. We spend 30 minutes or so gently winding down before going to bed.
On Sunday we spend we spend a very happy and relaxing next day with my brother Ian and his wife Anne. After a delicious breakfast of grapefruit, bacon and scrambled eggs, Ian Liz and I go for a short walk.
Ian drives us to the small village of Tempsford and its nearby airfield. During the war this is where the men and woman operating for the Special Operations Executive and the Secret Service (spies) flew from. In the middle of the airfield is a simple brick barn, filled with bird droppings, from where these bravest of the brave collected their supplies from.
The barn has become a simple shrine to their memory and is filled with letters, postcards and accounts of the activities of various individuals whose very role in the war means they are unsung heroes. It is an extraordinarily moving place.
Having returned to Ian’s house we have a splendidly relaxing lunch in the garden, all thoughts of line learning and music as far away as they can be.
But, on Monday it is back to the garden. The circuit/track/furrow/trench/canyon is in danger of becoming a subterranean city as I begin once more. The Complete Works is re-acquainting itself with me well, but there is much more to be done. More pacing, more muttering. I will pace and mutter at the airport and in my hotel. I will probably mutter in the immigration line at Logan airport and be refused entry on the grounds of insanity.
The question, of course, is: Did it all pay off?
I will update you from Salem, Ma