Tech part 1

“Can we do that entrance again please. You look like you’re coming in for tea and scones. This is a street fight.”

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I’m in tech, but Ewan the choreographer is still working, making sure people aren’t phoning their performances in or crashing into each other or kicking themselves in the head. The company is huge. It’s like marshalling an army of crabs. And everyone has to be able get on and off stage without breaking their ankles or each other’s faces or the expensive set. We have all just stepped into the theatre for the first time and it’s quite a change from the various studios we’ve grown accustomed to. The stage is a circle interrupted every foot by a vertical slat like the cogs of a gear which are little wooden accidents waiting to happen. Then there are ladders and kabuki drops and things flying in that can squish you. And stairs and slippy bits. And actors.

My first entrance is not through one of the slats, thankfully. I’m coming through the audience, so right now I’m sat at the back watching them all jump up and down, the happy bouncy beautiful bastards. As they sing and dance, various people focus and refocus and plot and tweak lights around them. Other people are gradually taking each of us aside in order to tape microphones to our foreheads. Right now the sound levels are wobbling all over the place. It’s strange having a mic, but it’s a necessity for a consistent soundscape. If they only amplify you for when you’re singing over the orchestra, then it’s a strange jolt for the audience when you shift into amplification. So we will all be on mic the whole time, and it’s about finding a level where the watchers don’t lose the connection between the speaker and their voice.

At least I get to wear my lovely trenchcoat. I doubt I’ll able to have it at the end though. These institutions have big wardrobe storage areas. Sad really… Most of my clothes are ex-costume. Including the leather jacket I’ve worn every day for the last month.

I’m settling in for a long night of watching people do the same thing over and over and over again. Today has been one of those days. I was called way too early by mistake, lumped in with all the singers, so I did shitloads of admin while they sang, and then Toby and I sat around eating cake. I was glad of the bike, as I got to zoom over to a local post office, send something registered, and get back before anyone missed me. But now it’s half past eight and I can pretty much guarantee that between now and 10pm I will neither go on stage nor say a word. But I’m here. And here I will remain. So I thought I may as well write this down. Ewan has started beatboxing into his mic so that everyone can mark their movements through the dance at the gym. It’s like Crazy Frog does Leonard Bernstein. I’ll look ace. But right now it’s happy carnage.

Cubicle

This week I’m sleeping in a tiny little room with a skylight. Right now I’m lying on the bed with the door closed, listening to Kate Bush – The Kick Inside after reading this article about the fact it’s 40 years old. It’s still a remarkable album and was one of the first cassettes I had so it got a lot of play when I was a strange teenager.

This is the sort of thing I usually do after I’ve been in a room full of people – I sit in a room alone listening to weird music. If I’m at a party I go and shut myself in a loo for a few minutes occasionally – just to discreetly recharge. That’s if there’s nowhere I can wander off to alone that’s in nature. A loo will do, and no I’m not snorting coke in there. I’m recharging.

This room is the perfect recharge cubicle though. There’s just room for my bed and a little bit of floor.  I can touch both walls with outstretched arms. I couldn’t swing Pickle in here, and nor would I try to. I like having skin.

I’ve plugged in to my music, a hot drink and this blog, curled up in a soft corner smiling. Even at home, Brian has the big room so I can have the recharge cubicle. I’m quite glad it’s worked out this way here, as there’s another actor already booked in the double sofabed downstairs.

West Side Story is great but it’s 50 people in a small room.

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I’m part of an enthusiastic machine. And the orchestra isn’t even with us yet – they’re practicing in another studio. I’m pretty good at pretending to be an extrovert but these musical theatre kids are like radiators, half my age and endlessly happy in their superhero shirts and branded shorts and shoes. I’m all in black, bearded and slow, the yawning beast in the corner.

It was a good day. I went for lunch with the other old git in the cast because we were spared an early call. He helped me record a self tape – the first hit from my new agent and a good bit of casting for me. The sort of role I know I can do brilliantly, and that I haven’t usually been in for over the years. And for a show you’ve probably heard of. Fingers crossed – either way it’s a turn up for the books. Frankly, this one’s mine. I can smell it.

Then we ran the show. We still aren’t in the theatre. We’re in a studio. The walls are closing in. Still, everyone just committed to a run of the show and it’s still beautiful. What a piece of work. Bernstein and Sondheim. Two of the greats. And it’s been around for long enough for these songs to have sunk beneath our skin. “Gee officer krupke” “There’s a Place For Us” “Something’s Coming.” As a small kid, listening on my grandmother’s gramophone I asked her how you get to be a Jet. “When You’re a Jet” sounded so aspirational. All I got was a lecture about why gangs are bad and people die. And in retrospect I wouldn’t thrive in a gang unless I could occasionally lock myself in a cubicle for half an hour. Maybe that would be my gang name: Cubicle.

Song and Dance

It’s a funny place, the Royal Northern College of Music. When I arrived yesterday, Natalie Imbruglia was noodling away in the room next door to me, warming up for a concert. She didn’t sing Torn, but it was nice to hear her familiar voice so close. I resisted going in to talk to her. I figured she’d come to me in time, but perhaps she didn’t know I was there. Oh well. Next time.

Today has been a long day of very little. We’ve met all the youth cast and immediately thrown the schedule out the window because the biggest hitch is integrating them into the musical numbers that I’m not involved in. We are in a little room upstairs with no sunlight. Everyone is going a little mad. And it’s even madder downstairs.

The college is hosting the International Theatre Dance Awards. What this means is that every inch of the cafe and foyer is thronged with a rainbow of leotards. Filling these colourful stretchy garments are enough muscular young women to efficiently lay siege to London. With their hair pulled back to the point of blood, they stretch and spin and plié barefoot surrounded by people trying to drink coffee and phone their brother. They all have numbers on their shirts, and proud aunties photograph them in front of the statue of Chopin, branded bits of wall, mum and dad. They eyeball each other as they pose for camera. “I’ll beat those fuckers,” they seem to be projecting through all that make-up.

At one point, curious, I ask one of the parents “Is this for women only, or are there men dancing too?” “Oh there’s a man in the one that’s on now,” she responds. I see no evidence to support her claim. Maybe it’s just the one.

I take refuge upstairs and the director catches on that I’m twiddling my thumbs. He gives me a few hours off. I jump on the bike and zip over to catch Nathan. We lived together for a few years. For a period we were inseparable. My sister in law thought we were a couple. We sometimes fought as if we were.  Now he’s up here, father of two girls, sounding like a northerner even though he’s from Weston Super-Mare. We go to Brewdog and I nurse a “Nanny State” for the placebo effect. 17 days into Sexy February and I still miss beer. It’s great that I’ve got this bike, because my desire not to die outweighs my lust for blunter edges. But it’s great to see Nathan. Hopefully I’ll catch him again before I go.

Now I’m back in rehearsal, available and unused. It makes a difference, playing a small part. Scrooge is on the whole time. You don’t notice the time passing as you’re just working. Schrank comes on in bursts, so I’m glad it’s only a short run. The advantage is that I can take strong choices vocally and physically and not end up utterly exhausted after the show.

The young company are great. Willing and positive. Fun, and energetically very different from the dancers downstairs. I’d much sooner wait around all day in this atmosphere than the dancer atmosphere.

They’re singing “Tonight”. I’m going to try and find something to take a photograph of that isn’t the company.

Yep. A room full of instruments.

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Nobody in it though. It’s 9pm. We are the only idiots that haven’t gone home. Us and one pianist who I can hear just round the corner playing something extremely complicated with great feeling. All of this reminds me very strongly of being that drama student at Guildhall all of – what -15 years ago and more? Time. You fucker. You absolute fucker.

Manchester biking

Early train to Manchester this morning, and Robin picks me up from the station. He drives me to Charlotte’s and we drop off my bag before heading over to Bowlee Riders. Rob part owns Bowlee – it’s a motorcycle training business based in Middleton. If anyone needs a CBT in the Manchester area, get over there.

In no time at all I’m sitting on a Honda Grom. 

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I’ve got it for the week. It’s a tiny little 125cc machine, beautifully kitted up. For something so small it packs a surprising punch. Much as I like to jump in with both feet, I’m very aware of how much damage these things can do so I’m cautious. Robin shouldn’t still be alive after breaking everything a few years ago and he’s training me. He gives me an earpiece and I almost rip my ear off getting the helmet on. Second attempt is more successful though, and before long I’m out on the road with both my ears and Robin behind me giving me tips and instructions as we go. With him behind me taking away the responsibility of thinking about where I’m going I can focus wholly on stuff like not going face first into a wall, cancelling my indicator and avoiding the potholes. The roads in Manchester are in a condition you’d expect from somewhere that has recently suffered an aerial bombardment. Which makes it a good city in which to get used to biking. Another great friend who teaches motorcycling says “You’re invisible and everyone is trying to kill you ” In Manchester the roads are trying to kill you too. You have no choice but to concentrate.

We ride for a long time before eventually we get to The Royal Northern College of Music. This is where I’ll be working, and we pull up out the front. Immediately I run into the Assistant Director who persuades me to come in for a costume fitting on my day off in exchange for a couple of rounds of drink and some meal tickets. I drink some Estrella 0.0, keep the vouchers for another day, and try out my costume.

I’m already in love with my trenchcoat.


Duty discharged I got back on the bike, but this time it was dark and I didn’t have the disembodied voice of Robin to see me right. Driving a bike is a visceral experience, even this little Grom. You are constantly totally alert. If you’ve got an itch you mostly can’t scratch it. My hands got so cold at the start that I can still feel the residual chill in them now, hours later. I got lost on the way home. My helmet strap was digging into my neck. My nose was running. And I didn’t care enough to stop because the whole experience was forcing me to be utterly completely and uncompromisingly alert with all senses and wide awake and loving it. Now I have some glove liners thanks to Robin. I have a waterproof armoured coat too. Tomorrow it might rain, and perversely I’m quite looking forward to riding in the wet. It’ll be hard. I’ll need to be awake. But for tonight I’m already in bed in this lovely little room, and I’m tired from the riding. It takes it out of you. For someone that relishes challenge, riding an unfamiliar machine that’s a feather away from death through an unfamiliar city – that somehow counts as fun. Some of us are just wired that way. But don’t fret. Robin is a very careful and patient instructor and I know I wouldn’t be extended this generosity if he didn’t know of me that I’m going to be as careful as possible on the thing. Despite it being so much fun.

Last run

I had a brilliant Valentine’s night last night, taking out all pressure to be sexy. At the mid point of Sexy February I was in my trainers and a long scarf of my mum’s, not drinking in a pub in Kentish Town, and doing it in fantastic company. Robyn, my princess, was having her last day in town. She was Phoebe to my Silvius in As You Like It for Sprite. Still one of my favourite ever jobs. I made loads of great friends, including a sheep. She now lives in New York and was over with her man for way too short a time. I stayed at her place on the Lower East Side a few years ago and we rode the Staten Island Ferry back and forth because it’s free. I pounded the summer streets for days and learnt that town a little. There was a bin strike and God the city was feeling it. I’m looking forward to going back some time soon, when it doesn’t stink. The piles of bags were a remarkable thing to see, but not in the least pleasant to smell.

We said goodbye to her and then Emma and Maddy and Steve got me dinner which is a frustratingly familiar state of affairs at the moment. When I “get paid” I’m going to have a lovely couple of weeks seeing friends and repaying their generosities. I even got a rose.

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For the rest of the evening a good sized bunch of actors and old friends fantasised about the huge mansion we are all going to buy in Rochester and turn into a performance venue and live there and make beautiful things. This morning I bought a lottery ticket to make sure we can all afford it. We’ll have indoor theatres and outdoor theatres and puppet theatres and paint rooms. It’s going to be awesome. We just need 1.7 million. Peanuts…

I woke up bright and early to a sunny morning. I didn’t have to be in rehearsal until twelve so buoyed up from my lovely evening and the fact I felt great because I wasn’t hung over, I frolicked out the door in my sunglasses and walked to St James’ Park, leaving messages on people’s phones about the glorious day. More or less the moment my foot hit the grass of the park, the heavens opened and a wall of grey cloud bullied in. Five minutes later I was utterly drenched, it having somehow not occurred to me to seek shelter. I still had my sunglasses on. I couldn’t shake the conviction that it was a nice day despite all evidence to the contrary. I arrived at my rehearsal in the dark, soaked to the skin, still wearing mirrored shades, looking like a prat.

Last run in the little room. We are too big for it now so it’s time to get up north. An unexpected audience-friend made for a special last run and I’m really looking forward to hitting the final week now and meeting the youth cast, the orchestra, the crew… Next week is going to be lots of work and lots of waiting. I’m bringing a thick book, my usual optimism, a motorcycle helmet and about .50p.

 

Gone in 60 seconds

I’m standing in the freezing wind with Michael. He’s driven his tow truck down from Slough. The rain is getting in my face. Michael wants to make hard eye contact. He also likes touching my shoulder. He keeps saying “I’m talking to you man to man.” He sounds like a stuck record. I think it’s something he’s doing consciously, to “engender trust”. Although he is a man. And I’m a man. So he’s not wrong. He’s just not very good at this.

The bonnet is up on my fucked Suzuki. Today is the only day I have to get rid of it before I’m over halfway through the month and likely to get stung for tax. It’s going with Michael no matter what. But unfortunately Michael has seen the postcode.

The catalytic converter has been changed. Apparently that’s what he came for. The original one is the only thing of value in the car because it’s got platinum etc etc. It’s been changed though. Oh deary, and he’s come all the way from Slough just for the unexpected detail that isn’t present. That’s all he wanted, you see, that detail. Oh deary bye. But man to man, because I’ve got a nice face (literally he said it) etc etc he’ll do me the massive favour of getting rid of it and he’ll only charge me 50 quid. Blarney little bastard knows damn well we are going to settle at nothing here but he’s pulling out all the stops to make sure he gets this car for free, and after all this is Chelsea. He honestly genuinely tries to charge me to take my car after agreeing to pay me 100 quid cash over the phone. How can you run a business like that? I know things are tough but seriously? We’re all fucked. Why screw the little people. Now I am not able to book my train ticket to Manchester.

I could tell him to stick it up his arse, if course, but then the car is still sitting there. It cost me very little in the first place and it needs to go. Its time is done. We had a good summer together, that car and I, but the insurance is becoming a burden and the tax will be an issue very soon. And there’s no way in hell it’s passing MOT in March. Better he takes it today while I’ve got time. But don’t try and fool me into trusting you, Michael. I don’t trust you. I’m happy with “You want to get rid of it, I want to take it. I’m not giving you any money because I’m a bastard. Do you want it to sit there for another 3 months?”

I peel off the residents permit and help him winch it onto his truck. Off she goes to a new life as scrap.

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Then I’m off to option B for cash. Residents permit refund. But nope. That’ll take 3 days. I call and cancel the insurance. The unused insurance for this month almost exactly matches the cancellation fee. There’s nothing to pay, but I don’t get a ticket to Manchester out of it. I’m wondering how I’ll get to Manchester when I get an email telling me the ticket has been booked on my behalf anyway. I needn’t have worried. 

At least I got rid of the car, I think, putting my hand into my pocket and feeling the car key. Oops. All that and I didn’t give Michael the key…

Ach. Well if he wants it he can give me 100 pounds the bloody crook.

Happy Valentine’s Day kids! Was your day as romantic as mine? Perhaps you wiped baby poo off the carpet, or helped build a steel truss! Tune in tomorrow for more romantic antics!! I’m off for fun with old friends.

Shriven

Every year, Flavia has Pancake Day. The game is to see how many drunk people it’s possible to cram into her flat with every conceivable pancake filling available, and no space. Then the game becomes about finding the right pancake/alcohol balance for optimum hilarity. Being as I’m sexily abstemious at the moment, I thought I’d make myself useful in the kitchen so I turned myself into a one man pancake factory. There was a little squeezy pot of pancake mix with pink food colouring, so I could scrawl obscenities, political slogans, symbols, cocks, animals and disastrous messes on the pancakes before sending them out. Considering I was on nothing but tonic water, I was having way too much fun. By the end of the evening I had the scrawling and the flipping down to a fine art. Here’s Alex and I at the start:

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About halfway through I was shown a video of Cher singing every part in West Side Story. At first I thought it was a joke. But no. No it was Cher. Singing every part. I can’t work out if it’s brilliant or horrifying. Here’s a link so you can judge for yourself. You probably won’t manage the full 12 minutes. But you’ll get enough to wonder. Although you’ll never unsee it.

I kind of missed a trick by not drinking this evening. Tonight is the only official “last bender” in the Christian calendar. Pancake Day. It’s the last day before Lent. You confess your sins and you get shriven. Then you eat everything left in the house via pancakes before hitting your 40 day and 40 night fast in honour of Jesus in the wilderness and those locusts. Or was that John the Baptist? Easter is on April Fools Day this year. That would be a problem: “Jesus is risen! Ha ha no just joking.” The mathematicians among you will be shouting “But that’s 46 days away, not 40!” It is indeed. But it’s still only 40 days. How does that work? Well, you don’t have to fast on Sundays. I can get behind that. Me with my fundamentalist all or nothing take on self-denial. By those rules I can have a bottle of gin every weekend.

But the myth of Jesus’ temptation is a valuable one to contemplate. The meat of it is something we can all understand through our varied prisms. Three major temptations. We all have them to a lesser or greater extent in this lifelong war with ourselves.

First, hedonism. Satisfy the desires of the flesh immediately. Make bread out of a stone. Have one last bender. “Dry January doesn’t count for press night!” “Sundays don’t count in Lent!” Consumption of whatever you desire now, with no thought to the wider context. Pancakes! It’s a trap. If we never get a handle on our immediate desires we sink deeper and deeper into ourselves, and start to confuse consumption for contentment. Then we wonder why it is so fleeting and consume more and more. It’s a hard one to ignore as the economy needs it.

Second, egoism. “If you jump off this building, angels have to catch you because you’re important. Test it out.” “If I put loads of hashtags in my blog, more people will read it.” “I think my art/work is better than that person’s, therefore I’m a better person.” “I did a thing or knew a person that this person didn’t, so I’m an expert.” Me at the centre. I’m important/special/set apart. Another trap. We are so much less without our community. Everyone has something you can learn, even if (maybe especially if) their priorities and worldviews directly conflict with ours.

Finally materialism. “Worship me and you can be king of the world.” “I wouldn’t change if I won the lottery.” But would you? If you make a lot of money, win a lot, inherit a lot, would you start to conflate your wealth with your worth? Would you start to isolate from those less fortunate, thinking them somehow lesser? You see it happen a lot.

Lent is a time where Christians and all of us can look at these three traps. Through the simple measure of denying ourselves something we like (booze, Facebook, ostentatious shows of wealth?) we can connect to a deeper sense of ourselves, and find a deeper peace inside ourselves. Then at the end of it we can choose whether we really need that habit as much as we felt we did at the start when the immediate craving was still sharp.

Happy lenting people. I’m going to decide tomorrow morning what fuckery I do to myself. It might be sugar. It might be coffee. It might be social media outside of this blog. It might be all three. Or none. Or sex. That would be the easy one. But it’s sexy February.