Last night party

If I was still 18 there’s no way I’d get this blog written. I’ve just walked out of a humongous party. All the young company, all the young musicians, a load of tired dancers musicians singers and actors, all crammed into a room with free hotdogs and donuts. It’s the last night bash for West Side Story. Just when we got started.

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There are some people who have been working to make this happen for a year. Others who have worked tirelessly for months. Then some have worked bloody hard for weeks. And then were a few like Toby and I who did a bit of work for a couple weeks and then did a turn. Overall though, so much work from so many good hearts. All filed to a point. 4 packed out shows, high production values and a pressure-learn for the young company.  And that’s it. Gone. It’s absurd when you think about it. So many people. Hundreds of people. For 4 shows. It went down a treat with those that got to see it. And the kids grew hugely through it. But so short…

Theatre is written on the wind. I love that about it. It’s ephemeral, you can’t catch hold of it. It’s destroyed in the moment of creation and lives on in memory. But so many of us came together to tell this story. To sing these remarkable smart songs, to dance hard and tight, to move from moment to moment and make them all honest, energised and positive.

Every night for this show the wings were thronged with kids, waiting for their entrance, watching – thrilled – as different people shared their different skills, knowing they were part of it. A huge weird community of shining misfits. And rare in that there was no nastiness. Nobody whose insecurities were such that they smashed the spirit. It only takes one bad apple. The jobs without them are really special.

After a show you need to wind down, and after a run you need to say farewell, even a short run like this. There are still people I worked closely with that I may never see again. In a company this big it’s very likely. Others will unexpectedly walk into the rehearsal room on my next job, or go into a commercial casting with me, or end up married to a friend of mine. We have little control over this. But you want to say goodbye properly, and wind down from the show at the same time, so yeah – hotdogs, donuts, beer (if you’re old enough or in the case of Toby and I if you’re young enough).

Once I noticed that people were shifting towards slurring despite the hot dogs, I walked out of the party and saw the other side of things. A patient huddle of parents waiting hopefully in the café for their sons and daughters to emerge. All sitting beside each other but not really speaking to one another.

A dad comes up to me as i put my helmet on. He wants me to know he enjoyed the show. “It’s been all my daughter’s talked about for weeks.” “Who was your daughter?” I ask, and he seems surprised that I remember her. He confides; “I wonder when she’ll be out of that party. I don’t want to rush her, you see. It’s been important for her. I’m settling in for the long haul.” I suspect he’s still there now. But his “it’s been important for her” rang with me. I remember that importance for me. Finding a community in a shared task, a means of expression, a storytelling. What goes on in front of the lights is just scratching the surface of a show. This one did a lot in a short space of time. I wonder who they end up staying in touch with, what friendships and first loves this might kick off. And for myself as well, what may come? , A joy. And a miracle that I got home without drinking.

The beeb

This morning took me to Salford, and Media City. I was at the BBC. Toby from West Side Story was recording a radio play and wanted to use my voice. I was part of a spooky haunting and essentially had to try not to die and then die anyway. There were lots of us. It was a hilarious morning, and a pleasant way to start the day. Also I was thrilled to be back at the beeb. “Work breeds work” is the old actor’s saying and it bloody well does too. I hope to be there again before long.

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My first audition after training was at the BBC. I was still at Guildhall and the beeb were still at White City. The casting director rang me direct through graduate Spotlight. “Can you do a Birmingham accent?” “Shit. Did I put that on my Spotlight?” “No no you didn’t. But you look just like this armed robber. It’s a Crimewatch reconstruction.”

Armed with my Brummie tones I marched into the casting room and immediately enthusiastically attempted to shake hands with the director. He only had his left arm so that was an awkward start. Then I sat down in front of him and the Casting Director. She was smiling. She handed me the script – it hadn’t been emailed ahead. “Take your time to read it,” she enthused. I did.

There I am, little Al, still at drama school, reading for the BBC. Oh, the glamour, I was thinking as I turned my gaze to the page and saw: “The armed robber is hideously ugly, with a stretched face and buck teeth.” My surprise must have registered with the Casting Director: “Oh don’t worry,” she reassured me;  “we can stick the teeth in…” And there was a distant pop as another dream exploded.

Needless to say they went with someone else. Perhaps because I wasn’t ugly enough. Perhaps because my attempt at “We’re from The Burger Bar Boys” sounded closer to a constipated Welshman. Perhaps because I nervously tried to shake the director by the hand for a second time as I left, winning double the awkward points. But that will always be my first TV casting. So yeah, it was nice to go back to the beeb, even just so I could go into “The Dead Room” and shout “Run!” and “No!” into a condenser mic on a sunny morning in Salford.

Navigating was a curious thing on the bike. I hit on the solution of shoving my mobile up into the side of my helmet with the screen still on. I had to stop occasionally because it was so cold I was weeping onto the screen and the water was making the touchscreen go mental. It’s a trick I learnt from Nathan when he had his little Vespa and lived with me, so it’s only right that after the recording session I biked over to Chorlton to see him and his dog.

Such a bright sunshiny day, and yet so unbelievably cold. I am glad to be in bed.

Being single

I very rarely kiss someone the first time I meet them. But that happened last time I was in Manchester. It was three years ago. She had been working with my best friend on a show, doing practical things rather than showing off. She does practical things for a living. I caught the last night of the show, and we all went dancing. She stayed sober and drove me home. There was kissing. “I’ll see you next time I’m in town,” I said starry-eyed, somehow believing it would be tomorrow.

Three years later I’m finally back and I’m in the café of the RNCM, on a coffee break from tech. This is yesterday. There is an attractive practical woman who has been wearing a headset and herding actors. We are in the queue together for coffee and “You look really familiar,” she says. And the penny drops  It’s her. What are the chances? And did I call her? Did I bollocks. I tell her the show we met and the friend we met through, and we have some small talk. An elephant comes and sits in the room with us and farts.

The next few times I see her either I’m busy, she’s busy or both of us are busy. And even if I’m not busy, I’m busy. Then this evening after the show she’s sitting alone in the bar reading the programme. My friends have just left. Well Carpe Diem and all that, says Robin Williams. So I join her.

She’s married now.

If I was a sleazebag I’d have noticed the ring immediately. It’s pretty big now I know to look. The elephant runs off trumpeting. And we have a very congenial conversation. “I liked being single, but all my friends got married, so I got a job in a bar and met my husband.” I find myself telling her I know how she felt. So many of my close friends are settling down and having kids while I run around in circles. I tell her “I kind of like being single too. That’s the problem, it’s habit forming.” As I say it, I wonder if it’s true. It’s hard to know our own minds sometimes. I think it must be true or I would have done something about it. Or would I? Fuck knows. I get lonely. Who doesn’t? You can be lonely in a relationship too. That’s just humanity. Sometimes I get hit hard by a sense of isolation. Perhaps when I want to trial an insignificant feeling I’m having about something trivial, perhaps where I just want to say goodnight to someone, perhaps when I see something simple and beautiful and want to share it. But I’ve got a rich existence and a happy one. And my friends are great. And the show went well tonight. All this big grand romantic doomed passion and emotion and death playing out with song and dance and fighting. No wonder I’m hoping for a Maria – ideally one that doesn’t mean I end up getting shot.

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For now though I’m off to sleep in my little cubicle…

 

Opiates and Bulb

West Side Story rolls towards its first performance, and as it rolls I find myself with more and more time on my hands. I’m in costume, listening on the tannoy as the company jumps up and down and pretends to kill one another. 

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I’m using this time to shift the things that need shifting, and to send emails that have remained unsent for years.

One thing that has finally been completed today is I switched away from my old energy supplier – a monolith that obfuscates its charges in order to make it impossible to assess comparative value unless you’re Archimedes – to a relatively new player in the marketplace.

I’ve gone to Bulb, which promises to try to use renewable energy as far as possible and seems to be reasonably clear in terms of pricing. It will probably cost less than I’ve been paying, and the switch was completely painless. Now I can pat myself on the back and make out like I’m doing something to help the world, as I drink out of my plastic water bottle and order another meaty pizza. If you too feel like you want to offset your terrible arson habit or your predilection for leaving the lights on all day then follow this referral link because then we both get 50 quid off and maybe it will help allay some of your middle class guilt even if it’s probably just another bastard corporation dressed up in shiny renewable pants. They say everyone should switch once a year. I suspect there’s wisdom in that. And I want fifty quid off. 🙂 I got it through my friend Ben, who I rely on utterly to get good deals for things. He’s an actor who is good at maths. They actually exist.

Something I’ve noticed this tech is that I came in for two days running with my mobile phone and not a book. Our conversations and our thoughts are both affected by what we consume. I’ve been doing myself a disservice.

It’s so easy just to forget to read and endlessly scroll through Facebook Twitter Instagram or endless games and sites designed specifically to be addictive. As Toby said this morning, the great British novel has been replaced by Candy Crush.

Marx had it in the 1840’s that “Religion is … the opiate of the masses”. Back then it was a fair point, and not necessarily an attack on religion, as it’s often used. The masses crave an opiate. He saw that religion served to give a sense of achievement and belonging to people with little else, and was a way of triggering dopamine in people with nothing to be happy about, while killing large amounts of their time in prayer and devotion that might otherwise have been spent seizing the means of production. But in today’s secular West, the internet is a very effective opiate, and we are all rooted into these little devices that I’m hypocritically dumping thoughts into right now. Getting a level on Candy Crush, a few retweets, some likes or a pleasant comment. Bing. Dopamine. I switched my energy supplier through my phone and feel like I’ve achieved something. If I’d built my own wind turbines or solar panels and installed them myself perhaps I’d be legitimised in my sense of achievement. Outside of that, really I just clicked a few buttons, didn’t read a book and sat on my arse. You can do it too and we both pay a scratch less to one of the monoliths of the future. Oh joy. Click my link. Bing. Dopamine.

Tomorrow I’ll bring my book.

XS Malarkey

Last time I heard the Jurassic Park soundtrack it was August and the Wilderness Orchestra was playing it to a pliable and slightly too happy version of Al in a field in Oxfordshire. For some reason it’s playing at The Bread Shed this evening.

I’m settling in for an evening of comedy having been dismissed early from tech. They were never going to get to my bits. James our director used to be an actor (Oxford and RADA darling) so he notices when someone is sitting around unused and has enough perspective to release us. I am free and it’s only 7.30pm. The Bread Shed is right next door to the RNCM. As you’d expect from the name, it used to be a bakery.

I’m here to support the MC, Toby Hadoke, who is playing Doc. He does this all the time. This is his bread and butter. I’ve taken the precaution of sitting at the back. He knows too much about me.

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I lucked out. What a brilliant evening of comedy. Turns out I was at XS Malarkey, a night which has been running for years, and is a proving ground for new material. We had Fay Treacy serenading us with a courgette trombone and telling us about a trumpeter shitting himself, various touretting, depressed or psychotic characters, and a surprise appearance from Russell Kane, who lives up this way and wanted to throw some shit at the wall. His actual new material was regarding stealing his dad’s porn as a kid, but the heart of what he did was extempore, and the better for it. Him and Toby both have stood in front of enough audiences now and not exploded that they have the faith to just riff on a theme and frame it gracefully and win.

I think if I was to ever do stand-up, I’d end up talking about death. It’s one of those funny things that happens to all of us and it’s a little taboo. That’s two things that help with a comedy set. Although Toby had me laughing about Star Trek, and very little of that has happened to me over the years. It’s taboo in some social circles I suppose. You wouldn’t bring it up at dinner with the Queen. Although who knows, she might be a closet Trekkie.

I was thrilled to watch Toby work a crowd so effortlessly. I think of stand up as being mostly the domain of people who think they’re God, so it was a relief to see pleasant human beings saying funny things for us without showering too much ego on us. If you’re in Manchester you can’t go wrong with this night. 6 acts including Russell Kane and Amir Shah, with Toby in the gaps, and it’s a fiver, or three quid with an eight pound lifelong membership. That pretty much guarantees a happy audience that will be forgiving enough for the acts to try new material. In London something like this would be minimum 15 and you’d probably get punched by the comic.

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.