First day down

God it’s nice to relax. Now we are entering the run of Christmas Carol, and it’s going to be a treat. But first I needed a day of recuperation from the crazy build and adjustment process. It’s a very new space, a bigger audience, and a different dynamic. And there have been lots of teething problems with the new venue, around power and plumbing and heating, but also around a very different audience. Jack and I have it sorted now. This week is going to be hilarious, mental, full on and delightful. Jack and I are ready for it.

There is no actor in the world that I would sooner work with than Jack Whitam. We worked every summer for years making well worked delightful Shakespeare outdoors in Yorkshire. We have filmed together. We made theatre-parties in bars and in rooftops. We toured the USA with Much Ado About Nothing. We scratched a Beowulf in a flat in East London that might well have a life beyond that flat.

This is the third year we’ve been Scrooge and Marley and we know how to roll with the changes. We have a remarkable shorthand on stage – it’s as close to telepathy as it’s possible without being submitted for scientific experiments. In all honesty, you probably could learn something scientifically from the way we send complicated sentences to one another silently with total mutual understanding. Basically it’s a total delight working with him and I’m looking forward to another week. Today I rested until the evening. Then I went for a silent chant with the Buddhists in my area, making sure the universe was resonating with me. I brought my friend Mel, who has been struggling with a deeply unpleasant home situation, just in the hope that it would help her.

Heading home, I ended up running into my neighbor, who found common ground with Mel, to the extent that I presided over their discussion, still on full vocal rest, and being very deliberately silent as they spoke, providing the beer. This led to him offering his place in LA for me to shack up in during pilot season. Which might be brilliant if it’s not pie in the sky, because he was then sick twice shortly thereafter. He’s the guy I was sick with at Wolf Alice. Maybe he just likes a sick and knows that I can’t tell him it’s gross because I’ve done it in his company. I told him I can’t book flights without knowing for sure if it’s on the line. He says it’s empty… It’s tempting. I’ve laid the groundwork out there and it means I can dodge winter. The thing that killed me last time was accommodation cost. Maybe… I’ll catch him when he’s sober and I’m allowing myself to speak.

Meantime I’m looking at three weeks of sheer joy with Jack. It won’t be the show we did last year, because it can’t be. It’ll be Jack and I working out and winning in a new dynamic. Bring it.

Ollie wanted to go to a club. Knowing him from experience, I suggested that I walk his dog with him to the club, and then take the dog back. That way I couldn’t be coerced into dancing all night. Here we are at a bus stop outside Peter Jones.

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I’m wearing my ski jacket and my mum’s scarf and I’ve said virtually nothing all day. Rock and roll. I’m not sure if the keys he gave me are his only set or not. I didn’t post them in his letterbox in case they were. I’ll be sleeping with my phone on tonight. I’m glad I could go out with him and not get destroyed. Last time was a mess.

Ovens and reprobates

I’m heading home with Tom and Tristan. I’ve put myself on total vocalrest and they are very aware of it. Despite both being close friends and Tom being the director they’re trying to goad me into speaking by making scandalous remarks about me. I’m not rising to it. No bloody way. A: I’ve got lots of run left to do and B: I’m stubborn as an ox. So I’m writing my blog instead. Here they are. Dangerous reprobates.

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Tristan has got involved solidly in the show now. We needed a front of house person that knows catering. He was the man for the job. He knows kitchens after working as a manager at St John’s. He’s had a couple of Michelin stars in his workplaces. Now, despite the fact he’s working in an empty warehouse with a kitchen, his goodwill and attack has made him indispensable. He’s the first thing the audience meets, and he did it in character this evening, and once the audience are all in he gets stuck in behind the scenes. He’s dayjobbing here. I know what that means having done plenty of dayjobbing myself.

Tom (the director) is down from Hull. He’s an Associate Director at Hull Truck Theatre and this is his holiday, directing us. God I’d sooner go somewhere hot and lie on a beach for a holiday. He’s chosen a freezing haunted East End warehouse. 

Tom and Alexander made this show in a pub in York 7 years ago. Tom’d just finished working with Jack and I on As You Like It. A few years later he got me onboard, and shortly thereafter Jack got the call. It’s a show with food. But the problem is, this year, the food is front and centre. So the majority of people are expecting a meal, and they can take or leave the narrative. Knowing as I do that this show works, it’s a strange experience to have so many audience members utterly disconnected from the story. We are still winning and having fun. But it’s full on. Tristan has had a few people on the door say “yeah we’re not here for the theatre, we’re only interested in the food.”

This evening the oven broke down. Electrical fault. There goes the food. First of all, Tristan was roped into doing an announcement about a delay. He tried to keep it in world “mister Scrooge won’t pay for the coals etc” That was while people tinkered with it in the hopes they could fix it. I’ve never been more convinced a show was going to be pulled. A little bit of me hoped it would be to ensure full vocal recovery after getting into a bit of a pickle yesterday.

Eventually they got a choice. Full refund, reschedule or stay and have “something to eat.” It was nebulous because nobody knew. The people that stayed were lovely. There were two women who were unutterably smashed. But it was good to play an intimate house. The majority of our audiences are too big for the show, and many are mainly there for the chef. We just have to adjust our strategy and play the shows we’ve got. Crowd control is what ravaged me vocally. That and the cold. I reckon I’ll have it sorted next week but it’s a new dynamic, and one that Jack and I are well up for.

On which subject, does anybody have a victorian megaphone, or a metal one that looks like it? Might be fun to play with. Probably won’t make the show. But there are times where it might be funny and helpful for one of us to use it.

Day off tomorrow. I can’t wait.

Low

This is a strange space to work, and the shows are extremely hard so far. In previous years my voice has sometimes ended up tired, particularily at the end of a Saturday 2 show day. I’d normally have the confidence of previous experience that it will hold up. But after some of the rowdiest audiences I have ever experienced, and working in a very cold room, for the first time I’m worried. There’s a show at six tomorrow and then I’ve got a day of full vocal rest. I’m in an uber home how, and I’ll be cutting out booze until this is clear. But I’ve got the whole of December to play. I need to be able to turn up. So I’m essentially going to become a monk and take a vow of silence. A steam monk. An alcohol free steam monk at Christmas. It doesn’t help that there’s no warmth at home outside of fan heaters. I should’ve sorted that by now. You reap what you sow. I feel a little sick with nerves about it.

Outside of that concern, which I’m hoping will lose power if I speak it’s name, the shows are still fun even though it feels like a different beast this year. Our team is jumping in with both feet and getting involved across all aspects of the work. Brian was on the bar for a while, and I watched him through the curtain. It was delightful. He was charming if slightly baffled. Cast and crew are all getting stuck in with the business of realising this bonkers entertainment. You’ve likely already got the sense of the variety of duties on offer. Jack and I are already shutter-masters. Oh we get those shutters up and down like a shot. Like a SHOT.


But I just had an experience that helps me put things into perspective, perhaps. The stage manager messaged to ask if I had the back door key. I immediately started running scenarios whereby I might have lost the key to a padlock on the front door that I’d opened… I started feeling anxious about that. About it being my fault. Then I realised she was referring to a key that I definitely haven’t used all day. And then it hit me.

I’ve had a bad day. That’s it. Brian cut his thumb really badly. My voice is damaged. The shows were hard. It’s been dark and cold. That’s all. Bad day. I don’t get that often. I am usually excellent at finding the positive. But that capacity is temporarily gone, so I’m running worst case scenarios with opportunities to blame myself.

I’m writing this now with a towel over my head and a load of hot water and honey on my lap. It’s in a container of course, rather than just all over my legs. That would be weird.

I almost dropped my phone into the pot. That would’ve compounded it. But yeah. I think I know it’s name now, this thing I feel. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling it, and feeling a bit shaky, and all the things. But hey, It’s okay to be low. I’ve kept myself upbeat for long enough, I probably needed a drop. I’m giving a lot of energy out. Hot bath, early bed. Pickle has just joined me under my towel and is nuzzling me. Beautiful gentle tiny beast that she is.

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First night

“How do you prepare for a leading role, mister Barclay?”

“Well I’m glad you asked me that question Colinbert. I’m taking from a number of different schools of thought to create the perfect warm up. Funnily enough I had an opening night tonight, so I can talk you through it. First of all I get a bunch of keys. I prefer there to be hundreds of keys. And ideally I should have no indication of which key unlocks what.”

“Is that to do with how you like to embrace the unknown?”

“Yeah. Great. Whatever. I like your shirt by the way. But yeah. I then unlock lots of locks and padlocks and bolts. Like loads of them. Then I get a wazzer.”

“A wazzer?”

“An electric screwdriver. Where were you brought up – Chichester? Is that where you bought that shirt?”

“No my … well my girlfriend bought me that shirt. She … well she likes to … she cares about what I’m wearing. But yeah, so you get a wazzer…”

“Yeah. And I take down a load of unbelievably lethal shutters covered in sick, graffiti, death and plague. Then I carry them into a cold cold room and leave them against the walls.”

“Great. And vocal warm ups?”

“Ha ha ha. No. No time for that luxury. After the shutters I like to get myself covered in wax. Slathered in the stuff. Dripping in it. All over everything. I want to spend ages sticking candle-stubs to candles. It … uh … it helps me remember to shine bright like a candle. Yeah that’s it. Like a diamond. Candle. Candlediamond. Thing. Just edit that bit to make me sound more eloquent Colinbert. Anyway, once that’s all done it’s almost time to take my clothes off. The audience will be in shortly. I like to suddenly realise that they’re outside and that I’m still in my home clothes. Ideally by this point it should be freezing and I should have nowhere with light or warmth to change. I need to put on horrible shoes without socks, and a very flouncy nightie underneath a full tail coat.”

“Obviously. That’s very standard in theatre. I liked your cravat by the way. But then the show? How do you like the show to go?”

“The show? Oh. We smash the show. That’s a given.”

“Could you have anticipated the people who actively and aggressively didn’t give a fuck about theatre, and were only there to eat the food cooked by the television competition winner?”

“Oh Colinbert, not everyone is obsessed with theatre. But some people worry we think it’s all terribly serious and important and they feel left out before it even starts. They always get stuck in eventually. Natalie’s great, and we’ve never pitched to a theatre crowd. This show plays well to people who don’t think they like theatre.”

“Yes I felt that tonight. I was having a lovely time. But a lot of the audience were … well I think they may have had some alcohol. The two of you won them over though and held the room. Is that something that comes easily to you?”

“No, Colinbert. It’s not easy. It’s hard work. It’s an effort of will. I’m exhausted. But I’m also thrilled. Because we won beautifully. Who wants to play only to people who are going to love it no matter what? I’d sooner have to win a tough crowd like tonight than play to some of the people I overhear in theatre bars after shows, who would applaud a dead cat if the right actor was holding it.”

“You must have been pumped with adrenaline though. How did you wind down after the show?”

“After the show? After the show I got to put the shutters back. Then I had beer and wrote this blog, and now I’m a pillow for the cat.”

“I see. Fancy a pint?”

“I thought you’d never ask, Colinbert. What sort of a name is that anyway?”

“It’s a name that cannot be mistaken for the name of anyone real.”

“Ah I see. Here’s a photo. It’s arbitrary.”

“You always do that. You need to think more visually.”

“Go away.”

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Tardiness rant

Apparently it snowed this morning briefly in London. I was locked in a warehouse so I missed it, but occasionally people would come in with the strange positivity that comes from witnessing snow. “Guys, it’s snowing!” “Great. Lovely. I’ll just finish working this out and then I might be able to go outside.”

We had a preview tonight, playing to a small group of people who had brought packed dinner. Tomorrow is the first show with full catering. Apparently we are packed to the gills. It’s basically a stress-test. Full house but a number of them work for the show and are there to see if we can sit and feed everyone. They’ll take the hit and stand when there’s not enough room for everyone.

All this glorious madness is coming to a point now. I’ll get my days back soon too. Anna-Fleur, Jack and I are like coiled springs. Natalie, the chef, starts tomorrow. Two men on stage looking like they’re doing the work and receiving clappage. Two women offstage doing just as much work and not getting clapped… Bah humbug. But it’s a glorious show.

It’s mostly sold out already. Which doesn’t surprise me. We always sell out, and with Natalie on board it’s hot-cakes. There might still be a window if anyone wants to book. But you’d better be quick. I’ve got no discount link, because they don’t need to drum numbers. I have to pay for casting directors I barely know. It’s not a cheap show to run though, and I’m thrilled it’s selling well considering the producers are both very dear friends of mine and they don’t run this show for profit, they run it for joy.

Jack, Anna-Fleur and I are about to get stuck into the run. With such a small team, a lot of the job of the stage management falls to the creatives. I’m an early arriver as is Jack. I have been for the entirety of my professional career. I think it’s a hard reaction against my educational personality, where I was not punctual. Nowadays I get anxious if I’m not early. I reserve my lateness for social occasions.

I still remember – in fine and excoriating detail – the two times where I’ve been late for an audition. Once was at the BBC. My agent’s assistant had given me the wrong time over the phone and told me I had to learn “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” to deliver to camera. It’s a Shakespeare sonnet. I learnt it. I hadn’t checked my emails (this was before smartphones and I was slow on tech). She told me 1.30 on the phone, so I learnt the sonnet. I decided to get there early, and drove. On the way, 50 minutes before I was due in, my agent rang. “Where are you?” My response was casual. “Oh hi, yeah I’m about… 20 minutes away from White City. Shouldn’t be more than that. Bit of traffic but not too bad.” “You should’ve been there ten minutes ago.” “What? Nonsense.”

I went in half an hour earlier than I’d budgeted for, having just run from an expensive parking space. And there is a scene. Not a sonnet. A scene! There is a character I’m supposed to have looked at. I didn’t have to do the sonnet I’d learnt at all. Aaargh. The show was called “Waste of Shame.” Wtaf. Here is a major casting director who has spent years since casting things I’d fit. Back then she had just cast me successfully.  I ran in and “You were stuck in traffic?” she asked, sardonically. I immediately get ragey, realising this is how my agent must have spun it. I’m stuck in traffic? No I’m half an hour early. Retrospect Al speaks out “Jill, I thought I was here early. I was told the wrong time. And I haven’t had the sides.” Realtime Al doesn’t. He just apologises automatically, clenches anger and does himself no favours.

I read a scene that every other actor has learnt but that I’ve never seen. I have no context for the scene. Fuck fuck fuck. I sight read it once out loud. I’m angry. It’s a fucking disaster. Everyone is angry including myself. Bye bye Jill. It still eats me now. Now I obsessively clarify details before a meeting. One day I’d love to redeem that relationship.

(The other time was less traumatic. It was an advert. Car breakdown, station evacuation, expensive black cab, only 5 minutes late miraculously, but expensive. Treated like a willful careless idiot child.)

So yeah. You can see why I’m usually early. And these days it’ll help us to build community and world in our cavernous warehouse. This is going to be a truly magical month. But if I’m going to be on time tomorrow I need to stop mulling over the past and hit the hay. Night. Here’s my desk… (Only photo today. It’s late. Falling asleep. Nn)

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Today’s blog by me

I wrote an article today for a theatre website. All of my dopamine receptors are trying to pacify me into not writing this blog. “It’s done little brain. Stop little brain stop. Stop and bathe in our happy juice. Yummmzzzzzz” NO! No – dopamine, you filthy beast. No. I’ve got a blog to write. I’ve got a contract towards myself that I’m too stubborn to break.

It’s coming up to a year now. Jesus. But here we are. Me with my phone and words. Going out live! Every day! Rain or shine! You heard it here first, kids. The ridiculous life of Al Barclay – unedited. Mostly written in a rush, or drunk, or angry, or trying to be optimistic about something that wrenches my guts out. But written.

Here’s today’s blog:

“Whatever have you been doing today? O Al Barclay actor and writer?” *photo attached (sexy version)* *CV and credits (lies)*

“Gosh. Well, it’s funny you should ask me that, journalist. The last time someone asked me that question it was producer. In fact it was producer that introduced me to executive producer and other actor from TV programme plus director. Thanks to writer and funding body, we have been putting on a play called play at venue. Made possible by person, person, annoying but brilliant person and person!  Ha haha haha joke. I’m also very excited to be supporting charity! Because of my best friend person I’ve never met. Me and funding body care deeply for their whatever the thing we care about is.”


Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. I love writing about it. I’m good at my job. I’m good at writing about it. There’s just this notional template that has been established by generations of unimaginative people writing about it before us. And the need to mention everybody’s names. But where do you stop? Ethan and Harry the chippies were fucking indispensable during the get in for this show. They smashed it and worked like trains. They built the table. The shelves. The benches. They put the board up. They put the mirror in. They did invaluable carpentry work with circular saws in the dark and cold. Botan gave days of labour sorting electrics, shifting stuff around, making things look better, bringing positivity, doing it. Anna-Fleur held us all together while working harder than all of us, and sorted out stuff way beyond her remit knowing that nobody else would. Insanely positive, utterly brilliant. But for me to write my article about their work – it would have been a good article but not to brief. Because there’s a template to fit. Maybe I should’ve been less obedient, but I feel it’s in our interests to have that generic “yayy theatre” article published. Plus it IS in my voice to an extent. It’s just the obedient version of that voice. And I’m not instinctively obedient.

So yeah. My first commissioned article. Hooray etc. About a show I love too. But what you’re witnessing is me coming to terms with the difference between writing freeform for my own site, and writing for PR.

Hey ho. It’s past 2am. I’m done. Here’s Jack measuring material today. He’s a total legend. Rehearsals reshmersals.

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All the things

Early finish tonight, and home. They’re doing electrics in the space, which is beyond my remit. I’m better off having sausage and mash, changing my sheets, tidying my room and getting in the bath.

It’s amazing to think about the amount of work that’s going into this project. Brian and Louie started with an abandoned warehouse, a show that they knew worked well, and people. The last few days have been us all working out how to make the rest fit together. We’ve built from absolutely nothing into a space that is really starting to feel great now, but it’s been a sheer act of will. It started as a huge empty cavernous freezing warehouse. Now it’s Scrooge’s Parlour.

There’s such a huge amount that needs to be thought of to make something like this happen properly. Fire precautions and drills, sightlines, light, toilets, clearing plates, bins, plumbing, missing bits of costume, volume, sound effects, tricks, light effects, carpentry, who takes the tickets, bar stock, bar staff, heat, electricity load, getting the food out on time, candles, smoke, tablecloths, laundry, holly, audience journey, food quality, books, set dressing, food quantity and much more. Endless stuff. And that’s before you get started on the acting : lines, beats, pace, intentions, tactics, coining it, listening, responding, physical and mental acuity, accuracy, simplicity, bravery, journey, life, truth. And then the marketing, pricing, inviting, press, PR, websites, social media, images, press release, credits. Aaargh. I have to write a 500 word piece for a theatre mag about the process. I write 500 words every day minimum now without blinking. But I haven’t done it yet because I’ve been mostly working through a list of things that are important for my show, and writing about it for wider public consumption isn’t up there. Probably due to my instinctive distaste for doing things that will help me. I haven’t been inviting industry people who could put me in the way of work. I’ll inevitably leave that until too late as always.

The thing is though, we know this show works. It’s a delight both to do and to encounter. I wouldn’t keep coming back if not, nor would the producers be putting themselves through this tough week for it. We will be making Christmas for ourselves and for loads of other people. It’s going to be brilliant fun, it’s going to bring people together, it’s going to be delightful. All this work in the dark and the cold is going to a good cause. We are taking a warehouse that sits empty all year haunted by security guards and murdered prostitutes, and we are making it into a hub of community, the heart of a story, and a place to laugh, play, eat and sing songs.

One of the things I’ve got to write about for this article is “the enduring appeal of the story.” To me it’s about the fact that we can utterly transform, no matter how lost we might think we are. Scrooge starts cold and empty like the warehouse did. Every early description of him is about the cold: “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.” In a short space of time, and after a journey, he is redeemed. He is warm again, full of joy and life and hope.

This freezing warehouse is virtually unused most of the time. We are the spirits, coming in and warming it – cramming it with light and food and happiness and warmth and redemption.

It’s a lot of work. But it’ll be worth it and we’ve got the team. I’m so thrilled to be back again and staring down this month of unadulterated loveliness. Bring it.

Here’s the link to tickets. Feel free to share it, and book in large numbers, and come celebrate this glorious show with us!!! Aaargh merry Christmas. Now I should think about writing this bloody article where I can’t swear.

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