Phone tribes

Walking through Liverpool Street station tonight, a guy drops his phone. Everyone around him stops. It’s like he’s dropped a baby. The phone lands screen down. There is a moment. He goes to it, slowly. We all watch. He picks it up and turns it to himself. His whole demeanour is full of dread. Dread-full. “Are you alright?” his friend asks. “Are YOU alright.”

Let me get my slippers. Ahhh. Good. And my pipe. Mmmmmmm. Yes. Here we are. My voice is tired so I don’t need to shout for an hour to make it sound right. It’s already scratchy. Ahem:

“I remember a time when these mobile whaddya callums were for posing wasteful ponces. Back when I was a young whippersnapper, you made a plan in advance with time structures, and you stuck to it. We’ll start at the nob at 7 but at 9 we’ll move to The Turk’s Head to pick up Sid and his gang. We’ll leave there at 10 so we can beat the queue into Washington Heights. If you miss us at shites we’ll go back to Tanya’s room at St. Pat’s for a late night wind down at maybe 1.”

I’m part of the problem. I write my blog on my phone now. But “Are YOU alright?” Ugh. It’s just a phone. But it’s an access to this online identity that we manicure and monitor so obsessively. How much of our actual identity is getting wrapped up in our digital identity? All of this information we put online – it’s not us any more than it’s ours. It’s a front and we own none of it. Our photos and our words have already been signed over to bastards like Wasserberg. We’ve already agreed in the terms and conditions, that nobody in the history of humanity ever read completely, but yet still somehow are legally binding. They could put anything in them. They probably do.

Also, since I’ve got my pipe and slippers on, these fucking algorithms that push us all into bubbles? I love getting into conversations with people who don’t see the world like I do. We all expand our horizons by doing so. If we take our whole understanding from the things we are fed by algorithms that want to tell us what they think we want to hear – no wonder everyone is wondering how a white supremacist took the leadership of one of the biggest economies in the world. These algorithms are not feeding us any voices that differ from ours. So we entrench in our perspective because we feel supported. The same mechanism that is designed to sell us things is having the side-effect of making us multiple islands of self-righteous fundamentalist bigots.

We conflate our online identity with our real one. But they are entirely different. This phone is a portal to lots of comforting stories – fed to me based on previous interests. It is not me at all. Me is a mess of synapses and muscles and hormones and organs and blood. I don’t fully know what I believe even if multiple algorithms insist they know me backwards. None of us know at heart, because we are arbitrary creatures – blown by the wind. And we can change our mind. Whenever we fancy.

This is my opinion tonight. I’m putting this cobweb of words out into the ether. I might disagree with myself tomorrow. I might not. These words are not me. They’re just my words. But how are we going to stop this trend towards confirmation bias that has been kicked off by marketing algorithms? Are we really all going to divide into tribes again? Leave that shit for football, surely…

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Gravy

When I was in the third year at Guildhall I worked with an amazing director, Jo Blatchley. I’d already done Scenes From a Marriage with him in the second year and he had helped me unblock myself a great deal, despite my uptight upbringing. He is an extraordinary man that expects commitment and attack from his actors. If you’re a coward (as many actors are) you get nothing from him. He wants you as an individual and as a company to go deep together.

I was playing a city trader in the 1980’s, trading dollar/mark and wishing I was on cable. My character secretly wanted to be a saucier. His biggest scene involved him sitting at Ascot railway station in his disheveled tailcoat, hoovering up cocaine on the platform and guiltily admitting that he wanted to make sauces. I went as method as I could, which was expected by Jo. I had no understanding of cocaine quantities come performance though. My method didn’t extend that far. I was pure as the driven snow when I graduated. Depressing to contemplate really 

I put my method into the sauces. I bought loads of books on sauces. I cooked all the sauces I could learn. I immersed myself in sauces. When I said “I make sauces” on stage, fuck it was true. I also made sense of all the FX trading, to the extent that some 5 years later Jo asked me to come to LAMDA where he was doing the same show with the third years, and explain why these small numerical fluctuations can carry such emotional weight. Every number quoted carries an opinion about that number and the broker that gives it. And the detail is very close. He didn’t ask me to make sauces. But I probably would’ve been better placed doing that.

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Gravy is one of my big sauces now. I make a mean gravy, partly thanks to my mum, and partly thanks to Tony Marchant (the writer), Jo Blatchley and part of my incomprehensibly lovely year group at Guildhall. The traders in that show (in the studio dammit – all my best parts were) consisted of (in no particular order) Dean Ashton (who I still see frequently), Dan Ireson (now Tristan’s agent and we’re due a pint), Chris Fry (going great guns and we are long overdue a pint), Kesty Morrison (musician in Bristol, legend, I miss her. Pint catch-up required) and muggins (Scrooge! Already had a pint or two thanks.)

So this evening it was somewhat guiltily that I filled an empty bottle with Natalie Coleman’s gravy to take home. But she cooks it for a few days. Which I usually don’t have time for. I do that with soup but rarely gravy. I reckon if I get enough of her glorious sauce I can use it as a base for my gravy and blow everyone’s mind with the übergravy. It’ll take on a personality of its own…

I’ve not had time to stop lately with this show and sickness. The cold house has no tree. I suspect there’ll be catshit in my bed when I get home. But I’ll make a mean gravy for Christmas in a freezing stark house.

If that boy at Guildhall could see me now, eh!! Ebenezer Scrooge to rapturous applause. Freezing bed full of catshit.

I can call it method. I never wanted to be caught in the “posh” casting bracket. I think I ran a bit too much interference on that though – but that’s my way, making things harder for myself on purpose. It’ll be worth it in the end, he says with the desperation of an addict.

And maybe Pickle won’t have shat my bed yet. I just need to remember to buy litter tomorrow.


Edit: she didn’t… Yet. Phew.

Food shop

I went food shopping today. That’s it. You can all go home. Thanks for coming. Blog over. Smashed it.

Even shopping took me long enough. I was trying to sleep off my cold. But I had my mother’s ghost telling me “Feed a cold to starve a fever.” And no food in the house. Plus my blog from the other day where I said I was going to go shopping. So I schlepped to Tesco and filled the fridge with stuff. Veg onions milk butter meats bread cereal cheese pasta rice pies etc etc. This makes a change. Recently it’s literally just been a can of sardines in the fridge, staring at me, despite no bread. Now I’ve got bread. Toast is possible. Sardines on toast. And onions. Even tomato. And peppers. Which is a perfectly viable – even luxurious – meal. Even without the sardines. Bruschetta!

I ate lots today, starting with a can of Heinz ravioli, which you can judge me about but 0.79p and familiar. Plus everything tastes like nothing right now. It’s a probably a good time to eat old leather shoes, as even my shoes would be mildly piquant and no more, to my taste buds. I hear my own words back in my ears, despite the ringing. My throat is full of death. I’m leaking like a stuck faucet. I’m finding out lots about snots. I’m sick. Sick as the proverbial dog. Which certainly wasn’t bouncing around seeking approval in which ever proverb it came from. It was fucked. I suspect it was dead.

How the hell will I do 2 shows tomorrow? No doubt I’ll find out. Pharmacopoeia. The wonders of science and adrenaline. I timed it perfectly this evening. Ten minutes before I went on stage *ping*. CAFFEINE PLUS OBSCURE PERKY DECONGESTANTS YAY SCROOGE HUMBUG. But now it’s worn off. Completely.

I’m on a packed tube and I’m hosepiping snot into my moustache and reeking of olbas to the extent that everyone is standing in the doorway rather than going near the only 2 empty seats in the carriage – my neighbors.

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I’m not helping myself by having had a couple of pints this evening. But if you go into the deep ocean you have to decompress. And it’s important I sleep well tonight. Plus when have you ever known me to be anything other than retrograde to whatever is good for me?

Lunch matinee, then just … the wrong amount of time to get out of costume and experience the world as Al before pre show kicks in again. I prefer it when I only have a 45 minute turnaround. Then I stay warm, which is relevant vocally and physically. This matinee is annoyingly early compared to the Saturday ones. But because it’s extra we get compensated. Worth it when it comes to the boiler fund. I’ve got enough for a plumber that isn’t taking the piss. I’ve put it aside. Now it’s about finding someone who’s free on Friday who isn’t charging emergency rates (fat chance). Looks like Christmas will be cold. I’ll make some more calls tomorrow in the hopes…

Sick

Everybody on Carol is sick. I have olbas oil on tissues stashed all over the stage. This evening I even put it in my beard. Which was an interesting experiment. Not one that I will necessarily duplicate because owch. But after fifteen minutes I was glad of it.

What do you lose with this bug? Well. Coordination for certain. Jack and I are thoroughly physically incompetent today. We did the shutters in the wrong order. We got thoroughly confused getting them back. It was a disaster. An unmitigated disaster. We got them wrong, put them back wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Horribly wrong. This shutter job that we are so efficient in? Disaster. It put me in mind of this glorious video from Bernard Cribbins. But we got it done in the end.

Vocally this week will be a challenge. Right now it’s only one show per day, which should’ve been fine if I hadn’t been recording a sci-fi short story in the daytime, full of cold. As it is, the podcast gets growly Al, which kind of works for the story. As a test of my new home studio for long-form audio it’s come across pretty well despite tired voice and sickness. It’s about someone technologically recidivist versus progress. I’ll be editing and sending tonight when I get home most likely. If I don’t hate it I might link you. But I’ll probably hate it so don’t hold your breath.

Right now I’m heading home with Mel. Just a few days ago we were looking so happy and I took a selfie at Kings Cross as my blog photo. This is us tonight. I deliberately only took one. But we are both exhausted.

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Bed soon. No ordering takeaway!!!! I have a cornucopia of medicinal delights though. Lemsip and Actifed. Mmm zzzz

We took over a grand on the bar tonight with 75 audience. We have over 1.6k in donations so far for Centre Point. People love this show. This evening we had a whole load of immersive theatre makers in the audience who are playing with tech. They’ve got a humongous budget. 3 mil. They’re using VR. Crucially they all seemed bloody marvelous humans. It could’ve been that, on a day when I’ve wanted to die for most of the show and to sleep once it was over, I’ve accidentally made a connection with a large group of makers who have budget and are working in the same arena and where I could add narratively to their work, since narrative is my obsession and it seems to be what they’re missing. I’ve got someone’s number. We shall see …


Meanwhile I’ve got home. God it’s shit being sick. I’ve just got to hope that my body fights this hard. Doctor Theatre is still my friend even after a few years of running this show. The show is unpredictable enough that I still get my adrenaline fix and become momentarily augmented as it bombards me. But then the show ends and like with any other addiction there’s the crash.

I slugged home through cobwebs, and shared out the remaining takeaway overspill in the fridge with Brian and Mel. Tomorrow I’ll be hitting the shop and being organised regarding food. Pies. Things that require no care or creativity. Today I knew I had leftovers. Tomorrow I don’t.

Christ at the end of this week there’ll be Christmas in this flat. I haven’t cared for my home in the way I might usually have. Lots to do. Including buying the damn food.

Fast food

I hate being cold. It saps the will. It doesn’t have to, but it can. I’ve let it. I’ve fallen into some bad habits in the first week or two of this run. First of all I’ve been drinking too much, which cuts the morning. Second I’ve not taken the time to go shopping. My normal food shop is done on the way home, but since I’m heading home after the shops are shut right now, I’m not buying food to cook. This coming week I’m going to make sure I do some shopping. Otherwise I get home to my cold flat starving, and throw open the fridge to a bag of mouldy cheese and carrots that have been there so long they have opinions about TV shows. Before long I’m online throwing loads of money down the internet into the hands of an Indian restaurant in Battersea that’s open until 2 on a Tuesday. Then I’m up waiting for my defrosted rat tandoori when I could’ve been cooking fresh. The food comes. It’s expensive, it’s unhealthy. I eat it guiltily, and feel down on myself for being so indulgent. And then I wonder why I’m low, when it’s a cycle of my own making.

This morning was beautiful sunshine. I didn’t leave the house. I ignored lots of messages. I just stayed in until evening, cocooned in a duvet, reading, playing games and consuming other people’s stories. Partly a necessary relief as the show is costly in terms of spirit. But now we are in the run, it’s noticeably easier on that front.

I needed the vocal rest, and just … to not think about Scrooge for a day. I’m trying to save up for a plumber. From now on I’m going to make that my priority until the system is flushed. That means getting method on Scrooge. Gruel! No extra coals in the fire! Humbug! Clever shopping in supermarkets, lots of healthy cheap food, being a bit more organised, and not spanking my evenings and my paychecks in the bar after the show goes down. Theoretically it should be easy. Practically?

Well, it’s Monday evening. I haven’t seen Emma for a while. Maze Grill is walking distance from my home and half price with the keyring. Despite everything I’ve just written, I find myself sitting in the window with a close friend. I’ve been dying to spend time with her recently. We’ve both been having tricky times and there’s tremendous fellowship. “Oh don’t worry, I’ll get yours,” says my mouth, knowing that every penny is worth it. She’d be happy with a cup of tea and a cuddle. But I want something’s flesh and I want to get her dinner too. I have a rump steak. Not a sirloin or a rib-eye, mind you. Economy…. Although frankly it was huge and I paid a tenner for it. I didn’t think to take a photo until I’d already eaten half of it.

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She is a vegetarian. There’s not much she can eat in Maze, but we both come out full and happy and it didn’t break the bank. Although bank breaking, I am finally learning, is about gradual attrition rather than big stupid gestures. If I cycled into work every day like I did at The Arts last year it would be cheaper and I wouldn’t get so drunk after the show. Maybe that’s the solution. I own the gloves. I can wrap up warm and if it’s not pouring it’ll be another way of kick-starting the journey that, hopefully, leads to a working boiler before Christmas. Let’s see where that goes, shall we?

Prescience?

I woke up with a weight on my chest. I was having horrible dreams, and – unusually – my lucidity wasn’t kicking in. Then I spent the whole morning with a feeling of impending doom. A few hours after waking I discovered that it was not unfounded. Today was a dark day for some of the people I love. I’m using all my positivity to bring people together for Christmas and to think about family and kindness, but reality has been conspiring to bring darkness into the lives of some of my close friends.

Today has been the darkest day I’ve felt for ages. When I got into work I said that it felt like there was going to be a nuke. Turns out it was less general but just as unutterably hateful. Sorry to be vague. I know how that sort of behaviour feels like fishing on social media. Suffice it to say that something unutterably horrible has occurred in the family life of a close friend. It’s in the news but I don’t feel it’s my job to speak of it. Their happiness affects mine though. And it’s thrown me out emotionally. I’ve been volatile all day. And I’m pissed off about it.

I don’t like that I woke up so tense and then found out that something had actually happened. My grandmother would gladly tell me that she was “psychic”. That’s a word that means something different to everyone that says it. But we can easily fall into confirmation bias. We want to. Coincidence is rife, but we love to feel like it’s not random. Like we have a hand on the tiller. Do we? We work hard if we work hard and not if we don’t. None of my loved ones had control over their exit. All of them very much wanted to.

I had a shit sleep, woke up in a cloud, and then a shit day unfolded.

I’m extremely sensitive. I pick up on what I call energy with people. I once flatly asked someone to get out of my flat because his energy was so dark. He was just an insecure man using learnt techniques to behave socially. But it was so unrelatable and false that I found myself reacting almost allergically to him. I’ve had similar reactions to sociopath lovers of people I care deeply about. But the convergence between my feeling of impending doom today and this shitawful thing in the life of my friend… I really hope it’s just coincidence. Ugh. Poor poor family.

I’m glad to be home. I wish I wasn’t home alone and I wish the boiler was power-flushed. I’d like my home to be an uncomplicated destination, and I know that the fact it’s not warm is making it less desirable. I want to get it sorted out by Christmas so I can have lots of people round. Which reminds me: Anyone you know who might be sitting alone at home on Christmas – send them my way. I’m pretty central, and I am actively looking for international waifs and strays. I’d gladly meet them before to normalise me, but they’re just as welcome to show up on the day if they feel brave.

Meantime I’m off to sleep…

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Two show day

Jack Whitam strode into the room, through a wardrobe full of smoke. Without full use of his limbs while he corporealised. Into a cold room with a table and loads of people looking at him. Playing the ghost of Marley. He strode into it twice today, brilliantly both times. It is his job, after all. As he came through the wardrobe, I stood behind him, hidden round the corner with a smoke machine… He’s the ghost of Jacob Marley. Plus ASM. I’m Ebenezer Scrooge. Plus ASM.

Let me talk you through my show. I’ve done it twice today so I should know. As the audience comes in, I’m warming up. Literally. It’s fucking freezing. My feet are like blocks of ice and I’m wearing shoes without socks. The floors and air are icy cold. I’m warming my vocal folds before I have to work so that I don’t damage them when the show kicks off. Lots of muscular stuff. Good old Kate Godfrey. Tongue. Soft palate. Connecting sound with breath. And warming. I might take a bit of time checking out the audience through the mirror. “Shit there’s a ten year old.” “That family looks lovely.” “They’re hammered. Interesting.” Then my show opens. I’m fanning a smoke machine that doesn’t work very well. I’m fanning it to stop the thermostat from cutting it off at a crucial moment. Then I’m switching on some LED lights in a wardrobe, and filling it with smoke if the machine works. Then Jack goes on through the wardrobe. I head round back, listen to the audience with Jack so I know what I’m in for, head for my entrance, make sure someone is there to close the door behind me, and hit a high energy scene, that’s the closest to panto that we get. Once I’m through that door I’m on stage for the rest of the night. There’s no rest. Over the years now, thousands of people have attempted to teach Ebenezer about Christmas. They’ve taught me obscure Christmas games – this evening I learnt “The Chocolate Game.” Everyone in the family rolls a die. If you roll a six, you put on a hat and gloves and eat from a big bar of chocolate with a knife and fork until someone else rolls a six. This is from a reality TV producer from Doncaster. She swears it’s brilliant…

So yes, I start with lots of humbug and Dickens quotes while I’m trying to get all the ghosts out of my parlour. Then I’m taken back into my past and I go fourth wall for a bit.

I sit on a stool and quote verbatim at great length the bit of Dickens that shows us that Scrooge liked Arabian Nights and Robinson Crusoe as a kid. My sister dies, I remember how to dance and fuck up a proposal to a ghostly memory. Then I have to welcome a load of people to a feast, and they teach me stuff like the Chocolate Game. What I’ve learnt is that virtually everyone has something unusual in their family Christmas. I’m trying to build a web that connects all sides of the audience every show. By the time I’m at this part of the show I’m already on the home stretch. The bulk of my emotional journey is in Christmas Past and once that’s done it’s mostly just playing with the individuals that are there. Then I have to do a bit of improv, play some accordion, play a game, and then switch the atmosphere from fun to silence on a ninepin. If that works out the rest is gravy. I get very sad, understand my mortality for the first time, make a vow, and undergo a total human revolution. Then I run out in the rain and almost get hit by a bus. Then I talk too much and eventually bow.

People love it. It’s a beautiful show. Obviously. You don’t come back four years running to do something negligible. I’m so happy to be back in the nightie. It’s feeling like a huge part of my year now. Every year I fear it’ll be the last. Every year it comes back. I love this gig. And this year it’s been beautiful. And the team is just perfect. It’s such a happy show. Here’s Mel and I heading home after perhaps a little too much wine… I fear I’m getting better at drunk-writing. I’d never be a theatre critic, but I suspect that that’s the number one skill in their profession…

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