Sunday, 29 July 2012

Farewell, Maria

Well, that's done. Yesterday saw the final two performances of When We Are Married - a matinee and an evening performance.

The audiences for the ten shows were, mostly, wonderful: vocal and warm in their appreciation, treating us to plenty of laughter and the occasional 'ripple' (which I'm reliably informed is the technical term for applause mid-scene after a particularly impressive speech or exit). The only exception to this was, curiously, the second Friday night, where many reliable laugh-cues went past without a murmur, and the cast began to wonder what they were doing wrong. However, we were assured by those who remained in the bar to see us afterwards that everybody was smiling broadly and enjoying it... Don't get me wrong - we loved them just the same - but unfortunately, in a dark theatre, the performers can't see smiles! [Interestingly, my husband went to watch our friends at the Sewell Barn performing The Comedy of Errors, and they experienced the exact same Friday-night-phenomenon.]

Be that as it may, the majority of audience reactions across the run were wonderful and gratifying for all the hard work put in by cast, crew and director. We were slightly apprehensive about the final two shows: matinees are notorious for being downbeat, and for reasons we still don't understand, the sales for the last night were well down on the rest of the run.

However, our fears proved unfounded. Firstly, the matinee audience turned out to be both numerous and wonderfully responsive; and there was a sudden surge in ticket purchases during the day, plus quite a number of on-the-door sales, so in the event, we had a very healthy-sized audience in the evening - who also proved to be a generously vocal and appreciative bunch. (I was especially pleased to receive a 'ripple' of my own, for the first time this show, on my 'I'll be in Blackpool' exit.) Laughter and reactions were warm and easy, and we brought our little theatrical craft safely into harbour for the last time.

I added some backstage photographs to the relevant album, which I think accurately sum up the atmosphere of our last day in the theatre. Cards and gifts were given, with love and gratitude, to members of our crew and support team, and we don't forget all the others who worked in the background too (you can see the full list here).

Finally, you might enjoy my own whimsical contribution (at the end of this post): cartoon versions of the cast. I've created these for a few other shows I've taken part in, and they're particularly enjoyable to draw when the characters are so distinctly identifiable by costume features. I printed a copy for each member of the cast as a memento of our very happy family for the last eight weeks (is that really all it's been?). (Click on the image to display a larger sized version.)

I have personally learned a great deal from the simple discipline of recording our progress, and the process, and it's highlighted to me that - never mind the fact that I first 'trod the boards' nearly forty years ago - I continue to learn with every new show. My fellow performers and our backstage crew have given mighty amounts of support, education and fun. Most especially, I want to applaud in the loudest possible terms our delightful, talented and lovely director, Genevieve, whose vision, intelligence, enthusiasm and care made this such a wonderful experience.

May I conclude this journey with a heartfelt personal plea?

Please continue to support not only the Maddermarket Theatre, but also the many other 'amateur' (and I use the word in its literal sense: lover of) theatrical enterprises that we're so fortunate to have within easy reach of Norwich. Here are just a few examples.

The Sewell Barn and the Great Hall work in very different spaces and cover a huge range of styles of entertainment. There are superb choirs (Keswick Hall, Jay Singers). There are wonderful concert-style shows (The Upper Octave). There are youth theatres (Mad Red). There are musical theatre companies (Norfolk & Norwich). Many local performers also become involved in small offshoot groups, either regularly or for one-off performances. All work hard to produce theatre and music of a consistently high standard, and all do it for love. Please stay in touch with these groups through the web and social media, watch out for them in local press and posters, and support them whenever you can.

Ladies and gentlemen: thank you for joining Maria and her colleagues. I'm delighted to see that this blog has had over 2,400 visitors since I started. I hope you have enjoyed the journey as much as I've enjoyed writing about it; and that you will share more such joyful journeys in the future.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Laughter in unexpected places

Today is our day off. Not halfway through the run (we've only done three performances out of the ten), but being Sunday there is no show. Time to pause and reflect.

We've had three truly magnificent audiences so far. The opening night, as already mentioned, was virtually full, and redolent with enthusiastic warmth and great waves of affection. We knew that many of our theatrical colleagues were in cheering us on, which is always lovely to know.

Friday and Saturday, while not quite as full, were still satisfyingly stocked with smiling - and laughing - faces. In both cases, we started by thinking 'oh, they're a bit quiet'; but it didn't take long before the laughter grew louder (and yes, that was before they got to the interval drinks).

It also became clear (as with every show, of course) just how many differences there are in audience reaction. Lines that in rehearsal didn't even seem especially funny are greeting with generous guffaws; localised rounds of applause are granted to special moments. We weren't too surprised when Mrs Northrop's speech, informing the wives (with great glee) of their situation, and punctuated with the slamming of the door, receives well-deserved applause - it's a splendid moment, and performed with great aplomb.

However, without giving 'spoilers' for anybody who hasn't yet seen the show, there were fabulous moments of appreciation, for example, for Soppitt and Ormonroyd - which, until the audience were in, we didn't see coming at all. Likewise, one audience will do no more than chuckle at a particular moment, whereas the next will hold up the action (delightfully) for fifteen seconds. The timing is occasionally a challenge - but one we're very happy to accept.

NB: apparently tickets are going very well. As such, if you think you might want to see the show and haven't booked yet - please do so in advance to avoid disappointment.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

First night

What a night that was. We know that, by tradition, first night is well-populated with colleagues in the local theatre fraternity (we won't mention that members get reduced-price tickets on that occasion); but it was such an encouragement to see a virtually full theatre, and to be met with such warmth and appreciation. The new challenges of timing lines against laughs can't be rehearsed, of course; that's one thing that has to wait until it's done for real. The bells rang on time, Ormonroyd's flashgun went off as intended, entrances were timely...

Well, actually, one entrance very nearly wasn't. My first entrance in Act III is made with basket over arm, hat on head and shawl around shoulders ("I'm going back to my mother"). I stood there in the wings waiting for my entrance, complete with basket - and realised, with about sixty seconds to go, that I'd totally forgotten to add the hat and shawl. I flew back to the dressing-room, grabbed the shawl (no time for the hat, of course) and made it back to the stage with seconds to spare.

When I related this story after curtain-down, Penny said "Oh - I thought you were just making Maria more distressed than you had before..." No - I was actually severely out of breath.

Maria blushes and knows it's a mistake she won't make again.

Thank you to our wonderful first-night audience, to the cast and crew for their focus and talent, to Genevieve for our single red roses. Now to focus on maintaining, and improving, the excitement and pace of that first fine, careless rapture.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

A roll of drums - and a rumble of thunder

Well, well, well. Unbelievably, it's the final dress rehearsal. Even more extraordinary is the realisation that our very first rehearsal - the read-through - took place just six weeks ago. It's been quite an incredible journey.

Over the two nights of dress rehearsals - yesterday and today - we've had the inevitable blips. It's not always easy to hear cues from behind closed doors, for example, so we're getting used to using the visual cues available from the backstage monitors wherever the audible version proves a challenge. The husbands have rather a lot to deal with, prop-wise: they need to manipulate glasses of 'whisky', an oil lamp, and even cigars (and yes, there is smoking taking place on stage in this production). Matches, of course, never light when you want them to. Robin (Councillor Parker) found himself delivering a line with cigar in mouth, but we reassured him that the effect was actually much funnier that way!

About halfway through this evening's dress rehearsal, the cast was intrigued by what sounded like furniture being dragged around, or scenery threatening to collapse (in manner of Michael Green's Art of Coarse Acting). However, as the noise continued, it became clear that we were, in fact, in the middle of the most spectacular thunderstorm seen in Norwich for quite some time. We'll take that as a roll of drums from nature to announce the arrival of the show.

Director Genevieve delivered her final notes (photo below). Our photographer, Peter Marsh, captured the final performance for front-of-house images and cast memorabilia, as well as some 'mug-shots' for FOH. Wardrobe mistress Amanda and her team of dressers checked final details, made last-minute adjustments, provided assistance with corsetry and coiffures. Rhett talked us through safety procedures and backstage housekeeping. Rosey provided the beautifully calm and efficient support she's been appreciated for throughout the rehearsal period. Lights and music appeared on cue. The team is an amazing and delightful one. Thank you, all.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: When We Are Married.  As one of our lines (nearly) says, with glasses in hand: "Here's to us - and here's to you!"

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Radio stars

A fun experience this afternoon. Genevieve asked Helen (Ruby) and myself to go into the studios of Radio Norfolk and broadcast a discussion on Stephen Bumfrey's show to publicise our production. We both much enjoyed the opportunity! We chatted about the way that the show, and its situation, continues to resonate today; the different dynamic brought to the stage by each character; and the re-evaluation of relationships for each of us.

For the next seven days, you can hear the interview here on BBC Listen Again - scroll through to 3:22:50.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Cackle and crash: part two

This is what technical rehearsals are for.

Mrs Northrop (a superb character of Dickensian proportions) has two bottles in her bag. Not, as Maria infers, something she's pilfered from the household, but a couple of stout empties which she's taking back (recycling isn't as new as we think).

Jude produced the two bottles from her bag, and clanked them together (not particularly hard) to audibly punctuate the point. Unfortunately, one of said bottles simply smashed in spectacular fashion. Rehearsal pauses while the indispensable Rhett gets down on hands and knees with a dustpan-and-brush...

Ah, the dangers of working in the theatre.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Tech-tock, tech-tock

Ah, the delights of the technical rehearsal. The stop-and-start rehearsal where, unavoidably, the performers are caught out two ways: either we are poised for the next entrance which doesn't then happen for the next ten minutes (as the techies are adjusting the lights), or we sit down in the Green Room assuming that nothing will happen for ages - and then the cry goes up over the tannoy, calling your character urgently to the stage...

We work through the first act and just make it into the second. Rosey's superb arrangement of props - marked out backstage in labelled areas of masking tape - is of great reassurance (my sovereign coin, used for paying Mrs Northrop, has its own inked place on the shelf). Some scenes are dispensed with quickly and easily, others take fairly long periods of adjustment. The 'crockery box' (dropped backstage) is dropped rather too enthusiastically on the first occasion, with the result that bits of china spill out backstage. The negotiating of the garden wall proves interesting for the lovely Becca, who needs to retain at least some dignity in her long skirt. The practicalities of pouring out drinks, without spilling them, within the span of the allotted lines, cause some difficulties; and the inevitable spills and damp wine stems (happily only tinted water) are alarming when wearing pastel colours. Bells and telephones ring (sometimes). The lights come and go in an experimental and slightly bewildering fashion. 

On top of this, we have full costume for the first time. Including, in some cases, wigs. Kiera's beautiful long hair is easily adapted to an Edwardian style, but Julie and myself sport very twenty-first century short cuts in real life. Happily, we have professionally styled, hired wigs, which are truly a thing of beauty. I change my Facebook profile picture, in time-honoured fashion, and an old friend comments "I take it this is your Mrs Merton period?". Oh, it's such a long way from playing Rosalind... I have now irreversibly crossed the generational divide, methinks. It's middle-aged ladies all the way from now on.

Friday, 13 July 2012

A change of pace

Our main concern at the runthrough yesterday was the pace that was needed. Obviously, we're getting to the stage where we need an audience - the occasional giggle from our director, crew or fellow actors, who have seen it all before, isn't really enough; and working 'in the space' was obviously going to slow things down too. However, it's also true that hesitancy on some lines and cues will sometimes reduce us to the 'wading through mud' feeling.

Finally, it's undoubtedly true that it can be a danger with a Northern accent. Because of the relaxed drawl (just listen to Last of the Summer Wine), it's all too easy to relax so far into it that we drag our vocal heels, as it were. Not only that, but the authoritative, controlled, possibly pompous nature of our three couples (to varying degrees) means that a measured tread is completely appropriate to character. The challenge is to keep that steadiness and authority without sending the audience to sleep.

Tonight's rehearsal, therefore, was a 'line run' - sitting in a circle on stage, acting with voice and face but not body. Genevieve stopped us, or we stopped ourselves, when it became clear that we were 'stuck in the mud' - or that an alternative approach was required. Where a faster pickup of cues was required, or line delivery needed to be faster (or, indeed, slower) we went back and tried it out again.

A fascinating, and successful, gambit was to have our 'figures of authority' - particularly Councillor Parker and Alderman Helliwell - lose their measured tread as they lost control of the situation. As panic sets in at the realisation of just what has happened (or rather, in the case of their marriage, what hasn't happened), we tried hastening their speeches - while slowing down those of Gerald, who is relishing his new-found power as he tells the tale. The switch between the two was highly effective, and did as much for the integrity of the characters as it did for the theatrical effect. Likewise, when we three ladies were already at sixes-and-sevens over the matter of Mrs Northrop, our reaction to the arrival of the reporter and photographer from the Yorkshire Argus was explosive. Lines overlapped, pitch of voice was raised: panic stations.

This was a very useful and encouraging exercise. Now, of course, our next two rehearsals are technicals: which, based on previous experience, will be taken at a very slow pace indeed...

Thursday, 12 July 2012

It's a show? Corset is...

(You can tell when I've been borrowing my jokes from a certain Maddermarket wordsmith.)

Our first full runthrough on the stage, with yet more bits of costume, props and a continually grown set (Maria's drawing room is now a rather fetching shade of blue). Not surprisingly, the pace was well down; we had rather a lot to think about. Negotiating doors (two people managed to get their fingers caught), a gravel path (nice and noisy), the framework of a conservatory; Harry Potter style glasses for Robin; rehearsal skirts for the girls (actually, I love my polka-dot-hemmed creation. Very Carmen Miranda).

I also had a Brooke-like episode (ref: Noises Off). Lost contact lens while sitting in the stalls watching before my next entrance. With only one working eye, unable to find missing lens, so performed next scene half-blind. Summoned help as we got the the interval, and hugely grateful to the lovely Kiera who took a torch and searched diligently until it was found. Phew.

Oh, and for Kiera and myself, there were corsets. Forgive the earthiness of the comment, but I have to say that my rack suffered from vertigo: it hasn't been elevated to such heights for some considerable time. It also meant that the simple action of sitting on the sofa could result in asphyxiation.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Building from the shoes up

On stage, with the shell of a set starting to appear around us, and the odd bit of costume. Genevieve asks us to wear our costume shoes to start to give us the right 'feel' - working from the bottom of the costume upwards. Unfortunately I can't comply, as mine are half a size too small and crippling... but my fellow wives have theirs (understated light brown for Annie, black with statement buckles for Clara).

We work through the slightly neglected Act III, getting this final bit of the jigsaw in place ready for our first on-stage run-through on Thursday. My first attempt is disastrous: those oh-so-perfect lines in the car on the way to rehearsal desert me completely, resulting in a lot of very un-Maria-ish Anglo-Saxon language. Judi and James are very good to me (and I've no doubt at all that they would be very reassuring and supportive on-stage companions if it happened for real), but I'm seriously annoyed with myself.

However, second time through it's a lot better. The three 'encounters' between the husband-wife partnerships are gaining momentum, and lead us through convincingly to the final moments of the play.

Barry has taken some excellent new photos; you can see some of the cast on the beginnings of our lovely set here (and linked from the Rehearsal Photos page of this blog). And no, I'm not going to explain why the lovely Helen is waving her legs in the air. You'll just have to come to the show.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Sewing it together

Gracious me. The whole show. In one long tapestry (OK, with a teabreak-interval). To be fair, some of the embroidery in this particular Bayeux creation is more like tacking stitches at the moment, but with ten days to go before opening night that's no bad thing: if we'd all been word perfect right now, what on earth would we do for the next week and a half? (That is said, of course, to appease my own conscience at being one of the worst offenders for - if I may labour the comparison - dropping stitches.)

Using the Rehearsal Room for the last time, we were generally pretty pleased with the overall shape of the show. We can see where we need to speed up - or, indeed, slow down; where we've forgotten the physical construction of a scene (because it feels like ages since we last worked it), or where it doesn't look quite right in the context of the whole; we can enjoy our fellow performers' scenes, invisible to the rest of us until now.

Tomorrow's rehearsal will focus on the slightly neglected Act III, then a break on Wednesday to gather our thoughts, our lines and our concentration, and then our first full run on the partly-constructed set on Thursday.

We're getting there.

Friday, 6 July 2012


There will be many more photographs, of course, of the dress rehearsals; but in the meantime, images are required for the programme and for the press. Our very own Reverend Mercer, Barry Parsons, provides the necessary expertise, and we spend a highly entertaining hour or two enacting key moments (some of which don't actually happen in the play) for the purpose.

This means being costumed for the first time, and dealing with present deficiencies as best we can. The wigs, for example, will be hired for the run of the show (my own short-cropped hair fails dismally to convince for 1908 merchant-class Edwardian lady); but good wigs are expensive to hire, so for the moment it's time for severe combing-back and hair-spraying, and a small hairpiece tucked on the back, like a blonde doughnut. OK, so perhaps that's a description of me, before you say it.

Looking at the images as they appear on Barry's laptop, we realise that the three ladies make a patriotic picture. Kiera is pale and understated in cream; Julie strong and loud in vivid deep red; and I am delighted with the sort of grey-bluebell colour which suits me very well. The corseting is vital, in my case, but raises certain of my features to hitherto unknown heights. However, it's very plain why these ladies couldn't have managed without a maid; even with modern velcro additions, getting into the outfit alone is nigh on impossible.

There are more giggles, of course, especially as Kiera and Matthew are required, once more, to enact their 'intimate moment'; each blames the other. The rest of us simply enjoy the spectacle - except, of course, poor Barry, who is trying to get a sensible photograph! (You can view a few more of my images here. The results of Barry's far more expert work will, hopefully, appear in local newspapers before long.)

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Happy ever after?

And so we face the final curtain. The situation is finally resolved, we all know where we stand, and we're set to wander off into the sunset, hand in hand.

Each of the three couples reacts differently to the final revelations, and to be honest, we're still experimenting with what, exactly, those reactions will be. A 'happy ending' is one thing, but there's always the potential that the fairytale finish might not be quite as planned, or wanted.

Did you ever see Sondheim's (overlong, but splendid) Into the Woods? The first half of the show concludes with 'happy ever after'; the second half shows what really happened next when the characters 'got what they wanted', and it isn't always quite as they imagined. Cinderella's and Rapunzel's princes are quickly bored with domesticity, and are drawn to seeking more exciting, unattainable women, for example (the Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, if you were wondering). The show's primary message is 'Be careful what you wish for - you might get it'; and indeed, the very final moments involve Cinderella blurting out her opening lines from the show - "I wish" - only to be stopped, with a hand over the mouth, by the other characters.

I was also reminded of a recent production of Measure for Measure at the Maddermarket. When the lovely Jo Sessions, as Isabella, was 'given' to the Duke in marriage, we realised - from the look of blank horror on her face - that her vocation as a nun, the most precious thing in her life, has been taken away from her. It was a startling change from the usual glow of happiness when she is led away by her husband-to-be. Jo made it very clear that Isabella's own dreams had been crushed, not realised.

Here, with our three couples, we are still finding how they resolve matters, in their lives and in their hearts. And that's the delight of experimenting with a theatrical experience: it's up to the actors and the directors to convey what the characters want. What they really, really want.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Echoes of Tevye and Golde

The end of the play is in sight. After tomorrow night's rehearsal we'll be ready to work in broader brush-strokes on the whole show.

The tiny section we worked on this evening brings into sharp focus each of the three marriages and the way the husbands and wives have had to revisit their feelings for each other. Maria confronts Joe: "Joe Helliwell, I want  you to answer one question. Do you love me?" Joe, of course, is hugely embarrassed to be asked such a thing in public.

Even today, never mind a century ago, how many people actually hear those three little words after many years of marriage? Hopefully many (I'm fortunate enough to be among those who do). However, it's so easy to take it for granted; to assume that, once the initial commitment has been made, that the feelings will stay the same.

One of my favourite songs in musical theatre - which, I have to say, I've performed with my own husband on more than one occasion - is sung by Tevye & Golde as they sit and reflect on all the changes that have happened as their daughters grow up and fall in love. In this case, it's the husband who starts the song: "Do you love me?" "Do I what?" retorts Golde, completely taken aback. After spending the rest of the song establishing that they do things for each other ("for twenty-five years I've washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house..."), Golde finally admits "I suppose I do" - to which Tevye replies "And I suppose I love you too."

And, as they both conclude the song:

"It doesn't change a thing; but, even so,
After twenty-five years -
it's nice to know."

For the original and best, see the YouTube video of the inestimable Topol and Norma Crane at the foot of this posting; for a really sentimental rendition, the link to SoundCloud below is a recording made in a concert back in 2004 of Selwyn and myself (we'd only been married for 9 years at that point).

Monday, 2 July 2012

A bit of hanky-panky

Yes, I thought that might get your attention...

Into Act III, and the world has been turned upside-down. The status quo no longer has any meaning. Long-concealed resentments are brought into the open, and long-remembered chances missed are reflected on. There are some startling, funny, and very moving developments as all the characters are forced to re-evaluate  their presuppositions about their lives and their relationships. (As I said a few posts ago: I thought this was a comedy?)

When it comes to intimate behaviour, performers and director always have an interesting job. In this case, the merest hint of a real affection, attraction and chemistry must be shown in the briefest of moments. The evidence must be there for the wife in question to see. It was rather easier with the brash Lottie (remember, she's 'a woman', not a lady), accustomed as she is to 'carrying on with men behind t'bar'; but for gentle, repressed, buttoned-up Annie and Herbert, it's a different matter. This led to some rather interesting discussions. Might they kiss? Would he touch her? The waist, the face, the shoulder? A kiss or embrace which had seemed natural - even in the confines of Edwardian Yorkshire - for our 'young lovers' in Act I could seem a step too far for these two.

Oh, well. As one of the characters puts it in Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus, 'King Sex is a wayward monarch'... especially when one is attempting to keep him in an appropriate chronological and social context.

Needless to say, we finished up in fits of giggles as Matthew and Kiera tried various degrees of intimacy, corpsing all the while...

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Woah. Big space.

The previous Maddermarket production (an excellent show: Ben Jonson's The Alchemist) finished ('came down', as we luvvies put it) last night. We were therefore able to work in the theatre today - albeit on a set designed for the seventeenth century.

I've only performed on this stage once before - I Am A Camera, back in 2009 (as Sally's mother, Mrs Watson-Courtneidge, aka Scary Mummy). A lovely space to work in, although I'd forgotten the slightly disconcerting height of the stage in relation to the audience; it's a particular contrast to my usual performing space at the Sewell Barn, where the watchers' heads - even the first row - are level with and above those of the performers.

Rhett populated the stage with as much of our furniture and props as we already have (actually, the Alchemist's oak-panelled room didn't look too far out of place for Yorkshire merchant classes in 1908). Obviously the entrances are not yet where they'll be. However, it gave us a much-needed 'feel' for the sense of space, both physically and vocally.

We 'staggered' Acts I & II, and once again, it was lovely to see the parts of the story we're not involved in ourselves. It's been some time since I'd seen our 'young lovers', Nancy & Gerald, and I was reminded of yet another huge shift in dynamic: their youth, free expression of affection, Gerald's 'southerner' accent (alone of all the cast) and far less formal presence. It makes an enormous contrast when the six of us - 'the couples' - enter in their middle-class, high-tea-filled satisfaction. Splendid stuff.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Mid-term pause: and appreciation

Exactly halfway through the six-week rehearsal process, and time for a quick reflection.

I'm enjoying this show. My fellow actors are a real pleasure to work with; the characters are both interesting and satisfying to play. There is (as I've mentioned in other posts) laughter and drama in equal measure. The play is well written, with enough simplicity of storyline to engage the audience rapidly, but enough layers to keep it most definitely three-dimensional.

What I'm especially enjoying about this process is the highly participative style of direction. Genevieve works in a way which is a superb combination of guidance and freedom. I've worked with (and watched the productions of) directors who rely too much on the strengths of their casts, and effectively leave them to get on with it; at the other end of the scale, directors who 'block' every move, every nuance, every jot and tittle of the process, leaving no room for creativity. Happily, I haven't encountered either of those extremes too often, nor too recently.

Genevieve treats her cast as intelligent professionals; if we suggest that we're uncomfortable with the delivery of a line or a physical placement on the stage, she'll get us to try something else which we feel to be more appropriate. Her suggestions and our ideas are tried out until we know absolutely that we've found the right way to suit our stage integrity and our director's overall vision. Equally, if the cast member is completely at a loss as to why something's happening, or how to convey it, she'll be ready both with her own ideas and with questions to bring it out of the actors for themselves. And if something isn't working, she won't simply tell the actor 'that's wrong', but will find a constructive suggestion for discovering what will work.

It brings me to reflect on the many excellent directors I've had the privilege of working with in the past, and it becomes obvious that, given the wide variety of personality, age, style and experience, this process of intelligent collaboration is the common feature for them all. I really have been very fortunate!

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Tune in tomorrow

Tonight's rehearsal concluded with our second 'stagger-through' to sew together the whole of Act II. It was, given that we're only about halfway through the rehearsal process, surprisingly cohesive and enjoyable; mostly off-book, which meant that we're ready to experiment with characters and dynamic; and great to be an audience for each other in those sections involving only a few people.

We started the evening, however, by working on the final two pages of the second act. Lottie has dropped her bombshell, but we don't yet know all the details, and we have three candidates for the crime. I was irresistibly reminded of an early episode of EastEnders, where several potential candidates for the father of Michelle Fowler's unborn child were implicated; and only in the final moments of the episode was 'Dirty Den' found to be the culprit. This little section had all the ingredients of soap opera: guesses here, accusations there, the final reveal coming seconds before the end of the act. It was all I could do not to call for the theme tune to be played - and, if not the EastEnders percussion, then possibly the Archers. All together now: "dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum, dum-de-dum-de-dah-dah..."

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A very silly rehearsal

Enter two splendid outsiders to the world of the Helliwells and their friends. The Reverend Clement Mercer is the hapless cleric ("although you're not a member of my congregation") who comes to offer "any help I can" in a pastoral capacity; and the splendid Miss Lottie Grady is "a woman" (not, you note, "a lady") whose main function seems to be to wreak havoc.

The introduction of the totally different dynamic of these characters is a breath of fresh air to the audience, who have been getting drawn further and further into the world of our six respectable folk; and Barry and Judi had rather the same effect on their fellow actors. The flummoxed minister and the brazen hussy took us by storm, and the resulting discussions about staging, inappropriate behaviour involving Barry's leg and (separately, I hasten to add) Judi's cleavage set off one of those episodes of giggles that, once started, is very hard to stop...

You'll find further silly images like these on the Rehearsal Photos tab. 

Every so often, I love to be reminded that there's a very good reason for it being called a play.

Monday, 25 June 2012

The speed of sound

Gradually coming off book, as we are, we're now in that slightly disconcerting hinterland between reading and acting. Finding our way into the flow of the text, the situation and the emotions, it's tricky to suddenly find oneself brought up against a virtual brick wall by the sudden departure of the lines which seemed so firmly embedded when trying them out in the car on the way to rehearsal.

This, in turn, has obviously an effect on the pace of the piece; and, as I've mentioned in an earlier post, the tendency to 'drawl' - and hence slow down - the Yorkshire accent is another pitfall to avoid.

Working, as we were tonight, on the latter part of Act II - which is fraught with tension, suspicion and discovery - Genevieve asked us to 'speed run' the lines, whether with or without script. What was interesting was that (for me, anyway) deliberately cranking up the speed actually felt as though it brought my delivery closer to the pace (and energy) that I should be achieving in any case. It also started to become clear that - without interrupting one's fellow performers - there are times when 'line overlap' is more appropriate, and natural - and the more agitated the three couples become, the less likely they are to stand upon polite conversational ceremony.

Hmm. Back to the script. And to having my (real) husband test me for lines while I'm doing something else, such as ironing or preparing an evening meal. If I can perform those tasks efficiently and safely while delivering the correct thought-processes of Maria, I'm likely to be on course. There may, of course, be the odd culinary or laundry hiccup in the meanwhile...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Staggering through

The first time of sewing bits together: we ran through the whole of Act I and just over half of Act II. Having spent the last two weeks (is that really all it is?) working through the show in fairly intensive sections, it was pleasing to see the first half of the story coming together in a cohesive manner. Not to mention actually seeing some of our fellow performers with whom one might not actually share a stage! (I particularly enjoyed John Hare's struggles with an old-fashioned camera that was - ex-script quote - "as drunk as I am"...)

Books were down to various degrees. I managed Act I reasonably well, but Act II has still to catch up - I didn't even attempt to put my book down for that, as it would have held up proceedings too much. My fellow wives managed most of the section with only a few prompts. James (Joe) has - very impressively - managed to get almost entirely off-book for that section, which this far before the show is no mean feat. (To be fair, the wives at least have had their scripts for a much shorter time than some of the men - we only discovered which part we were to play at the first readthrough!) And some members of the cast, such as Ben as Fred Dyson, have literally only just joined the cast in the last few days, so could hardly be expected to leave their scripts behind.

We are gradually introducing props - like John's recalcitrant camera - glasses, bottles, trays and the rest. All the usual delightful booby-traps. Not to mention the fact that they will hurry along our line-learning, as there's nothing like trying not to spill the port or break the glass while handling an A4-size script.

So here we are, two weeks out of six into the process (Wednesday 6 June was the first read-through; final dress rehearsal will be on Wednesday 18 July) and it's encouraging to see just how much of the play is already showing real signs of life.

Happily, I now have a brief breathing space: my next rehearsal isn't until Monday 25, which gives me a much-needed opportunity for working on lines. See you next week.

Ormonroyd and his inebriated camera

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Time for some Summer Wine

A brief but very useful and enjoyable rehearsal this evening. The lovely Jen Dewsbury, who has a Higgins-scale comprehension of all matters dialect, took us through a succession of exercises to help us contain our voices within the West Riding of Yorkshire - rather than wandering off all over the British Isles. Jenny's recommendation was that we make the voices of the characters in the wonderful Last of the Summer Wine our inspiration. Well, that's not exactly a hardship.

We each found ourselves a phrase - from the script or otherwise - that we could use to 'tune in' to the voices required. Keira's favourite is the fabulous word 'thing-umpty-ite' (Joe's equivalent of 'what's-her-name'). Mine is 'I don't act silly, but my face gets so red...' (said when taking an extra glass of port. No comments, please, about the verity of this statement.)

We talked about keeping the Yorkshire accent during rehearsals when we're off stage as well as on, and it's surprising how easily one slips into doing that anyway; and the effect of all fourteen of us (well, except for Gerald, who is of course a 'la-di-dah Southerner') diving into the world of Compo and co. is rather infectious.

It was interesting to see the difference made by face shapes. In the case of Yorkshire, a pulled-back head (giving one a rather unflattering double chin - great) and 'loose cheeks' (that's the ones on the face, before I get any rude comments) start to give the right sound. Actually, the double-chin look is pure Nora Batty anyway.

Photo: The Telegraph

Monday, 18 June 2012

I thought this was a comedy?

A long (four-hour) Sunday evening rehearsal, and I come away feeling completely wrung out.

We're working on the section of the play where everybody finally knows the situation. The wives know, the husbands know, and each knows that the others know... that they are (as far as they all know!) not in fact married at all. Now they need to deal with the emotional fallout of this possibility.

Annie is ecstatic - she glimpses potential freedom. Clara is furious - this simply bears out her existing low opinion of her husband's intelligence.

And Maria? Maria is uncharacteristically distraught. She's moved from relief that there is an explanation for her husband's strange behaviour, and determination to reclaim her mantle as The Perfect Hostess; but now she is faced with the possibility that her husband may actually feel differently about her due to the long-past (forgive the language) bureaucratic cock-up.

Thinking about this from the standpoint of my own (happy) marriage, I realised just how huge this is. If my own delightful husband of seventeen years' standing were discovered to be not my husband because of a technicality, we'd both laugh it off, rectify it, and dine out on the story. (Listening to the recording of our marriage service, it's actually true that the octogenarian priest who married us did not actually use the words 'they are now husband and wife', so...) However, if, as a result of this discovery, he turned round and said - in Joe's words - 'I won't tell you a lie, love... ever since I've known I'm not married I've felt most peculiar' - my world would fall apart.

Working through this difficult scene - with all the comedy it also contains - I commented "I didn't expect to find myself back in Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf..." - my favourite role ever, back in 2009. In fact, that play is a drama-with-comedy - albeit a deeply black type of comedy; this is a comedy-with-drama. In both cases, that's what makes the plays so strong.

Polonius attempts to categorise the Players' style, and ends up with "tragical-comical-historical-pastoral". I reckon that's a fair description of many plays. Priestley calls this 'A Yorkshire Farcical Comedy', giving no clue about emotional challenges that lie within; but without those challenges, the characters would be far less believable. Many of my favourite theatrical experiences - as performer or as audience - have been those that leave the audience unsure whether to laugh or cry. Let's face it, in real life, we tend to do both in equal measure.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Playing 'Mornington Crescent'

You know about Mornington Crescent, of course. That insane, convincing, completely nonsensical creation of the team of I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue on BBC Radio 4. None of us know (for the very good reason that there are, of course, no rules) exactly how one does move around the network of the London Underground to be the first one to reach Mornington Crescent and claim the winning post.

It struck me that this is a pretty good image for the mapping of emotions that's going on in this play. Yes, it's a lighthearted comedy; but each of us moves from (as it were) station to station, crossing over, swapping places and changing direction - sometimes abruptly, but sometimes (if you'll forgive the laboured comparison) you can see it coming like an oncoming train.

We've started to work on the second act: the three wives await their husbands' return from wherever-they've-gone. Then they hear where they've gone. Then the husbands return. Then the husbands flee 'to talk'. Then the wives hear why the husbands have been behaving so strangely. Their reactions to the absence, to the explanation given by the maid ("they wanted to have a nice quiet talk, so they went down to their club"), to the men's arrival, and to Mrs Northrop's revelation about the reality of the situation (as far as they know at that stage in the play) - all provoke quite different emotional journeys.

When Genevieve asked us how we were feeling at a particular point, I answered with a very simplistic summing up - and suddenly realised that, on my own behalf at least, I was completely wrong. Maria isn't devastated and tearful to understand the social disaster that has arisen; she is far more relieved by the fact that there is an explanation for the extraordinary recent behaviour of her husband. The difference in interpretation - from tearful and distressed to relieved and practical - changes my character's presence completely at that point. Finding herself at, as it were, Oxford Circus instead of Charing Cross!

I have to say that it's also a great relief to find the number of layers to these women. If they could be summed up in one word ("dictatorial", "submissive", "argumentative", "tearful", "distraught" or whatever) - they'd be terribly boring to play. Instead, Priestley gives us very real people with all the shades of grey that implies; and that's much more fun.

Of course, it still leaves open to debate which of us will reach Mornington Crescent first...

(Thanks to this rather excellent website for a view of the London Underground as it would have been in 1908 - the year in which When we are married is set.)

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Cackle and crash

This is what I love about rehearsals.

My first entrance - first line - is "That Mrs Northrop. When she's done her washing-up tonight, she goes - and goes for good." We figured out that Mrs N had presumably really annoyed me in some way just before we arrive on stage ("crammed with high tea"), rattling Maria's normal composure as hostess. As such, we've asked Mrs Northrop to cackle at us from offstage (she's later referred to as "laughin' to herself like a proper barmpot"). Jude's wonderful Wyrd Sisters impression was quite enough to send me on stage in a state of agitation...

This first entrance of our three married couples, straight from their celebratory tea, needed a bit of noise and chaos. We weren't, however, quite expecting one of our number (I shall spare their considerable blushes) to fall over the crate presently housing the bottles and glasses for use later in the scene... but the funny thing is that it did rather create the right atmosphere!

Having consolidated the work done in the last few evenings on Act I, we've moved on to reading, then initially moving, the start of Act II. The men are in big trouble. They went off to t'Club - in the middle of our anniversary party... And when they return, they don't seem to have a satisfactory explanation. So we freeze them out. Well, wouldn't you?

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Arrival of a Southerner

Having spent the last few rehearsals wrestling with the (to most of us) unfamiliar Northern accent, it was quite a change in dynamic to work on the section of the play that involves the 'la-di-dah' interloper from the South. The young upstart of a new organist at Chapel, Gerald, is the character who blows the whole problem wide open. With his 'bright young thing' confidence and refusal to be undermined by the 'old school', he turns the world of the three couples upside-down.

There was a contrast evident in the speed and pace: Yorkshire/Southern, age/youth. Even at this early stage, it's a great thing to see happening, with a combination of direction and actors' instinct.

My own personal challenge will be to maintain pace of performance without losing the 'steady, respectable' nature of my character - and at the same time, keeping that 'respectability' without compromising Maria's undeniable strength of character and humour. Watching Lawrence & Becca, as Gerald & Nancy, I rather envied the energy and freedom they were able to bring to the stage!

It will also be interesting to see, as the play progresses (we've only reached the end of Act 1 so far) how those dynamics change between the older characters as their situation is removed from its haven of safe respectability, and the old rules no longer apply...

Friday, 8 June 2012

On our feet

Back to the Hog in Armour upstairs room, and we're on our feet. The couples are joined by Ruby (the maid) and Mrs Northrop (the char).

It becomes very evident just how much character can be expressed through a simple seating arrangement or move. Excluding characters from discussions, allying oneself with the dominant character in the room, sitting in such a way that someone else is prevented from joining you; all done without a word of script.

Vitally, Genevieve very seldom tells the performers to move to a particular spot. More likely, we'll be challenged about 'what's going on', and the positions become obvious. If one doesn't work, we'll try another.

Oh, and what are we supposed to do with our port glasses when there's a knock at the door? We don't want the Yorkshire Argus to catch the Councillor and the Alderman imbibing...

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Talking couples; and actioning

We've now decided which woman is playing which wife. Julie, as Clara Soppitt, has the delightful task of hen-pecking poor Matthew; Kiera, as Annie Parker, is on the receiving end of the bullying attentions of Robin; and as Maria Helliwell, yours truly will spar with James, but maintaining - we think - honours approximately even.

The couples meet in the Charing Cross Centre to start to work through our introductory scene. After an initial readthrough, we begin to discuss the situation we find ourselves in. These three couples are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary: is this actually a cause for celebration? The main reason for marking the occasion seems to be less a celebration of love and more of determination and longevity. We wonder what on earth Annie saw in the bullying Albert, and whether poor Herbert had any say in his relationship with Clara - or whether the dynamic has changed across twenty-five years.

There is laughter at the anecdote of a diamond wedding anniversary involving a (shall we say) difficult gentleman and his long-suffering wife. "Imagine being married to him for sixty years. You only get twelve for murder." When the laughter dies down, we all look rather stricken and say "Actually, that's very sad..."

The relationships are given a new set of possibilities when Genevieve introduces us to 'actioning': a neat way of identifying, using one descriptive word, what precisely the character intends to say in a particular phrase. Too detailed to use on an entire play (at least, when we're limited in rehearsal time as we are), it's clear that it is nonetheless useful if we have difficulty with the integrity of a line or a situation.

For example, my own second line - complaining about Mrs Northrop, the charlady - is broken down thus:

(warns) Trouble with her is -
(exposes) she likes a drop -
(confides) I've smelt it before today.

Change the actioning verb, change the whole colour (and intention) of the line. Useful.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

First readthrough

The upstairs function room at The Hog In Armour; the room itself is a bit gloomy for reading the script for (in some cases) the first time, so we use the bar area instead.

Most of the fifteen members of the cast are there, with a bit of judicious reading-in - not least by Lucy, who just happened to be in the pub when we arrived. The three wives - Annie, Clara and Maria - don't at this stage know which one will be playing which, so we switch roles across the three acts. Suggestion made in the bar afterwards that we could always share all three roles ("if it's Saturday, I'm playing Annie") but this is rapidly dismissed as a bad idea by the actresses in question.

Yorkshire accents of varying consistency and accuracy abound, and we are relieved to know that a dialect coach will be available. Judi, of course, playing Lottie, has the advantage of hailing from Wakefield to begin with...

And so it begins.