Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Apologia

I read today that Theresa May is waging war on modern slavery. "The world must act" she says, "to stamp it out." Lovely little smoke screen there to divert attention away from her government's catastrophic Brexit negotiations. Like any one is going to deny that modern day slavery doesn't need to be expunged. It's a bit like waging war on murder, and needs to be viewed as the cynical smoke screen that it is. What I also feel obliged to write is that, if the definition of modern day slavery is that a person's basic human rights have been removed, May needs to take a good hard look at her decision to get into bed with the DUP. She's such a ghastly, evil woman.

This evening we went to see Stockard Channing and Lady Edith from Downton Abbey in Apologia at the Trafalgar Studios. I don't actually know when I last went to see a piece of straight theatre, so it was quite a treat to get back into that particular saddle. So what can I say about the piece? The set design was exquisite. The lighting complimented the design perfectly. The writing was, in the main, good. I sometimes got a little tired of the somewhat transparent way in which monologue sequences were set up. The writing, in places was a little unconvincing, and I felt that one of the characters, a soap actress, had been handed a plethora of really dodgy lines. The writer had imbued that character with more cynicism and wisdom than her years would dictate, and a far fruitier vocabulary than I believe she would have had in real life. The result was a character with no redeeming features whatsoever, which felt lazy. The rest of the cast were lovely. Laura Carmichael had been handed the somewhat thankless task of playing a born again American Christian, but managed to make the character really very likeable, and Desmond Barrit played an ageing hippy homosexual with exquisite comic timing.

Watching Stockard Channing on stage was a deep, deep thrill. Of course the auditorium was full of gay men. She is unbelievably popular with my sort on account of having played Rizzo in Grease. Don't ask me what it is about sassy characters like Rizzo that the gays like so much, but I'm sure a great deal of it was due to the genius of Channing who was actually 33 when she played the teenaged role.

Her performance tonight was honest, understated, psychological, intelligent, and, right at the end, heart-breaking. From the moment she walked on stage you somehow knew you were in the presence of greatness. It was a mammoth role, but you instantly knew you were in a safe pair of hands. She played a highly complex character: a woman who had been engulfed by sixties radicalism to the extent that she had possibly chosen that world over the happiness of her children, who, as grown men, were taking pot shots at her left, right and centre. It was a testament to Channing's remarkable acting skills that the audience were able to remain on her side throughout. As she took her bow, obviously exhausted, I realised how lucky I was to have seen acting royalty in such a tiny theatre. It was a hugely thought-provoking and magical evening.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Jewish new year

I was back at the synagogue yesterday for another rehearsal. We're entering a really important and holy period in the Jewish calendar, namely the Jewish New Year, and there are myriad services of atonement and celebration, all of which require music. One of the big complications is that, although Jewish religious services are built on a foundation of song, on Shabbat, if you're orthodox, you're not actually allowed to play instruments, so everything has to be sung unaccompanied. Perhaps because of this, and because Judaism is a dwindling religion, very few composers and music makers have paid a great deal of attention to this issue and this means the music which IS there is often barely fit for purpose. There's the "Blue Book", which is a Victorian creation filled with psalms and such. It has not been updated, so all the music is written in ancient Hebrew which means a modern day singer is constantly having to change vowel sounds and exchange s's for t's. It's also written for mixed male and female voices, which means, in a modern day orthodox context where all choirs are male-only, singers are forced to change keys and octaves left right and centre, and this can lead to a fair amount of sonic muddiness. To make matters worse, the original compilers' desire to save paper, has meant that the music is a confusing mass of tonic-sol-fah notation with the lyrics to different verses, none of which have the same metre, crammed underneath the soprano line. All of this makes sight reading almost impossible. My heart sinks when I see something which has been photocopied from the Blue Book. What should be a walk in the park is destined to become a traumatic crawl across No Man's Land!

There was an open day going on at the synagogue when we arrived yesterday and a few people were milling about looking at the building's beautiful Victorian architecture. For me the greatest sadness is that every time I show up to a synagogue, a huge number of security people are standing outside, checking bags, asking questions and generally converting what should be a warm and inviting experience into something which is laced with suspicion. It's a reminder of how many people out there have issues with Jewish people and how unsafe the community has been made to feel in recent years. I could be wrong, but I'm really not sure I've ever seen security people outside a church, or indeed, a mosque. How awful that this very small, totally unthreatening community is forced to worship under such extreme circumstances.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Costwolds for five hours

Yesterday started very early indeed with a 8.45am rehearsal at shul. I bought a bottle of water from a corner shop en route and was asked by the man behind the counter if I wanted a bag. Surely the point of a bag is to carry more than one object? Water bottles aren't exactly hard objects to hold! In a different corner shop, on the same street, earlier in the week, under remarkably similar circumstances, I was asked if I wanted a "small bag." What? As opposed to a bin liner? Surely I can rely on a shop keeper's wisdom to offer a bag which is the right size for my purchase? He or she doesn't really need to bring me into the decision process about the size of bag I'm getting. Or perhaps she was trying to tell me that my purchase wasn't worthy of anything other than a small bag and therefore, if I was hankering for a bag which I'd also be able to put my music folder into, I was going to be sorely disappointed? These thoughts troubled me as I walked to the shul.

Yesterday was the first time I was due to sing as part of a quartet with only one person singing each line. There was therefore a lot of pressure on my shoulders. The last time I'd sung in shul there were two of us on each part so I was able to coast a bit and rely on the other bass, James, to pitch the odd crazy interval or sing the more tongue-twistery lyrics!

Singing in shul is a really lovely experience. I spend so much of my creative time in high-pressure environments, with one hand on a stop clock or frantically orchestrating under headphones whilst people are enjoying the bonding sensation of rehearsing and performing. It's a genuine pleasure to have no other task than simply to sing and to know you're well-prepared enough to be able to relax and have a cup of tea instead of panicking between numbers. The other singers are friendly and great fun to be around, and one of them, Gabriel, was an absolute godsend, keeping me on track and whispering things in my ear like "there's a perfect cadence sung to Amen coming up" and "now we all face the wall..." Gabriel and I know each other of old. He was the boyfriend of my dear friend Hilary back in the day.

I felt as though I held my own throughout the service and was secretly rather pleased with myself. A bar mitzvah was happening as part of the proceedings which meant we got to witness the curious and wonderful sight of the entire congregation lobbing hard-boiled sweets at the lad who was entering adulthood. It's quite a hard core moment. The lad was forced to duck and protect his head as the sweets flew at him, with force, in their hundreds.

After the service, Michael and I went along the Portobello Road. It was my brother's birthday yesterday and I wanted to get him something nice. Michael had spoken highly about a little boutique where they sell all sorts of quirky glass and ceramic statement pieces. My brother has a fabulous collection of colourful glass, and I found him a bright orange decanter to add to it. Portobello Road, as you might expect, was buzzing with excited tourists having their pictures taken in front of street signs and the colourful houses down there. I wondered how many of them were fans of Bedknobs and Broomsticks... or Notting Hill come to think of it. The whole place is highly chi-chi these days with artisan bakeries and coffee shops on every corner, a far cry from the grotty street market we visited as children where I bought a scarf with piano keys on it as an ode to Bruno from Fame, and my brother got mugged!

Hovering over the district, Grenfell Tower reminds us that there's more to the area than this new influx of yuppies and yummy mummy. My heart still sinks when it looms into view, particularly at night time, when it becomes a pitch black, bleak silhouette against the sky.

I jumped in a car in the early afternoon and drove to a little Oxfordshire town called Burford, or more specifically a tiny village on the outskirts of said town called Little Barrington, which I think is over the border in Gloucestershire. I haven't really spent a great deal of time in the Cotswolds although my mother tells me we went there often as children. It's a stunningly beautiful part of the world. The landscape undulates with little villages and towns sitting neatly in the dells. Little Barrington itself is very charming and rather ancient, and filled with rows of 18th Century stone cottages which surround a winter-born stream and a rather "moundy" village green.

The parents and Edward and Sascha had hired a little cottage with Sascha's parents, Hans and Joey, who were over from South Africa. It was lovely to finally meet them and they seemed incredibly charming. Hans had brought some very classy bottles of wine to England with him which everyone but Joey and me polished off with great alacrity, purring and cooing like fans of wine tend to. I was surprised to hear them describing the wine as "crisp" and "fruity" rather than as "stomach bile" which is how we all secretly know it tastes. We ate in a lovely gastro pub before returning to the little cottage for Dutch hot chocolate. By the end of the night my brother and my Mum were decidedly tipsy. My brother became obsessed with linguistics, which is his drunken default, and my Mum was telling stories about her own mother.

I drove back to London late at night, stopping, as I love to do, at a service station which, as usual, made me feel very happy!

Friday, 15 September 2017

Flash fires

London appears to be quaking in the wake of yet another dreadful attack. This one, fortunately, has killed no one. We're told that the home-made bomb, planted on a District Line tube train, didn't detonate properly and caused a flash fire instead of an explosion, which means most of the victims have superficial burns. Had the bomb gone off as intended, many would have died. The police have defined it as a terrorist attack. I don't know how they can be so sure. It could simply be the work of some nut job jumping on the current bandwagon. For something to be defined as terrorism, an ideology needs to be established. Terrorism shouldn't be lazily defined as "that which causes terror." Until police can establish who did this, and why, they have no right to call it an act of terrorism.

London, of course, keeps calm and carries on. I don't get a sense of any degree of rising panic. The media are doing their best to whip us up, but I think we've all decided to be stoic instead. Stoic and a bit bored of it all. As Andy Hamilton said on the news quiz tonight, "I think we're all outraged-out."

I was rather touched to hear stories on the news about those who'd witnessed the attack providing support for one another. Strangers in London very rarely so much as acknowledge one another, let alone go out of their way to look after each other. I'm beginning to think that the terrorists are doing us a massive favour and bringing us all closer together. How ironic!








Thursday, 14 September 2017

TV musicals? What TV musicals?

These illnesses always go on just slightly longer than a man can endure don't they? Mine is following an almost identical pattern to Nathan's, who now seems better, so I'm hoping it will pass through my system soon enough. The high levels of stress continue, however. I drove to Oxford yesterday for a quiz and spent most of the night experiencing adrenaline bolts shooting through my upper chest, which is just ludicrous. I could, of course, go to see my GP, but the curse of the freelancer is that I'll simply be told I need to take some time off work and, of course, if I do that, my stress levels will rise further, largely because I won't be getting paid to do anything! It's all very dull. I wish I had the energy to knuckle down at the start of a day and just plough through. Maybe tomorrow...

There's nothing else to say for today. I heard from a TV exec this afternoon who tells me that no one wants to put any musical dramas on telly any more. There's a weird, and (in my view) somewhat arrogant, belief that there's not an audience for them. Largely, one assumes because the execs are all too cool for school. What upsets me is that you can only really say there's no audience for a specific genre of telly drama if there have been lots of examples of it which have flopped. Because musical dramas aren't actually put on the telly, no one knows if there would be an audience for them. My message to any TV commissioners reading this: Take a punt! But whatever you do, don't waste time on cynical projects where you're producing dramas you THINK might appeal to a specific demographic, or an audience you feel you ought to be trying to attract. Don't tell your writers they have to justify people bursting into song by using dream sequences. People sing in musicals. Get over it. Just let someone write something from the heart and it'll find its audience soon enough.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Shit day

I have to say that I'll be very pleased when today is over. It's been a fairly miserable one from start to finish, and to cap it all off, it's pissing down with rain.

I'm still not well. I've got a headache now on top of an upset stomach. I've spent the day learning music for Synagogue but still managed to feel like a hick from the sticks in rehearsal this evening. All the other vocalists seem to be hugely well-versed in both public singing, blagging it and singing in Hebrew. I just have to keep chipping away at it, but every second I spend learning music takes me away from this obscene list of things I have to achieve in other corners of my life. It's a horrible mess.

To make matters worse, my agent called today to tell me that the When The Wind Blows project was pretty much dead in the water on account of no one having the foggiest idea who own the rights. The situation is so complicated that people have simply started to wash their hands of it and are just waiting for me to go away! I guess the phone call was the universe telling me to throw in the towel.

The day ended with me locking myself out. I left my keys on the kitchen table. Nathan was out. I sat miserably underneath the awning of a local pub, going through my bag again and again in case the keys were hiding somewhere. Thank God for Fiona's perspicacity. I texted her to moan about my predicament and she instantly remembered that I'd given a set of keys to little Welsh Nathalie downstairs when we went away. Thankfully Nathalie was in and so the crisis was mercifully averted.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Asking the universe

I spent most of yesterday lying on the sofa wondering why on earth I was feeling so profoundly wiped out. To begin with I thought it was the weather. It was wet and cold. But then, as I stumbled to the kitchen to switch the heating on, I realised I was ill. Proper ill. There's something going round. Nathan's been ill. My brother's been ill. My dad's had something which has the same set of somewhat grim symptoms. It's a sort of stomach virus thing. Not very nice.

Today was all about chipping away at a list of things to do which covers two A4 pages. For an example of the magnitude of my task ahead, one of the points on the list reads "learn music for Yom Kippur." There are 200 pages! There are also 200 pages of music for Kol Nidrei, which is another service at the synagogue I'm singing in. Then there's quiz mastering, prepping for the Em album recording, general admin and sorting material for the show choir. It seems a portfolio existence requires a fair amount of delicate balancing!

That's really all there is to say. I had a meeting this afternoon and enjoyed walking back to the tube through Soho. There was a thunder storm this evening with lots of lightning and we had pizza for tea whilst watching episodes of the X Factor from the weekend. That's it.

Actually, that's not quite it. Five days ago, I realised I had lost the silver elephant which I have worn around my neck every day for the past fifteen years. One day, when I'm not feeling so ropey, I will offer readers of this blog the full story. The elephant, which is called Little Great Alne, has a huge amount of significance for me because it provides me with a link to my mother, my Auntie Gill and both of my brothers. When I'm feeling low, or when I am telling people about the story of finding my brother, Tim, I often realise I'm holding or touching the elephant.

I have been really very upset about losing her (or him - Little Great Alne is gender fluid!) I have looked everywhere. I even started pulling the washing machine apart when Tanya was staying. Anyway, I finally told my mother today that I'd lost him and I could sense that she was really upset on my behalf. My mother is a great believer in the power of the universe, so I was hoping she'd throw a bit of energy out there which might encourage Little Great Alne to come home.

Two hours after the conversation, Nathan appeared in the sitting room, asked me to close my eyes and hold out my hand, and promptly placed a very familiar silver object in my palm. Little Great Alne was apparently on our bedroom floor in a hugely obviously place where it's almost inconceivable we wouldn't have looked over the past five days. Plainly she'd been on an adventure. I hope she's had a fabulous time, but I'm not sure I want her to go gallivanting again any time soon.

Perhaps there really is something in this idea of putting it out there to the world. Seek and ye shall find?

...And if the universe is in a listening mood, there's something I would desperately like it to help me with. I mist prefix this by saying I normally try not to jinx creative projects by announcing them before they're signed, sealed and delivered, but this one is languishing and needs a jolt forward...

For the past two years I have been in conversations with the remarkable author, Raymond Briggs about the idea of turning his chilling and deeply moving graphic novel, When the Wind Blows, into a musical. The novel tells the story of a retired couple, Hilda and Jim Bloggs, and a nuclear bomb. It's a story which holds deep significance for me. My mother was a keen CND activist and I directed the play version as a student, with actor Richard Coyle playing Jim.

To cut a two-year story short, Raymond himself wants me to create the musical version, a theatre has offered to commission and premiere the piece, both Raymond's agent and my agent are working tirelessly to try to make it happen but Penguin, who hold the rights to the book, don't seem to be able to give us the go ahead. And so we sit and we wait...

Meanwhile, the threat of nuclear war ricochets around the world. There has never been a more important time to revisit the show and I am devastated that we're being prevented from moving forward by what appears to be nothing but official paperwork. And I'm afraid I'm finally losing hope and this makes me incredibly sad.

So what do you say, universe? Will you offer me a much-needed helping hand?