Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Trapped in an alley!

I was astonished to wake up this morning to the news that, in the wake of the dreadful events in Manchester, people are taking to twitter and inventing relatives who were in the MEN Arena last night simply to get social media hits. I'm somewhat ashamed to live in a society where people would value social media so much, that the truth of what they're writing becomes of less concern than the number of hits they're generating. What is the point of fake news? What makes someone want to make news up? It all seems very bizarre to me.

I tried to leave my house this morning, but, ever since the bastard at the other end of my terrace decided that one of the entrances to the alleyway we use to access our flats was his to fence off, we've had to deal with the fact that there's actually only one way out. I'd always imagined how awful it would be if one of the houses further up the hill caught fire, or if there was some sort of gas explosion, because if anything blocked off the very small entrance to our end of the alleyway, we'd be royally shafted.

And so, this morning, I came to understand quite how shafted that was, when, at 8.30am, I stumbled upon a set of comically awful builders who were trying to get some sort of heavy machinery down the footpath. The machinery had become stuck and access to the street was entirely blocked off. "How long will you be?" I asked. They shrugged, "ten minutes?" "But I have to get to work!" I said. Another shrug.

I stood, somewhat helplessly, for some time, until a man came sauntering up the alleyway behind me. "Do you want to come through my shop?" He asked. He then led me back down the alleyway and into the garden of our next door neighbour's house before ushering me though his shop, which, incidentally, sells baths.

The commute into rehearsals seems to be getting worse. I think perhaps I'm leaving later every day, and therefore making myself more and more likely to encounter the rush hour crush. It's hot, smelly and sweaty, and commuters are brutal to one another. There's rage just underneath the surface in all of them. And on the days after terrorist attacks it feels so profoundly counter-intuitive to be shoved in cattle trucks darting underground like that.

A homeless man passed through the carriage this morning. Begging in this manner has become quite the fashion in the last ten or so years. In the olden days it was passive, doe-eyed Romanian women with cardboard signs or curious little packets of tissues, but these days, people are far more confrontational. They get on the tube and make announcements, pleading for compassion, usually asking for a few pence for the cost of a hostel for the night. It's always incredibly sad but also such a regular occurrence that it becomes utterly impossible to engage with. I, like most of the other people on the train, bury myself in a newspaper or a computer and fundamentally reenforce the homeless person's lack of self worth. One of the dreadful things about living in a city is that you're often forced to leave your compassion at the front door because the energy you require simply to remain sane in the dog-eat-dog world requires every last drop of energy. Engage with those around you and you become furious, so most simply attempt to zone out.

I was, however, somewhat surprised to see today's homeless person attempting to beg in a carriage which was so full that he was physically having to push people aside in order to pass through. Surely, there are more productive times of the day to beg?

Rehearsals for Em took off big time this week after the arrival of our choreographer and our new musical director, Ben, who worked with me on the original production of Brass. It's been such a thrill to have him back in the space, and he's been making all the right noises about the score, which, I realised today, is such an important thing for a writer to hear. There's always the little voice in the back of one's head which tries to tell a writer that he's not very good.

It's a very happy rehearsal space. Hannah is a brilliant leader and the only tensions so far have been inconsequential and about silly things like photocopying. It turns out that our choreographer's partner actually knew my Grandmother. Rather well as it happens. They lived in the same tiny Warwickshire village. In fact, I vaguely remember him from my distant childhood. It's these sorts of coincidences which remind me that this is a project worth doing and a piece which will have great meaning to people.

Today I worked as an accent coach, teaching two of the cast how to speak in a Northants/ Warwickshire accent. Apparently the vocal coach had told them they could just speak with a posh "neutral" voice to represent Midlands-based characters, which made my blood boil so much, that I stepped in and delivered a little master class of my own. It struck me today quite how bizarre some of the vowel sounds are in that part of the world. They always seem so natural to me, but when you start trying to get someone saying the "u" in words like Rugby and funny or the "i" sound in "like", you realise there is nothing similar anywhere else in the UK. Unfortunately, once I start talking like that, I find it quite difficult to stop! I was hugely impressed by the ears of the girls working with me. Lizzie in particular, did a sterling job and we have a New Zealander called Niamh whom I think is also going to crack it. I keep meaning to tell them what good stead it will set them in when they audition for Kinky Boots. Which is set in Northampton, by the way. Not that you'd notice by listening the accents most of the cast choose to talk in!

Stay safe

I'm afraid I don't much feel like blogging tonight after hearing the news from Manchester. There really are no words to be said after an event like that other than that one day good will prevail over evil. 

My husband is in Manchester. He is safe. Many others will still be panicking about loved ones. I am yet to hear from my brother. I doubt he would have been at that concert but you just never know. I don't think I know much about the world any more.

Night night.

Sunday, 21 May 2017


It's funny how our bodies have an innate sense of time isn't it? For the past week, I've been setting my alarm for 7.15am, and, every day so far, I've woken up naturally just before the alarm goes off. Yesterday morning, I was lucky enough to be able to sleep in until the ripe old time of 8.45am, but, when I woke up naturally, I glanced down at my phone and was not entirely surprised to see that it was exactly 7.15am. How does a brain do that? The implication here is that our subconscious always knows exactly what time it is. It's something I find utterly fascinating because it makes me wonder what other wisdom or instincts we're storing in there without actually realising.

I went to see a show at Chichester Festival Theatre yesterday. It was called Forty Years On, it starred Richard Wilson and it was written by Alan Bennett exactly fifty years ago. It's a funny old show which feels very didactic, somewhat agit-prop, formless, and, in short, quite 1960s. I'm not exactly sure there's a place for it in 2017, but it was certainly a fascinating piece, exquisitely performed, beautifully directed and hugely enhanced by brilliant music which had been adeptly arranged by Tom Brady whom I met beforehand.

I drove down with Matt Lucas. We got stuck in terrible traffic near Guildford so it all took rather longer than we'd hoped. We had lunch with, amongst others, the charming Daniel Evans (artistic director of the theatre) and actress Sam Spiro, whom I last saw at dear Arnold Wesker's memorial service.

The audience was full of the great and the good, as often happens towards the end of a run of theatre. At one point I was introduced to "another Ben" who turned out to be Ben Wishaw.

The play was set within a boys school and employed the somewhat tired formula of presenting itself as a play within the play. The theatre had opted to use an enormous ensemble of local lads who were probably aged from 11-18. There seemed to be an infinite number. Thirty perhaps. But I'm very proud to report that, often centre stage, and fed quite a number of lines, was our Spin from Brass. Obviously he shone brightly. It was wonderful to see him.

I drove Matt back to London and then spent the evening cocooned on my sofa in a sort of exhausted, yet blissful haze. My first bit of time off in what seems an age.

There's nothing to write about today. Nothing. I worked. I went into Muswell Hill for a walk because I was going stir crazy under headphones. Then I worked again. That was my day.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Wonderful London Mozart Players

I read an article this morning about Miranda Hart, who is about to play Miss Hannigan in a new production of Annie. I'm actually quite a fan of Miranda's. I like her warm, bumbling, jovial, English energy. What I can't for the life of me imagine is her playing the brash, sardonic, belting, Bronxy Miss Hannigan. I'm not altogether sure she has the pipes to deliver a decent vocal performance, and the interview I read with her hardly put my mind at rest. If she turns out to be rubbish, she informs us, we're to blame the musical director, who assured her that he'd be able to get her singing well. That's okay then. As long as being shit is not her fault.

Look, I'm aware that this particular production of Annie is not about getting my particular bum on a seat in that particular theatre. I'm really not in the market for seeing that show... again. I've directed it. I've sat through a million amateur performances of it and seen both films. I'm equally aware that Hannigan has become one of those roles you stunt cast. Paul O'Grady, Kathy Bates and Craig Revel Horwood have all been there. It's one of those roles like Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors which people mistakenly think they can reinterpret without paling into insignificance when compared to the original film interpretation.

Of course, Miranda should be able to take her turn as the grotesque Madame of the orphanage without old theatre queens like me condemning her before she gets out onto the stage. I hope she's absolutely amazing and wins an Olivier. And if she does, I'll applaud her. I guess I simply feel that her casting is indicative of everything which is going wrong in the British musical theatre industry right now. Whether dealing with writers or actors, it seems the risk-averse money people are shying away from those who can actually do the job, in favour of those they think are more likely to put bums on seats. It's just not the same Stateside. There are scores of musical theatre stars on Broadway, who fill houses night after night based on the fact that they are genuine triple threat performers. If Annie were being performed over there, I can almost guarantee a producer would simply open the door to a huge stable of Broadway actresses who'd be able to sing and act the shit out of the role. Linda Eder. Bebe Neuwirth. Joanna Gleason. Bernadette. Patti. I could go on for days. And yet, in the UK, when it comes to musical theatre, we invariably settle for second best.

It's like that in no other UK art form.

We all know that Bucks Fizz star Cheryl Baker did ever so well when she trained her voice to sound operatic on Pop Star to Opera Star, but are they going to invite her to sing Tosca at the Royal Opera House? We know that Katie Derham plays the violin to an okay standard, but would they book her to play the Bruch at the Proms? Of course not. And yet my industry gets watered down in this fairly obscene manner on a daily basis. We don't allow specific musical theatre stars to emerge any more. And, I suppose, that just makes me feel a little sad.

Speaking of opera, we're sharing our rehearsal space with a professional opera company at the moment and the differences between our world and theirs are noticeable. We don't really have a budget for a set on our production of Em, but money doesn't seem to be an issue for the opera lot. We sat and listened to all sorts of bizarre conversations in the kitchen today, one of which involved someone refusing to play anything other than a harp which was made in Romania, and another which involved a man, perhaps the director, asking for an armourer to be brought into rehearsals!

We're meant to have the rehearsal rooms booked until 9pm, but, the young girl who works behind the counter regularly throws me out of the building if I'm the last one left inside. Usually I'm sitting at a table orchestrating music. It obviously doesn't look like work to her. It was particularly frustrating tonight as I had three hours to kill in the London Bridge area whilst waiting for a train to take me to Croydon. I thought how nice it would be to stay in the venue and write, but the woman had different ideas. I think it was when she appeared with a giant padlock on a chain and switched the burglar alarm on that I realised I was no longer welcome! I wouldn't mind if she'd come up to me and said, "you know what, if you leave now, I can be paid for two hours' extra work and get home nice and early." I tend to think if you've paid for exclusive use of a space from 9am until 9pm, you really ought to be able to use it as you wish. In the end I went to a cafe near the station where they were doing a promotion involving free coffee (which was no good for this tea drinker.) I sat down to write and discovered instantly, and to my great chagrin, that they were playing songs on the sound system which all mentioned coffee in some way. Turns out there aren't many decent songs about coffee. It was an excruciating wait!

I went to Croydon to see the world premiere of Fiona's composition, Relationships. It was being performed by the London Mozart Players who have literally just leapt to the top of my all-time favourite ensembles. I have seldom been to a gig which felt better suited to my taste in music. Shostakovich. Brice. Piazolla. I spent the night with a massive grin on my face, feeling proud of Fiona for writing such an epically wonderful piece and feeling the joy radiating from the players who included my friend Anna who played at my wedding and on the requiem. It was a twelve-piece string ensemble, but they made the sound of twenty players. Really brutal, aggressive, theatrical musicianship. The Piazolla Four Seasons is a supreme piece of music and it was so exquisitely performed that, at the end, the audience spontaneously jumped to their feet. There was such a brilliant interaction between the players and us. The concert took place in a bar. The ensemble want to get music out of the concert hall environment, so it meant there were no more than sixty lucky people crammed into the space. I felt genuinely privileged to have been there. It's the most fun I have EVER had watching classical music. Bravos all round.

Croydon's a bit of a mess isn't it? From what I could gather, most of the city centre is derelict or boarded over and filled with a tangled mesh of piss-stinking concrete underpasses and dodgy-looking shopping centres. It feels like a place in trouble. A place with no identity. A place where everyone feels a little on edge. A place which the world conveniently ignores. It is no surprise at all that it was the scene of such dreadful rioting five or so years ago.

But enough negativity. I've had a great night. And I go home a happy, yet shattered man.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Two day more

One mega day down, three more to go! Much as I'm having a fabulous time, my eyes are firmly planted on Saturday night when I have a date with the telly. No one and nothing is going to stop that from happening! Today's rehearsal started at 9am, as they have all week. I usually get up at about 9 o'clock, so waking up at 7 feels unnatural in the extreme. My eyes sting. I sort of stumble around, wondering what's hit me. I know people reading this will be queueing up to say how much earlier than 7am they get up, the implication being that I'm somehow lazy, but early risers hit the sack considerably earlier than I do. In fact, everything in my life starts and ends just that little bit later. I go to bed at 1am. I finish work at 8pm...

I've sat under headphones for much of the day, and still don't feel like I've made the slightest dent in the orchestration I need to do. Fiona is on a similar orchestration deadline, so we're in regular whinging contact by phone. The panic is definitely rising slightly.

I've been in a suit all day on account of the fact that I was booked in to run a quiz this evening. The venue for the quiz wasn't actually a million miles away from where we are rehearsing. It should have been a joyful thirty-minute walk, but the weather was so shocking that I was forced to take a bus instead, literally running like a loon to the stop and then to the quiz venue when I got to the other side of the river.

I was terrified about the quiz. I didn't get to prep any of the questions and was nervous at the prospect of making a fool of myself. I always become utterly dyspraxic when I get in front of a large crowd, and can get very tongue-tied as a result. As it happened I needn't have worried. The quiz was being run by the LGBT group within a major bank, and so I was very much amongst family. I could camp it up a bit. I could be a bit cheeky. I could crack gay jokes. At one point I actually got a round of applause for telling them about my experience of voting for the first time in a general election. It was 1997 and I was the partner of the person I was voting for. Obviously it was Stephen who actually took Michael Portillo's seat and in the process became the first openly gay man to be elected to Parliament, but I'm always rather proud to have played the tiniest part in that story. I think they really liked the anecdote and liked my honesty, and, really, it's easy to forget that there are industries in this country where it's not as possible to be honest and open about sexuality. I was perhaps quite refreshing in that regard. 

So the quiz went rather well, actually only marred slightly by the fact that, half way through the evening, the elastic went in my boxer shorts and they immediately dropped half way down my leg. Obviously I was wearing trousers, so no one would have noticed, but it was a very curious sensation! I kept subtly trying to pull them up again. Abbie went into hysterics when I told her what had been going on!


We're rehearsing in a really quiet corner of Borough. The area is full of old Victorian terraces and tenements but is some distance from any major road. It's almost eerily quiet out on the street. Cats sit silently in the open windows of ground floor flats. A squirrel was tottering about yesterday, despite there being no trees anywhere in the vicinity. The little fella seemed rather inquisitive. I've always entertained a little fantasy which features a random squirrel coming and sitting on my shoulder and being so tame and needy that I have to take him home with me, where he lives in the kitchen and hops out onto the tree outside the window whenever he feels the need to reconnect with nature. Is this maybe a little odd?

We're in full-time rehearsals for Em now. Hannah spent the day yesterday introducing the young cast to themes from the show and encouraging them to open up about their lives and feelings on various associated themes. In the meantime I'm trying to get cracking on the show's orchestrations, but over the next few days I'm dealing with a variety of social and quiz engagements which I arranged to do before realising quite how up against it I was going to be. None of them are things I can, or even want to cancel. In fact, the two social things are things I'm really excited about. The problem is that they're all adding to the growing stress levels. As the pressures sink down, what I'm finding myself entirely unable to deal with is anything even remotely resembling faff. More than two emails, texts or conversations about the same subject make me panic, particularly if there's nothing I can do about the situation.

At the same time I think one of my wisdom teeth is coming through! I actually thought I'd had all my wisdom teeth removed in my early twenties, but, over the last couple of years, it's become apparent that the top two have either grown back or were never actually removed. Though the latter is more likely, the former would make a cracking case study in Orthodontics Now! Whatever the case, I periodically get a sense that there's some activity going on, as the one on the left tries to introduce itself to the world, whilst simultaneously pushing all of his friends in curious directions. It's just what you want when you're over-worked. All I actually want to do is eat doughnuts and sleep.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Cathy Come Home

At the moment I'm exhausted. There are no other words to describe it. Rehearsals are in full flight, but, as a one-man-band writer and composer, this is the time at which I start to feel stretched like an old piece of knicker elastic. I have to orchestrate the show but I also need to be on hand to make changes to the script and score. Sometimes all I actually want to do is sit at the back of a rehearsal room and observe Hannah and the team adeptly overseeing the birth of my child. Instead, I suspect I'm going to be spending much of the coming week in the kitchen of our rehearsal space with headphones on. Beyond the Fence flashbacks!

We had a read-through of the script this morning with the full cast. If any of them were angry or sad not to get a particular role, they certainly didn't let it show. Thing is, there's no such thing as a small role in a Hannah Chissick show, and Em is a very ensemble-heavy show, so everyone's gonna have something they can get their teeth into.

This afternoon we watched the seminal 1966 BBC film, Cathy Come Home. Though essentially a piece about homelessness set in the south of England, there are story strands which link it to Em. Ken Loach, who directed the film, is actually a Midlander. In fact, he was one of my father's neighbours in Nuneaton.

Em is a great deal more lighthearted than Cathy Come Home, which, though a masterpiece, is a brutal and relentlessly bleak one. It must have had the most astounding impact when it was aired in the mid 1960s. Hannah and I spent the evening tonight texting each other about haunting images from the film. I learned today that the homeless charity, Shelter, was set up as a result of the film.

What worries me greatly, however, is that I can sense this country heading back to those brutal days. We still have a major housing crisis, and, with the government intent on destroying the NHS and our benefits system, we could well end up with an underclass of people who are helpless to pick themselves up out of the mire. Frankly, there but for the grace of God go we all. I actually spend a lot of time worrying about my old age for this very reason. I just don't think the state will look after me when I've stopped being able to look after myself.