Saturday, 27 August 2016

The London Premiere

I arrived in Hackney this morning to be greeted by the all-pervading stench of skunk. Mind you, Highgate was high with the smell last night. Perhaps the hot weather brings it out of people's pores. Perhaps I'm smelling some sort of tree pollen!

We've had an insanely busy day. We finished tech'ing the show in the morning and spent the afternoon doing a dress rehearsal of Act One. All went well. I have seldom been happier working on a show. The very fact that the entire creative team spent the lunch break happily eating sandwiches on the steps of the town hall, joking and laughing, probably tells you as much as you need to know. Hannah, Sam and Alex have been genuinely fabulous to work with.

I got very nervous before the show tonight, partially because we'd not managed to do a dress rehearsal for act two, and partially because I was feeling the enormity of the occasion. I couldn't eat. I got all jittery and turned into a right Chatty Cathy. I drank a gin and tonic to calm myself down. I shan't make a habit of doing that when I'm feeling on edge! I'll feel awful tomorrow.

As I've come to expect from this astounding cast, they all rose to the occasion during the performance to an almost epic degree. I have seldom seen such a high degree of focus from a group of actors. Ben Jones' Brass stopped hearts. Laura Barnard was subtle, nuanced and sang like a bird. Kitty Watson literally shone with the sun. Spin destroyed large swathes of the audience. Matt Pettifor made me proud to be a Midlander. Anna Cookson made me cry. Everyone was brilliant. I was relieved and grateful. The audience responded wonderfully. There were riotous cheers at the end of each of the numbers. You could have heard a pin drop in the quiet sections, and there was a stunned silence as we went into the interval. I don't think I've ever felt such shock radiating from an audience! The only other sound coming from the crowd was the sound of sniffing, and, at times, open weeping!

The theatre felt packed and there was a spontaneous and full standing ovation immediately as the show ended. Hilary was in the audience and said that she'd never felt so compelled to leap to her feet at the end of a show. It was incredibly moving to look up at the circle and see everyone up there on their feet as well. As the band played out, a surge of people rushed to the front of the auditorium to look into the orchestra pit and applaud the players. These kind of shows can so often become about the cast, but the quality of musicianship bursting from those young players is so high that they become every bit the stars of the show as well.

Tweeted plaudits started to pile in immediately after the curtain came down. James Hadley, from MTN said "Brass had the audience weeping before and after the interval. What an incredible WW1 tribute."

Jonathan Baz, a top critic, said it was "fine and stirring."

Mark Shenton, who is probably the most influential musical theatre critic in the UK, described the show as a "magnificent miracle of a musical" and instructed people to "run not walk" to the Hackney Empire to see it. He went on to tweet that "Brass is one of the best musicals from the front line I've ever seen. An evening of gripping power. Stunningly performed."

So I reckon we've all done pretty well and can take a big old pat on our backs. A massive thank you to anyone reading this blog who has helped with Brass at any stage along its journey. Now if we could only get that west end transfer organised. I might start to feel big headed if my T-shirt didn't smell of biscuits again!

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Hottest tech in the world

I woke up in a foul mood today. I'm not really sure why. I stayed up late last night trying to work on a pitch for another project which is a million miles away from Brass, and has to be finished by Sunday. The whole thing is stressing me out royally. I'm trying to write the music on trains and tubes, but they're always crowded and deeply uncomfortable, even late at night, and the journeys are too short to achieve anything meaningful. The curse of the freelancer is a complete inability to relax. I'm always forced to keep one eye on the future. One eye on the next potential project.

I arrived in Hackney bright and early this morning and was cheered up considerably by an Asian shop keeper. "Have a nice Thursday!" He said, handing me my change. "You too," I said. "Let's start the party!" He said. What a lovely man.

Hackney Central is a funny old place, which reminds me enormously of New York, especially in all this hot humid weather. There are date palm trees in the town hall square and everyone lazes on the grass underneath.

The area has a very large black community, which makes a refreshing change from the waspish hinterlands of Highgate. There are many, many nutters hanging about outside the theatre, however, all of whom seem to gravitate towards Hannah. We ate sandwiches sitting on the steps of the town hall and one bloke started shouting at us, telling us, I think, that talking was banned on the town hall steps. All very strange.

We were teching all day today. Or should that be tech'ing? I have a similar dilemma with the word micing (mic'ing? miking?) We made a slow start, but the pace increased throughout the day, taking us from a state of all-out panic to somewhere which felt really quite calm by tea time. By the end of the day we were about half way through act two, so we may even manage a dress rehearsal, which would give us all a lift. It's very odd to think that, by this time tomorrow, our first performance will be done. As Hannah said today, "it's so weird to do all this work on something whilst knowing it'll be done and dusted by Sunday." That's theatre for you! It's one of the reasons why I've always slightly preferred working in recorded media.

Today's star performer was Robin, whom I couldn't take my eyes off in the dance numbers. The commitment and energy he was putting into every move was quite extraordinary.

That said, everyone was brilliant. Callum, bless him, went home last night to attend his Grannie's funeral in Wales, and was back for 4pm today. Now that's commitment! ATech'ing a uniform show on the hottest day of the year is the most insane thing one could ever expect to do. I feel very sorry for Anne-Marie and Claudia in the costume department who will literally be rinsing the sweat out of the shirts.

I was quite enjoying peering into the orchestra pit today to see our insanely large orchestra doing their ├╝ber talented thing under the more-than-capable baton of Alex Aitken. As you might imagine in a show called Brass, there's a lot of metal glinting down there in the pit. Eight players sit surrounded by a sea of brass instruments. They're doubling, tripling, quadrupling. Trumpets, cornets, flugelhorns, tenor horns, French horns, trombones, bass trombones, euphoniums, tubas... I asked for a total count-up of individuals instruments and we stopped at 20!

We have a company mascot. He's a Minion. His name is Melvyn. He lives on the conductor's stand. Sometimes he jumps around in the auditorium.

My train home smelt of Frankincense. Bit weird, I thought. But everything's weird in Hackney!

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The dreaded tech begins

Rehearsals this morning took place at Mountview School, meaning I was able to walk to work, which felt rather lovely in the beautiful sun. My route took me through Queens Wood and along the New River footpath which smelt like the causeway behind the house I lived in as a child. The smell was an odd combination of heavy earth and sticky leaves with a background hint of white dog poo!

The New River itself smells of silt and algae. I've never really walked along it before. It's a rather strange, very shallow, very straight man made stream which, if you drive around north London, will pop up occasionally. It runs through Islington and Stoke Newington, through Finsbury Park and up, via Palmers Green to Enfield. A quick Google reveals that it was opened in 1613, to supply the city of London with fresh water from the River Lea. It was apparently an engineering nightmare because the entire river relied on gravity to flow, and needed to follow a route which adeptly followed the most appropriate contours of London's landscape.

Being back at Mountview, the drama school where I trained as a director, was very strange. I sat waiting for the team to arrive in the car park outside, which was, by chance, also where we rehearsed Letter to a Daughter back in 1998 before some of the cast of Brass were actually born! Memories of Arnold came flooding back, as did a dream I'd had about my Grandmother whilst we were rehearsing the show, which I remember sitting on the wall and describing to Fiona. The dream remains in my mind even today. Beautiful, surging music was being played by a string orchestra, and I could see my Grannie on a distant, white mist-covered hillside, scooping up autumn leaves with a pair of dinner trays. She was piling them up onto a bonfire. My Grannie was always making bonfires. It was all incredibly beautiful, yet something of lucid dream because there was a crazy running commentary going on in the back of my mind which said, "this is a dream. You're dreaming this because you know that everything returns to the earth. One day your grandmother will also return to the earth, as indeed you will." It was very strange, but devastatingly emotional. There are very few dreams which have such an impact that they journey with you through the decades.

The room we rehearsed in was coincidentally also where our director Hannah was working when she heard about the 911 attacks, so I wasn't the only one on a nostalgia fest!

We travelled back down to Hackney at lunch time and saw the inside of the theatre for the first time. Hackney Empire is an iconic place. Charlie Chaplin and Marie Lloyd both performed here in its early days and it's one of the largest and most beautifully-appointed theatres in the world. The auditorium stretches endlessly upwards, with tier upon tier of seating. The ceiling is crowned with fabulous twinkling stars. When you come to see Brass, look up as you take your seat and you'll know exactly what I mean.

It was a joy to watch the cast standing on the stage for the first time, looking excited, scared and enthused. I entered the space to the sounds of the pit orchestra playing through the musical's eponymous song and Ben Jones giving it large. One of the band told me she'd been star struck when she heard him singing the song for the first time, having apparently listened endlessly to the cast album. Ah! To be 20 years old and already have a torch song.

Ben was followed by Kitty, who blasted out Shone With the Sun like her life depended on it. The orchestra is so impressive. You'd have to be made of steel not to want to raise your game whilst singing live with all that going on to support you.

The set looks great, the lighting looks great. Sound is already better than it was at Leeds. The costumes are lovely. The lassies look very fancy in their little jaunty hats and brightly coloured skirts and the men look very dashing in their uniforms, none more so than Oscar, who plays the role of Tom exquisitely. We're in a good shape.

Technical rehearsals are, however, desperately boring, sweaty, energy-zapping occasions. Many of the male cast spend the opening of the show with full First World War uniforms underneath woollen suits. I literally can't imagine how hot and itchy that must be. It is my idea of hell, and they spent about three hours trussed up in this manner. I guess it could be worse. Nathan spent two days of the tech for Mary Poppins with his body contorted into a doll's house on the fly floor of the Bristol Hippodrome. There's always someone worse off!

Monday, 22 August 2016

The last day at Sevenoaks

Yesterday was our last day in the NYMT house, and today I'm back in London, desperately catching up on admin, which has included sending out 21 pre-ordered copies of the Pepys Motet, for which I made 21 re-enforced envelopes out of cardboard to avoid spending huge quantities of money on more official stationery. Nathan created a lovely little document for me which shows, at a glance, who earns what when an album is sold. The proceeds of the album are being split between the performers, all of whom performed on the album for nothing. That's why I'd like it to sell lots of copies! To say thank you.

If you're reading this, and you'd like to pre-order a copy, you can do so by going to:

http://www.benjamintill.com/shop/

Try before you buy. You can hear excerpts from the CD by going to:

https://m.soundcloud.com/benjamintill/05_the-pepys-motet-movement-five

The above link will take you to the fifth movement of the motet, the one which features the saucy accounts of Pepys' highly-charged relationship with his maid, Deb Willet. It's probably the rudest text I've ever set to music! You may well blush at the odd word...

Do buy a copy. Please! It is the most daring and ambitious piece of music I've ever written, and it's actually the reason why I write the very blog which you're reading.

The last day in Sevenoaks was triumphant. Sort of. The sickness bug continues to ravage the cast. Lucy Crunkhorn was back, but Adam, who plays Wrigley, was sent home. I'm told our choreographer has been struck down today. It's plainly something very virulent. I'm blaming the Swedes. I don't know: they come to this country, spreading their finely-tuned pop music, their blonde hair and their flu like viruses...

We ran the show. It was a little scrappy, and too long, but we got through it without anyone feeling uncomfortable. The cast decided they were going to put their heart and souls into the run, which was a great relief, because it meant we knew where the actual issues were, rather than trying to second guess which of the mistakes would come out in the wash when the cast were feeling more focussed. Processionals might have been tempted to use a first run like this to show us that they didn't feel on top of things enough to give us anything other than half-baked, "marked" performances. The Brass cast never does anything by half measures.

The day ended at 4pm. Nathan came to pick me up and we drove back to London. I was utterly exhausted. Too tired, really, to enjoy a lovely evening off. We ordered pizza and watched Ru Paul on the computer. Then I woke up and it was 11am...

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Saturday

I woke up yesterday and peered at myself in the mirror to discover the darkest rings under my eyes. I imagine I'll soon be looking like one of those characters in the Victorian seaside post cards who's had a practical joke done on them involving a telescope and a bottle of ink. Bizarrely though, despite being exhausted, and bloated due to the copious amounts of food I've been shoving into myself, as I wake up on my last morning here, and dutifully strip my bed, I find myself not that keen on leaving. It's possible to become a little institutionalised during these courses. Yes, it's a gruelling and exhausting regime but it's become the norm. I'm wondering if I'm not suffering from the NYMT equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome!

We worked our way to the end of the show yesterday, which felt like a somewhat epic achievement. The end of Brass is devastating. I think you'd have to be made of stone not to be moved, largely because we know that going over the top was something which happened to so many men in real life. It strikes me that I'll go to my grave not really understanding why the generals chose to fight the Battle of the Somme in the manner in which it was fought. It feels barbaric in an almost medieval way. The concept of a generation of men being told that they were merely born to suffer goes against everything we've subsequently learned about human rights and entitlement. A staggering and almost comic level of efficiency went into planning the battle. White tape was laid across No Man's Land in the run up to the battle which informed each battalion the area of land they had to stay within. The poor Bradford Pals were sent out a few nights before going over the top to cut the grass in No Man's Land so that the allies could see what was going on. Reports from the time indicate that the allies' biggest error was instructing its men to walk across No Man's Land rather than run. If we'd have run, the Germans would undoubtedly have been overwhelmed. The more I think about the Battle of the Somme, the more angry and upset I become.

As the writer of a show it's rather difficult to have a private little cry. Very often, just as a sequence finishes, someone comes up to ask a question, or someone will feel the need to publicly address the fact that the writer is in tears. Crying in rehearsals is something which is very rare for me. Normally speaking I'm way too busy orchestrating, panicking or thinking about technical stuff to have the time for that footle. The fact that I'm regularly found blubbing away on this project is absolutely down to the extraordinary creative team and strength of the cast. They have ensured that I don't have anything to worry about, so I can sit back... And let my guard down!

The cast are so conscientious. Last night, after rehearsals ended, I thought they might make a beeline for the pub, but, as I sat in the television room at the halls of residence watching the fascinatingly bizarre spectacle of jujitsu at the Olympics, all I could hear were little bits of my music drifting around the house. The cast was still rehearsing. As I went to bed, a group of girls were sitting around the kitchen table, marking up their scripts with highlighters. I honestly think that many of the pros I work with could learn a thing or two from these young people's work ethic.

...And yet still there seems to be time for them to be gracious and caring. I emerged from the canteen yesterday to find a group of them, with the stage management team, feeding sugar water from a metal spoon to a tired bumble bee. You'll be pleased to hear that the sugar syrup perked the little fella up and he flew off happily after his lovely meal.

Last night we did the first part of the sitzprobe. For those who don't work in theatre, the "sitz" is the highlight of most people's rehearsal period. It's when the band and singers finally come together to showcase what they've been doing separately. Everyone sits down to do it (hence the name) and it's always very exciting. It can be brutally stressful for a composer. This one wasn't. The band are really on it, and we're in a far, far better place than we were at this stage when we did the show in 2014.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Friday

We're slowly getting there! Yesterday we got up to the beginning of the show's penultimate number. An astonishing amount of kudos has to go to Sam Spencer-Lane who has now choreographed five high-quality dance routines in as many days. The same amount of kudos must go to the cast, who have spent every last minute of their spare time assiduously going over the steps. It's an astounding machine, really. Sam feeds the steps in and the cast process and package them before Sam adds a bit more sheen.

None of the pros I have worked with seem to have this much commitment. Something happens to actors very early in their professional careers where they start to feel a sense of entitlement which seems to slightly override the desire to get a show right. It's almost as though the belief becomes that if it can't be taught and learned within an Equity-structured rehearsal period then it's everyone else's fault. Obviously I would never advocate doing 12 hour rehearsal days with pros, but, that said, there's something very special about an immersive and exhausting rehearsal period. Brass is almost an hour longer than Beyond the Fence, and in eight days of rehearsals I genuinely feel we've achieved more than we did on that show in four whole weeks. Aside from anything else, we're not wasting endless hours doing table readings and arguing about motivation and feminism vs sexuality! Everyone in this space is simply getting on with the task in hand and making wonderful theatre.

The chorus sound in this show is excellent. Alex the MD has done an absolutely fabulous job on the musical side of the show. To compound my joy, the band has already started running the piece and have worked with an almost forensic level of detail. I may even be due for a sitzprobe where I hear all the keyboard patches. That would be new ground!

So yesterday we just kept on working through the show, and by 9pm when we finished, we only had two more numbers to stage. We worked on Emmie's death, which pretty much finished me off. Love and loss in any story telling always gets me. Particularly when I allow myself to think about Nathan.

There were lots of notices at the end of the day. Lots of business. Han and I have a running joke that, if you work in theatre, whenever a director or a playwright delivers any form of motivational speech, a stage manager or a techie will always jump in and kill the mood dead by saying something practical like "can you all make sure you leave your pants in the washing bins provided?" So, after the technical speech, I decided to make another inspirational speech so that everyone could go to bed feeling upbeat. It felt much needed after a day when there had been tears, meltdowns, frustration, a bit of moping and more than a whiff of illness in the cast. I suddenly realised that the cast don't hear when Hannah comes up to me, pretty much constantly, saying, "I think she's brilliant" or "you could put him on a professional stage and he wouldn't look at all out of place."

My little speech went down well and earned me a friendly hug from the lovely Camilla.

I went back to the house and realised that there was a telly in a room we don't usually sit in, so Charlie and I watched the wonderful hockey final in the Olympics and very much enjoyed seeing the women winning gold. I have to say, the pride I've felt to be British as a result of the Olympics has been a proper tonic after the hell of Brexit. I personally believe that the England football team could learn a great deal about penalty shoot outs from the British women. Actually, I don't know why we bother to pay footballers. The England squad does nothing but let us down. It makes a change to watch British sports people in matches, games and finals that they actually have a chance of winning!

Friday, 19 August 2016

The final march begins

A few drops of rain fell as I was walking into rehearsals this morning. I was under trees at the time, so I heard them, but didn't feel them. They're the first spots of rain we've had since we came to Sevenoaks. The weather has been truly beautiful all week. At 9pm, after rehearsals, we walk, in a giant crocodile, back across the fields to the boarding houses. There's always the last remnants of a sunset against an electric blue sky and the air smells of grass and late summer flowers. It's really very idyllic here.

Yesterday was perhaps even more difficult than Wednesday. A few of the cast have come down with a sickness bug. Sally spent the afternoon in bed. Coraleigh lost her voice entirely and inexplicably. It suddenly reappeared in the evening. All very strange! Still, we're on the homeward straight as of tomorrow, so everyone's got their heads down and we're pushing through. We shall emerge triumphantly like a glorious army from the mists of battle. Rehearsals are still a heck of a lot of fun. If anything I'm laughing more than I was yesterday. Although that might be hysteria...

One of the young stage management team came up to us yesterday brandishing a letter which he was checking was okay to be used as a prop in the show. He wanted to know if we needed the letter to look a bit more stained and bashed up. "Would you like me to do some tea-bagging?" He asked. I quietly turned purple.

We had an amazing session yesterday on Could Have Been with Robyn, Spin and Laura. All three are heart-breakingly beautiful actors with extraordinary instinct. Robyn's voice is remarkable. At the end of the session, Hannah turned to them and said, "I don't think you'll find a set of actors in the world who could have done that scene as well as you guys just did."

The cast are remarkably committed to the material, particularly the cast members from Yorkshire. I overheard Lucy Carter saying that the further she gets into rehearsals, the prouder she feels to come from Yorkshire. It was genuinely the most heart-warming thing I've heard this week.

I spent the day yesterday bare-footed - bohemian style. I always direct theatre and film barefooted, but because I'm not the director of this show, I've fallen into the habit of wearing shoes, which is an experience I genuinely don't overly enjoy. I find it very restricting for my enormous Hobit-like flat feet! Walking around barefoot is an extreme sensory experience which I'd recommend for anyone. I think my feet are frightening the cast a little. Laura calls me a hobgoblin and T'other Lucy pointed at my feet and said "that big toe is enormous. It's like a head."

Half of the cast left us at lunchtime yesterday to travel up to Leicester to see the NYMT's production of Spring Awakening which is running at the Leicester Curve until Saturday night. I'm rather glad that not everyone in the cast decided to go as the journey was a long, tiring one, and we had enough people left behind to do some good work. We mostly worked with the girls whilst outside the boys ran through dance routines and the band ran sequences with some of the actor musicians. We're certainly working in a level of detail which is very exciting. As with every project I've done, I wish we had just one more day to finesse things properly.