Thursday, 16 August 2018

Me and My Drama

On Monday, we took ourselves down to Chichester to watch our very close friend, Matt playing the lead in Me and My Girl.

It’s a great production and Matt feels like he was born to play the role. I was particularly thrilled to see how well he was dancing. When we did Taboo together, he was a little remedial, shall we say, in that department. I’m tempted to say that if you’d told him walking was a dance step, he’d not have been able to do that! And yet there he was, in a pair or tap shoes, tripping the light fantastic on the stage. I was very proud. Matt actually did a month of daily one-on-one dance training to to get himself ready for the show. Now that’s commitment!

It’s not a show I particularly like. I was seeing it for the first time, so my knowledge of the piece is based entirely on what I was presented with. It’s quite light-weight, and the songs feel a little pointless and, in many cases, crow-barred in, but Gareth Valentine’s new orchestrations were sensational, and, much as they felt entirely irrelevant to the plot, it was wonderful to hear The Sun Has Got His Hat On and the Lambeth Walk. Particularly with all the bells and whistles.

Was everyone well-cast in the piece? Absolutely not. Some felt like they were in the wrong show stylistically. Others sounded like they had the wrong range for the role and had therefore popped their vocals clogs doing eight shows a week. One of the cast, who’s known in the industry as a singing legend, didn’t get to sing a note in the show. She barely got to say anything.

As it happened, the drama, for us, was also off the stage. As we were traveling down, Nathan used the button to open our electric windows. There was a large clatter and a bang, and the entire window dropped, like a stone, into the door casement. And that was that. We had to drive to Chichester without a passenger side window, the wind roaring, the rain spattering. Hopeless.

Upon reaching Chi, we called the AA (for the second time in a week) but all they could do was tape the gaping hole up with sticky polythene and suggest we book the car into a garage as quickly as possible.

After the show, we went back to Matt’s digs for half an hour, but as we left, Nathan realised he didn’t have his phone.

We hot-footed it back to the theatre and found the security man locking the building. We begged him to take pity on us and let us into the building. Nathan knew he’d left the phone under his seat, and pointed out that he was going to New Zealand at the end of the week, and obviously couldn’t be without his phone. The security guard told us that the ushers had done a sweep of the building and that nothing had been handed in, point blank refusing to let us look for ourselves, and then, actually walking away as we were talking to him, with a face which said, “we’re done here.” It was both humiliating and upsetting because we could only assume that the phone had been stolen.

We drove home in silence, but for the deafening sound of wind buffeting the plastic sheeting on the passenger side window!

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Cambrugge

It was part two of my birthday celebrations today, and we went to Cambridge for a spot of punting. It’s an annual tradition which goes back to my seventh birthday. There’s an ancient slide photograph of me on a punt, holding an old-fashioned packet of Walker’s Salt and Vinegar crisps, which I know to have been taken on the 8th August, 1981. We’d gone with my family and my little friend Ruth, whose mother, Liza, gave me string, sellotape and UHU super glue for a present, which made me surprisingly happy. I’d woken up that morning with a terrible stomach ache. I used to get them when I was excited. I think we were about to cancel the day because the pain was crippling, but it suddenly went away. It’s funny what you remember.

My companions for today’s trip were Abbie, Sam, Julie, Nathan and Brother Edward (who has been with me, I think, on pretty much every birthday punt over the last 35 years). We met at Kings Cross station to buy group tickets and the train seemed to take no time at all. Abbie gave me a mezuzah, which I found very touching.

We were joined by Little Michelle at the Old Ticket Office at Cambridge Train Station, where we had a lovely cup of tea and a cheese and tomato pasty. 

Julie insisted on taking a taxi from the station into the city centre. She doesn’t like walking. Bizarrely, taking a taxi with a big group works out cheaper per head than travelling on the bus. This should not be the case.

Cambridge is always filled to the brim with Chinese tourists. It’s a fairly astonishing sight. Without wishing to open up a can of racial stereotyping, there seems to be a tendency for them to not be hugely aware of what’s going on around them. Most seem intent on seeing life through the lens of their mobile phones. It can get a little frustrating when you’re trying to get from A to B at speed!

We were lucky enough to be able to hire a Kings College punt. Brother Edward is a former student there, thus giving him life-long privileges, which include hiring punts at ludicrously cheap rates. We decided to risk cramming all seven of us onto a single boat, which is against all the rules. Punts are really only designed for six, but the idea of splitting into a three and a four seemed both expensive and anti-social. The boat felt heavy, and somewhat cumbersome as a result. The weather was a bit rancy-pants today, and there was a fairly high wind, so it was difficult to steer the thing against the current.

I say that the weather wasn’t great. Actually, we were extremely lucky. The forecast predicted heavy rain and although sun wasn’t shining, we really only had a few spots whilst we were eating our lunch in a pub garden underneath a giant umbrella. Nathan calls me a weather witch, because I’m always pretty lucky in this respect when it comes to filming, birthdays and important events. We returned to Highgate this evening just as the heavens opened.

The joy about the threat of inclement weather was that we didn’t have to share the river with any other punters. We drifted upstream to Grantchester in a blissfully calm haze, singing songs in seven-part harmony, whilst being filmed by somewhat amused tourists sitting on the river banks.

Our finest hour was a rendition of Frère Jacques in a minor key, a la Mahler, which went on for days. Going underneath the bridges whilst singing is a magical experience. For about thirty, rather blissful seconds, you get the most perfect acoustic - an amazing reverb - which slowly disintegrates as the boat emerges into the open air again.

The day ended in a pub just off Kings Parade, where we were met by Ben Holder. We played a game with pens and paper and then, all too soon, it was time to go home.

I realised today that more day trips are needed in my life. It’s the only time I actually stop. We’ve had this glorious summer, and I’ve been stuck inside, almost every day, working on 100 Faces. It feels like I’ve sort of drained the year, and I’m not sure I like that feeling.

Nathan goes away for six weeks on a round-the-world tour next week, so I’ve decided to make the most of August and September by going on lots of day trips and mini-breaks. If anyone has any ideas in this respect, I’m all ears.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Skem

I spent Thursday and Friday in Skelmersdale near Liverpool. The most surreal thing was driving up to Stoke-On-Trent after my birthday jaunt on the Heath. My birthday had started with the car breaking down, so it was possibly not a huge surprise when it ended in a horrible road diversion somewhere near Coventry! I don't know why I bother to drive on the M6 late at night. They always seem to close sections of the motorway so that cars and massive lorries are sent on these wild goose chases along A and B roads, following confusing little yellow diversion signs. At one point I ended up following signs for another motorway's closure and had to double back on myself.

It was perhaps a little ambitious to think I could get as far as Stoke after a long day in the sun, but I eventually arrived at midnight, completely forgetting that it was, technically, still my birthday. The people who work at Travelodges late at night are always very charming and witty. I guess they're not stressed out by scores of people checking-in during peak hours and are pleased to have a little chat to someone. They're usually female - and often either middle-aged, practical Yorkshire folk, or Midlanders with curious hair dyes, funny piercings and tattoos.

I was in Skem to edit 100 Faces with cameraman, Keith. It's a long and boring saga which led to the edit being done by the cameraman, but, actually, and particularly for a piece like 100 Faces, it makes perfect sense. Keith IS an experienced editor, and, because he specifically shot the film to be in black and white, he can grade all the shots exactly as he wants them to look.  And, of course, it's always a complete pleasure to be with Keith, who now calls me Treacle.

So that was what we did for two days. My heart was often in my mouth as we realised that some clips were shorter than we needed them to be, but none were longer, which was a great relief. There are a couple of moments in the film we cut together where the camera perhaps lingers for slightly too long on a face - and, when you start to edit their spoken words onto a musical track, some of the contributors come across as a little flat. One actually seems a little like he'd like to take an axe to the audience! But this is a film about diversity - and it's all part of the rich tapestry of life.

I stayed Thursday night in St Helens in a Travelodge whose main claim to fame was that it was next to a 24 hour Asda. I was a little disappointed when I went out to buy myself a salad, that the fabled 24-hour shop was actually a tiny little thing attached to a garage. I ate cheese and onion sandwiches and a cheese and onion pastie.

Breakfast was in a local chain pub. Eat all you can for £3.99. It was vile, but, £3.99! Come on!

I got stuck in the MOTHER of all traffic jams on the M6 on my way home. I spent at least two hours in completely stationary traffic, swearing at the selfish drivers who were speeding along lanes that were closing further up the motorway, thereby causing much more awful tailbacks for those of us playing by the rules. It took me 7 1/2 hours to drive back to London, where I'd been invited for a delicious shabbat meal at Felicity's house.

Today was meant to be about a little birthday day trip just north of London, but it got cancelled, so, because I didn't sleep at all last night, I've sat on a sofa feeling very sorry for myself.


Heath picnic

Wednesday was utterly blissful. The weather was cooler than it’s been of late, but it was beautifully sunny and really, the perfect day to be wandering about on the heath, which, luckily, is what we were doing...

Nathan and I picked the parents up from Tottenham Hale at 10.30am, and we drove around the North Circ to Hangar Lane for picnic stuff. What would my birthday be without a lengthy trip to a supermarket to spend an inordinate amount of money on an obscene amount of picnic food which even a gannet couldn’t get through?!

Llio met us in Highgate and we jumped in the car and wended our merry way around the top of Hampstead Heath to the car park behind Jack Straw’s Castle. I probably shouldn’t have told people to arrive at “about” noon, or should have chosen a slightly nicer rendezvous location. I ended up playing tennis with Sally and Stuart’s girls on the gravel for at least twenty minutes whilst the stragglers arrived.

After Sally, Stuart and the girls came my oldest school friend Tammy, her husband, Chris and her two children Evie and Oscar, whom I’m ashamed to say I’d not met before. My only defence is that Tammy lives in Modena, Italy. She reminded me at some point yesterday that we’d known each other for thirty three years. I think that might be described as an enduring friendship! Her kids, it turns out, are delightful.

Next to arrive were Hilary and Mezza. Hilary has lost weight and is looking wonderful at the moment, like a sort of glorious Art Deco painting. Mezza always arrives with a gung ho smile and a demeanour which says “let’s eke everything we can out of today,” which is always appreciated.

Bringing up the rear were Brother Edward and Sascha, who, we were told, had got stuck in a lift at Hampstead tube. It must have been terrifying for them. I think it was at Hampstead where the lift once plummeted and a load of old ladies broke their legs. Maybe I’ve made that up.

We went to the pergola first off. That’s the wonderful Victorian, brick-and-wood built, mile-long, plant-bedecked walkway, which sits, inexplicably, on the edge of Golder’s Hill Park, watching over the area where the gay men go cruising at night time. I’ve never understood why the pergola exists. It must have been built as some sort of elaborate promenade for the large Victorian house behind it. Quite how it came into the possession of the Corporation of London, whilst the house remains privately owned, I’ve no idea. The joy about the place is that it’s off the tourist track. If that pergola were in Hyde Park, it would be rammed.

The pergola is best in the spring for a few glorious weeks when it’s covered in amazing wisteria. Actually, at this time of the year, it’s surprisingly bland in terms of flowers and things. It’s nevertheless an extraordinarily magical spot which features in the first film I ever made, Hampstead Heath: The Musical. I’m writing about it, but don’t rush out to watch it. It’s a fairly hopeless film. I had no idea what I was doing!

After the pergola, we headed to the tree with the hole in it. There were a lot of children with us, and I felt this would be the best place to picnic because the kids could have a bit of a climb whilst the adults stuffed their faces! I think we managed to get about six people into the tree at one point. One day I’m going to try and set a world record. Actually, no I’m not. The idea of being trapped like sardines inside the trunk of a tree isn’t worth thinking about.

From the tree with the hole, we went down to the mixed ponds where somewhat draconian rules prevented Tammy from bringing her kids into the compound on account of their being too young, despite not actually wanting to swim. I guess everyone’s a bit sensitive of late. The dry weather has meant the natural ponds on the heath have started to lose alarming amounts of water, and, last Sunday, someone was very badly wounded in the men’s pond by diving and hitting something sharp on the murky bed.

An ambulance was actually called whilst we were there, but no one could work out who was ill or injured.

There was a bit of a mad dash to get back to the cars. The car parks on the heath favour short visits, which I think is ludicrous. It’s expensive enough: something like £8 for 4 hours, but then £6 for every hour thereafter. So we had to put the cars in a different car park to take advantage of a new deal. 

The day ended in a pub at the bottom of Downshire Hill where we had a bit of food and slowly split up, our faces feeing tight from the sun and pond water!


Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Break down

Many thanks for all my birthday wishes! My birthday started in Mile End last night. I got into my car to head home after some food with Michael in an Italian, turned the engine over, and instantly realised that the battery was flat. At the same time I realised that I was surrounded by gangs of lads in hoodies hanging out in little clusters in doorways. I’m sure there are many people who claim that Mile End is “on the up,” but if you’re anywhere near the tube station, it’s a horrible, scary place at midnight.

I’m not going to be the ghastly liberal who says live and let live, reminding readers that these lads are in a spiral created by poverty, social deprivation, boredom and lack of father figures. All of that is true but I’m not sure it’s enough of an excuse for their deliberately intimidating behaviour. When they realised I was in trouble, they instantly started circling me, like vultures around a dying deer. It was wholly unacceptable. Not one of them offered to help. They just stared at me, one hand down their tracksuit trousers, the other smoking a cigarette.

None of the passers by offered to help either. Probably as a direct result of the gang’s presence, Mile End is one of those places where you put your head down and get as quickly as you can to your next location.

To make my situation worse, it was impossible for me to sit in the car because the inability to turn over the engine had affected the electrics, so, for some reason, whilst I was in the car, the alarm was permanently going off. So, there I was, standing on the street at midnight, surrounded by a gang, with lovely Facebook messages wishing me a happy birthday starting to ping into my phone. Sadly, it wasn’t just my car battery that was dying. My phone battery was on about 20%... and dropping rapidly.

So I called the AA. We have membership through our Lloyd’s joint account. I decided to tell them that I felt vulnerable. No, I wasn’t a woman on my own in a dark country lane, but, I had nowhere to go and I genuinely felt scared, for very good reason as it turned out because, by the time the AA finally arrived (mercifully only an hour later) the lads had started throwing bricks at some sort of metal grill. The noise the bricks were making was terrifyingly loud. I did wish for the days when some sort of matriarch would appear from a nearby flat to give them all a clip around the ear, but the trouble is, we all try to pretend this antisocial behaviour isn’t happening for fear of being stabbed, or, I worry, because we’re too busy finding excuses for it.

The AA man ascertained the car’s problem very speedily and jump-started it, telling me we had a healthy battery which I must have drained earlier on whilst listening to the new version of 100 Faces with Michael with all the blowers on because it was so hot and muggy outside. Grrr!

It took him seconds to sort the problem. As he closed the bonnet he said, “I’m gonna suggest you drive away from this place as quickly as possible. It’s really edgy round here.”

Thank God for the AA

Monday, 6 August 2018

Swiss adventures

It feels like a long time since I last wrote a blog. It’s actually only been a few days, but in that time I’ve been all the way to Zürich and back.

Actually, when you realise how quickly you can get to European cities, and how much you can pack in if you leave early in the morning and come back late the next day, it’s difficult to understand why we don’t do more mini-breaks like this.

It wasn’t really a holiday. I was there to sing at the wedding of two former members of New West End Synagogue, who moved to Switzerland last year. They’re a very interesting couple. She is from Malaysia and converted to orthodox Judaism in order to get married. It is not easy to convert, particularly to orthodoxy. It takes three years and involves gruelling tests and serious lifestyle changes. I’ve heard that some people who want to covert are actually forced to move to different areas so they can be amongst people who are Shomer Shabbos (ie people who eat kosher and take all the Shabbat rules seriously.) As a result, those who convert are often more observant than those who were born into the religion. You’ve got to really love someone to go through all of that!

There were seven of us in the choir and we had been engaged to sing at a Friday night meal and a Saturday morning Shabbat service. The Friday night was all about singing musical theatre songs, which is fairly infra dig for an all male, unaccompanied choir who specialise in ancient Jewish music, but, we’re game for a laugh.

We left London from City Airport at shit o’clock. I was staggered by quite how awful the airport is. By 7am, the loos were already blocked and the staff at the security gates were beyond rude. The whole airport comes across as rather tawdry, bordering on seedy. The only thing in its favour is the relatively small number of flights which leave from there, so you’re not left waiting about in long queues as you can be at Stansted. Luton, of course, will always be the worst airport in the UK.

It’s actually rather shameful when you arrive at an airport like Zürich, and see what an amazing impression a well-appointed airport can offer its tourists. When the UK leaves Europe, I look forward to sinking further into a sordid pile of our own excrement.

Zürich is an amazing city, which is built around a glorious lake. There’s not an ounce of rubbish or graffiti anywhere. I don’t think this is because hoards of people are paid large sums to clear the muck up, I simply think the Swiss respect their environment more. Yes, of course you could argue that they’re all so rich, they can afford to be obsessively tidy, or that there’s something unpleasantly clinical about the Swiss psyche, but it does make a rather pleasant change to hang out in a place like that.

The lake itself is the focal point of the city. It is deep, fresh and beautifully clean, and, as a result, everyone swims in it. Everyone. It’s a sort of fundamental part of most of the city’s residents daily regimes. There are official places to swim with jetties and pontoons, but there are also little public beaches where people wade into the water without having to pay an entrance fee. It’s all the same water, after all.

We arrived in the city and immediately took ourselves off for a swim in one of the official “baths”. It was boiling hot. The sun was glinting on the lake. And we swam about in the cool, clear water, looking out to the mountains behind the city, feeling wonderfully relaxed and wondering if life could get any better.

We rehearsed in the afternoon in searing heat which made everyone fractious. It’s one thing to be rehearsing well-written conventional choral repertoire but quite something else to learn (and improvise) harmonies for well-known musical theatre songs, especially when the groom rushes in and tells you that his mother only wants upbeat music. Les Mis was described as “emo” and rehearsing the gloriously uplifting Anthem from Chess triggered a warning to “keep things light.” Note to self: never rehearse within earshot of your client! 

The evening meal took place within the breathtaking surroundings of a women-only open air swimming pool which, I assume, was fed by water from the lake. It looked stunning as the sun set and all sorts of candles and twinkling lights started to dance. The food was exquisite: an appropriate blend of Asian and Jewish cuisine. We wondered about, singing, unaccompanied. Shabbos rules meant we couldn’t use backing tracks, mics or even a piano so, our voices drifted into the ether and vanished into the sky like the wonderful helium balloons that everyone (but me) was given to release on cue.

The only slight dampener on the night from our perspective was when we performed Love Changes Everything to the mother of the groom and she buried her head in her son’s shoulder as though to say “make it stop,” before disappearing as quickly as she could! At the end of each number we clacked off to the sound of our own heels!

On Saturday morning we accompanied the resident Chazan in the Löwenstraße Synagogue in a wonderful service filled with the families of both the bride and groom. There were a lot of somewhat confused-looking Chinese people in our midst, who smiled very politely, despite the service being in a mixture of German and Hebrew! We were back in our comfort zone as singers, and we sang beautifully. I felt immensely proud. Many of the regular congregants came up to us afterwards to tell us how professional we sounded. Obviously, it’s meant as a great compliment, but it’s hard not to say “well we ARE a professional choir”! Imagine going up to Alfie Boe and saying “you sounded really professional” or telling your surgeon that he made a really professional job of removing your tonsils!

After the service, we took ourselves back to the lake, where I ate a tomato and mozzarella salad which was, in a word, divine. It’s so easy to forget what terrible tomatoes we have to endure in the UK and, when ripened by sunshine and not filled with weird additives, how absolutely delicious a tomato can be.

We went back to the swimming place and swam from pontoon to pontoon, relaxing, drinking coffee sunbathing and gradually unwinding, allowing, for a few glorious hours, the stresses and strains of London to melt away from our minds and bodies. At one point Michael turned to me and said, “this is when I realise that London has it very wrong.” I knew what he meant. Everything in London feels like it’s geared towards people who need to move at a fast pace. We don’t have pedestrianised streets lined with coffee shops. That would slow us down. We don’t have drinking fountains on the corners of all the streets. That would stop us from doing work. We don’t have beaches down by the Thames anymore because the river is filthy. I suppose we have lovely parks and things but you have to fight through the tourists to use them. Apart from the Heath. Maybe I’m being silly. Maybe the grass is always greener. Maybe there are Swiss tourists coming to London and saying “the joy about London is that everyone’s so laid back!”

Would the cleanliness of Zürich bore me after a while? Probably. Could I live in Zürich? No. Would I go back for a holiday? In a heartbeat.

We sat on the terrace cafe in the airport. It’s on a sort of open air observation deck which reminded me of something from the glamorous days of air travel, where being an air hostess was one of the most glitzy and sophisticated jobs you could have.

An hour and a half later, we were touching down at Heathrow airport and the adventure was over. When can I go back?



Friday, 3 August 2018

Key West

I went to see “It Happened at Key West” at the Charing Cross Theatre last night. I went largely because the musical director I’ll be working with when I direct Brass at Mountview was MDing the piece and I wanted to show a bit of solidarity. It was only when I arrived that I realised my friends Shannon and Cam were actually working as Associate Director and Producer on the show. I was a little confused when Shannon came bounding over, largely because I thought she was in Spain. When she mentioned that she was working as an Associate Director, I asked what show she was on and she looked a little confused before pointing at the theatre we were standing outside! Note to self: keep your ear a little closer to the ground.

I went into the show without a programme or any knowledge of what I was going to see. From its title, I wondered if it was going to be a show about a clutch of retired Jewish women or a gaggle of gays. Despite going there in 2010, I really don’t know a great deal about Florida. I didn’t even know, for example, that Key West was an island.

Anyway, it’s difficult to know whether I can really talk about the plot line without revealing any spoilers. Suffice to say the piece is based on a true story, set in the 1930s, about an X-ray technician who finds the girl of his dreams, but is immediately forced to tell her that she has tuberculosis, a disease which she succumbs to at the end of Act One. So what happens in Act Two? Well, let’s just say he continues to look after her...

I personally think there’s a very fine show in there which a bit of spit and polish and an open-minded writer ought to be able to pull out. It has all the ingredients - love, loss, humour, desperate sadness - but it needs to decide what it wants it to be. Is it a farce? Is it a piece about mental illness? Is it a tragedy? It can, of course, be all of the aforementioned, but the audience needs to be guided. There were a group of cackling older women on the front row who found some of the most tender moments incredibly amusing because the subject matter is so dark and uncomfortable. That laughter told me that the piece wasn’t quite hitting its marks. An audience should never be confused. Take them on a roller coaster ride by all means and challenge their taste buds, but it’s important they always know where they are. When an audience it gives you a collective note like that - and tells you that they don’t know whether to laugh or cry - it’s important to listen.

The other thing which needs to be addressed is the writer’s almost compulsive inability to set words to music with natural inflections. Scantion was not her best friend. It is almost impossible for an actor to convey sense when the melody he is singing places emphasis on all the wrong syllables. It’s something most musical theatre writers get wrong from time to time. Nathan regularly picks me up on it. Made in Dagenham and Mrs Henderson Presents were both filled with countless, ghastly examples. Bad scantion jolts an audience out of appreciating a piece because they’re constantly thinking “that doesn’t sound quite right...” or “what was that line?”

Actually, as it happened the composer was also the lyricist - and she’s actually a really decent lyricist and a very lovely melodist. But you crap on all the good work if you can’t marry the two successfully.