Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Lady Killers

Nathan dropped me off at High Wycombe train station this morning so that he could continue to Marlowe in Buckinghamshire where he was doing a corporate gig. I needed to get back to London to visit Trinity Conservatoire where I'm mentoring a group of students through the process of putting on scenes from a new musical.

High Wycombe is a bit of a weird station. The London platform is miles away from the ticket office. To get there, you have to walk all the way down the West bound platform and over a little bridge. Fortunately, there's a lovely cafe waiting for you when you get there, where a Polish girl will compliment you on your moustache and show you a picture of her father wearing Medieval clothing and sporting a scraggly orange moustache which she'll tell you looks exactly like yours.

I pulled into Marylebone station, seemingly just a few minutes later. It's a very quick journey. Marylebone is a funny old place. I couldn't find the entrance to the tube and wandered around the station getting in everyone's way.

My mentoring sessions were in New Cross, which is in the South East of London, a million miles away from Marylebone, which is in the North West of the city. Left to my own devices, I would have taken a pathetically silly route across the city, but fortunately had the foresight to check in with Transport for London first who sent me down the Jubilee Line to Canada Water where I changed onto the old East London Line, which used to be yellow on the maps but is now orange. The total journey time was something like 30 minutes which seemed insanely fast. For London!

I'm not sure I'm a massive fan of New Cross. Everyone seems either too grumpy or too cool for school in those parts. I almost went into a charity shop, but the woman sitting behind the counter gave me such evil looks as I entered that I immediately walked out again.

Rehearsals, I discovered, via a process of elimination and several panicky messages, were happening in a building in a network of streets which seemed to belong almost exclusively to Goldsmiths University. Whole rows of terraced housing seemed to have been taken over and turned into offices and lecture spaces.

The show I'm mentoring is a musical adaptation of that charming Ealing Comedy, the Lady Killers, which, in my view, is a really lovely idea for a show! Each year, Trinity runs something called Co Lab, where huge swathes of students get the opportunity to do something creative where they can call the shots. The Lady Killers has been written by a couple of chaps called Em and Lawrence. The former seemed a little confused when I told him the name of my current musical!

Rehearsals for the project are going well. They're performing 3 songs from the show with a full band of musicians who are also acting in the piece, and getting involved with all sorts of elements of behind-the-scenes work from orchestrating, to directing and choreography. True team work.

I rushed back from rehearsals to make it home to spend an evening with Nathan, who is off on a knitting retreat for a few days at the end of the week. We made pancakes in honour of Pancake Day, but realised, as the first one slid out of the pan, that Shrove Tuesday is actually next Tuesday. #awkward. No wonder there hadn't been a run on Jiffy Lemon in the local corner shop!

Brass in Brum

Yesterday we travelled to Birmingham to watch Brass in Concert, the brain child of young Harrison who has been with the show since its very first production back in 2014. Harrison approached me about a year ago with a mad-cap idea: namely that he wanted to conduct a concert version of Brass for his final year project at the Birmingham Conservatoire. I made encouraging noises, but didn't think for a moment it would actually happen. That said, Harry has always had an air of steely confidence, and I've learned over the years that it's dangerous to dismiss any of his whims!

He pulled off the impossible. He fundraised, studied the score in depth, took conducting masterclasses, organised rehearsals, dealt with a veritable revolving door of people dropping out and being high-maintenance, booked a professional theatre and crew, rehearsed musicians and performers, cajoled, twisted arms, went to hell and back, and emerged last night like a glorious butterfly. I was immensely proud.

The band sounded wonderful. But for a couple of exposed moments when the nerves kicked in a little, you'd have thought they were a professional orchestra. Harrison had brought Zak, Josef and Jonny in from the original productions. Zak is a trumpet/ cornet/ flugelhorn whizz-kid whose enthusiasm for brass music and Brass has very-much helped to shape the show's music. In the process of performing the piece, he's developed a virtuosic, stamina-busting track for himself which I wonder if anyone else could actually play!

Brass has generated something of a family. A fabulous dysfunctional family which even includes all the parents of the cast members who I see at all the events. Once a Brasser, always a Brasser. We were able to welcome Emma Fraser back into the fold last night, who played the role of Grimsby in the original production.

The revelation of the evening was Lucy Carter, who was in the ensemble for the show at the Hackney Empire but stepped up to play the role of Peggy when Ruby pulled out. I'd managed to convince myself that Ruby was fairly irreplaceable, but Lucy's interpretation of the role was remarkable. Comedy dripped from her, and the singing was so convincing that she managed to make the coloratura soprano sequences sound like they weren't actually that stratospherically high! I was hugely impressed.

The cast looked amazing. The boys wore DJs and the girls wore black dresses. There had been technical issues during the day, which meant the cast were unable to see Harrison on a monitor and, more worryingly, had been forced to ditch their head mics: hastily re-staging the show to involve everyone, as much as they could, delivering all their lines into three stand mics at the front of the stage. A few more hours of rehearsal, and a couple of extra mics would have nailed the problem, but some of the singing, and a few of the sequences of underscored dialogue did her a little lost during the performance. It was a very small thing, however.

The cast gave it everything. Oscar, playing Tom, seemed to have fire in his belly and made brave choices. Laura as Eliza was luminous. Ben, playing Alf was self-assured and probably sang Brass better than I've ever heard him singing the song before. Everywhere I looked on the stage, someone else was giving it large. Even the newbies from the conservatoire that Harry had brought in to replace some of the original cast members were going hell for leather. Boy Robin played his third role in the show. He was our original Morrie (the 15 year-old lad who gets shot for desertion - spoiler, I know) but was too old to play the role at Hackney, so became the recruiting Sergeant Major, and last night stepped into the shoes of Bickerdyke, singing Bickerdyke's Speech possibly better than I've ever heard it sung before.

The audience were on their feet almost before the lights went down at the end of the show, but the largest cheer was rightly reserved for Harrison, who cried when he saw his standing ovation.

I was thrilled to see so many good friends and family members in the audience. Fiona's parents were there. My parents. Edward and Sascha and Silvia. My cousin Bridget and her crew. Ruth Wootton (who ate with us beforehand). Nathan's Mum and sister came with an enormous crowd. I was particularly touched to see Rachel Hazlewood there with her two kids, one of whom is only about two years younger than Rachel was when I met her at university. What's happened to time? Surely it's only a few months since Rachel and I were the age of the kids on stage last night, performing Jesus Christ Superstar at York University's Central Hall?

We went to the pub with some of the cast afterwards. A few of them were waylaid on route when they came across a homeless person who was having an epileptic fit on the street. It was, apparently, deeply traumatising.

We stayed the night in the Premier Inn, woke up, had breakfast with the parents, and here we are, hurtling down the M40 in the direction of London. A great day.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Stansted Schmansted

We've just dropped the parents off at Stansted Airport, which is actually their local train station. We're all heading to Birmingham today, but, because they'd already booked their tickets, they opted not to come in the car with us. It turns out that Stansted airport have a draconian, money-grabbing system which means that you can't enter any part of the airport without paying. It comes to something when your local train station isn't accessible. My parents thought their only option was to clamber out of the car on a busy road to try to avoid a parking fee. We pulled up by the side of the road and, of course, a parking enforcement officer immediately pulled up in a car behind us. They obviously photographed us and will no doubt be issuing a fine. Great.

I called Empark who deal with these issues and the man I spoke to got really shirty and then suggested that I speak to customer services. "Can you put me through?" I asked, "no, you'll have to call this number..." He proceeded to read a number out to me. I called it and a woman answered. I started telling her the story: "I'm going to stop you now," she said, "because I was listening in to the phone call you've just had with my colleague who is sitting right next to me." This is the "colleague" who told me he couldn't put me through to customer services. What kind of bizarre, sick game is that? I tried to continue talking to the woman in charge of customer services but she spoke over the top of me and refused to let me get a word in edgeways, and then when I told her that the practice of her listening into other people's phone calls seemed quite sinister, she instantly hung up on me.

Sometimes all you want from a customer services representative is sympathy rather than belligerence. In the end I spoke to the boss of customer services at Stansted, one John Wilson, who seemed incredibly genuine and concerned and has promised to look into the way I was treated. It's so dull.

It was our friend, Stuart's 40th birthday yesterday and my parents took us all out for a fabulous meal in a local pub in the somewhat bleak countryside on the outskirts of Thaxted. Upon arriving, we were made to feel a little like it was a local pub for local people, especially when they denied all knowledge of our booking and told us we "might be lucky" to receive food because the chef "might" have gone home. As it turns out, he hadn't left the premises and the food he cooked us was absolutely delicious.

For the entire time we were there, we were the only customers in the pub. There were no careworn farmers propping up the bar, no ancient crones telling ghost stories and no freakishly well-built children in shell suits smoking outside with their cigarettes twisted into the palms of their hands. There ought to have been. There's witchcraft in them there parts.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Reality TV

It's an evening of telly for us. Nathan's been at a yarn festival all day, so I stayed at home, had a little lie-in, and wrote. I've been working on the opening song from Em, which is super-fast and supremely upbeat. I have to say, I'm getting slightly itchy feet to finish this first round of composing on the show. I want to put everything Em-related away during March and do nothing but work on the Nene project. I can feel myself itching to write sadder, more contemplative material. I suppose I feel a little sad and contemplative right now. Might as well make the most of it. It worked for Sibelius!

There's so much reality TV on at the moment. The Voice, Let It Shine, Dance, Dance, Dance, the Big Painting Challenge, the Great Pottery Throw Down. I don't really know if we'll ever catch up on all the episodes we've not yet seen! We started watching the Big Painting Challenge tonight, which seems to be a veritable box -ticking exercise with painters, mentors, judges and presenters representing a fabulously broad range of ethnic backgrounds. There was even a deaf contestant. What, of course, was missing, was a first-language Welsh or Celtic speaker. In my opinion, there's always considerable less attempt made to represent the proud linguistic diversity of our Nations.

It's worth watching the show for its healthy dollops of bullshit, however. One of the mentors doesn't seem to actually be able to speak without nonsense dripping from her mouth! She's like someone from W1A. One of the contestants is a "concept" artist who was tasked with painting a still life. She ended up dumping a load of wishy-washy paint in totally unrelated shapes on the canvas. When the judges came over, they seemed utterly bemused. I think they wanted to laugh. I certainly did.

Bianca Del Rio

I discovered yesterday that Samuel French's theatre bookshop in Fitzrovia is closing after 187 years. I repeat, 187 years! Sometimes I think a shop which has been with us for so long ought to have protection order slapped on it, but the oldest business in the U.K., the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, is also closing this year. What's going on?! I went to Samuel French's bookshop every week when I was a drama student. It was my little treat. I read a play a day for an entire year, working my way through the alphabet of playwrights' surnames. I'd go into the shop, head to the plays written by playwrights with surnames beginning with that week's letter, and pour over the plays and anthologies until I'd found one which took my fancy. I almost managed to get all the way from A-Z, and stalled at Timberlake Wertenbaker in the Ws. Ironically, I hadn't got as far as Arnold Wesker by the time he came to watch my graduation showcase. The rest is history...

This evening, we travelled east, first, for dinner with Brother Edward and Sascha in a beautiful Swiss-Italian restaurant in Blackwall, and then, via DLR to Limehouse to see my favourite drag queen, Bianca Del Rio doing a stand-up set at the Troxy, a beautiful Art Deco cinema, which I'd never visited before. It's one of those ghastly places where people's sweets and drinks are taken away on the door, plainly in a deeply cynical way to make sure customers buy confectionary at their ludicrously inflated rates. I was told to dump my fruit pastels in a bin. "Perhaps I could collect them on my way out?" I asked. "They won't be here," said the doorman, grumpily. So I told them I was hypoglycaemic, the manager was called, and I was allowed to keep my sweeties!

The warm up act was a British comedy queen called Myra Dubois, whose set was beautifully offensive. "I did a gig recently at Hackney Downs" she said, "I thought it was a charity..."

Bianca Del Rio was, of course, wonderful. She sashayed onto the stage, bright orange hair piled high on her head, screeching, "hello London. How the f**k are you?" And the tone was set. "If you're fat, you're gonna go home crying. If you're a faggot, you're gonna be offended." She barked, shouted, swore like a true New Yorker and insulted everyone from the Chinese to disabled people and everyone and everything in between. The f**kometer exploded after reaching 100 in about five minutes. Not for the faint-hearted, but then, I've never had a faint heart.

Bianca is best known as the acerbic, iconic season six winner of Ru Paul's Drag Race and her star seems to have shone far more brightly than any of the other contestants or winners. She's made feature films and toured the world doing her unique form of stand up which focusses on well-crafted, machine-gun-like ranting. She is horrifyingly rude, but somehow manages to remain entirely likeable. Being rude with charm and grace is an art form in itself.

With Bianca Del Rio, you get the impression of someone who's paid her dues. Fame came for her in her late 30's. She was a New York theatre costumier, and, like Lily Savage, worked every dingy drag club on the circuit, honing her craft under the radar. I have nothing but admiration for her. It was a splendid night out and the auditorium was packed. A massive thank you to my brother and Sascha for thoughtfully taking us there as our Christmas present. We've looked forward to it ever since, and were not disappointed.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

The death of my industry

My good friend Sam recently told me all about a new film which is due to open this year's LGBT film festival. The piece is called Against The Law and it's based on a best selling novel by Peter Wildeblood, a journalist who was imprisoned in the 1950s under the same anti-gay legislation which sent Oscar Wilde to jail in 1895. It was actually his case and similar cases of its type which led to the 1967 Decriminalisation of Homosexuality act, and it's the men who went to jail before this date who've very recently received official pardons. About bloody time! The film certainly looks very interesting, and I shall very much look forward to seeing it.

Here's an interesting thing, however: It seems that just one of the principal cast members in the film is actually an openly gay man, and he (Mark Gatiss) "gives a chilling performance as a prison doctor charged with administering therapeutic measures to homosexuals acquiescing to the idea that they can be ‘changed’." One assumes, therefore, that he's not actually playing gay.

It's a really complicated issue, and it's one upon which I haven't quite formulated an opinion. Here are my thoughts so far...

If you look at many of the most iconic gay films in cinematic history: Maurice, Brokeback Mountain, My Beautiful Laundrette, A Single Man, Milk, the lead roles are almost always played by straight men. To make matters slightly more unpleasant, these straight men often feel the need to assert their masculinity and heterosexuality in interviews associated with the film, and then, flippantly and for the sake of titivation, joke about how the snogging scenes were some of the best on screen kisses they've had in their career. There's a sort of metrosexual machismo which exists in the entertainment world which often involves camping it up for the sake of a cheap laugh.

So whilst countless straight men get to win Oscars for being "brave" enough to play gay, there are very few openly gay actors who get to play straight romantic leads. I once went to a very close female friend's house with a gaggle of other girls to watch films, and the subject of gay actors playing straight men came up, "it would ruin it for me" one said, and the others agreed, "if I knew he was gay in real life, it would take away the romance of the film." This is going back ten years, and society's views are slowly changing, but there, right there, is the reason why so many A lister Hollywood stars are still so firmly trapped in the closet.

I do have some sympathy for the argument, however. Growing up in the 1980s, when the first gay characters started appearing in telly and film, I was often devastated to discover that the actor playing a gay role wasn't actually part of my community. It almost felt as though I was gaining a role model and then instantly having it whipped away again, particularly when, as was inevitable, an interview appeared in the tabloid press where the actor literally wanted to "set the record straight" and make it clear that he'd simply been playing a role, he was happily heterosexual, and that, to boot, he'd been fairly uncomfortable with the gay content of the scenes he'd done. I remember an interview to this effect with Gary Hailes who played Barry Clark on Eastenders, around the time that he was involved in the show's first ever onscreen kiss. Millions of viewers complained. You can really believe it these days.

Now, it's not that I think gay characters should always be played by gay men or that gay men shouldn't play straight. Far from it. But what I would like acknowledged is that there's still a massive disparity in this respect in the movies. Straight actors play gay, and straight actors play straight. Gay actors get to play the best mate of the leading lady, or the comedy fag. How many openly gay men have won a best actor gong? I think none!

Many would argue, of course, that being gay is one of those things people don't really notice. There's a hideous phrase which gets trotted out, which suggests gay people "pass" in society, that someone passing a gay man in the street wouldn't know they were gay, so, as a result, we are unlikely to experience homophobia until we start rubbing our lifestyle choices in people's faces. The same people might argue that having a straight man playing a gay role is not as offensive as a white man pretending to be black. And, of course, this somewhat sweeping argument is largely true.

But actually, most of the straight portrayals of gay men I've seen in film and on telly don't feel hugely authentic.

Sometimes it's simply an aura. Take, for example, Colin Firth's performance in A Single Man, which I found generally unconvincing. In fact, there's a scene in the movie where he kisses a woman, and it felt a great deal more erotic than any of the scenes which involved his kissing men.

If you look at Modern Family, and the two gay characters Cameron and Mitchell, it's no surprise for a gay man to learn that the mincing parody role is played by a straight actor, whilst the altogether more subtle lawyer role is played by a gay actor. And yet my straight friends still love to say things like, "oh yes, so and so was very convincingly gay" and "you'd never guess he was gay by the way he acted..."

To me parallels can and should be drawn with race. Plainly not the blanket black/ white thing, but certainly akin to the sort of questions which are asked when Japanese people play Chinese, and Indians play Bangladeshis. To people living in the countries concerned, the blanket "oh they all look the same" statement is incredibly offensive.

So those are my thoughts on the issue. Feel free to shoot me down in flames!

An email came through today advertising a well-paid commission for a composer who would be required to write a "hip hop version" of Wind in the Willows. This, in the same year that two, separate, non hip-hop musical adaptations of the book have run at the Rose Theatre and in the West End. It's one of those ideas which feels a little like setting Shakespeare on the moon, namely, if you want an edgy, hip hop show, why wouldn't you commission an adaptation of a story with material better suited to that particular style? In the light of Hamilton, this new project simply feels like a band-wagon-jump and I think it's a terrible shame that we live in a world where we're forced to ascertain the genre of a new musical before we find the composer to write it!

The brief for the successful candidate stated that "you must have an in-depth knowledge and passion for hip hop and electronic music as well as a background in melody writing for songs. A knowledge of musical theatre form is desirable but not necessary."

And with that final sentence, my beloved industry gets flushed down the toilet. Imagine a job spec for writers on the Guardian newspaper, which stated "a background in journalism is desirable but not necessary," or a post for a teaching job which claimed the ability to actually teach was secondary to being a cool dude! The continued vilification of musical theatre writers in the U.K. just doesn't make sense to me.

Lead poisoning?

Well, what a foul and murky day it's been! It's rained a lot. The skies have been horribly grey and I've heard nothing but the sibilant roar of car wheels on wet tarmac. As I walked back from the cafe this evening it suddenly struck me how much effort Londoners' brains must put into filtering out the sounds of traffic. It's a constant part of our lives, which also, of course, means that pollution is a very real problem. We live on the A1, and our windows are permanently covered in schmutz. There probably isn't a window cleaner who'd be able to reach our windows up on the third floor, but if there were, his handiwork wouldn't last long. 

Nathan heard a programme on Radio 4 the other day which involved the presenter wandering through central London, wearing one of those special back packs which monitors pollution. The levels were, as you'd expect, worryingly high, to the extent that the advice has become to stick to back alleys and side streets as much as possible to avoid drinking in too many exhaust fumes. Interestingly, by far the highest spike in the readings came when the presenter took a taxi back to base at the end of his walk. The air conditioning in a vehicle effectively pumps the exhaust fumes from the car in front straight into the respiratory systems of the driver and passengers. This effect is worsened in slow moving traffic, which, of course, sums London up, particularly now that most borough operate 20 mph speed limits.

I wonder if I'm slowly dying from lead poisoning?