Monday, 12 November 2018

Blimey

...And breathe! It’s 11am, and I’m still in bed after a fiendishly busy and exhausting week. Today is my first lie-in for what seems an age, and I decided to wake up naturally to see how tired I actually was.

There is something rather special about being awoken by sunlight. I could feel it on my face, streaming through the windows, and when I opened my eyes I was almost blinded by dusty shafts of light.

It has been a hugely successful week, but one which has moved so quickly I’ve barely been able to drink anything in.

The house is a mess, largely because the sitting room has now been re-plastered and we don’t know whether we can expect someone to come in and paint the walls, so all of our belongings are stacked up in piles in our bedroom, like some terrible scene from one of those programmes about recidivist hoarders.

This week saw the opening of my production of Brass at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Seven Sisters. Having seen a weekend of shows, I’m pinning my colours to the mast and saying I would like as many people to come along as possible. It’s two whole years since the last fully-staged production of Brass, so please don’t simply imagine you’ll catch it when it’s on again. I can’t believe I will have many opportunities to direct the show again, so this genuinely is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

It is a stunning production. It looks wonderful. The cast are absolutely amazing. The band sound great. What we’ve created is both life-affirming and deeply moving. Audiences weep openly. I can’t tell you how proud I am of everyone who has had involvement in the show. I have a wonderful family around me of hard-working, dedicated, kind, talented people, all of whom seem to genuinely love the show. The good folk of Mountview have treated me like a prince. It has been one of the happiest periods of my entire life. So, in short, you now have a week to see the fruits of our labours. Please come.

Whilst we toiled away in tech and dress rehearsals for Brass, the production of the same musical at the Union Theatre opened and started busily collecting reviews. It’s done brilliantly. From what I can gather it’s received nothing but four and five star reviews. The quotes have been quite astounding. Michael Arditti in the Express said, "Till's rich, melodious score, its influences, ranging from Marie Lloyd to Vaughan Williams, powerfully conveys the fervour, horror and heartbreak both in the trenches and at home."

BritishTheatre.com wrote “The raison d’etre for this version of the story is the powerful and beautiful music that threads throughout as a conduit for truth and depth of emotions. Till has written a score that pulses with musicality and shines from the opening bravura phrases.”

The musical theatre review went one step further and stated “Benjamin Till has created one of the finest ever pieces of British musical theatre.”

All good.

To add a comic level to the proceedings, whilst the two productions of Brass have been bursting onto the London scene, my 100 Faces Film was premiered, officially last night at the wonderful Phoenix Theatre, literally just up the road from me in Finchley, and unofficially at the opening Gala for the UK Jewish Film Festival on the giant screen at the BFI on the South Bank last Thursday. It is a huge treat to see the film as it was designed to be watched, and a little strange, because so much of my work has been for telly, so I’m used to seeing everything on a smaller screen.

100 Faces seems to have been going down as well as Brass. There have been lots of tears. Lots of laughter. Lots of people telling me it’s made them proud to be Jewish. Perhaps the nicest comment came today from one of the 100 faces:

“I feel a new sense of 'jewish' energy today and feel creative and buzzing.”

Exactly as it should be.

Apologies for the radio silence over the last week. I promise to write more often!

Friday, 2 November 2018

Sitz

We had the sitz probe for Brass tonight. The band is good but I think there was some sort of mix up which meant none of the appropriate sound equipment was delivered to the theatre, so when I arrived our poor M.D. was tearing his hair out!

Fortunately, we have a very good sound designer who managed to rig up a fairly decent sound system which was actually more similar to the usual set up of a sitz, with a line of stand mics at the front of the stage which the singers walk to when they have a line. I think the original plan had been for the cast to wear their head mics and wander about the stage, standing in the places where they would be singing in the actual show: a “bummel probe,” if you like. I actually think this approach would have taken something away from the rather lovely ceremony associated with the cast sitting on chairs and standing to sing, so I wasn’t too fussed, although it would have been good to hear the instruments properly. My careful orchestrations turned into a bit of a wash of sound. It was reverb city up in the band balcony, and the drums weren’t miked.

I left the rehearsal and traveled back on a late night Friday night tube, forgetting how awful drunk people can be. One older woman was so drunk, that, as the doors opened at Kings Cross, she sort of fell out and got her head trapped as they closed again. She literally couldn’t function. I pulled her back into the carriage and asked where she needed to go, and she told me she was going to a place called “Fuck Off”, which I don’t know. I assume it’s on the same line as “Ungrateful Cow.”

Lots of revellers we’re celebrating Hallowe’en, their faces covered in black, red and white makeup. People don’t seem to dress as witches and ghosts with sheets on their heads any more. I think this is a terrible shame. Nathan and I hollowed out pumpkins on Sunday. I thought they were rather good, until I saw a tweet from my choreographer, Simon, who had created the most astounding pieces of art with his pumpkins. He told me that he liked the way I’d used the natural contours of my pumpkin, which was code for “try a little harder next time.”

Sitz ahoy

It’s been a long old week. Yesterday was our last day in the rehearsal studio, so, from now on, everything happens at the Bernie Grant Theatre. The cast are ready and raring to go, so I gave them all a day off before the “sitz” tonight. Sitz is short for “sitzprobe” and it’s one of the most exciting parts of any theatrical voyage, as it’s the first time the cast get to hear the musicians. It’s obviously more scary than exciting for me personally, because these are all new orchestrations, which I’ve not heard before. The band are rehearsing as I write but I’m staying away. No MD wants the composer breathing down his neck in band rehearsals, even if the composer is the director!

I had another nasty-ish accident last night. I was a little shocked and have a few cuts and grazes on my hands, arms and legs but I’m fine. The workmen, who have literally turned the house upside down, managed to break one of the wooden steps running up to the entrance to our flat on account of using the staircase as a basis for a whole scaffolding rig which gives them access to our roof.

The step has essentially broken in half, but instead of replacing it, they’ve got a 2” plank of wood and placed it over the damaged step, thereby making one of the steps 2 inches taller than the rest. Obviously we’re more than used to the feel of our steps, but because we don’t have a motion-sensor light, the staircase suddenly became a health and safety catastrophe last night. In the process of preparing myself to squeeze through the scaffolding on the steps, I lost my footing on the broken step and stacked it big time. It really was most unpleasant. It’s amazing how many parts of your body hit the deck when you go down in that manner!!

I went to see the first preview of Brass at the Union Theatre on Thursday night. It was a little mean of me to go to that performance, but my mate Matt was going and I realised there were limited options for me to see it before my own production kicks off.

The cast were wonderful. There are some brilliant performances and some lovely touches. It’s a difficult and long piece, however, and I think perhaps the creative team underestimated how long they’d need to get things together. I was a little surprised by some of the cuts they’d made, some of the tempi they’d opted for, and some of the parts of the story they’d omitted or not coaxed out of the material. The problem with Brass is that it tells a love story which is quite deliberately underwritten, so unless actors commit to the subtext and you find visual beats to bring these aspects out, you can get half way through act two before you realise what’s going on! The joy about a set of previews is that you have time to hone the material a little, so there’s more time to play. I remember the previews for Taboo. We were changing things all the time. Songs and lines were being cut and coming back in left, right and centre. It was all go.

I’m currently making my way down to Southwark to do a radio interview about Brass, before heading back north to Tottenham. Call me a yo-yo.

It was the tenth anniversary of Coventry Market The Musical yesterday and I did a quick interview on BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire. I still remember the premiere like it was yesterday. They’d put out an enormous red carpet so that everyone could walk from the indoor market itself to the place where they were showing the film. It felt like the whole of Cov had turned out to cheer us all on. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, and I only wish my Grandparents, both Coventrians, had still been alive to see me celebrating the city which had meant so much to them. Harry Hill, who regularly parodies the film on his shows, did an interview before me. He is, apparently, really fond of it. I rather like that the film has followed me about through my life and that people continue to discover its tatty, tongue-in-cheek magic!

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

A meat pastie and a bomb scare

Yesterday was something of a day! Rehearsals went well. We’ve been running the show for the last couple of weeks now, but yesterday morning was the last time we’d have props and bits of set in the rehearsal room. At lunch time, they were all packed up and put onto a lorry to be taken to the venue, so, for the rest of the week, until our tech begins on Sunday, we’re back to using plastic chairs and our imaginations! It’s good for us.

There was quite a todo at lunchtime, when I took myself off to Greggs for soup and a pastie. I asked the lady behind the counter if they had a vegetarian soup and she said they had tomato, so I asked for a cup of that and a cheese and onion pastie. As I placed the soup in the carrier bag, I could see that there was a suspiciously meaty looking blob on the side of the pot, so immediately looked inside and found, to my great dismay, that she’d given me some kind of chicken broth.

I immediately went back to the counter, but the girl who’d served me had gone into the back room. The man who’d replaced her looked quite appalled and, after searching for the girl for way longer than it would have taken to simply replace my soup, he returned and gave me a pot of tomato soup, and I took myself back to Mountview.

I saved the pastie till last. There are few people in the world who don’t love a Greggs cheese and onion pastie and I was really looking forward to it. I took a bite. It tasted weird. There was something gritty and fibrous in my mouth which I pulled out. She’d given me a chicken bake...

I didn’t actually know whether to feel sick or furious. I opted for both. It’s deeply traumatic for any vegetarian to eat meat by mistake, let alone one, like me, who has been a strict vegetarian for 37 years.

I took myself back to Greggs to complain.

The girl behind the counter seemed altogether not bothered. “Oh,” she said, “I’m sorry. It must have been because you were on the phone whilst you were ordering that the order got mixed up...” And in saying this, she told me all I needed to know. She’d plainly taken umbrage at the fact that I was on the phone whilst ordering and had, very deliberately, decided to punish me by giving me two portions of meat as punishment. I told her I was disgusted. “What do you want me to do about it? I’ve apologised.” “I want you to give me a full refund. I want you to give me a proper pastie and I want you to look like you’re sorry...” She walked away...

Cue some rough fucker in the queue stepping forward, “here, you have no right to talk to a lady like that. Would you talk to your wife like that?” “I’m gay” I said. “Would you talk to your boyfriend like that?” “Husband” I said, “and yes, if my husband fed me meat without telling me, I would talk to him like that... in fact, I’d be a great deal more shouty.” This was a red rag to his bull and he rounded on me, “get out of the shop. You’re not welcome here.”

I felt threatened enough to heed his advice and left the shop without the refund or a cheese and onion pastie. The incident was witnessed by a Mountview student who found me later in the day to ask if I was alright and say how shocked she’d been by the way I was treated.

Obviously I instantly took the matter up with Greggs customer services and had to get pretty heavy-handed with them to make them understand that feeding meat to a life-long veggie was a fairly outrageous act. Some serious retraining of that staff member needs to happen. Greggs have subsequently offered me compensation. And so they should. It was a horrible experience all round.

After rehearsals, I went to London Bridge to see my dear friend Nat performing in a play, Pack Of Lies, directed by another dear friend, Hannah Chissick. It was actually dear friends all round because I went to see the play with Anabelle (who plays Kirsty off of the Archers) and Nic (another stunning actress.) We also met up with Tom beforehand who was meant to be seeing the show with us, but, well, that’s a long story...

Anyway, the play, which was at the Menier Chocolate Factory, was wonderfully acted and, of course, directed. It’s a thought-provoking, gently funny piece about a pair of communist spies in Suburbia, which, I discovered afterwards, was actually a true story. Natalie was brilliant, as ever, in the piece. She’s such an intelligent actress.

It was exciting biting (as my dad would say) when a stage manager came onto the stage, asked the actors to leave, and then informed us that we ALL had to leave the theatre, specifically NOT via the entrance we’d come in by. A flustered usher ran out as we were leaving via an emergency exit and started saying “this way out, please, ladies and gentlemen.”

We ended up in an alleyway behind the theatre, actors and audience both in the cold, autumnal air. Nat sidled over and told us that we were in the midst of a bomb scare, and that a bag had been found front of house with wires sticking out of it. It was a surreal experience. The actors weren’t sure whether they ought to be hiding, or somehow maintaining that sense of aloofness, but, in the end, everyone adopted a war time spirit and we all giggled, and huddled like nervous penguins, waiting for the explosion.

The Boys in Blue arrived very swiftly, and stormed dramatically into the building, and rather soon after that point we were told that everything was okay. One of the audience had left his bag in the bar with a phone attached to a charger of some kind. So we all went back into the theatre and the play continued where it had been paused.

I rushed home afterwards after a quick hug with Nat. It was gone 11 and I have another big day today. It did, however, serve to remind me that we’re living in jumpy times and furthermore that places, like theatres, where large numbers of people gather together in small spaces, are vulnerable when it comes to potential acts of terrorism. So the next time someone asks to check your bag as you enter a theatre, hand it over willingly!

Monday, 29 October 2018

Society disintegrates

I wore a jacket this morning for the first time since about last March. It’s funny: I’ve not really noticed Autumn creeping in this year. I haven’t been for nearly enough walks on the heath and the tree outside our kitchen window is always the last to shed its leaves. It was back-lit by the sun this morning and looked lush and tropical. It might have been the height of summer. But, when I stepped outside, there was a distinct chill in the air.

Of course my jacket made me sweat profusely on the crowded underground, which seemed even more crowded than usual this morning. I find myself going very still and withdrawn during my morning commutes. I’ve found it’s best to pretend you don’t exist when things get stressful!

Shul went by without too many hitches on Saturday. That said, on one occasion, we sang a long and somewhat elaborate Amen rather brutally out of tune. I don’t think any of us knew how to remedy the problem, so we all adjusted our tuning in different directions, which meant, as the Amen continued, it became more and more catastrophic. Ah! The joys of singing unaccompanied!

It was Saturday night before I found out what had happened in the synagogue in Pittsburgh. It took me a long time to process the information, largely, I suspect, because there’s still something in me that doesn’t understand anti-semitism and, as a result, don’t quite believe that someone could hate Jewish people enough to do something so grotesquely inhuman. Knowing that he chose a baby-naming ceremony and that an elderly married couple and a 97-year-old holocaust survivor were among the people killed reenforces my belief that there’s a disconnect in society at the moment. The dual-headed beasts of Trump and Brexit have legitimised these extreme, xenophobic views. Listening to Trump blithely describing himself as a Nationalist was chilling in the extreme. “It’s an old-fashioned word,” he said, “which doesn’t get used any more.” More chilling, of course, are the faces in the crowds at his rallies, gurning and grinning like he’s the answer to their prayers. Not a thought between their ears.

Of course, the terrifying thing is that these sorts of attacks have the nasty habit of generating copycats. The shooting at my school when I was 14 was a direct response to the Hungerford massacre. I can guarantee that there will be someone out there, bolstered by Trump or Brexit - or possibly even Corbyn - who believes some convoluted, nonsensical conspiracy theory about Jewish people and decides to have a pop. Of course he may have similarly bizarre views about another minority group. He may not attack a synagogue. He might choose a mosque. A gay bar. A women’s refuge. The frightening thing is that it’s not a matter of “if”, it’s a matter of “when” and “where.”

Friday, 26 October 2018

No roof

You know when you realise you’ve reached the end of your tether? The feeling when you wake up without having caught up on enough sleep? When you walk down to the tube in the morning, dreading getting on a train because you know you’ll have to stand for an hour when you could be sitting down, having a little sleep? The absolute inability to be anything other than deeply ratty and irritable in the face of the tiniest problem? The feeling when your bones creak, your eyes are bloodshot and your mouth is full of ulcers? That!

This year has suddenly caught up on me. My body is screaming for a break. My brain just wants to shut down. I realised there was a problem last night when we went to Julie and Sam’s after rehearsals. Nathan wanted to give them both copies of his book on account of them being the people who got him into knitting. We’d apparently last met up on my birthday, just before Nathan went off on his round-the-world odyssey. I wracked my brain and realised I couldn’t actually remember what we’d done on my birthday this year! It took me a long time to bring the memory back into my head. That is surely the sign of a brain which is over-full!

I guess it never serves one well to complain, because the universe has a habit of really getting stuck in when you whinge! This afternoon, as I left rehearsals, feeling tired and sorry for myself, I had a call from Nathan to say they’d ripped the roof off our house and that our loft was now open to the elements! In a way it’s a good thing because it means the house is finally being fixed, but the photos Nathan sent are surreal - made even stranger by the deep blue sky which was showing through the giant gaps between wooden slats.

They’ve simultaneously also re-plastered the sitting room roof, which is great news, but for half a tonne of dust which has apparently appeared in the process. So when I get home, we better start digging!

I just hope we haven’t got more cowboys coming in.

Monday, 22 October 2018

The Subway Game

My job at Mountview would be perfect if Mountview weren’t in Peckham, or even if Peckham were a tad closer to Highgate. There is something horrific about needing to get up at 7.30am for a job which starts at 10am. I have a bath, eat my breakfast, take a deep breath and then head down to the tube.

I have not yet manage to reach the rehearsal room in anything other than a mega-sweaty mess. There is something deeply dehumanising about being crammed into a boiling hot, moving metal box, filled with passive aggressive people. If I hear one more person saying “could you move down a little bit please?” to a person whose only crime is not to wanting to spend a journey locked in an embrace with a stranger, violence could erupt.

It is, of course, a great deal worse when you have a cold and you really just want a lovely lie-in! I spent much of my journey this morning trying to remind myself that London’s transport infrastructure problems were not the fault of the woman sharpening her elbows to my right. We were both in the same boat, and it was sinking fast. Best to blame Europe!

The dot matrix machine displaying much-needed information about tube trains leaving London Bridge station is presently broken, so every time I stand waiting for the Northern Line, I’m accompanied by some poor LU staff member, talking into a mini-tannoy, telling people which type of train is coming next. The woman who was there tonight was plainly incredibly bored of having conversations with irate customers, so opted to deliver a non-stop monologue:

“Customers are asked to check the destination on the front of the train. As you can see, the sign is broken. We have no idea when it will be fixed. It’s been like this for three weeks, so I’m not holding my breath. I’ll probably be old and on crutches by the time it’s fixed. And I’ll probably still be here delivering this message. Once again, only God himself knows when this sign will be fixed...”

She riffed a bit on the theme and then started all over again.

I was introduced to the Subway Sandwich game by Teri, one of my cast members, a few weeks ago. This won’t appeal to anyone who is not familiar with this particular fast food chain, but, in a nutshell, customers are always met with a bewildering number of questions when they reach the counter. “What sort of bread do you want that sandwich on?” “Do you want a 6” sub or a foot long one?” “Would you like the bread toasted?” “Which salad vegetables would you like with that?” “Can I offer you any sauces or dressings?” “Do you want the meal deal?” “Which drink would you like with that?” And so it goes on...

Anyway, the Subway Sandwich game involves predicting every question you’re going to be asked and ordering your entire meal without once being asked one by the person behind the counter. Believe me: it is far more difficult than it sounds. They always sneak in a little question which blindsides you.

I tried it last week and lost when the server asked if I wanted a single or double portion of cheese. You’ve got to be on it like a bonnet to win the Subway Sandwich game. Try it one day...