Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Trapped in an alley!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe

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

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

Night night.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Chi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Saturday, 20 May 2017

Wonderful London Mozart Players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Two day more

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

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

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

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

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


Wisdom

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

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

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


Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Cathy Come Home

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 15 May 2017

Em tickets are now on sale

We had our first official day of rehearsals on Em today. It was a somewhat unorthodox rehearsal because, immediately after our "meet and greet" with all the technical department, we went into another round of recalls. I think the powers that be just wanted to make sure that all the students had had a chance to properly shine before decisions were made. It seemed wholly inappropriate to cast the show and then immediately dive into a read-through of the script, so we spent the afternoon learning ensemble music.

The cast lists have gone up tonight. Finally. The whole casting process has been utterly exhausting, so Hannah and I are absolutely thrilled at the concept of finally being able to get cracking with rehearsals. The cast are such an extraordinarily talented bunch of people.

Here's a thing. Tickets have gone on sale. They will sell out, and they will sell out fast, so please, please book to avoid disappointment. They cost £10 each, or a fiver for concessions, which seems almost unbelievably good value.

The shows run from June 14th-17th. I think there are matinees on the Friday and Saturday. Book them here. And please book as soon as you read this, or else I can pretty much guarantee you'll miss out.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/em-tickets-34369556268

BAFTAS and EUROVISH

Eurovision never ceases to amaze me. There must be some crazy-assed formula at work which is defined by musical tastes and crazy diasporas across Europe, because it always ends up roughly the same way. There's always a firm favourite before voting begins. It's usually from the old West of Europe and more often than not a perky pop song with a strong gimmick. Last year it was Australia. This year it was Italy. Then suddenly, on the night, a song comes charging down the inside lane which is quirky. Different. Off-the-wall in a way that British people don't necessarily understand. It might be ethno-pop. It might be a veiled protest song. It might just be the most simplistic, honest tune which everyone overlooks until they see the performer in action and fall in love. And this is what happened with Portugal last night. Salvador Sobral is a highly charming performer. He seems to feels the music in his finger tips, and takes himself into a different world whilst performing. Portugal have never won the contest despite entering almost every year since it started. The fans always like it when a country like this has success. Sobral endeared himself to even more viewers by seeming humble and gracious when he won, and then delivering an impassioned speech about the importance of real music. As if that wasn't enough, he then brought his sister onto the stage, who had written the song, giving her the nod which she absolutely deserved in a way that I suspect no other performer in that contest would have done, perhaps with the exception of our Lucie Jones, who was, in short absolutely brilliant. Sobral proceeded to encore his song, sharing the lines with his beautiful sister, who, we then found out, had sung in for him during many rehearsals because the poor guy had a heart defect. You really can't make these stories up. I haven't cried as much at Eurovision since Conshita bellowed, "we are unity and we are unstoppable." Be still my beating heart.

We had a fabulous party. There were, I think, fourteen of us, which is about as perfect a number as you could hope for. I made nachos and potatoes, a salad and some pizzas, and we sat around happily watching the show whilst drinking wine and nibbling on the food. A giant scoreboard was made and decorated by Abbie, Nathan and Tash in the afternoon, and the rest of the guests came from about 7.  I had two godchildren there, three university friends, two Rebel Chorus members, one MD, three actors, a Jewish film specialist, a bass-playing mate from back home in Northamptonshire and a lovely knitter called Tina. Almost everyone was a musician or singer of some description, so the howls of laughter and screeches of horror when some of the acts went for notes they couldn't reach were almost hysterical.

I watched the TV BAFTAs this evening, and I think the cat is now out of the bag and I can reveal that I was one of the judges this year. I was given the task of judging the specialist factual category, which is where Nathan and I were nominated for the wedding. Our shortlist included two films by David Attenborough, a piece about the extraordinary playwright Alan Bennett, and Grayson Perry's All Man. We voted secretly, so none of us knew who had actually won until tonight. It turns out it was the turn of David Attenborough. I actually think all four films were incredibly strong and voting wasn't easy at all. It was a real honour to be asked. I was slightly confused by Sue Perkin's almost obsessive desire to point out what a difficult industry TV is for women. She opened with a statement which appeared to bristle with irony, which confused me enormously; "how strange" she said, "to have a woman presenting an awards ceremony." I genuinely didn't know if she was serious or not. Sue Perkins actually handed me my Grierson award two years ago because she presented those awards as well. I'm sure there are still areas of TV which are very male-heavy (certainly the technical side) but in the fifteen or so films I've made in British television, I've only ever had three male commissioners, one of whom answered to a woman, so my personal experience of TV is that it's actually really strongly female-heavy. That may just be me. Yes, the very top echelons are still very male-heavy, but I think, within a generation this will no longer be the case. I should point out that I adore Sue Perkins. She is a wonderful comedian, and a brilliant person. She is also one of the nicest celebrities I have ever met in the flesh. She presented the BAFTAs with great aplomb, and if she is the first female presenter of the BAFTAs, then this is something we genuinely need to applaud. On the equality front, it was good to see two of the four main acting awards going to BAME actors and I was deeply proud to hear my old boss Shaheen Baig being thanked by one of them. Casting directors so rarely get mentioned in award ceremonies.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Turning on a knife edge

People were actually wearing cagoules as I walked down to the tube yesterday morning. Who wears cagoules these days? I even had to google how to spell the word! I was instantly taken back to childhood trips to teddy bear picnics. The slightly muggy air. The sense that it shouldn't be raining. The firm English belief that the rain would clear and leave us with a very jolly sunny day. Cagoules can be ripped off and shoved in a bag and the rainy morning can be forgotten. All very British.

Rain water came in through our roof last night. It was highly annoying in light of the fact that someone came around to fix our broken guttering just a few months ago. It adds to the somewhat bohemian garret vibe of our flat, I guess. But is it cool to be a boho at the age of 42?

On my way into work yesterday I got obscenely irritated by a young girl with one of those husky, damaged voices, who was pouring herself all over her boyfriend whilst, every twenty seconds or so, making an incredibly loud, desperately/irritating, sea lion-like honk of laughter, plainly to show what a wonderful time she was having sucking on her fella's ear. She couldn't have been drunk at 9am, but was behaving in a way you might expect someone to behave on a night bus at two in the morning. It was the sort of laughter which could easily have turned to tears at any moment. One moment she's all lovey-dovey, the next, she's turned on a knife-edge and is telling him he's a bastard. There was something deeply troubling about the scene in my eyes, because the woman seemed to actively want to paint herself as a sort of silly, pathetic, needy, weak creature. Feminism and decorum be damned. "I've bagged this man and the world needs to know about it."

Speaking of turning on a knife edge. I sat next to a bloke on the tube who was texting someone obsessively. Message after message was being fired off. He dropped the c bomb in the first message I saw him typing, and the messages seemed to get worse from that point onwards. He was on a rant: "Don't lie to me you filthy ho." "Don't f**k guys in cars at your sister's wedding." On and on the pithy little poisoned arrows went. One after the next. He seemed fairly impassive about what he was doing. I looked at his face, expecting to see the eyes of a maniac, but he seemed quite calm. People are strange aren't they?

We had a very busy day on Em today. A morning of music calls followed by recalls to decide who plays what. To me it's always interesting to see how much prep actors put into auditions. Some were brilliantly on the ball. Others felt like they hadn't taken the task as seriously. The big wide world isn't as forgiving as we perhaps were!

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Day two, Em

Day two of Em rehearsals found us back in Southwark doing a full, and highly-exhausting day of music rehearsals. We nailed the first number in some pretty good detail and almost got to the end of another. We have a music call tomorrow morning which ought to mean we'll have the second number pretty much in the bag as well, and that feels like a very good place to be in before official rehearsals begin.

We had a different musical director today. Our Christopher was away on another gig so dep'd the rehearsal out to a friend, who turned out to be an affable and very talented young chap, who did an amazing job, effectively sight-reading the music whilst teaching the cast their material.

The cold continues. I've been overdosing on cups of tea all day but feel an almost crushing sense of tiredness. I sweated through the night and kept waking up in states of increasing confusion. I always feel a little better after eating, however. What is it that they say? Feed a cold, starve a fever?

I learned a very lovely fact earlier, namely that Em means mother in Hebrew. Em, therefore, really couldn't be more perfect a title for a story about a young mother. If I'd have known earlier, I could well have been tempted to make the central character officially Jewish. I've always felt as though she had some sort of Jewish connection...

It's funny how show titles work. I've always been a massive fan of one-word titles, particularly if the word chosen feels like it says something meaningful about the piece. One-word, easily-spelt titles are far more memorable and can become an important part of a show's brand. People remember the word "Brass," for example, far more than they ever do "Beyond The Fence", a title which was thrust upon us by the show's producers, who wouldn't allow us to use the catchier working title, "Green Gate." It turns out that prepositions are hopeless in show titles, a fact we learned after people variously started calling our show "Over The Fence", "Across the Fence" or "On The Wall!" No one ever called Brass "Tin" or "Copper!"

I'm actually hoping Em will get the record for the shortest title for a work of musical theatre. There are some numerical titles which might offer stiff competition, but I believe Yestin's, Nine is only ever written in letters. Jason Robert Brown's 13, however, is usually written numerically, so that would offer a two-figure title. (It takes longer to say however.) I can't think of a one-letter musical title. Can anyone reading this?

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Em journey begins

We had our first proper rehearsal for Em today and it came in the shape of a music call. Em is a tricky old score and having a few days of vocal calls before proper rehearsals begin is a real godsend. It introduces the cast to the landscape of the music and gives them a sense of the task ahead in terms of how much work they'll need to put into learning harmonies. It's a little unorthodox to do all of this before we know who is playing what in the show, but we're only working our way through ensemble material and I'm pretty sure none of the actors will mind being taken out of singing a harmony line because they've got a major solo in the song instead!

They're definitely a talented and very friendly bunch and they're doing immensely well despite looking a little like rabbits in headlights for much of today. At one point the MD Chris caused mass hysteria by telling them to do the number one more time before allowing them to go outside "so that their brains could fart!"

The area we're rehearsing in is just around the corner from my osteopath in Borough, which makes it handy if everything gets highly stressful! I am a little disappointed we're not up at Swiss Cottage because I had all these wonderful plans to walk home across the Heath every night after rehearsals. Borough isn't exactly jam-packed with lunchtime food options either. Yesterday I couldn't even find a shop that would sell me a little notepad. It's quite a pleasing area on the eye, however, filled with railway arches and somewhat brooding Victorian warehouses. Very much my aesthetic.

Every inch or ounce of spare time now has to go into orchestrating the songs. It feels like an episode of Challenge Anneka!

Eurovision semi one!

I went to bed two nights ago with that all-too familiar sense that I was coming down with a cold. A slight sore throat. A bit of a sweat on. I don't think I can put it down to anything other than my body telling me to stop over-doing it with work. I finished and delivered both the script and the vocal/piano score of Em yesterday afternoon, and I think my body could see the end in sight and simply threw in the towel without realising that I've still got to orchestrate the soddin' show!

I did, however, take the morning off yesterday. I lay in bed for some time, then made myself a bowl of Shreddies and a cup of tea before going back under the covers. By the time I'd had my bath and done a bit of prepping on a manuscript, it was lunch time, although I did feel a great deal more chipper by then.

Nathan was rehearsing all morning and arrived home just as I was preparing to head into town. I felt a little guilty throwing my computer at him, and asking him to cast his eye over the final two songs of the show, but I had an overwhelming sense that I needed to deliver all the rehearsal material before Eurovision season kicked off at 8pm.

My meeting in town was with the incomparable, James Hadley, who is one of the guardians of new musical theatre in the U.K. He's always been a great sounding board for me, and is happy to listen when I feel the need to whinge or get on my soap box and rant. He is a hugely calming presence, and, moreover, one of those wonderful champions of musical theatre who live for the art form without actually seeming to want or need to simultaneously promote their own writing career. And in a world where all writers have been forced to become huge self-promoters, this is incredibly rare. He cheered me up no end. I was really pleased I went.

I travelled home via Sainsbury's, where I bought copious amounts of food for the evening. I got incredibly hot whilst wandering about the shop, and then spent the journey back to Highgate sweating profusely. No doubt as a result of the cold.

Young Ben Jones and Harrison came over this evening to watch the first semi-final for this year's Eurovision. It was a funny old show, presented by not two, but three men. The theme of Eurovision this year is diversity, so an all-male line up seemed like an odd choice, particularly in light of the fact that it's the first year since 1956 where there hasn't been some sort of female host. It was a typically embarrassing affair: loads of jokes delivered in broken English which didn't actually translate into English, and then we learned that the Ukrainian concept of diversity was merely that scores of performers from different countries across Europe were coming together to perform music. Slightly missing the point I'd say. That said, the interval act came courtesy of, Verka Seduchka, a much-loved Ukrainian drag performer who entered Eurovision in 2007. Keen Europhiles will remember her as the lass who wore a silver space suit and a three-dimensional star as a hat.

The entertainment started off with a shaky, nervy performance by Sweden, who are tipped to do very well in the show, followed by a load of really dull, tuneless songs, which, sadly, included the mush from Australia, which couldn't even hold a torch to last year's extraordinary entry. The night picked up with stellar performances from Finland, Moldova and Portugal. The Portuguese entry is an incredibly old-school, rather wistful and moving song performed by a somewhat quirky young man.

I was devastated when the Finnish entry didn't go through into the final. I even voted for the song. All the other results were pretty much as I'd expected. They showed a little clip of the UK entry, which, for the first time in years, looks like it's been rather classily staged. They've got Lucy Jones, a musical theatre singer, doing it, which means it's being performed by someone with the chops to do it justice, and, more crucially, someone who won't fall apart under pressure. And it's actually quite a good song. My only sadness is that it's written by a Danish person. Eurovision is a song contest, not a performer contest, and the idea that the BBC couldn't find a home-grown writer to represent one of the biggest exporters of music in the world is almost laughable. It's certainly shameful.

We ate nachos and chips... with salad (for health reasons) and laughed pretty much all night. Brother Edward was texting from the stadium in Ukraine where the action was taking place, and we FaceTimed each other at the end of the evening, whilst Nathan, Ben and Harrison danced to the Italian song, which will almost certainly win. I haven't heard so much buzz about a Eurovision song since Loreen.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Where's the music

Every morning I walk up into Highgate Village to work in a cafe. The walk involves passing the music block at Highgate School, which is a three-story building with scores of windows, each of which belongs to a separate practise room. A cacophony of beautiful music drifts down onto the street. Every time I walk past, it seems another instrument is playing. Today's cohort of musicians included a young male singer and a flautist. Highgate School plainly has a vibrant musical scene, and I'm often staggered to think that I'm listening to the pupils of just one school. Then I always feel a little sad. Highgate school is plainly one of the poshest and most expensive in the country. And, like all private schools, it values its expressive and performing arts in a way that comprehensive schools just aren't allowed to these days.

We watched Britain's Got Talent yesterday. The episode featured a young black lad playing the piano. Rather well as it happens. Afterwards, he explained that he'd come from a North London council estate and that the piano had saved him from a life of drugs and gang violence, citing his school's music teacher as his biggest influence. The joy about music, drama, art and sport - the very subjects that the government are starving in schools - is that you can be good at them without being conventionally academic. They are the empowering subjects which can give underprivileged kids confidence and hope for better lives. Stories have started to emerge of headteachers tendering their resignations because they no longer feel they can justify teaching the narrow curriculum which the government values. My friends with kids are bailing out of the state school system or paying through the nose to get their kids through their 11 plus exams. It's a horrible mess, and I can't believe that people seem to content to merely stand around and let it happen. Music must not become the terrain of the wealthy.

A woman stopped me outside Archway Tube Station today to ask me where the station was. Because we were standing right underneath the sign for the underground, I wondered if she was looking for one of the local overground stops. "Which station are you after?" I asked. She pointed at the entrance to the tube. "That one." I was immediately rendered speechless! "But you're pointing at it!" I said. "Yes" she said, "I suppose I am." She didn't seem to find anything particularly amusing about our exchange, so I made a hasty exit, in case she decided to ask any more bizarrely obvious questions like "who am I?" Or "what am I wearing?"

This afternoon I trekked down to Borough to run the first round of auditions for Em, and, in the process, met all but two of the third year students who will be performing Em. It's suddenly a reality! And a very exciting one. There are some genuinely talented young people in that year group and I very much enjoyed meeting them. There are some big casting challenges, many of which involve people who aren't from Liverpool, Ireland or Wales having to do those three accents. It's fairly unlucky that we have an entire year group performing this show, none of whom hail from any of the places where the characters are actually meant to come from! Except Ruby. She's a genuine Midlander. You don't get many of those in the entertainment industry. We're all too busy apologising for being any good!

Monday, 8 May 2017

Scansion Nazi

Nathan rushed off to Parson's Green this morning for an emergency ear syringing. He's always suffered from a build up of wax in his ears, and no one ever seems to be able to offer a definitive answer regarding whether syringing - or lavaging as they call it in the States - is good for the ears or not. Whether the procedure is good or bad, the emergency NHS walk-in clinic at Parson's Green is an undiscovered London gem. It's open every day, and doesn't seem to generate the ludicrous waiting times that you get in hospitals.

We had lunch in the greasy spoon when Nathan returned, before ploughing head-long into a mega session on songs from Em, which finally finished at around 11pm. Nathan has an astoundingly good eye/ ear for detail when it comes to music - particularly sung music - and has cutthroat, somewhat dogmatic views when it comes to scansion. The beats in music that words are placed on are of great importance to Nathan. In his view, it's a great sin to sing a word in a rhythm that you wouldn't naturally speak it in. And he's right. So often, in music - across the board from opera through to pop - composers place the wrong syllable on the wrong beat of the music, and this often either leads to misinterpretation of meaning, or the general sense that the character or artist singing the words is of limited intelligence! I'm personally pretty good at avoiding this particular misdemeanour, but every so often, a clanger pops into my writing, which Nathan expunges with alacrity. He's very good at rolling his eyes to the back of his head and giving me a look which says "really? You really think that's good enough?" It's good for me to be challenged.

So, essentially, we sat for eight hours today underneath headphones. And still we're not done. We'll get there, and actually, as a result of the work we did, I'm getting rather excited about Em, and the journey which lies ahead. I think I've written some belting music which will both move and excite the listener. There is, however, a deliberate, yet somewhat hidden double entendre lurking in one of the song's lyrics. It's so filthy that I'm actually not going to point it out to any of the cast in the hope that they'll innocently sing it for five shows, wondering why little pockets of the audience are in stitches! It's one of those double entendres that you have to have a certain kind of mind to notice. Brownie points to the first person who spots it!

We finished work and watched Ru Paul's Drag Race, which is one of my favourite TV shows in the world. It is quintessential cult viewing, ram-packed with catch-phrases which fans of the show will happily quote to one another whilst everyone else stands by and goes "what?!"

Nathan finished knitting a stunning cowl this evening which looks like some kind of primitive art sculpture from the 1970s. It's actually one of the best pieces of knitting he's ever done. It's really textured and three-dimensional and I'm sure it's going to be a very popular pattern. He's sewing the ends in whilst I write this.

Brother Edward face-timed me from Kiev. He's there for the Eurovision Song Contest. Yes. It's that time of the year again! The gay men's World Cup. I can feel my heart pounding at the thought!

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Heathy

I spent much of the day working, having woken up rather early after another series of bizarre dreams. My subconscious and conscious need to have a little chat, I suspect, to work out the messages which are trying to get through. In one dream, my mother was telling me off for leaving footprints in soapy suds on a bathroom floor. In another, a random man was wearing a hedge for a hat. Where does that stuff come from?!

I continued to work on the two naughty songs from Em. I'm gradually whipping them into shape, but they're proving to be much wilder beasts than I'd ever imagined.

At 4pm I met my mate Michael at Highgate tube and we went for a stroll on the Heath. It looks absolutely splendid at this time of year. The rhododendrons are in full bloom at Kenwood House. I think they were perhaps the most vivid colours I've ever seen in nature. Hot pinks. Bright reds. Peaches and oranges. Quite stunning.

We walked up towards the old quarry at Sandy Hill, where we were visited by a friendly robin, before heading across to the pergola. I was astonished to discover that Michael had never visited that particular Heath highlight. The wisteria was out and the air was ripe with the smell of the herbs from the garden below. It genuinely is a hidden gem. I wonder if someone would pay me to give tours of Hampstead Heath?

From the pergola we went to the tree with the hole in it. I take everyone there. You could probably find this exact blog post written at least twice a year for the last seven years!

London looked very dirty and smoggy from vantage points where you usually get very clear views. You could barely see the skyscrapers down in Canary Wharf. A thick mauve cloud seemed to be hovering over the city.

We bought picnic food in Marks and Spencer's down at Southend Green before returning to the Heath where we sat, as the sun set, in the field behind the Ladies' Pond, eating cheese and a raspberry trifle. Parakeets flashed through the sky, squawking in that familiar, yet vacuous style. The sun disappeared behind clouds and the air turned very cold, but as we headed back to the car, it reappeared again, through a gap in the cloud, like a giant shimmering milk bottle top.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Best new songs

I woke up to the news this morning that the song Brass, Brass off of Brass, has been nominated for the Stiles and Drewe award for best new song. There are twelve finalists. It's actually the only UK song competition for new musical theatre writing, so it's a huge honour to have made the shortlist. I shan't win. Stiles and Drewe tend to favour the wittier end of the spectrum when it comes to this award. Brass will almost certainly prove too worthy and gloomy for their tastes, but I am hugely grateful for the nod.

Brass is obviously the title track from the show, and title tracks are really important numbers because they often cement what or who the show is about. I am reminded of a somewhat amusing occurrence at a recent cabaret when a young girl stood up to introduce the "title" song from her show... which had an entirely different name!

Anyway, aside from my utter horror at the political situation in the U.K. right now, I genuinely have very little else to write about. The day has been about doing remedial work on two songs from Em, which, I discovered, needed considerable help when I reopened the files this morning. They're in a much better state as a result of what I've done today although I suspect they're still not quite ready for sign off.

I spent much of the day doing the unspeakable and watching and listening to football commentaries from the 1960s. I'm trying to recreate an authentic account of the 1965 Charity Shield between Manchester United and Liverpool. Sadly, I can't find a recording of that particular match. It was a draw, so I can't imagine that the commentary was hugely exciting, but for the purpose of Em, it needs to be. I'm so unfamiliar with football that I don't even know if fans would be happy with a draw. It strikes me as a rather honourable outcome. I don't think they played extra time in those days or did penalty shoot-outs, so perhaps it happened more regularly. Bobby Charlton seems to score goals in every clip I watch. He was plainly a very wonderful footballer... for someone who looks like the guy from the Hamlet advert!

I had the most vivid dreams last night. In one of them, I was in the Middle East somewhere, but as I walked around, I realised I was being coated with thin a layer of salt or sand. Now which part of my subconscious came up with that?!

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Michelle's music

We had a day of absolute mayhem today. There was far too much to do and both of us had ridiculous expectations regarding what was achievable. I plough on through Em, continuously underestimating how much work remains to be done on each number. I drove down to Bexleyheath last night to see director Hannah and we had a lovely meal sitting at her kitchen table whilst reading the entire show out loud. Just the two of us. There was an unwritten understanding that she would try to read the girls' parts and I would read the boys' parts, but it's a fairly girl-heavy show, so I ended up reading my fair share of the fairer sex. There was one scene which has so many characters in it that we basically ended up reading anything we fancied. The first person to open their mouth got first dibs! It was a lot of fun. I adore Hannah and can't wait to get back in a rehearsal room with her again.

So anyway, after a day of panicking, which culminated in me having an hysterical laughing fit as Nathan and I tried to wind a shed load of wool into a manageable-sized cake, we jumped on a tube to Sloane Square and headed to the Pheasantry on the King's Road. At one stage it felt like the Pheasantry was a second home, I was there so often to watch cabarets being performed by friends, but I haven't been there for absolutely ages. I don't really think I go out that much any more!

Tonight's entertainment was really very lovely. It was essentially a night of songs from the golden age of film, interspersed with music by my very talented mate, Michelle. I can personally take or leave covers of songs written by Rogers and Hammerstein, and if I never hear "So Long, Fairwell" from the Sound of Music again I will die a happy man, but I'd travel a long way to hear songs by Michelle. She's been writing now for a sickeningly short period of time, but seems to have a musical theatre sonic landscape fully formed in the recesses of her mind. Her songs all bring out the best in their vocalists. They're very British with a hint of Hollywood glamour and always very still in an impressionist sort of way. Fleeting is perhaps a good word. Misty. Dreamlike. Timeless. I was very proud.

A man got on the tube as I was travelling home tonight. He had quite an impressive moustache, and, instinctively, I gave him the look that I've come to realise all moustachioed men give to one another. It's a look which says, "I approve, and I'm with you, brother." The look is, of course, fairly meaningless if you're no longer wearing a moustache! The bloke must have thought I was insane!


Shower of Scuts

I was very heartened yesterday, whilst sitting in the window of the cafe, to see a teenaged couple holding hands whilst waiting for a bus. They were probably around sixteen and, under normal circumstances, the sight of them together would have been wholly unremarkable. What made it very special was the fact that the "female" half of the couple was either in the early stages of transitioning or gender fluid. There was nothing furtive about their behaviour. They were simply holding hands in a way that suggested they were both incredibly comfortable with each other and the situation they were in. And I'm proud to say that no one was staring at them disapprovingly or even double-taking. And that made me feel very happy. It is astounding to think how far the LGBT community has travelled in the 42 years I've been living on this planet. Perhaps my desire to even write these sentiments down will seem unnecessary and old-fashioned to young people, but I think it's important to remember how far we've come because situations can reverse. History never repeats itself. Man always does.

Theresa May is a twat isn't she? All this "I'm going to be a really difficult woman" shite simply to show the ludicrous UKIP voters that she's more Thatcher than Thatcher. Meanwhile, she's royally titsing off Europe and blowing any chances we ever had of getting a good Brexit deal, whilst blithely and somewhat proudly telling us we've got a bumpy ride ahead with a sort of "you asked for this" smirk. "Mummy doesn't want to hit you, but you've forced her to." Poor Mummy.

As for the shower of inadequacy which faces her from the other side of the House of Commons, well, there really are no words. Dianne Abbott is like some sort of cartoon parody: the hopeless drudge who thought she'd never be loved, who finally bags herself a man, and then wants the world to watch her snogging him. Sadly the world simply watches the dreadful scene with a mixture of amusement and horror. The interview where she was trying to guess how much policemen cost was beyond excruciating.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

To moustache or not to moustache

We've finally reached the time of year where the ash tree in our back garden bursts into life. Since the hideous council forced four of the trees along our alleyway to be felled, in order to save a Victorian wall which was knocked down anyway and replaced with a fence, our tree has been the largest in the neighbourhood. Go tree!

Anyway, it eventually loses its leaves in December which is incredibly late, so I suppose it's only right that it bursts into life a little later than its friends. The window in our kitchen is enormous, and right now, all I can see through it are little tufts of fresh, minty green. Sadly they're not as reinvigorating this morning as they might ordinarily be. I am exhausted, and can barely keep my eyes open on account of having been awake through much of the night tossing and turning about the sheer amount of stuff I need to achieve on Em. I got up in the night and wrote from 3am to 5am. I'm not really complaining as it was quite a good, intense period of woke, and, anyway, who wrote the book which insists a writer keep the same working hours as a civil servant?

The problem I'm having is that the last song I have to write for the musical is bigger, fuller and longer than I'd hitherto imagined it needed to be. Because of this I need time for it to settle and I'm just not hugely time rich at the moment. What is it with deadlines that makes us always want a week more than we have? I don't think I've ever reached a deadline and thought "yep, that's hurtling towards me on the horizon and I feel good about the place I'm in!"

In other news, I've shaved off my moustache. It was an agonising decision which I took about a week trying to make. Ultimately, these curly moustaches are quite a faff to maintain, and I used to get incredibly frustrated with it, particularly towards the end when I kept mistakenly pulling out the hairs from the right hand wing, which had the effect of making the moustache even more unmanageable. I guess I'd also started to wonder whether people perceived it as a bit of a comedy or "try hard" statement. I saw a couple of pictures of myself looking like a cross between a basket ball and a walrus and ultimately wondered whether the look was working for me! Yes, of course, I'll miss people coming up to me in the street and complimenting me, and part of me thinks the moustache gave me back the somewhat bohemian vibe I'd lost when my hair lost the lustrous curls it had when I was a young man. But it was ageing. And it was bright orange. And even though I still keep raising my hand to my face to twirl and tweak it, I think it was the right decision to get rid of it. For now.

Those who knew me before the moustache will undoubtedly barely notice. Those, who have met me since, for whom the moustache is a defining feature, will find it very odd. The lady who served me in Costa yesterday said, "are you still drinking tea now that you're an entirely different person?!"

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Too much coffee?

The Highgate kids are back at school in force today, chirping and chattering in the cafes in their ludicrously plumby accents. This morning's topic of conversation was what syndromes and conditions you needed to claim you had in order to get a degree of lenience in exams. Top of their list of easy things to fake was ADHD "too much coffee and you're basically there" followed by dyslexia, "everyone knows you just need to say that the words are floating about on the page and you get all sorts of perks." They continued, "depression is a good one cus they can't really argue with that." On and on they went in those tidy little accents which told me that it doesn't actually matter what they get for their exams: their schooling up in the village is merely preparing them for a life of ease. I don't remember ever being able to afford to sit in a cafe during free periods when I was that age. Tammy and I used to go down Kwik Save to buy sweets to surreptitiously eat during A level geography, but sitting in a cafe would have seemed a considerable luxury. There might have been a kettle in the sixth form common room. That was about as decadent as it got!

I worked all day yesterday. As usual, it felt both virtuous and ludicrous to be working on a bank holiday.

In the evening, we went to dinner at Michelle and Ben's stunning new house in Hatfield. Abbie and Ian were also there which meant there were three couples: one in their twenties, one in their thirties and the old boys in their forties. The odd thing about being in my forties is that I don't feel any older than I was at 22. I feel wiser, maybe, and perhaps a little bit more cynical as I see variations of the same initiatives and moral panics coming back round on ten year cycles. Bizarrely, it was the youngest couple there who were the proper grown ups with a proper house and a proper mortgage.

Their house is built in the 1960s chalet style, a type of architecture based on bringing as much light into a space as possible. They have the most beautiful sitting room which takes up the whole of the first floor of the house. Stunning lime green light poured in from the outside through floor-to-ceiling windows.

The only drawback, it seems, to living in the commuter belt seems to be having busy-body neighbours who complain about the sound you make when you walk up and down flights of stairs, and the type of washing line you have in the garden. Apparently all this stuff needs to be "Street approved." I just don't think I'd be able to deal politely with that sort of thing. Life is definitely too short. I may have to stay in London for a few years yet. Mortgage or no mortgage!