“Where, oh where Jones have you been?”
I hear faint cries from the tiny band of readers who haven’t given up entirely on this blog in the weeks since the last entry. Well, I’ve been to London Bridge, I’ve been to Cambridge, and I’ve been to the Charing Cross Road. And I’ve been BUSY, distracted from bloggery by having to learn lines…
Yes, after years of absence from the boards – what Equity calls an “honourable withdrawal” – I’ve been given a chance to make an honourable return, to fulfil a supporting but hopefully useful function as understudy to the remarkable actor Kenneth Cranham, in a remarkable play. This is Florian Zeller’s “The Father”, which won the Prix Molière in Paris last year, the English production of which has come to the West End from Bath Theatre Royal via The Kilburn Tricycle Theatre. James Macdonald’s crisp, sparse production has received more five-star reviews than any other London play for over a decade. We’re now settled into one of the West End’s most beautiful theatres – the Wyndhams – for a limited run until November 21st.
It’s one of the best jobs ever – a lovely company, a cracking play, and a meaty part to get the teeth into in rehearsal without too much danger of having to go before a paying West End audience, since Mr Cranham is as fit and robust as they come.
However, the management surprised us by scheduling a public understudy performance for an invited audience last week. About 300 people turned up, and we managed to give a tidy account of the piece – though I say it myself as shouldn’t – we being my fellow understudies Emily Stride and Tom Michael Blyth, supported by principal actors Rebecca Charles, Kirsty Oswald, and Jim Sturgeon. We had a lovely time, and for me it was well, a sort of homecoming. I’d honestly not realised that deep down I was missing performing onstage, and what a stage on which to return!
Wyndham’s Theatre is a jewel – a masterpiece of Victorian elegance designed by William Sprague, commissioned by actor-manager Charles Wyndham, and it’s graced the Charing Cross Rd since 1898. Unlike some other London venues, it has excellent sight-lines, and an acoustic as sweet as a nut. So it’s a joy to visit, whether you go there to watch or to perform. We were so lucky in that we had an outstanding show stage-management team, great resident theatre staff and in Stella Powell-Jones a fine rehearsal director, all of whom went out of their way to make sure last Tuesday afternoon’s experience was as good as it could possibly be for all concerned. We’ve only got a couple more weeks at the Wyndham’s but there is talk of a regional tour next year, so I do hope that if you haven’t seen it yet, you will next year – and if you’re reading this in America, look out for a new production on Broadway, which I understand is planned for next March.
The play explores the distressing world of dementia, and reflects life as seen through the eyes of someone increasingly afflicted by Alzheimer’s – and yet the tricky subject is so skilfully realised by the writer that even audience members with painful related experiences say they find the show rewarding and entertaining. Last week the play was nominated for the Evening Standard Best New Play Award, and Ken’s been nominated as Best Actor. Ken is partnered onstage by Claire Skinner – two outstanding talents, both at the top of their game.
A quick re-cap. We the under-buddies, as we quaintly call ourselves, joined the “The Father” production as it paused between the Tricycle and the West End transfer. Two new principal cast members had to be settled in during 5 days’ rehearsal – this is a commercial production, so learn your lines, turn up and make it work – no leisurely subsidised theatre rehearsal régime here. We understudies had to sit down, take notes, and get learning, just in case….
The TRB production company had hired into rehearsal rooms at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the fringe theatre near London Bridge. It was in fact a lovely, lovely week – if you were about London in September you’ll recall we had a glorious spell of late summer sun, so in our breaks we sauntered around the Southwark streets, just as Will Shakespeare, Dick Burbage and the other lads in the Lord Chamberlain’s company would have done between rehearsals over at the Globe, two streets away.
Like them, we strolled into the cathedral (where Will’s brother Edmund still rests) and wandered into the market nearby, salivating at the range of foods the stalls offer. If you’ve a free lunchtime, get down there and treat yourself. Glorious cheeses, wondrous fruits and salads, hot roast pork sandwiches – abundance beyond compare! A different indulgent pic-nic lunch for each of the five days, perched on a wall beside the cathedral, the river glistening in the sunlight, gleaming from the glass ramparts of the Shard high above in the blue.
And then off to Cambridge, for a two-week run at the Arts Theatre. Mostly, we had sunshine there too, and while the production played itself in there was time to enjoy more streets steeped in history, more ancient buildings, each evening a view of the sun setting over King’s College, but yards from the stage door.
St Martin’s Court is the common land between the stage doors of the Noel Coward and the Wyndhams, a favourite gathering place for autograph-hunters, especially at present, when there’s a chance of nabbing a famous movie star in the appealing shape of Ms Kidman. Since Ken Cranham and I are not dissimilar – well, we’re the same height and both have grey beards – I’m sometimes asked for autographs by people who think I’m him, but was happily surprised a couple of days ago by three genuine “Pardon My Genie” fans who were actually waiting for me. They were, of course, of a certain age – “PMG” was after all a feature of British television in the 1970s – but they had with them copies of the DVD version, still available I believe on Amazon. After years of directing and teaching, it’s quite startling to be back practising the craft, a weird and deeply unreliable way to earn a crust, but hey – it’s such, such fun…
If you want to catch one of the last London performances of “The Father” – here’s a useful link:
(We close on Saturday November 21st)
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