Just how depressed was T.S. Eliot when he wrote “April is the cruellest month”? What would he have written had the Muse stirred him in late February or early March? Given those days just past, when storm, ice and snow brought Gloom to our island, and with little to look forward to but years of dystopian squalor brought about by Brexit and Trump’s trade wars, February 2018 has got to be up there as a candidate for the Unkindest Month of All. And mid-March brought a new, “mini-Beast” – more withering winds, new snow-flurries – but there are daffodils by the water – Walthamstow Reservoir Number 5 isn’t quite Ullswater, but then I’m not quite William Wordsworth…
But like the Old Romantic, my thoughts have strayed to Lakeland, to the heady sunlit days of last December, when I revisited old haunts for a Christmas amongst old friends, where once I ran a theatre on the banks of Derwent Water. OK, Christmas Eve and Day were frightful, with a hurricane-level storm churning the waters. However that didn’t deter some of my more robust Cumbrian friends from taking a Christmas-morning plunge amongst the surging waves, while I stood agape and full of wonder. Perhaps there is hope after all for a nation with souls capable of such resilience?And optimism soon returned, for on Boxing Day the clouds cleared, the sun came out and for several days we saw the full glory of the Lakes. The sun and the hill-top snow and the glistening water – you pause breathless before such scenery – and almost want to eat it!
The last of these is looking down Derwentwater towards Borrowdale, and was taken from the café at the Theatre by the Lake, successor to the fondly remembered Century Theatre, known affectionately as the Blue Box. This amazing contraption – a travelling collection of trailers and caravans, which toured the highways of England before coming to rest at Keswick in the 1970s – still exists, and if you happen to be into Leicestershire you can go to see it at Coalville, and maybe even to this day catch a show. The County Council there has refurbished and restored this unique artefact – click on the link below, read the history and then click on “What’s On”. It may change your life: it did mine. I first met this theatre-on-wheels in a car park in a snowstorm at Guildford in 1963, and it was to play a recurring part in the twists and turns of a colourful life. Many stories, many – to be unrolled in the memoires. All right, I know – just be patient.
Now when you go to Keswick you will find the splendid Theatre by the Lake – a properly funded, proudly supported asset to Cumbria’s cultural profile – and of course its all-important tourism. It’s now open all year round – in my day we couldn’t operate in the winter – we had a platoon of buckets on the stage to catch the drips from the thawing snow leaking through the roof. Christmas 2017 saw a smart, polished version of The Secret Garden, and from now until the theatre’s own repertoire starts in the early summer there is a well-chosen range of touring shows, including Elizabeth Mansfield’s stirring tribute to Edith Piaf, Hymn to Love, and A Streetcar Named Desire, appropriately produced by English Touring Theatre, a company which has its roots in the touring days of Century Theatre.
And if you are in the Northern Lakes, you mustn’t pass by the amazing Upfront Gallery, in a village not far from Penrith rejoicing in the strange name of Unthank. John and Elaine Parkinson have wrought a miracle in this lovely but remote spot – a gallery, a restaurant – and a wondrous Puppet Theatre. This Easter you can see there Stanelli’s Super Circus – one of the largest and most complete puppet circuses in Europe. Just click on the link below.
When I was a kid in Cardiff one of the after-Christmas milestones beckoning through the winter doldrums was St David’s Day. On the morning of March the First we would all wear a daffodil on our jacket lapels, and at school sing songs and act in plays. I remember leading my class in a parade around the school hall proudly wearing a cardboard crown as a six-year-old King Arthur with Queen Guinevere on my arm, while everyone sang. Sang what? I can’t remember. Bread of Heaven…? No, I doubt it – all I can remember is Guinevere tugging me – and thus the whole parade – to a halt because she could go no further. Her thick, sensible green school knickers had descended, and securely cuffed her ankles! Fortunately the nearest mum sitting at the side of the hall leant out and retrieved the knickers, and we proceeded to proceed. In the afternoon, as usual, we had the afternoon off, so it was home for tea and Welsh-cakes.
This year March the First, as those of you living in the UK will well remember, came in that week when somehow the jet-stream went into reverse and we had blizzards from Siberia. Recently members of my family have become forest folk, living amongst the ancient trees of Epping, where Tudors once hunted deer – and on the saint’s day I went out to visit. The newest edition to our family is a glorious Anglo-French infant called Célestine. My first grand-child – well technically my step-grand-child, since her dad is my stepson Tom – has brought untold joy to these bleak winter days, and Marie her mum cooked a special Franco-Welsh lunch: Coquilles Saint David – scallop shells bearing curls of leek under crunchy toasted cheese – scrumptious!
After lunch we wandered amongst the forest snows, and watched Celestine’s young neighbours whizzing by on toboggans. A few weeks late, but I can’t resist calling the pics we took A Child’s Christmas in Epping….
Apart from lakes and snows, since this is the TYA blog I dare say I should report back on matters theatrical. Well – I have a new party of lovely New Yorkers to show around the London scene, and the high-spots so far this season have included a truly scary performance as a mass-murderer by Jason Watkins in Briony Lavery’s “Frozen” at the Haymarket. I reckon to know a bit about acting, and I was right up at the back of the circle – but suddenly I realised this quiet, still, creepy character was making me really frightened. Here’s an actor whose joyous comic skills in W1A had me chortling helplessly week on week, now making the proverbial hairs stand on end – with absolutely no resort to sound effects, wigs or mechanical devices of any sort! Great stuff, sir.
There’s anarchic fun to be savoured in Napoleon Disrobed, now at the Arcola, then due on tour at Birmingham Rep and at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. The company presenting is Told by An Idiot, and features an inspired double-act between artistic director Paul Hunter and the gloriously talented Ayesha Antoine. The production is steered by none other than Kathryn Hunter, whose colossal reputation is linked of course with Complicité, a major influence on this company.
Don’t go expecting a history lesson – in fact don’t go expecting anything – just go along and enjoy the free-wheeling energy, an evening of sheer comic skill and imagination unleashed. My American students had a terrific time, and adored every minute – and some of them promptly booked for a return visit!
Some of London’s more adventurous creators are currently finding willing and productive out-of-town partners – perhaps reflecting efforts by the Arts Council to redress the oft-bemoaned imbalance between the capital and the regions? Napoleon Disrobed is a joint venture between the Told by an Idiot company and Plymouth Theatre Royal. Meanwhile, the Park Theatre Finsbury Park has got together with the Simple8 Company and the Royal and Derngate Theatre in Northampton to bring us a cracking stage version of A Passage to India, with fine ensemble work including a lovely performance by Liz Crowther as Mrs Moore, the role which brought Peggy Ashcroft an Oscar in the film version back in ’84
And talking of the Oscars, some of us old RADA tutors basked in a little reflected glory when one of our grads was nominated this year. For The Shape of Water Sally Hawkins – already a Golden Globe winner in 2009 – was, along with the rest of the field, clearly not in with a chance against Frances Dormand in the current climate, but now Sally’s on Hollywood’s radar who knows ? It’s a joy to watch people we knew as eager youngsters coming into their own as uniquely engaging, significant and mature artists. For instance, I’ve loved watching Tom Burke’s one-legged TV gumshoe in “Strike”, and this week I saw Ben Whishaw as a riveting, tortured Brutus in “Julius Caesar” at the Bridge Theatre. With me was my friend and TYA colleague Lois Baxter who was one of the RADA audition team who gave Ben his place at Gower St, so we shared a sense of quiet satisfaction – and then an unplanned bonus of a joyful, welcoming hug from Ben in the bar after the show!
The new Bridge Theatre would have gladdened the heart of Stephen Joseph (see last two blogs) in an arresting location opposite the Tower of London – this picture taken as I crossed Tower Bridge en route to the show – the theatre is just out of frame to the left of the Shard.
Nicholas Hytner’s bold new venue is currently in full “in-the-round” configuration, for a zappy modern dress Shakespeare production, in which some of the 900-strong audience can choose to participate in “promenade”, as though they were Roman citizens following the action of “Julius Caesar” on foot within the large central arena. The night we were there this produced an unexpected, unfortunate effect. I was sitting near one of the auditorium doors, and as the show progressed I watched a number of young people being carried or escorted out, one after another, by theatre attendants – youngsters clearly in states of distress and/or illness. At first I thought this was part of the action, and that these were actors, but no, these were audience members, and they were being carried off during the battle scenes – when, this being a modern-dress production – there were lots of flashes and bangs and simulated rifle-fire, inevitably over and around the “promenade” section of the audience. After the show one of my NYU students remarked “Too much gunfire for an American audience…” And then I thought – what if some of the audience were young Americans involved in some way with one of those appalling school shootings? A grim thought, one perhaps to give pause to directors planning simulated violence in this kind of staging.
But to a more up-lifting Spring-like image – the Swifts of Walthamstow Marshes. Part of the rejuvenation of the old Engine House on the Wetlands is the reconstruction of its big chimney as a potential nesting-place for bats – and for swifts, who spend their summers in the marshes before heading off to Africa for the winter. To encourage these welcome temporary immigrants three of my Waterside neighbours, Teresa, Linda and Liz, have joined with other locals to knit an entire flock of swifts! The fruits of their labours are on show at the Mill, Coppermill Lane until mid-April. What a creative tribe now dwells in Walthamstow – see in the background the famous Walthamstow bird-murals – no wonder it’s just been appointed the London Borough of Culture!
Show-biz post-script: There are some of the Great whose passing we can’t ignore. I saw Ken Dodd “live” twice – once at the height of his legendary sold-out run at the London Palladium – a breath-taking, unstoppable phenomenon – steaming through at at least 150 gags an hour, unlike anything before or since – and many years later, at a Sunday-night show at Bath Theatre Royal. Very slightly slower, but still unstoppable – once he was onstage even if you wanted to you couldn’t get him off! This was Ken at 10.45, having been on stage since 8: “I just had a message – the car-park over the road closes at 11.30. I tell you what – we’ll all go over there together at half-past and if they’re closing we’ll duff ’em up…”
OK here’s a challenge: what one-liner might Doddy have come up with at the Pearly Gates when he looked round to see Stephen Hawking arriving just behind him? All good, respectful and suitably plumptious gags accepted.
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THE CENTURY THEATRE
THE THEATRE BY THE LAKE
UPFRONT GALLERY AND PUPPET THEATRE
TOLD BY AN IDIOT
SWIFTS AT THE MILL