We’re on the road. The second WestEnd run of “The Father” – a pre-booked five weeks spell at the Duke of Yorks – seemed to last about five minutes. It was hugely enjoyable, and intriguing to note how a shift of a few hundred yards – the distance from the Wyndham’s Theatre (where we played before Christmas) to the Duke of York’s Theatre – brings a new focus, a new set of perspectives. The former is anchored at the corner of Leicester Square and the Charing Cross Road, the latter flanks the lower reaches of St Martin’s Lane, close by a fine view of Trafalgar Square across the steps of St Martin’s church. And St Martin’s in the Fields is the big player in this corner of London, providing succour and support to London’s ever-increasing homeless while offering the rest of us, as well as services and prayers, an almost daily serving of fine music.
Just around the corner from Maggie Hambling’s sculpture of Oscar Wilde staring at the stars from the gutter, you can descend beneath the street to St Martin’s crypt, where you find a great gift shop, meeting rooms, chapel, an art gallery – and a large self-service, licensed restaurant serving good food at reasonable prices, an increasingly rare phenomenon in theatre-land.
If you would seek Oscar’s monument…..look under the cardboard coffee cups.
But a few weeks on, and St Martin’s Court seems another country, a distant time. We started our tour at Guildford, where the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre sits beside a tumbling mill-race. I first visited a theatre in the riverside car-park in this town in the early 60s, on a visit to the famous Century Theatre, which was a touring theatre building. Yes, building. This extraordinary phenomenon toured the towns and cities of post-war England, in Guildford keeping the creative flame alight while funds were raised to replace the burned out repertory theatre in North St. The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre was completed in 1965.
(The Century Theatre toured Britain between 1952 and 72, when it settled in Keswick, Cumbria.)
We had a great week as spring began cautiously (and mistily) to arrive. Back in 1066 William the Conqueror spotted the potential of Guildford as a regional centre, and built a tidy castle up on the top of a hill overlooking the town, which he clearly meant to last. And last it did, and it’s now surrounded by lovely gardens and great views across Surrey.
We held our breath as the Guildford week finished – for that was the weekend of the UK’s most prestigious theatre event, the Olivier Awards, and our show had been nominated in two categories. The event was televised on the Sunday
The play itself lost out to “Hangmen” in the Best New Play list, but then came the keenly awaited presentation of the Best Male Actor award. There had been feverish speculation in the media about a head-to-head confrontation between Benedict Cumberbatch for “Hamlet” and Mark Rylance for “Farinelli and the King”.
Well, the award went to….Kenneth Cranham for “The Father”! Our jubilation knew no bounds.
Then the press reports came out the next morning. In both the Daily Mail and the Daily Express reports of the Olivier Awards much was made (quite rightly) of Dame Judi Dench’s record-breaking eighth prize, and then of the fact that both Mark Rylance and Benedict Cumberbatch had been “disappointed” in their hopes of the Best Actor Award – but NO MENTION AT ALL was made of the actor who had actually won it! I tell you, it takes a lot for me to tweet, but tweet I did. I still don’t really understand tweeting, but I felt a bit better for it as my train snaked south and west. The spirit of the players, my lord, never fades, be it recognised by the scurvy press or not, and we took our play to Cornwall.
The castles of England have perhaps proved a more enduring network than our country’s theatres – William and his northmen built theirs after they’d succeeded in conquering England over 900 years ago. Some years later an English king descended from a long line of Welshmen – Henry V111 – wanted to fend off anyone with similar ideas, and so built some impressive coastland fortresses. One of which still dominates the headland at Falmouth, just down the road from our next touring venue, the Hall for Cornwall at Truro. The British army only stopped using this castle as an operational military base in 1956, so even though Henry found picking wives a bit of a challenge, he was good at castles.
Pendennis Castle, Falmouth
Truro’s a neat little city, dominated by a fine Victorian cathedral. I had lovely quiet digs (link below) and – no thanks to the Mail or Express – the news of Ken’s award clearly had an affect on the ticket-sales, as the wide hall (a converted market-building) filled up nicely.
On my one full day off, I took the local train to St Ives. I’d always wanted to go there for a range of reasons, some personal,so it was a kind of a pilgrimage. It’s easy to see why, in the early and middle years of the last century, the Cornish coast was a magnet for artists. Whether the sun shines or not, the light has a special quality, the air salty and sharp. And when it’s bright the sea and sky are boldly blue, with sub-tropical trees deeply green beside the flinty grey and white of the buildings. Although the town was enjoying a healthy crop of tourists, I found the (still operational) Bernard Leach pottery almost deserted, and wandered in the quiet of Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture garden.
The clay room, Bernard Leach Pottery
And of course there are still artists and craftsmen at work, so as a memento I bought myself a present of a tiny piece of seaside artistry. I’m not sure what the process is that creates “forced glass”, but here it is. It’s by Claire Harris.
Then back home, and a week’s nice easy commute to Richmond Theatre – another small piece of fine craft-work, this time by the great Victorian architect, Frank Matcham. Size is of course relative, Richmond Theatre isn’tthat small – about 800 seats – but it’s modest alongside his famous blockbusters like The London Palladium or our next stunning venue, The Theatre Royal Newcastle. This glorious palace recently had a £4.75m refurbishment, and it feels like it – it’s terrific to work in or to watch shows in, and the locals are rightly very proud of it.
The same can be said of Tyneside in general, well certainly last week, when we had a glorious mini heat-wave. Although I’d been to Newcastle before I’ve never taken time to explore. It was a happily packed week, camera-clicking on the Tyne and in the city, and by the beaches of the nearby coast
The sun on the Tyne is all mine….the lighthouse, Whitley Bay.and the Gate, Newcastle Castle
Local travel is swift and easy on the Metro train system, fittingly since this is where the great rail engineers, George and Robert Stephenson came from, and while the Metro engines and rolling-stock are sleek and efficient, some of the local stations reflect a more ornate age:
The railway station, Tynemouth
Mind you, the local trains need to be good – at rush hours the traffic is ghastly – there are amazing bridges, and the traffic planners in the 60s did their best to create through-ways – but you have two busy adjacent cities, Newcastle to the north of the river, Gateshead to the south, both with steep, narrow ancient streets. I hired a car for an overnight trip to visit loved ones in North Yorkshire – and if ever you need to hire a car on Tyneside, take my tip, don’t do as I did, hire in the city centre – make straight for the airport and hire there. It’s about 20 minutes each way by Metro, and you save a lot of time and money!
Back at the Theatre Royal we toasted two men of genius, firstly the great Matcham (our brilliant leading man here seen inspecting the bust proudly displayed front-of-house) and of course Will Shakespeare, the 400th anniversary of whose passing coincided with our visit. The Friends of the Theatre Royal invited Ken to read a sonnet at a celebratory event, and I read one as well along with my fellow understudy, Tom Michael Blyth. Because of the content of our play, the event raised funds for the Alzheimers’ Society, an organisation which Tom is also seeking to support via a new “all-the-sonnets” web-site – of which more news anon.
Newcastle is alive with culture – famous art galleries, an astonishing silver concert hall, and at least two other significant theatres apart from the Theatre Royal. There’s the wonderfully attractive and welcoming Live Theatre – a dynamic producing house, famous for new work – and another superb Victorian survival, the Tyne Theatre and Opera House, which is home to a fine set of vintage stage machinery, and amongst other projects, a training programme for young performers.
The Theatre Royal also has a training agenda, including a year-long foundation course for those seriously considering going on to professional training. As you can imagine, on finding out about this I reached for my TYA hat and made enquiries. More information can be found in the links section below.
From the top north-east corner of England we swooped south, to the gulls and cockles and candy-floss at Brighton. But the sun had stayed on the Tyne!
Yet another fine Victorian Theatre Royal, in a town famous for its mix of elegance and sleaze, the opulent and the tacky. You can find bargains in the Lanes, eat fish and chips sometimes almost as good as those in the north-east, or pick your way through hordes of French students to inspect the Pier, which is currently up for sale should you have millions spare to invest in something more adventurous than failing retail stores or dodgy banks…
It’s been a lovely week, and a sad one. On Friday I had the melancholy task of speaking at an old friend’s funeral. Graeme Eton was a fine actor, teacher, sportsman, sometime contributor to TYA, and a man of charm and wit. In yet another week of grim news, most especially of the wretched combined police and press wickedness over Hillsborough, it’s timely to be reminded there are sometimes people in the world with a gift for bringing cheer, who when they turn up in your thoughts, make you smile.
And talking of which, as one whose chequered past career veered occasionally into the colourful world of old-fashioned Variety, I was over-joyed to find this statue in the garden betwixt the theatre and the great Royal Folly, the Brighton Pavilion.
Max, a son of Brighton, was famous for offering his audiences a choice of jokes taken from either of two books – the white book (clean) or the blue book (guess). Inevitably they would shout out for the blue book.
“You’ll get me locked up, you will….Now – ‘ere’s a funny thing… ”
Catch me in the pub sometime, and I’ll tell you the joke that got him banned by the BBC….
THE FATHER – an award-winning play with an Olivier-winning star performance at its heart – backed up by yours truly in case of accidents – has but two more weeks on the road.
Next at the Rep, Birmingham, the week after at the Everyman, Cheltenham – come and see it, it’s very special.
Links and contacts:
To book, or for further information, just click on the links
Quiet, immaculate rooms, by the cathedral Mary Brooks, 3 Union Place 01872 263 778
Perfect self-contained flat Bernard & John 0191 267 1745
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