Theatre

The Play’s the Thing

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Mrs Blog and I like to take in the occasional play. Nothing too challenging, mind. We don’t do thought provoking. Or, heaven forbid, contemporary. More, a nice bit of Shakespeare or something with a few tunes. We like to write it on the calendar in the kitchen so that visitors think we have a social life. (We fill out the calendar with “recycle”, which happens on alternate Thursdays, our dates with the men who come round to fix things that they should have sorted last time, and reminders of neighbours’ holidays so we know when we have to feed their cats.)

September’s looking quite busy already…

But looking back through the July entries reminds me that recent planned “encounters with thespians” have not been working out well.

A fixture in these parts is the annual tour by the Rude Mechanicals. Eastbourne based and loosely described as commedia dell’arte, the Rudes produce a clever, funny new play each year and perform it in the grounds of stately homes, in parks and on village greens across the south east. They were founded in 1999 and Family Blog has seen about 15 of their plays. But not when it rains. When it rains the actors’ white facepaint runs and you remember why you’ve thought about retiring to Spain.

This year we booked with friends to see the Rudes perform The Commercial Traveller in Lewes. It rained. The company acted decisively a mite too quickly, took the decision at 4 pm to cancel the evening performance and watched it turn out fine and dry. We transferred our booking to a performance in Alfriston, a village nearby, taking place tonight. Today it has poured all day. Mr Mechanical himself – it’s all excellent, personally tailored customer care – has just phoned (you don’t get Cameron Mackintosh doing that) to tell me it’s off again. We’ve rebooked for the last evening of the summer run in another village in Sussex. Fingers crossed, and where is that Spanish property brochure….

Why would you want to see an outdoor performance anywhere else?

Family Blog have been Friends of Shakespeare’s Globe for almost the twenty years it’s been open. (I’m sure our friendship is appreciated but he’s written nothing of real merit since we joined.) Twenty years ago we bought cheap tickets and stood in the pit. Now we book seats under cover – at least, twelve inches or so of unyielding wood – and watch the groundlings get wet. In July we had seven tickets for a Saturday evening performance with friends and neighbours but both Mrs Blog and I went down with something nasty and were obliged to bail. I wouldn’t have minded if there had been some decent murdering on TV. But “talent” shows? Give me strength.

Longer term (longsuffering?) followers of this blog will know that it is also a big fan of Mikron Theatre Company who tour plays of social and economic verite around the canals and rivers of England and, less romantically, along the M62 corridor. Mrs Blog and I travelled far to the north – to a marina near Oxford – last summer to see them perform Pure: the Business of Chocolate with a storyline embracing Quakerism, overbearing industrialists, aggressive marketing, a tightfisted landlord and the deserving poor over two different time periods. This year we booked to see In at the Deep End: An RNLI Story which promises tales of “choppy emotional waters”, uncompromising management, “eccentric fundraising” and, no doubt, some deserving poor. We arranged to see it at the lifeboat station in Selsey, along the coast in West Sussex, on our way home from the Oxford area where we were to visit old colleagues of mine, with Mrs Blog’s fellow clan member from our northerly territories also joining us.

It was a highly successful trip – in an “apart from that Mrs Lincoln, did you enjoy the play” kind of way. After a jolly wander round the Oxford colleges and DCI Morse’s favourite hostelries and blood spatter scenes (I spent three years there at uni and discovered hardly any corpses, though perhaps I wasn’t up and about early enough), we were royally dined by our chums in their splendid garden running along the Kennet and Avon Canal. Unfortunately, at the point when dusk’s tentacles (tendrils? dark bits?) began to stretch across the garden and we gathered up the debris in order to continue being witty and enchanting indoors, Blogcousin tripped badly on the decking and impaled herself on a shattered jug of Pimms.

This proved to be both more and less worrying than it might appear. On the one hand she lost serious quantities of blood and was taken swiftly by ambulance to A&E in Reading; on the other, there was plenty of Pimms in another jug.

We were booked for three nights in the Travelodge at Reading Services — westbound. (No, seriously, we’re OK with that.) The patient was staying in hospital overnight and at around 2.30 a.m. Mrs Blog and I returned to the service station which we shared only with a chapter of Hells Angels from Wales and one young man from eastern Europe serving coffee.

The next day was an odd one for all concerned. While Blogcousin lay in hospital recovering from surgery (careful removal of cucumber, fruit and sprigs of mint) and  our hosts reported unusually erratic behaviour amongst (no doubt alcohol fuelled) hedgehogs while they were working to remove all traces of the previous night’s incident from the decking. We all had plenty of the victim’s blood and DNA on our clothing and might reasonably be considered suspects.

With cousin laid up it would have seemed highly inappropriate for us to head off to some local National Trust property, funfair or pleasure dome and we needed to be nearby for hospital visiting and potential discharge purposes. Happily our hotel of choice lay delightfully handy for the facilities of a full-blown service station – with all the culinary charm and comforts which that conveys.

We took breakfast there. We wandered about, admired the array of confectionary, remaindered CDs and extensive selection of bottled tap water in WH Smiths; we people watched, studied the news of traffic holdups on the overhead screens (strangely, dated several weeks earlier) and discussed which outlet deserved our custom next. After a long drawn-out lunch we set off again round the “food” court, Mrs Blog looked at some phone accessories (I preferred the out of date traffic news) and we wondered why there are so few attractive people hanging out in service stations these days. Have those glamour days gone for ever?

After visiting the hospital we were keen to get back to our by now favourite seats in the service station to check how the hold up on the M5 near Bristol in June had resolved itself. At this point I started to worry that CCTV might have picked up on the sight of this peculiar couple and their idea of a cheap pensioners’ day out. Indeed, when cleaning staff started to greet us like old friends, I began to see myself as Viktor Navorski (think Tom Hanks in The Terminal), trapped forever in a daily round of the West Cornwall Pasty Company, Greggs and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.

A further visit to the hospital confirmed that the patient would be enjoying another night of institutional catering and we went back to the service station for dinner. And, a bit later, supper. And breakfast the next morning. Then elevenses.

At which point we received the all-clear to collect Blogcousin and head northwards to deliver her into the arms of fellow clan members.

Which has been a roundabout way of telling you that we didn’t make Selsey lifeboat station for the play about the RNLI so I can’t confirm that it features any deserving poor. But it’s a decent bet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Theatre

Summer sun, something’s begun But, uh oh, those summer nights (Well-a, well-a, well-a, uh!)

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We have our summer rituals. Newspapers carrying pictures of girls at Glastonbury in muddy wellies. The declaration of undying love by a ludicrously remunerated footballer for his current employer and supporters, followed by his transfer to a club willing to pay him even more – “always been my dream to join the team I supported as a boy”/ “realising my life long ambition to play in front of the world’s most passionate and knowledgeable fans”. Boris Johnson making it clear that he has no desire whatsoever to become Prime Minister.

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One international footballer “kisses the badge”, just before departing for a better paid post elsewhere. 

 

For me the summer ritual is realising that the only bit of gardening I actually like is lighting the barbecue and chimineas and obliging our long suffering neighbours to huddle around them on the chilliest of cool evenings. (Note that plural, chimineas – reminds me that once, during a house move, I labelled one cardboard box “Spare wok”. Very Posy Simmonds.)

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Mrs. Blog and I enjoying a summer evening on the patio. In my dreams.

 

Then there’s outdoor theatre. Mrs. Blog and I don’t “do” music festivals. And certainly not battle re-enactments. But we do outdoor theatre – only to watch, you understand, not to act. Mrs. B says she’d rather eat her own liver than perform on a stage. (I was surprised she didn’t insist on an understudy at the register office.)

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There are so many reasons Mrs. Blog and I don’t do battle re-enactments…

 

You wouldn’t necessarily expect a nation with weather systems like ours to major on the alfresco play but they seem to have been an essential ingredient of our culture for longer than even I can recall. I’m not thinking here of Punch and Judy, though why not – other than that the first one I saw frightened the bejasus out of me. I was a sensitive child. (This predated me going to university.)

No, this is about proper plays. Or, as proper as you can get when the dialogue has to pause for each overflying aircraft, as I recall from one that my parents took me to many years ago on Richmond Hill, under the flight path to Heathrow. Perhaps it was Boeing Boeing, I can’t be sure.

Despite the uncertainties of the summer weather, taking in a homespun but highly professional production (which is what they usually seem to be) in a gorgeous setting has been very much part of my summer since I don’t know when.

It’s been nearly 50 years since I first saw Mikron Theatre Company perform in the beer garden of a canalside pub in the Midlands and I’m delighted to see that they’re still going strong, with their blend of social, environmental and historical stories, told through words and music by a small, enthusiastic cast of relatively unknown actors.

Now it seems that, all over the country, in the grounds of stately homes and hotels, on village greens and anywhere that might make an attractive backdrop, on any given summer evening there will be dozens of performances taking place, from Shakespeare to self-written – preferably nothing too heavy, and nothing that might be spoiled if it has to compete with a downpour or two, lowing cattle or the odd low flying bat.

Why do so many of us take the risk of getting soaked, of dodgy acoustics, of long interval queues for the only toilet in the village hall, of a vertiginous drop in temperature during the second half, after arriving in shorts and sandals on a hot afternoon?

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Well it beats sitting on the sofa in front of the telly…

 

Because indoors you can’t see the trees and the stars, that’s why. Because open air theatre can put you close to the performers, at the very heart of the action. Because, before the light goes completely, you can check out what everybody else has brought as their picnic – and wondered why your slice of gala pie, cheese and onion crisps and bottle of ale looks a tad miserly compared with the spread that Pauline always puts together. Because it’s what we do.

It may be that we do more of this in the south, I don’t know. Moving to Lewes in East Sussex  with a daughter of primary school age, the plays that took place in the Gun Garden of the castle soon became a fixture for us. With the promise of a picnic, the possibility of being able to whisper without upsetting those around, and the ability to move about if necessary, this just had to be a great way of introducing a young child to live theatre – as well as having a good time.

And so it has proved. The daughter, now in her twenties, has developed a love of theatre much more sophisticated than ours and no longer has to be tempted to a play by the prospect of chicken drumsticks and cheesy straws – though it helps. And we can still be guaranteed to take in at least one outdoor production with chums during the course of the summer.

Any regular readers of this blog may be aware that I have been known to have “constructive dialogue” with those who insist on talking, or singing along, during outdoor classical concerts but, in truth, I have not found this to be an issue with plays. To date, performances of Romeo and Juliet or The Importance of Being Earnest have proved mercifully free of audience members chanting along with the punch lines. Altogether now, one two three, A Handbag?? A Handbag???

I did wince last weekend as the play began and a number of iPads were immediately raised to record the proceedings, but I’ll live with it. There was a time when you went to an art gallery to look at the paintings, not to take your own self-portrait in front of it. And a time when a play was to be experienced and enjoyed “in the present”, rather than being inflicted afterwards on friends (real or facebook) who, frankly, couldn’t care a….

I’m not saying that all of our open-air play experiences have been plain sailing. If arriving early, for example, at the play venue and having been asked by friends to “save us some space near the front for our picnic”, I have never found it comes easy, defending acres of green sward on my own, armed only with an assortment pack of crisps to spread thinly around as the crowd presses in on all sides. I think this reluctance goes way back – to when my mother used to drag me to the old fashioned Sainsbury’s where you got put in the queue for the loose packed butter to “save a place” while she went for the sugar. By the time I reached the front of the queue, still searching anxiously for a returning parent, I was spent.

For one memorable production of The Tempest at Lewes castle (you’ve guessed it) we turned up with the rain already torrential and were supplied on arrival with binliners to wear as ponchos. That wouldn’t have cost them much – only a few perverse idiots had made it to the starting line, this blog and blogdaughter amongst them. (We will draw a veil over Mrs. Blog’s response to being asked if she intended to come with us and just say she didn’t make it.) The dialogue was tricky to pick up in competition with the rainfall and intermittent thunder and the action wasn’t easy to track between the umbrellas, but the effect of all that water on some of the skimpier costumes provided a diversion.

At the interval, with audience numbers having continued to dwindle throughout, the company manager announced that anybody who wanted to throw in the towel, as it were, would be welcome to exchange their tickets (or papier mache, as they might by now reasonably be described) for another performance, but that the troupe was prepared to soldier on if wanted. Well, call me dogged if you will (I suspect the actors may have had another word) but, as true patrons of the arts, and being by now far too wet to care, we held our ground and the six of them continued to perform to an identical number of us. Churchillian? I think so.

We are fortunate to have seen a few different touring troupes in Sussex but one we never miss, year on year, is the Rude Mechanicals (the “Rudes”), whose final performance of their summer tour we thoroughly enjoyed last weekend. Named for the manual labourers and amateur actors in Midsummer Night’s Dream, and touring the south of England since 1999, the Rudes bring their own version of commedia dell’arte, a style that uses large comic and often acrobatic movement and physical humour, with white faces, bright costumes and liberal use of the “slap stick”. Hard to describe but huge fun to watch. And bawdy. If you’re easily offended, make sure you see them!

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The Rude Mechanicals get to grips with the Wife of Bath

 

Like many other arts groups, the Rudes struggle to make ends meet. Not because they’re expensive to run – they’re not — but just because that’s the way it is, with public and private funding harder and harder to come by. You may take the line that, if the customers won’t pay enough for the product, it’s tough – market forces and all that. Somebody will no doubt tell me that most other forms of entertainment have to pay their own way. Funding for the arts isn’t really my field (come to think of it, I’m not sure what is), but I, for one, would find my world a sadder place if there were no Rude Mechanicals, no Mikron. Go see!

It turned colder; that’s where it ends…

…Summer dreams, ripped at the seams

But, oh, those summer nights

 

http://www.therudemechanicaltheatre.co.uk/

http://www.mikron.org.uk/

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