Saturday, 27 April 2013

Head Meets Brick Wall, Metaphorically

I should be happy. Actually, part of me is. A big cheesy, beatific, self-satisfied beam lighting up my face and stretching my lips upward from cheek to cheek. Faded teeth showing (well, I'm a Brit; I have standards to maintain).

And it's all because of the reviews of Californian Lives. No, they haven't all been fantastic, but the vast majority that mention my writing do so in glowing terms. "Martin Foreman's Californian Lives is a masterclass on the art of the monologue" says Beige. "Martin Foreman’s writing sparkles at times and is shot through with wry humour and an air of melancholy" opines West End Wilma in the draguise of Tony Peters. "fine descriptive writing" says The Public Reviews. "splendidly understated, yet utterly convincing, portraits of love in California's emotional desert", in the words of Broadway World.

But let me not be selfish. There's plenty of praise to go around. "Robin Holden's performance demands attention ... [he] has a strong sense of stage presence and practically radiates energy ... John Vernon is a brilliant actor ... a very natural and confident performer possessing a great command of language ... Carolyn Lyster carries the material well; her performance is poignant and her character well crafted. Once again, the acting is formidable." One Stop Arts is just one of many reviews that tells us how good the actors are. And let me not forget that "Emma King-Farlow’s direction is to be commended for its lightness of touch" (Entertainment Focus).

What more could I want? Well, headline praise from the nation's dailies and other periodicals, an interview with Graham Norton (although that's a double-edged sword) and an audience with the Queen (Prunella Scales, that is, not that Janey-come-lately who usurped her). But the nation's dailies do not concern themselves with fringe productions that only run twice a week, even if the run is for six weeks, so Californian Lives continues to operate below most people's cultural radar.

C'est la vie. That's life. That's the way the cookie crumbles. Pick up the crumbs, stuff them in your mouth and move on.

In this case, moving on means doffing my writer's cap and donning my producer's beret. At which point I face the reality that a great review does not a full house make. After a good opening weekend, we are following the trend of a poor second week. Advance sales for Sunday and Monday are abysmal.

Who to blame? Well, several candidates put themselves forward. The Great British Public, for one, because they don't read the good reviews, follow the Twitter feeds and Facebook page and rush to tell all their friends and book all the seats so they can resell them at a profit, making themselves a fantastic profit in the process.

But let's be serious. A large part of the problem probably lies with me. As producer I've thrown myself into the deep end of this process and I have made a number of mistakes. Chief among them has been waiting for the reviews to launch the second round of publicity - but I forgot to book the second round in advance and the reviews have come in too late to get out before the upcoming weekend. I've also relied on a designer who, through no fault of her own, has been unable to put together the revised leaflet (that's flier for those of you who have been influenced by US culture / are under 40 years old). Ditto in co-ordinating with our host theatre; I haven't anticipated all the problems that can arise when two sides think they are on the same wavelength and then they discover they aren't.

So I've been spending most of the last few days glued to my computer, tweeting, Facebooking, emailing, calling, nudging, encouraging, pleading various contacts to come or to persuade their contacts to come see the show. Has it been successful? The fact that sometimes it feels as if my metaphorical head were engaging in frequent knocking of the nearest brick wall should give you some idea of my present state of mind. To see whether the head has penetrated the wall or vice versa, check back in a few days when I will blog on the status of the show will come later. In the meantime, with all due humility or arrogance (choose which you prefer), I hereby beg, demand, plead, insist, wish, command, fill in the verb of your choice, that you come to the show. And if you still need convincing, check the reviews.

Monday, 22 April 2013

One down . . .

John, Carolyn and Robin
. . . eleven performances to go. Preview night was last night and all went well. Each of our three actors held the audience spellbound for 30 minutes as they told their stories. The sets were minimal but striking. The lighting subtle and effective. From Robin Holden's young Man In Diner, through John Vernon's middle-aged Man In Bar to Carolyn Lyster's old Woman At Home, we weaved tales of love and betrayal, of uncertainty and emotion. At the end the applause was long, there were whistles and tears and complete strangers came up to me and said how good the whole evening was.

I'm proud of the characters I have created and grateful to the actors and director, Emma King-Farlow, who have brought them so vividly to life. I'm a little less proud of my production skills - but I have little experience in the field and this my most ambitious project to date. Which means I am disappointed but not surprised by the fact that the theatre wasn't full last night. Still, we had a good crowd and expect an even better crowd this evening.

So, come and see us. You will be moved. You will not be disappointed.

And while you're booking your seats on the King's Head website, I will be devoting half my energies this week to promoting this fantastic show - and the other half to immersing myself once again in Steve Marks, the violent criminal I portray in the upcoming Clouds of Grey....

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Under Pressure

Three days until opening / preview night. Am I feeling the pressure? Kind'a sort'a... I thought we had all the furniture sorted out, but no, it's still uncertain whether we can get a sofa and Director Emma insists that the table in Los Feliz be round, not rectangular. A simple item, you would think, but neither I nor anyone I know has one. So later today I'm off to do the rounds of local charity shops where I hope to pick one up cheap. Then there are other minor props still to be secured, menus to be laminated, checks (US for restaurant bill) to print out and so on. On top of that, sales are sluggish - ok for the first two nights, but low thereafter. Despite the energies of myself, our P R person and various cast members, we haven't yet been able to generate the buzz we need to get advance sales. So various consultations are taking place to see how we can boost interest at this late stage.

The good news is that I don't crack under pressure. Well.... that's not quite true. When something unexpected happens, I can have a short spell of annoyance or even anger. But I'm lucky in that my bad moods usually subside pretty quickly; within a few minutes I invariably recognise the problem and either deal with it or accept that it cannot be dealt with. What I don't do is sulk or run away.

Which means I'm busy getting on with what I need to do. Right now, the most important thing is lunch. I'll get the lamination done this afternoon and if I can't find a round table in the neighbourhood I'll pick one up from Argos. This evening to the theatre, where the cast will see the new stage layout for the first time. In the meantime, more publicity emails and tweets. And tomorrow? Who knows.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Colour Me Beige

I've been interviewed, by Beige magazine. The photo is frightening (it's this one here) but you might be interested in what I say about playwriting

Sunday, 14 April 2013

From Kings to the King's Head

Robin is on the right
He has only been an actor for four years, but Robin Holden already has an impressive CV. His stage appearances include Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, Iago in Othello, Razumikhin / Zvidrigailov in Crime and Punishment and Duke Ferdinand in The Duchess of Malfi. And these are only a few of his classical roles. He’s also played a variety of royals, including Hamlet, Macbeth, the King of Spain and, most recently, Oedipus.

Now he’s set to open at the King’s Head in Islington, in Los Feliz, one of three one-actor plays in Californian Lives, by award-winning writer Martin Foreman. “My character is a misogynist, at odds with the time and place he lives in. Unempathetic, lonely, competitive.” Anything like Robin himself? “Hopefully not a great deal! Despite his faults, I like him and find myself feeling sorry for him. We don’t have much common ground, although I am very competitive.”

As his acting history shows, Robin is used to playing complex characters, perhaps none more so than Jekyll / Hyde in The Scandalous Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for which he was nominated for Best Actor in the 2011 Off West End Awards. He has appeared in theatres all over London and is currently a leading light at the Lazarus Theatre Company and works with Paul Holden to produce innovative short films.

It’s thanks to Robin that Californian Lives was written in the first place. “Last year I was acting with Martin in The Duchess of Malfi and read his short story collection First and Fiftieth. There are some terrific stories there that make great monologues. I asked if I could do one and suggested he put on others as well. Which he did. There was a short trial run at the Lord Stanley in Camden last year and that led to this full-scale production.”

Robin’s character has to get through a meal in the course of the short play. Nothing should go wrong, but “In a production of Sleuth one snazzy special effect involved a whisky tumbler being shot from my hand. Unfortunately it was placed wrongly and ended up being filled with drink. Being made of sugar glass it held out admirably for about two minutes before I made an exuberant gesture and the bottom dropped out, dispensing the contents into the lap of an unfortunate lady in the front row.”

When the show is over, Robin is already almost home. “For the last three years I’ve lived literally a stone’s throw away from the King’s Head Theatre and Pub, so it will be great to finally work there. At the least it’s a very short stagger home!”

Californian Lives is written by award-winning playwright Martin Foreman and features Robin Holden in Los Feliz, John Vernon in Ben and Joe’s and Carolyn Lyster in Sunset. Underlying each story are the common theme of intimacy and trust: how well do we know those who are closest to us? The six-week run opens on 21st April - book tickets through the link on the right.

And yes - you have just read through a press release . . .

Saturday, 13 April 2013

From Crossroads and Casualty to California

Remember Crossroads? Back when television was grainy black and white and there were only three channels, half the nation watched the daily soap opera. Set in the Midlands village of Kings Oak where business and social life came together at the Crossroads Motel.

pic from
For five years, Carolyn Lyster played the young and beautiful Janice Gifford, who worked at the local car hire company and married the son of the boss and local heartthrob Brian Jarvis. Carolyn left when, true to soap tradition, her baby was abducted and her husband murdered her lover.

Janice may have disappeared from our television screens, but Carolyn certainly hasn’t. She has appeared in many of our favourite programmes, including Casualty, Coronation Street  Heartbeat, The Bill, London's Burning and most recently Doctors.

She has particularly fond memories of one Casualty scene. “I was playing the madam of a brothel that was set alight. After an explosion I had to take a flying leap from the burning building onto a convenient mattress in the road and have all these gorgeous firemen land on top of me.”

However, it wasn’t a fireman that Carolyn married but fellow actor William Gaunt, who will be appearing later this year and in the West End in Arturo Ui.  Their daughter Tilly is currently rehearsing the Dennis Potter play Blue Remembered Hills in Newcastle before touring . Their son Albie is teaching in Japan and has just got engaged to a Japanese girl.

West End regulars will recognise Carolyn from Ray Cooney and other farces, such as Run For Your Wife and No Sex Please, We’re British – productions that have taken her across the globe. “Once we were on board a huge P&O cruise liner in the Antarctic when the sea was very rough.  I have an abiding memory of the late great comedy actor Henry McGee, staggering his way across the set, clinging on to the furniture as he tried to retain some semblance of the plot. It was difficult not to laugh!”

Carolyn has also toured extensively within the UK, a mostly enjoyable experience “except I once fell off the stage during a blackout at the Everyman Cheltenham when I was in Can You Hear Me At The Back? I climbed back on and performed the rest of the scene with a bleeding leg and a fellow actress wondering why I was acting strangely.”

Comedy is Carolyn’s love and forte but she’s also looking forward to the challenge of appearing on stage, alone, in a half-hour one-woman play. Sunset is one of three monologues in Californian Lives by award-winning writer Martin Foreman opening on 21st April at the King’s Head in Islington. “I love the character,” she says. “She’s clear-sighted about herself and her relationships with her husband and children. She makes quite a journey in her reminiscences, going from being a relatively timid unworldly person to a strong fearless one. There’s a lot to bring out and I hope I can do justice to the writing.”

When that run ends?  “My only theatrical ambition at the moment is to get through this unscathed. Plus to keep working forever, appear at the National Theatre and earn huge sums of money doing something I love.”

Reminder - Californian Lives opens on 21st April; book tickets via the link right. 2 tickets are being given away every day; email "I want tkts" to

Friday, 12 April 2013

Don't shoot the actor...

Not many actors have ever wondered if someone in the audience is going to draw a gun and shoot the cast on stage. One exception is John Vernon, who, as a young man in the 1980s, was appearing with John Bindon at the King’s Head in Islington, in QRs and AIs Clearly State.

Bindon (pictured) had a colourful life away from the stage, including drug use, gangland connections, intimacy with Princess Margaret and physical attributes that cannot be mentioned in a family-friendly newspaper. “We had heard some hard men were looking for him,” John says, “One night he said to us all in the dressing room ‘If someone stands up in the audience and points a gun at the stage, don't worry; just hit the deck. It’s me he's after’.” 

Gunfire never erupted, and twenty-five years later, John is back at the King’s Head. This time he’s alone on stage, in Ben and Joe’s, one of three monologues in Californian Lives. “It’s an unusual piece, about a middle-aged man reminiscing about the bar he used to frequent in the San Fernando Valley. He wants to be accepted by those around him, but he’s never sure if he is.”

Californian Lives represents a significant challenge for John. It’s almost twenty years since he last acted in front of a live audience. For a long time he appeared regularly on television; you might have seen him in Call the Midwife, East Enders, The Bill and Doctors. More recently he has been worked mostly in voiceovers for documentaries and dubbing for foreign soap operas and Japanese anime. At one time, if you were a fan of stand-up comedy, you could have caught his act at the Tunnel Club or Hackney Cabaret.

So why return to theatre? “Not for the money,” he says. “It’s more for the opportunity to exercise some acting muscles that have been dormant for too long and to reintroduce myself to the whole experience of theatre – although I can't help feeling that with a thirty minute one-man play, I have started in at the deep end...”

To make things even harder, he’s playing against type. “My career changed back in 1997 when I was glassed in a pub - I had over eighty stitches in my face and now have a permanently wonky smile and an occasional twitch in my left eye. For a time I even had a livid scar running down my cheek which was helped me get cast as villains and viking types rather than the 'decent young man' roles I had had before.”

Then there’s the third challenge facing him; on opening night his partner of the last sixteen years will see him act for the first time. At least John won’t have deal with another problem that John Bindon caused the last time at the King’s Head; to please the Daily Mail photographer Bindon grabbed his and another actor’s girlfriend and presented them as his fans.

Reminder - Californian Lives opens on 21st April; book tickets via the link right. 2 tickets are being given away every day; email "I want tkts" to

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The problem with life . . .

last day
. . . is that it keeps getting in the way.

. . . and that it comes to an end.

With ten days to go until the opening night of Californian Lives, I had thought that I was giving up an hour to cat-sit a few minutes away. Josephine and I had met when she was no more than three weeks old and the Ex brought her to live with us. In the seventeen years since then she had lived happily in many places and with many people; a few years ago she came back to the Ex, who was now living not far from me, which meant I saw her quite frequently. Then the Ex went back to the States for a fortnight's holiday and I dropped in on Josephine a few times to keep her company. This morning was different; I found her skeletal figure huddled in a corner, miaowing pitifully and mess everywhere. I rushed her to the vet. Organ failure was the diagnosis, the result of long-term over-active thyroid. I woke the Ex in LA and he spoke to the vet. He understood that it would not be kind to keep her alive until she came home. And so he agreed and I signed the papers and left before Josephine's final sleep. 

The word spread and there were phone calls and and texts and emails and Facebook messages commiserating and commemorating to be read and responded to. Finally I was able to put aside emotion and duty and return to the show. There is still much to be done. We've dealt with the stage suddenly changing from proscenium to thrust and the real and virtual upheaval that has caused. We're now dealing with props - how do we get three small tables of exactly the same size, plus the different tablecloths, and when am I going to create the cocktail menus? - and the continuing lack of a stagehand.  Not to mention the never-ending task of promotion. Death comes, but life goes on. 

Monday, 8 April 2013

Thirteen and counting

Thirteen days until Californian Lives opens. Am I nervous? If I thought about it, I might be, but I'm too busy dealing with issues that come up unexpectedly. Like the fact that the stage of the King's Head is changing from proscenium to thrust (ie from audience on one side to audience on three), which has necessitated cool, calm and collected director Emma King-Farlow to completely restage all three monologues. And we're still waiting for the theatre to reconfigure their booking system.

The good news is that ticket sales are slowly picking up. But we need more publicity in order to make more sales - and in order to get publicity we're running a promotion that every day from now until opening, we're offering two free tickets. All you have to do is send an email to saying "I want tkts" and you'll be entered in the draw. (Only one from each email address per day, please). Which means that we're giving away tickets in order to sell tickets. What a wonderfully paradoxical world we live in....

Of course, if you want to support the theatre - and give our hard-working cast and crew an opportunity to make more than below minimum wages - you'll buy a ticket or even donate to the production, won't you? To do so, click the link in the column on the right.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Taking the Long View

It's a short film, Innocence. Five minutes tops. I'm in about ten scenes, each of which lasts no more than a minute. So you'd think you could shoot it in a few hours. Well, no . . .

Casablanca - love, war and intrigue; the whole human condition 
Do you remember the films of the forties and fifties? Have you heard of Theo Angelopoulos? If you have, you'll know where this piece is going. I'm a fan of the long take - long in both distance and time. I want the film camera to step back, to show the whole scene, not just the close-up of someone's face, and to linger on that view, not snap away after a few seconds. It's about focus and depth, not superficiality. If your attention is continually being jerked from one detail to another - his face, her face, his face, the wall behind them, and so on, your mind can never settle. It can't be drawn in. You don't become part of the film. You're an observer, not a participant. An observer with the attention span of a goldfish. An observer who cannot be trusted to follow the story without continually being lured back into the story with this detail or that.

Angelopoulos was the master of the long shot. The camera lingers, minute after minute. You cannot help but see everything - the characters, their situation, the world they live in, the stones in the wall behind them, the seagulls flying past. You are not watching Greece; you are in Greece; you are Greek. Angelopoulos best known film, The Travelling Players (Ο Θίασος, 1975) contains perhaps the most breathtaking shot I have ever seen*. In a take that seems to last forever, you are in a small town, looking down a road, the camera pans slowly, slowly, to the left, to look up a side street, then pans slowly back, and the road you first saw is festooned with Nazi flags and banners as a cortège of German soldiers drives through. There is a moment of shock at the realisation that a decade has passed - have we gone forwards or backwards in time? - and as we absorb the information, we remember that the past is always present in the memories of the living.

Angelopoulos is an extreme example, but the classic Hollywood films got it about right. Takes that last two or three minutes rather than two or three seconds give the viewer a more profound experience, and give the film greater authority than the kaleidoscope of images that most directors rely on today. They're also much easier to film and provide greater continuity. When you have only one perspective, you can finish the scene in a day; you don't need several days to take the same scene from different angles. You also create a much more realistic scene. I'm bored with films set in diners where the beer in a mug or the burger on the plate gets bigger and smaller and bigger again as we cut to and fro between characters, or with street scenes where car after car passes behind one character's head and then disappears before the other character can speak. Give me a director who bucks the trend of short takes and who credits the audience with the intelligence and stamina to deal with, to want, longer, real, meaningful takes.

Except... Except when the short take itself is meaningful. In Innocence it's a means of deliberately unsettling the audience. We watch this man (me) furtively because he is behaving furtively. Who is he? What is he doing? There is an answer to those questions, although I won't give it here. So I welcome the short take in this particular instance, and hope that their next film will buck the trend and they will take a much longer view...

* Trust not my memory, which may be false in detail, but see the film for yourself.