Tuesday, 26 August 2014

It's over...

Finished. Done with. Completed. Terminated. At an end. No more. Continue with your own word, phrase or metaphor . . .

As to what exactly has come to an end . . . Now, that's a difficult one, as the Priest tells Michael in Angel. The easiest thing to say is Desire and Pursuit, the three one-man plays that I wrote, directed and produced at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, with the invaluable assistance of actors Christopher Annus and Christopher Peacock and my Other Half acting as stage manager / front of house. It's an experience that I am not eager to repeat. Despite months of preparation and publicity, we got small audiences, only three reviews (one of which, was excellent; the other two were good) and lost a lot of money. But you know you're going to lose money in Edinburgh!! everyone tells me. That's true. But you're also going to Edinburgh to get noticed and that did not happen.

What might also have come to an end is my theatrical career - or at least my career as a producer. Although I lost relatively little money in Edinburgh, I also lost something much more valuable - time. Hours, days and weeks that might have been spent on my book business, bringing in some profit, were spent on organising and promoting Desire and Pursuit. Time when I could have been relaxing and enjoying (and criticising!) the wide range of shows that Edinburgh has to offer was spent leafleting or postering or rehearsing or transporting stage sets to and fro or in the theatre as technician and stagehand. By Saturday, when the run ended, I was mentally exhausted. Three days later I am still dealing with the aftermath, as I update the various websites I run which promoted the plays. Normal life is returning, but there will be finances and administration to deal with until at least the beginning of October.

If my career as a producer is at an end, what about my future as a writer / director / actor? The easiest answer I can give at this stage is "No comment". I'm proud of the plays I wrote and the reaction I got day after day from audiences, plus the very occasional reviewer who deigned to stop by, confirmed that I have talent in that direction. But I am finding it impossible to get agents or other producers interested in my work and I have no wish to carry on hitting my head against the metaphorical wall of indifference (that phrase in itself might be enough to make me stop writing...) and I'm not currently in the mood to spend weeks or months writing something that few or no people will see. As for being a director . . . I enjoy it; I think I'm good at it; I would be happy to do it again, but I doubt anyone is going to employ me and (see previous paragraph) I'm not going to devote time and energy to put on a production just so I can direct it. The last option - being an actor? I have a modicum of talent and I'm still on the books of Casting Call Pro and available to anyone who wants to pay me, but I'm not holding my breath until Cameron Mackintosh and / or Steven Spielberg call me.

It might seem, therefore, that my theatrical career is indeed over. There is, however, a slim chance that it will be revived. Colleagues are looking at the possibility of reviving Now We Are Pope and Tadzio Speaks . . . If my services are required, I will of course answer the call. In the meantime, however, my attention is elsewhere.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Picture almost perfect

Three of us headed off to the Old Red Lion in Islington last night to see C J Wilmann's The Picture of John Gray. A bit of background to start with - John Gray was the strikingly handsome youth with whom Oscar Wilde had an intense relationship with before Wilde met his nemesis, Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"). Gray was supposedly the inspiration for Wilde's notorious novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which a preternaturally handsome young man maintains his youth for decades, while the picture painted of him in his prime, ages in his attic, revealing the ravages of all the vices that the real Dorian practises.

Wilmann's play focuses on John Gray (played by Patrick Walsh McBride) and four other members of Wilde's homosexual circle - the painter Charles Ricketts (Oliver Allan), his partner Charles Shannon (Jordan McCurrach). Andre Raffalovich (Christopher Tester) and Alfred Douglas (Tom Cox). Wilde himself, the eminence grise, does not appear. It's a simple story - Gray, an uncertain poet, is abandoned by Wilde and finds himself in the arms of Raffalovich, despite Gray's initial hostility towards Raffalovich's harsh criticism of his poetry. The Wilde trials intervene and, in common with many other gay men of the time who feared a witch-hunt, Gray and Raffalovich flee England for the more congenial climate of Berlin. In the German capital, however, Gray's Catholicism and the bedrock that it offers in an uncertain, hostile world cause him to leave Raffalovich and be ordained as a priest. And no, that's not the end of the story ...

Let me get the quibbles out of the way. I'm always sensitive to anachronisms and my ear grated when it heard the word "hassle" and I'm not convinced that the 1890s entertained the idea that white wine cleaned the teeth. Furthermore the evidence is that Wilde wrote Dorian Gray before he met John, but - and I'm probably guilty of great hypocrisy in admitting this - I find that hard historical act irrelevant and I prefer the dramatic "truth" in Wilmann's play.

Most distracting, however, was Tom Cox as Lord Alfred Douglas. Cox gives an excellent performance, but he is far too old and forceful for the part. Douglas was a fey wisp of a youth, charming, dishonest and insecure, beguiling and dislikeable. Yet even if the Alfred Douglas on the stage was not the Alfred Douglas of history, he held our attention and provided counterpoint and moved the play forward and did all that a good character and good actor, underpinned by good writing and good direction, should do. We forgave the misrepresentation and allowed Cox to entrance us.

Throughout the play each of the actors shone; if I have to single out one for praise, it would be Tester as Raffalovich, who revealed the character's intelligence and deep emotions with thoughtful speech and little than the set of his quizzical eyebrows and his expressive mouth. I might have fallen in love with him myself if my partner had not been sitting by my side.

McBride as Gray was as pretty and charming as the part demanded and if I question his believability as a priest it was partly because he did not dress the part (as the director of a play involving a priest I can confirm that a dog-collar makes a significant difference to the way one acts and is perceived) and partly because the script explored the meaning of faith and priesthood before rather than after his ordination. In the second act, therefore, we were presented with an oddly-dressed man rather than a man of the cloth, which undermined the significance of his new role. Still, McBride held our attention until the very end. As for Allan and McCurrach, it seems almost churlish to limit the praise to the stalwart parts they played, but they played those parts well as a long-term couple with all the ups and downs that coupledom brings.

If the actors all shone, it was because Wilmann's writing sparkled. (It sparkled so much that while two of us were laughing, my foreign-born companion, with good but not perfect command of English, sat silent dazzled into incomprehension. Our fault, not the play's, for bringing him there.) And if the second half of the play seemed a fraction less bright than the first, it was only because Wilmann had set himself such a high standard at the start.

The quibbles are minor. Excellent actors; a strong script. It remains only to praise Gus Miller's direction, which brought everything together seamlessly. Highly recommended to all intelligent theatregoers.

I can't stand stand-up

Last Friday I was at a Fringe event in support of Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief, a charity working with death and bereavement (goodlifedeathgrief.org.uk). Appropriately, it was held in an old anatomy hall in Edinburgh University; the audience sat in the same steeply tiered rows from which generations of medical students, including  Arthur Conan Doyle, have peered down at cadavers cut open to reveal muscles, bones and viscera.

Good Life has got together with eleven Fringe productions examining death and dying from different perspectives. Five offered excerpts from their shows; the full list is on deathonthefringe.co.uk. First up was Duck, Death and the Tulip, which uses puppetry to help children understand and come to terms with death. Duck was followed by stand-up comedians and songs from Alba, a musical about a young man’s return to rural Scotland to scatter his father’s ashes. Were the songs any good? Sorry, I can’t tell you. For years my taste in musicals has been bogged down somewhere between South Pacific and Sondheim and I’ve never been able to extricate it.

Mr Cassidy
Which brings me to the stand-up. I’m not a fan of the genre and Nathan Cassidy and Robyn Perkins only confirmed my prejudice. From each we had ten minutes of breathless, rushed speech, nervous pacing on the small stage, each line delivered with a smile, a brief moment of tension, then relief when laughter came, followed by another line, more tension, uncertainty when the response was poor and so on and so on. I smiled a few times, laughed perhaps once and hoped they would soon go away.

I’m not picking on Robyn and Nathan – they’re no different, no better and no worse than most stand-up comedians I’ve endured over the years.  It’s an age thing. I’m over 60 and I have no interest in young men and women who want to work out their personal issues and insecurities in public. It’s like seeing children discover the world around them – it’s highly meaningful for them, but I’ve been there, done that and lost the t-shirt.

Of course the younger members of the audience laughed; it’s their world Nathan and Robyn were describing and for them it’s familiar and funny. But for those who are older, there is little new under the sun. Your young son stuck his finger in his bottom and then sniffed it? All children do something similar. It’s funny to you, but I don’t need to hear it. Your sex life after the death of your boyfriend? It may be important to you but it doesn’t tell me anything new about the world.

Of course the commonplace can be funny, but few stand-up comedians have the talent to reveal that humour in a way that entertains both young and old. Exceptions that come to mind are Jerry Seinfeld, Jack Dee and Eddie Izzard, entertainers who fade into the background as their carefully crafted and confidently presented humour comes to the fore.

I know – stand-up is the new black. Comedy clubs overflow with wannabes. Big name comedians fill huge auditoriums. I come across them from time to time in a pub or channel-surfing and I’m seldom impressed. The wannabes are the nervous ones with the stories I’ve heard before. The big names are over-confident, irritatingly smug and convinced that their ability to command large audiences sets them above the common crowd. No, it doesn’t, Jimmy Carr, Russell Brand and all the rest of you; there is nothing special about you except your overblown ego.

I love comedy. Good comedy gives us profound insights into the human condition. Good comedy helps us forget the often troubling world that surrounds us. But really good comedy seldom comes from stand-up. You're more likely to find it in films and theatre, television sitcom and radio. Nothing could be funnier than Beyond Our Ken or The Big Bang Theory, Whitehall farces or an Alan Bennett play, The Life of Brian or Shaun of the Dead. I love to laugh; I just can’t stand stand-up.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Pressed for time

It was media day at Fringe Central today - an opportunity for participants on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to promote their shows face to face to members of the press. The Scotsman would be there (scoff not, ye ignorami, The Scotsman's reviewers wield great power in Fringeland), as would the BBC, Broadway Baby (they too are rumoured by the cognoscenti to be Critics Critical To A Show's Success), The List, Three Weeks and various other printed and online publications Whose Word Can Sway Thousands.

The circus was scheduled to start at two. I decided to go early and turned up at 1.30. There was already a long queue stretching along the rainswept pavement. I joined, put up my umbrella and took it down as necessary as clouds passed over. At two the line began to move and by 2.30 we were inside the building. The packed building. The very packed building. The line for The Scotsman we were informed, was upstairs to the left; everyone else was to the right.

I headed left, got to the balcony, saw the long line of people waiting. That's all right, I told myself. There will
The queues - those for The Scotsman
are peering over the balcony
be several reps there - a comedy reviewer, a drama specialist, music at least. That's all wrong, I was told. There were only two reps from the newspaper, one from online and the other from news. And they were only interested in a news angle. And, by the way, from the point where I was, it would about two hours until I got to speak to one of them. I looked down at the masses below - at least there were ten or so organisations represented, I could go and down consider my options.

Down I went. The line for the British Theatre Guide and The Times was relatively short. I joined it; we edged forward. News came that the Times rep hadn't yet turned up. No matter, I thought, s/he might make it by the time I got to the front of the queue. We inched forward. Short conversations popped up and died down. Another announcement; the Times wouldn't get there until 5pm. No matter, I would get to the BTG and then choose another line. More movement. I chatted with an academic of Iranian heritage about changing sexual practices - did people really behave differently over time or was it simply that what they did wasn't always recorded? Finally, the end of the queue was in sight. At that point we were told that the BTG rep had to go, but yes, he'd take our press releases. I pressed some paper into his hand, tried to say something memorable about our shows but he was already moving on.

I won't mention the organisation that I spoke to next, in case they do come and give us a review. Suffice it to say that the individual I spoke to after another thirty minutes' standing in line was all smiles and laughter and handshakes when it came to women presenting their shows and a mask of utter indifference when I tried to enthuse him in my work, despite the fact I knew it was very close to his line of interest. I was tempted to slap him across the face with a wet fish - he would have remembered that - or even better slap him across the face with a hard fist - I would have briefly enjoyed that - but politeness got the better of me and I thanked him for his time and walked away.

Four o'clock. I had spent two and half hours waiting to see two people who were either unable or unwilling to give me the attention that I had naively thought I would get. I had a cup of tea and muffin, trying to balance them with an umbrella, heavy backpack and jacket that I couldn't wear because it was so warm. Would I try another queue? Why not... There was almost no-one waiting to see Scottish Television. That was because the line was closed and they were going home soon. Ah well, the line for The Times was short. I joined it, but despite a pleasant conversation with a writer who had adapted a Tagore story and regrets over the current state of politics in Tower Hamlets, the minutes passed slowly until the next brief excitement, when small free tumblers of lager (damn, I've already forgotten the name and I should thank them) were handed around.

Once known as The Glasgow Herald
Scotland's other national daily
Then a queue for The Herald opened. I was fourth in line. This time conversation was with casting director Martha, who swore that my looks, could get me work through her every day  - if I only lived in the same city as she did - New York...

At last I was sitting with the lady from The Herald and no, I didn't get her name, and no, I'm not convinced that she decided that above all Fringe productions ours was the one she would move hell and high water to see, but she was efficient and polite and showed interest and asked questions and made me feel that actually there was a possibility that something I said might just linger in her mind and so when I got up and thanked her and left, I felt that for at least a short moment someone, somewhere had taken note of what I said.

The rain had stopped when I got outside and after a brief run for the bus I was soon home, a lesson learnt. It is uncertain if I will bring a production to the Fringe again, but if I do, it is certain that on media day, the last place I will be is Fringe Central.