Ghost Stories Tour - Week One
Updated: Mar 21
BIRMINGHAM ALEXANDRA THEATRE, UK
7th - 11th January 2020
It was surreal pulling into New Street Station on the late morning of the 7th January. It was the same station I pulled out of some years before headed for a city the next size up. I only ever really return fleetingly for Christmases and family catch ups – Maybe twice a year. Birmingham always make my heart beat differently. I think hometowns always do. It has changed beyond all recognition; Merlons of office buildings fill the skyline, the sooty old structures sitting side by side with huge sparkling monoliths. A vast building site welcomed us through the window just before we docked. This, according to an overheard conversation in front of me, is to be the new HS2 train station.
Lloydy (McDonagh) happened to be on the same train and so we debussed together and grabbed lunch before heading to the Alex Theatre. First stop on our 16-week tour of Ghost Stories. Its first tour. My first tour. Ever.
Only 48 hours earlier, back in London, we were taking the curtain with a cast of different actors and in an hour’s time we’d be rehearsing with three new voices in the roles. The same but different.
By this point I’d already played the role of Mike Priddle some 160 times. First in its two month run at the Lyric Hammersmith in the Spring of last year and then for the West End transfer from October to Christmas at the Ambassador’s Theatre. However, the start of my association with the play goes way back 20 years. Funnily enough it also started in Birmingham. On Tuesday 6th June 2000 to be exact. That was the date I met Andy Nyman.
After completing a degree at the University of Wales, I auditioned for and enrolled on a post graduate course at what was then called the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama (Now the Birmingham School of Acting). A year long course which was designed to prepare students for a professional life as an actor. Lots of voice work, scene study, movement and an extraordinary amount of boozing and general bad behaviour. We used to call it the Birmingham School of Slappers and Drunks.
Looking back the curriculum was quite archaic; but some of it was useful and very much fun. Towards the end of the academic year, we were to have a couple of sessions with a visiting actor who was going to take us through a workshop on acting for the screen. We were to learn a short scene and it was going to be put on camera. It was then going to be pulled apart whilst camera angles, continuity and all things televisual were explained to us. At the last minute we were told that the actor who had been booked to run the class had suddenly become unavailable. He had however asked a friend to replace him. This friend was Andy Nyman.
Quite possibly one of the few people I’ve ever met in my life who possesses that ‘thing’. That presence that shoots out of every pore. Apparently, Bill Clinton and the Dali Llama have it too. But what Andy lacks in political diplomacy or Buddhist zen, he makes up for in fierce intelligence and Jewish chutzpah. How can someone who stands at a modest 5’7” look like the tallest man in any room? A true polymath who can reel off every Oscar winning movie since 1935, whilst performing a mind-blowing card trick (that he had created) and making you laugh like a train while he’s at it.
His workshop consisted of his telling us the truth behind the real job of acting; The disappointment, the unfairness, the cold cold heartbreak that can sometimes seem all consuming in an actor’s life. But in his candour, he also demonstrated absolute passion for the job. A passion so contagious, it was almost palpable.
After the workshop, I latched onto him almost immediately; thanking him for his honesty and set about picking his enormous brain on all things Thespis. He invited me to his hotel bar for a glass of whiskey and further questioning. Five hours later I felt like I could have flown home that night; Thoroughly enthused with my first encounter with a real working actor.
Returning two decades later it felt like the circle had been completed. Walking past my old drama school building on John Bright Street toward the Alexandra Theatre. Past the Victoria pub (Known in my student days as ‘Common Room V’ as that is where most wannabe actors could be found snaffling a cheap mixed grill and quaffing Guinness before that afternoon’s ballet class). Into the stage door where I’d wait as a schoolboy to get the sweaty autograph of whichever Turn was performing there that week. All so familiar, but also very other worldly.
We had a quick health and safety talk with the company manager Claire Roberts – Matriarch extraordinaire. She’s the company’s source of succour and the go to for any issues we may encounter on the tour from the important ones like finding the nearest pubs in each town to trivial problems such as timesheets. She would also be in charge of the get ins and get outs at each venue and would be running the crew at each show. An incredibly difficult job which she handles with seemingly complete ease.
Technical rehearsals followed with notes from Andy and Jeremy Dyson. Jeremy is the much needed Yang to Nyman’s Yin; Calm, gentle and equally as bright. His writing pedigree is outstanding. A BAFTA winning scribe of The League of Gentlemen, Killing Eve, Psychoville, script editor of The Wrong Mans and numerous other works of note. Throughout rehearsals Jeremy and Andy are locked at the elbow; Tweaking bits of business for better effect, offering up line changes and generally working together as a uni-brain of commitment. From their seats in the stalls, with Dyson’s busy sponge of curls and Andy’s diminutive stature, their silhouette put me in mind of a Simon and Garfunkel tribute act.
We were due to open on the Tuesday night in Birmingham, just as we would on every subsequent week on the tour. But a decision was made that, due to it being the first stop on the tour, we were to rehearse it in the daytime and perform a dress rehearsal in the evening instead. This would give us time to take in the space, the new sightlines and get a general feel for a new theatre. And what a space it turned out to be. Seating over 1300 you could get the auditoria of both the Lyric and the Ambassadors in there and still have a good four hundred seats left over. But acoustically it was a gem. It made one’s voice sound like it was created by the Stradivari family.
The first time I ever heard the concept of Ghost Stories was back at the end of 2009. Andy and I had stayed in touch after I’d graduated and he called me one morning telling me he’d written a play with a friend of his that was going to open in Liverpool and then go into the Lyric in Hammersmith. I wished him many congratulations and told him I’d be there on opening night. Of course, the actor in me simply wanted to shout “Is there anything in it that would suit me Love?”
My girlfriend, Louisa, and I went along and thoroughly enjoyed the show. So scary, dark and beautifully put together (much like Louisa). It was like a dance: The misdirection, the call backs and the characterisations were spot on. Andy played the role of Professor Goodman and was supported beautifully by David Cardy, Ryan Gage and Nick Burns. The audience loved it and were screaming with fearful delight. Weirdly we sat next to Sir Trevor MacDonald.
Our opening night in Birmingham was just as insane. Over 900 Brums on seats as we took to the stage on the Wednesday evening. Amazing performances from the utterly brilliant Josh Higgott who had had a stab at the role for a few weeks when we were in London as he was covering for Simon Lipkin who had to leave the role for another commitment. The two newest members had the tougher job I think. The theatre legend Paul Hawkyard slipped seamlessly into the role of Tony Matthews- Garnering laughs aplenty. And Gus Gordon made his professional stage debut as Simon Rifkind. Both were superb.
The show ran smoothly and the reactions from the audience when the scares landed were just wondrous. I really didn’t think that a show like this would work in a larger theatre. I thought the smaller the venue the better- The claustrophobia and the cramped conditions of a tiny audience always added a real sense of unease to the show. How wrong I was.
I’m really looking forward to discovering the personalities of each city’s audience as we travel from place to place over the next few weeks. The Brummies certainly turned up. The management at the Alex bought a dozen or so pizzas and opened a load of wine for us after the show. Apparently, a tradition of theirs. We stood around, a whinge of actors, munching and slurping, patting backs and popping corks. Our writers seemed really happy. Especially Jeremy. “It’s never been better” He said to me as I drunkenly hugged him and took a mouthful of his Barnet.
The week continued much the same. Beautiful canal runs in the mornings, working notes in the daytimes followed by a company warm up and then the privilege of scaring hundreds and hundreds of people in the evening.
My digs were about a mile from the theatre. An apartment block with a canal view tucked away behind the International Convention Centre. I remember that part of town well from when I worked at the Birmingham Rep as their stage door keeper back in the early noughties whilst at drama school. The area was, at the height of Birmingham's industrial past, the site of factories, however, by the 1970s as Britain's manufacturing went into decline, the factories closed down and the buildings lay derelict for many years. Today it is a very popular area for restaurants, bars and shops. It has retained some of the smoky old red brick bridges and canal locks which really stand out against the modern structures.
The area is also famous for the Malt House pub - Every Brummie will tell you this story. In the late nineties, the then US President visited the area to attend the G8 Summit which was being held at the ICC. During a break he popped over to said bar with his security detail for a drink. After sampling the local ale, he gave his empty pint pot to his bodyguard who took it outside, placed it on its side on the ground, carefully covered it with his handkerchief and ceremoniously stamped on it with his size 12 standard issue boot. Again and again he clomped on Clinton’s glass to the sound of tanked-up locals shouting “Mosel Tov!”
Eventually he stopped. He bent down and, forensically shaking his handkerchief of ground glass, he asked the landlord for a dustpan and brush.
“What did you do that for?” Asked the incredulous guvnor.
“Fingerprints Sir, fingerprints.”
After the final show on the Saturday, Lloyd and I quicksticked it out of the stage door and onto the packed night train back to Euston. As we sat there in the not-so Quiet Coach, we spoke about how the last week seemed like it hadn’t happened. It flew by without incident but it had also been one of the most nourishing weeks I’ve ever had as an actor. The proudest aspect for me was that my nephew Jack and my godson Daniel had both managed to see their Uncle Rich do a turn in his, and their, hometown. So that's it - The start of our first tour. 110 performances to go. Next stop the Georgian splendour of beautiful Bath.