Our visit to Cymru marked the halfway point on our UK tour. In many ways it has flown by at a rate of knots. We’ve played to about 35000 people so far – added to the punters who saw the London shows, we must’ve filled Wembley Stadium by now. Or maybe Wembley Arena. Or maybe just Wembley Tube Station – Whatever the total, we must’ve scared nearly as many Brits as Brexit did!
Tuesday morning, the 1020am train from Paddington was positively groaning with actors. Andy McD, Lloydy and myself all snuggled in the Quiet Zone whilst Bad Billy, Gus and Diane (AD) travelled in the next carriage along. The weather became filthier as we headed further west. The crisp London air becoming cold Celtic pizzle as we traversed one capital to the other.
Lloydy was mother this week and had booked our digs in a lovely apartment about a 20 minute walk from the theatre. We headed straight there from the station to drop our bags and settle in. Upon arrival he handed me a small carrier bag and wished me a happy birthday. I’d turned the youthful and highly attractive age of 42 the day before. Inside the bag were half a dozen presents, all wrapped, with a gift tag attached to each giving me a clue as to its contents. Amongst them were a personalised tie pin, a book on acting and a pair of novelty socks. So very thoughtful. In a world seemingly fraught with hatred, his kindness shines out like a beacon.
The New Theatre in Cardiff seemed anything but. Beautifully aged with tattered chipped undercoat and worn velvet furnishings. Backstage had a sort of Parisian brothel tarnish to its décor. The red paint of the stage door glowing through the dribbly Welsh weather. The last time I was here was as a drama student – I had travelled to see Adrian Noble’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the RSC in 1996. I remember loving it. It was so well done that I could genuinely understand every word. Every intention, thought and expression of every character was as clear as a bell to me. Great acting can do that I think – It can transcend the language whereby the words almost get in the way. I remember once watching a short play in Russian and it was as if I could absolutely recognise every syllable such was the clarity of the actor’s performance.
We met as a company on stage at a quarter to two. Everyone looking buoyant and bright. Claire welcomed us and told us that Cardiff has a special place in her heart as she used to work at the venue. Very sweetly the company notes session was broken with a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday for myself, Paul and Matt (Crew) who all share the special date. Tamsin gingerly brought forward a large flaming cake covered with vanilla frosting and Dolly Mixtures. We were given cards signed by everyone and coaxed forward to blow out the candles. I didn’t need to make a wish – They all seem to have already come true.
During the tech I went about the usual ritual of setting up the dressing room for the week ahead; water, wine, flowers, air freshener, toiletries and Liquorice Allsorts were scattered and placed. I silently awarded this week’s sofa a good 7 out of 10 for comfort. Paul’s dog Ruby seemed to concur as she made herself at home in its cushions. I then popped about saying my hellos to the stage management team and introducing myself to the stage door keeper and this week’s dresser – A young lady named Liz who had waist length pink and blue hair. Amazingly she also has her top gum pierced! A mottled silver ring right above her two front teeth. In fact she has 43 piercings in total – Only 40 of which were visible to me as she stood in the doorway of my dressing room. She had a very strong Welsh accent and a beautiful turn of phrase. She asked me where I’d like my costume hung using the sentence:
“Alrigh Rich! Where to do you wan yo clobber?” Pure Gavin and Stacey.
Just after 4pm, Tamsin made an announcement over the tannoy for all company members to make their way to the stage. Something was afoot. A technical element had failed in one of the scenes and so a re-rehearsal had to happen to work around it. In such a tricksy show, it sometimes occurs. Every Tuesday’s technical rehearsal, Diane our associate director and company manager Claire work closely to bring the practical alongside the artistic. Diane watches the show in the evening and then heads up an understudy run on the Wednesday afternoon before giving company notes and watching the show again. Diane’s brilliant. A very passionate director who has been part of the Ghost Stories journey since its resurrection back in March 2019. She’s no nonsense, has a contagious crackle of a laugh and is always there to listen or advise. If anyone should cross her, they receive what she calls the ‘Bermondsey Stare’. I’ve seen it happen once and it’s not for the faint hearted.
Before Tuesday’s show, I jumped in the shower ahead of putting on my costume. Mid-douche, Lloyd’s urgent voice echoed from the corridor outside.
“Rich, how much longer are you going to be?”
“30 seconds fella!” I replied covered in the very masculine scent of jasmine and black peppercorn bubbles. I wondered why he was so eager. There were other showers on the floor below and we still had twenty minutes before curtain up. Was there a fire?
I hurried downstairs, wrapped only in my towel, dripping all the way. I padded along the corridor and into my room.
“SURPRISE!” The stage management chorused as I splashed through the doorway.
Claire, Tam, Tom, Luke, Emily, Lisa and James all stood around clapping.
“What’s going on?” I squeaked.
Everyone nodded toward a large bubble wrapped gift which was sat on my dressing table. I began tearing away at it whilst trying in vain to keep my towel from dropping and revealing my flabby pink tush. What better way to open a birthday gift than stood in your birthday suit? I spotted James filming the whole thing with his iPhone.
Grasping my towel with one hand, I managed to unwrap the package whilst sucking in my stomach and maintaining the dregs of my dignity. It was a beautiful vintage suitcase. I’d seen it in a collector’s shop in the Lanes of Brighton when we played there a few weeks back. I’d commented how lovely it was and began waxing on about how things are not built to last anymore. It reminded me of old films, steam trains and stolen weekends away. Amazingly and unbeknownst to me, a whip-round had been organised and it was bought and hidden on the touring truck for the last couple of weeks until its, and nearly my, unveiling. Such a lovely gesture that genuinely moved me. I didn’t fill up, my eyes were just sweaty.
I was given other gifts too; Writing paper, a diary, a wine aerator, booze and a scented candle. Claire really makes an effort with people’s birthdays. She feels, quite rightly, that it’s all part of keeping the company happy, close and focussed. This of course naturally then translates onto the stage. Some of the company don’t have birthdays whilst we’re on tour and so a random day is chosen and we’ll celebrate a fake anniversary attributed to them in order that they don’t miss out.
After the show, my dressing room bar opened its doors. It’s become a bit of a tradition now that I throw a post show drinks party; wine is opened, music is played and chairs are put out for the cast. Andy is normally first in with a glass of rouge in one hand and an anecdote in the other, followed by Paul, Gus and little Ruby trotting behind. Bad Billy pops in next for a slurp and a joke and then finally Lloyd after he’s removed his pancake. We’ll sit around and decompress. We normally talk about what worked in that evening’s performance, how the audience behaved and then it’ll be a mix of banter, Mickey taking and belly laughter. Sometimes a proper conversation will ignite. A deep and thoughtful debate about the business. All actors are obsessed with the ‘Acting Process’; the different approaches and workings of behaving naturally in unnatural surroundings.
I met a couple at the stage door afterward who had just watched the play. Andrew and Bea. They were both really excited about what they’d just witnessed and enthused wildly about the plot. The show seems to be creating a little cult following. Andrew was dressed as the lead character Professor Goodman. A practise known as ‘Cosplay’ - a portmanteau of the words costume and play - in which participants wear clothes and fashion accessories to represent a specific character in a film, play or TV show. He told me that Ghost Stories is his favourite movie and that he’d seen it dozens of times. He promised to return to see the show again before we finished our run in Cardiff.
On Wednesday we celebrated yet another birthday! It must be the time of year for them. This time it was Tamsin’s turn. She is the company’s DSM and sits at the prompt desk calling the lighting and sound cues. She will also follow the script as the actors talk and make announcements of timings and entrance calls. A job for a consummate multitasker.
More cake was cut, balloons were blown and various flavours of gin given out. After the show, we went to a bar called The Coconut Tree for some Sri Lankan scoff and camp ‘cocotails.’ Very Tamsin. We sat as a company around three long trestle tables chomping on Cheesy Colombos (fried cheese cubes in a sticky sauce), Ladies Fingers (fried okra) and Fat Sisters (no idea). These were washed down with Mojitos, Sriki-Tikis and Wild Bling Tings served complete with sparklers and umbrellas in elephant heads and mini totem poles. I sat at the end with a very conservative glass of red.
The weather in Cardiff seemed to be almost apocalyptic in its fervour. All that was missing was the plague of locusts. It precluded us somewhat in our downtime exploits. Away went plans of guided walks, day trips and park runs and instead indoor Crazy Golf, gym sessions and cinema trips were the order of the day. I swerved the golfing contingent and instead opted for a man date with Andy McD to watch the movie Parasite at the local fleapit. Nothing like a subtitled two and a half hour dissection of social inequality and a psychological breakdown of wealth in modern day South Korea to while away a lazy afternoon in the land of the daff.
After Thursday’s show, Pauly Hawkyard brought some guests back for a slurp. My dressing room was chock-a-block with actors, music, kids, dogs and hummus. He is good friends with the singer/actor Steve Balsamo. I remember seeing Steve play the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar back in the mid 1990’s. His performance was other worldly to me. One of the few times I’d seen a standing ovation halfway through a show. It happened after he sang Gethsemane and I recall watching in bewildered awe as he tearfully hit the high notes with laser pointed perfection. He introduced us to his partner Tracy and daughter Issy. Also in attendance were Andy McDonald, the RSC actor Steve Casey and the lovely Hywel Morgan who’s currently in town filming. I sat there paddling in the shallow waters of imposter syndrome as we broke bread, popped bottles and had a good ol’ thespo session.
On Friday morning, I went to the gym next to the Principality Stadium whilst Lloydy nipped round to see a physiotherapist about a niggle in his shoulder. Mohammed stretched, pulled, twisted and tied poor Mr McDonagh like a giant fleshy pretzel.
“Sounds painful.” I winced.
“Not so bad.” He shrugged “The worst bit was when he lay me on my front and gently cupped me from behind.”
I was just reaching for my phone to call the South Wales police when he explained that ‘cupping’ is a type of alternative therapy. It involves placing small glass cups on the skin to create suction. That suction then facilitates healing using blood flow.There were giant marked circles all over him. From a distance, his back resembled a Damien Hirst painting.
In the afternoon I hid from the weather in a large shopping mall. Claire and I had a mooch around the middle class, middle aged, middle of the road middleness of Lakeland. I was after a decent spatula for my kitchen and a reusable straw to aid my girlfriend Louisa’s obsession with Diet Coke. Claire was on the hunt for a Yorkshire pudding tray to replace her Mum’s old one which has recently been turning out rusty Yorkies. This is truly turning out to be up there with one of the greatest rock n’ roll tours of all time in terms of its shock, decadence and bad behaviour
Between shows on Saturday I had coffee with Louisa’s brother Jonathon who was in watching the show. He used to live in Cardiff and so we worped and wefted the numerous Greggs of the city to find a coffee shop. Friends John and Rachel popped by to say how much they had enjoyed themselves as did another Ghost Stories superfan who had just watched the show for the 16th time! Andrew, the cosplayer from Tuesday night, was also in again. He had earlier Tweeted a picture of himself dressed as my character which was both brilliant and flattering. At the stage door, I had gifted him the tie pin I’d worn in the Hammersmith run of the show to complete his look with a touch of theatrical authenticity. The cast had also signed a poster for his growing collection of Ghost Stories merch.
We had company fish and chips at Dorothy’s on the famous Chippy Lane off Caroline St before wobbling back to perform our halfway point show to a near sold out crowd. Such warm audiences joined us this week. It amazes me that so many people had faced the Taffy tsunami to watch us shout at one another each evening. It truly is a privilege for me and I will always be grateful that I’m lucky enough to get to do it for a living.
After the show, Andy, Lloyd and I sat in the dressing room whilst Bad Billy told a dirty story that would make Hugh Hefner blush. We could hear the set being hastily dismantled, broken down and packed away on trucks before being sent on back over to England. We then headed north, digs bound, through the stinging Welsh wind sharing gags to make us laugh and laughing until we'd gag. Fittingly the clock turned into St David’s Day as we crossed the daffodils in Bute Park.
The pretty cathedral town of Canterbury is next on our sat navs where mock Tudor madness and Chaucerian tales of fun await us I’m sure. Not a bad way to earn a living.