Ghost Stories Tour - Week Five
Updated: Feb 24
AYLESBURY WATERSIDE THEATRE, UK
4th February - 8th February 2020
Week five started well. Tuesday morning, I had a very early breakfast with film producer David Kajganich. He’d flown over from LA to research a project he’s working on. He’s only in town for a few days but was kind enough to invite me out to the Dalloway Terrace for a catch up and a posh omelette the size of Prague. I worked with him in Hungary a few years ago on a TV series called The Terror which he wrote with showrunner Ridley Scott. He’s such a clever man. And astonishingly kind. Late 40’s, long hair pulled back into a pony tail, horn rimmed glasses, hippy beard and a soft Iowa accent peppered with languid Californian vowels. We sat outside in the cold sun, blankets over knees, him sipping a mango, carrot and ginger juice (very West Hollywood) and me swigging oversweet coffee (very West Midlands). We gossiped like a couple of fishwives.
I sometimes struggle in conversation with people as impressive as David; constantly worried I’ll say something stupid or come across as ignorant – Spouting Malapropisms, running low on exciting topics and literally undeserving of my place at the table. My own insecurities of course, but with good reason - his knowledge and experience of the film and TV business is extraordinary. Like breaking bread with a human Google. I find it best to just shut up and take heed. Someone once told me that God gave us two ears and one mouth so we should listen twice as much as we speak – There’s truth in that I guess.
David appears to cram so much into his busy life. Successful and creative people all seem to have that skill; almost like they’ve been gifted 48 hours to everyone else’s 24. He currently has six massively exciting jobs on the go - Just one of which would make any self-respecting film producer happy for a lifetime. I asked him how he keeps choosing such exciting projects and he said “I just want to work outside my comfort zone with comfortable people”.
Such a him thing to say.
After breakfast, I picked up yet more coffee and croissants from a bakery near Holborn and popped round to see Garry. He lives with his wife, the author Harriet Vyner, in an uber cool pad right next to the British Museum. And just like the museum, it’s filled with the most exquisite collection of paintings, sketches, books and sculptures. We sat at his kitchen table and nattered. He’s dropped a couple of pounds since I saw him last and looked well. He told me that he’d just had his hair carefully coiffured by the Japanese barber who works in the salon below his flat. Wearing a cream coloured cable knit fisherman’s jumper, he was looking sharp and reminded me of Jane Brown’s portrait of Samuel Beckett.
Having visited more than enough creative and talented people for one morning, and buzzing from having guzzled my bodyweight in skinny cortados, I gambolled up the Bakerloo toward Marylebone, Bucks bound. Another commutable venue for me this week. Aylesbury is only about an hour from where we live in North-West London. The train journey knitted through the countryside humming past a number of little hamlets with beautiful Dickensian names such as Princes Risborough, Saunderton, Chalfont & Latimer and Little Missenden. All could be contenders for crime scenes in Midsomer Murders.
The Waterside is another young un’ in comparison to some of our other venues. Lee Duffy, the theatre manager, welcomed us and explained that the theatre is celebrating its ten year anniversary this autumn. It was opened by Cilla Black in October of 2010. It looks great. That pleasing mix of timber and tin. There’s a handsome bronze statue of Ronnie Barker outside the main entrance. He sits, arms folded, casually glancing up at the building with Arkwight’s smirk carved across his face. Apparently, he began his acting career at Aylesbury Rep back in the day.
Company Manager Claire called us for notes at 14:15pm. I joined cast members Paul, Andy, Gus, Lloyd, Bad Billy and Josh in a circle on the stage. I don’t know why circles are always chosen. Every readthrough, notes session, get together or meeting within the Arts seems to always take place in the round. Maybe it’s to remove the position of leader or a head of the table and thus making it a safer place for discussion or confession. Also in attendance were our brilliant stage management team; Emily, Tam, Tom, James, Lisa and Luke to complete the set. Not forgetting, of course, Paul Hawkyard’s adorable dog Ruby who was sat by his feet, curled up like a pretzel, wearing a red neckerchief and busily sniffing her own bum.
The backstage crew certainly earn their money on this show. Admittedly it’s a short play, but their concentration has to be spot on for it to be a success. I’d imagine it’s exhausting. One dropped stitch on the technical side of things and all tension can be lost. I love standing in the wings during the show watching the choreography of the scene changes take place. Laser focus combined with split second timing. It’s just like a dance.
We’ve been blessed with a dark EasyJet orange auditorium this week. The walls, for acoustic reasons maybe, are carefully stacked dishevelled slats of wood. Like a massive Jenga ark. Paul took us all through our physical paces again before the show. The man is a machine. He’s in his 50’s and easily the fittest person in any room. He’s recently lost four stone in weight and looks as strong as a butcher’s dog. We’re currently knocking out 110 press ups every day. That’s 550 a week! Each! Added to this, he’s brought his boxing gear with him so on any given day you’ll find a sinewy Northerner and a crimson faced ginger knocking seven shades out of each other at the back of the stage. On Wednesday, I tried hiding in the disabled loo but he caught me and, before I knew it, he was kicking me in the face and telling me not to cry. I must check Equity’s ruling on such behaviour. I’m pretty sure they’re against this sort of thing.
The houses, like Woking, are on the small side but the reviews have been favourable and the audiences seem to enjoy it. On Wednesday evening, the first scare of the show landed well and a woman on the fourth row shouted “F**K! W**K!” at the very top of her voice. It’s sometimes funny how fear manifests itself within the audience’s reaction. I’ve found we need just one scream early on in the show to give everyone permission to let loose for the rest of the evening. On other nights we hear absolutely nothing from them at all. When this happens, I hope it means that they are too busy holding their breath or hiding under their coats to shriek.
If we could somehow substitute coughs for screams, however, we’d be onto a winner. My God it is bronchial in Buckinghamshire! No shortage of ailments in Aylesbury. Not polite squeaky sniffs or short, low throat growls neither – Oh No! These are earth shattering floor shakers and squelchy, cracking, phlegm rattlers that echo about the stalls almost constantly. Tis’ the season I suppose but I will always reserve a deep detestation for anyone who hacks over one of my punchlines. Maybe ‘detestation’ is a touch strong - more a light loathing?
Other than the wheezing British public, the rest of the week went really well. Cast member Andy McDonald and James, our brilliant sound guru, had birthdays on the Friday. Due to our late evening performance that day, a curry was organised for the Thursday instead. I had to miss it sadly due to my having to get the last train home. I bought James a big bottle of cider (He’s 21 – What else could I get him?) and Lloyd and I took Mr McD for a long lunch and to watch the extraordinary film 1917 on the Friday afternoon. Andy’s great - A sage who knows his onions. More experience than anyone else in the company. A proper veteran who, over a career lasting nearly 40 years, has shared the boards with anyone and everyone of note within the British theatre; Jacobi, Hall, Nunn and countless others. When we were in the West End, he’d appear in my dressing room on a Saturday night after the show proffering me a glass of malt whiskey or a slurp of vino from his beloved wine club (There isn’t a stage door keeper in London who hasn’t signed for a case of pinot delivered for a Mr Andrew McDonald). He can also do an uncanny impression of Nelson Mandela.
What’s really exciting about Andy, and the other actors in the group actually, is that he really cares about the show. He knows that it’s not, and shouldn’t be, just about him. It’s about the thing as a whole. A cog that doesn’t work on its own, but has to be a part of, and connected to, the other aspects for the piece to exist. I’ve worked with so many actors over the years who just don’t seem to get this. Narcissistic and selfish, happy to kick the ladder away from anyone trying to step up, it can be rife in the industry and it’s a rot that can permeate a company or a film set. Luckily, I can’t yet find the bad egg in ours – making me wonder that it’s probably me.
Between performances on the Saturday, some fans of the show who’d seen it a few times in its other incarnations, stopped by the stage door. I was given a gift of a huge box of chocolates by a young lady named Lucy. I felt bad that I’d not given her anything so Polly, the receptionist, managed to pilfer a poster which I had signed by the cast. Lucy seemed genuinely bowled over. Ghost Stories does have an elite unit of superfans. People have seen it literally dozens of times. They tweet quotes online, create fan art, avatars and even have show related tattoos! Just mind blowing. There is often someone waiting for a chat afterwards to say how much they had enjoyed it or to pass on their own spooky stories. It seems to really speak to some people.
After the Saturday matinee, I managed to watch England beat Scotland in the 6 Nations whilst wolfing down some bacon and eggs before a busy second show and then, all too quickly, another week was over. The late show on Saturday happened to be my 200th performance as Mike Priddle. I’m sure the character, or at least my version of him, has evolved a little; I certainly hope so. I still so love playing him - I would go on for another 200 if I had my way. Lloyd gave me a pair of personalised socks and a Barbour scarf to commemorate the momentous event! He knows my tastes well. So kind.
I trained it back with him sipping red wine out of a plastic cup as we weaved our return to the Smoke. I sometimes find it difficult to sleep after a show and so it was nice to decompress with a laugh and a debrief of the play with a new found mate.
‘Right-on’ Brighton is the next stop on our journey. A mixture of the “seedy and the elegant” as Julie Burchill famously described it. I’m sure I’ll fit right in.