Ghost Stories Tour - Week Four
Updated: Feb 24
NEW VICTORIA THEATRE, WOKING
28th January - 1st February 2020
It’s always interesting to me how an actor approaches the character when they’ve taken on a role. Everything they need should be in the writing of course but different roles lend themselves to disparate methodologies; an actor doing a day on EastEnders and having only to deliver one line to help the exposition of the episode, may take a different tact to that of an actor developing a character for a three-hour Ibsen drama. But fundamentally the actual acting bit should be the same - living truthfully under imaginary circumstances as Meisner put it. But how one gets to that ‘living’ bit is, for me the most exciting part of the job. Alec Guinness started with the shoes. “If I can get the walk right, I’m halfway there”. There’s a brilliant story of Olivier arriving ten minutes late to a first rehearsal of something. He blustered through the doors and breathlessly shouted: “Sorry I’m late Loves! Has anyone bagged the limp?"
Spirits were high as ‘Bad’ Billy Irving, Lloydy McDonagh and I sat on the 10am train from Waterloo to the suburban splendour of Woking. We spoke about our respective days off and exchanged the usual company banter. Billy has Lloyd and me in hysterics for most of the time we spend with him. His timing is impeccable and he seems to possess funny bones. I told him that, physically, he reminds me of a Quentin Blake drawing. I don’t think he was that impressed.
The New Victoria theatre is one of the more recently built on our venue list. It’s part of an entertainment complex called The Ambassadors and indeed it is where our producers, ATG, are based. Another barn of a space – Just under 1300 seats. Sadly, we’ve not been selling as readily as the other venues. I guess that’s a location issue. If someone desperately wants to see a play, the West End is only 25 minutes away.
The marketing team in Woking had organised an escape room activity for the cast to enjoy. So, by Tuesday lunchtime six of us were fumbling around in the semi-darkness trying to escape a nuclear submarine in under 35 minutes before our oxygen supply ran out. The only things that stood in our way were a series of physical and mental challenges that we, as a group, needed to overcome. Our collective IQ and physical prowess won, and we slid out blinking into the winter air with only 13 seconds left on the clock. We were then taken to the theatre where our usual technical run through started at 2pm.
My character doesn’t appear on stage for about an hour into the show so I had lots of down time to write my letters. When I first accepted the UK tour, I had this romantic notion of steam trains, theatrical digs, landladies in pink nighties, stage door Johnnies and handwritten letters posted back to loved ones. Only one of these things have so far come to fruition.
I promised a handful of people that I would keep in touch via mail. I bought some ridiculously expensive Smythson’s stationery with personalised headed notepaper and a fountain pen. I write to my partner Lou, my Aunt in Birmingham, Andy (Nyman) to keep him abreast, Lou’s mum in Cambridgeshire and Garry Cooper. The content is not very exciting. Nothing to frighten the horses – they’re often about something funny happening on stage or the inordinate amount of cash I’ve been spending on Gregg’s - But people seem to enjoy receiving them all the same. So unusual nowadays to receive a letter in the post.
After our tech run on Tuesday, it became apparent that there was way too much light coming from the stalls during the show. Most of the special effects in Ghost Stories relies on there being absolute darkness in the auditorium. Even something as innocuous as a green fire exit sign above a door in the Royal Circle could potentially spoil an effect for the punters. At the Ambassadors in London, special blinkers were built around these signs to minimise their glow. In fact in Birmingham, someone was actually employed to stand next to the fire exit light switch, hand poised, ready to turn them on should there be an evacuation. Often special dispensation is granted to kill these lights for the purposes of the show.
We flagged up the issue with the powers that be. They told us that the blue lights above each seating bank were there for patrons’ safety and that permission would have to be sought via Woking City Council before they can be turned off. I didn’t think it was achievable to actually hear an eyeball roll in its socket but, with 14 pairs doing it simultaneously, it was possible to catch a faint wet slosh.
Permission wasn’t granted sadly but the lights were somehow subdued a touch on the second night and for the rest of the run, so the glow from the house wasn’t as stark. The audiences grew in size as the week wore on and the scares landed as usual.
The Nymans Preston and Andy, along with West End ‘Goodman’ Simon Lipkin, were in during Saturday evening’s show. It was great to see them all. Andy and Preston are so similar it’s hilarious; Equally bright, sardonic and extremely funny. Preston has been texting me since the tour began telling me that he’d been reading the local reviews and that I should ‘Ignore their honesty’ and that he had disagreed with their opinion that my performance was ‘over the top and untruthful’. I hope he was joking.
Reviews are strange - You can get 99 glowing notices calling you the next Mark Rylance and one saying your performance is below par and yet it’ll be the negative one that sticks in your mind. The trick apparently is to treat both good and bad imposters the same. Or not read them at all – A discipline my ego has yet to master.
Andy seemed happy with the state of the play. He sat in the stalls bar afterward and gave his usual notes. We all took it in turns to visit his table before diligently scribbling down his words of wisdom in the back of our scripts. All of us hanging off his every comment.
Something I learnt years ago is to not engage in a discussion when receiving a note. If the director tells you to try standing in position A instead of B or to put a different emphasis on a specific line, then I think an actor should just take it and give it a go. A notes session isn’t really for a dialogue or justification. If you try the note and it still doesn’t serve the play for you or jars with something else you’re trying, then maybe approach the director at a later time. Nobody wants to sit around awaiting their feedback having to listen to someone rationalise why they must scratch their head at that point or whatever it may be.
I’ve been lucky enough to be able to commute this week. Tubes and trains into Woking and Louisa kindly offering to collect me in the evenings from the carpark of a pub up the road from the theatre. My very own chauffeur for a week! It reminded me of when I worked at the stage door of a theatre in Brighton. A famous actor who’ll remain nameless - Let’s call him Nigel Havers - was performing there in a Restoration romp. Five minutes before curtain down every evening, his driver would pull up outside the back door. He would get out and enter the building carrying a large whisky glass. He’d place it on my desk and then pour in two generous fingers of Glenlivet. He would then go back outside, return to the Jag and start the engine. Moments later, Havers would mince off stage, still wearing white face make up, periwig and breeches, through to the back of the theatre, past the desk, picking up the scotch without stopping and duck straight out and into his waiting car. They would then growl off back to London to the sound of the audience still applauding and with hollers of “Bravo!” singing from the stalls. My job for the rest of the evening would be to placate the baying crowd who’d found it difficult to accept that he’d already left the building.
I cannot believe that we’ve played four of the sixteen venues already. 25% in the bag. A quarter of them done. There’s so much more I want to discover. Not just about the life of a touring actor, but about the role, the approach of the character, what works and what falls on its arse. On paper, the actor’s job is simply to make the lines sound like it’s the first time that they’re being said, but of course with every performance this will become more difficult. Freshness is key. I’ve not played a role for this long before and I am enjoying the practise of finding all sorts of interesting things in its execution.
A friend of mine observed that, as I have been in the role for so many weeks now, the lines must be so ingrained in my consciousness that I can surely now afford to relax a little; shake things up and even throw away my ubiquitous pre-show nerves altogether. My experience has been that the absolute opposite is true. The brilliant Michael Simkins writes about it in his book The Rules of Acting. He says:
“Round about performance 200 (I'm currently on no.184) is when it gets nasty. Acting is now performing on sheet ice. The slightest thing – someone coughing, the sound of a door banging or even a passing motorcycle in the street outside – will now be sufficient to upend you. Your brain, the obedient puppy of a few weeks ago, has turned into something resembling Tigger. You are now paddling in the shallows of stage-fright.”
But I’m convinced that my on-stage thoughts are still relatively new when I have them. Admittedly, I occasionally question “Have I already said this?” during certain bits, but on the whole I still feel pretty strong. I have a long way to go before I take the long run record however - The actor Philip Griffiths has been in the West End production of The Phantom Of The Opera for nearly 30 years! Puts my piddly few months to shame.