I’d never been to Canterbury before. I’d read the obligatory ‘Tales’ at school, I think. The bawdy romps penned by Chaucer back in the 14th century. I remember one about a nun maybe. Or a goat? It certainly looked pretty enough as I pitched up on Tuesday morning on board a half full train heading eventually to Ramsgate.
It turned out to be one of the nicest places we’ve played to so far. The theatre is a relative newbie. It had a refurbishment ten years ago and sits on a side road just off the main drag about an eight minute walk from the station. The high st all mock Tudor, cobbled stones and ducking stools! The ubiquitous French school groups being hurded up and down the numerous places of historical interest; screaming, laughing, noisy and bright.
The first thing I always try and do when I arrive in a new town is to determine the demographic of our audience from the people I see in the street. I’ve found that the best crowds to play to normally consist of a healthy mix of students, regular theatre goers and the occasional bleached goth; all of whom seem to be passing me left and right in abundance as I trotted toward the theatre.
Will, the stage door keeper for the week, greeted me as I struggled through the entrance with my suitcase.
“Hallo! Welcome to the Marlowe. All the dressing rooms are open. You’re in Dido.”
“Dido?” I grumped
“Yes. All of our dressing rooms are named after characters and plays associated with Christopher Marlowe” He explained whilst stroking his labrador like a Bond villain.
“And you’re in dressing room no. 4 – AKA Dido. We’ve plumbed in your jacuzzi and it should be up to temperature by now.”
Being quite gullible, I half believed him as I worked my way under the stage and into my home for the week. Sadly, Will was joking about the jacuzzi but the room was lovely all the same. Long in shape with a shower, frosted glass window, shower, mini fridge and the obligatory light bulbed mirrors. Bigger than my first flat in London.
Another cavernous venue. Backstage stretched for miles and gave us ample room in which to store the scenery and all of the other aspects that the Ghost Stories circus brings; Lisa’s quick change area, Tom’s visual equipment and James’ sound gear. Like touring with the Rolling Stones but with better knees. The seats out front were a Kubrick orange. ‘Italian leather’ according to Phil from our stage crew. There were just over a thousand of them set over three levels with good sightlines from all areas.
Back in my dressing room, I met with this week’s dresser, Carol. A tiny lady adorned with all manner of utensils: tape measures, safety pins, bum bags and practical haberdash. She smelt gloriously of fabric conditioner. She told me that, in all her many years as a theatre dresser, she’d never walked in on an actor when he was naked. Even when she (un)dressed the cast of the stage show version of the Full Monty back in the late 90’s. I nodded silently and slowly at this information. She looked at me for about 45 seconds too long and then left leaving a waft of Lenor in her wake.
As I had arrived early, I had chance to nip over to the digs to drop off my case. I was sharing with Claire, Tam and our Tech ASM Luke. He’s great. Always up for a beer, crazy about music and obviously super smart. I remember having a very intense political chat with him in Nottingham about who should be named the next Labour leader. He himself has a sideline in politics; He is the councillor for Epsom and Ewell in Surrey. I’m sick of all these talented overachieving prodigies under the age of 30. It makes my bitter old heart weep with jealousy.
The digs were great. Just a three minute walk from the stage door and Claire had already stocked it with the essentials; Bread, crudité and pink gin. It was situated on a long, thin street. It looked deceptively small from the outside, but opened up to fit all four of us in there with ease. It’s nice getting the chance to mix up the living situation. I can be a prickly bugger with regard to company. I swing from FOMO and loneliness to a feeling of being smothered and cramped by people very quickly. So I have been enjoying the opportunity of being surrounded by mates in someone’s home one week followed by the solitude and isolation of a Travelodge the next.
Tuesdays can be very long. Always an early start to get to the new venue by noon, then checking into the new digs and new dressing room, unpacking, full tech run, warm up, company notes and then it’s the performance in front of the Press. So, by the time you’re sinking your first glass of slurp post show, you’re knackered.
The Marlowe put on some first night drinks for us as usual. I got nattering with the head of marketing Ben Travis and his colleague Tom. Both seemed really passionate about their jobs. Ben spoke about how difficult it is programming classical music events at the theatre. He told me that the generation who enjoy that kind of music are literally dying out and part of his job is to teach and inspire schoolchildren and teenagers to take an interest in it so that it doesn’t become an extinct artform. He fears that outlets like Radio 3 and the Proms may be lost forever within 25 years because "nobody listens to the classics anymore."
Canterbury is so beautiful. On Wednesday I had a chance to mooch around the many shops, take some photographs and drink my bodyweight in skinny cortados before heading to work. It is such a strange life as a touring actor. From the moment you wake up, everything is geared toward the evening show. How much exercise you take, what you eat, when you eat it, the nerves (God! The nerves!), drinking enough water, staying away from dairy and chocolate, how you save your voice, staying alert, clean, good and wholesome – All aimed so that you hit your peak to produce that thing, for that specific audience, for a couple of hours that will never be seen again. Totally new and unique. Pauly Hawkyard describes it as taking tiny steps toward a cliff edge all day and then leaping without checking to see if you’ve packed your parachute. And then, after the show, the decompression begins. Usually the opposite of the day; Wine, late night kebabs, pubs and dirty jokes in order to yang that yin.
Bad Billy asked me if I fancied watching him in the understudy run on Wednesday afternoon. I jumped at the chance and sat enthralled at the front of the dress circle in an audience of three. Andy played Goodman, Bad Billy took on Mike Priddle and Gus and Paul joined them for their own respective roles. Emily moved up to DSM to call the show and Tamsin joined as part of the crew. Total switcharoo both off stage and on.
I learnt so much from seeing the show as a punter again; Watching and listening to someone else say those lines that are so familiar to me is surreal. A different emphasis on a syllable or a bit of business that comes from it can change the whole scene. Both understudies were excellent and I will be willingly and unapologetically nicking stuff from their characterisations to use in my own performance. Gary Oldman once said that acting is all about stealing. Taking little things from people and situations, mannerisms and physical traits to put in your acting toolbox. But if you are going to steal, steal from the best.
After the evening show, Andy McDonald bought his brother Paul and sister in law Tamar around to the dressing room for a slurp. They both seemed to enjoy it with poor Tamar worried that she’ll never sleep again such were her fear levels post show. They were a great audience all week actually. Very loud and attentive. All the jokes landed, the scares eliciting excitable screams and wonderfully warm reactions at the curtain calls.
I popped into the pub opposite the theatre for a solo half a lager afterwards and met two film & theatre students who had been in the audience; James and Catherine. They adored it and we spoke about why horror isn’t explored very much on stage. Obviously its very successful on screen and in written form but seldom done in the theatre. I think it’s because it is very hard to do well and, if it isn’t, it can look corny and cheap. The descriptive powers of the written word evoke one’s imagination – More frightening than any special effect. And film is the master medium when creating suspense, atmosphere and of course the advantage of the camera angle. The director can choose within a hair’s breadth what s/he wants you to see. Very difficult to do well on a proscenium arch 30 metres across.
Having said that, Andy McDonald and I were talking about the Woman in Black. He maintains that the play far surpasses the book and is also much superior than the film. I think he’s right. As do the millions of people that have seen it in its 25-year West End run. It’s such a brilliantly achieved piece of theatre. So masterful in its building of suspense and simple in its execution. I know that it was a real inspiration for Nyman and Dyson back in the early days of writing Ghost Stories.
After saying goodbye to my new student friends, I went in search of a bar called Houdini’s. Someone on Instagram had messaged me and said that no visit to Canterbury is complete without going along. It’s a very small magic bar on the main drag. A resident magician shuffles, flips, predicts and ‘Ta-da!’s in the corner whilst we drink, think, coo and ‘WOW!” in their general direction. Most of the cast and all of the stage management team were already in there; cocktails on the table and jaws on the floor. The tricks were absolutely mindblowing. Playing cards were produced from every conceivable orifice, minds were read and balloon animals were swallowed whole. Gus must’ve been their favourite customer; Every miracle that passed before his eyes was met with a deafening “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” His incredulousness was hilarious. He was incredialious.
One of the magicians, Rob Scott, offered to come to the theatre to give a private show for us all between performances on the Friday night. It was such a great atmosphere in the bar. I don’t know how it’s not become a chain. I’d have one on every street corner if I were in charge. Swap them for every Gregg’s in Cardiff! Of course, the whole Ghost Stories ethos is steeped in magic. Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman are both huge magic hobbyists. Nyman being one of the top mentalists in the world. His son Preston who played the role of Rifkind in the West End is also a highly talented illusionist as is Simon Lipkin who was often found levitating outside the stage door of the Ambassadors. Well, it kept him off the streets.
Once again, the rain was in full flow most of the week in Canterbury. The main street that runs through the centre of the town was positively paddleable in its gush. I faced the metrological madness in my skimpy shorts and braved a nice long run on the Thursday morning. It was torrential as my stubby blue legs dodged puddles out of town and toward the gym. That evening, Andy McD asked if I fancied hiding from the weather on Friday by going out for a roast lunch followed by the local cinema to waste a few hours before the two evening shows. I readily agreed.
Of course, as Sod’s Law dictates, the next day was all azure skies, daffodils and chaffinch chirps. The most beautiful spring day. Even so, we stuck to our plan and went to a really old school restaurant called Weaver’s on the high street. Andy had noshed there before whilst on tour and had enjoyed it. The place must be hundreds of years old and sits just off a bridge near the high street. The river Stour running fast straight past the window. Idyllic.
Gus and Bad Billy joined for lashings of roast lamb, sausage and mash, pies and banter. After our Dickensian gravy fest, the boys went off to do an escape room and Mr McDonald and I trotted off like a couple of Regency dandies in search of the local Curzon. We saw an amazing movie called Dark Waters. It tells the true story of a corporate defence lawyer who takes on an environmental lawsuit against a giant chemical company and exposes a lengthy history of pollution. A true masterclass in film acting.
Friday’s shows went really well. An absolutely fantastic first audience and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. When a show really lands, it is the most thrilling experience. The best drug imaginable. You feel unstoppable. Limitless. Every joke gets a roar, every scare a scream. Thoughts come fresh, movements are not fake or laboured and the whole dance of the piece glides with synchronicity and grace.
As promised, between shows we all met in the green room where our magic friend from Houdini’s bar shuffled, sleighted and palmed for our pleasure. Gus gave us his high pitched approval once again as we all sat around enthralled. Rob then watched us perform for him at the 10pm show. A real tit for tat theatrical barter.
Canterbury is only a few miles east of Lloydy’s hometown of Ashford and so a lot of our busy houses have been filled with his family and friends. I met a number of them at the stage door before the Friday night performance. His parents Martin and Lorraine, sister Olivia and an assortment of brothers in law, cousins, friends, friends of friends, goats, sheep the lot. All seemed enthusiastic and suitably pumped from seeing the show. Martin also mentioned how he and his wife read this blog so I’d better add that he is also very handsome, like a young George Clooney but with the legs of Ronaldo, and Lorraine has a smile to die for and eyes so warm that you could swim in them. That should keep them happy.
Saturday morning, the sun was out again. I showered early and took myself off for the obligatory smashed avocado, poached eggs and bible black coffee. Then I skipped off in the bracing air to find the famous Wonky Bookshop of Canterbury. Bad Billy had told me about it at lunch the day before. It’s mentioned in David Copperfield and is right up my street both literally, my digs are three minutes away, and figuratively in its style and crookedness. I then went to have a look at the cathedral – Sadly covered largely in scaffolding – before finishing my whistle-stop tour by standing on the spot where Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170. Literature, religion and history all covered by noon.
The first show landed well and we came down around 3.50pm. Just enough time to derig, phone home to check in with the current missus and head to the digs to put the Six Nations clash against Wales on the box. It’s weird not having a beer and watching the rugby. One remembers everything about the game.
Claire and Lloydy joined just after kick off and we had decided to run out for some takeaway during half time and peg it back for the second part. Due to the cozy self-containment of Canterbury, a Five Guys burger joint was minutes away and so upon the ref’s whistle, we fired out of the house to collect fries, cheeseburgers and milkshakes. We made it back just in time to watch the England team pound back onto the pitch to beat Wales 33-30. It was turning out to be a great day. Our Welsh kit wearing company manager from Anglesey was less impressed however.
Still wearing our respective rugby tops, we marched back to the theatre tagging behind a mass of theatregoers en route to join us for the evening. The street was full. People chatting loudly in the foyer and around the stage door. Lots were grasping programmes, dressed up in their best, pouring proscecco, smelling of perfume and excitedly chatting about the evening they’ve worked so hard all week to finally enjoy. There was even a hen do in the audience dressed liked characters from Batman & Robin. The nerves began their ascent up the front of my legs to settle just behind my umbilicus.
At the half hour call, I jumped in the shower as I do before every show. There’s something about washing the last performance off of me that works in my head. I stepped out into my room wearing my towel and began dancing in front of the mirror to I Shot the Sheriff by Bob Marley which is part of my pre show playlist. (And yes, I have a post show one too. Deal with it).
As I vigorously fired my imaginary side shooter into the lightbulb surround, who should knock and immediately enter? Carol the dresser. She’d finally got her wish to see a semi naked actor bumble about like a shaved mole trying to cover his stage whisper from view. The poor lady actually looked quite queasy as I tried to laugh the moment off. And also a little disappointed. Careful what you wish for Carol.
The evening show was probably in my top three favourites of the entire run. Everyone was on fire - Especially Josh who hasn't dropped a stitch since taking over the role. The curtain call seemed to go on forever. Utter, utter joy. I bolted downstairs and jumped into my civvies before racing up the high st toward the station. I listened to the audience, who were still leaving the theatre, for some immediate feedback. Lots of screaming and retelling of favourite bits. Everyone works so hard on this show and it’s just blissful when it’s gone down well.
I travelled back on the 21:26 train to London with Gus and Bad Billy. We had a small slurp to pass the journey – The two boys swallowing merlot and me burping a tin of gin and slimline tonic. Only seven more towns to visit before the inevitable unemployment queue rears its ugly head. But in the meantime, we’ve still the North of the country to scare witless before we join that line. Starting next week with historical York.