Ghost Stories Tour - Week Seven
Updated: Mar 1
THE LOWRY THEATRE, UK
18th February - 22nd February 2020
Apparently, Manchester is the most linguistically diverse city in the whole of Western Europe with over 200 languages spoken amongst its two and a half million population. Hard to tell whilst sat in the Quiet Coach of the early morning train headed north. For all I could hear was the constant juzzhing of the toilet door and the sound of the fluey businessman across the aisle relentlessly gusting into his snot rag. Suffice to say I got out the wrong side of the bed on Tuesday morning ahead of our week playing the Cottonopolis.
From Manchester Piccadilly, Media City is about twenty minutes west on the Metro. It’s such a nice part of town. That exciting mix of old and new that, when done well, looks pleasing in its symbiosis – Theatres, shops, restaurants and bars. It’s also, of course, home to major areas of ITV and the BBC so lots of 12 year old professionals buzzing around wearing multicoloured lanyards and gassing into their Apple AirPods.
There had been an awful lot of hype online from the marketing team ahead of our arrival. It’s the largest venue on our list and the producers most definitely wanted bums on seats. The Lowry seats 1700 people so we had to go some if we were within a chance of filling it. It was opened in the year 2000 and is a very accomplished piece of architecture. Due to its size, it’s the only venue where we would be wearing mics. At the Half (35 minutes before curtain up) James, our number one sound guru (Young, funny and hairy), pops by the dressing room to rig us up. A tiny mic is placed at the front of the hairline and then he carefully feeds a thin wire through the Barnet, over the crown and back down the back of my shirt. It is then plugged into a tiny radio about the size of a cigarette packet and this is fitted into an elasticated belt that fits around the waist.
Of course, the actor in me who has spent thousands of hours and tens of thousands of pounds on training, wants to argue the case for trying the show sans mic.
“I’m sure my fruity vowels, clipped consonants, diaphragmatic breathing and bustling nasal resonators could reach the cheap seats quite easily love!” I protested during the tech rehearsal. To which I received a firm “No. You’re wearing a mic Rich.” from Diane the assistant director. To be honest, it is probably for the best. The auditorium is very high and wide and pushing too hard every night for a week may be too much.
The real problem with wearing a mic is the fact you can be heard by the sound team even when you’re off stage. James has promised that he doesn’t listen in, but were he so inclined, a simple flick of a switch, and he’d have a hotline to my backstage phone calls home, an ear for Paul Hawkyard’s filthy pre-show anecdotes and would be party to my nerves induced lavatorial activities in the stage left toilet!
During the preshow notes, we took a moment to wish young Lloydy a happy 27th birthday. I adore this man. The story of how he came to be in the show is legendary in itself. He’d seen the original play a decade ago and absolutely loved it. He made a vow right there to his then girlfriend that he was going to be in it one day.
Fast forward ten years and he managed to secure an audition for the Lyric run in spring 2019. During the audition, he was given a piece to read from the show that required him to shout very loudly. He gave so much energy to the reading and to the execution of his performance, that he actually tore his throat resulting in an emergency tonsillectomy. Now that’s commitment!
He felt that he wasn’t very good during the casting (undeservedly I’m sure) and so sent an email to the writers begging for another chance. Now, having known Lloyd for a while, I know that it would have devastated him to hear the news that he hadn’t got the job, there would be no second audition and another actor would be playing the role in the Hammersmith run. But when God closes a door, he opens a window. A few months later, when the West End run was announced for the autumn, a schedule conflict meant that the role was up for grabs again. Lloyd jumped at his chance and wrote to Andy Nyman asking for another opportunity to audition. He received a reply telling Lloyd there was no need to re audition, the part was his if he wanted it.
An agent once said that an actor is only truly happy when the phone rings offering him the job – the rest is just a life of whinging and rejection. Well I’m sure Lloyd positively imploded when he got the call. His energy, commitment, kindness and generosity is extraordinary. He’s the first to arrive at the theatre and the last to leave. He responds personally to every single tweet about the show and gets the biggest cheer at the curtain call. Deservedly so. Gracious, humble and causes women’s knickers to fly off with one flash of his chocolatey brown eyes. He will soar in this business I’ve absolutely no doubt. Reputation is everything and his is already gleaming. I hate him with a passion.
As a birthday gift, I bought him an old backgammon set from the antiques market mentioned in last week’s Brighton blog. It once belonged to the actor Laurence Olivier – He used to play it backstage at the Old Vic during his Othello in 1965.*
On press nights at the Lowry, the management eschew the temptation to invite the usual crowd of local hacks and resident theatre critics and instead fill the seats with soapstars, online influencers and various Twitterati with eleventy billion followers. The hope being of course that tags such as #ScaryFun, #GhostStoriesIsGreat and #ISoiledMyPantsWatching may result in the box office tills ringing a little more readily.
120 people were invited from Coronation Street on opening night. It’s filmed a cobbled stone’s throw from the theatre. So surreal to look out at the audience and see so many familiar stranger’s faces peering back. Knowing that they were out there amongst the thousand plus audience really ramped up the nerves before the show.
The first half went really well. Paul Hawkyard ran straight into my dressing room after his scene buzzing with enthusiasm.
“They’re really listening Rich. Getting all the laughs, understanding the slights, spotting the scares. You’ll have a ball when you’re out there!”
He started shadow boxing and dancing around in front of the mirror near my sink.
“It’s great when it works isn’t it?” He announced. “Makes it all worth while.”
He then picked up his dog Ruby and bounced off to eat his mid show snack.
Every performance since March I’ve had the same set of dressing room rituals which I simply have to complete before I put a foot on stage. I’m not an overly superstitious actor but these are little actions that I must have done once on the very first night and, because the show went well that evening, I’m now too scared not to do them. I polish my shoes at the half hour call, I have to put my trousers and shoes on before my shirt, I brush my teeth at the quarter hour call, I fist bump Lloyd ahead of his entrance, I then drink some mouthwash when I hear on the tannoy a certain character say a certain word. Whilst swilling with the mouthwash, I spray aftershave on my face and neck at least a dozen times (a little treat for the people on the front row!), I then spit out my mouthwash and put on my suit jacket. I have a good cough, I place the tip of my tongue on the back of my lower teeth and push out the rest of my tongue from the back of my throat. I finish this ridiculous charade by taking slow and deep breaths until I hear; “Mr Sutton this is your call. Mr Sutton to the stage please” And then off I mince down the corridor and on into the wings to await my cue. Simple.
Well I must’ve dropped a stitch in my pre show customs on opening night in Manchester as I dried spectacularly during the penultimate scene. Apart from a very occasional line fluff, half swallow, miss timed breath or a mild mispronunciation of a word, I’ve been pretty lucky over the months with regard to the lines so I knew a full blown brain fart was due. I’ve seen it happen to some of the world’s best actors and it is not for the faint hearted; that moment when, inexplicably, a line or word refuses to come to hand when you need it most.
Back in Irving’s day, ‘prompters’ were employed to sit in the wings or on the front row with a copy of the book in hand to feed the actor the missing line. The stage manager keeps an eye on the script in case of emergencies, but they are already occupied calling the lighting and sound cues. The late actor Maurice Denham used to tell a story of seeing an actor in a weekly repertory season whisper “What’s my bloody line?” toward stage left, only to be met with the response, “What’s the bloody play?”
There’s no warning of its arrival. It just appears in the middle of a sentence. The brain, like a petulant teenager, refuses to communicate. The buttocks tense, an instant sweat descends the spine and a sickening panic hits the stomach whilst the synapses fire up in a vain search of the black recesses of the mind. The whole moment was so lonely. Nobody could help. It’s ironic that it’s called a ‘dry’ when my pants were very quickly becoming the opposite. Of course, the thing an actor is trained to do in such cases is to relax. Trust that the words will arrive. But when there are at least two thousand eyes glaring at you out of the darkness of the stalls, relaxation is pretty far from a realistic option.
The silence lasted, I’ve since been told, at most three seconds. But I can assure you it seemed more like 12 minutes. Luckily it was after I’d just asked another character a question so I could at least buy a bit of time from the audience’s attention. Eventually, after a half line of improvisation, the words came flooding back in glorious technicolour. Bright and bold and bouncing around my frontal lobe. I swear I heard the first few bars of Handel’s Zadok The Priest as I got back into my stride. Had I been wearing a heart rate monitor, it would most probably have fused.
My digs were great this week. I was sharing a large four bedroomed house with Claire (Company Manager), Tamsin (DSM) and Lloyd in an area called Stretford. Long cooked breakfasts, late night crudité, and orange flavoured gin from Tam’s extensive collection. Lloydy doesn’t drink so instead takes the role of gamesmaster and frequently begins a session of “Would You Rather…” or “Marry, Shag, Kill” whilst the rest of us busily imbibe. There’s a school opposite where an almost constant playtime was in action. We’d stand washing-up in the kitchen whilst watching these giggling Lowry-esque dots bounce around in the grim northern rain.
On Thursday we all went go-karting. I am a useless driver at the best of times and so I wasn’t holding my breath. I sat, embarrassingly, completing my mirror, signal, manoeuvre checklist whilst the younger members of the company darted past me at an eye watering 9 miles per hour. When did I stop being one of the younger ones? Luke, our Tech ASM wiped the floor with all of us whilst Lloyd and James came in second and third respectively. I can’t quite recall who came last out of everyone but I’m sure that he was the safest and most competent driver of the group.
After the Saturday matinee, Lloyd, Paul, Gus and I all sat in my dressing room having a show debrief. Although it went well and the tweets/online mentions were really positive, we all felt quite flat for one reason or another. It’s often like this toward the end of the week. Two matinee days in succession, living and working so closely with the same people and a huge post show adrenalin dump all take its toll so a boost is often required. It’s why I like to have a fish and chips company meal on the Saturday afternoon between shows. We all got to talking about the mythical concept of the hellraising actor. Heroes all who had the capacity to drink, carouse and womanise but still deliver line perfect performances worthy of Oscars and standing ovations. People I’ve been obsessed with all my life. Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Oliver Reed, David Hemmings, Lee Marvin, Jack Nicholson, Patrick Magee, John Hurt, Rip Torn et el. Boozy rioters who were put on the earth to misbehave and have a bloody good time. It was once said of Reed that he made the air move when he entered a room. This give me goosebumps even as I type.
Of course, their stories are intrinsically sad ones. Something missing from their lives or a tortured soul burning away in their hearts. But they were of a different breed who simply do not exist anymore. I told the boys a story or two and showed them a great youtube clip of O’Toole telling an anecdote on a chat show. This seemed to brighten the mood a little before Paul jumped up and shouted: “Let’s phone Bernard Cribbins! That’ll cheer us up!”
He’s known him for years and is apparently his go to source for an ego plump and a chin wag. He put his phone onto loudspeaker and after a few rings, Cribbins’ northern vowels woke up the room. He’s 91 but the youth in his voice belied his age. We spoke for a few minutes about this and that and he finished with a few outrageous limericks that had us all in bits. Faces aching and sides split, we conga’d to the local chippie for some much needed sustenance.
After a quick nap, we played our final show of the week to a record audience of 1257 people who seemingly loved it. Some people at the back of the stalls leapt to their feet during the curtain call which was very kind of them - unless they had cramp.
Lloydy and I met some fans of the show at the stage door after and signed their programmes. People can be so kind. We had a quick drink in the pub opposite the theatre and then jumped in a cab back to the digs.
Manchester as a city, as an audience and as a venue far surpassed my expectations. Such friendly people and beautiful architecture. It reminds me of Brooklyn. I could have lived without the rain but I guess it does make you appreciate the sun - A good analogy for life.
*Absolutely untrue, but Lloyd seemed to believe it.