Monday, 15 December 2014

Greetings from the Trenches in performance at Jakobus Theatre

For those of you who have been following the progress of my new play 'Greetings from the Trenches' and weren't able to see the two European Premiere shows at Jakobus Theatre in Karlsruhe I wanted to let you know how it all went.

Emma and I arrived separately in Karlsruhe on Wednesday 3rd December. Emma arrived by train via Cologne and I flew over from Stanstead airport arriving about half past four. We met up at Café Bleu opposite the theatre and Emma's first words were "I am soo glad to see you. I don't think I could have done it on my own!" With this being a two hander it is very unlikely either of could have performed it on our own. During our time there we had a tremendous amount of fun outside of the play as we both have a very silly sense of humour.

On the Wednesday we had an interview with Andreas Juttner of the big regional newspaper the - Badische Neueste Nachrichten and they published a nice big article with picture in the Friday morning edition.

Wednesday evening was spent collecting furniture for the show and working with our German technician Lennart on the few technical light and sound aspects of the show. Luckily his English is very good and he is proficient. Such professionalism is important when there is very little space for error and time for rehearsals.

In the daytime of Thursday Emma and I met up and enjoyed some relaxation at the Karlsruhe Christmas market along with a reasonable amount of mulled wine, flannkuchen and coffees and some very important shopping messing about in Primark.


The early evening found us back at the Jakobus theatre joining Lennart for a technical rehearsal before the actual show. All seemed in order as we worked through the play out of costume and we were both looking forward to the actual performance - only half an hour away! Just about time to get changed, take a breath and get downstairs into the wings.

Jutta Berendes did a welcoming speech to the audience, there was applause, and suddenly we got the chords of the opening music recorded on piano in Leiden Holland and the play began. It was good to play to an actual paying audience amongst which were some familiar faces from the Jakobus theatre and that of our translator Thorsten Feldmann. Later, in the following few days Thorsten explained why there more laughs on Thursday than on Friday. Apparently there was a much bigger audience membership of English speaking people on the first night and they were appreciating all the subtle humour in the text and the relationship between Frank and his daughter Madeleine. Emma's parents had also made the trip from Nottingham to see the show too!

Whilst I enjoyed all of the performance I guess that the piece I wanted to work the most was the end of the play where it is revealed to the audience that the two people on the stage actually died in a car crash before they had even reached the television studio. Given the reaction during the announcement at the very end I would say that it worked very well and I was glad that we decided to end with our backs to the audience holding hands in a cold blue light while the announcement played and a police light flashed on the stage.

The second night's audience was a quieter audience in terms of any laughter but very attentive at the same time and a nice big group from Theater Die Käuze came to watch as well as my friend Birgitta who had travelled all the way from Friedrichshafen to see the show with her friend Jutta. We hadn't seen each other for fourteen years to it was great to chat before the show in Café Bleu and catch up.

Overall, it was great to know that all the ideas, text, poems, German translations, songs and rehearsals had paid off and my first professional show was an artistic success. Hopefully we can repeat that success in Nottingham next year. Thank you to everyone who made the Karlsruhe shows a success and big thanks to my co-star Emma Brown for her enthusiasms, talent and relaxed approach and to Thorsten for all the translating work. Thanks too to all of the great people at the Jakobus Theatre, especially Carsten Thein and Markus Kunstler, for all your support along the way and during the weekend! Especial thanks to my hosts Gerd and Herrlich for giving a bed, a lovely breakfast, some beers and a chance to pay with and pat Fricker the friendly Alsatian!

Emma had to return to Leiden early on the Saturday morning and I remained in Karlsruhe until Monday morning. It was nice to be able to have a chance to relax after our performances and I spent some time with my friends Lena and Sacha and with my former hosts - the Corneli family.

See you soon Karlsruhe and Café Bleu!

Nottingham Playhouse: Review Sleeping Beauty.

Originally published by The Public Reviews on December 2nd
Given five stars.
In thirty-one years of Nottingham Playhouse presenting the annual pantomime this is only the second time that Sleeping Beauty has been performed. What a fabulous production! It sparkles with light and energy and humour and like the best Panto's should – it sends you home with a huge grin on your face and feeling the child-like magic of Christmas through and through.

Last year writer and director Kenneth Alan Taylor played his last role as pantomime dame to great applause and this time round he brings us an honest story of Sleeping Beauty that is like stepping into a wonderfully alive and exuberant story book. The set designs by Tim Meacock for the Palace, the wonky cottage in the woods (complete with singing wildlife), Maleficent's Lair, the Princess's Bedchamber and for the Grand Finale are knock out gorgeous. All these are enhanced by terrific lighting effects by lighting designer Jason Taylor. Musical director John Morton and his live band bring alive the show with show stopping numbers and the musical romance of the piece.

This year's dame Nurse Tilly Trot is played with gusto by Playhouse panto favourite John Elkington. Elkington has several changes of outrageous costumes and he engages immediately with the audience with his character's 'common touch'. The kids in the audience go crazy when he gets hypnotised by the evil fairy Maleficent and carries out the command to take a spinning wheel into the bedchamber of the princess Rosalind with the result of her being put to sleep for a hundred years. If a thousand children shouting “Nooooo!!!!” at the very tops of their voices would change this dastardly action and consequence then their collective cries should have worked a treat but no, the story must go on!

All but one of the main cast are Playhouse returnees with whom families in Nottinghamshire look forward to seeing each trip to the theatre and they never disappoint. This year the new guy is Jonny Fines playing the part of Prince Alexander – an interesting diversion from the pantomime norm where the Prince is played by an attractive and charming thigh slapping young woman. I really like Fines in this role – his natural good looks, great singing voice and athletic moves make him very sympathetic and the romantic scenes between himself and Princess Rosalind (Kelly Edwards) are very touching and believable as fairy-tale characters falling almost instantly in love.

Kelly Edwards' Princess Rosalind doesn't appear until a little later into the show, because at the beginning she is just a baby, but when she does she is immediately lovable in a bright, energetic, independent modern young Princess way. Edwards' enthusiastic performance certainly helps the show go with a zing. Her athletic song and dance routine with the fantastic Tim Frater as her friend Jerry the Jester is one of the highlights of the show. How they got those wildlife creatures in the bushes to sing and dance along too is a joyous mystery and a great part of the surprise and charm of Nottingham Playhouse's terrific pantomimes.

This year Rebecca Little (formerly principal boy) steps into the wacky shoes of the Queen Gertrude and shows her skills at building a fun older character and she works brilliantly in comic partnership with her stage husband, the expressive and irrepressible Anthony Hoggard as King Hubert. Little retains her rehearsal role as dance captain and together with choreographer and assistant director Adele Parry they bring the dance action superbly to the stage. This is not only with the main cast but with the two expressive and talented teams of young female dancers.

As the two main fairy's we have the good fairy, Fairy Wisheart, played again by Francesca Ellis and the evil fairy Maleficent played by Hannah Whittingham. Ellis is delightfully graceful in the role and as she waves her star topped wand around to good effect I find myself smiling as a little girl in the audience turns to her mum and whispers with a genuinely innocent and child-like enquiry “Is that a real wand mummy?” The mum answered a very believable “yes” with no sense of irony attached. That is the magic of panto in a single wand wave!

Good always triumphs over evil in fairy tales and in panto land and the audience revels in booing and hissing the evil deeds and words of Hannah Whittingham's bad fairy Maleficent all bedecked in a rather sexy black outfit and headpiece of black horns. The superb attention to detail is in all the costumes in this production and is the work of the Playhouse's highly inventive and skilled costume department. It is nice to see Whittingham playing a baddie role again this year. Previously the Nottingham Playhouse pantomime audiences would have seen her playing the title role in Aladdin, Prince Charming in Cinderella, Millie in Robin Hood and The Enchantress in last year's Jack and The Beanstalk.

As the giant snowflakes glitter at the end of this year's thoroughly entertaining Nottingham Playhouse pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, I for one will be going home to bed and will remember this fantastic and truly spectacular panto for a hundred years!

Friday, 12 December 2014

Derby Theatre: A Sprited Christmas Carol. Review

“A Spirited Production!”

If there is a ghost of a chance of getting a ticket or two to take yourself or the family to see Derby Theatre's terrific production of Dicken's classic tale of A Christmas Carol, adapted by Neil Duffield and directed by Sarah Brigham, then do so. Missing this show would almost be like missing Christmas and time is ticking by.

A Christmas Carol is set on a fantastic set design (Neil Irish) depicting the industrial North, all chimney stacks and smoke centred by a massive clock face that references time passing and a local hint at Smith's clock works. The crystal clear sound design is created once again by Ivan Stott. The set has a revolve that allows characters to come and go in a frozen state that breaks into animation. It is like watching a picture book come to life. In fact the whole show is a fantastical display of invention slickly done and using the whole ensemble.

The ensemble is made up of professional performers and groups of young local children and teens who all morph into the well known characters and more. This includes live music and some beautifully sung Christmas songs and carols. At times the vocals are truly enchanting.

As the central role of Ebenezer Scrooge we have Jim Barclay in fine form as the old curmudgeon who gradually sees the error of his miserly ways. Although hard bitten and miserable at the outset Barclay still manages to infuse some humour into his part and comes into his comic own during the various party scenes. The end part where he arrives at the house of his nephew Fred and assembled guests is genuinely touching. Fred is played by local actor Adam Horvarth with great sincerity and warmth.

In an ensemble work the whole team is the 'star' of the show and this is certainly the case in Derby Theatre's production except maybe one extra shiny personality. I can almost hear Christopher Price begging me not to write this but his brilliant portrayals of Marley, Old Fezziwig, The Ghost of Christmas Present and Old Joe were outstanding. Plus he is in the ensemble and plays various musical instruments.

The professional cast made up of Jim Barclay, Daniel David, Adam Horvarth, Yana Penrose, Christopher Price, Kate Robson – Stuart, Eseme Sears and Daniel Willis all contrive to make Derby Theatre's A Christmas Carol a superb show worth singing out loud about!

Runs until Sunday 4th January 2015

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Derby Theatre - A Christmas Carol - a promotion video

Book for A Christmas Carol through box office or Derby Theatre website.

Derby Theatre rehearsals of A Christmas Carol. Interview with Adam Horvath and Chris Price.

Today I went over to the Derby Theatre rehearsal space on Green Lane and enjoyed watching an early rehearsal of A Christmas Carol adapted by Neil Duffield. The professional cast and crew have three weeks to rehearse the show. Today was in week one. I watched an hour of the rehearsal and interviewed actors Adam Horvath and Christopher Price about their experience so far. Heidi McKenzie from Derby Theatre joined us for the twenty minute interview. It was all very light hearted and there was a lot of laughter throughout as the actors and I told our tales.

I explained that I had read Neil Duffield's play – a mix of classically referencing Dickens' well known words plus integrating a modern, perhaps less verbose way of expression and a style of sharing the text between several chorus characters that carries the story along nicely whilst keeping true to the classic tale. There is also live music and singing in the show.

Adam Horvath

The two actors confirmed that they had only been in rehearsal for a week and two days so far with three weeks in total followed by four days in technical rehearsal after that. I asked them if they came into the rehearsal process with a good understanding of the text and perhaps some of it under their belts.

Christopher Price

Adam confirmed that he had certainly read it a few times and made some notes about the play and his various characters but his acting experience so far was based on not presuming too much and unless there was lots and lots to learn he would come into the experience with a clean slate each time.

Chris said that if an actor learns something before they go into rehearsal then they have already shut down a couple of learning barriers which can lead to a difficult experience in learning the play along with the rest of the cast. He said it is different in an audition because you have learnt something in which you, as an actor, know what you want and also what you believe the casting director wants. He felt that it is lovely to be able to explore the play with the whole cast as well as generally to be comfortably familiar with it.

I asked if this way of working was the same with the Odyssey (a very successful Derby Theatre production which both actors were involved with). Adam and Chris both nodded emphatically and said that it certainly was. Sarah Brigham, currently directing A Christmas Carol, also directed The Odyssey earlier this year. Chris Price said that Sarah is a fantastic director in so much as she allows the actors the space to play and explore and if an actor has something that they want to explore she will give space for that. He emphasised that with her you always get a chance to put in your creativity as well and the play's journey is always adaptable, organic, a moving and a living thing.

I mentioned that I had seen on the internet that the actors had been playing Blind Man's Bluff in a rehearsal and I was interested to know how much traditional games and theatrical games informed the working process to the finished piece. Adam Horvath explained to me that they had been doing a lot of group exercises because a lot of the playing aspect rides along with the work the chorus do and that is the vehicle for the whole play. The play is really about a big group of story tellers and how they interact with each other and how they bounce of other people's ideas and expressions. Keeping the group alive and kicking is vital to the piece.

Christopher enthused that the chorus and ensemble are like a faultless seam of story-telling that illuminate and inform the story all the way throughout. In the structure of the script there are lots of little short lines. Although several people are individually saying them the interpretation of the writing by the actors feeding into each other and from each other means that the story becomes a character of its own and also becomes a flowing fluid poetic text.

I said that such a structure textually isn't an easy thing to do as an actor. You have to be acutely aware of the next line that can appear and ultimately disappear in a fraction of a second.

Chris agreed. “Yes that is right Phil and it is in the games we do in rehearsal that helps us to get to know each other very well in the ensemble. Yesterday we had, what was it? Five juggling balls? All five juggling balls were going at the same time so we were all moving around the space at the same time. We worked out some kind of system and it doesn't matter where you are - you keep going all of the time with awareness. There could be under the leg throws, over the head throws, straight to the other throws but you just keep these juggling balls constantly moving. You know, you make a couple of mistakes at first but then you find something quite unique within that particular energy of the group. It is unique for every single ensemble. Oddsocks theatre company are rehearsing next door doing Wind In The Willows and they'll have a completely different dynamic and a completely different energy about them and if you fused these two groups that would be a completely different dynamic too. That is the thing. It is almost molecular.” Chris laughs and concludes “Or perhaps we just all hot air!”

They explained too that in Derby Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol that as well as a small ensemble of adult professional performers there are also a total of twenty-four young performers broken down into three teams – A, B and C. I told them about the casting of Tiny Tim in The Lace Market Theatre's 2006 performance of my own stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol. There were two teams of children in this and in one team Tiny Tim was played by a sweet young girl (with cherubic boyish looks) and she was truly pathetic in the best sense of the word and utterly beguiling and totally symapethic as the crippled boy on death's doorstep. The other boy playing Tim was rather less than tiny. Rather Chunky Tim would have been a much more apposite description! He looked as if he had eaten half the set and dined out in the most glutinous eating establishments in Victorian London! Chris quipped that the big boy maybe had a glandular problem and that was why he had poorly legs because he was so obese that he could hardly stand on them!

I opened the conversation up to ask the actors, Adam and Chris what it was that they were enjoying the most so far in rehearsals.

Adam bashfully said that is just so nice to be doing a Christmas show and that he had watched The Muppets' Christmas Carol at the weekend! “ Got that (Muppets show) out of the way! No seriously, Christmas Carol is just a story that keeps on giving. It's timeless and in our production on stage it will feel different every night and however subtle the ensemble are we always going to find different things that audience give us each night. It's just a feel good show done with a nice group of people.”

I asked if their Scrooge was good and got a wave of enthusiasm back. Chris said “ Yeah, definitely! Jim's great! He's fun and has a very good command of the room!”

Christopher concluded the interview by saying something I totally agreed with: “ A Christmas Carol is my favourite Christmas story. Out of all of 'em I absolutely adore it. At the end it has that special feel good moment. You go through all the trouble and strife and the greed and the poverty and then out of all of that gloom, doom and shovelled up black snow, the freezing blue cold there is that tiny little light of hope and warmth and love. And family! Every year, because I don't see my family as much as I'd like to, this show, in a special way sends you to that place where you can be with your family. Hopefully me Mam and me Dad and me sister from up north will be seeing this show at Derby this year and that will be very special.”

Adam is playing in A Christmas Carol through the Brian Weaver Fellowship and will be in the ensemble as well as playing the roles of Fred and Young Scrooge. Chris is playing Jacob Marley, Mr Fezziwig, Ghost of Christmas Present and Old Joe.

See Derby Theatre website for booking details.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Introducing Emma Brown - actress and mezzo soprano.

Over the last five months I have had the great pleasure of working with the very talented Emma Brown. Emma is originally from Nottingham in England but is currently residing and working in the beautiful Dutch university city of Leiden - south of Amsterdam. Her main professional work is as a much sort after mezzo- soprano. Emma read Music at the University of Cambridge before continuing her studies at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague and at Utrecht Conservatoire - both in the Netherlands. At Cambridge University Emma regularly participated in the Marlowe Society's play reading sessions for young playwrights.

As mentioned in a previous blog post we have found a way of rehearsing together that requires some flexibility to put into practice because not only are The Netherlands are an hour ahead but also because of each other's busy creative schedules. Emma is very much looking forward to performing at the Jakobus Theatre in Karlsruhe Germany in my new play, Grüße aus dem Schützengraben. In this Emma plays Frank Philip's daughter Madeleine and various other characters. She has a great dedication to the piece, a fun approach, a good instinct for dramatic levity and weight and poetry within the text and is continually offering creative and editorial advice, always in an enhancing and positive light. It is an enormous pleasure to have Emma on board this new production.

A brief resume of Emma's creative and educational background would have to include the following:

  • December 2014: Jakobus Theatre Karlsruhe: Grüße aus dem Schützengraben by Phil Lowe

  • October 2014 Leiden Memorial Service singing solo with the Dutch Royal Navy.
  • Leiden English Freshers new adaptation of Volpone playing the outrageous Lady Politic Would-be.
  • June 2014 Pancras Consort singing Ravel's Trois Beaux Oiseaux du Paradis.

  • Work-shopped with professional actress Prunella Scales on The Importance of Being Earnest.

  • April 2012: Jakobus Theatre in The Lace Market Theatre Company's production of Hedda Gabler.

  • 2010 Singer in Dutch National Opera production of  Il Priggioniero by Dalla Picolla

  • Has sung for the Dutch New Opera Academy at the Dutch National Opera and sang the role of Eve in Carlijn Metselaar's new opera - In The Beginning.

  • Her church music has been performed in The Netherlands and England including the prestigious and acoustically beautiful Hooglanse Kerk in Leiden and the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam as well as St Mary's Church in Nottingham's historic Lace Market district.

Emma is working to maximise her talents for a solo career that is both challenging and fulfilling. She is currently studying a wide range of repertoire, including standard opera and oratorio and works by new composers. She told me that she enjoys the challenge of new music and the satisfaction of bringing new life to existing repertoire. Her thrilling and powerful voice, rich in colour and highly versatile has already attracted international acclaim.

Emma also has a great stage presence as an actress and is looking forward to her roles in Phil Lowe's new play Grüße aus dem Schützengraben premiering at Karlsruhe's Jakobus Theatre on 4th and 5th of December before a possible run in Nottingham in 2015.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Rehearsing Greetings from The Trenches in Leiden Holland.

It's not often you get the chance to go abroad to rehearse a play but it recently felt very necessary to go over to Leiden to rehearse my play - Greetings From the Trenches - with my friend, fellow actor and singer - Emma Brown. I flew by Flybe from East Midlands Airport and transferred by train to Leiden at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. Emma met me at the airport and accompanied me to the house I was staying in. As I mentioned in a previous blog post we had been rehearsing by Skype before and that is fine for text work but sometimes you need to be physically together to work things through and to block the play. Such was the case in late October 2014 and I took myself off for five days' worth of exploration both theatrically and continentally. The libation of Dutch and Belgian beer was a constant theme throughout as well as experiencing a fibrous meal called 'sauerkraut surprise' - but that's another story altogether!

Interior Hooglanse Kerk
Emma arranged a rehearsal space at the Hooglanse Kerk around the corner from a city centre stretch of the Nieuwe Rijn canal. It was a very pretty part of the old town of Leiden and near to the old roman fort. I have never seen so many bikes in my life! It was here we deconstructed the text and worked with it on a daily basis to find how it would work visually for the audience and ourselves in order to tell the stories with conviction and variety.
A tender scene in the play.

Emma has a very creative mind and we work in remarkably similar ways so the whole process was a joy to develop and great fun to explore and discuss. I like Emma's intuitive responses to change and her ability to retain the information quickly. We had particular fun with the scene about Hans Schwabe's Strassenbahn  (tram system) obsession. I am not at liberty to reveal anything more about that because it would spoil the surprise. Trust me when I say it should be very funny and show another side to the character Frank Philips and his relationship with his mostly tolerant daughter Madeleine. Through our rehearsals in Leiden we have discovered a lovely chemistry between the father and daughter in the play born from my original writing and the simple fact that I get on well with my friend Emma. It is an easy relationship built on mutual respect and an ability to see the funny side of most things.

We paid particular attention to finding how we could create ghostly moments through isolated lighting and our positions on the stage. After all it is essentially a ghost story.

rehearsal space

We worked particularly hard on the scene where Frank describes how he gets his creative inspirations and I recalled creative development exercises from my University days where getting down and dirty on the floor with some chalk and the liberty to randomly scribble could be inspiring. Sometimes taking oneself away from a desk or a laptop keyboard and just being 'free' can achieve surprisingly good results. Once again Emma's input was exceptional for our finished result and I guess it helps that I am not an arrogant director.

"When two mind begin sparking off one another...

... the result is pure creative magic."
Further into the week we went out to a local cemetery to film Emma (in costume) singing part of the German version of Silent Night. Her friend Hans suggested the location and we filmed by an angelic statue and also by a big old tree. The statue placement worked best. This was for the promotional video now seen on the Jakobus website. When filming with a video camera outside you become very aware of every little disruptive noise. Luckily the boys marching band, very audible throughout the afternoon, had now drifted away to another part of the city.

Towards the end of my stay we utilised the time related objects in one corner of the church in order to film myself talking Simon Schama style to the camera about the play. It proved to be an inspirational spot and visually appealing. So much so that I on the last day in Leiden I took some publicity shots of Emma for her own singing career.

We also recorded the theme tune for the show on piano (Die Vermisster) as well as me singing "If I Had A Door" and her friend Hans's beautiful rendition of Stille Nacht. Hans also took the rehearsal photos for us.

On Sunday afternoon we had a rehearsal in front of a group of English speaking audience and they gave us some good feedback (very favourable) which we have taken on board to improve the play.

Afterwards we retired with some of the audience to the Café De Bonte Koe for some 9% Dutch beers and a couple of shared cooked Dutch sausages! Sausages are a constant link (sausage link geddit?) in the play so this was most appropriate as well as amusing. Loved the tiles inside. I could just imagine my fictional characters Hans Schwabe and Frank Philips enjoying a drink or two together in there as well as sharing a hot sausage with mustard.