Month: February 2013

Portsmouth Writer’s Hub – 7th Feb 2013

An interesting writer’s hub last night at the New Theatre Royal gave me plenty to think about. The night was one in which writers were able to get their pieces of work read and performed by actors on stage in the grand old Matcham theatre.

It was fascinating to see the different approaches of different writers. I should state from the beginning that the standard of writing was high and the vision of each writer very clear. These are personal responses and include my emotional engagement with the pieces.

“Tom’s Field” by Johanna Walker was intriguing from the opening, with an increasingly poignant “slow burn” building up as it went on. The story was of an older couple apparently on a camping holiday doing the inanities that an older couple who have retired and don’t really know what to do with their time do: crosswords, tea, gossip about the neighbour’s tent.  But underneath it was a rising note of tension to do with waiting for someone. When that someone arrived, it was their hostile daughter-in-law with their grandson.

It turned out that the son, Tom, had disappeared and that the daughter-in-law blamed the parents-in-law in some way. There was a moment when I did wonder whether the grandparents were culpable, but there was nothing in the text to support this, and the weight of the grandmother’s pleading to be allowed to see her grandson along with the clear exposition of the anguish they were in didn’t help the younger woman’s case. Others saw it differently, but since we weren’t given more information about the back story, it was left wide open

The dialogue in Tom’s Field was very real, and I engaged emotionally because I cared about those two old people and the boy, while the structuring of the scene made it an absolute gem.  The simplicity with which the central conflicts were presented and played out made it extremely strong indeed.

In Jeff Page‘s piece, “Flat Above Star Food And Wine”, telling of a relationship between two firebrand radicals and their older selves, there were some interesting interactions, especially to do with the interplay of power. However, this piece was for my taste so heavily laden with concepts that I couldn’t follow the line of narrative. My feeling was that the dialogue needed serious pruning and the central conflicts and drives needed to be laid out more clearly.  I also found it peculiar that what appeared to be wealthy middle class people, one of whom was an MP, were using “fucking” and “coppers” regularly in their language. It may have been that the actors were miscast for the roles given them, but it left me unconvinced and I feel I would need to read the text to really understand it.

Rachel Besser‘s “A Little Light Breathing” was powerful in a different way, and certainly caused most discussion among the group.  Besser had responded to the Jimmy Saville scandal with a piece about a 35-year-old woman returning to her public school in order to confront the headmistress with her experience of being molested when 15. Or, at least, that’s nearly what it was about. From the woman’s description, no such assault took place.

The woman described the teacher placing his hand on her clothed “chest” to aid her breathing, and this is where it fell apart for me. A quick check of the dictionary shows the chest to be any part of the thorax – from the neck down to the diaphragm. As soon as I heard these words, I immediately understood them as meaning that the hand had been placed either on the flat area above the breasts, or close to the diaphragm beneath the breasts – a perfectly natural place to put a hand when guiding breathing exercises. Indeed, I personally had done this with a male client to whom I was giving public speaking training only the night before.

No mention was made of touching the breast at any point during the play. No tweak, no grope. Nothing.  Just a hand on the “chest”, with clothes on. I remained confused why a 35-year-old who is a successful documentary maker should be revisiting this non-event, now. I also found equating such a minor event with the experience of a girl who was raped by her father problematic: conflating two very different experiences in this way undermined the woman’s credibility.

I was surprised how many people – especially younger people – seemed to think that a touch to the chest rather than the breast constituted a sexual assault. To me, again, this consensus is a symptom of the knots our society has tied itself up in over the matter of sexuality. In schools in which teachers are simply not allowed to touch children, not allowed to give them a supportive hug when they fall down or physically move them when they play up, we have a whole generation growing up unable to gauge what constitutes “normal” contact.

As it turned out, the teacher did have a history of sexual abuse in this story, but I could just as easily have seen exactly the same exchange on stage as the start of a story with the opposite message: the teacher is hunted down and subjected to vilification when he is innocent. I found the piece deeply disturbing not because it dealt with assault, but because it dealt with non-assault. To me, it highlighted the horror men experience daily trying to negotiate the media-led world (symbolised by the documentary maker) in which paranoia and over-reaction have become the norm.

It also showed how vague language and euphemism can really muddy the water. Perhaps the young woman meant her breast. But if she did, then she should have said it. I was at a loss to know what the fuss was about as the dialogue stood.

As you can tell from my responses, there was definitely something powerful in this work, and it certainly opened a can of worms for me. Matters of detail to one side, the writer had a strong eye for a conflict, with the headmistress continually blocking the younger woman’s  attempts to express what happened to her. Besser should be commended for tackling such a controversial topic even if the execution needs further work.

The night finished with two comic pieces by Lucy Bell, “Old Birds” and “Set Menu”. Both showcased Lucy’s uncanny knack for sparkling dialogue and her naturally comic turn of phrase.

The first, a story of two “Old Birds” at a spa talking about their sex lives and spending their money how they want was hilariously funny. I enjoyed them no end, and felt a kind of delight in their company and their horrifying obsessions – one of having sex with very young men and the other of  having her hymen surgically replaced to please the “old man”. It was an exposition of some of the more colourful extremes of our glorious, brash culture, and I delighted in its crassness.

“Set Menu” was also a beauty, showing the oppression of one woman by her husband and by social and religious mores.  At no point was this story lecturing, and it was stronger for it.

In all, a really fascinating night, showing writers at different stages of development, each with very different voices.  I was impressed by the work of all the writers. A lot of thought and much creativity went into the night. I’d be interested to see a production of the work of these writers, and will keep an eye out to see how it develops.

After You’ve Gone – What Next After The Three Belles and Sing Sing Sing?

The Three Belles - fond memories...

A forlorn sight meets the eyes of the Pompeyite out for a walk on Southsea Common a few days after the circus leaves town.

A circle of yellowed grass and a few handfuls of sawdust are all that tell of the wonders that paraded, galloped, shimmered and sparkled there only days before beneath the Big Top. Standing at the ring’s centre, the roars of laughter, the gasps of amazement, bursts of applause and shouts of joy are silent; the only movement a few dried stalks in the sea breeze.

I know that departed circus feeling so well. It’s 3.45 in the morning after The Three Belles put on their show Sing Sing Sing at the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth and my mind is still buzzing with the triumphs of the night, still blaring in the silence that has now come.

The Three Belles - fond memories...
The Three Belles – fond memories…

Fast forward two years, with a ton of other writing jobs and Belles adventures in between. The latest step in developing their original idea came in a very short time – just 6 brief weeks. In mid-December, I’d immersed myself in reading a full history of World War 2, then poring over eyewitness accounts of the Blitz and watching hours and hours of documentaries and war films. After that, we had a meeting at my house in which I presented to them a storyline for a completely revamped show. The idea was to take  elements from previous shows we’d worked on, add more depth of characterisation and more character interaction so that we could unfold a story of humour, tragedy, pathos and drama in a setting of beautiful music.

The new script proper was started on 2nd January by all of us to an agreed plan, completed on the 18th and rehearsed relentlessly for the next two weeks. I by no means wrote it all – it was a genuinely shared project with emails flying between us in a frenzy of writing activity.  We steered it along together, creating, nipping and tucking as we went, quietly focused on what we wanted, changing lines, adding scenes and working collaboratively in a way that was completely new for me.

Before then I had virtually stalked The Three Belles! I had caught them in live shows whenever I could so I could learn the rhythms of their natural speech and the qualities, pitches and timbres of their spoken voices.  Now, writing for their characters alongside them and seeing them deliver the lines we had written was utterly fascinating. There were times I got it wrong. There were times when their inventiveness amazed me. And there were times when it just felt absolutely right that a scene should be such a shape, or have such an outcome.

Those rehearsals were intensive and they were fun. The sheer hard work and professionalism of The Three Belles and of William Keel-Stocker left me feeling delighted just to know them.

Then came performance night.

There is a moment before a show when there are just hours to go and a writer has nothing left to do except sit there, hold his breath and cross his fingers while the actors and stage crew work it all out. Would it work?  Would it all come together? I felt sick with not knowing if we’d got it right. Had I got the rhythm of the scenes right, did the narrative arcs work? Would the audience like it?

The answer was a very big YES. The cast were magnificent. From the opening in which Will introduced the Belles – right the way through to the roar of the crowd at the end, the show had a vibrancy and joy that lifted people up.  It was a fantastic night.

Now I wonder what I’m going to do next? I’ve lived and breathed The Three Belles’ world for the last 6 weeks: reading, writing, sleeping, dreaming, waking and creating.

My mind’s a yellowed circle of grass. I wonder what new tent will pitch up here? What new show? What characters will dance before me in the Big Top of my mind’s eye?

I don’t know. All I know for now is that this was a fabulous night and the hard work was so very, very worth it.

As for the next project… Well. We shall see!

Dorothy’s Response To Hearing There Are Only 50 Tickets Left for Sing Sing Sing

I told Dorothy there were only 50 tickets left for Sing Sing Sing at The New Theatre Royal on February 2nd.  This was her response…

Dotty… Profound thoughts from the songstress…
Dotty… Profound thoughts from the songstress…