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.
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!