It’s always exciting as a project races towards its conclusion, seeing all the various strands coming together, slotting into place one after another, often surprising quickly. It’s like solving a rubix cube: one moment it’s a jumble of colours, then suddenly it’s organised and complete. (Or rather, it’s like watching someone else solve a rubix cube – I’ve never been very good at them…)
That’s how it’s been with Yesterday, the musical I’ve written with friend and composer Stephen Hyde. It feels like only yesterday (sorry!) that it was a vague idea we were discussing on afternoon walks in the countryside – and suddenly, it’s complete, cast and in rehearsal.
If you’re a fan of the inexplicable style of the 1970s, then Theatre by the Lake’s production of Abigail’s Party, directed by Ian Forrest, could be just what the doctor ordered. If not, then maybe this isn’t the play for you.
From the moment you enter the auditorium, there can be no doubt about the era of the play: from the orange and brown wallpaper, to the light-up bar and brown leather sofa, Martin Johns’ set feels like a time machine – something the light-humoured production adds to with an announcement to turn off all mobile phones, pagers and polaroids.
But the period style excels itself with the entrance of Beverly (Polly Lister): a 70s vision in a lurid maxi dress and elaborate hairpiece. With her loud costume and character to match, Lister quickly claims the stage, drawing the audience into the tension of the character, as Beverly fights to retain control of this territory throughout the play.
This struggle for control is apparent in all the actors’ portrayals, from anxious, respectable Susan (Cate Hamer), to likeably naïve Angela (Frances Marshall), to Beverly’s condescending but put-upon husband, Laurence (Richard Earl) – perhaps the ultimate victor in the struggle for centre-stage attention.
However, particular credit has to go to Jonny McPherson as Tony, who, alongside Lister, provided most of the performance’s comedic moments – despite the fact most of his lines consisted only of ‘yeah’ and ‘ta’. With perfect comic timing, deadpan expressions, and silences as loud as Lister’s dialogue and costume, McPherson is easily one of the stars of the show.
As with the actors, every aspect of the production was of the high quality that I’ve come to expect from the Theatre by the Lake. But as a whole, Abigail’s Party left me uninspired, despite the obvious quality of the production values. Mike Leigh’s play feels dated, and the stilted dialogue (although comic in its awkward competitiveness) often feels relevant only to the play’s period setting, and without resonance in the modern world.
For those who miss the 70s, or those who want a light-hearted glimpse of them, Forrest’s vision of Abigail’s Party is an entertaining homage to the decade, which seems to exist as an island from the world of 2015 outside the theatre doors. For those searching for a more contemporary theatre experience, however, Abigail’s Party falls short.
As a general rule, Theatre by the Lake does big melodramatic comedy well. With a string of successful farces under their belt, and the well-executed vibrant chaos of last season’s Comedy of Errors still in mind, it would have been easy for the theatre to get comfortable.
However, Abigail Anderson’s production of The 39 Steps takes Theatre by the Lake comedy to a new level. It was fast-paced, lively, and witty in its execution. The use Martin Johns’ set was imaginative and entertaining, and added to the quirky success of the play. (In fact, I think this may be the only occasion where I have witnessed a piece of set receive its own round of applause during a scene.)
All four cast members carried the play with seemingly endless amounts of energy. Jonny McPherson’s was a comical mix of inconvenienced English gentleman and dashing, devil-may-care spy, while Frances Marshall transformed with apparent ease from cunning secret agent to innocent and proper love interest , playing all three of her roles with a humour and energy that sparked off McPherson’s own.
Especially brilliant were the two clowns: Patrick Bridgman and Richard Earl. I quickly lost count of the number of characters they each played (often playing multiple characters within the same scene), but each one was unique and entertaining in its own right, and every change was done with superb comic timing.
Special mention, though, has to go to the unseen (but not unheard) star of the show: Sound Designer, Maura Guthrie. Every sound effect (and there were many) furthered the comedy of the play, and helped (along with ladders, a few boxes, some scaffolding and a lamp) to bring the world of The 39 Steps to vibrant and hilarious life.
Abigail Anderson’s The 39 Steps is the best thing I’ve seen in the Theatre by the Lake’s main house in years – and the funniest. We laughed out loud from beginning to end, and would happily go back to see it again. It just proves: you don’t need to go to London to see West End-quality theatre.
Mr Paradise and Suddenly Last Summer at Theatre by the Lake
‘The work of a poet is the life of a poet, and vice versa, the life of a poet is the work of a poet. I mean, you can’t separate them. I mean, a poet’s life is his work, and his work is his life in a special sense.’
Suddenly Last Summer and Mister Paradise are plays about words: about their persistent endurance and the power it gives them.
Where there is power, there is usually fear, and Mary Papadima’s production of Tennessee Williams’ plays contains this fear perfectly, like a wild animal held in a cage barely strong enough. In Suddenly Last Summer, the focal point of this tenuous restraint is the conflict between Mrs Venable (Kate Layden) and Catharine (Emily Tucker). Layden beautifully conveys the desperately wielded control of a woman all too aware that control is slipping away from her, but it is Tucker who truly commands the audience’s attention. Her performance of a frantic and traumatised girl, clinging to the edge, is both powerful and moving; in the battle between dreadful truth and respectable reputation, it is undoubtedly her voice that cries the loudest and speaks the strongest.
Mister Paradise is also a conflict between two characters over the issue of truth versus reputation, although it is much quieter than that in Suddenly Last Summer. Both Peter MacQueen (as Mr Paradise) and Charlotte Mulliner (as the girl) address their sides of the question with honesty and sensitivity. Mulliner’s youthful optimism and MacQueen’s more experienced, world-weary reluctance act as two sides of the coin on which Mr Paradise’s legacy spins. The two work well together, sparking off one another so that at times, it is like watching a tennis rally, and other times, like watching a fusion of minds.
The two plays sit well together, too. By juxtaposing the two, Papadima brings out the common themes of truth and reputation, and the power of words in creating both. In doing so, she not only puts Tennessee Williams’ two plays up for comparison, but also gives added to power to the words of the plays themselves.
Last week on my travel blog, Second-Hand Hedgehog, I talked about the joy of doing work, and the satisfaction that comes through hard-earned achievement. Today I want to turn that on its head – sort of. Actually, I think they’re more like two sides of the same coin.
It’s all very well forcing yourself to do the work that deep down you know you need to do, but it’s quite another thing to do it constantly, and it’s easy to wear yourself out. I’ll hold up my hand as guilty to this – sometimes, I just need to learn when to stop working and rest.
This is probably partly why the travel bug first bit me so hard. I’ve always been a busy person (I was that girl at school who was in every lunchtime club and after-school group going), and I used to fill up my school holidays with camps, courses, projects and, later, with paid employment. Going away on holiday took me away from all of that, and just let me rest. I would sight-see, read books, lounge by the pool or in the sea, and not really have to think about all the things I would normally be thinking about at home.
And this has only become even more pronounced as I’ve got older. At university, I took a year out of my degree to study abroad in Melbourne: a fantastic experience that also meant I was less stressed and more prepared to take on my final year of university. (And come out with a fairly good mark – though of course I don’t like to brag…)
Now I’m working two jobs, plus the odd bit of freelance work, plus trying to find time to write, plus blogging, plus trying to run a house (though I’ll admit the housework does tend to take a back seat – as in, really far back).
Travelling to get away has become essential.
But my problem? I can’t switch off.
This is partly literal: I have a smartphone and everywhere has wifi, so I’m constantly instagramming my travels / updating facebook / tweeting / responding to emails etc. etc. But it’s also a mental thing. I can’t seem to switch off this feverish part of my brain that always insists: you should be working, not idling about enjoying yourself, because goodness knows you’ve got SO much to do, and it isn’t going to happen by accident, you know, and what happens when you suddenly look in the mirror and realise you’ve reached your dotage and not achieved anything you wanted to achieve in life…?
Let me give you an example: a few months ago, I went down to London for a long weekend to visit some friends. I arrived in the evening, stayed overnight with one friend, and then had about 8 hours in the city before meeting up with the second friend. I planned to spend those hours in galleries and museums, soaking up some culture and and enriching my mind / soul / whatever.
This went fairly well for a few hours. I spent some time in the V&A, admiring the sculpture and following their Shakespeare Trail, then having a picnic lunch in their courtyard while watching the children playing in the fountain and splashing their parents.
Then I felt that familiar niggle at the back of my mind. Maybe it was the presence of all this great art, reminding me that I should probably be working towards creating something of my own. Maybe it was the constant bustle that a gallery (and a city) provides, reminding me that I ought to be busy. Maybe I’m just no good at stopping and relaxing.
I left the V&A to see if the National Gallery could hold my attention for longer, but no: I’d barely been in there fifteen minutes when I started to feel restless.
The result? I spent the next two hours sitting in a coffee shop overlooking Trafalgar Square, working on my writing.
I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. Generally, any time I spend writing I see as time well spent. It’s definitely something I’d like to do more of.
What worried me was my absolute inability to relax. It was like an addiction: twelve hours without working and I was getting withdrawal symptoms. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I felt restless, and the weight of my notebook in my bag was like a constant pressure on my mind. As much as I promote living a life of creativity, that can’t be healthy – can it?
Probably not, but after I’d done those couple of hours of work, I felt much calmer, and enjoyed the remainder of the weekend far more.
Let’s contrast that with a slightly more recent experience.
A couple of weeks ago, I spent about ten days working intensively and (almost) solidly on a writing project with a collaborator. We created tons of material, pretty much draining ourselves of our creativity by the end of it. That’s ok – we had a limited amount of time together and needed to get the work done before we parted ways.
But at the end of it, I forced myself to take a day off from the project. It might not seem like much, but that day allowed me to recharge my creative batteries, and get the project back in perspective.
Yes, I missed the intensive writing I’d been doing on the previous days, but actually, it felt like a bit of a relief to take a day to myself. And for me, that’s where the difference lies: do I have a burning desire to create, or not?
If that burning desire is there, then maybe the break from working can be postponed. After all, nobody wants to shut the door in the face of inspiration.
But if you’ve drained yourself of all your creativity, if you’re just bashing out words for the sake of it, then that’s the time to stop. Take a break. Go for a walk and admire the landscape, or head to a coffee shop and people watch for an hour or so. Take a day to do the housework and ignore your creative projects. Spend a long weekend in a city you’ve never explored. Relax for a week or two on a tropical beach.
The most important thing I’ve learned is to listen to myself: my body / mind / soul / whatever bit of me it is that does the creative thinking. If it’s exhausted and in desperate need of a rest, I humour it. It’ll work that much better once I start again.
BUT I will be setting myself an alternative writing challenge this April.
I’ve done NaPoWriMo a few times before. I’ve never completed it, but it’s always been a success.
For those who don’t know, NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) encourages you to write thirty poems in thirty days – in other words, one poem for every day in April. I’ve never managed this, but last time I attempted the challenge (2013), I decided that this didn’t matter. I wasn’t a failure because I didn’t write thirty; instead, I was successful in writing ten poems. Had I not been doing NaPoWriMo, I probably wouldn’t have managed that.
In this way, the pressure to write that you get from attempting something like NaPoWriMo (or its novel-writing counterpart in November, NaNoWriMo) is helpful. I just find that I tend to lose heart with the project around Day 11 – not because I don’t want to write, but because there’s a pressure to keep producing completed poems every day, and quite frankly, that’s draining, especially if you’re sharing them with others.
So this year, I’m giving myself a new challenge. To alleviate some of that pressure to create perfectly formed poetry on a daily basis, I won’t be writing poems.
Every day in April, I’ll just be scribbling something down in my notebook.
It could be utter rubbish, or a few minutes’ freewriting which makes absolutely no sense. It could be the nugget of an idea that I want to come back to. Or it could become a perfectly formed completed poem.
In a way, it doesn’t really matter. I’m a great believer in the importance of process over product when it comes to art and creativity, and this is wholly about process. It’s a month where I’ll be forcing myself to scribble, to play with words, and to experiment, with no pressure to turn those scribbles into anything other than illegible squiggles for my eyes only.
Last week, we had the third of our New Writing Cumbria / Eden Arts events at Penrith Old Fire Station. This one featured Cumbrian writer Simon Sylvester and American singer-songwriter Joan Shelley, and of course, a quiz with a chance to win the famed Map of Shap…