Monday, 30 April 2012

Saving Alice.

On the road with Cabbages and Kings. We headed down to Guildford and spent the first couple of hours walking out the new route around the castle grounds.

With all the focus on the Ham House show we'd not really put enough thought into the possibilities for this new venue - but they quickly revealed themselves to us as we restaged. The Victorian bandstand became a perfect setting for Victorian Oxford and a beautiful winding tunnel that leads down from the bowling green to the lower gardens made for a perfect rabbit hole.

We staged the Mad Hatter's tea party on the grass in front of Chestnuts Lewis Carroll's Guildford house. I couldn't help looking up every now and then, wondering if his ghost might appear in the window. I'd like to think he'd enjoy our show - but can't help feeling he'd be horrified.

The Queen Victoria scene was majestic at the top of the hill with the keep as backdrop and then we led the audience back round to the rose gardens for the Caterpillar and White Knight sections before ending the show in the garden where Alice's Looking Glass statue now stands.

It was a very different experience to Friday's crowds. A small audience of twenty or so joined us for the early evening stroll around the grounds. One girl, Sarah, who, on her way home from school had spotted Jordan's White Rabbit and dragged her Mum into the grounds to see what was going on, became completely immersed.

She was quickly in the playing space taking Caitlin's hand and commenting on the action. She watched carefully, offered advice to the characters and at one point addressed the rest of the audience directly. As Lisa's Cheshire Cat reminded us that if we want to get somewhere it doesn't matter which way we go. Sarah took centre stage and told us and summarised the problem for us.

'The thing is,' she said 'we don't really know which way we SHOULD go!'

A little further on the Red Queen and White Knight were fighting for Alice. Sarah looked worried. She sneaked round the back and took Chanika by the hand,

'Let's go!' she whispered for us all to hear 'you're in terrible danger here!'

It was great to see the show in a completely different context and to know that it's robust enough to work effectively both with big crowds, who enjoy the visual spectacle and this more intimate setting, where a small girl on her way home from school can suddenly and surprisingly find herself the protagonist in her own wonderland.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Murdering in Mandarin.

Up to London for the day. With all the work going into Cabbages and Kings I hadn't really noticed that the Globe's season of 37 plays in 37 different languages had begun. It's an interesting cultural experiment. On one level a wonderful celebration of Shakespeare's international currency, on another a reassertion of the bard as a cultural icon, putting the 'Great' into Britain during Jubilee and Olympic year.

Tonight it was the turn of the Beijing based National Theatre of China to bring their version of Richard III. I was pleased to catch it. Even though the Peking Opera style costumes and set had failed to make the journey, remaining stuck on a container ship somewhere in the North Sea.

When the brochure for the season came out there was a frisson of excitement to see a Chinese company take on this great play about the dangerous nature of totalitarianism. An early publicity photo revealed a picture of Richard in a communist party uniform, adding additional expectation of subversion.

In the end the work was crisp, direct, occasionally funny, but veered safely towards the symbolic rather than a direct criticism of the current situation in China. This didn't detract though from some superb performances and beautiful moments.

Each murder was represented by a light piece of black material being thrown over the victims head. It floated down, like a butterfly landing on a flower. No human touch or responsibility - just another disappearance from the stage.

 Zhang Dongyu was brilliant as Richard, charming persuasive and surprisingly agile. His deformity was ambition, invisible for most of the play, but revealed in moments of expressionistic tableau. It was a highly effective and rather brilliant interpretation of a charming, quick witted man fighting his own mind, rather than, as is the orthodoxy in European productions of the play, his body.

At the end of an emotional evening. This wonderful actor theatrically knelt and kissed the Globe's stage. It clearly meant a huge amount to this remarkable company to be offered the opportunity to bring their version of the play, home to Southwark.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Welcome to the Garden!

We arrived at Ham House for 8am and endured a nerve wracking start to the morning with all eyes on weather tracking apps watching pleadingly as the early morning sun clouded over. We got set and tried to start a dress at 10am, only for the attempt to be abandoned ten minutes in as a huge cloud burst erupted overhead. Chess pieces scattered in all directions, props were quickly salvaged, and put under the partial shelter of the box office gazebo, tarpaulins thrown over the tea party and the nervous waiting began.

The early morning forecasts had predicted that the rains would pass through by lunchtime, but by eleven it was clear that little had shifted. Occasional flashes of blue sky were swiftly obliterated by incoming clouds and holed up in the cafe morale began to deteriorate. We shifted our own bags and costumes into the van and began to make contingency plans for perhaps performing the show on the buses bringing the children from local primary schools.

... but just as despair was about to set in the wind changed and miraculously carried the bombastic clouds north. The rain stopped. We were quickly out, just in time to welcome the children and distribute ponchos. The teachers looked sceptical, but the kids were clearly excited and ready for an adventure.

The show itself went brilliantly. The wet weather slowed us up a bit as our stewards took extra care to guide the audience around the grounds. A good job as in the end the Schools brought over 250 children with them. The company were brilliant though, working overtime to keep each of them engaged and safe.

After we waved the buses off we collapsed exhausted for an hour. A strange mixture of relief and elation. Sheer adrenalin had carried several members of the team and they had little idea of how well they'd performed.

By now, though, the clouds were clearing and a perfect evening was drawing in. We reset and went again. Another large audience, appreciative and clearly enjoying both the show and the stroll around the gardens. Gorgeous light cutting through the clearing storm clouds giving the production a very handsome look.

Wonderful well earned applause at the end. It really couldn't have gone much better.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Hypothetical Wheelchairs and a Solid Dress.

Early morning start to pick up the van, ready for loading back at St Marys. Our progress was delayed by a Wonderland-esque contravention of the health and safety regulations as we'd pulled up outside of the theatre and blocked the route for wheelchairs. We tried to suggest that if anybody needed access we'd immediately move on, but were told that whilst that might work for real wheelchairs, hypothetical wheelchairs would still be denied access! We tried to establish four scenarios and suggested alternative courses of action for each. Hypothetical van, real wheelchair - no problems. Hypothetical van, hypothetical wheelchair - no problems. Real van, real wheelchair - van moves. Real van, hypothetical wheelchair - van stays. In the end we were told off for being smart alecs and can expect reprimanding emails in our in boxes in the near future. In reality this a small price to pay to ensure the safe loading of the mushroom, mechanical horse and teapot.

We got to Ham as the house closed to the public and quickly set to work installing the set. Then we walked the company around the site, pointing out some of the hazards and stressing the importance of helping the audience around.

By six o'clock we were ready for a tech/ dress and so we slowly worked our way through each of the sections, stepping back to allow the actors guide and reiterate the route around the grounds. The weather, as it rather miraculously has been all week stayed off and enabled us to keep all the costumes and props dry - a real bonus for tomorrow.

In the glooming darkness we finished the show in the wilderness. The get out done using the headlights of the various cars that had ferried the cast to the  house. We've done all we can. Now it's up to the rain gods.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Jabberwocky Carnage and A Rainbow in the Garden of Reason.

This morning's Primary School workshop was in St Elizabeth's Catholic School on Richmond Hill. The KS2 classroom we were in had a list of rules printed up on the wall, the first of which was 'Be Like God.' At least nobody can accuse them of having low aspirations for their pupils.

The workshop was really well handled by Jess, Mary, Lauren, Ollie and Valentina and it was clear that, once again the children had a terrific time.

Towards the end of the session the class were put into groups of five and asked to create a new Wonderland adventure using any of the characters from the stories. One group ended up having four girls - who immediately set up a demure and charming tea party featuring Alice, the Dormouse, the Cheshire Cat and a flamingo - and one boy who seemed to be sulkily left out of things to begin with. Just as the tea party reached its zenith, with Jam Tarts all round. He jumped onto a table and revealed himself to be the all conquering Jabberwocky come to claim Wonderland. With that he set to work pretending to snap the flamingos neck, rip out Alice's throat, bite the Dormouse's head off and maul the Cheshire Cat to pulp before she had time to disappear. Old testament stuff really, lots of smiting.

With them all lying on the floor in a pile of blood and tea, he announced that Wonderland was his! With Lewis Carroll turning in his grave and the rest of us lost in fits of giggles it was left to poor Valentina to facilitate the feedback - 'now what did we like about Richard's performance?'

This evening was the grand opening of the Garden of reason at Ham House. A summer long festival of contemporary art, with nine installations carefully placed around the grounds.

Drama St Mary's students took part in the Harold Offeh's rather marvellous and mischievously camp Arcadia (Re)Imagined. They paraded formally onto the plats dressed as terracotta plant pots and topiary and performed a courtly dance to the strains of Noel Coward's London Pride, before funking out to some busting seventies disco. It was tremendously silly and brilliant.

As they danced for the 500 or so invited guests a huge rainbow came out framing the gardens and making the whole thing astonishingly beautiful. It was the perfect way to end the day.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Blue Sky?

A better run tonight, the first we've managed with full company. The rain stayed off so we set a route around the campus and worked on leading a small audience of invited third years around the space.

There is an air of chaos about the work, that I don't think is going to completely disappear - but as long as the chess pieces stay up beat, cheerful and look friendly, enough of them know what they're doing to get the audience round safely. Each run brings more confidence and knowledge.

The show does work well, despite the fact that it's incredibly wordy. My guess is that the audiences will enjoy it in one of two ways. Firstly I hope most will follow the story, largely narrated by Sophie, playing the eighty year old Alice. For those who don't the hope is that Tina and Kate's sumptuous set and the fast paced slapstick routines of the chess pieces will keep them entertained and happy.

There were some real positives this evening. Millie, Emilie and Sarah as the Mock Turtle, Gryphon and Humpty respectively revelled in the chance to interact with the audience. Jordan and Natalie found new levels for the White Rabbit and the March Hare respectively whilst Adam and Chanika managed to hit the right rhythm and sense of fragility in the final farewell scene between the White Knight and young Alice.

In reality though the acting notes for good or bad are all but done. The main focus now is on staging the work at Ham.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Long and Winding Tech.

We pre-teched Cabbages and Kings tonight. It was a long, drawn out and frankly fairly depressing affair.

With the rain falling we had to retreat to the Students Union for the first three hours. Although the space is big, the acoustics made it hard for the actors to hear each others cues and Ben's playing, the sticky floor made fleet footed entrances and exits near impossible and the bar next door, perhaps angry that we'd booked this predominantly social space for our rehearsal kept their music turned up to the max, despite only having a handful of customers.

At eight rehearsals in the theatre had finished so we could decamp there, but the company seemed out of sorts, moody, tired, distracted and unfocused. It was like wading through treacle.

Part of the problem was that not enough of the Level 1 ensemble company knew the show well enough and although those that have been regularly coming into rehearsals to pick up notes and get an understanding of the shows complexities were trying to help, the weight of ignorance held things up.

Unfortunately the second years didn't rise to the occasion and rather than trying to help, sat on the opposite side of the auditorium chatting amongst themselves, texting and at one ridiculous moment ordering a pizza from Domino's.

The realisation that most of the company had either never been in a tech before nor knew how to operate in one was a shock and is something we must look at seriously next year. By eleven we'd done, but I left feeling very concerned that the lessons actors should have learnt, hadn't really been fixed. Most years the tech settles the work and brings renewed energy as we hit the final runs and the show itself. Tonight it brought fresh fears and a creeping anxiety that we're not quite on this as much as I thought we were.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Spatial Awareness in Barnes.

Early morning start at Barnes Primary School for another Schools workshop. These TIE pieces are going really well with full participationfrom the children, who are delighting in the Alice theme and engaging fully in the Maths work being set.

The one problem that none of the groups have quite got to grips with is finding a fluid way to configure the space for the children, who have a natural desire to get as close to the action as possible, particularly in the free space of the school hall. I haven't been to a workshop yet where somebody or other hasn't made a grab for the Mad Hatter's hat.

Occasionally we, as facilitators, want to crack on with the exciting work and don't take the needed time to get everybody sitting where we want them to observe the action. It's the kinesthetic urge to always have the children active. Somehow sitting in formal arrangements, watching or listening to the story is seen as almost offensively passive. We're learning a lot from the patient insistance of the regular teachers we meet.

Of course Drama is the perfect discipline for learning about how to manipulate space. So much of our work relies on choosing were the actor is and where they're observed from. At it's best a body or bodies in space can be fun, witty, poignant or just plain imaginative and new learning is also completely reliant of seeing something familiar from a fresh perspective. If we're thoughtful about this side of the work we can really open up some incredible opportunities for the children to engage with anything from the Olympics to the works of Lewis Carroll.

It's good to watch the the way the students work to maintain focus and order, without upsetting the excitement and involvement of the children and I'm learning a lot in terms of how we work next week, when over 200 year fives come to see Cabbages and Kings.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Time Running Out!

The day was split in two. Firstly an early morning run through at Langdon Down with the Level 2s. In the main they're absolutely certain of the work now, which means we can begin to shake things up a little and start to anticipate some of the difficulties of taking the work outdoors.

The exciting and scary part about site specific work is that however much you rehearse and however 'on top' of the material you think you've become there is always something unexpected to take you by surprise. It's why I'm so insistent on running the show over and over - each time making the circumstances a little different. 
The success of the schools workshops means that our matinee show has already got a guarenteed audience of over 170 year 5 pupils and this in itself will dicatate a more direct and interactive performance style. Once again our early work on pantomime and the Victorian music hall will be called upon to ensure we carry the story to the audience. All of this is hard to rehearse, but is, of course the real challenge of taking work out of the theatre building. My concern now is to weave in the Level 1 chess pieces. There aren't many rehearsals left and time is running out.

Hot footed it over to Marshgate School to see another Level 1 group deliver a great session to an enthusiastic group of year 3 children. There were some lovely moments of theatre. The cast hopping in and out of the broom cupboard to change costumes and leave the kids genuinely wondering whether they had dreamt the whole thing.
Back in the workshop and Kate has manged to finish off the Catapillar's toadstool, puffing up the plywood cap with carboot sourced sleeping bags to give it a cloud like feel. It looks wonderful.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Taking Work to the Schools.

With two weeks to go until Cabbages and Kings opens the Level 1 students have begun taking the KS2 Maths workshops into schools. This morning I was out early and down to Coombe Hill Primary, just the other side of Richmond Park to see Jazmin, Maya, Laurence and Ania run two ninety minute workshops with a couple of year five classes. They really went for it, giving great value and a wonderful time to the children. The team had done some great work since the dress rehearsal at the beginning of Easter and were really sharing the workload. The group had gone for a smart mixture of storytelling and problem solving - which seemed to work really well. I've never seen children so hungry to do fractions and all because their answers were needed by Alice in order that she could calculate how much she needed to shrink by to get through the tiny door into the secret garden.

My only worry was the huge, almost manic amount of energy invested into the activities. It's the children's TV syndrome, where everything has to be loud, bright and exciting. Although this certainly keeps the work rigorous and the children involved, it leaves little time for personal reflection or consolidation of ideas.

By the time the first session was over the team tired and a bit confused as to how primary school teachers manage six hours a day, five days a week. No time for recovery though as another group were lined up expectantly by the door.

I headed back to rehearsals - more time fitting the Level 1 ensemble into the action. We reblocked the photographic sequence, which has finally been fully cast, and added more voices to the flamingos love song. These layers are really helping now and every day the final shape becomes clearer.


Monday, 16 April 2012

The A.R.T Conference.

The Level 3 students organised a fantastic conference in the Waldegrave Drawing room, this afternoon looking at access to rehabilitative theatre for offenders and ex-offenders. It was the culmination of the excellent work they've done with Keith on the Prison Theatre module. We had a great turn out with students traveling down from Liverpool John Moore's and across town from Central and Goldsmiths to join all three years of our Applied Theatre course.

Katie introduced events and then Nabil gave an impassioned short speech explaining his own journey from taking part in a workshop whilst he was an inmate at Wormwood Scrubs to the PACE course at Goldsmiths, which gave him the foundation he needed to join us here at Drama St Mary's. Since being with us he's started his own youth group in his local area, which he's going to try and keep active after he graduates this summer.

We split into three. A third of the conference went off to take part in a workshop run by Saul Hewish of Rideout Theatre, another third went of with The Comedy School and the rest of us stayed for a question and answer session with Stephen Nash from Arts Alliance, Fiona Curran from the Koestler Trust and Neil Grutchfield from Synergy Theatre Project.

Apart from the learning that went on, the afternoon gave prison arts workers a real chance to network and share strategies for continuing to develop good practice in difficult times. A very impressive event for the students to have created. I hope it'll be the first of many such meetings we'll hold at St. Marys.


Saturday, 14 April 2012

Plenty of Practice! Plenty of Practice!

Kate has knocked up a brilliant horse, out of an old bicycle, for the White Knight scene which we're going to perform in the Wilderness at Ham. Adam, as Lewis Carroll will ride it in an epic battle with Rhian's Red Queen, Mrs Liddell.

It's a tricky scene because he has to keep falling off. We spent most of the morning trying to perfect the technique. The trick is to stay on for as long as possible as the bike falls to the ground and then at the last minute fling yourself off. Poor Adam kept working for as long as possible, but eventually, with his side battered and bruised, begged for mercy.

Despite near arctic conditions we took the show outside for this afternoon's run. I felt bad, but we've got to get used to it. Hopefully if we can conquer the cold with a smile on our face, we can cope with anything.

The cast are layering new discoveries into each performance. They've gone from marking it, to stagger, to secure very quickly and there were some signs today of sophisticated playfulness creeping back in. We try and teach students that great acting involves a great deal of technical application. It's only when you're right on top of your text and action that you can begin to embellish or play in the present moment. Knowing your work inside out gives you the possibility to really enjoy playing beyond pure technique. Each actor will get there in their own time and rehearsals are really just a chance to repeat sequences of action until a freedom emerges. Not everybody is there yet, but some are very close.

There was palpable relief when the run was over and we could scurry back inside to have notes in the warmth.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Play House/Definitely the Bahamas.

To the Orange Tree this evening to see a double bill of work by the wonderful Martin Crimp. It's also his debut as a director, an event that has by and large slipped under press radar.

The combination of work has been carefully chosen. First up Play House a new play: 13 short scenes detailing a modern relationship as a young couple try and make sense of their dream, only to watch their words crumble in mid air and come crashing down as destructive insults. This is followed after the interval by a earlier piece, Definitely the Bahamas, written in 1987, which depicts a retired middle class couple trying to finding meaning in their comfortable and complacent lives, proudly, if gently showing off the achievements of their son Martin, who as the play unfolds is revealed in dispatches to be a thoroughly bigoted and nasty piece of work. Essentially this a Crimpian comparison between himself as a young man writing a play about late middle age and, twenty five years later, himself as a middle aged man writing about young love.

If any development is visible over this quarter century it is that of setting. The world of Play House seems vacuous, devoid of clutter or back story. It's a picture of an interchangable generation. A professional urban elite ambitious for themselves, but desperate not to offend. Their relationship with global politics is informed, but, in order, perhaps, to protect their own sense of a 'life well lived' kept at arms length. It's a desolate portrait and for all the ostentatious conversations about taste, style and holiday destinations of the eighties couple, you can't help feeling there's a mild sense of nostalgia for the security of fixed opinions and rock solid pensions.

What links the two pieces is a forensic analysis of the way language raises and crushes expectation. Crimp is remorseless in uncovering the parameters of communication. Each of the four main protagonists, to a greater of lesser extent, use words as a coercive force, choosing to frame their experience of the world in ways that, from the very off, set them on a path of self-delusion or ruin. The chilling thing for many of us in the audience is how closely these choices reflect our own. This probing approach uncovers the latent intolerance at the heart of many of our closest relationships.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Nuancing The Work.

Another full day in rehearsal. We've hit a regular pattern of spending the mornings revisiting a section of the work, looking beyond the initial blocking to try and create more nuanced relationships between the characters in the play. It's hard to apply what is essentially a Stanislavksian approach to the broad Commedia of much of the action - but behind the slapstick photography routine and the militaristic flamingos is a subtle play about growing up, falling in love, moving on and reaching a settlement with yourself.

At times the piece is heartbreaking and I've occasionally wondered whether we can get away with playing the dynamic between Alice and Lewis and then Alice and Leopold in semi-naturalism. It's a big risk to move away from the clowning, but I think the students are strong enough to manage the change and it might just give us an unexpected texture. Unfailingly when we run these sections somebody turns to me and says - 'it's very sad.'

Another run this afternoon and it was pleasing to see that most of the notes from yesterday had stuck. The company are beginning to pace themselves better and understand how much concentration and investment each section needs. Even when not the centre of the action it's really important that the ensemble support and refocus the audience back to the story. It means, as there is no off-stage, that nobody can switch off for a second.

Good to see as we get nearer to the show that more nuts, fruit and water are creeping into the room replacing the crisps, sweets and coke that seemed to be a staple of the earlier rehearsals. The sugar buzz followed by an early afternoon slump doesn't really have a place in the schedule any more.


Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Stagger Through.

Back in after the long week end and after a morning of music with Ben, who's done an absolutely terrific composing Victorian music hall type tunes for shows four songs, we got ourselves set for a first stagger through.

We're two and a half weeks out now and in normal circumstances we'd be comfortable. The problem with Cabbages and Kings is that it's really hard to find time when everybody is available and that means doing what you can, when you can, with who you can. For the next few days I've got the main company. We need to really get our work tight and consistent, so that once the Level 1 students return from their holiday at the end of next week we can slot them easily into the work.

After that we need to squeeze in rehearsals for the band and find time for the actors to get used to the out sized props that are periodically entering the rehearsal room.

It wasn't a bad first go at the play and I could see the actors make new connections and start to spot the rhythm of their own individual journey through the piece. I try and solve problems as they arise, but, as with all site specific work, we need intelligent actors, with a sophisticated sense of stagecraft, who can exploit the open space and understand how to create presence. It's not easy, but I can see some of the company begin to get a feel for what's required.

Meanwhile Ben has borrowed Kasia's accordion and has gone home to learn how to play it.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Trenton! Jesus Christ! Trenton!

Today was boat race day, which is a great tradition in South West London. Eleanor and I caught the train up early to Putney, where preparations were in full swing. Bacon sandwiches, coffee, hunter booted crew support studying the sky and tide tables. The two boat houses, each with a red carpet leading down to the water's edge, heavily guarded and everywhere opportunist street sellers setting up cake stalls, hastily printed T-shirts and flags.

We stayed on the Surrey bank and followed the river round passing Craven Cottage on the opposite side until we reached the Harrods depositary and saw the beautiful Hammersmith Bridge come into view. From here the bend reverses dramatically, the path becomes overhung with the boughs of mature trees, which provide shade all the way to the neo-Rivera setting of Barnes and the next bank of pubs and burger vans.

Nearly at the finish, we trudged on until we arrived at The Ship, the closest pub to Chiswick Bridge, where we bought a well earned drink and waited for the race to start.

We weren't alone. Mayor Boris Johnson, was out canvassing, with his bright young Tory campaign team. Freebies galore - stickers, bags, promises - all stamped with a floppy haired silhouette icon; they seemed surprised when we cheerlessly refused their gifts. Not that it mattered much, Boris was on home turf. These Pimms drink toffs are his Pimms drinking toffs an he left to the sound of three Huzzahs.

The race itself started soon afterwards. We waited, eyes fixed on the bend, waiting for the crews to come powering out from under Barnes Bridge. We waited... and waited. Finally we realised something must have gone wrong, so I climbed down from our vantage point and headed back into the pub to learn that a class warrior, Trenton Oldfield, had managed, successfully, to halt the race, by swimming out in front of the boats. A restart from the half way point was convened. I saw them start and ran back to the bank, where Patsy and Ben had joined us.

When the crews did arrive ten minutes later Cambridge were way in front, a consequence, we found out later, of Oxford losing an oar in a clash of blades. It was quite an anti-climax. We retreated inland to Mortlake and downloaded Trenton's manifesto, which he'd posted on line prior to his intervention to see what all the fuss was about.

It was hard to argue with his analysis of power and privilege, but there was no doubt he'd ruined the event. Oddly, almost as if underlining his point, the crowd, made up mostly of the managers, academic apologists, tax lawyers and corporate administrators of the invisible super rich, seemed reluctant to complain and instead chose merely to murmur their discontent. No civil disobedience here, just the shocked realisation that, with a restarted race and one team down to nine men, fair play had not won the day!

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Recruiting Officer.

To the Donmar this evening to see The Recruiting Officer. It's new artistic director Josie Rourke's debut show and she's rather brilliantly set her stall out with marvellous production of a too often neglected classic.

Beautifully lit with golden candle light, Farquhar's beguiling Queen Anne comedy (it was written much too late to really call it Restoration) is brought thrillingly to life by a cast who seem to revel in the chance to play such an epic adventure in this intimate space.

The story itself revolves around the arrival in Shrewsbury of Captain Plume, a rakish Tobias Menzies and his devious sidekick, Kite, brought to craggy life by MacKenzie Crook. Buoyed by success at the Battle of Blenheim they're in town looking for new soldiers. Meanwhile Plume's beloved Silvia, a plucky Nancy Carroll, dresses as a man in order to test her man. Whilst in the subplot Silvia's affected cousin Melinda, brilliantly realised by Rachel Stirling, joyfully elongates all the wrong vowels as she tries desperately to rise above her rural fortune and Mark Gatiss resurrects the full wigged fop as his popinjay Captain Brazen flounces across the stage offering affection and bravado in equal measure.

The whole show is underscored by a fun loving, four pieced folk band , who double up as Shropshire lads, sent over the hills and far away by the tricks of the recruiters. Poignantly, one by one, they march off the stage at the end, abandoning their instruments in the empty space. A sad reminder that for all the promises of glory, wine, women and song, some soldiers never return.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Prepare Flamingos!

One of the more difficult sequences of Cabbages and Kings to block is the croquet game that Alice plays with, amongst others, the Queen of Hearts. Carroll was fascinated by chaos and order and twice in Alice's Adventure's in Wonderland does he create scenes where the normal rules of sport are thrown out of the window, to allow a free for all. We've not had room to include the Caucus Race, where all must have prizes, but we all felt that the images of flamingo mallets, playing card hoops and hedgehog balls was visually simply too good to lose.

Part of our problem is scale and space. Playing outdoors requires real focus. The madness and anarchic nature of the scene makes it difficult to put together, particularly as we have limited access to the gardens. Instead we've brought it into a scene where Alice, as she really did, falls in love with Queen Victoria's youngest son, Prince Leopold.

Marina's written a great song telling this story and, once again, Ben has recycled an old music hall sing-a-long tune to bring it to life. The flamingo's - low tech, elbow length, pink socks - will provide the chorus for this. Each flamingo, of course, quickly developed its own personality. Some were proud, some subversive, some frankly just aggressive. It's all very silly, but works surprisingly well. Particularly with Katie's savage Queen barking out orders from a raised platform behind the action. It was a fun filled couple of hours putting it together.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Why it Takes Twenty to Take a Photograph.

Today we choreographed the first scene. It's quite complicated, but when it comes together, a lot of fun.

The idea is to create a slapstick music hall routine where the chess piece ensemble chaotically bring on all the kit, chemicals and dressing up materials that would have accompanied the taking of a simple photograph in 1856. Subjects had to stand still for up to 45 seconds and there was even a special back holding prop into which fidgety children would be straped into to keep them still. It's a fascinating contrast with the mobile phone shoot and send culture of picture taking that we're all used to now.

The company and Ben have written a five minute song, which explains the process, based on a parody poem that Lewis Carroll wrote, set to the rhythm of Longfellow's Hiawatha.

Finally, he fixed each picture
With a saturate solution
Which was made of hyposulphite
Which, again, was made of soda.

We've a company of over 40 in the show now and, with other projects, loan supplementing jobs, trips home for Easter and essay deadlines flying about, it's difficult to get them all into rehearsals at the same time. The reality of this process is one of handing on information to the cast, who join when they can. This simple five minute routine takes over 20 chess pieces to complete and each new arrival into the room is warmly greeted and handed a set of ordered instructions. We've the air of a rag tag army just now - working with whoever turns up to flesh out the show.

Slowly, we're getting there.