Monday: Musical Theatre at Blackheath

There’s rather more theatre in this musical theatre lark than I quite anticipated.  Maybe it just feels like that because we are improvising, so there’s a lot being tried out that won’t get into the final product.

We reviewed our memory of what we were doing with Under Pressure and our scene on the train station, and Lee has taken on my suggestion that the two note refrain sounds like an announcement is about to be made, and there is now a twenty-minute delay announced before we start singing. We have established that it’s a cold day and the roof over the platform leaks, and that one of our number has a double buggy.  Lee is going to find us a sound effect for oyster card reader, and some of us are going to have paper coffee cups. (Something for Jonathon to sweep up – he now has an actual big broom courtesy of whoever left it leaning against the wall.)

We have a new song: a mash-up of Money, Money, Money (Abba) and I Hope I Get It (A Chorus Line).  Lee has given us nice simple arrangements, but even so I’m struggling with getting the pitch right… ’tis a curse not reading music confidently…  it’ll come right in the end!

So now we have a new scene where we are all out of work actors at an audition.  Once more in groups, we improvise that there is some negative history between two of the company.  we have to say whether the scene comes before or after the song.

What we get is:

Two rather histrionic male/female bust ups, one referring to ‘it was in the papers, you know it was, you know what he did to me!’  which sounded deliciously scandalous, the other more of a messy divorce scenario, which included some very witty actorly stretches.

My group did a take on All About Eve, with me in Joan Crawford mode snarling at the bright young thing who got MY part last time, and shouldn’t she be on the way to Hollywood by now darling, instead of slumming it with us? The rest of them ganged up on me magnificently and we had a lot of fun, but a tad OTT.  Ought to segue into Anything You Can Do, but we’d decided it was before the song so that’s not going to happen!

And two rather good, quiet takes – one making use of the words of the song, to be interior dialogue, and just an appalled look and a turning away as the pair in conflict clap eyes on each other; and the other when one of the producers recognises one of the actors as he is asked for his name, and they both say it together, then she turns away in horror.  I liked this one particularly.

Its getting interesting, we’ve been asked to come up with more scenarios for big ensemble pieces…

© Cherry Potts 2012

Sunday: Writing With Your Ears

My first ever writing workshop went extremely well.  The idea was to cross artistic boundaries and get people to sit in with an orchestra (the Blackheath Community Orchestra in this instance), and write whatever the music moved them to write.  There was a whole load of explanation about hearing and sound and NLP which I might ditch the next time I run it; because it was so exciting writing to live music, that I’m not sure I need to embellish it.

Enthusiastic and engaged participants, fabulous music from the orchestra ( Leigh told me he’d planned the most dramatic piece from the Tchaikovsky for when we were sitting in with them; thanks Leigh) and a fun time had by all.  (Thanks also to the Orchestra for letting us intrude, and particularly those who came and talked to the writers about playing music  in the tea break.)

I think I probably talked too much, and I can see ways to improve it now I have independant evidence for how effective writing to live music is (there was a tiny question in my mind: is it just me that pulls voices and characters and scenarios out of bits of music?  I always want to write when I’m at concerts, but it seems a bit rude).

There was concrete written outcome for participants including a fully-formed miniature Victorian melodrama from someone who claimed to have written only shopping lists before. I want to read those shopping lists, they are probably in haiku.

Some feedback from participants:

I like the link between writing and other creative arts (Participant)

Fantastic experience of being with the orchestra… Ideas for mixing up senses (John)

Very very informative – the time passed so quickly. I never realised before how music could have such an impact on writing. Thoroughly enjoyed it and would like to do more. (Helen)

I enjoyed the music, feeling at ease with what was happening and what was expected.  I’m glad I came, gentle but stimulating afternoon (Norma)

A new angle, an interesting experience (Jennifer)

So I think I’ll be running this again.

I am also running an all weekend feast for the senses writing workshop A Garden Full of Metaphor at Sussex Prairies,  Henfield in July.

© Cherry Potts 2012

Friday: FOG at the Finborough

A mass outing from the Raise the Roof Theatre Appreciation Society to the Finborough, to see the penultimate performance of FOG, a new play by Tash Fairbanks and Toby Wharton.

You might wonder why I would bother to review something that has just closed.  Well for the simple reason that a) it was brilliant, and b) there are rumours of a west end transfer.  So you may yet be able to see it for yourself, and I would strongly recommend that  you do.

I’ve known Tash Fairbanks for years: A and I took pictures for her then theatre group,  Siren, back in the mid eighties… come to think of it, around the time Toby Wharton was born. We went to many of their shows, sometimes repeatedly, looking for the right photograph, The first we went to was From the Divine; and the first photographs we took were, if memory serves, at a Cabaret for International Women’s Day in that salubrious watering hole, Ladywell Swimming Baths Café. That was something of a bonding moment, an audience of bemused adolescents, us and three other adults, the smell of chlorine, and some synchronised drowning being attempted in the pool next door.

Tash is a gifted writer of great wit, many of her phrases have become household currency: ‘I’d nather rot’, ‘You haven’t been happy since the fall of Troy’ and ‘pick a war, any war, it’s all the same war’ all get a regular airing chez nous.

What has happened with FOG, is that Tash has found an ideal collaborator in Toby Wharton. What she brings in writing expertise and theatrical nous he complements with acting ability, and an understanding of current street language used to devastatingly funny and poignant affect, as his Fog/Gary tries to talk up his embryonic drug dealing business.  Gary’s relationship, or lack of it, with his father Cannon (Victor Gardener), is well set up in the first scene, where their responses to the vile top-of-tower-block flat they have been offered are contrasted with a skill that tells you so much about where each have come from, and that they haven’t been through it together.

There is an inevitability about the arc of the story that creates anguish rather than predictability, knowing that there is no way Cannon will stay with his son, despite his best intentions is there like a shadow throughout, and you feel for both of them: whilst each of the characters judge the others; the writers judge none of them.

Wharton is without question the star of the piece; his confused, tender, angry,  vulnerable, incoherent, excitable, forgiving, unforgiving child-man shows every thought form before he speaks it.  The rest of the cast are excellent;they are an ensemble of considerable talent, and each is given their moment, Bernice (Kanga Tanikye-Bush), who does most of her acting with an expressive lower lip, pouting, impatient, scornful, has great comic timing and the contrast of Bernice being herself and acting out who she imagines her boss wants her to be is painfully funny. (One of our party couldn’t resist consoling her after the show for the fact that she was never going to get that job).  Michael (Benjamin Cawley), Gary’s bookish aspirational friend, turns him off in a way that reminded me of Prince Hal giving Falstaff the brush off once he becomes king; first lying about how far away Oxford is and then telling Gary outright that he’s not welcome to visit:

They’ll laugh at you…. they’ll laugh at me,

Gary takes it better than Falstaff, repeatedly telling Michael

it’s ok, it’s your thing.

at the same time as being heart-broken.

The least successful element of the piece is Gary’s sister Lou (Annie Hemingway), who had been using sexual favours to protect Gary from the very lowlife he is now working for dealing drugs. Conceptually it was fine, but in execution it jarred, without being shocking, which I imagine it was meant to be.

The ending was a bit abrupt too, although I loved Gary’s gradual realisation, under his father’s misguided questioning, that he has in fact had a good time out without Michael, and the audience’s consequential realisation that Gary will be ok on his own, which is just as well since his father’s packed bag is lurking behind the sofa.

One of our party was vocal about the need fo a sequel, and a prequel for that matter.  I don’t agree: the sign of good writing is that you go away thinking about the characters, about their past, and about their future; and I for one have certainly been doing that.

© Cherry Potts 2012

A Garden Full of Metaphor

Plans for the next workshop are shaping up:

A Garden Full of metaphor July 7th & 8th 2012 - poster

A Garden full of Metaphor

Join author Cherry Potts (Mosaic of Air, Tales Told Before Cockcrow, The Blackheath Onegin) for a weekend of writing and inspiration for all the senses in the glorious surroundings of the gardens at Sussex Prairies in Henfield, Sussex.

Why write in a garden?

A garden gives you the opportunity to make use of all your senses: you see the colours, you feel the textures, you hear the wind in the grasses, you smell the different perfumes; you taste the flavours in food cooked using the plants.

The programme:

10-1 Sight Lines
1-2 Lunch
2-5 Writing with your ears
10-1 Bitter-sweet
1-2 Lunch
2-5 motion and emotion

The Price:   £120

What’s included:

  • 4 workshops using NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) techniques to unleash your imagination and get you writing which will explore language, character creation and plotting
  • unrestricted (exclusive in the mornings) access to the garden and farm
  • home cooked refreshments and lunch, using ingredients from the farm and garden

Places to stay:

If you need somewhere to stay overnight, Sussex Prairies has a small B&B, we can provide a list of other nearby B&Bs, or you can camp on site.  Ask for details.


Strictly limited to 15 people. Enquiries

Book online

Musical from scratch

This is definitely an experiment: A and I at Blackheath Halls with quite a crowd of Blackheath Chorus, Gospellers and Find Your Voice-ers with Lee Reynolds directing, for a seven-week make-a-musical… there will be an invitation only performance in week seven.

The plan is that we come up with a musical from scratch: we aren’t writing the music, but we are choosing the story line and, we hope, the songs, which will be culled from other sources.

We started with  the basic theme of ‘a difficult decision’, and learning Under Pressure (lots of mouth music very few words, good choice!). With this basic framework we split into teams and came up with scenarios and the songs we thought appropriate.

Options arrived at:

Into Africa: banker meets friend wonders what became of good intentions and decides to jack it all in and go and do something worthwhile in Africa.  (songs – Money Money Money, Hatuna Matata)

Blackheath Blues: an ensemble piece with stressed commuters on the station, different individuals get to sing their problems. (Songs, seasons of love)

Riot: youth tempted to join the riots. (Songs: London’s Burning, should I stay or should I go… money (that’s what I want))

Roll of the Dice: Politician with gambling habit in casino – each roll of the dice leads to a new dilemma or life choice (fantasy scenes…), ultimately decides to give up gambling – but presumably not politics! (songs: Money Money Money, Luck be a Lady…)

Marriage Dilemma: woman has to choose between safe man her mum approves of, or handsome stranger… (Songs: Marry the man today)

New Job New World: woman desperate for work is offered dream job in the USA but partner doesn’t want to come… (Songs: New York New York, I can cook too, another suitcase another hall…)

I’m fairly sure Money Money Money is going to get an airing regardless of the theme chosen.

We had a lot of fun getting to this point, my group had worked out costumes and props as well as a reprise and mashup section, very sophisticated!

Blind voting, we chose Blackheath Blues, and immediately started being commuters.  I decided I was not on my way to work, but heading for a plane, for which I was getting increasingly late.  Not quite decided whether I’m a Blackheathen on my way on holiday or someone who’s been staying with relatives and is now heading off home to … hmm…  Orkney looks attractive, and probably is at least as difficult and time consuming to get to as some longish haul flights.

Jonathon was having fun being a manic cleaner, racing through the throng pushing what was clearly one of those very wide brooms. Not sure how we will move this scene on, nor where the difficult decision comes in.  Maybe the train has been hijacked, or someone could have a heart attack.  Under Pressure…

© Cherry Potts 2012

Baroque Confection at the Cinema

After the disaster that was Castor & Pollux, I was very keen to see The Enchanted Island, an exquisite confection of Baroque greatest hits set to a new libretto by Jeremy Sams, who knows a thing or two about translation and adaptation.

Sadly I can’t afford a transatlantic trip to the Met to see this in the flesh, but the HD live relay at the Curzon provided an acceptable alternative.  Musically it is not a patch  on hearing it in the same physical space as the singers and musicians, but in terms of the visuals it is magnificent.

Sams has come up with a storyline loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest with the lovers from Midsummer Night’s Dream thrown in to complicate the plot and allow a great deal more humour than The Tempest would normally warrant (“Wrong Ship!” as Ariel cries in outrage at the failure of the spell).  This regurgitating of plot and music is entirely appropriate; The Tempest is the only storyline Shakespeare didn’t borrow from somewhere else, and Handel (and I’ve no doubt many others) reused their best tunes… something that was easy to do before the advent of recorded music. Scherza infida (Ariodante and Xerxes) pops up here as Chaos, Confusion… and Zadok the Priest magnificently heralds the arrival of a grumpy put-about Poseidon.

I wish I could have been there at the Met, because this production is close on perfection, and it would have been lovely to experience it in the flesh… and we then wouldn’t have had the occasional disjoint in the sound or the complete failure of the transmission in Ferdinand’s big aria.

With the entire Baroque repertoire to choose from, Handel, Rameau and Vivaldi get top billing, so the music was never going to disappoint, and apparently the principals were involved in choosing what they got to sing, which surely had a happy impact on the commitment of all concerned.  And with Shakespeare’s tried and tested characters any deviation from the plot wasn’t likely to cause too much disruption.

The Met pulls out all the stops, with a witty and complex set (The ships and Poseidon’s court particularly charming,) clever use of digital projection, (the welcome balloons for the supposed Ferdinand, and their disappearance, as he is revealed to be Demetrius, the last few bouncing disconsolately off the top of the arch, and the arch itself later turning into the mouth of hell, complete with eyes and teeth) glorious costumes: Ariel (bound and unbound) and Sycorax, undergoing a singing-ringing tree transformation with each entrance, gradually younger, more beautiful and yet more gorgeously caparisoned,(and with smarter feathers) are, in particular, worthy of note. (See? I’m starting to write in Rococo curlicues.  It seems only fair to match their commitment to the genre).

Add to this that the Met has thrown in every conceit and bit of stage wizardry available to the Baroque era –  wave machines and flying mermaids and actual shipwrecks; and  a truly effective ballet interlude; something modern productions of Baroque opera sometimes struggle with (hang your head Barrie Kosky).  I feel as though the production team Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch  sat down and said, right, let’s take every cliché and well-worn device that was ever used in a baroque opera and make it shiny, new, witty and moving.  And they did; camp it may be (joyfully so), but it never falls into parody.

Vocally magnificent, the principals are well-chosen and obviously having the time of their lives.  Joyce DiDonato‘s aria Maybe soon, Maybe now is stunning. Danielle de Niese is a sparky witty Ariel and  David Daniels a grave Prospero. Plácido Domingo as Neptune makes it look easy to out-sing the chorus (which is perhaps too big, I don’t really expect to be recoiling from a wall of sound in a Baroque venture) at the same time giving a persuasive performance as a sulky, world-weary God who cannot understand why the Mortals won’t play nicely and stop messing up his oceans.

Every principal throws themselves into their part, (the fact that in most cases the parts were tailored to them giving an additional zest) and good use is made of those staples of the Baroque, breeches parts (Ariel) and counter tenors (Prospero and Ferdinand Anthony Roth Costanzo who I would describe as an alto really – I want to hear more from him).

The libretto is funny, touching, over the top, dramatic.  Every character is given an opportunity to shine.

While Ariel’s hopes for freedom, Prospero’s hopes for reconciliation, and Sycorax’s hopes for revenge drive the story on, It is Luca Pisaroni‘s Caliban who is the heart of this production, he is the character who pulls the elements from The Dream and The Tempest and the new storyline of Sycorax’s revenge, together.

Whilst Pisaroni’s voice, in such a magnificent cast, is not the first thing I would comment on, his acting most definitely is. He is given plenty to do, Caliban’s anger, impotence, hope and despair are all expressed from inside major makeup and a prosthetic body suit and chains (Caliban is conceived as one of those creatures that Saruman conjures up in the film of Lord of the Rings, a cross between an Orc and a Troll); at the point when he is felled by lost love and struck speechless by betrayal, this is expressed entirely with laboured breathing (visible through the body suit) and a turn of the head, you almost see his heart break – utterly moving; people all around me were wiping away tears.

Like the island, I was enchanted.

seventeen stars.

Brittle Bright Young Things

Last night we fought freezing temperatures, planned engineering works closing off three possible routes, and failed signals on the DLR to get to the wonderfully named St-Sepulchre-without-Newgate, for an evening of Ivor Novello songs with the Oxbridge Opera Company.

I wouldn’t have gone if it hadn’t been brought to my attention by Simon Dyer (Bass-Baritone), who isn’t generally associated with rubbish in my experience, and nor was he this time. Like (I suspect) many people, my knowledge of Ivor Novello starts with Keep the Home Fires Burning and ends with We’ll Gather Lilacs. I had him in the same bracket as Noel Coward, as frivolous, lightweight and sentimental, and not particularly complex musically.

Well, yes and no.  Noel Coward is acres better, his lyrics have some thought behind them. Melodically I kept hearing echoes of other songs, but too distant to be sure which came first. Predictability in melody line and rhyme (he really is the original moon-and-june-er) could have made for a tedious evening, particularly since the acoustic was hard work, setting up an echo that swallowed the less emphatic voices and all but did for the ensemble pieces.  It was not a venue to encourage vibrato or rolled ‘r’s. I felt I was having to work unreasonably hard to catch the words, and that the effort was not repaid by the weakness of the songs.

However, not to carp on too long, what did work was when the women sang together, or the men sang together.  And in terms of harmony there was some quite interesting things going on, ably supported by some very good piano playing from (I assume) Chris Milton (as no-one introduced themselves, and not everyone mentions which voice type they are in the write-up, and they don’t say who sings which song, I can’t credit those I felt did a particularly good job.)

Oxbridge Opera Company had wisely decided to give a dramatised storyline to the proceedings, and a series of brittle bright-young-things wisted and yearned and had their hearts broken like a silent screen version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while mother played poker in a corner.  The youngest, not too used to alcohol got the worse for wear and made a spectacle of herself (an execrable song Prim-rose) much to the discomfort of her mother’s guests, one of whom  had her fur tippet on and was heading out the door before being persuaded to stay.  This gave focus and spurious poignancy to the really very hackneyed sentiment of the songs, and I was grateful for it.

High spots were the mash-up of a solo Soldier Lad and male chorus of Keep the Home Fires Burning; and another solo And Her Mother Came Too, a witty ditty of frustrated passion well executed.

St Sepulchre is a bit of a mash-up too, allegedly a musician’s church (presumably there are things that the acoustic is kinder to) it is gothic without and classical within, so panelling and doric columns, but not to classical proportions: too narrow and tall.  There are a few good monuments, in particular a Jacobean one.  So it was sufficiently interesting to walk round in the interval and have to rush back to our seats; and warm, which is a triumph – I could  list churches I have frozen in during concerts, but why?

So if we could have got home without what ended up being three changes and a long walk on the way back, it would have been a more enjoyable evening, however I shall restrain myself from a rant about planned engineering works and the other sort!

© Cherry Potts 2012