Thursday, 31 March 2011

The power of a long thin envelope

I'm not sure exactly when it was, but I must have been about ten years old when I first discovered the power of a long thin envelope. Up until then, the only mail I'd been remotely interested in was the stiff square variety that turned up at Christmas and birthdays; cards containing at worst a gaudily coloured wish and at best a folded five pound note.

This envelope was different. It was cream and important looking, with a typed label on the front. Though I knew it was about me, it wasn't addressed to me, so all I could do was wait for my Dad to open it, wait for him to read it, then watch him pass it to my Mum to do the same. All I could do was watch while they looked at each other and wait until they finally looked at me.


Some months earlier there'd been discussions about secondary school. This was in the days when the Eleven Plus was still widespread, when children were categorised, classified and labelled on the basis of a three-part test. My big sister had already passed hers and was attending the local grammar school, but I wasn't daunted. I'd spent most of my life playing word games and doing puzzles; I knew the smug satisfaction of getting a sum right,  demonstrating my comprehension skills, predicting the next shape or number in a series.I was one of those sickening kids who actually liked tests; I positively looked forward to it.

So that was when my parents upped the ante. I've no idea who first suggested I might sit for a scholarship to James Allen's Girls' School, a local independent fee-paying establishment. I don't remember if they asked me what I thought, but it wouldn't have mattered anyway, I couldn't have expressed a view; nobody I knew had ever gone there, or was ever likely to do so.

The scholarship exam was in three parts, two rounds of tests, and for those who did well enough, a final interview. My memory of the tests is hazy and mixed up with later experiences of exams, but I'm pretty sure we had to sit in a huge hall with tall windows. The first challenge was probably finding my seat - walking down the long rows to find an empty chair at one of the wooden fold-up tables, taking my seat while looking around at the other girls, watching them place their pencils neatly on the table-tops.

I must have done ok. I got through the first round of tests and then the second one. A few weeks later,  before I'd even really thought about it, I was on my way to an interview.

Nowadays, if someone I knew was going to an interview I'd tell them to prepare, to think about the questions they might be asked, to imagine themselves in the role. Back then, the whole thing still bore no relation to reality. I don't think it even occurred to my parents, with their misplaced trust in my innate ability, that I might need some guidance or practice. It wasn't until the imposing lady with the stuck-up voice enquired haughtily of my entirely healthy, but distinctly adenoidal south London accent, "do you have a cold?" that I started to realise I might be out of my depth.

My nasally-toned answers to her questions became monosyllabic. After a while she waved a hand grandly towards a large gilt-framed picture propped up on a chair -"'talk to me about this painting Sharon. Describe to me what you see. Tell me what it makes you think of". At that point I think we both knew we were wasting our time.


I'd worked out that a letter of acceptance would come with lots of information about uniform and books, about kit-bags and fountain pens. And that would mean a thick, padded envelope.

So when the long thin envelope arrived, I already knew what it contained. In the time it took for my Dad to open it, read it, then pass it to my Mum to do the same; before they'd looked at each other and then at me; before I'd even started to feel guilty for disappointing their hopes, I'd already learned that the power of a long thin envelope is the power to dash down dreams you didn't even know you had.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Gone shopping - a story

The restaurant was on the top floor and the windows took up the whole of one wall; their double height panes of glass letting in the spring sunshine. From the top of each frame hung an oversized light-bulb inside a clear globe; all of them were switched on, despite the brightness of the day.

George headed for a table, hoping he'd get there before anyone else grabbed the last empty seat by the window. He held his tray carefully, trying to balance it; hoping the cup of milky coffee wouldn't slide into the plate, make a soggy mess of his jam doughnut.

The shopping centre had been built into a disused chalk quarry. Its glass domes and pointed steel towers filled the crater like a crashed alien space-ship. Far below he could see people arriving, entering the store. Already, on this first warm day of the year, they'd come out without their coats, relishing the feel of sunshine on necks and wrists, knowing it wouldn't be long before they could bare arms and legs. He thought of Lily, "cast ne'er a clout til May is out.” It bothered him that he could barely picture her face, even after such a short time; but her sayings were still there, just under the surface of his consciousness, her voice ready to whisper in his ear at the slightest prompt.

So many people outside. Young couples, new families with babies in pushchairs, mothers and daughters with matching haircuts, similar walks. He watched a man taking a long deep drag on a cigarette before dropping it to the floor and slowly stubbing it out. His wife waiting impatiently for him to take his last gasp, before entering the smoke-free halls of the shopping centre. Some couples were already returning to their cars, laden down with bags; he guessed they were the serious shoppers who knew exactly what they'd come for, bought it, then left. Funny, though, how many of them did the same 'pocket-patting-checking' action as they walked towards their car, trying to remember where they'd put the keys.

Sunlight caught on the wing-mirrors and glossy paintwork of a long line of cars, winding round and down the sides of the quarry, ready to fill each car space as it became empty. Everywhere he looked there were cars and people, constantly moving. They looked small from this height, reminding George of the way insects scurry around when their homes are disturbed, the cars like beetles, the people like ants.  He imagined Lily ticking him off for being over fanciful, shook his head to dismiss the thought.

On the glass just in front of him were a set of child-size fingerprints. He could picture a little lad on tip-toe, nose against the window, gazing out at the scene below. At the next table a young girl sat watching. When she saw him looking, she offered a small conspiratorial smile, then hid her face behind both hands, offering up a game of peepo. She was brightly dressed in a pink corduroy pinafore over a striped t-shirt that matched her tights, peach and lemon, mint-green and lilac, a palette of pastel rainbow-colours, optimistic, happy, young. George smiled back, then raised his own hand to cover his face. 

Slowly he opened his fingers, peered through the bent, swollen joints, but the girl had turned away, her attention distracted by the balloon tied to a nearby pushchair. He felt foolish, dropped his hand quickly. Too quickly. Before he knew it the coffee cup was on its side, pale brown liquid seeping across the tray. Lily would never have left the cup and plate on the tray, she liked to do things properly, eat nicely wherever they were. He’d forgotten to get napkins too, so he groped in his pockets for a handkerchief, but there was only a screwed up piece of tissue. There'd been no more neatly ironed, monogrammed, hankies in his sock-drawer. He hadn’t bothered washing any.

Small stupid acts of rebellion; not just the tea-tray and the handkerchiefs, what on earth had he been thinking, coming here today? She’d have hated it; the bright lights, the maze of shops, the hoards of people buying things they didn’t really need. Who was he kidding, this was no place for a silly daft old man, he should just go for the bus, get himself back home.

Slowly he started to get to his feet, looking across the restaurant for someone he could tell about the spillage, someone he could apologise to for the mess. At first he barely noticed the gentle tug on the hem of his jacket, but then it became more insistent. He looked down, saw the bright colours of her t-shirt, even through the blur of unwanted tears.

She held out a pile of napkins. “Mummy said you might need these”.

As he reached for them it seemed her smile shone brighter than all the lights in the windows, warmer than the sun outside.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Call, screening

I arrive far too early. Even though I've been driving all my adult life, I still worry when I'm going somewhere I've never been before. It seems that the more reluctant I am to actually get somewhere, the more I fret about getting lost, about not being able to find a parking space when I arrive.

But of course the journey turns out to be straightforward and there is a huge parking area with plenty of room, so I find myself sitting in the car with time to kill. I've brought a book with me, but I can't concentrate on it, so I pick up my phone, check for e-mails from work. I see a message reminding me of the phone call I should have made before I left home. I know it won't be a pleasant call, but sitting there in the car park, biding time until my appointment, it suddenly seems really important to do this first.

She answers at almost the first ring, sounding nervous and hesitant, as though she's been waiting by the phone for my call. I hate myself for leaving it longer than I'd needed to.

"I'm sorry, this is probably not the news you were hoping for, so I won't beat about the bush. We've decided to offer the position to another candidate".

There is a silence at the other end, which I rush to fill with platitudes about the strength of her interview and my confidence that she will find a suitable role soon. As soon as possible I hang up, cursing myself for sounding glib and patronising.

I leave the car and make my way to the mobile screening unit. It's hidden behind the main hospital, in an overflow car-park. Tucked away from the real illness and suffering, it seems almost as though it's ashamed of taking up even that space. I climb the shaky metal drop-down steps, thinking how strange it is to be having an appointment in an articulated lorry.

Stepping inside I'm greeted warmly by a kindly looking lady with a soft Scottish accent. I wonder if they employed her just for that accent and its ability to put people at their ease. Or perhaps it's the huge glasses, that take up half her face and make her eyes seem wide and innocent.

I take a seat on the lilac upholstered bench and watch the women come and go; it's quite a production line they've got going here. Every few minutes a lady emerges from the room at the end and goes into one of the small curtained cubicles to get dressed; rearrange herself. Almost immediately a hesitant looking woman emerges from a different cubicle, and heads to the end room, clutching a small pile of clothes to her chest, for protection. We're all women here, and we've each come on our own, but there's no eye contact between us and very little conversation. It's as though we've left our personalities out in the car park, where they can't be found by the screening equipment.

Soon enough it's my turn. I don't know what to expect, but there's another kind lady, I think maybe Malaysian this time. She introduces me to the space age machine and explains what will happen. It's hard to take in what she's saying when I'm standing there half-naked and feeling foolish, my arms wrapped across my chest in a childish attempt to maintain some modesty or dignity. When it's all done, I laugh and make a flippant comment, and she's strangely pleased that I'm smiling at her. "Too many women get cross with me" she explains before telling me that the results will be sent through in four weeks.  It's a routine check-up so there's no need for concern, but if there's any problem they'll call me.

Then, after no more than half an hour, I'm back in my car.  As I take my phone from my bag to turn it back on and check for messages, my mind goes back to that earlier call. Even though I know we made the right decision, I still feel bad about it.  I wonder if the gods of retribution will seek to pay me back some way.  I can't help but hope that it won't be me, in four weeks time who stands there nervous and hesitant, as some kindly person says "I'm sorry, this is probably not the news you were hoping for..."

Monday, 14 March 2011

A way with words

I tried to make a path from stones and pebbles,
collected from the beach and carried home.
I chose them one by one from park and garden,
brushed off the soil, then placed them in a row

I piled them up, one rock upon another,
stood back and contemplated the effect;
the look and feel, the shifting shingle grouping,
a sometimes jagged sharpness that it left.

At first I hadn’t known they’d need containing;
their shapes and textures pleasing, smooth and round,
but then I sensed them knock against each other,
collide in changing contexts, shifting ground.

I saw them, trodden down and disappearing,
sink back into the earth from which they’d come.
I’d thought them mine; the world sought to reclaim them;
chiselling new meaning from the stone.

I tried again, I laid a holding membrane,
visited new sites, collected more.
Reordered, piled, and polished from my journey,
the treasures from each trip enriched my store

Until at last I’d made myself a pathway.
The pebbles came together underfoot.
Tho’ every now and then it shifted slightly
I’d found a road through words towards a truth.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Friday on my mind

It's Friday morning, eight o'clock and I'm still in bed, propped up by a pile of plumped up pillows. Most mornings I'm up and out before Philip's even conscious, but on a Friday I work from home, so I'm the one who gets to stay tucked up in the duvet, with the cup of tea he made before he left.

I don't always live easily in the present. My mind's default setting is to think about the future, to mull over things, worry about and plan for what will, or might, or ought, to happen. Today though, there's something about the light outside that leads me to just sit.

The sky's a pale blue, cut in quarters by the white trailing clouds from two passing planes, like a washed out Scottish flag. From where I sit I can see the tops of the trees; they're still skeletal at this time of year. Though I know their leaf buds are forming, I can't see them from here. One old tree must have been there for hundreds of years. It stands in the back garden of a small cottage along the valley and it's been pruned a number of times to stop it blocking the light from the buckled leaded windows. It seems to have been hacked at without much thought for its shape so it now has a permanent one-sided lean, as though it's straining to get away from the cottage. For the last couple of years it's been the last tree to get leaves, like a recalcitrant old man who finds fewer reasons to get up and dressed every morning.

Where the tree's been cut back, I can see the upstairs of the house. The windows peep out from an old, uneven red-tiled roof, blinking in the light like eyes from under a fringe. I wonder if there's someone sitting in their bed thinking about the trees and the sky, looking out at me.

It's very quiet now that Philip's left for work. It's not just that he likes to leave the radio on in every room, more that there's a sound to his presence. When he's here, I sense his breathing. I can tell by the pace and depth of it, what mood he's in, how hard he's concentrating, whether he's tense or relaxed. When I first knew him, we worked in an office together. One day he spent a whole day coughing, trying to clear his chest. By the end of the day I felt the need to clear my own throat in sympathy every time he gasped for breath.  Sometimes now, without even realising it, I find my breath slowing down or speeding up to keep pace with his.

Before he left, I listened to him moving around, heard him downstairs talking to the cat; waited for his step on the stairs, on the creaking floor-board in the bedroom. I noticed the click that his tin of hair-pomade made when he set it down on the wooden box by the bed, I heard his keys jangle as he picked them up and dropped them into his trouser pocket.

I sit for a while, but thoughts of the work I need to do today start pushing into the empty quietness. I know it's time to get up. When I do, the news is all of a terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I switch on the TV and see film after film of buildings shaking, people screaming, rolling tidal waves of water washing over fields and through car parks.

It doesn't seem possible, that while I sat looking out at the peace of the valley, halfway across the world, people's lives were literally being turned upside down. I know there is no rhyme or reason. It simply isn't fair that some people will never again hear the turn of the key in the lock as their loved ones return at the end of the day. I am enormously grateful that I will.

Monday, 7 March 2011


Helen unbuttoned the white coat as they entered the restaurant. She shrugged it off as she walked, held it out for the waiter to catch as she passed, heading straight for the table in the corner.  Mark knew she’d want to sit against the wall, her back upright against the sludge-green wooden paneling. From there she could see across the restaurant; see and be seen.

He’d always been happy with it that way, watching her watching; satisfied enough by her decision to sit with him. He didn’t need to see the rest of the room; the looks of surprise exchanged between the other diners, their heads bending close as they whispered comments about beauty and the beast.

The waiter came to take their order; she always ordered for them both. At one time she’d have chosen different dishes, mouthfuls to be swapped, tastes shared.

“We’ll both have the beetroot salad. No starter.”

He looked at her while they waited for the food, while she studied the d├ęcor, the costumes of their follow diners. They didn’t speak, but he could almost hear her completing the judgmental checklist. He watched her run her fingers through her hair. To anyone else this might have looked like a distracted, thoughtless gesture. He knew better, understood her desire to demonstrate that, even at her age, she could still carry long hair. He knew that the blond colouring was carefully re-established every few weeks. He also knew how painstakingly the hairdresser recreated the dark roots growing through, doggedly covering any hint of grey.

The arrival of their meals stopped the silence from stretching. He watched as she sliced carefully through a piece of beetroot, noticed the purple juice seeping out like spilt wine, saw how it stained the white cubes of feta cheese. Her thin lips clamped down on the fork, enclosing the small mouthful of food. For a moment he imagined her with beetroot juice running down her chin, tried to picture her laughing and wiping it away on the back of her hand. 

When had everything become so constrained? It was almost as though each stitch through her skin had sewn up a reaction, closed in an emotion.

There was a sudden shriek from the next table. Mark turned just in time to see a man drop a smoking napkin to the floor; it must have caught on the candle.  His companion was smothering a giggle, hand clamped over her mouth to stop the laughter escaping, her shoulders shaking with the effort of keeping it in. He felt a sudden enormous urge to put his arm around those shoulders, to feel something other than taut skin, sharply defined bones. How he longed for looseness. Loose-limbed, lascivious, luscious, loveliness.He bit into a piece of beetroot, savoured the taste of sweet earthiness.

“Excuse me, I think I need the bathroom.”  So polite, even after all this time. He placed his knife and fork neatly by the side of the plate, knowing anything else would irritate.

Crossing the room, he came to a short corridor running across the back of the restaurant. To his right the toilets, to his left the exit to the car park.  He saw the white coat hanging on a coat rack by the door. He knew what it symbolized; an owner who had no need to use public transport, who had no fear of getting it soiled; a short-term seasonal whim, no need to make it last. God, how he hated the smug arrogance of that coat.

Mark paused, but only for the briefest moment, then without a backwards glance he turned left. As he unlocked the car he smiled ruefully, wondering how long it would be before she realised he wasn’t coming back. He pictured her calling for her coat, looking on in horror as the waiter handed it to her, seeing the rapidly spreading stain as the dark red juice seeped from the pocket where he’d oh so carefully placed the slice of beetroot.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Gut Girls - last night and the last night

Tonight will be our final performance. Tomorrow, whatever the state of our hangovers from the last night party, the cast and crew will all get up early to clear and clean the village hall;  returning it to its normal state of readiness for the youth club, the women's institute and the horticultural society spring show. I think I might want (need) to have a little rest after that, so this will be my last theatrical post for a while.

For those of you who've stuck with my daily posts - thank you for reading and thank you for the very kind and supportive messages you've left. I've appreciated your good wishes very much.


Last night was performance number three. We were determined to raise the energy levels, put on a good show and get the reaction from the audience that had been missing the previous evening. Five minutes in, it was beginning to work. One by one, the other cast members came back stage grinning widely,

"have you heard that man with the really loud laugh?" 
"who's that bloke two rows back - he seems to be really enjoying it" 
"have you noticed the guy with the hat, he's having a great time". 

Of course, I didn't need to ask the question, I knew exactly who it was. I live with him.

And it was just what we needed. His enthusiasm may have been ever so slightly biased, but it was infectious, the audience relaxed and so did we. It was our best show yet.


I realise that I've said little about my fellow cast members to date. Before I end this series of posts I'd like to set that right and introduce you properly to the cast and crew; in order of appearance:

Harry (Derek Parker-Richardson)

Derek gets very nervous before every performance and quite often needs to nip out for a calming cigarette part-way through, but you'd never notice it when he's on-stage. He brings a lovely blend of professionalism, humility and supportiveness to the cast and his portrayal of Harry has just the right blend of pomposity, vanity and vulnerability.

Maggie (Sharon Longworth)

That's me. In the words of our director I'm "A wonderfully coarse Maggie!"

Ellen (Patsy Groom)

Patsy and I have been in a few plays together now, but I've got to know her much better this time round. Her character Ellen is trying against all odds to establish a trade union for the workers and achieve better working conditions for the girls. Patsy brings her to life with a convincing mix of hard-nosed pragmatism and caring consideration for others. She has a much naughtier sense of humour than I'd realised, and I think she's relished having a role she can really make her own.

Polly (Megan Longworth)

I've always known Megan can act - I've watched her performing her whole life - so I knew she would be absolutely marvellous in Gut Girls. And she is. I am, of course, enormously pleased and very proud that everyone else now knows she's a star.

Kate (Matilda Lloyd)

It can't have been easy for Matilda to come along and join a cast of complete strangers, many of whom have been around for quite some time, but she's thrown herself into it wonderfully. She's one of those great people who you know you can completely rely on to get it right time after time, but she's done much more than that; developing the character and bringing more to it each night.

Annie (Ann Jones)

The power of Ann's performance has, I think, surprised us all. Over the last few months she's changed from the girl who kept being asked to speak louder at rehearsals to an actor who has the ability to make the audience laugh one minute, then move them to tears the next.

Jim (Jacob Hart)

Jim is also new to the Shoreham Village Players. It's been great to have him around and I hope one day he'll be able to talk about sausages without wincing uncomfortably!

Lady Helena (Sue Rivett)

Sue is an absolute star - she has been a model of professionalism and patience throughout our rehearsals and performances and she has made a fantastic Lady Helena - portraying her naivety and well-intentioned interference with complete credibility.

Edwin (Dave Jones)

I'm in awe of Dave's talent, and have really enjoyed acting alongside him - especially when I get to threaten him with a knife every night. But he's also the absolute opposite to the evil character he portrays in the play. I've loved watching him when his wife is on stage. He stands in the wings, mouthing every word of her lines, willing her to get it right and pleased as punch when she does.

Edna / Emily (Jill Webster)

Jill just gets it right every time. She picked up an additional character when one of the cast fell ill, and has played both so well. As Eady she plays the mother to Megan's character and they've built up such a great relationship on stage that I'm seriously thinking Megan might want to trade me in for the nicer version.

Arthur (Neville Fourie)

Arthur is a villain in the play. Neville couldn't be less of a villain in real life, but he's risen to the challenge brilliantly well and has now got us all convinced that maybe somewhere deep down there is a nastier side to his character.

Len (Peter Triggs)

Len usually works back-stage, turning his hand to all sorts of practical tasks and I think this is the first time he has taken part as one of the cast. It's been a lovely surprise to see how well he can act. He has the dubious delight of playing the character that I eventually end up marrying in the play - for that he gets my sympathy, but I couldn't ask for a nicer pretend hubby.

Eady (Liz Nash)

Liz has performed in many Shoreham productions and deservedly brings her own village fan club with her. Eady is my mother in the play and it's been great fun to share scenes with her - and not just because she always reminds me when we're supposed to be going on and what I'm supposed to be doing. She brings to the role a great combination of humour, scorn and despair.

Priscilla (Sarah Dickins)

Sarah is not only beautiful, but patient and supportive to all the rest of the cast. For an Australian, she does a fantastic posh English woman and her portrayal of the frightened, bullied Priscilla has been genuinely moving. On top of that she's even found time to make us all the most delicious cup-cakes!

Mad Jacko (Jamie Lyons)

Jamie has one long scene in the play during which he is heckled by all the Gut Girls. It has sometimes felt a bit seat-of-the-pants as he's struggled to get the lines he knows perfectly well at home out in the right order when he's on stage. But it's been great to see him overcome all that and he brings a huge amount of exuberant life and humour to his character.

Nora (Sheila Webb)

If anyone can ever be relied on to have a smallish cameo role yet steal the scene it's Sheila. She brings so much to her role with just a haughty expression and the raising of an eyebrow. Wonderful to watch.


There have been so many other people involved - all of whom have done a fantastic job behind the scenes - the wise and experienced Kate Britten as stage manager;  Vivien Booth who designed the set; Mark Hodges who designed the lighting and Henry Desmond who did so much more than flicking the switches: Chris Euman, who as first time costume manager did us all proud; Jamie Lyons who made the most gruesome fake meat and Joan Cornwell who sourced our props; and so many others who won't be known to the people who read this blog, but who are known and appreciated by everyone involved in the play.

A special mention for Sheila Wilson who gave so much of her time to prompt us during rehearsals, and who, despite whatever pain she must still be in, got up from her hospital bed to attend one of our performances.

And lastly, our brilliant director Lonnie. I've hugely appreciated her support and advice. She has had such a clear and strong vision of what she hoped we'd achieve, and has, I think got more out of many of us than we knew we could do. I hope we've at least partially lived up to her expectations.

As for me, well I couldn't be more pleased with how it's all been.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Gut Girls - second night lows

Some things you learn early in life. I think I've always known the danger of getting 'too big for my boots' the impending disaster of pride before a fall.  I know I quickly mastered the basic techniques of  avoiding disappointment 'Don't Look Forward to Anything Too Much',  'Always Expect the Worst', and 'Pretend it Doesn't Matter';

So, I really should have known that after a great opening night, our second performance was likely to feel flat. The energy and excitement that had got us through the previous evening had somehow disappeared and for the first half an hour it felt like we were going through the scenes in  slow motion. We found ourselves moving awkwardly around each other on the stage, stumbling over our words, leaving just too much of a gap between each other's lines. Halfway through our opening scene someone accidentally knocked against the table that wasn't meant to fall apart until later in the play. We'd only just managed to stifle the embarrassed giggles when one of the back-stage speakers fell down from the wall with a thunderous crash.

Worse, our missing exuberance seemed to be having an effect on the audience. At our first show, every time the lights went down, the audience had applauded. Last night it was as though everyone there was waiting for someone else to react first. Scene after scene passed by in deathly silence, the longer it went on, the worse it seemed to be, as the lines that we'd thought were sure-fire winners began to sink without trace.

Backstage we were starting to despair, each of us individually blaming ourselves for not quite getting it right. But then I think someone finally remembered that we were supposed to be having fun, so we started plotting ways to wake the audience up, to shock them from their slumbers, shake them from their timidity. And strangely enough, as we sat there thinking of ways to bring the audience to life we started to recapture some of our own confidence and enthusiasm. By the end of the night it felt like we were all back on track. There wasn't one of us who could have done it on our own, but somehow, between us we'd managed to turn it round.

In a short while we'll be trying to do it all again. And I'll be struggling with the added nervousness brought on by knowing that tonight Philip will be sitting out front. I know, once again, I'll be relying on my fellow cast and crew members to get me through, so I don't think there's any better way to end this post than by introducing you to some of my partners in crime, the splendid cast of the Gut Girls.






Thursday, 3 March 2011

Gut Girls - Opening night

As I walk through the door it immediately feels different. Row upon row of chairs fill the hall's empty floor space, facing expectantly towards the stage. People are moving around, checking the lights, placing the props, setting up the bar; each of them quiet but purposeful.

It's different backstage as well; costumes hang neatly on a rail, grouped together for each character; hats are piled up on a table and a huge box of gaudy jewellery is tucked away just beneath it. Next to the hats, individually addressed envelopes are laid out, each with a rose carefully placed across it; cards and good luck messages, one for each member of the cast from our director Lonnie. She's back with us tonight. Each arm in plaster and a sling - not one, but two broken wrists from the previous night's fall. Ignoring any pain or discomfort, she carefully steps around us, quietly reassuring, giving out a few reminders.

The space behind the stage doubles up as the storage room for the village playgroup, so there's not much room for manoeuvre, but the same sense of quiet purpose pervades. Each of us slowly adjusting to the mood of our colleagues, offering to tie an apron ribbon, do up a hard-to-reach dress hook, or help locate a mis-placed boot. Others sit quietly, feeling the need to silently mouth their lines just one more time.

All too soon it's time for us to take our places on stage. We're moving around the gutting sheds, in character, as the audience take their seats, but I'm too nervous to look out, see how many of the rows are filled. Once they're all sitting the lights go down. When they come back up we begin.

"Stand yerself up girl, and whatever you do, don't take no deep breaths, that won't do yer no good in here"

My first line in the play is spoken to a timid new member of the gut girls on her first day in the sheds; but I almost feel as if I'm saying it to myself, willing my nerves back under control, telling myself I'll be ok. And it works; suddenly I've switched into character, the lines are coming at the right times, I've remembered what I'm supposed to do.

It makes such a difference to have an audience out there, reacting to what we're saying and doing. It's not always the reaction we'd expected and certainly not always at the right time, but nonetheless it makes it all seem more alive. Backstage there are speakers, so we can hear what's being said out front. By now we all know the sections where we've struggled to get it right, we stand there listening, holding our breaths, willing the characters to get the words out; we breathe a collective sigh of relief when they do and the audience responds.

As scene after scene passes without mishap and we near the end of the first half we start to relax, we begin to exchange smiles, someone's even brave enough to whisper what we've all started to think.

"It's going alright, isn't it?"

And then, almost before I know it, we've said our last words and we're lining up for our curtain call. Our first performance is over, the audience is clapping loudly, and their applause continues as we make our way off stage.

Of course Lonnie still has notes for us; things she's already asked us to do dozens of times that we keep on forgetting, things that we promise we'll remember for tomorrow. She points out the odd late entrance, the occasions when we weren't quite standing in the right place for the lights. We know ourselves where we mixed up our words, stumbled into the end of someone else's speech. All of this will keep us on edge, make sure we try just as hard again tomorrow. Nevertheless, tonight we leave with smiles on our faces, we did ok.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Gut Girls - show week part 3

Dress Rehearsal

Perhaps I shouldn't have written about the broken leg. Maybe that's another theatre superstition - don't  mention the mishaps...

I went for lunch with a good friend yesterday; so much better to be eating, drinking and chatting than sitting indoors worrying about the dress rehearsal. Even when she rang early in the day to say she'd been sick in the night, I wasn't worried. Yesterday was all about staying calm, taking time to enjoy myself, then getting ready slowly and carefully for our final rehearsal.

I probably shouldn't have gone for the afternoon nap, not after an enormous plate of fish and chips. Maybe I should have packed my bag before I went to sleep, practised my make-up as I'd promised myself I would, set some time aside to re-read the script one last time.  I most definitely should have set my alarm to go off a little earlier.

Yesterday was all about staying calm, taking time to enjoy myself, getting ready slowly and carefully for our final rehearsal. And all of that should have been possible. Instead, I slept in too long and when I woke I felt sick. The griping pains in my stomach gnawed away at my good mood, my sense of calm evaporated. I was caught with a wave of nausea each time I bent down to put something in my bag. Ill-will towards my erstwhile good friend emanated from every pore as I diagnosed myself with food poisoning at best, Norovirus at worst. 'Indigestion' sighed the supportive other half. 'You're probably just nervous' snapped the sympathetic daughter. 'Shut up or I'll throw up on you' replied the wannabe actress.

So I arrived for the rehearsal late, flustered, grumpy and not quite on the planet. I thought I had it bad. As I walked into the hall and towards the stage I noticed Lonnie doing something with the curtains. I was so obsessed with annoyance at myself that I barely noticed she was standing on a chair. I certainly didn't even  register that the chair was neither robust nor safely positioned on the stage. It was only when I heard the bang that I finally came to. And that's when I saw our director, sitting down, shaking her head and quietly moaning 'I've broken my wrist'. And indeed she had.

I've found out over the last few weeks that the Shoreham Players are nothing if not versatile. They really do step up to a crisis and live out the old adage that 'the show must go on'. Chris, our costume lady, became the ambulance driver for the night and whipped Lonnie off to the hospital;  Kate our stage manager stepped in as director. The rest of us promised to tread very carefully and on we went.

The lighting wasn't always quite there, some of the costumes were missing and several of the lines went astray, but we got through it. Gradually I saw the tension back-stage dissipate as scene by scene we began to realise that it was starting to come together.

Of course there is still room for improvement in the pace of some scenes, our positioning and movement, the interaction between characters. Of course I know now that my skirt is see-through and needs a petticoat,  that we've got a really quick costume change between two scenes and that my style of wrist-watch definitely wasn't worn in Victorian England. But as I listened to the director's notes at the end of the evening, I realised that my nausea had disappeared, that we'd made it through without any more casualties, and that there's nothing we still can't get right.

So with just half an hour to go until I set off for our first night, I'm feeling ok. We've got a great cast, a fabulous crew and a cracking play, and I hope everyone who comes along tonight has a thoroughly splendid time.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Gut Girls - show week part 2

Yesterday was, at least theoretically a 'rest day', the only day this week when I won't be treading the boards. Tonight is dress rehearsal and then we have four performances, from Wednesday through to Saturday.

I like the last minute preparations for a show, pottering around checking that I've got everything I need, making final adjustments to my costumes. I've sewn the missing button onto my gruesomely blood-stained apron and removed the pocket from a blazer to make it look slightly less grammar school, slightly more gutting shed. I've even tried softening the sleeve protectors we have to wear while hacking the meat, but they're made of harsh rough sack straight from a local farm and they remain far tougher than me. Although it might be in character, I won't be wiping my nose on my sleeve tonight.

We'll be doing our own make-up for the show. I don't usually wear much more than a lick of eyeliner and a brush or two of mascara, so assembling the jars, pots, tubes and brushes I'll need for tonight really feels like getting ready to play dressing-up. I'll probably need to practice a few times before I get it right and it's easier to do that here than in the confined space back-stage, so I'll do my make-up at home before I go down to the hall. Surely strolling through the village as a painted lady will only enhance my reputation with the locals?

I'm starting to feel just a touch nervous; not that gut-wrenching panic when your mind goes blank and you can't remember what scene you're in, let alone what you're supposed to say, but a tingle of anticipation; that sense you get when you've spent ages looking forward to a day out and you're half-excited, half-worried it will disappoint. Half of me thinks we're hideously under-rehearsed, the other half thinks that's ok as it means we'll be on our toes, still trying hard and keen to get it right - it's a difficult balance.

I think I might walk down to the village shop in a while. The shop doubles up as our box-office, tickets for each night stored in plastic boxes under the counter. A separate seating plan for each show is stuck onto a large piece of cardboard and each time a seat is sold, the corresponding box on the seating plan gets a large cross through it, so it's easy to see how well sales are going. Saturday night is likely to be a sell-out and, last time I checked opening night was going well too. The only downside to that is that the cheaper seat prices for our first performance usually attract the slightly more mature members of village society. I'm not entirely convinced they're yet quite ready for the coarse reality of a Deptford gutting shed at the end of the nineteenth century, but hopefully some of them might forget to turn on their hearing aids.