Monday, 26 October 2009

John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett

I think as a parent one of the most important things you can do for a child is to introduce them to the things in life that have elated and inspired you and so that is why last night I took my daughter to see John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett. She grew up listening to Otway's version of I Will Survive sung as if by Bob Dylan and knew of my enthusiasm for the man, so it didn't take a lot of persuasion to get her to indulge me. She was knocked out. During Bodytalk - performed with the aid of drum pads stuffed in the pockets of his jeans and a theremin - I thought she was quite possibly going to be ill. But what I loved was that she got it. Yes, it's funny. Otway is no musician, as Wild Willy never stops reminding us, but his songs are quirky, edgy, heartfelt and honest. He means every word and he is an extremely accomplished performer.
In one number he takes two mics, one in each hand, and sings into both alternately, sometimes a word at a time, whilst twirling them around his head and between his legs and twisting up the leads into a cat's cradle, but he doesn't drop them, and the whole works to the split second, he never misses a beat. He sends himself up and sings with absolute conviction.
When Willy Barrett tells us how Otway has been trying to see how he plays one particular chord all tour but he won't let him, and demonstrates how he can play it without Otway seeing, the timing tells you it's a piece of well rehearsed shtick, and it's ridiculous, but you know, it's also true, Otway does want to know how to play that particular chord, and Barrett, the virtuoso who can play anything, won't show him.
It's a rare thing - a performance that's absurd, weepingly funny, chaotically slick, and absolutely sincere. That's Really Free. Brilliant.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Script Reading

Occasionally I'm asked to read scripts and I've just got a new batch. The number of unsolicited scripts floating around at any one time must be in the thousands. Every theatre company, no matter how small, has more than it can handle, but the majority of them get read, sometime, by someone, and sometimes that someone is me. I'm happy to do it. I feel an obligation to do it because my stuff worked it's way out of the pile because someone took the trouble to read what I'd sent them. There is an amazing amount of rubbish to be ploughed through, but I read them all because I don't want to be the like the bloke who didn't sign the Beatles, and every now and then you come across one that grabs you and there's a real buzz. When that happens you put in a recommendation that it be read again, and someone is on their way to getting noticed.
But I can't pretend that it isn't sometimes a frustrating exercise.

Top Tips.
  • There are probably enough musicals about Dracula and Princess Diana and yours might be the definite one, but I doubt it. Though a musical that had both Dracula and Princess Diana in the cast list might be a winner.
  • Plays about playwrights who can never get their plays put on are unlikely to be put on. You'd be surprised how many I've read. The best - and I use the word loosely - was about a writer who kidnapped a member of the Arts Council, the man's real name was used, because he had turned down a grant to the playwright. An indication as to why the Arts Council hadn't supported our bitter and twisted writer could be sensed in the final third of the play when having got his nemesis trussed up in a lonely cottage miles from anywhere, he talked to him about the play he'd wanted to write with the grant he didn't get and then let him go.
  • Try and visit a theatre once or twice before writing a play. It helps if you have a vague idea what goes on. For example - Plays use real live actors (one hopes) and there are all sorts of petty regulations concerning their well being that have to be observed. It isn't really practical to expect one of your cast to be tied by the ankles and dangled above the stage for the whole two hours whilst being periodically attacked by a cattle prod(sic), even if you have seen something similar in the cinema.
  • Don't send in plays that need a cast of twenty eight to a company that specialises in small scale touring.
  • Never write a character you don't want to play yourself. If you're not interested in them, who else is going to be?
  • Plays are about people. Not your own personal outrage. Not lists of statistics. We only understand the sufferings of millions through the experience of the individual as someone said much more succinctly than I've just done.
  • And remember it's a craft - it has to be worked at. Rewrites are a good idea.
  • Writing a play is hard work. But if you're serious about what you're doing don't look for other activities to distract you when you start to feel down hearted.

Ah... Right.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

High School Musical

High School Musical. Three words I never thought I'd write. Last night we started on the box set of Almodovar that I bought after my wife saw Broken Embraces and after enduring Strictly Come Tedious - one has to make some sacrifices - we watched All about My Mother. When that stunning film came to an end at about midnight we didn't go straight to bed because you need a moment after something as powerful as that, so I made some coffee, flicked back to the TV and scrolled through the channels. I stopped, unintentionally and only to take a sip of coffee, on a couple of kids singing and before I could change the channel we were both sitting with our eyes fixed on the screen. Forty minutes later we were still there. Sucked in. It was dreadful, it reached beyond cheesy, it roared past sentimental until it got stuck in some vomit inducing hinterland, it was shite on a stick, but we were watching High School Musical and we had to make an active decision to turn it off and go to bed. We were in danger of caring about the outcome, we had been overwhelmed by Almodovar's film on almost every level you think of, it's skill, it's nerve, it's compassion, it's humour, it's honesty, it's vision, I could go on and on and I haven't even touched on the acting, and yet we sat there until nearly one in the morning watching manipulative bollocks. Inexplicable. We were suckered in and I feel the need to make amends.
Tomorrow we're off to Lyme Regis on a jolly disguised as research and I shall be taking with me the copy of Finnegan's Wake I got last birthday and have yet to open for more than a casual glance as a penance.
But I do hope they got to play the lead, and the timid little composer was finally acknowledged as the talent she obviously was, and that Troy and his team won the basketball, and the girl with the blond hair and the absurd name I can't remember get their comeupence - we went to bed at the point where it looked as if she and her twat of a brother were about to scupper our heroes chances at the call back by locking them in the toilets but I could be wrong - and everybody was friends in the end and the final performance was very moving and great lessons were learned about life and stuff. Stuff culture, I bet you can get an HSM box set on Amazon.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The German Anthology

I have just finished my 6000 characters including spaces introduction for the section on A Dream Of White Horses (Traum Weisser Pferde) for the anthology that's being put together by the prof in Bayreuth. I'm not sure if my 6000 characters including spaces will work out the same when it is translated in German. Deeply shaming that I have to write it in English. I'd love to speak German and I do try, but it's their own fault that my German doesn't improve. When I ask someone in the street 'Wo ist der hauptbanhof, bitte?' they inevitably reply 'Take the second on the right, go straight on and you can't miss it.' In perfect English. And if I try to speak German my listener will only let me have a couple of sentences at the most before forcing me back to my own language.
Doing the introduction so promptly was of course a classic displacement activity to prevent me from starting on the Oxford commission. I've said Oxford and that could be bad luck because I don't generally go into any detail until the contract is signed, oh, well, it's done now.
I had to answer the usual questions about the genesis of the idea, the characters, my writing style, and so on. I enjoyed doing it. It was interesting to reflect on something I wrote nearly eight years ago. One of the questions was - Has it been produced in the UK? - the answer to which is a frustrated 'No'. It got close a couple of times and people have liked it and given me work on the strength of that liking, but that's a far as it's gone. One day.
I woke up this morning with a brilliant idea for the Oxford piece as it is now officially known. Hymns. Specifically 1. Immortal, Invisible. and 2. All Things Bright and Beautiful. Off I went to check the words on Google to discover that both of them had been written after my protagonist had died and so he could hardly have sung either of them in the dramatic context I wanted him to. I mean to say. That's hardly helpful, is it?
I used to tell my family that I know that House is not a real doctor, I know it's Hugh Laurie and I know he's an actor, but if ever I'm in extremis he's the man for me. Not any more. I watched the first episode of series God knows how many and I have shifted my allegiance back to Anton Mayer as the ultimate surgeon - come on, make an effort he was the cold as ice heart surgeon in Holby City before it became really silly. I have also decided not to go mad in the States if there's a chance of ending up in a mental hospital like the one that is currently housing House. If you didn't watch it I haven't the energy to go into detail but the end made the words struck off and criminal charges come most readily to mind. And it was so good...
While we are still on a what's the world coming to vein, a new Winnie the Pooh book? In which we learn that much of Eeyore's sadness was because he was once disappointed in love? I do hope I've got that last bit wrong, but I probably haven't.
And today my daughter had her first seminar with her new English students. University students. Second year. Afterwards she had to ring me up for counselling. One of them when pressed to reveal something she'd read and enjoyed said - 'Look, I'll be honest with you, I don't like reading, and I don't remember the last book I read. And to be really honest I didn't read any of the books on the course last year. I still passed.' Whatever.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Research Research Research

Lots of reading. Lots of Googling. Lots of cups of coffee. Lots of trying not to think about how it's all going to become a play. Which hasn't been too hard as I have had plenty of distractions. Last night we went to the Broadway - one of several good reasons for living in Nottingham - to see Broken Embraces. It was the first Amaldovar film my wife had seen, and I came to it with the zeal of the newly converted having only recently zipped my way through a box set while she was away down at her parents. I'd picked it up, largely because a friend of mine has been nagging me for years about his films, not really expecting to enjoy them very much and was, of course, knocked out, as was Anne last night. Great film. And Penelope Cruz.
Another good reason to celebrate Nottingham has also been providing plenty of distraction. Cosmic American Music. Where would we be without them? Two blokes who promote concerts in and around the city, chiefly as a labour of love. Most of them take place in the Maze, a small club at the back of the Forest Tavern. Great acoustics, good beer, and a capacity of a hundred and something. In the last few weeks I've been to see Steve Earle, Richmond Fontaine, Chuck Prophet and Mission Express, and Band of Heathens. Next week it's James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards at the Rescue Rooms.
Never let it be forgotten that one of the benefits of being a freelance is not having to worry about having to get up early for work after a late night mid week.