It’s cold as I walk into Keswick. I cut down from the theatre across the car park. A man with a dog nods to me as we pass. The streets are emptying, it’s getting dark, the snow I drove through to get here surrounds the town in a white band about three hundred feet up the fell son all sides. The get in is finished. The lighting cues have been sorted. My clothes are hanging up in the dressing room. It’s a five past five on Monday, 2nd March 2015.
I need a pasta salad, a bottle of water, and a couple of bananas to see me through till I eat when we come down. I’ve been touring the play I wrote A Girl With A Book off and on for the last eighteen months. Tonight in the Studio at Theatre by the Lake will be the twenty ninth performance. The last one of the spring tour. Possibly the last one ever.
I find what I’m looking for in the SPAR at the end of the High Street. Time to kill. I wander back slowly. In the dressing room it’s almost too hot. I eat the pasta salad and one of the bananas. Have a drink of water. Change into the jeans and the shoes I’ll be wearing. Six o’clock.
I go back to the studio and start what has become a nightly ritual. First I run the show in my head, as fast as I can sometimes mumbling the words out loud, making all the moves, getting familiar with the space and sightlines. Reassuring myself that I know it so well that no matter what happens in the fifty five minutes I’ll be on stage nothing will throw me. It occurs to me that I probably do know it backwards.
Halfway through I’m interrupted. Rachel’s had to change one of the lanterns since they rigged for the show. Can I check it’s okay? It’s fine. I carry on from where I left off. As I work my way towards the end of the play the words tumble out almost without meaning. But they come out in the right order and none of them are missing.
After I’ve finished I check the position of everything on the set. Map, notes, laptop, pencils, paper clips, polystyrene head, scarf, chairs, desk. I sit behind the desk. Lower the lid of laptop a fraction. Put it back where it was. I sit back against the front of the desk. It wobbles slightly. I adjust the legs. It’s fine.
I walk round the stage. Long strides. Across the front. Across the back. Corner to corner. Swinging my arms. Just like I do before every performance. I start humming. I let a full sound come out at the end of each hum and go up and down the scale. I stop. Start to stretch. Stretch the tendons in both legs. Don’t want cramp. Stretch high. Breathing in. Let the breath out and relax until I touch my toes. After several attempts. I pay special attention to my back. There’s an old injury there and I know if I tense up there’s always the chance it could go into spasm. It hasn’t happened in a while but it might.
I walk round again. This time I’m thinking about my voice. Fifty five minutes is a long time. I don’t want my voice to give out, croak, become inaudible or lose its range. Consonants first. Then the vowels. Tongue twisters.
What a to do to die today at a minute or two to two
A most particular thing to say and harder still to do.
Breathe. Relax. One last check of the props. It’s a twenty to seven. Fifteen minutes to the half. Back to the dressing room for the first of many trips to the loo. No. I’ve left the mug on the set. Go back and get it. In the dressing room I half fill the mug with water. I change my shirt, whip some deodorant around, and put on the glasses I’ll be wearing, and get everything ready for a quick getaway. After squeezing out another pee it’s ten to seven. I have to go back to the studio for another one last check that I know is completely unnecessary. In the dressing room I hear – ‘Mr Wood, this is your half hour call for A Girl With A Book in the Studio. Your half hour call.’
I prop the door open. It is too hot. Much too hot. I swill some water round my mouth and spit it out. Is my throat going to dry? No. I clean my teeth. Now that we’ve got to the half I don’t feel nervous. There’s an excellent house. I’ve got a job to do. I want to get on with it. I go outside and stand in the corridor chatting to the techies. Dylan Moran is on in the main house. He nods as he passes us. Twenty past seven. In five minutes Hugh will come to lead me up through the offices to the entrance to the studio and then into the space behind the curtain stage right from where I’ll make my entrance. I go back into the dressing room and close the door.
I sit in front of the mirror and start to build up, out loud, the frustration my character feels about his difficulty in coming to terms with how his research into the shooting of Malala has revealed attitudes in himself that make him uncomfortable, but despite that he won’t give in, he will make the play he wants to write work. I ruffle my hair. Polish my glasses. Have another one last pee. I like the feeling that all over the country at this moment there are people like me in dressing rooms, or in wings, waiting. I pick up the mug and go back outside. I’m going to do this. I’m ready.
Only the audience aren’t. We’re holding for five minutes. There’s a crush of people trying to get into both shows and we can’t go upon time. More chat. At half past seven Hugh and I walk through the back corridors to the studio. I’m shown through to the edge of the stage. Hugh squeezes my shoulder ‘Have a good one’. I’m on my own.
The house lights go down. The pre - set comes up to full. I give it a beat then leading with my upstage foot I walk out onto the stage.
I look with disgust at the desk and the prospect of work. I don’t want to spend the day writing. I want to be outside. I take a sip from my coffee mug and walk downstage right. I look out the window. I turn and look back at the desk and become aware that I can hear a noise. It’s conversation. It’s not from my audience. There’s a speaker or an intercom on and we can all hear the audience in the main hose. If it isn’t switched off soon we’ll all hear ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, will you please welcome, Dylan Moran!’ I can’t start yet. I pick up a book and flick through the chapter headings. I look at the notes I’ve made. Scribble something in my notebook. Someone will turn it off. I can see people getting restless, looking for the source of the sound. If we do hear the announcement or it doesn’t go off in ten seconds tops, I’ll stop, make a joke of it and suggest that if it’s okay with them we start again from the top.
The sound disappears. I sit at the desk. Start up the laptop. Begin playing spider solitaire. Lose and say the first word in the play, ‘Bugger’ and we’re off.
Fifty five minutes later practically to the second I quieten the applause and tell the audience that there will be a short Q and A in about five minutes. Time for us all to get a drink, and for them to think of some questions. I sprint back to the dressing room where I change back into my own clothes, have drink of water and wolf down the second banana.
Back in the studio a gratifyingly large number of people have elected to stay. The Q and A sessions have worked well. Sometimes it feels as if I’m chairing an episode of Question Time. And the people I’ve met. An elderly lady in Millom who hiked the Swat Valley with Ramblers’ Association in the eighties –‘and they weren’t that keen on women even then I might tell but it never stopped us.’ A gentleman who used to live in Swat who when he was a young man used to play golf with the erstwhile Prince of Swat who thanked me for showing people how beautiful it is. A woman who was the daughter and the wife to Pakistani army men who said that the picture I had painted about the difficulties children had in getting an education was from her experience entirely accurate. And, very special this, all the friends and ex students now spread all over the country who spotted my name on the poster and came along to say hello. Tonight I’m almost superfluous as they conduct a debate amongst themselves about the insidious nature of racism in this country and how it is encouraged by sections of the media. Afterwards I meet the lady from the Ambleside Tourist Office who supported me as I resisted attempts to get me to pay a ridiculous and unfair parking fine imposed on my last visit, sell and sign good number of play texts, and keep my promise to Rachel and Hugh to get out of the studio in ten minutes flat.
I load my roller case, carpet, three chairs and the desk into the back of my car and head for Carlisle where I’ll be spending the night with friends. It’s bitterly cold. I drive carefully, wary of ice. I think about the performance. Pleased that if it is to be the last one I do it was word perfect. What have I learned? It’s a long time since I acted for a living and I can still hold an audience. So that’s good for my confidence. Doing a one man play is very lonely and very scary. But doing a one man play is also enormous fun. There are three productions scheduled for Germany – as I write there are a total of seven either running or about to open - so that means if someone else wants to do it the writing must be okay. It's taken along time for me to acknowledge any success I might have had as anything but blind, undeserving luck, but tonight I feel 'I've done good work.
Steve and Ray are still up when I get back. They grin at me, ask me how it went. They can see how I feel, they're used to it, their daughter is an actor. They know I’m not ready for bed, too much adrenalin.
‘You look like you might need a little something to help you sleep’, says Steve, ‘I didn’t get this specially for you, it was a present from a friend, but when I knew you were coming I thought I’d keep it till you got here.’
He produces a bottle of Irish Malt and pours me a glass. He turns the bottle round so I can see the name on the label – Writers’ Tears. It’s been an excellent night. We drink.