Bleak House & Bookshops

I have just returned home from a long stint working away in Oxford, directing an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House for Creation Theatre.

It has been hard graft but I am so glad I got the opportunity to work with such a wonderful team on this production. It has opened to some fantastic reviews (have a Google if you fancy a read – I have put a couple up on my Director page, too).

The play was set to open for a 5 week run in the amazing bowels of Blackwells, a very old bookshop in Central Oxford, right opposite the Bodleian Library. It took a lot of imagining to find a way of fitting this production – skillfully adapted by writer Olivia Mace from an 800+ page novel to a 2 hour show – deep inside a bookshop with only five actors to perform 20-odd roles and provide music (whose idea was it to eschew the convenient use of any sound that we could not make ourselves? Erm, yep. Never like to make things easy, me). But I wouldn’t have it any other way. The challenge, and the bookshop setting gave me a reason to declare everything; my favourite thing to do in theatre.

There is a real thrill to deciding not to hide anything from the audience; it puts them right with you, and with each other. Here we are in a room filled with bookcases and books. Here is a lighting rig we have had put in specially. Here is a massive story with just 5 actors to play all the parts, as well as instruments. Declaring everything means you can have fun with any problem the staging is causing you: instead of the stress of hiding the difficulty, you celebrate it. So, I had the stage set in the round, so that you could see the actors as they moved about, waiting to spring on to the stage as a new character, providing sound effects with books, voices, instruments. I had the pit lit so you can watch them prepare to play an instrument, or race around the edge to get to their next costume. We celebrated the necessity of onstage character changes – some of which we made very funny, others more sinister or magical. Everything was done with complete honesty and declaration. And playfulness. The actors are working incredibly hard with immense skill to achieve this. Thankfully the audience seem to love it.

There is a lot of room for humour when you celebrate staging problems. For example, there was one character who happened to be around when we had to do a big chunk of scene changing, a French maid called Hortense. Instead of dimming the lights for ladders and papers to be moved discreetly, I asked her to make a meal of how difficult the scene change was, and the fact that she had to do it by herself, by muttering crossly in French under her breath and then occasionally exploding in an incongruous French-isms (J’habite en Aberdeen!) to share her indignation with the audience. It was hilarious, and the scene change became the centre of her charater arc for us in rehearsal. It has added more than just comedy to the actor’s performance of this character. It has added a depth – why was she so angry? And pathos – what has she to lose? It was a lovely discovery that is still paying us back handsomely.

Our production of Bleak House is shot through with this kind of fun but that is not to say that the play does not have its serious side too. Liv’s adaptation is about social status and the haves and have nots. It is about fate, and chance. It is about love and loss and learning acceptance. I wanted to leave plenty of space for that so decided upon a very simple set of staging requirements; ladders and papers and books were all I wanted to use. Things you would find in a bookshop. The papers were of course the documents that drive the play (and drive some characters in the play mad) , but they were also the London fog; and the fog of paperwork that people in the story have to fight through. Ladders became places of respite as well as ambition. They became carriages and bird-lofts, ways underground and ways above everything. And books provided us with love letters, gunshots, horse hooves, wild birds and pages and pages and pages.

At the centre of all this is the story Liv decided to pull out of Dickens’ classic and retell. And I hope that story is alive right now in Oxford, as I type away in my study in West Yorkshire. It’s 7.31pm and tonight’s show will have just gone up. The cast will be singing in glorious harmony, papers will be ready to flutter down over the set and scores of imaginations in Blackwell’s bookshop will be running riot as they watch this amazing cast and a show we are all so proud of. I hope, if you are nearby enough, you manage to join them one night.

Bleak House runs at Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford, until 7th March. Tickets can be booked here.

Produced by Creation Theatre
Adaptation by Olivia Mace
Directed by Debs Newbold
Musical Director, Joseph Atkins
DSM/Superwoman, Lucy Quinton
Ensemble Players: Joanna Holden, Eleanor House, Sophie Jacob, Bart Lambert, Morgan Philpott.

My Outrageous Fortune

I can’t quite believe my luck. Arts Council England has awarded me the funding to turn the pilot of Outrageous Fortune, for which I had a funded Research and Development period earlier this year, into a full touring show. I realise how lucky I am to be in receipt of this, my 4th and largest grant from the Arts Council and I will graft my butt off to be worthy of it.

But, you know, there has already been graft: it has taken me 4 years from first dreaming up this idea to get to this point. Scouring the internet for opportunities, writing proposals, trying to get people interested in me and my idea, pitching, getting turned down, making links with theatres – which eventually resulted in me finding a home for the piece at Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax (an amazing place) and a fantastic producer in Alison Ford – endless days on my todd writing, endless days with John (Wright) trying to hone the idea into something on-its-feet-workable, three weeks of R&D, months of research and reading, tons of ear-chewing chats with long suffering mates and a gargantuan effort on the part of Alison and myself, but mainly Alison, to get our ACE grant application lookng ship shape enough to submit. It has been G-R-A-F-T.

Not the kind my poor dad had to do for a living, no. But it was work. We bloody worked for it.

And now there’s a job to do. And, thanks to ACE, money to do it. Bring it. I’m ready. I’m worthy. And grateul too. xx

“I Hope Someone is Listening” – Impressions and Images from Rising Up

Production Images from Rising Up by Chris Payne

I’ve just got back from the first few dates of Rising Up, the play I wrote, with songs by the wondrous Sean Cooney. I am knackered. As Kat would say in the play, I look like seven shades of shite and need to crack a Red Bull, sharpish. I won’t though. It tastes like fizzy Benylin.

The last two and a half weeks have been possibly the hardest graft I have ever done. I had 9 days to direct Rising Up, That included: rehearsing the actors in their two huge intercut monologues; coming up with a good frame story for the three musicians; settling them in to being on stage in a theatre show; deciding which of Sean’s wonderful songs would go in to the play and where they should go in order to make sense of or highlight the narrative; deal with costume and design; stage the thing and run a tec’ with Richard Owen our fab lighting designer. I began with a clutch of songs and an un-workshopped script, and I ended up with a show.

Rising Up premiered, with no preview, in theatre One at HOME in Manchester last Wednesday 16th October. And, thank God, it has turned out great. The audiences seem to love it (although the ones who hate it or think “meh” never come up to you afterwards, do they?). I myself am so happy with it, and incredibly proud of the huge efforts made in the last 2 weeks by our amazing cast and tec’ team: Joanna Holden who plays Maggie, Helen O’Hara who plays Kat, Lucy Farrell, Sam Carter and Jim Molyneux our superb musicians (who are now also wonderful actors too) and Julien Barratt our sound tech, Richard Owen, our lighting designer and Cally, who made our beautiful banners.

Rising Up is a cracking show. It is passionate and contemporary. It is steeped in the history of Peterloo but set right now in 2019. It has amazing songs about everything from the 1819 Manchester Constabulary to Greta Thunberg. It breaks theatre conventions and revels in it. It is angry and funny and the music is gorgeous. It is about violence and guilt, and what women do with their anger.

I love it. I hope it has another life beyond the seven performances booked for it. Check the diary page of my website for the remaining dates. I hope to see you at one of them! x

Rising Up is Coming Up ~ HOME, Manchester 16 & 17th October

I am sat at my computer, shattered but elated. Rising Up, the show I have written, with songs by Sean Cooney, has its opening at HOME in Manchester next week, Wednesday 16th October. I have been directing it all this week and it has been a superhuman effort by me and the whole amazing team to get it ready in a very short space of time.

That said, it’s still going to be brilliant. It is angry and funny and poignant and the music is gorgeous.

I have a wonderful cast: Joanna Holden and Helen O’Hara play Maggie and Kat. The most open, warm and brilliant of actors. And the musicians are equally sublime: Lucy Farrell, Jim Molyneux and Sam Carter continually amaze me with their ability to paint the air with sound at the drop of a hat.

I like theatre where everything is declared, so I am having the musicians on stage throughout, moving around and between the action. They are part of the reason the stories of Maggie and Kat are being told, after all. Folk songs preserve stories, comment on stories, allow stories to be told; they always have. And Sean has written some corkers. So it makes sense to me that these musicians are like midwives to the stories of Maggie, a woman who witnessed the Peterloo Massacre in 2019 and Kat, who is struggling in 2019 to come to terms with an incident where she felt silenced.

Even though they are on stage and in the action however, it is important to me that the musicians are not asked to ‘act’, rather just to be who they are. Part of the challenge is to help them feel comfy with being in a theatrical context. Luckily for me, Lucy, Sam and Jim are brilliantly receptive to that idea and are getting so comfortable and casual on stage that when they pool their focus they SHINE. It is beautiful to watch. And the actors Joey and Helen are amazing at absorbing that focus and giving such intense and wonderfully playful performances.

I hope you’ll come and see one of the performances at HOME on the 16th and 17th October. If you miss those, fear not: the show goes on National tour throughout this month. Details of dates and venues can be found here.

As for me, I have had a ball on one of the steepest, fastest learning curves I have had so far. My first full length commissioned play, and I am directing it too. I am excited, terrified and very proud of it. I hope you like it.

Writing & Directing Rising Up. Drinking Tea.

In terms of work I am more a performer than anything else but lately I have mostly been writing and in the near future I will mostly be directing. Which makes me a right jammy mare I know, because I love doing both.

Rising Up – the show I am writing (with songs by the brilliant Sean Cooney – is eating most of my attention-tokens at the moment. I am about to finish the rehearsal draft of the script after a brilliant R&D day with Sean, the actors, musicians and creative team. I’ll be honest; so much of a freelancer’s working life is spent creating and realising projects either on your own or with an overburdened team of two or something. So to have 10 other people in the room with your script & your ideas – the ones you spent weeks trying to crawl out of the dank, dark well of on your Jack Jones in your study (I know, get me! I’ve got a study!) – talking about them, playing with them and taking them seriously is bloody amazing!

Rising Up will go in to rehearsal, with me directing, on 30th September and will open at HOME in Manchester on 16th October.

After that, it’s a quick performance at Tobacco Factory Theatre in Bristol before going in to pre-production with Bleak House, which I’m directing for Creation Theatre. That will open on 1st February 2020.

Then it’s back to Hamlet, Gertrude and Outrageous Fortune. By then it’ll probably, at 6 months, be the longest I will have been without performing for 4 years. I’ll be chomping at the bit by then. For now, though, I am in my oil tot as we say in my bit of Brum.