Ipswich and Southend

Ipswich brought great audiences. A little slow to warm up on the first day, Thursday, they were lively and forthcoming soon enough, and the auditorium has a fresh and bright sound from the stage. The shows felt good. We were staying in the excellent Salthouse Harbour Hotel, and looked after by a hugely friendly staff. Rather nicely, there were only ten or so people at the stage door each night, all pleasant and unassuming, which meant charming, relaxed hellos and time to chat.

Southend’s first night was fine but did not feel great to me. After a couple of loud houses, The Cliffs Pavilion’s auditorium stretches far back, away from the stage, and the balcony sits at its furthest reaches. It means that from the stage, you only hear the front half of the audience. On top of that, the Sunday night crowd was typical of those from that day: tired from an afternoon’s sloth or activities, aware of work in the morning, a little unresponsive. There is a classic pattern, known to actors and entertainers, of a rising enthusiasm from the house as the week moves on, generally peaking on Friday with a lively and attentive audience. Saturdays can be boisterous, but are also slacker than the Friday, and made up of larger, less attentive groups. Sundays generally are a little quiet, unless there is a Bank Holiday the next day (which will in itself tend to offer another tired and unengaged crowd).

The show was good enough, but I was surprised by the relatively quiet audience and unfulfilling feedback due to the ungenerous architecture, and the strange energy loop that exists between the audience and me on a good night did not make itself known. Pushing to reach the seemingly silent reaches of the auditorium, my voice was also rather cracked.

The second night – yesterday – was much better. The crowd was lively and responsive, and I had got used to the unhelpful acoustics of the room. My voice was stronger and the audience were once again part of the dynamic of the show. We were also joined by our lovely friend Stephen Long who has worked on previous tours, and who has come out to help out for a couple of nights. It was rather fun to see him carrying things on and off stage: such little changes help keep the show feeling fun and alive for me.

Southend proves to be a pleasant place to sit and read overlooking the sea: I am hugely enjoying Simon Callow’s Being An Actor and a break from the laptop. I have not been Twittering or blogging recently either: the former has started to feel a tad exhausting and joyless of late, so I shall for the moment at least give it a little break.

It’s blustery and wet today, and I think the sea looks its best when it’s grey and bleak. Some poor girl in a flapping anorak is running, enervated, along the sea-front through the miserable weather, and a lady is having a dispiriting sandwich from a plastic lunch box on a bench under a beach shelter. All, in a grim, glum way, is right with the world.

Leicester again

Great second night at the De Montfort Hall. We stayed at a terrific boutique hotel ‘Maiyango’, which was just lovely, and has a great restaurant attached. Worth seeking out. And pop into Alfred Lenton’s next door: an odd gem of a downtrodden second hand bookstore that has been there for 40 years. Also wonderful is The Case, a superb restaurant where we had a truly excellent lunch, and wished the lovely Fran the Happiest of Birthdays. She’s in the picture at the back, all birthdayed up.
Hardly any time to explore, but what a beautiful city. And another terrific audience last night, so thank you everyone. Voice was better too.

Now heading to Ipswich, fattened on a splendid lobster lunch. We’ve just headed off and I definitely need a wee.

Recent few days

Some brief time off from the tour. We all hugged and wished each other excellent weekends, and then disappeared into our other lives for a few days to do laundry, lie in and snuggle with other halves. Friday morning I pottered about the place, noting with amusement the legacy of six weeks or however long on the road: I walked into a couple of things in my cluttered home, having forgotten they were there, and when talking to a friend about going to the theatre that night, kept calling it a ‘hotel’ (on tour one is for ever going from one to another, referring to one or the other; sometimes verbally confusing the two, in a way that sounds very daft when there are no hotels around of which to speak). Around lunchtime I was picked up for filming: I was part of a Kevin Bishop sketch where he was playing his character Darren Brown, my resentful and less successful twin brother. There’s a clip of the character in a different sketch here. I arrived at a delightful residential house that had been lent to Kevin’s crew as a set for the day, and after a few wides, mid-shots and close-ups, we had the sketch done and dusted. As a curious piece of trivia, you might like to note when you watch the sketch, that the house we were in belonged to a Christian family, and the bookshelves (although they probably won’t be caught on screen) were stock full of religious titles (such as Knowing God, which I imagined would be thicker), and there’s a Christian magazine on the table in front of us. None of that plays any role in the sketch, and neither was the magazine placed there by any of us, but if it amuses you to know that these two characters are sitting surrounded so densely by such things, then there we go. The sketch was very well written by, I believe, Nico Tatarowicz, so thank you Nico, and I hope I came some way to doing my part justice. It’s for the huge C4 comedy gala night, which is a live event at the 02 on March 30th, and which airs on TV on the evening of April 5th. So, as one twitterer pointed out, it’s a filmed piece for a live event which will be filmed: I hope that’s clear.

Friday evening I went to the always brilliant Menier Chocolate Factory to watch and hear Hannah Waddingham – multi-award winning musical star, outstanding singer, actress and I imagine all-round Gay Man’s Best Friend – melt and excite us with her excellent, excellent work. She possesses an incredible range: able to sing Nina Simone as Simone would, and then switch to her devastating Send In the Clowns, via Thriller and any number of madly inspired songs (including an awesome rendition of Judas’ belter Heaven On Their Minds from Jesus Christ Superstar). Her CD is coming out soon, and if you’ve missed her show-stopping performances in London (I first saw her as the Lady in the Lake in Spamalot), then this will be a great way of at least hearing her work. Her sell-out run at the Chocolate Factory is now over, but hopefully she’ll return, or repeat elsewhere.

Saturday, after a trip to the cinema, I took a group for a fantastic but too-quickly-bolted-down dinner at the River Cafe and then went on to see my co-creator Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories at the nearby Lyric Hammersmith. The atmosphere in the auditorium is electric and it’s a fun, sharp show; scary and well-performed. Definitely worth seeing, particularly if you’re a horror fan. It plays until 17th April at that theatre but I can only imagine will see plenty of life beyond that.

Sunday I started a new painting: a new 5′ x 5′ Judi Dench, and part of a new, ‘straight portrait’ route I’m taking. Sadly I won’t get to finish it for a month or so until I’m back in town. In the early evening we headed off to the Olivier Awards for a genuinely fun night. Jodie Prenger as Nancy (from Oliver!) and Hannah Waddingham (twice in one weekend!) outshone, In My Humble Opinion, some great performers taking the stage that night to sing in-between the handing out of awards. The Mountaintop and Spring Awakening triumphed, and personal highlights were talking to Mark Rylance and his wife Claire (Mark won richly deserved Best Actor for Jerusalem), Jez Butterworth and Ian Rickson (writer and director of the same astonishing play, now on at the Apollo), and meeting Tim Whitnall and the truly lovely Bob Golding, whose hugely acclaimed Morecambe rightly won Best Entertainment. I’m desperately hoping to catch it on tour – details are here.

Monday I painted until the last minute and then nearly missed my train to Leicester, for last night’s first performance at the De Montfort Hall. I was, as tends to happen after a few days off, a little scatty and not quite as on form as I would have liked, but it was nonetheless a fun night. My voice was a little croaky and I found myself reaching for the water more often than normal. It’ll take a night or two to warm the old voice back up again. I had a drink afterwards with a friend who is an art teacher at a local school, and whose pupils seemed to be constituting most of the volunteers on stage. I’m now sat in a very pleasant, empty hotel lounge, feet up; bemused that I have more time to relax when on tour, than I do in the breaks. But I must get on with m’book editing, which is happening piecemeal in lounges like this across the country.

Right, onwards and upwards.



It’s the nature of touring that you rarely get to know a city at all, even if you come back year after year. The Mayflower Theatre in Southampton is a regular venue for us: about 2300 strong, it’s a good size and always sells out quickly, despite the huge Bournemouth BIC just down the road where we play later on. As familiar as I am with the brief walk from stage door to the Waterstones in the shopping mall round by John Lewis, I still have no sense of the city. However, I have an inkling of the people.

You can get a sense of a town by two factors on tour: the audience and those people who come to stage door. The sounds and energy of the audience betray the general liveliness of the place (bright, dynamic Bristol goes mental after every routine and roars with approval when the show starts; tranquil Eastbourne sits quietly or coughs), and the amount and style of Twittering in the interval says a lot about them too. Even the local level of intelligence can be broadly gauged by the jokes it laughs most at, and this too varies hugely from city to city.

Stage door is trickier, as it is only the less casual attendees who are prepared to wait around in the cold after the show. Many of these have travelled, but the locals or locally studying are easy enough to spot. Southampton, I think more than any city so far, has provided the loveliest bunch at stage door (competition is high: you’re always very lovely to meet). Only a smallish handful of 20 or so gathered, which is a nice amount of people to take ones time with, and all bubbly, polite, pleasant and relaxed. Some were hugely excited to meet me, but none had the solemn urgency of the too-strongly-fixated; programmes were signed and snapshots snapped in a particularly congenial atmosphere. I was delighted, but not surprised, to hear yesterday from a particularly likeable cabbie (who was rueing the fact that after dropping me off at my remote hotel, he would have to drive back alone through the New Forest in the thick, eldritch mists of midnight) that Southampton has just been voted most friendly city in the UK. (Not ‘in England’ as I tweeted last night, apologies). London, of course, came proudly last.

Tonight is a return night to gorgeous Bristol, and a long day for us all. We must drive to Bristol, the crew must build the show (while I have meetings), run the show, dismantle it and then drive home around midnight. This is the first time back for quite a while, and we get to have a few days off. Tomorrow I’m filming a sketch, and on Sunday night I’m off to the Olivier Awards with my lovely Andy Nyman to lose happily Tom Whitnall’s Morecambe. Back on Monday, in Andy’s home city Leicester, with the silly, upbeat energy that always comes from not having done it for a few days.

Right. Must check the local papers to make sure that the cabbie last night got home safely and was not, as I suggested when leaving the car, slaughtered, bum-raped or both. Hugs.


PS Yes, I know that’s a different Southampton on the map.

End of Hull

(From the Agingbooth iPhone app. How I feel with 4 months left to go…)

We all had a terrific time in Hull – thank you any of you who came to see it and formed a part of a really sensational audience. We had a great crew in the theatre, which always helps, and the changes I’ve been making to one of the routines seemed to settle in okay. Participants were largely bright and bubbly on stage, which makes all the difference. I noticed on a couple of occasions around Hull that when I said ‘Hello’ to a passing child, they cheerily waved and greeted me back: something that would never occur in the places I hark from. That must be a good and happy sign. It’s lovely to see a cheery, friendly city reflected in the mood of an audience. Thank you all hugely.

One thing that Hull did bring was an inordinate amount of generously chosen gifts from people at the stage door. This was a very lovely gesture from all the people concerned: thank you ever so much. I must, however, ask that if you are one of those few who are thinking of bringing a present or bag of goodies to a future show, please save yourself the time and money. I feel bad taking them: the reality is that it’s just not possible to take most of the gifts around with us, and even bags of the most gorgeous-looking sweets and chocolate tend to remain woefully uneaten as touring does not allow for such a diet. I hope you don’t mind me saying that it means more than enough me that you would buy a ticket or even bother to stand around in the cold just say a nice hello after the show. (On this subject, I know Coops and Iain are starting to develop an abreaction to Roast Beef Monster Munch, but I say keep them coming – they made their bed and can now lie in it, crumbs and all).

After another 5 hour journey, during which some great ideas were hatched for a future TV special, we’re now in Southampton, or at least in an hotel nearby. I’m having a coffee in the ‘brasserie’ of this gorgeous old hotel. It’s rather idyllic, and has a tranquility that will not be found as readily around the back of the Mayflower Theatre over the next few days, with its train tracks and Toys ‘R’ Us. This may be the first year we do not hit the toyshop with the enthusiasm of its younger demographic: previous tours have seen us eager to stock up on soft toys to throw, and remote control helicopters with which to amuse ourselves in the auditorium. Preceding years also saw us staying in the unhappy DeVere hotel nearby, which we all remember uncharitably as the ‘Let’s Get Ou-de-vere’. That’s tricky to make work in print, but you can see what we did.

Staying in so many hotels one after another turns one into a terrible, intolerant twot. Anything other than the warmest reception at the front desk immediately makes every aspect of the place feel unwelcoming, and seeing another teak-veneer desk unit or chintzy eiderdown makes the heart sink unnecessarily. One becomes hyper-critical of slow or indifferent service and far more ready to complain about a poor steak, purely because, through no fault of the hotel’s, one has grown sick of it in previous establishments. Hateful. On top of that, though we really could not be any less rock ‘n’ roll as a touring group (our production manager once spilt ketchup on a white carpet: that’s as mad as it’s ever got), we are usually the noisiest table in the restaurant and often bundle into the most beautiful old converted stately homes in the scruffiest, most embarrassing attire, immediately sending out a message that we may not be quite right for the place. To then catch oneself calling front desk with the back-catalogue of frustration that comes from calling ten previous front desks with the same point of frustration, is to realise that one has fallen prey to the curse of the privileged: expecting other people to have nothing better to do that fit in with your own desires and make your life easy.

The wealthier you are (or the more you get used to staying in hotels on tour), the worse this becomes. As Alain de Botton has said, it’s always the arguments at the first-class check-in desk that are the nastiest. Foul.

Having said that, I’m honoured to be with such a delightful and pleasantly-mannered group. And the temptation to take these hotels for granted is a good reminder to me regarding what we unfairly expect from others.

Oh for fucksake my sugar lumps aren’t individually wrapped again.