Birmingham and Sunderland

Back to the Birmingham Alex and the loveliest in-house crew in the country. It was a joy to re-convene with Mike and Milton and Stu and John and the rest of the gang. We are ourselves a happy little family, though (apart from Simon, our excellent company manager), not a true ‘theatre’ bunch, and when we find a friendly crew it’s a lovely treat that we all enjoy. Very often there is an unhappy relationship in theatres between the in-house backstage crew on the one hand and the management and ‘front of house’ on the other. This sometimes results in the place, despite assurances from the management, not being ready as it should be when we arrive, normally because our specifications not having been properly communicated to the technical people who are to construct the bare bones of the show for us. This poor communication between front and back of theatres is a common frustration to touring shows. The Birmingham Alex is a glowing beacon of how well everything works when the relationship is a happy one and all parties involved enjoy their work and get along famously. Everyone – from usher to management to chief electrician – seems to constitute a true family and it is a true honour to put on the show under their roof. On Thursday night the Alex crew, some of the front of house staff and us lot went out for a late trek round the night-time bars of Brum and had a splendid evening. This was such a treat, and many theatres would benefit from this happy, family approach to putting on shows. (And a particular thank you to Chris at Island Bar who conjured up some sensational cocktails.)

Of course the other half of the enjoyment of a venue comes from the audience. Tuesday night, being at the start of the week, brought a slightly tired and quiet audience: a surprise for this city. Each day, as we moved through the week, the crowd got livelier and more responsive, and of course the show transforms with it. It’s one of the frustrations of performing that you don’t know why you can’t replicate a great performance you’ve had one night with an amazing audience the next night with a flat one. The relationship is of course famously symbiotic, with the audience giving much more than they are aware of. Anyone coming on the Tuesday night, no matter how much they might have enjoyed it, would have been struck by the difference on the Friday or Saturday. If only it were easy to keep the same pace and energy when the crowd is flat… I suppose that’s the challenge of doing it.

Friday lunch time was spent at the house of Judy (the blind lady who featured in the Bronnikov documentary), Marg her quite brilliant helper, and Reg, Judy’s hubby. Marg had prepared a huge spread of food and made trifle and cake: this was the finest treat we could imagine. Normally we have to grab food on the go, or eat soullessly in some hotel bar. To be lavished upon in this way was wonderful. We’re still finishing off the lemon sponge in the intervals.

Then to Sunderland. This was another return visit, and another beautiful theatre. The crowd, as expected, was delightful. High drama was provided at the start: the first frisbee got stuck in the lighting rig on the front of the balcony. One chap who was obviously determined to get involved decided to retrieve it, but to do so he had to climb over the balustrade. He stepped onto what he thought was a black platform but fell into nothingness between scaffolding, grabbing at a pole and hanging for a moment. A resourceful spotlight opera tot had to calm him down and give him directions to get back up. Still the guy insisted on clambering over the length of the balcony front to get to the edge and the star is to take him downstairs. Watching him scaling the crumbling balcony faced was terrifying. It was the first we’ve come to an actual death in the show… Please don’t be doing any of that.

Tonight, after a long drive with Mr Coops, it’s Northampton. Tonight (it’s the interval as I write) has brought an older audience, and between their polite responses and the ungenerous acoustics of the auditorium (which swallow up all their sound), it’s quite a different experience from the North. Plus I managed to knock over a prop and look like an arse.

Ho hum. Must dash for Act Two

Carlisle, Edinburgh and Manchester

After a couple of splendid weeks abroad, we resumed the tour in Carlisle. I was all fresh and brown and relaxed; my only concern that I wouldn’t be able to remember my lines. It’s odd to return to a show after such a break: it really feels as if the tour must be over, that it’s surely done and dusted. As it turned out, thIs slight apprehension helped infuse the show with a freshness which is always welcome, and Carlisle was a good gig. The Sands Centre is a multi-purpose hall, and sometimes the atmosphere of a theatre can be sorely missed. But the Sands is a pleasure to play: the audience responses can be heard and enjoyed, which was a huge relief. Those big halls have a habit of sucking up all sounds of enjoyment and can leave the performer feeling like he’s playing to an empty house. So we built the stage, did the show, and packed it all back up again feeling it was well worth it. And, I have to say, Carlisle boasted a particularly attractive audience. The city seems to be Hottie Central. Whodathunkit.

Next, Edinburgh. This city is famous amongst performers for it’s great audiences (though I would expand that in fairness to a list including Bristol and Dublin), and our last stint there a few weeks ago was a real treat. It’s amazing to think that some 12,000 people in total will have come to see it in that city alone. As expected, the crowd was wildly responsive and the Playhouse itself is a delight. I met with the ever-lovely Richard Wiseman and we mooched around the modern art galleries and through the lush, verdant elegance of the rainy city. On our final afternoon I took a cab up to Fishers in Leith, my favourite restaurant in the city, and had their trademark fish soup, which is to die for, and then the most astounding monkfish and prawn skewers, which were to be reborn for, only to die for again even more violently than the first time. The rain not letting up, I had first visited the unfamiliar surround of a camping shop (titter ye not) and secured waterproof trainers, a suitable jacket and a scarfy thing to protect the old throatingtons. Thus, and equipped with a brolly from the hotel, I embarked upon the walk along the Water of Leith back into Edinburgh. As it turned out, the weather improved and the tree-lined walk rendered most of the rain protection redundant, so I carried the umbrella, undid the jacket and arrived rather sweaty and flustered at the end of the hour walk. I considered dumping the umbrella to ease the burden but couldn’t bring myself…

After Edinburgh, I am now at the end of a run in Salford. Wednesday’s audience was perhaps a little quiet, but then again anything after Edinburgh would sound subdued. As the week moved on the crowd has warmed up considerably. Either way, they’ve been great shows and the Lowry is always a tart to visit. We’ve also got to meet up with Andy, our lovely tech genius from the previous tours who works at the theatre. After Thursday’s show we headed out into Chinatown to take Andy to dinner and had a wonderful night. Last night continued the late-night theme with a crew visit to the famous Canal St, where your blogger uncharacteristically shook his booty on the dance floors of some (perfectly reputable) homosexual establishments. Much cross-gender fun was had by all. We think Coops may have briefly kissed a man. I certainly had my arm around a fabulous drag queen DJ at one point. Jen was dancing with the ladeez and Iain and Jonas were twin kings of the dance stages. All in all it was a fun and daft evening, and not the sort of thing I ever find myself doing.

Awoke, not surprisingly, at 12.30 and am all rested and refreshed for the show. If I can just get Erasure out of my head…