Halfway house: The mid point of Forever House rehearsals

Since I was last with you, we’ve got a fair way into Forever House rehearsals. The play’s now up on its feet and we’ve moved our rehearsal room down to Plymouth for the final touches. The world of the play has come alive and we keep discovering more layers and complexities in this deceptively simple play. We’ve also discovered a binding love of Four Square, as both a warm up and a way of life.

Tom (Mark) hangs out with his pals at the lab
Tom (Mark) hangs out with his pals at the lab

Being in Plymouth has bought many pleasures, not least the feeling of authenticity as we hone accents and conduct more local research. Tom and Jo have had a tour of the Marine Biology Lab, thanks to the lovely Matt Hall, to help Tom get under the skin of his marine biologist character and both Becci and Dylan have had bona fide Plymothians record their lines to help them get that distinctive ‘Janner’ twang. As these preparations rumble on and the creative team begin to assemble in Plymouth, I thought I’d catch up with our writer Glenn Waldron to get an insight into the process from his point of view so far.

Glenn with his writing partner, Wilf the whippet

Glenn with his writing partner, Wilf the whippet

As a journalist by trade, Glenn has found the process of writing a play, and particularly the redrafting period, more vigorous and challenging than he at first thought. Although he hasn’t found the process of text analysis the easiest (eventing plays can be quite a mindbending process), it has helped him articulate what the play is about and to uncover a darkness in the script that has been revealed via the reaction and analysis of the others in the rehearsal room.

‘I was interested in the idea of the darkness that exists on the edges of small towns and cities such as Plymouth, the places that when you are an outsider you gravitate towards. The play is about the idea of how we connect (and reconnect) to a particular place or space and whether we are defined by those connections. I wanted to explore my feelings about my hometown – Plymouth has changed massively visually but in spirit I believe remains very much the same. When I return to Plymouth I feel like my 16 year old self and I imagine that is the same for many people with their hometowns’.

What is becoming clear as we rehearse is that, as much as the play is very specifically set in Plymouth, it chimes with many people’s experiences of their hometowns. The next step now is to put it in front of an audience and see what resonates for them. See you there!

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Forever House Week 1: A Magical Mystery Tour

Last Monday down in Latimer Road, (which feels about as far away as Plymouth when you’re coming in on the Hammersmith and City line) the Forever House cast and crew came together for the first time. Quite astonishingly in this pretty incestuous business we call show, the majority had not worked together before. When it turned out the kettle and scripts were stuck in traffic 10 miles away, we could have descended into awkward small talk and the perennial battle to make connections (interestingly, one of the things our writer Glenn Waldron captures so well in this play). Luckily, the omens were good as the conversation flowed smoothly and once we had some caffeine, biscuits and Glenn’s signature pecan pie, it was all systems go.

Forever Houses

Forever Houses in Peverell, Plymouth

Forever House is, impressively, Glenn’s first play. Set in a terraced house in Plymouth between 1999 and 2012, the play follows the journeys of three different pairs of characters as they try to figure out their place – within the room, with each other and in the wider world.   Our readthrough revealed a new draft that had been restructured and polished, with deepened characterisation and a new, more hopeful ending. To begin a probably ill advised architectural metaphor, when the foundations of a play are so strong, it makes the job of construction all the more joyful.

We’ve spent the first week of rehearsals interrogating the script – something that it is impossible to say without sounding pretentious, but also something essential with a new play. Luckily, Joe Murphy, our director, approaches everything with the minimum pretension possible, so we are in safe hands. By day one, we had even patented our own, new, method of script analysis: sleuthing. As there is more than an element of mystery about the plot of this play, it seemed particularly appropriate. Essentially, we have picked apart the play and asked every question we can find to ask about it, from each character’s backstory to the relative geography of Plymouth. Now, we’ve moved on to charting the main events within each scene: those key moments that change both characters irrevocably.

The highlight of the week though had to be our whistlestop research trip down to ‘The Muff’ itself (I’m really not being rude here, but I have just learnt this slang name for Plymouth). As we set off from Paddington on Friday afternoon, I felt like alarmingly like a schoolteacher, in charge as I was of train tickets, B & B bookings and generally making sure everyone had a good time and didn’t fall off the Hoe. We were nothing if not thorough in our research, visiting all the Plymouth hotspots that appear in the play. It was hard to get over our disappointment that Flares (a new addition to the latest draft of the script) wasn’t open, but we somehow managed to get over this once our hero, Plymouth’s very own Marketing Office Ed Borlase, got us in to Annabelle’s instead.

The next morning, the minibus picked us up for the more sober (ahem) part of the tour. We explored Peverell, the place where our ‘Forever House’ is, took a tour through Mannamead and North Prospect, making pitstops where the characters would have grown up as well as where they would have worked, including the uni and the library. Pat, our minibus driver, was rather bemused at our strange journey around Plymouth, and seemed relieved to be on more familiar territory when we requested to tour the sights of the Barbican, The Hoe and Royal William Yard. For a play in which Plymouth is almost a character itself, it was vital to be able to give this insight into the place, history and people.

Inside our whistle stop minibus tour of Plymouth

Inside our whistle stop minibus tour of Plymouth

A mere 24 hours later, our company returned to London exhausted by our adventures but fuelled by deep affection for this place that Glenn has so faithfully, comically and poignantly recreated in his play.

The cast embrace Plymouth

The cast embrace Plymouth

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My Perfect Mind: Show and Tell

This week, we were all invited to TR2 to find out a bit more about My Perfect Mind, a co-production between the Drum Theatre, Told by an Idiot and the Young Vic.

Paul Hunter, the Co-Artistic Director of Told by an Idiot, and Designer Michael Vale came down to Plymouth after a couple of weeks’ rehearsal to tell us what we could expect from the production when it opens here next month.

The Drum has co-produced shows with Told by an Idiot many times in the past, most recently with And The Horse You Rode In On and The Fahrenheit Twins, so Paul was more than happy to tell us how pleased he was to be back, how important it is for theatres to keep taking risks with new work and how exceptional it is that it is something we continually do here.

My Perfect Mind definitely fits into that category – it’s a completely devised show, which means the actors put it together through improvisation in workshops and rehearsals, rather than starting with a script, so there’s no way of knowing how it will turn out.  With this show, Paul explained it’s looking likely that improvisation will be an important part of the show itself, so it could change every single night.

As well as being the Co-Artistic Director, Paul will perform in the show with Edward Petherbridge, who’s CV includes creating the role of Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, playing Newman Noggs in Nicholas Nickleby and running a theatre company with Sir Ian McKellan.  Edward and Paul met when they were both cast in a two-man show in the West End and realized they had a special working relationship as well as forming a good friendship.  They decided to do something together in spite of their differences – Edward has a distinguished background with classical West End experience and Paul’s background is in experimental theatre.

Before Paul and Edward met, Edward had learnt the entire role of Lear for a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear in New Zealand – however, after the first day of rehearsals, he had a massive stroke and was left unable to bring his thumb and forefinger together, let alone remember the role of Lear.  When he started his recovery though, he found he still knew huge chunks of the play, so, with this in mind, he suggested to Paul that they do a pocket version of the play together.  But Paul thought there was a better story in the tale of Edward’s stroke and recovery combined with elements of Lear, as fragility and change is a common theme in both stories.  Edward agreed, although Paul says, ‘He didn’t quite believe we would ever do it…

Although the show will have bits of King Lear in it, and bits about Edward’s own story, Paul says My Perfect Mind isn’t really about either and constantly shifts between them.  Edward will be playing himself and King Lear, while Paul fills in all the other roles both in King Lear and Edward’s life which means, much to Paul’s amusement, he may even get to play Sir Lawrence Olivier.

Paul says it’s been a bit of a strange process, especially because improvisation can go in any direction, saying ‘You don’t often make a play about someone who’s on the stage with you – we’re trying to be delicate.  It’s like being in a weird kind of This Is Your Life…’

My Perfect Mind MOdel Set

The set is very simple, with a sloped white platform (known as a rake) getting steeper from right to left, making it a bit uncomfortable to work on for the actors – this reflects what happened to Edward when he had his stroke, the simplest things became difficult to do.

As one of the main parts of the King Lear story is a massive storm, making sure this can be represented will pose one of the biggest challenges.  However, during the improvisation process, Edward’s lesser known talent of painting was discovered, so it’s possible there may be live painting during the production to help depict the storm.

Both the set and the story could change before the final product arrives at the Drum – with three more weeks of rehearsal and improvisation in London before coming here, anything could happen!  However, Paul and Michael’s passion for the production and their obvious knowledge and expertise has left us all feeling sure My Perfect Mind is going to be one to watch.  If you want to join us, there are more details at www.theatreroyal.com/mind


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Forever House: Made in Plymouth

To quote David Prescott, our esteemed Artistic Associate and authority on new plays: ‘I haven’t come across a play set in Plymouth, although there has been an opera’. (I Puritani by Bellini, should you be interested.)

Forever House

This is all set to change however. The last play the Drum will produce prior to going dark in April is Forever House by first time playwright and West Country boy Glenn Waldron, which is, rather appropriately, set in Plymouth. Glenn’s play landed with us just a few short months ago, sent on from Paines Plough, and he has since embarked on the whirlwind process of having his first play professionally produced.

On Tuesday, we decamped to Soho Theatre to hear the play read for the first time. For Glenn, the experience of the readthrough was akin to ‘turning up at a party naked’: incredibly exciting, nerve wracking and revealing. Luckily Joe Murphy, the director, brings an air of calm as well as his clear enthusiasm to the room, which helped settle any nerves. We were also fortunate enough to have on board a really talented bunch of actors and spent the day interrogating the script for the first time, asking all the questions it sparked to really get under its skin. With a new play, it is only when it is read aloud that you really begin to understand what it is; to hear its rhythms and feel what is underneath them. Working on the play with actors and then hearing it read in front of an invited audience offered Glenn (and us) a great opportunity to get a flavour of the play and to discover what needs tweaking before going into rehearsals. Joe will now be encouraging Glenn to dig deep into the ‘guts’ of the play and define what the play is saying before we go into rehearsals.

Still, as we enter a re-drafting period, I was struck by how complete a play it is at this early stage. The actors felt held by the strong characters and dialogue in a script which eases between comedy and tragedy with remarkable aplomb for a first time playwright. The play also evokes an incredibly strong sense of place. Plymouth has its own unique character and Glenn has captured quite beautifully its flaws as well as its appeal.

Despite never having been part of a professional rehearsal process before, I am pleased to say that Glenn is a natural.  Not only was he eloquent and revealing when discussing the play and answering questions about it, but he also turned up with the most exquisite pecan pie I have ever tasted. The advice he had to always ‘bring some kind of cake’ to any rehearsal will stand him in good stead I feel!

Tickets for Forever House are on sale now – click here for more information.

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Kissing Basil Brush at the Pantomime Press Launch

Sometimes, working at the Theatre Royal presents some rather glamorous opportunities. Well, sort of.  Yesterday, along with selected members of the press, I went to meet this year’s pantomime cast at the Lord Mayor’s official residence on Plymouth Hoe.

Basil Brush, Ben Nickless, Sam Cassidy and Christopher Biggins

Basil Brush, Ben Nickless, Sam Cassidy and Christopher Biggins

The pantomime press launch is an opportunity for key members of the cast to get together – often for the first time – get into costume and be photographed, filmed, interviewed, questioned and generally bothered by official members of the press.  I took the opportunity to put my top journalistic skills (ahem) to the test with Christopher Biggins (Sarah the Cook), Basil Brush, Sam Cassidy (Dick Whittington) and Ben Nickless (Simple Simon).

The first challenge was getting Biggins to the venue. His elaborate dress wouldn’t fit in the taxi (and we couldn’t have him walking up Athenaeum Street in full costume in the rain) so he travelled up to The Hoe in, well, I guess it was something like a one-sy. More than underwear but a little less than fully dressed!

Basil Brush Movie Star

Basil Brush Movie Star

Once ‘on location’ however, everything went swimmingly and the cast really seemed to hit it off; Biggins, as you’re probably aware, is a natural comedian anyway and there is never a dull moment in his company. Basil Brush is also enormously engaging – even if Hayley from Radio Plymouth and I seemed to be the butt of most of his jokes! Sam Cassidy is a real charmer – with dazzling smile to match – and Ben a really down to earth guy who although lives in the South West has yet to experience a night out in Plymouth – we’ll soon remedy that.

Laura and Basil

Me and Basil

The press launch itself is a whirlwind of posing and clicking then a round of interviews and it’s all over within an hour. After lunch we teamed up with local television production company Denham Productions to create the television advert which was filmed in the Drum Theatre.

Drum Theatre TV Studio

Drum Theatre TV Studio



Days like these don’t come along too often – they’re fun and exciting.  And who else can say a day at the office included a kiss with Basil Brush?

Kissing Basil

Kissing Basil Brush

I’ve got some video footage of my conversations with the cast which I will post soon. Meanwhile, more info on the show can be found at www.theatreroyal.com/pantomime

Until then,

Mrs Laura Brush…

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A story that needs to be told

It’s the final production week on The Astronaut’s Chair, Assistant Director Bethany  reflects on the process now that it’s curtain up…

“And so the rocket has well and truly left the launchpad. The press night drinks have been drunk, the hungovers have been had and the show is now well and truly up and running.
It’s true to say that you never really know a show until you’ve put it in front of an audience. They are certainly the missing part of the jigsaw and their involvement has an immediate effect on the feel and rhythm of the show: some shows provoke a taut, listening audience; others a more raucous appreciation. What’s clear about this show so far is that, while the larger than life antics of some of the characters may provoke laughter, the gripping, and little known, story means that an audience really wants to listen.

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“A preview period is a great tool for seeing how the audience responds and letting the show grow with it. Inevitably,  the adrenaline of live theatre gives every performance an extra edge (this is even true if you are behind the scenes: directors often watch preview shows with their hearts in their mouths). There are always surprises too: laughs in places you might never have expected, less welcome prop malfunctions and burgeoning ideas that suddenly become beautifully crafted moments, or, conversely, ideas you realise might not have been so great after all…

“The true nature of the play will often manifest itself at this point too. To my mind, it has emerged that this is really character driven piece, to which the exhilarating space race is both the driving factor and the context. In a time when female representation on stage, as in most other industries, is still an issue, it is a great tribute to highlight these pioneering women whose stories Munro has chosen to tell . Almost no one who has been part of this production process or who has seen the show had heard of this quite incredible true story beforehand. These two remarkable female pilots, based on the real life figures Jackie Cochrane and Jerrie Cobb, have all but been wiped from history. It is a story that needs to be told and heard – the more I watch the show, the more its themes seem to chime with today. As Rona says in her author’s note, women today are still often fighting over one available chair at the table. Like all good theatre, this play succeeds in making a remarkable piece of history comment on our contemporary existence.”

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Final week of rehearsals: shaken not stirred

Assistant Director on The Astronaut’s Chair, Bethany Pitts, has been burning the candle at both ends through the last week of rehearsals, claiming that cocktail making was ‘research’…

Cocktail Making at The Distillery, Plymouth

Cocktail making is serious business for Bethany

“Last Monday we arrived in the tranquil setting of TR2 for our final week of rehearsals.  So over this last week Simon and the actors, and indeed the other creatives as they have joined us over the week, have been continually re-imagining and re-working elements of the play. The great, and exciting, thing about working on the premiere of a new work is that there is no set agenda and we are able to put our own stamp on it. Rona has been back in to see our work this week and is both delighted and surprised at how the work has come on. Having people come into the process again at this stage is immensely fruitful as they can shine a much more objective light on proceedings.

“The highlight of this last week though came outside of rehearsals, as on Wednesday we went for a cocktail making class at Plymouth Gin Distillery (Disclaimer: this was definitely work and not just a jolly – amongst many other things, we have to make cocktails in this play you know).

The Astronaut's Chair cast make cocktails

Amanda – aka Larissa/Valentina/Peggy gives a subtle twist

“As they took us through our cocktail shaking paces, it became apparent that there is quite a technique to making a decent cocktail. Twist too much lemon, crush too little ice and the alchemy is not quite right. In that way, it’s rather like making a play.

“All of a sudden, we are into tech week already and Bob Bailey’s set is twinkling (quite literally) down upon us all. Techs can be sweaty, stressful affairs but so far this one seems pretty calm. Adrienne is on some earth shattering sounds, Chahine is laid back behind the lighting desk and Stage Management are making sure everything runs smoothly. I can’t give much away of course, so rather than spoilers I thought I would offer up 5 reasons why you should definitely come and see this show:

1. It’s based on an incredible true story about some truly inspiring women who could, and probably should, have been the first women in space.

2. It’s got style in spades: from net skirts to hard liquor it is set a time when things were done stylishly or not at all. If the excesses of the 21st century existence is getting you down, then this is the perfect tonic.

3. It’s written by the ace Rona Munro, who is adept at turning the historical into gripping drama.

4. It doubles as a handy lesson on how to make the perfect Martini, should you ever need to.

5. It has a surprise musical theatre number  – hang on to your hats, you won’t see it coming!

“Don’t just take my word for it though, come and witness the glamour and excitement for yourself!”

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