Tuesday 26 February 2013

A Cast of Characters

When I say a cast of characters do I mean on or off the stage?  Well, in this case I mean both.

I’ve been doing the workshop of a new musical called A Body To Diet For written by Tim Anfilogoff and Alan Whittaker.  The workshop and theatre presentations have been produced by Katy Lipson from Aria Entertainment, with direction by Matthew Gould, musical direction by Ben Holder, and stage management, John Nicoll. 

Sometimes casts and crew gel, sometimes they don’t.  You don’t usually expect an outcome one way or the other quickly, particularly if people haven’t met or worked together before, however with this production it happened remarkably rapidly and we really haven’t stopped laughing or teasing (on or off stage). 

Did the creative team sense this at auditions?  Or did they just get lucky?

Whatever the goal, the characters in this show are funny but the cast are even funnier – to the extent it was sometimes hard to focus.  I nearly missed an onstage cue at the last performance because the back-stage shenanigans were on fire and it was hard to hear.  That’s not to say everyone’s not professional, as well as individually and collectively talented and committed, but the combination of wits – from dry, cheeky, subtle to rude and plain off-the-wall – makes for a unique cocktail.  The personalities are diverse too, yet even the most quiet has willingly gone with the flow and enjoyed the banter.  

Everyone in this cast can sing, act and be dramatically flexible, fast and funny... so why the especially high energy?

Well, that probably derives from the fact that we each took on the responsibility of learning the larger part of an entire musical in eight days rehearsal.  It was, to say the least, intense.  So perhaps the humour was our release?  That hardly explains the high percentage of flirtation and back-stage sexual innuendo, again not necessarily typical of the average cast, but it certainly added to the social frisson and primed us for dealing with a script that is at times explicit and provocative.

Some examples may help:  at one point during the first performance (when our nerves were inevitably on edge having handled the material for so short a time) one of the more understated members of the troupe scanned his script for his next entrance.  With a pained expression but the razor-sharp-subtly of a well bred Englishman, Simon Turner said: “this really isn’t fun, is it?”   He meant, of course, the actor’s experience of facing an audience unprepared, but that set us off and we all started laughing… at ourselves, at the situation, at the ludicrous risks we all take to make a living and follow artistic dreams.  It seemed reasonable proof that we were individually and collectively a sandwich-short-of-a-picnic.

Leejay Townsend got me into trouble more than once for laughing, but how can you not when he appears in a scene (as Herr Doktor Kafka) with an eye-patch, a furry cat nestled in his left arm, a funny accent, and a disabled walk which, curiously, allows him to limp on different legs depending on which direction he’s moving… and then minutes later he’s changed character into some hip-thrusting, wife-beating, rap punk who threatens to “smack ma bitch up”.

Paul Hutton was so busy changing between the womanizing characters of Fred (the big-time fashion agent) and Reg (the rough, small-time-businessman on the make) that I’m surprised he didn’t get a personality disorder.  Catherine Millsom was on and off stage as a mother, a doctor, a politician, a press officer, an adoring fan and all round wonderful singer, but still had time to joke endlessly with Rosanna Colclough who has to be one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.  I predict we’ll watch her on TV one day like we’ve watched Jennifer Saunders, in some hysterical, off-beat, character-driven sitcom.  As Ute in the show, Rosanna is funny enough, with an OTT German accent, but in each of Rosanna’s segments, as reporter under the duvet or as a member of the Lardy Da Das terrorist group, she steals the scenes.  Whether that’s due to timing, acting, physicality or sheer brazen commitment to squeezing every possible drop of humour out of every situation… it is fresh, unpredictable and compelling.  She’s like that off the stage too, even more so if you can believe it, so not only do we laugh ourselves silly at dinner and coffee-breaks, in the future I’m going to invite her to any party I ever have!

As the show deals with questions around body weight and body image, there are three actresses playing the female lead: Greta 1, Natalie Green; Greta 2, Michelle Lafortune; and Greta 3, Harriet Cox.  Though each physically different, they share not only a dramatic theme but absolutely beautiful voices.  I wait in the wings for their solos and duets, every time deeply moved by their talent and the lovely songs Tim and Alan have written for them.  It’s always great to see young actors ‘on the verge’, bringing back memories of my own experiences ‘in the biz’, and of course they are as drawn into the cast camaraderie and cheekiness as I am.  

(Actually, Natalie likes to say I’m one of the craziest, but I think the jury is still out as Rosanna, Leejay, Catherine and Paul are a wild combination.  And they do a good rendition of Rent too!)

Then there’s the male romantic lead, the character of Tony.  My character, Fay, works opposite him quite a lot so I’ve been lucky to find in our Tony, a delightful actor by the name of Adam Dougal.  Everyone in the cast and creative team love him.  No, really they do.  They fancy him too.  And make no secret of it.  Seriously though, we love his quiet integrity, his Irish humour, his sincerity (on and off stage), his solid preparation and reliability, his flexibility and readiness to ‘muck in’.  Adam is a good and truthful actor with a lovely lilting voice and a bright future.  Tony and ‘the Gretas’ have some very touching moments on stage.  And I enjoy the one where Fay takes off her clothes and throws them at him before straddling Tony on a chair and hanging upside down to sing before taking him off-stage to have her wicked way.  Well, you would enjoy that wouldn’t you?   I’m only human.  And after some years living in Italy I have more than a little ‘cougar experience’.  It’s the bisexual, white-witch, manipulative part of Fay’s character which is new to me. 

[ Ok, Julie Martin (nee Robinson) was manipulative… but in my personal list of faults that isn’t one of them - I am far too open and transparent to achieve it! ]   

I daren’t list or describe the hundreds of jokes and exchanges which have made us laugh hysterically throughout our February collaboration, for there’s sure to be libel issues.  At any rate, you just had to be there!

I will, however, say thankyou to Matthew, Tim, Alan, Katy and Ben for bringing us together. 

When we step up for our final performance tomorrow at the Landor Theatre (part of the ‘From Page to Stage’ series), accompanied with incredible polish, energy, leadership and good humour from Ben Holder on piano, we are sure to have a great time and be sorry to say goodbye. 

Well, until the next party or production…



Saturday 23 February 2013

Housemove Horribilis

We all remember when the Queen described 1992 as annus horribilis; the majority agreeing the year could hardly have gotten any worse for her family.
When it comes to house moves, the one I went through a couple of weeks ago is seriously up there on the horribilis scale.
It didn’t help that this move – finally into an apartment on which I secured a long term lease – was the fifth move I’d made in ten months.  Moving house is known for being disruptive, unsettling and time-consuming, but forces seem to have been primed to make the ultimate move the one to break my patience. 
To begin with, the reference and credit checks (which the private owner used an agency to conduct) were more invasive and frustratingly slow and tedious than the paperwork I did when buying a house in Australia.  The emails, phone calls and requests for more private information beggared belief.  And of course when they asked a question they demanded an immediate reply or threatened to cancel the process (for which I was paying handsomely).  When I had questions, however, they ignored me for days on end.  So, before a lease was signed or a single belonging packed, the experience was nothing short of torturous. 
On several occasions I complained to my closest confidant: “Come on, this much hassle can’t be normal, it’s a bad omen.  Painfully, life has taught me you can’t force a square peg into a round hole… I think I should give it up.  There’ll be other apartments.”   To which she advised: “but Mullins, then you’ll be back to square one and wasting another month flat hunting.  You need to get settled and this kind of frustration with bureaucracy is just how it is in the UK”.  There was truth in that, my friend was genuinely thinking of my welfare, so I persevered; albeit sometimes against my instincts.   
Nevertheless the following Monday morning I emailed the owner to say “if the checks which have been carried out to date are insufficient then I can no longer consider the property as an option. You have known from the outset that I work as a freelancer and if the proof I’ve provided re affordability isn’t satisfactory then it can’t be helped”.   She quickly replied “Everything is fine.  We can meet to sign the Lease on Wednesday evening, before which please pay £2,500 into my account for the deposit and first month’s rent.”  She gave me the account details.  I transferred the money.      
For the next day and a half the owner then repeatedly told me the money had not arrived.  The bank repeatedly confirmed the money had been sent.  Wednesday evening, half an hour before the scheduled appointment to sign the Lease, the owner prevented me banging my head on the wall by saying: “Oh, I seem to have given you the wrong account number… sorry.”   After several more phone calls to the bank the money is recovered.  But no, they can’t do the transfer again, to the correct account, as it’s after hours.  The Lease can’t be signed… as I’m not prepared to sign it without being given the keys, as agreed, at the same time.  Again my friend steps up to plug a hole, and as she’s set up for online banking (something I haven’t gotten around to doing in the UK) she transfers the deposit for me! 
The meeting takes place, the Lease is signed, the chit-chat is forced but friendly enough, and we part with an agreement I will turn around this move in the ridiculous time-frame of less than forty-eight hours. 
I’m astounded I’ve allowed the owner to bully me into moving on a date which suits her far more than it suits me, however such is the difficulty of finding a decent apartment in London in an area as popular as Wandsworth that I’ve fallen for her threats that “if you don’t take it, I have someone else wanting it”.   Only after signing do I discover the reason for the unreasonable hurry is that she is about to go overseas for several weeks.  Nevertheless I am starting rehearsals for a new musical that coming Sunday, so moving house that Friday… or not then for a month… are my only options.  I accept the pressure and resolve I’ll be relieved when it’s all done and dusted.
I had a much needed couple of wines that night in a bar with two friends, on route to Australia after some skiing in Europe.  I hadn’t been drinking alcohol due to a virus which kept recurring throughout January; each time, it seemed, that I got too cold or sat too close to someone coughing.  Given how many bugs go around in the thick of a European winter, and not being used to the cold as a born and bred Pommie, my immunity had taken a beating.  Yet my health had significantly improved in the last week so it felt good to relax and celebrate with friends; my new direction set, for better or worse.
Thursday was spent packing at a rate of knots.  I surprised even myself with the no fuss organisation and efficiency.  (Clearly I’d learnt something from multiple house moves.)   By late afternoon I headed out from Clapham Junction on the train to St Margarets, to pick up a friend’s car.  I returned in quiet traffic and was so ‘on a roll’ I decided to do two carloads of bags and boxes that evening. 
When I fell into an armchair to watch the late news my arms were aching.  Daily boot camp had enhanced my upper body fitness recently, but the twenty odd stairs at the new apartment were a killer.  I knew it was time to stop for the day, and sipping chamomile tea I felt relieved the job was half done.
Friday morning I jumped up early, completed boot camp, and finished packing the other half of the house.  I lugged everything down the stairs and piled it into the corridor near the external door.  As I was about to fetch the car where it was parked in a quiet street opposite, my great friend called to say she was sending her husband down to help me.  Talk about timing.  And with that assistance and a man’s eye for packing cars, we loaded and delivered one round, and then packed the car with the last load.  I was so pleased with the progress, helped by having only a few small pieces of furniture, that I asked him to wait by the car while I went upstairs to get a bag of groceries from the freezer.  That proved fatal.  For when I returned minutes later with frozen peas etc under my arm, we watched in dismay as a police car pulled up.  Thirty seconds sooner and we’d have been away.  But it turned out I was a metre over the boundary of where my car would have been legally parked, and the policeman in attendance was not only a stickler but rather rude about Australians.  Given I wasn’t blocking traffic, had genuinely thought I was responsibly parked, not to mention in the process of moving on, I hoped for some lenience.  No such luck.  He handed me a £130 ticket and an annoyingly patronising lecture about “red zones” and “learning the UK road rules before driving in this country”.  Ugh, what a pain.
We soon delivered that load anyway and when I returned to the old flat to complete the cleaning, I was very conscious of parking carefully.  I parked in the same quiet street as the night before, and walked up and down inspecting the signs.  I fed the meter and put a ticket on my windscreen for just over an hour, by which time I expected to be ready to return the car to Twickenham.  Cleaning done, and just a few small bags in my possession, I crossed the street and approached the car with five minutes to spare.  “Hmm, I don’t remember it being this far up the street’, I thought.  Back and forward I wandered.  Recalling my steps between the meter and the car, I shook my head in disbelief.  Eventually there was no other conclusion to be drawn other than “the bloody car’s been stolen”! 
In Neighbours parlance, this reaction would be described as “Julie is gobsmacked”.  And I was!   But what to do?  Up and down the street I wander like a lost waif.  What is the registration of the car?  No idea.  And no-one to ask as the friend who left me her car keys is in India!
Hell.  I call the police.  No registration, they can’t help me.  I return to the ‘scene of the crime’ and start asking strangers stupid questions.  My heart rate has already reached optimum as I contemplate the difficulty of recovering a stolen car without any details of ownership.  OMG I am up shit creek without a paddle.  (Sorry, but insufficient resilience for elegance here.)  When I return to the street a neighbour leans out an upstairs window and asks: “are you looking for a silver car?”  "Yes!"  I reply hopefully.  “They towed it away about twenty minutes after you left it”.  “Who the hell is ‘they’….. and why?????” I manage to stutter.  “That one spot in the street is a disabled parking place”, she tells me apologetically.  One spot.  In the middle of a long street with different rules – the like of which I am completely unfamiliar with.  The signage to tell me as much is simply some faded white chalk on the ground, beneath where it seems my wheels had found themselves.  Even if I’d been accustomed to looking on the ground for signage, it’s unlikely this particular day I would have seen it when there were several garbage trucks in the street, and I had to reverse forward and back several times to let them pass before parking.  Yet I never park in disabled parking spots.  I have an uncle and close friend in a wheelchair.  I wouldn’t dream of it.  But being so careful, how had I missed it? 
Clearly the old adage “the pathway to hell is paved with good intentions” stands true.  As I walked back to the old, clean and empty flat to cry, the kindly neighbour yelled out “sorry, the guy who lives there must have phoned the tow-truck company the minute you parked”.  Yeah, I bet he did, I thought; no doubt for a nice back-hander.  Suddenly I feel like knocking on his front door to give him a piece of my mind about practising the tolerance he demands from others – for it was clear by the meter ticket my infringement was a genuine mistake of only an hour’s duration - but I didn’t want to add other charges to my increasing bout of criminality.
I speak again to the police.  They give me the name of a company who locates ‘towed vehicles’.  They can’t help me as I have no registration number, and even if I did I’m told I can’t reclaim a car if I’m not the owner.  The car will have to stay at the pound for £200 a day.  Could it get any worse?
After another exhausted cry, this time more like sobs… I recall the name of the place where my friend bought her new car.  I phone them and thirty minutes later a saint of a woman has searched the database and found my friend’s car.  Armed with the registration number I can now go back to the car pound and negotiate.  Well, if it isn’t annoying enough that’s it’s now almost dark, wet and freezing, the car pound is not in Fulham as I’d been told it might be… but rather, Croydon!  Why in hell would you take cars from Wandsworth to Croydon – it’s not like the car was parked on a busy street causing traffic havoc.  Talk about over-governance.  But of course, no time to complain, I am feeling sick with responsibility for my friend’s car; significantly worse than if it were my own.
Multiple conversations later, escalating through various managers, I find someone with a little empathy and lateral thinking. He agrees if I can produce proof of address, a current driving license, proof of insurance (which  hopefully is inside the infamous car), and the car keys, that he will release the car to me that night for £255 pounds.  If I leave it longer it’ll be £455 (the £55 component, the ticket for parking in the disabled place, as if the trauma of being towed weren’t enough!). 
It is now six hours since I ‘lost’ the car.  I am utterly exhausted.  I can not face public transport.  So I take a mini-cab for another £30 – another investment in the charade for which I could have hired two men and a truck to complete my house move with FAR less stress!
I arrive at the pound and the guy who’s promised to bend the rules for me has gone home.  Seconds before collapsing on the floor in hysterics, I plead “but surely he told someone here about our discussion…. please ask your colleagues”.  A very cool, laid-back guy is shaken up by the sight of a lady on the edge, so he disappears for a while and comes back with someone who smiles at me and says “yes, he passed on the information and it’s our intention to make the release of the car as easy as possible for you”.  Thank you God. Thank you God.  Thankyou God, I say under my breath.  Though wondering why He’s had most of the day off.
I get the car.  I drive it through the ominous gates and they slam behind me. I park and call a friend.  I simply do not have the energy or emotional stability to find my way across London in mid-Friday evening traffic and rain.  He googles from the office and directs me to a large Sainsbury’s where he wisely advises me to sit and have a coffee and something to eat before attempting to navigate my way back.  I do this.  And I’m a little revived. 
Eventually at 9pm I pull up outside my new apartment.  Again I walk up and down the street checking signs with the suspicion of Woody Allen.  I can’t understand what I’m reading.  I’m too tired. The wording is ambiguous.  I decide it’s too dangerous to return the car to Twickenham, as I’m likely to kill myself or someone else on route.  My girlfriend confirms this decision over the phone and I resolve to leave the car whether or not I get another ticket.
I make my way up the stairs of my new ‘home’, though it hardly feels like it, desperate to relax.  With shaking hands I open the door, ooh it’s freezing.  I rush to the thermostat and turn it up.  I go into the bathroom and turn on the hot water to run a bath.  No heating.  No hot water. 
Seriously true.  This is why they say fact is stranger than fiction. 
I am beside myself.  Pushed beyond all reasonable limits. 
I get into bed, cry and fall deeply asleep.  The next day I go out and buy blankets.  I return the car without incident and for a reward eat a big chocolate brownie and cappuccino.  At least I have returned the car safely.  I have an unfortunate story to tell my friend who owns the car, but at least I haven’t abused her trust (I hope). 
I return to the flat.  It’s still freezing.  I start rehearsal on Sunday with another cold and little voice.  But I can only hope I’ve turned the corner and things are going to get better. 
That’s the thing about anything horribilis… that’s the thing about life… you simply have to turn the page. 
But… do you think if I asked Adam Hills to knock on that guy’s door to share a few thoughts it’d be considered less discriminatory?


Monday 4 February 2013

Different Faces

Last year London’s Asia House had an exhibition called the Different Faces of Pakistan.  It sought to highlight aspects of a complex country which we rarely hear about.  I was sorry to miss the exhibition but thought it a great idea to try and break the unyielding mould of perception.

Recently I heard Billy Joel singing his signature track from The Stranger.  I like the melody but hadn’t given much thought to the lyric:

Well we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone…

From Shakespeare’s Hamlet we get: God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another… suggesting we have inherent as well as evolving qualities, with a challenge to keep the essence of our ‘faces’ authentic and pure.

Together that got me thinking about the different faces we show people; or more particularly, the different aspects of personality and character.  For if we all have attributes we tap into and share in differing circumstances, then what is our ‘true self’?  It’s not always easy to put a finger on, is it?  It isn’t a static concept.  Yet in moments when there is clarity… we feel “this is me”.   If we’re honest we also know when “this isn’t me”.  It’s the in-between that’s blurry.

Indeed, forward and back like the tide, we strive our whole life to honour Polonius’s wise counsel to Laertes… To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man. 

Putting aside that Polonius was not himself being transparent in episodes around this sage advice… which may mean Shakespeare’s comment, though supremely poetic, was at best inspirational or at worst tongue-in-cheek… I find that not only different circumstances or experiences bring me closer or further away from my ‘true self’, but that also people do.

That’s why we need different people.  There are mates who make us laugh; mates who shake us up to try something new; colleagues who engage our intellect; associates who share our passions; friends with whom we feel most relaxed or entertained; friends for sport and adventures; friends who make us feel loved and understood; friends we go to for advice or encouragement; friends who see something in us that no-one else sees; and friends or partners who (for whatever reason) bring out the best in us.  

There are also people who (for whatever reason) bring out the worst in us, but that’s another story.

I was reminded of this rich tapestry when I woke early one morning in January, after quite a few days being bored and sick in bed.  Messages from special friends made me feel deeply connected, and the comedy video clip sent by Tim made me laugh heartily; as he knew it would.  These people know different aspects of me - strengths and weaknesses, ambitions and failures - but interactions with each touch parts of my ‘true self’.  That’s why I’m so comfortable with them and why they are so dear to me.

Yet what about one’s significant other?  It’s trickier to get that relationship right… as intimacy may be rich in diverse ways, meeting different needs… but for the satisfaction (and commitment) to last it needs to speak to the core of our ‘true selves’… to connect on multiple key levels… to the ‘faces’ or ‘elements of self’ which, unique for every couple, are the most important dimensions.

Let’s use food as a metaphor.  If you’re genetically, mentally or emotionally predisposed to being a chicken curry, it’s unavoidable, you need chicken and you need curry.  If you’re a Thai stir-fry you simply can’t do without coriander or lemongrass.  And if you’re a spaghetti bolognese then tomato, meat and basil are non-negotiable.  When it comes to a primary romantic relationship - before human failings and other aspects come into play - success is likely to depend on whether or not you share or communicate through some key ingredients.  It’s one thing to do without onion and use more garlic - that’s compromise - but if you’re a classic bolognese you simply can not replace basil with coriander.  I’ve done it myself, of course, when the attraction was fierce, but frankly it’s not sustainable for an apple-pie to hook up with a hot-dog.  

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy or need difference. I do.  I couldn’t possibly fall in love with a clone of myself and don’t expect one person to satisfy all my belonging or social needs.  I’m simply not a ‘do everything together’ kind of person.  I need a range of stimulation and interaction.  I need a partner who’s fairly independent and sure of himself, different in many ways but who compliments me on levels which matter most.     

Luck and timing enter into the equation, of course, and love is rarely led by the head.  Sometimes we learn lessons about sustaining relationships too late for our own good or simply get the communication wrong.  Yet I think it’s also true I’ve not always been clear about the nature of these core elements… so have sometimes prioritized the wrong ingredients. 

I haven’t had a fixed idea about what my partner in life should be.  I’ve never been concerned about his job, for example, but rather his intelligence, talent or dedication to his craft.  I have walked away from as many rich guys as I have poor ones; tall ones as short.  So my desired ‘recipe’ has been fairly broad and undefined.  Is that a mistake or a strength?  I don’t know. 

I do know a male flat-mate warned me once when looking through a pile of photos.  “Julie, all your boyfriends have been good looking” he said, with a hint of accusation.  “So, what’s wrong with that?” I asked, fairly certain it was no problem.  “Don’t you know that for men, very good looks are a road block to maturity?  They get everything too easily.”  I did some research - Italian studs a case in point - but even a drab-looking guy can be a jerk so why not look at someone pretty, right?

Anyway, as it happens, in less than a year I’ve grown a connection with someone which has been rather enlightening.  We started out as friends.  He does happen to be good looking (and ok, if you must know, take-your-breath-away sexy), but the point is that he knows himself.  He is more true to himself, to his nature, to his heart, to others, than I’ve often found.  And simply by being genuinely himself, he has highlighted ingredients in an intimate relationship which (for whatever reason) are to me the most important.

It’s hard to explain how this has come about.  I have simply observed that when I’m with him or talking to him, even exchanging messages, I am extremely comfortable and content.  I have no desire to change a single thing about him.  The dynamic is so natural and easy that even when occasionally something potentially contentious comes up, I can not seem to find it in me to get mad or impatient.  This is significant for a passionate red head.  Somewhere along the way it became more important for me to understand him than to be understood.  And anyway he doesn’t do stuff which gives me reason to brood or worry.  He tells me what I need to know.  He’s honest, and doesn’t deliver less than he promises.  That’s not to suggest he’s perfect, but the combination brings out the best in me.  And as the style of our interaction allows me to feel emotionally fulfilled, without complex translation, I am peaceful and happy.    

That’s pretty special right?  And when you add a whole lot of other fun stuff on top I can only say, WOW.

Factors beyond our control make it likely this friendship won’t blossom as far as it otherwise might… but that doesn’t mean the connection isn’t precious.  He is such a treasure that, even when he’s telling me something I don’t want to hear, he is so naturally caring and considerate, so willing to get in the arena and engage with me in an honest, open and gentle way, that everything seems (comparatively) simple and ok. 

Don’t ask me how he manages to be as sensitive as he is, while still being a rugged and sexy alpha male… but he does. 

So, I am grateful for the chance meeting which brought us together.  And if ever I’m in doubt again about my ‘true self’, and what is right for me, I am going to use the dynamic I have felt with him as a benchmark. 

For when it comes to managing a world of different faces, it’s good to have some quality control.