Meeting the Villain-Hero

Apologies for the delay, my tens (perhaps twenties) of unflaggingly devoted readers! The preparations for the West End run have been absorbing all my time of late: letter-writing, email-sending, voice-prepping, stamina-building, and, in time-honoured fashion, low-level show-worrying. The urge to get Sikes & Nancy out of my head and back on its feet is enormous by now. It’s also inevitable, I think, that there’s been less to comment on in the latter half of the tour. Too many unexpected abnormalities, by this stage in the run, would be worrisome. (Expected abnormalities – these I’ve duly chronicled.) But do stay put for an appearance from my villain-hero. And let me make amends with Sikes & Nancy diaries of times gone by: ‘Dreaming to Order’, ‘Forcing the Soul’, ‘The Hertfordshire Horror’ and ‘Into the Black Lagoon’.

Old Library Theatre, Mansfield

OLD LIBRARY THEATRE, MANSFIELD (30TH OCTOBER). A close, wood-panelled chamber, carpeted in green; a game of Cluedo pressed into life. Well-suited to the murder-happy Sikes & Nancy! Our show’s been programmed as part of a scheme to build an audience for touring theatre in Mansfield, which apparently struggles here. I note with envy that Gervase Phinn’s one-man show – ‘An Evening with…’ rather than theatre – has completely sold out. We do well enough in the end, with some of the youth theatre exposed to the murderous rampage.

The show’s a shock to the system after the three-and-a-half week break. The volume I sweat is my constant barometer. I emerge nothing short of moist this evening. Physically, it’s all rather draining, but I’m pleased to find the show locked into my muscle memory. I’ve always been more confident in using my body than my voice – and vocally, the break makes the piece very challenging. There are constant discoveries, though, which are building into progress. Tonight I realise that I’m doing myself no favours with Fagin, whose glottal stops are instantly rupturing my vocal cords. This is easily remedied by appending a silent ‘h’ to the start of vowels: ‘you can talk as [h-]eat, can’t you?’, ‘not to do [h-]anything…’ and so forth.

There’s no voice training in the world that teaches you to produce a Fagin or a Sikes. It can at best give you the foundation. The only way to get their measure is to keep chasing them. Dickens lost his voice with pretty well every Reading. To combat this, he devised a vocal constitutional for his American tour:

At seven in the morning, in bed, a tumbler of cream, and two tablespoonfuls of rum. At twelve, a sherry cobbler and a biscuit. At three (dinner time) a pint of champagne. At five minutes to eight, an egg beaten up with a glass of sherry. Between the parts, the strongest beef tea that can be made, drunk hot. At a quarter past ten, soup, and anything to drink that I can fancy. I don’t eat more than half a pound of solid food in the whole twenty-four hours, if so much.

A diet compounded of dairy products, alcohol, and piping-hot Bovril. It was the worst thing he could have done. But Dickens’s willpower – his indomitable sense of rightness – was not be trifled with. For we actors who produce character voices, there’s also an unhelpful element of end-gaining. Our grotesque minds exaggerate our memories of our creations. Matt Lucas has observed that his voices inevitably get higher as time goes by. I find my pitching works in reverse: by now, I instinctively attempt Sikes in a voice so low that it’s almost painful. The answer is a little self-awareness – my voice is naturally quite deep – and sturdy pragmatism. It’s simply not possible to sustain so low a voice when you’ve having to shift to so many others. I am not Olivier (how well I know it) and I am not playing Othello.

Connaught Studio, Worthing

CONNAUGHT STUDIO, WORTHING (31ST OCTOBER). A sense of occasion: acting on Halloween night before an unusually large audience. I often think of Sikes & Nancy as a spooky Halloween poem. Certain passages seem the overture to a Danse Macabre: ‘That time which, in the autumn of the year, may be truly called the dead of night…’. The witches’ sabbath has sounded at the back of my mind throughout this show. I listened compulsively to ‘When the Night Wind Howls’ during rehearsals in September; tonight, I conduct my pre-show stompings to ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ on a very windy seafront. I first got to know the witches’ sabbath through the cinema (my old essay on devilry takes in some of those permutations), so what a delight to find that the Connaught Studio is a converted picture palace, an old-fashioned relic from the silent era. Pete Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show captures this seductive (to me) mingling of palatial grandeur and end-of-the-pier seediness. Denis Gifford writes movingly on the cinema’s power to raise the dead in his Pictorial History of Horror Movies. A heartfelt insight in a pun-laden book:

Of the Old Monsters, only Chaney remains. [If only. Chaney died in 1973.] The elder Chaney, Karloff, Lugosi… Laughton and Lorre and Veidt… Rathbone and Rains… Whale and Laemmle and Browning… The Scroll of Thoth runs from Atwill to Zucco. Yet they will be back, at the flicker of a projector, the touch of a TV switch, through their own medium – the only medium truly to revive the dead. The cinema.

This so-called studio felt like an arena from the stage. There was a vexing early period when we were scheduled for the massive Edwardian theatre next door, roughly three times the size. One develops a certain awe for how Dickens performed for thousands as a matter of course. We have a review – five stars – which I put off reading until the end of the tour. More fun was the immediate feedback of an audience heckle, when I announced that I was going backstage to remove the blood: ‘But you look good with it on!’ I may have escaped the Dungeon this Halloween. But certain things never change.

Guildhall Theatre, Derby

GUILDHALL THEATRE, DERBY (4TH-5TH NOVEMBER). I start the week somewhat apprehensive, knowing there are seven Murders to do. I’ve never committed more than four in a row, and that only once. It’s like entering a tunnel: no way to the light but straight ahead. First the darkness. Within my next twenty-six hours in Derby, I’ll have murdered Nancy three times over and led three question-and-answer sessions. Which is getting on for seven hours of non-stop speaking. I’m also suspicious about the dangers facing the voice in these question-and-answer sessions. Despite seeming laid-back, impromptu speaking can severely test the breath (and this on top of post-show breathlessness). Plus the lingering numbness (and breathlessness!) induced by the show make it tricky to monitor vocal damage. It’s for the best that these sessions are being retired after the tour.

I can well imagine Dickens reading in the Guildhall: a lectern wouldn’t look out of place here. Seating just shy of 250 – but feeling much more intimate – I feel this is about the sensible upper limit for Sikes & Nancy. Looking back, admittedly at some distance (and with the deranged bias of the actor), I feel that these were the best of the non-studio performances. A feeling of balance. In command of the piece’s dramatic and technical demands in the most equal measure yet; never feeling too exhausted or run-down (partly, I imagine, because of the knowledge of how many performances were to be done). I’m dimly aware, via Twitter, that someone else’s (re)view of Derby has popped up – very late, a few days shy of December. I’m determinedly not reading it, a policy I’m applying to all my press throughout the Trafalgar run. I wish this resolution stemmed from indifference or defiance or contempt. But I fear it’s primarily ego. A bad review is that most terrible of things, pain without meaning: you’re stung, yes, but for reasons that deserve no credit, bound up as they are in self-regard. And a good review can also wreak havoc with a performance, sullying the purity of the original conception. Unfortunately, though, reviews retain some capital for an unestablished actor. Particularly when you’re the one man in a one-man play. There isn’t much else to discuss… Why on earth do I get myself into these situations?

Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

MILL STUDIO, YVONNE ARNAUD THEATRE, GUILDFORD (6TH-8TH NOVEMBER). Retire to bed, post-Derby, with an ominous swelling about the soft palate. Awake the next day to a full-blown throat infection. Infuriating: I wanted seven performances in a row, relatively unsullied, as preparation for Trafalgar. Though perhaps vocalising through illness is the ultimate preparation. The antidote is a whole lot of steam to coax away the low-level raspiness, and even more vocal rest (fighting the sound of the engine and motorway in our tour vehicle – this is appalling for the voice). It’s a blessing that we’ve decamped to a studio for the next four performances. I can whisper more, make eye contact with the audience, go for precision before volume. There’s also a psychological boost to the claustophobia of the venue, a converted old mill with a stream roaring beneath. Against the mill’s textured brickwork I cast Nosferatu-like shapes – thrillingly black – which I catch sight of mid-performance. It’s a fine stand-in for my invisible self, which I’m never able to see. No matter how many conversations I hold with myself – and that accounts for roughly half of Sikes & Nancy – I never turn quickly enough to catch sight of my other character. I am acting with Peter Pan’s shadow.

The audience members I run into are exceptionally lovely, more than compensating for my feelings of inadequacy with the infection. One man touched on my Irving obsession: ‘I’ve been going to theatre for forty years, and that was excellent. You must do The Bells next!’ Someone else quotes, at length, Ralph Richardson’s ‘dreaming to order’ at me – which either means he’s read my blog (truly miraculous) or that we’re on the same wavelength (still better than I deserve). Some of the question-and-answer sessions are very intimate – mostly due to torrential evening rains, hounding audiences back to their cars. One session is extremely brief, as only one person stays behind. One question, one answer, intimate two-minute chat. I give another session for two students at the Guildford School of Acting. Which is pleasant, but makes me feel a fraud: we’re roughly the same age, and they are at least in training. There is, however, some interesting discussion about word-painting. I increasingly believe this is key to why the piece works at all: provoked by the same stimuli, we create radically different images within our heads. I was also reunited with the prodigal Lucy-May – another Dungeon escapee, now making a great success of drama school.

My last day in Guildford brings one of the greatest delights of the tour. I finally meet David Leonard. I invited him to Sikes & Nancy over two years ago, when I was giving it a solitary go at the Tristan Bates – a stone’s throw from the Cambridge Theatre, where David was playing Miss Trunchbull (brilliantly) in Matilda: The Musical. It’s testament to the man’s thoughtfulness that, unprompted, he turned out to see me on tour. And sent me a text to say he’d quite like to say hello! David’s performances have wrought an untold influence on me. His pantomime villains were the first performances I saw that made me want to disappear into theatre. A voice that was Donald Sinden spiked with George Sanders; a graceful, silvery command of movement; eyes like possessed pinballs; and all the flamboyant devilry that excited me most. And his Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, which I saw in sixth form, remains one of the best dramatic performances I’ve seen in any theatre at any time. Partly great writing. But all David Leonard.

It was that Sikes & Nancy at the Tristan Bates that found me an agent-producer in Jimmy Jewell, as well as sowing the seed for Trafalgar Studios. It was also the one that Simon Callow saw. But David is an even older theatrical hero, so it was wonderful that I’d had chance to see him the day previous. I met up with David in the foyer before the Saturday matinee. A debonair gentleman, looking over the papers; and, like Callow, armed with a glass of red. Very nervous, I introduce myself. Instantly, he leaps up: ‘James, how wonderful to see you!’ He couldn’t have been more delightful. He was very encouraging about the show too. He said it reminded him of Peter Ackroyd’s London, with its descriptions of the poor crushed down by the weight of the city. I plan to make a study of Henry Mayhew’s character sketches whilst at Trafalgar.

David’s back in the York Theatre Royal pantomime this year, after two years away. I can’t wait to see it in January. The family is reunited.

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Filed under Acting Theory, Experiences, Personal Excavation, Sikes & Nancy

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