Category Archives: Experiences

Familiar Old Ghosts

I was intending to write this last week. As so often, I got derailed. Now a sudden change has deepened and darkened my theme. So bear with me while I marshal my words as best I can. They do not come easily.

I originally meant to record a minor holiday, just before I returned to my time-honoured imprisonment at The York Dungeon. It was the Dungeon’s biblical flood – another time-honoured tradition – that granted me time and space for my own projects at the start of the year. It’s just what I needed after the manifold frustrations of 2015 – something I chronicled, via Anthony Newley, over here and here.

To briefly convert this time-based holiday into a land-based holiday – with trains and sight-seeing and people and such – seemed an excellent way to round things off. The result was a few snatched days of geographical interest: in Cambridge, then Leeds, then Blackpool. After recent events, I now realise that I was facing down some familiar old ghosts. Most of which transported me right back to York and far into that empty Dungeon.

Two weeks ago, I returned to Cambridge. My first time back in nearly four years. My absence from my old university town had evolved, little by little, into a point of principle. I was determined not to go back without a really good reason. In the end, I just settled for a reason. I went there to collect my honorary (read: falsified, worthless) MA, an arcane rite that extends to all Cantabrigian degree-holders. Essentially, this boiled down to some fantastical fancy dress and choreographed movement, with an audience in spitting distance – and all in Senate House, where sly old Henry Irving claimed his Doctor of Letters. Oh, yes. It represented my university experience very well.

Whence this dread of facing Cambridge again? I believe it was really the dread of facing myself – my ghost-self, as unstable and overwrought as I’d felt through university. Three exhausting years of slow metamorphosis. Never was I happier: creatively engaged on play after play, exposed to untold riches, making many of my very best friends. Never was I unhappier: feeling ever the outsider in acting and academia, awaking to quite how mediocre an intellect I possessed, experiencing some appallingly black moods.

All this found its most painful distillation in my second year, when I was deeply in love, and he was beautiful, and it was terrible, and it was wonderful, and – of course – it all went wrong. Old ground for me now, ancient history. I’ve written about the experience here; the fall-out from it, anyhow.

At this distance, I wonder if love was the only response to being so maniacally, so intensely alive. It required an equally strong force to balance me. That force was the Dungeon. Just before my second year, when all that feeling had opened me up, the Dungeon made me feel worthy of love. Armed me to go off and fight for it! And after my second year, the Dungeon gave me space to recover. It restored love to its proper place: from doom-laden soul-searching to simplicity, acceptance, warmth.

So as I knelt this time in Senate House, I thought on Henry Irving’s acceptance speech. Especially those words he cribbed from Polonius: ‘To thine own self be true.’ I stumbled on many bits of that self in Cambridge. But they were always tested and confirmed in York.

On with the holiday. I was next in Leeds, for a leisurely tea with my friend Simon. A man who has been crucial in my self-development, ever since I read his Shooting the Actor at age fifteen. He helped me to stoke my passion for acting, to make sense of my gayness, and to extend my interests in Dickens and Laughton and so many others among the Great Dead. Having done all this for me, it was perhaps inevitable that I would end up getting to know him personally. The Dungeon provided one of my earliest chances to test Simon’s exhilarating horizons for acting. I then saw transformation as absolutely central. How I strained to make my every character physically and vocally unique. To make them very unlike me.

Acting’s become more complicated in the years since. Most any craft is easier when primal. The sheer novelty of doing it convinces you that you’re better than you are. These days, acting is much more about accessing the soul. Which is difficult indeed; a lifelong journey. Just before I departed Leeds, Simon inscribed for me his latest book: an injunction to go on pursuing ‘the great and greatly flawed’. Eloquently put. For acting is rough-hewn hurly-burly: all mud and blood and fire and thunder. This essential roughness has been another of the Dungeon’s lessons. It’s not just okay that it’s not perfect. No, it’s an essential part of the deal. We must be flattered to be so flawed. It’s that which connects us to the human race.

The next day was the most emotional. I visited Blackpool to see my beloved friend Bryan. A long-standing colleague from – where else? – that Dungeon of York. Bryan embodies the murky essence of the place. This is a gift that reaches beyond acting, verging instead on the mystical. Bryan carries that atmosphere about with him; a natural emanation. He could indeed be a medieval monk or a viking king or a pagan war-god. More surely than anyone, he has converted the ghosts into friends.

Blackpool was also where I used to visit my grandparents, my mum’s mum and dad. I found their ghosts on the sea-front, mixed up with the spit and the pother, but even more in the Tower Ballroom. They had often danced there: probably to the same old standards, certainly to the same old organ. I sat there with my cup of tea for nearly an hour. I found myself almost ridiculously moved at the variety in the dancers: old men with old women, grandads with grandchildren, women with women, a mum with her daughter, another mum with her mum, men with men, two old widows. All those complicated chunks of humanity briefly thrown together and giving it all to the dance. This lent a certain resonance to when I met up with Bryan after his own dance, his devil-dance within The Blackpool Tower Dungeon. How wonderful to see him again in his proper context: restored to his full powers and exercising all the tools of his trade. How wonderful simply to embrace this man.

How I’d like to do that with another man now.

A few days ago, Mark – my manager at the Dungeon since 2008 – quietly passed away.

I am intruding on hallowed ground here. So many people knew Mark better than me, and longer than me. I know my loss is nothing compared to theirs. I cannot imagine their pain. I can only try to express mine, in flawed and dithering words. In this, I may light on some of what my colleagues are feeling.

What Mark represented to me was a whole comforting home. That warm and welcoming Dungeon home, which lives with me still, no matter where I travel. Over the years, I’ve had my gripes with the Dungeon; those periods of wishing I was anywhere else. I certainly don’t plan to stay there forever. In these respects, it’s like any home. Now a home that can never be the same again.

This idea of the Dungeon sustained me through the end of 2009, during my rocky first term at university. I had found the transition tougher than anything I’d expected, and was beginning to think I’d made a very big mistake. Here’s a little of what I wrote in my ever-uplifting diary:

Everyone here is better than me. They can talk to each other, communicate their wild and brilliant ideas without effort. I struggle so hard to form a coherent sentence, never mind the insurmountable difficulties in pretending to be happy.

I shrink with shame at that now. Knowing Mark’s great talent for happiness, for provoking it in others.

And yet he had provoked something in me. I went on, in this diary, to devise myself a back-up plan, where I would flee university and settle for a quiet and comforting life. And at the centre of all that? The Dungeon. I reduced it to a phrase:

The people there are wonderful.

I know that Mark was hovering at the centre of that sentiment – and therefore at the centre of all those testing years of finding myself out. It was the warmth and decency of Mark and his fellow Dungeoners that gave me the grit to stick university out. They would top me up when I saw them in the summer. And the thought of them gave me the strength, always, to keep on going. It’s a process that continues.

The darkest moment of that first term was when I found out that my grandad – that tireless romantic, that ballroom dancer – had also quietly passed away. I was by then too exhausted to entertain death. I sat at the same laptop I sit at now. Listened again and again to ‘Old and Wise’. Squirming, panting, smarting at this cruel new world, which seemed to be disintegrating beneath me. And still thinking to myself:

Don’t worry, don’t worry, the world is cold and dark now, the light is all but out… But I can still go to the Dungeon. I can still go home.

Now I do all of that all over again. All that time has passed, yet things are as they were.

As surely as Bryan is the Dungeon’s murky essence, so was Mark its living, beating heart. I feel thankful to him now in so many ways. It was Mark, along with Stuart, who gave me this first acting job in 2008. Mark helped to promote me from the shadows, encouraging some of my most purely happy assaults on acting. He inaugurated me as the Judge and as the Torturer. He gave me more pride in those outlandish creatures than I rightly deserved. That golden self-confidence that can comes only from someone you respect absolutely. With the result that he could pull me up short when I deserved it, make me feel utterly ashamed of myself. Such was the force of the man’s goodness. Only last Halloween, he bundled me swiftly home when I fell ill, defying all my croaking protestations. Then he laughed with me as I proceeded, croakily, to ring in sick.

He didn’t need to do any of that. How I’ll miss the absurd jokes and the infectious enthusiasm; the painful (usually accidental) ease with which you could make him jump out of his skin; the fact that he still addressed me as ‘Mr Swanton’ after eight years of friendship. By God! I’ll miss the joyousness! The sheer, luminous joyousness of the man. He lived to the hilt that which Dickens once wrote: ‘Brighten it, brighten it, brighten it!’ So often would he make me laugh till I cried. Now he makes me cry till I laugh.

His courage in facing down the end was little short of miraculous. I have never known a bravery like it. Never. I wish now, selfishly, that I’d seized the chance to tell him just how much I loved him. But that would have been to have Mark’s funeral while he was still alive. I don’t believe Mark ever seriously intended to leave the party. I still don’t think he has.

Besides. With a man like Mark, could love ever really, seriously be questioned? To him, it was the only thing. I am sure he knew we all loved him. Love was all he knew.

So thank you, Mark. You’ve shaped the course of my life, in ways that will probably always reach beyond my comprehension. You will forever be inseparable from the Dungeon. And it’s that Dungeon, that home of homes, that I carry with me, always – whether I am shouting within a dark building by (occasionally in) the River Ouse or somewhere else entirely. A home crammed with all those daft and delightful and lovable, loving people, with you at the very centre. Then. Now. And always.

Mark Pollard

Here’s the family in 2011. Mark is the bearded fellow at centre. I’m the grinning demon behind Mark; the distinguished greybeard to my left is, of course, Bryan. Also at centre, just below Mark, is Kayleigh – the love of his life, who he married last year. The best thing he did in a life crammed with the best.

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Filed under Essays, Experiences, Henry Irving, Personal Excavation, The York Dungeon

The Funny Man is Me

These burblings are a continuation from last time. For their Newley-bound context, I direct you to the previous installment, ‘Drowning in Your Dream’. For a more primary view of my passion for Newley, read my essay ‘The Fool Must Die’. And rest assured, there is still more Anthony Newley to come – witness this magnificent portrait of his Ebenezer Scrooge (the work of Sacha Newley).

Newley Scrooge

Yes, I fell in love again. I cannot write of the experience in positive terms. It used to be quite different: when I last let myself love – five, nearly six years ago – I was grateful for the feeling to the point of grovelling self-abasement. There’s a social expectation that heartbreak is mentioned only in terms of survivalist positivity. I think this practice abominable. All it does is contribute guilt to suffering – a panic that you’re not getting over things more quickly. But life cannot be reduced to a Gloria Gaynor song. Most responses to break-ups and the like strike me as an effort to not deal with things; to try and dodge all the pain. This, in my experience, is deadly. Pain must be faced down, always. Only then might happiness follow.

Besides, I’m almost certain that people never get over anything. I certainly don’t. All one can do is absorb the change into one’s person and keep on moving. Not move on exactly. Perhaps, at best, move past. ‘Love Has the Longest Memory’ harbours just such a lesson. The lyrics are confused – appropriately and inappropriately – but their musical setting delivers a hammer-blow. The song rounds off Quilp, Newley’s adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop. It’s faithful to Dickens’ unwittingly masochistic melancholy.

I know I held her hand in mine,
Though time has blurred her touch…
But when night robs my sight
I feel her much too much.

In my case, there was one especially decisive snag. There was not the least point in telling the object of all this loving agony. The man in question was not gay.

This is the baseline misery in gayness, irregardless of social acceptance: the vastly reduced chances of falling for someone who’ll be able to return your love. The body remains a fortress. This holds true even if you swallow the (discredited, surely?) statistic that one in ten people are gay. Still. There’s a bittersweet relief in having so much decided for you. And this before you’ve even begun.

As I wrote last time, my efforts to master my emotions are comical. This time, I wrote searching essays to myself, in a spidery hand – all of which seemed hysterically overblown when read the next morning. I cried very hard indeed – a cry that might as well be a laugh, so forcefully does it break out. I read a great deal too. Primarily about other men who chose silence. Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (‘it’s a matter of love’), Tom Pinch in Martin Chuzzlewit (‘it will be set right’), and my old friend Kenneth Williams, the most self-important of the tragic clowns. This 1963 diary entry by Williams kept returning to me. It reflected my own morbid frustrations:

I wonder if anyone will ever know about the emptiness of my life. I wonder if anyone will ever stand in a room that I have lived in, and touch the things that were once a part of my life, and wonder about me, and ask themselves what manner of man I was. How to ever tell them? How to ever explain? How to say that I never found Love – how to say that it was all my own fault – that when presented with it, I was afraid & so I spurned it, or laughed at it, or was cruel, and killed it: and knew that in the process I was killing myself.

Newley, by contrast, gave full-throated expression to the void within. His proved the really purgative music. I most often returned to ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ This recording shows Newley at the peak of his powers. A grandstanding performance of love – you can see David Bowie emerging – mocking me for staying silent:

Why can’t I fall in love, till I don’t give a damn?

I was staggeringly right to give a damn. To tell the man in question would not have been kind or good. Not right; not under those circumstances. My primary impulse in love is to unburden myself. So many times I wanted to get the feeling out: to say the words, write a letter, do some unambiguous loving deed. My dawning awareness of my responsibilities felt a self-betrayal. Love may not happen very often for me – I’m averaging once every five years – but that’s no reason to inflict it on those at the receiving end. I unburdened myself to three or four good friends, then blundered on.

I can write now, a little, about what made him beautiful. I saw in him ease and simplicity. I saw in him danger and chaos and devil-laughter. I could see the flames of hell licking away at him. Such vulnerability is compelling: pleasure founded on pain, which is anyway essential to pleasure. I loved because he seemed so very unlike me, me, me, coiled-up in my self-reflecting neuroticism. Never could I get out of my own way. Nor could I do homage to him as I saw fit. Any revelation would have been mired in the clumsy, over-earnest flutterings of ‘My First Love Song’. Reading this paragraph, I realise that that still holds true.

Each endeavour
I may make to sing your praises
May not sound as it should do.
But I love you –
Please believe I love you…

There was also a pride in this passion. The sense that the man had a respect for my acting – for The Work, I should say – which had never been the case in my previous love-fallings. Quite the reverse: back then, I’d felt my every appearance on a stage was my saying: ‘How about this? Am I good enough yet? Am I – acceptable?’

This last point should have shown me where my passions truly lay. For whilst this feeling was roaring away, I had my busy, frenetic, jittery, maniacal work – Work – WORK. The last four months of my 2015 were comprehensively rammed. I was in at the Dungeon five, six, sometimes seven days a week. Halloween happened. Sickness happened. And trips to London for auditions and play-readings and meetings meant my very occasional days off were all but monopolised. There was a creative resurgence: a rehearsed reading of The Road with some inspiringly good actors; an overhaul of the Irving play, prior to sending it to colleagues and mentors; devising and writing and rehearsing Winter Gothic in York, thus satisfying my desire to get more plays out. It is staggering that I found time for even my pale ghost of a personal life.

Winter Gothic Still

How lost I’d have been without all this. I loved him, in truth, because we were so incompatible. I knew he was no fucking good for me – but he opened up a vision of an entirely different world. ‘Someone Nice Like You’ betokens just such an alternate existence. Below is the bit that breaks me; the most understatedly sad lyric I’ve encountered (find Newley’s version if you can):

And if we could live twice
I’d make life paradise
For someone really nice
Like you.

That hope of living more than once: the last refuge of the damned (recall Patricia Routledge as Alan Bennett’s Lady of Letters: ‘but this is it; this has been my go’). On this occasion, the world of love was all but obscured by my mountain of work. All of which carried me out into the real world, yet further into my fortress-self.

If there’s a running theme in the Newley song-book, it’s that pain might be salved through creative endeavours. I direct you to the galvanic three-fold climax of ‘The Fool Who Dared to Dream’ (as with much Newley, the execution leaves the lyric far behind) and the wistful sadness of ‘Pure Imagination’ (which is all about the lyric: ‘living there, you’ll be free – if you truly wish to be…’). By now, I am pleased to have said nothing. I shall go on saying nothing. Unless I feel I can do some good with the disclosure – a full disclosure. All or nothing again. But I don’t see what good it could do. So nothing it must remain.

How to sum up, then? 2015 seems a year of strange cruelties, of queer and dizzying pointlessness. Yet it was also a year of high comedy – his devil-laughter, yes, but taken over by Newley’s parade of sainted fools. A year of redemption, too – but only ever through The Work. I have no doubt that love is a very great gift. But it may not be a gift for me. Certainly not yet. Perhaps not ever – but should that ‘not ever’ come to pass, I’m hopeful I’ll be too busy working to care.

Let us finish with the strains of Newley’s ‘I’ll Begin Again’. It’s a song from Leslie Bricusse’s underrated Scrooge, which became Newley’s final role in the theatre. It’s a song that overturns the nihilism of Newley’s self-penned ‘I’m All I Need’ (which, believe me, was much with me last year). Through Newley’s performance, it opens out – and up:

I will start anew,
I will make amends,
And I’ll make quite certain

That the story ends
On a note of hope,
On a strong amen,
And I’ll live in praise
Of that moment when
I was able to begin again!

I shall have this song played at my funeral. Not that I plan on dying; I fully intend to live forever. But begin again? I have, and do, and will continue to do so.

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Drowning in Your Dream

It was in 2015 that I discovered Anthony Newley. He was my patron saint that troublesome year. A man of the theatre, to which he brought new expressive possibilities. A man who did homage to Dickens, in musicals of The Old Curiosity Shop and A Christmas Carol. A man who yearned, unceasingly, to achieve love – and who always counted himself a failure. Pictured below is his wonderful ‘Who Can I Turn To?’ from The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. I’ll be drawing attention to other Newley songs. Many are masterpieces in miniature. So play along with me – do, do.

Who Can I Turn To

A conspicuous hole in my 2015 was just how little I wrote. There were two (necessary) redrafts of the Irving play, some light flourishes for Winter Gothic, a few other scripts that I was never at peace with – and four essays on this website. This last is the most inexcusable. At the very least, life-writing keeps a muscle honed. And at best, it is the most liberating self-help, something I was sorely in want of last year. But toiling under the delusion that blogs exist to be read – and what blog has ever been read, truly read? – I decided not to waste more of my time on one.

Essentially, my sense of humour ran out. Now I am more amused by my cosmic littleness: ever striving, self-important, to find order in my universe. By pretending to be other people. The last laugh of 2015 was when the Dungeon again flooded to levels inoperable. Three years ago, I felt a light tragedy (there I stand as the Reaper, dramatising). But this second time, I feel weariness, giving way to contained hysteria. A lingering ‘oh, really?’ followed by ‘is that the best you can do?’

Dungeon Flood 2

Blogs are for writing, not for reading. So here I am again, bashing away at the keyboard, trying to make sense of 2015.

It began in recovery. I was rounding off an exhausting spell at Trafalgar Studios, where I’d been acting my one-man play Sikes & Nancy. One performance of ‘The Murder’ – as Dickens mortally demonstrated – is liable to cause a stroke. Well, I performed it thirty times in four weeks. I have my own word for this strange form, the theatrical nervous breakdown: ‘heartattacting’.

It therefore seemed right to take a month out. Make sure that I properly recharged my batteries. The one-person form can beget a stifling neuroticism. Instead of getting lost in another person on stage, you retreat ever further into yourself: your body, your face, your voice; above all, your mind. Increasingly, the play becomes an act of self-definition: you are the play; the play is you; and on and on and on you go, in ever-tightening circles. Strangulating. I had become my own fortress. It was vital I tried to escape.

During my long-drawn attempt, I came to Anthony Newley. This began with hearing – more accurate, beholding – his thrilling rendition of ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’. I still think it Newley’s keystone work. Flushed with first love, I wrote thoroughly of it at the time.

Anthony Newley typified that cosmic littleness which I was struggling to locate in myself. Newley’s constant metaphor is the fool versus the world: we are all silly little clowns and jesters and zanies, and our only refuge is in laughter, the laughter of the damned. Newley’s music is not without its flaws. But there is an irrepressible rightness about it, as with the best of Cole Porter. Both miraculously created new old folk songs; songs that transmute their surface littleness into an almost mythic vastness.

Cole Porter’s song-book stands alone. But Newley’s songs are best, by far, when completed by Newley. Once you get into an accommodation with him, even his flaws become assets. Newley’s sentiment can seem gushing, excessive – before his passion-performance will confirm its sincerity. His warbling vibrato becomes the sound of the soul erupting from the body – the more so when imperfect, when unachieved.

Newley made of his person a self-defining theatre, each emotional impulse externalised and heightened. This might be my deepest point of sympathy. Translate Sikes & Nancy into cabaret and you have ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’:

Look around you, Mister Clown
You’re drowning in your dream.
A sea of strangers, each one reaching out for you…

This idea of ‘drowning in your dream’ has haunted me. Sikes & Nancy had fulfilled quite a few of my acting dreams. I was acting on London’s West End – and in the title role (title roles, to be precise). I was serving Charles Dickens, that writer I love beyond all others. I was advancing myself as horror actor, pitching my performance between Henry Irving and the vintage horror film. My hero Simon Callow even gave the show his blessing – and, on the last day, his attendance.

Yet, as Wilde said: ‘When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.’ Such colossal good luck at age twenty-three is all but unprecedented. I would be a swine not to see it. I remain supremely grateful for Sikes & Nancy. I look forward to tackling it again. But what was I to do with my acting now?

The first half of 2015 passed in fitful cycles. I would work like a fiend to make more acting appear. I would then take an absolute break, because I couldn’t take the frustration. Yes, I was acting at the Dungeon – but that, to me, has long constituted ‘the work’ as opposed to ‘The Work’. But nothing is quite as exhausting as working to secure The Work: working and waiting, then working harder, then waiting much longer for something, for anything to turn up. ‘It Isn’t Enough’ exemplifies this unhappy Micawberism:

It isn’t enough to hope.
It isn’t enough to dream.
It isn’t enough to plot and plan and scheme.
It isn’t enough to stand here, saying that life is grand here,
Waiting for something good to turn up…

I eventually read my reviews for Sikes & Nancy. That was in May, I believe, almost a half-year after the show closed. On a base level, I needed to raid them for quotations, to press into letters and the like (thereby facilitating The Work). But I hoped also to best my old terror of criticism. Better the whole humbling truth, after all, than a fear-hewn fortress.

The experience proved shattering. I did them all in one go: digested nearly forty appraisals of me, me, me. At this distance, I see that the reviews were, on the whole, extremely good (you’re welcome to survey the good bits). But I hadn’t the benefit of distance. How could I? Not only was I the piece’s actor – its sole actor – but its deviser, its designer, its director. There was nothing to read that didn’t somehow impinge on me. Implicate me. Writers pointing out all that was ‘remarkable’ in my person, for good or for ill, all that was conspicuous enough to provoke some ‘remark’.

I am a monumental self-doubter. So it was no shock that I mainly absorbed that which was deemed clumsy, or jarring, or misjudged. But it was the bald fact of exposure which was really insufferable. I am a man who always avoided his school reports, all from fear of knowing what people think of me. In trying to connect with the outer world, in reading those sod-buggering reviews, I was only drawn further into my fortress-self.

Really, I needed to learn from Newley, and rejoice in my idiosyncrasies being noticed at all. ‘This Dream’ would often insinuate itself, in my trampings to and from the Dungeon:

I have this dream,
I have this wonderful dream where I win,
Where I win every battle I fight,
And I kill every dragon in sight!
Each night, I like awake and I wait for this dream.
What a world I create, when I dream I’m not lonely…

Ah, loneliness. Something that plunged me into an appallingly black mood in February, just before I resumed the Dungeon. For I am a man without a personal life – and I think people with a partner (or the meaningful possibility of such) find it easier to tread water.

I think much of this void is the consequence of not talking about being gay. It was in 2003 that I realised I was gay; it wasn’t until 2010 that I discussed it. And then with only with two or three people. That’s a long time in hiding. My first instinct in this had been not to make anyone else uncomfortable. Selfless. Seemingly. In actual fact, self-persecution. Clearly, it was me who was more uncomfortable than anyone at the idea of my intersecting with love. That dread of uncontrollable exposure – as with a stack of theatre reviews.

Silence can speak. Over the years, I’d worked myself to a point where practically everyone about me knew I was gay – without my ever having said a word on it. This no doubt gave the impression that I found the subject incendiary. Thus nobody mentioning it, least of all me. A cycle difficult to break.

Well, this year I got a good deal better at talking about being gay: freely, easily and, yes, even gaily. Why this change?  I’ve been blessed this year to be surrounded with people naturally more comfortable with themselves – who regard sexuality, quite rightly, as a non-issue (and, furthermore, a source of great fun). It’s been liberating, being so taken out of myself. It’s answering – albeit slowly – some deep-seated need in me.

Then again, I may have simply gotten bored. That constant rumble of low-level internal pressure. What had it all been for? ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ swims into my head. It comes from Stop the World – I Want to Get Off, a show that follows Newley’s Littlechap from birth to old age. This is the last he sings before death. It’s especially painful on Newley’s final studio album, blasted out across his frail, attenuated vocal cords:

What kind of clown am I? What do I know of life?
Why can’t I cast away this mask of play and live my life?
Why can’t I fall in love, till I don’t give a damn?
And maybe then I’ll know what kind of fool I am!

When shall I ever be able to answer these questions? For something in this idea of a long-drawn coming out – this lifetime of coming out, in fact – remains dreadful to me. To me, openness should really be total. Or else null. It’s this bloody-mindedness, I believe, which prevented me disclosing my sexuality on a more trivial basis. It had to be a full-blown, all-embracing romantic love. Or else nothing at all. A poet or a monk.

This ‘all or nothing’ principle is the only real danger I have in me. It has continually thwarted my love life. Yet I suspect it’s also been the foundation of anything worthwhile I’ve achieved, in stoking my single-minded devotion to work. A work in which I try to assume Newley’s ‘mask of play’ – that play I’ve found so hard-won in life.

Fortunately, I did have a long-awaited victory with my acting. In August, I managed to get Frankenstein’s Creature before an audience. I wrote on the build-up to it here. And now, in the retrospect, I regard it with untroubled joy.

Despite playing a monster, the king of monsters, I found myself being more human than I’ve ever been on any stage, ever. I credit Jack, my director, with that – for not letting me get away with anything. I credit also Quentin, my producer – for standing by Jack in not letting me get away with anything. Every choice was expertly interrogated. Don’t whine – don’t ask for pity – for God’s sake, stop elongating your vowels – stay playful with it – above all, keep thought alive. At last, I was liberated to deliver that which I’d sighted in Sikes & Nancy: lightness, quickness, ease. The ‘mask of play’ redeemed.

The Creature has displaced Quasimodo – in my mind, at least – as the best performance I’ve given. I shall do Frankenstein’s Creature again, and right gladly.

Creature Ascends

Best for me were the play’s final moments, where the Creature transcends all earthly things. In embracing his isolation, he locates in it the opposite, and joins with the impossible vastness of everything. So it can be with one-man theatre. The staging was patterned on Newley’s Expressionist pantomime in ‘Who Can I Turn To?’ (much more than I realised at the time, as the photo illustrates). Newley stands on his loneliness also:

With no star to guide me
And no one beside me,
I’ll go on my way and after the day
The darkness will hide me.

That August, I shared the Creature’s ecstasy. By the end of the run, I too felt reborn.

Then, a few weeks later, an accident.

I went and fell in love.

More on that next time.

And maybe tomorrow, I’ll find what I’m after…

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Filed under Essays, Experiences, Frankenstein, Personal Excavation, Sikes & Nancy, The York Dungeon

Last Lessons

Coming so laggingly after the tour, it’s not surprising that this diary feels more like housekeeping. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of frenzied overwork – though it’s a whirlwind on which Sikes & Nancy has happily thrived. I’ve had a photoshoot at St Paul’s Cathedral, dashing up and down the cold stone steps, as well as at 48 Doughty Street, where Dickens wrote all of Oliver Twist. The latter took in Linda Marlowe, in full Miss Havisham regalia, the both of us leering and posturing behind the iron bars of the Marshalsea. The children did right to stare. I’ve spent day after day in the theatre during the Preview phase, twisting the show into its best-ever shape under the first-ever guidance of outside eyes. I’ve even survived the long-dreaded Press Night, thanks to the support of some wonderful friends, and have managed to avoid every last review. Aside from those extracts posted up outside the theatre, which is hardly likely to print ‘SHAMBLES’ or ‘EXCREMENT’ in bold type. And the voice has not only survived but strengthened. I’ve actually started to enjoy myself again. I must be careful.

Currently, I’m drifting between Trafalgar Studios and whatever vacant beds crop up around Southfields, Wimbledon, Palmers Green and Highgate. No doubt I’ll be writing through the whole experience at some point in the New Year. For now, though, I’ll devote my fractured energies to the last three dates of the tour. There’s a definite arc there, almost a narrative, which gives me the solemn duty of shortening the separate entries. Of trying, anyhow. Lucky you. But lucky me.

First, however, here are my previous Sikes & Nancy diaries: ‘Meeting the Villain-Hero’, ‘Dreaming to Order’, ‘Forcing the Soul’, ‘The Hertfordshire Horror’ and ‘Into the Black Lagoon’.

The Atkinson, Southport

THE ATKINSON, SOUTHPORT (13TH NOVEMBER). I’m still reeling from the throat infection that surfaced in Guildford, though somewhat buoyed up by David Leonard’s kind words about my performance. At least I’ve had four days to recover. I pass the morning on juddering trains of grey and brown, arriving after midday to discover The Atkinson. It’s an all-purpose cultural emporium: museum, art gallery, library and theatre, fronted by some natty Victorian columns. The studio here is a gaping auditorium with prodigiously raked seating. Not what I was expecting. It’s as intimidating (and vertical) as the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House. There’s even a piano on the stage, which has to be wheeled from the catchment area of my prodigious gore. None of this does anything for my nerves, which steadily rise throughout an unfocused warm-up. It’s dragged-out, yes; staggered, and for that reason takes nearly three hours.

The show itself goes alright. Just. My vocal range is still coarsened, open vowels emerging with a ragged edge. Dismayed, I overcompensate with excessive energy, and tire before the midpoint. Joy of joys: the most wearying dramatics of Sikes & Nancy commence after the midpoint. I end frustrated (and moist, but mostly frustrated). I feel my brain is dull and unresponsive in the Q&A – still steaming, I imagine, with disappointment at not quite managing the predetermined noises. I overcompensate again, speaking some twenty minutes beyond the allotted time. No good for my ailing larynx, but I hope I efface all memory of the session’s first ten minutes: a madness came over the audience, where I would be interrupted with the next question after giving two or three words of reply. This was surprisingly difficult to break. Evening over, I collapse into my Travelodge bed. Such exhaustion is an urgent reminder: illness or not, there must be a better way to do this. The lesson is frustrated, though, as I still haven’t found the key to holding back. I resolve, at any rate, to defend Idina Menzel on the next occasion her voice doesn’t quite work properly. What it must be to sing – to sing, I ask you! – that particular Frankenstein Monster, knowing each time it’ll be watched by millions and pulled apart by demons. I’m lucky I’m only thwarted, unrecorded, in a studio in Southport. All the same. Could do with Menzel’s salary.

Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford

CRAMPHORN THEATRE, CHELMSFORD (14TH NOVEMBER). A hellish day. Traffic jams mean I’m clapped in the tour van for over seven hours before we reach Chelmsford. Such is the cruelty of the touring lifestyle: you reach the point of exhaustion, and then alone do you begin your day’s work. My trailing long legs and trailing long spine take some time to recover. My vocal anxieties have become chronic by now, though this particular venue is thankfully much smaller. Performance-wise, I don’t feel that Chelmsford is any great advance on Southport. It’s underpowered then overpowered; imprecise then too precise, pedantically so; slower than a dying slug, but more uncontrollable than a runaway train. Hissing. Spurting. Ever skirting about the target. And never once hitting it. An unexpectedly dim lighting state means that I play a good twenty minutes without any particular conviction that I can be seen. I very nearly pause to wrench the necessary chairs into the nearest splash of light. All that prevents me is a sense of how absurd it would look: the chairs are standing in for the monumental stone steps of London Bridge. The energies are fatally unbalanced tonight, and I emerge possibly more tired than at Southport.

The Q&A yields a surprise, however. One woman in the audience has been devastated by the play. She tells me that it took her right back to her time with her abusive and controlling ex. Particularly the look in Bill’s eyes come the Murder. (A friend has since told me the same in the London run.) I am quietly terrified. With no first-hand insight into what such relationships must be, I’ve chipped away at Nancy’s desperate lot from the outside. And, in my opinion, not particularly well that night. So this came as a valuable lesson. I mustn’t sabotage myself by trying to be my own audience. I am the vehicle at best. The play can yet mean something to those people in the dark. My self-persecuting intellect does not win out. Not necessarily.

The Old Fire Station, Oxford

THE OLD FIRE STATION, OXFORD (15TH NOVEMBER). An advance on yesterday, with a scanty four and a half hours in the van. There’s also the inspiriting thought that this is the last of the tour, and I’ll have a good few weeks to revive before entering the West End. I’ve never visited Oxford before, my Oxbridge experience being founded solely on the ‘-bridge’ suffix. But tramping about the town, looking balefully up at castellated walls and gates and towers, I’m reminded of my time at that other university. It was there that I first performed Sikes & Nancy – and gave it so fecklessly, so joyfully, that the event has been deified in my memory. I was so permanently stressed at university, that the theatre was the best and most consistent release for me (when the theatre wasn’t contributing to the stress, of course – which it often did). When I was most unhappily in love, I disappeared into Romeo and Juliet – and when my heart was utterly broken, I was transformed into Quasimodo, into The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A deep conviction that I was somehow unsightly, dysfunctional, peeping in at life from the margins, led to a vast sweep of small grotesque roles (my principal body of work at Cambridge – non-academic, obviously). And my frustration at how small these grotesque roles were led to Pickwick & Nickleby, the first of my one-man plays. No wonder I grew frustrated. Abidingly, the release was in the sheer physical ecstasy of doing the thing. All that nervous energy had to go somewhere. It’s ever been the case that I gain my best ease through discomfort. I became decided then. For the very first time on tour, I don’t bother to write any pre-performance notes. I decide to go forth and enjoy myself. The result is one of the best performances of the tour. I’m helped along by the venue: a dank and shadowy cubicle, every audience member within whispering distance. Still, there’s another lesson there…

… The lesson of Oxford has deepened at Trafalgar. Lightness. Quickness. Ease. Night after night, this has been my pre-state catechism. I consider the smallest (and therefore correct) amount of energy I need to deliver the performance. I shuffle slightly on the chair, locating my sitting bones to correct my breathing. Rearrange the catarrh in my neck. Then the houselights dim and I’m away. It now feels like someone else is doing it. A happy state, almost reverie, though probably sanctioned by the aggravation of various bits of the tour. Self-consciousness has flown for now. Lightness. Quickness. Ease.

I’ve now started thinking on the future of this production diary. It’s become a bit ploddingly dutiful over the last year. The most profound lesson of Sikes & Nancy has been to analyse what I do that bit less and simply get on with it. Everything benefits. I want to avoid the Kenneth Williams trap of ‘living off body fat’ (his words, describing his chatshow afterlife) – boring myself with the same stories and observations, delivered in the same hectoring voice. I’m going to speculate about more effective ways of furthering my acting.

January is to be a month of dreaming. I’ve already set it aside: a refreshingly blank slate. I’ll give myself over, fully and freely, to films, novels, biographies, plays. I’ll go on long walks. Listen to music. Dine on the forbidden cheese and chocolate. And I’ll recharge the batteries. Reassess. There shall be no writing. Not then. But when I do write again, I’ll see to it that it’s worthwhile. Not something I can only bring myself to read through my fingers. Something that breeds ease.

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

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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Dreaming to Order

Welcome to the fourth of the Sikes & Nancy production diaries! Should it take your fancy, the previous entries are as follows: ‘Forcing the Soul’, ‘The Hertfordshire Horror’ and ‘Into the Black Lagoon’. Now: let’s press on with the scheduled burblings.

The Theatre, Chipping Norton

THE THEATRE, CHIPPING NORTON (3RD OCTOBER). The town of Chipping Norton is beautifully haunting. A village that seems cleaved from the cliff-face, everything in stone and at an extreme angle – leading down, down, down to the Gothic church. It’s here that the oldest stones of all are found, as well as the resting-places of the dead.

The theatre was likewise haunting, at least from my view on the stage. We’ve played a few extremely dark spaces on the tour – Radlett, Middlesbrough – but Chipping Norton’s theatre also feels ancient. It put me in mind of the Georgian Theatre, Richmond, where I long ago played in Macbeth: a tall and narrow platform, angled threateningly towards the audience. Perched high on my wooden chairs, I must resemble an enormous bird of prey. I’ve since discovered that the building’s only been a Theatre since 1975 (although the outer structure is nineteenth century), which suggests its atmosphere derives from these spatial peculiarities. For it’s unnerving that the stage, like the village, points straight to the churchyard.

Happily, this performance marked an advance on the breakthroughs of Southend. Everything from the beginnings of the Murder – roughly the last third of the play – has become an exhilarating terror to perform. It’s almost a state of possession, with unpremeditated business breaking forth. Vitally, it seems my brain is alive. And it’s carrying me down increasingly skin-crawling alleys whilst I’m acting:

Silence. It’s becoming a solid object now: heavy, expansive, impenetrably black. It begins when Bill Sikes sneaks through his house-door ahead of killing Nancy: ‘He opened it, softly, with a key: strode lightly up the stairs…’ I treat this as an integrated stage direction, one that calls for a near-balletic motion. Which leads to pauses. Thus the invasion of silence – enfolding the entrance so completely that it feels like the beginnings of a dream. In childhood, I went through a phase of nightmares where I would open my bedroom door and walk straight into dark figures. Never did I see them. I felt them only. As Sikes then, in these silences, I have become that dark figure, that sketchy embodiment of sleep paralysis. Yet I am also Nancy – my childhood self again, the defenceless victim.

The dog as supernatural. I find it very unsettling that Bull’s-Eye rises as though from nowhere. He first appears as a last gruesome touch in the Murder (and one of the scene’s best lines): ‘The very feet of his dog were bloody!!!’ What to make of this? Throughout ‘Sikes and Nancy’, the descriptive passages in Oliver Twist are often cut to allow for more dialogue. Bull’s-Eye – a character with no access to speech – is so diminished by these cuts that his very essence shifts. During his long absences, Bull’s-Eye seems to have been absorbed into Sikes’s being. He has become a witch’s familiar. Or the black dog of English folklore. But then, Bill Sikes is himself absorbed into the Narrator – and I’m still disturbed by the question of the Narrator’s identity…

Who else is present on Sikes’s countryside flight? Jonas Chuzzlewit has started to materialise – a murderer for whom the countryside (and, in particular, leaves) had a special significance. Also Jack Sheppard, from the novel by Ainsworth, who ran rampant through the wilderness after escaping Newgate Gaol. But Eugene Aram is still foremost in my mind, albeit in a state of flux. He started off as the blood-drenched wraith of Thomas Hood’s ballad – but he’s slowly transforming into the brooding, melancholy presence of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel. This version of Aram is close to who I imagine the Narrator would be, were he able to break free from his story: an ascetic scholar and hermit; a pale and sickly neurotic; distrusted by the locals as a sorcerer yet possessed of a mesmeric charisma. It’s fascinating how Dickens’s single mention of ‘the solitude and darkness of the country’ sets an immediate atmosphere of Rural Gothic. It’s a peculiarly English tradition, perhaps encapsulated by Bulwer-Lytton’s Eugene Aram, which overshadows the tranquillity of Grassdale – a fictionalised Knaresborough – with the wilder weather and storm of the Devil’s Crag.

And what to make of that apparition? Dickens describes it as follows: ‘At his head it stood, silent, erect, and still: a human gravestone with its epitaph in Blood!!’ It’s an apparition that resists all visual comprehension. Quite uncharacteristic for Dickens, that most riotously descriptive of writers. It seems more a creature of modern horror folklore, all of whom seem to be unseeable. The shadow demon of the ghost photograph. Sadako in The Ring, head almost entirely obscured by curtains of lank hair. The Slender Man, that man without a face. Even the unseen figures of my childhood nightmares – for no matter where Sikes turns, the figure remains behind him. The apparition is emblematic of what Dickens does throughout ‘Sikes and Nancy’ – eliding the horrifying centre, and suggesting all through the encircling grisly details. Nancy is there and not there. And yet – is it even Nancy at all?

I can quite understand why some actors see ghosts onstage. I, possessed of senses less acute, merely enjoyed a fish supper after Chipping Norton.

Barnfield Theatre, Exeter

CLIFFORD ROOM, BARNFIELD THEATRE, EXETER (4TH OCTOBER). I nearly wound up studying at the University of Exeter. Based on this late visitation, I’d have been content here. It seems I had a knack for picking out locations eerily reminiscent of York. Rambling, hurled-together architecture. Cloistered ruins. Cathedral towns in spirit if not in fact. Which reminds me: I was greatly impressed by Exeter Cathedral, a strikingly bare Norman edifice. Such buildings, even so uncluttered, take me right back to discovering The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a child, and confusing York Minster with Quasimodo’s lair. Combined with some invigorating blasts of wind – and Tony Jay’s Frollo caterwauling on my iPod – this put me in an excellent performance mood.

After the technological wizardry of Southend and Chipping Norton, the Clifford Room proved a simpler arena. It was exactly that: a room. Again were stirred long-forgotten memories of school plays: the stage constructed of interlocking wooden platforms, the auditorium ruled by plastic chairs, the whole lit by flood-lamps rather than modern gels. Yet the Clifford Room is also quietly ambient: a cavernous old hall, evocative of the parish buildings that blight Oliver Twist. This frame is also helpful for encouraging me to focus on my performance at its most basic.

Exeter became the most successful performance yet for discovering the best levels for delivery. Levels are to me about communicating as much as is needed and no more. Yet I find this very difficult to achieve. I’ve long had an onstage anxiety that I’m too quiet and failing to enunciate. (Which is maddening: whatever my faults, I’ve rarely lacked for volume or articulation.) I imagine this springs from a generalised hatred of my voice as I was growing up. Without realising it, I started clamping-down, clamming-up, refusing to speak in public unless absolutely necessary. So whenever I did have to speak in public – teachers love picking out the child who never raises his hand – the act was so unfamiliar (and frightening) that I doubtless over-compensated. I also find levels tricky due to my phenomenally bad eyesight. The audience members I’m trying to reach, even when very close to me, inevitably seem to reside in the far-off distance. Some educated guesswork, and self-forgiving faith, is what’s required. Exeter was an encouraging move from interrogating my voice to trusting it more. Though this may have as much to do with settling into more of a run, my voice more than usually warmed by the last three performances. I should be firing on all cylinders by the time I reach Trafalgar Studios.

Exeter was also excellent for forcing me into an absolute belief in the storytelling. Without the technical infrastructure, there was little other than belief to sustain the atmosphere. Belief is above all what releases melodrama. Yet ‘Sikes and Nancy’ – unlike the run-of-the-mill Victorian melodrama – is a text with genuine literary (and dramatic) merit. So whilst it requires characterisation that might be better described as encrustation – a Dionysian attack – it doesn’t require free-wheeling invention (the ‘devil-dancing’ of which Henry Irving was often accused). The material can be trusted absolutely, without recourse to the tricks that so often signal self-consciousness.

Ralph Richardson captured the nature of this belief – as dreaming to order:

Acting is, to some extent, a controlled dream. In one part of your consciousness, it really and truly is happening … The actor must at any rate some of the time believe himself that it is really true. But this – in my experience, at any rate – this absolute reality, this layer of absolute reality, is a comparatively small one. The rest of it is technique, as I say – of being very careful that the thing is completely accurate, completely clear, completely as laid down, completely as shaped beforehand…

Coquelin has defined this state as ‘dual consciousness’ – the beginnings of real feeling, but tethered by conscious manipulation. As Richardson stresses, you don’t feel ‘complete’ without both. You must be puppet and puppet-master both. I was gladdened to feel some of this control in Exeter. Again, I think, consolidated by the three shows that came before.

Now, however, commences a large gap in the tour. So, that evening, I coat my overtaxed larynx in the previously forbidden alcohol (cider) and chocolate (Bournville). A dubious reward for its labours, though perhaps equivalent to wrapping the larynx in a big warm blanket. Perhaps. A six-hour train journey to York tomorrow – via Wales, bizarrely enough, by no means en route – and then a good few weeks of Henry Irving.

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Forcing the Soul

I’m more than usually engulfed in Henry Irving at the moment – the Irving play is very near finished – so there’s my excuse for this latest delay. I shall do better next time. And for those who are keeping track, do check on the previous Sikes & Nancy production diaries: ‘The Hertfordshire Horror’ and ‘Into the Black Lagoon’.

Middlesbrough Theatre

MIDDLESBROUGH THEATRE (25TH SEPTEMBER). Middlesbrough is only an hour from York, though this is my first visit to the cultural hotspot. A flavour of industrialised Victoriana; Coketown in Dickens’s Hard Times. A dense concentration of churches – I stumble on at least ten over a very small area – and the beautiful Albert Park, steeped in pockmarked statuary and autumn trees. This proves ideal for my now-traditional pre-show stompings. It’s a ritual that’s been in place since June 2012, when I was first absorbing the words for Sikes & Nancy – thundering about the Cambridge countryside for hours on end, rehearsing as one with the winds and the heath.

I’d been wandering a lot over the last few days, meditating on the words in a catechistic vein. I usually revel in long walks – the longer the better – but I’d found I was getting suspiciously out of breath. That night, in starting the show, I had my suspicions confirmed. Illness was upon me. I at once felt my throat to be hopelessly dry – and this despite having drunk a bowel-deadening volume of water. The breathlessness reinstated itself, along with the fear that the audience could hear naught but gasping. A cruel bind: worry is the most decisive element in producing more gasping. In general, the voice felt somewhat distant and unresponsive. Sikes & Nancy depends so much on pushing myself to the edges of my vocal range; to balancing on that edge, to daring the precipice. To find the outer edges of my range clipped off is thus disconcerting.

I’d had this mid-show fatigue once before, playing Sikes & Nancy at St William’s College in March 2013. All it really means is that a bad cold will be on me the next day. Which is actually very fortunate: how much nastier to be acting with the cold at full strength! The worst of it is that the show ceases to develop. For an evening, it’s pickled in aspic. Most everything goes over to muscle memory, every chamber of your brain straining to approximate the usual effects. There’s little space left in my head for enjoyment.

Whether illness gives the show a new edge, I don’t know. Ronald Harwood believed that the acting of Donald Wolfit (another interpreter of ‘Sikes and Nancy’) was released by unexpected trials:

The years of touring produced a staleness in his acting that required some unlooked-for stimulus to banish it. A London first night would suffice, but more usually an accident or mishap during a performance would extract a greater intensity to make the performance succeed as a whole, for he well knew that the assessment by an audience of a play was dependent on their surrender to his powers as an actor.

A similar release might come from illness in Sikes & Nancy. A dry throat can create a rawness, a grittiness. Breathlessness can be nerve-shredding. And having to force out an unwilling voice is an exorcism ritual. Rather like Jesus driving Legion into the herd of pigs. Within this show, my voice is Legion – it serves as the voice of many – and I must drive it into the audience.

After the show, I met up with Andy and James. Two fine actors who’d come straight from The York Dungeon. This was a fortifying reunion. Partly because it was so good to be back among friends. You miss your fellow actors in the one-man play. But it was also a reminder that the Dungeon has prepared me for acting being anything other than easy or convenient or graceful. James has performed the Dungeon’s Plague show in an unventilated room for well over three hours (the wicked legacy of late-running lunches). He came close to fainting and genuinely to vomiting. But he did it. Andy has nearly lost one of his fingers at the Dungeon – though that’s a slightly less typical story. Yet he was back the next day, suitably bandaged.

Battle-scarred veterans, the lot of us. It’s possible, I’m sure, to take things easier at the Dungeon – to go at it without any voice loss, any great fatigue, any fear you’re not giving the public what they need. But it’s out of keeping with the spirit of the task. The profound terror of Dickens’s renditions of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ was seeing a man perform so ferociously that he was disintegrating before you. Quite literally killing himself to create you a memorable drama. But this is an instinct that should be as much alive in a more relaxed context. I turn again to Henry Irving, as told by Gordon Craig, who compares the great actor to Saint Francis:

I would go so far as to say that so intense was the fire which burned within him, this belief of his that the ACTOR was all that really mattered, that he suffered keenly whenever he found actors taking things easily, and considering too lightly that thing which to him was really a sacred trust.

To actually suffer when things are taken too easily. Because, more practically, there’s a danger of making your audiences suffer. I maintain that an audience always knows – on some level – when you’re not giving it your all. What’s needed is a pantomimic impulse: to try and give better than you’re getting. I was pleased to discover that James and Andy are appearing in the same touring pantomime this year. If I’ve said it once: the Dungeon, at its best, is a glorified horror pantomime.

I’ve had days at the Dungeon so punishing that they’ve become an out-of-body experience. Hideous to experience, but, in retrospect, I’ve gained a fire of confidence. Simply from knowing I can do it. This training was also what convinced me I could sustain a one-man show. The idea for the first of them entered my head at the end of 2009. I could never have guessed it would take me to the West End in five years. I owe the Dungeon a great debt.

Palace Theatre Southend

DIXON STUDIO, PALACE THEATRE SOUTHEND (2ND OCTOBER). A wonderful gift from my landlady: a century-old edition of Oliver Twist. Although there’s no publication date – often a problem with older books – there’s a handwritten inscription at the front: 21st September 1901. This treasure was salvaged from an Oxfam bookshop. It seems that the charity bins all books that aren’t in perfect condition. Perhaps we need a new branch of Oxfam. To rescue the books chucked away by Oxfam.

In studying this book, on the morning of the show, I read Dickens’s 1850 Preface. He defends his representation of Nancy at some length:

It is useless to discuss whether the conduct and character of the girl seems natural or unnatural, probable or improbable, right or wrong. IT IS TRUE. Every man who has watched these melancholy shades of life, must know it to be so. From the introduction of that poor wretch, to her laying her blood-stained head upon the robber’s breast, there is not a word exaggerated or over-wrought. It is emphatically God’s truth, for it is the truth He leaves in such depraved and miserable breasts; the hope yet lingering there; the last fair drop of water at the bottom of the weed-choked well.

The above is also a good anecdote to accusations of untruthfulness in acting. A superficial untruth can sometimes point the way to something that naturalism can’t reach. As a lanky, corpse-like man passing myself off as a London streetwalker, I have little choice but to pursue this route.

‘Eeee! Is that the ghost of Jacob Marley?’ cried some amiable old relic as I sat in my pre-state, trying to look terribly serious. How correct she’d have been, had she seen me last Christmas. The matinee remained nerve-wracking from there. My voice and manner felt to me just slightly off-centre; the Narrator a little quavery, uncertain. This may have been because the show had been to bed for a week, but I suspected it was more a problem within my head.

Before the evening performance, I went down to the sea to ponder the difficulty. ‘Look at that dark water’ says Nancy, as she gestures to the Thames. In Dombey and Son – immortalised in Dickens’s Readings as ‘The Story of Little Dombey’ – the river is but the start. Here’s Paul Dombey in his sickroom:

When the sunbeams struck into his room through the rustling blinds, and quivered on the opposite wall, like golden water, he knew that evening was coming on, and that the sky was red and beautiful … His fancy had a strange tendency to wander to the River, which he knew was flowing through the great city; and now he thought how black it was, and how deep it would look, reflecting the hosts of stars – and more than all, how steadily it rolled away to meet the sea.

Dickens often uses watery reflections to suggest death: ‘Sikes and Nancy’ uses ‘the reflection of the pool of gore’ to indirectly convey Nancy’s obliteration. Light reflected – death seems to follow naturally from the absence of first sight. But how rarely we ever see clearly.

As I contemplated the sea, I brooded on emotional access. Nancy had felt rather locked to me. Thought and feeling should run on intertwining tracks, preferably fusing as one. Whereas I had felt derailed by unhelpful thoughts, unhelpful feelings: insecurities, technicalities, self-censorings, self-persecutings. Emotion must come to the stage. But it must be emotion of the correct order.

So, I begin listening to music and trying to think myself into Nancy’s sorrows. I’ve found Hadley Fraser’s ‘Again’ to be quite useful for this recently. A plea to stall a lost lover’s wedding; staking his soul at the fatal moment. Gorgeous song and voice and man – altogether heart-rending. In any case, it’s important that the song is simple and direct: it must communicate in an immediate manner, without venturing too far into abstract spheres. It’s as Noel Coward said: ‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is’ (‘cheap’ strikes me as a compliment). Dickens saw emotional memories as profound in melting the human heart. His Christmas Books are all some variation on this theme, culminating in the final words of The Haunted Man: ‘Lord, keep my memory green’. I share Dickens’s belief. Anything other than mindless suppression. Embrace it all. The good and the bad alike will melt the heart – and then even the bad has come good.

Dickens’s declaration of ‘TRUTH’ also swam back into my head. I think back to moments in life where I’ve staked my soul on some emotion. None of them terribly recent. It’s partly been an effort to prove to myself that I’ve been in earnest – and how stupid that I ever have to prove that to myself. Amongst young actors, there can be a certain connoisseurship of dark and messy emotion. This was certainly what I found at university: everyone wanting to be seen to burn with the hard, gem-like flame; to be seen to surprise, to subvert, to dare; to be seen to live more intensely than the uninspired. One felt shallow by comparison. I’ve always regarded emotion as so central to everything I do that it’s never made sense to belabour it. Emotion is a fact, plain and simple, and to go on without is unbearable, madness. All the more reason to stake my soul as Nancy. Irving (via Craig again) had a phrase for this, very similar: ‘It is the soul, my boy; force the soul.’ Force it I would.

That night was the best the show had ever gone. A large and responsive audience helped, as did the confidence boost of having told the story earlier in the day. But it was the emotional thawing that really cleared the picture. It’s essential that Nancy give a glimpse of a world beyond the play. A Wildean garden, a place of loving feeling, as relief from stark Dickensian nightmare. The emotional flow also pays off in the show’s darkest excesses. From the Murder onwards, there are now the beginnings of a real take-off. I am creating vocal and physical shapes without pre-empting them. Some actors find improvisation easy. Not me. I have to trick myself into it – by tiring myself out, wearying my self-censoring little conscience. Another lesson of the Dungeon. How odd that ease should come from exertion.

The question-and-answer session yielded up a school group. A-Level, I think. Theatre Studies. Not so long since I was in such a class. They were utterly lovely, but I’m still searching for answers to their questions: from ‘How do you prepare for such a show?’ to ‘What advice would you give for getting into drama school?’ So much of my work has originated in blind intuitive stumblings that I’m at sea with dispensing practical knowledge. But ‘force the soul’ – that might be a good starting point.

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