DAVID'S FIRST YEARS IN REP AND TOURING THEATRE WITH IMPRESARIO (!!)- ALEXANDER BRIDGE !

THE ALEXANDER BRIDGE YEARS(1992-1994)


PART 1

I officially left drama school in Birmingham on 22nd July 1992-following a final singing showcase at the Duke of York's theatre,London.It had been a happy and eventful three years-but now it was time to put all the training to the test-if that was possible in an already "overcrowded profession".

Looking back-I hadn't a clue where to start ! I'd done all the usual begging letters to the reps,agents and casting directors-before I left drama school-urging them to come and see this "exciting and diverse" character actor- "with a wide playing range"(!) in our final showcases. Whether any of them ventured out to the Duke of York's I will never know.

But-my one lifeline-was a card that had been passed onto me at the acting showcase a few months earlier-from none other than the great Barrie Stacey !

Barrie Stacey demands a blog all of his own-and if you can get hold of either of his books-"A Ticket to the Carnival" or "Life Upon the very wicked stage"-they are a very good read. He still works and lives in the heart of the West end-a short walk from thePhoenix theatre on Charing Cross road.

(The many actors I've worked with-all  have there own Barrie Stacey Stories-but nothing disrespectful-and all paying tribute to his great encouragement and the ability to keep us all in work ! )

I rang Barrie the week after leaving drama school and went to see him on the last day of the month. Always brisk and to the point-he filled in all the forms, ticked the boxes and then said-"your photos are crap luv"!!(Looking back-they were rather-having been done by a local photographer in Birmingham -but as our college had endorsed his work-it was the blind leading the blind !)

I followed that meeting with an audition at Danceworks in Balderton street-my diary doesn't report what that was for(and just as well)-but I have a feeling it was not a success ! (I know there was one audition around that time that concluded with me slipping out unnoticed from the back of a dance audition-and running screaming from the venue!)

After a new photo session by a lovely man called Anthony Higham(who I last saw when he popped his head round the stage door of The Malvern theatre in 2005-after "Round the Horne-revisited"-funny how we all catch up over the years )-I returned to Mr Stacey-armed with the new images that were to make me a "star".Mr Stacey seemed satisfied (or maybe I was pacified !) and told me to pop over to  the Beck theatre, Hayes the following afternoon to have a singing audition for him and  watch  his "West End to Broadway" !

(I don' t think he does these concerts anymore-but if you ever see them advertised-I urge you to go !)

After the show I went backstage and saw the musical director to arrange a singing audition for Barrie.(I think I sang "Song on the Sand" from "La Cage Aux Folles".

Barrie seemed to be deep in conversation with the theatre manager during my audition-but when I finished my song (to the usual "spontaneous indifference"-Barriecalled out- "I might be able to use you as a number two!" (To this day- I've never worked out what he meant and found the description of my singing rather a cause for concern !)

A couple of other unrelated and  fruitless auditions followed over the next couple of weeks-and then on 20th August-I had a phone call !

(Anyone who's ever worked with Barrie or been represented by him will know what I mean when I say-when Barrie phoned you-you grabbed a note pad and listened for all you were worth-it was a pure listening exercise and trying to take in the barrage of information that was being fired at you -"like rapid gun-fire"!

The basis of it all was-that he'd fixed me a job as acting/asm in "A Murder has been arranged"-and I was to play a gypsy boy(!!) in his "Hansel and Gretel"-which was always doing random dates at random theatres around the country. I asked who the producer was-and received the reply- Alexander Bridge !

At the time-the name meant nothing-but within a few days-that name was to have a marked impression on my life and my career for next twenty years.

The following day I went over to see my dear Friend Philip Leather(the last partner of the late and great Douglas Byng)-and I told him my "good news"! When I mentioned the name of the producer-Philip's expression said it all !

(Philip had auditioned for La Bridge a few years earlier-for panto and a tour of "The Hollow"-but never ended up working for him-but he was full of stories) Philip told me about his experiences with the impresario-and just said -"watch the eyes"!

The next few days -I  spent arranging digs and checking the logistics of this very short tour(3 weeks!). I had a synopsis of the play in my tried and tested Samuel French-"guide to selecting plays"(87th Edition-1990-1993!) Writing this blog-I don't think I've looked at that synopsis for twenty years!

I duly ordered a copy from French's and figured out I'd be playing the smallest of the roles-"Cavendish: the band conductor-,pleasant ,ordinary." (!!!) -What a way to make one's professional debut-but we all have to begin somewhere and I'm sure a lot of rep actors started their careers  with far worse !

-I rang Barrie Stacey a couple of times to clarify a few things and realised this wasn't quite a good idea. Barrie was and still is a very busy and active agent-who didn't appreciate "flapping" or "panicking ". I did manage to glean that the company I'd be working for was already in Chesterfield-and set about finding a contact number -at the now familiar Pomegranate Theatre.

In those days-the "stage door" number was the pay phone by number six dressing room-and guess what-after twenty years-it still is !

-I rang-and eventually spoke to a very deep Essex voice-that was to have the same impact on my career as Mr Bridge and Mr Stacey- Bruce James !

Bruce James was (and still is !) as different from Alexander Bridge-as chalk and cheese-but I gathered he was the business partner in the company-so I knew I was at least talking to the right person. He confirmed  I would be playing Cavendish and outlined the tour dates/rehearsal etc. He also took my home phone number and arranged for the legendary Mr Bridge to call me when convenient.

Within a few hours (and after curtain had gone up on the current show at Chesterfield("Our day out")-Mr Bridge phoned me and pretty much confirmed what Bruce had told me.

In those days-I was probably more conscious about contracts than I am now(the number of times I've started a job-and handed the completed contract back to the producer a few days later...)-but at the end of the day-your word is your bond-and that is how I have always worked.(I'd like to think that in the theatre-that STILL works on BOTH sides-but somehow"-I fear not" (To quote Barrie Stacey !)

Mr Bridge told me contacts would be sorted out via Barrie, which I found somewhat odd-but was to find out the reason why-a little later. He  also gave me the number of a highly recommended landlady in Calow(just outside Chesterfield)-by the name of Joyce Hunter(I think I've got the surname right-but can't find a trace in my diary-or any digs lists.)

There really was nothing much more to be done . I made sure I was word perfect before going up(if only that were true today !) I always  make sure I've learnt scripts thoroughly prior to rehearsal-(wherever possible !)

 

 I've never subscribed to the maxim about not trying to learn lines prior to rehearsal-until you know how the other actor is going to say theirs ! To my mind-Sheer laziness!

 Dora Bryan's comment in "According to Dora"-says it all-

 "Always make certain you know your lines and always remember that no-one is indespensible.You have to be able to survive a few knocks and also be prepared to have the nearest thing to a heart attack on opening night. Speaking for myself, I have learnt that is best to have God on your side. I have leant to hand over to him on opening nights.

I say- "I've done my bit, learnt my lines etc " So-it's all in his hands and I feel calm and protected. Another important thing is to keep your sense of humour and always remember there is another world outside the theatre. Above all-pray for guidance in everything"

 

-The following  day I went down to Lewisham theatre to witness "Hansel & Gretel"-in which I was due to take the world by storm in my portrayal as the gypsy boy( baring in mind I was just approaching twenty six-but from which direction ? (!)

I entered the foyer to find Mr Stacey sat at what appeared to be a car boot sale-but which I rapidly ascertained was the show merchandise. To the cry of "witches hats, finger nails, colouring books"etc-I approached Barrie-just as a young child approached the "grotto"-and proceeded to examine the merchandise .

Without pausing for breath-the following exchange took place;

 

MR S:         "witches hats, finger nails, colouring books(notices child-examining the merchandise)-Sod off! (Notices client from previous week  in the foyer)-Oh hello David !

-Hansel and Gretel was interesting because amongst the cast were two wonderful people-with whom I was to work and become great friends-Andrew Ryan and Nigel Ellacott. Nigel created and still runs the most informative website on pantomime in existance.If there is anything one needs to know-it's all there-at; www.itsbehindyou.com

-Both Andrew and Nigel are terrific actors and pantomime dames-and Nigel was part of the best Ugly Sister double act ever-with the brilliant Peter Robbins.(who sadly died in 2009) I never got to meet them that afternoon-but Andrew and I were to work on many shows and with quite a few companies in the years to come.

-I'd got wind that rehearsals for "Hansel and Gretel" were limited-so I wisely took my tape recorder and made the first of many "Private handbag recordings"!

It would take too long to give a critique of this show-but I became an avid fan of any reviews of Barrie's shows in the stage-by the late Patrick Newley !

(I also don't recall hanging about for too long after the show-shock I suppose!)

After a relaxing Sunday with my old flat mate from college-it was time to embark on my professional debut-so at 15.30PM(It's in the diary!)-I boarded the train toChesterfield-with it's cobbles, quaint theatre ,twisted spire-and an even more twisted series of events over the next month!

 -My lovely landlady met me at the station and drove me back to her house. I seem to remember she had four lovely cats-(Toffee and Charlotte are the only two I can remember though) Joyce was a god-send as she provided a relaxed environment ,loved the theatre and took a real interest in everyone who stayed with her.

She asked me who I was working with. When I told her-her face had the same reaction as my dear friend Philip !( At this stage I started to get rather worried.)

Joyce tactfully told me that she's had many actors from Mr Bridge's company-and quite a few of them had "euphemismly speaking"-been known to reach for the knife drawer-very early on !

-So it was with a dubious heart that I boarded a local bus into Chesterfield-and made my way through the foyer of the now familiar Pomegranate Theatre-and was duly shown through the auditorium door -where -bang centre of the stalls-immaculately dressed in a grey suit-AND-with very penetrating eyes was the legend himself -Alexander Bridge !

The bizarre roller coaster had started!

PART 2

 

Indeed -it was a roller coaster that I was to keep getting aboard for the next twenty years in one way of the other-and I was to work with some wonderful people who rapidly became dear friends.

But-back to that evening on 24th August 1992; The first thing that struck me about Alexander(Peter)Bridge-apart from the aforementioned eyes-was the fact that he very rarely raised his voice-but then he didn't have to-he had an aura about him that commanded respect-or which certainly made one in awe of him.

When I arrived that night-the company was about an hour away from the first night of the Willy Russell Musical-"Our Day Out"-and I appeared to have walked in after an eventful dress rehearsal. Mr Bridge appeared to be having an argument with the stage manager and it seemed to be something about sound and microphones-but whatever it was went straight  over my head on that first night.

The Pomegranate theatre was and still is a beautiful auditorium. It was a converted corn exchange and it has a wonderful intimate feeling to it-as well as excellent acoustics.

After the contretemps with the stage manager Mr Bridge turned to me and with those eyes burning my silhouette onto the wall of theatre commanded--"So you're David Rumelle are you ? Come to my dressing room". With such a powerful command-how could one refuse!

Over the next half hour Mr Bridge quizzed and questioned me-and I tried to find out as much about him as I could. Within a comparatively short time I realised that Mr Bridge had an affinity with the old musicals and had produced a fair few of them over the years. This gave me a good excuse to break the ice and express my own interest in old musicals-particularly the works of Coward and Novello on which Mr Bridge appeared to be an "authority". I also discovered that his real name was actually Peter-but there had already been a famous director-Peter Bridge who had directed "Wait Until Dark" and had worked on early shows for Barrie Humphries. Over the next half hour I was introduced to the stage manager-John Port and the musical director-Russell Drake-with whom I was to spend a lot of time over the next few months, in one way or another.

I sat and watched the opening night of "Our Day out" from an empty dress circle, sat next to Peter and wondering what on earth I was going to encounter at the following days rehearsals.( "Our Day Out" was actually a local youth project, with Peter's company playing three of the main parts. These three actors were also to play in "A Murder has been arranged" the following week. ) It was a charming little show-very simply staged-but with an energetic young  company having a glorious romp with this Willy Russell musical.

After the show I was introduced to the three actors, with whom I'd be working-Simon Barry, Debra Karen and Bruce James-again two people with whom I was to work for a long time.

Peter invited Russell, John and myself to join him for dinner across the road from the theatre (Indian I think)-and it seemed wise to accept !

A pleasant evening ensued-and I couldn't help wondering what all the warnings about Peter had been all about.

The Following morning I walked into Chesterfield for the first day of my professional career. It was a beautiful morning-and the views of the twisted spire on the horizon were very quaint. The nearer I got to town I also discovered the delightful smell of refreshers and love hearts-as Chesterfield was the home of the old Trebor factory-now alas sadly demolished. So too was the lovely little cafe across the road from the theatre-run by Ivy! Ivy's cafe was the first port of call on a rehearsal day-and Peter could always be found in the window holding court, with whoever  had chosen to pop in. I quickly realised that if Ivy liked you she would charge you a very low price for meals-but if she didn't she would up the price !

Rehearsals started at 10.30-and I quickly met and introduced myself to the rest of the company. Apart from the three cast members I'd met the night before the leading man was Mark Burgess(who'd played one of the first gay characters in a soap opera-Gordon Collins in Brookside)-who now lives in Brighton and with whom I worked with Brighton Revue Company. There were two  girls-Julia Binns and Lorraine Ashley who had, at short notice, replaced the two girls who were advertised on the poster-and who had mysteriously opted out!

The two older female roles were played by two delightful character actresses-Maggie Stables and Jessica Barnes-with whom I was to work with in the near future. Such was the set-up with Peter's company-they were very much a family-who worked with the same band of players, if they fitted into the company and were good team players.

As I was onstage practically as soon as the curtain went up-I was more than a little nervous on that first morning. And to say I was "Onstage" was not strictly true-in fact the only time I appeared onstage in that play was at the curtain call. I was playing the leader of an orchestra-who spent what little "stage time" there was-wandering around the auditorium and the orchestra pit. As the budget or the technicalities of the show wouldn't extend to an orchestra-the lines were changed so I became a sort of 1930's DJ-"putting on records"! It wasn't the most auspicious of starts-but it was a part !In addition I was ASM-which meant scouring the streets of Chesterfield for the necessary props.

Fortunately the set was very simple and the prop list not too extensive-so it was a fairly gentle start.(I can't have looked at the script until writing this account-and I was delighted to find Peter's original set design-in his own hand-in the back of my script) Also-I'd been lucky enough to have done practically every backstage job in a drama group when I was about thirteen and had  attended  a drama school -where ASM'ing and DSM'ing were compulsory in our first two years-so I was well prepared and well organised.

Rehearsals with Peter were legendary.He was in his element when he could jump up and play the scene himself for you-never in a nasty way-but obviously enjoying himself-especially playing any of the ladies roles ! He also had a wonderful melodramatic style of direction-which reminded me of Max Adrian in the film of "The Boyfriend"!

This Emlyn Williams thriller was not the best piece of English theatre and was somewhat dated,having being first produced by the author in 1930. It concerned a party on the stage of the St Jame's theatre and resulted in a murdered man coming back as his own ghost to name his killer! (So every chance for comedy moments-of which there were many!)

As soon as the first "blocking" rehearsal was complete-I set to- making a detailed list and checking what needed "sourcing" ,buying or what was already in stock. Peter seemed very impressed with my accounting and organisation-and this set me off on a good foot.

I even found myself going on in "Our Day out"-as part of the crew-when one of the kids was ill. I was delighted to do it-after all- I was in rep and was now a working actor !

On the Thursday of the rehearsal week- I reached the age of twenty six-and Peter very kindly treated me to dinner that night-along with Russell and John-who seemed very much part of Peter's" family ".I was probably closest to them both during the early stages of that production. The rest of the cast took themselves off fairly quickly after rehearsals-as we only had a week-and the play was very wordy. I also discovered fairly early on that Bruce and Debra were in fact engaged.

Part of my duties included re-upholstering a piano stool and varnishing a table and benches. The only time to do this, to ensure they were dry in time for the following week-was to do it before the Saturday matinee of "Our Day Out". I set to- in the theatre workshop with varnish and brush-and admit that the smell was a bit overbearing. But-no one had told me that this was where the animals for "our Day out" were kept, prior to appearing on stage. Ok-the animals only consisted of a rabbit and a couple of gerbils I seem to remember-but I almost reduced the animal cast with one stroke of my varnish brush !

The following weekend was a bank holiday-so we technically had the Monday off-even though the cast had agreed to meet on Monday evening for a line run-given we were opening the next day.

At the end of the Saturday morning rehearsal-before the matinee and final performance of "Our Day Out" -Peter took me to one side-and "kindly  offered" to lend me some tapes to listen to. There was something in the way he said-"don't tell anyone I've leant them to you-they wouldn't appreciate them-the way you do"-that made me uneasy-but I didn't suspect a thing. He also made a point of asking if there was anything he needed to bring up from Southend(his home) for the following week. I duly gave him a list of everything we needed-and we parted company at the end of that first week-feeling very happy-and a feeling that I'd done my job to the best of my ability.

On the Sunday-my landlady Joyce took me out for the day with her good friend-Maggie. They took me to a well dressing( a local custom in Derbyshire) and down Speedwell cavern-a local tourist attraction that mined the famous blue john stones-on an underground boat trip-reminding very much of the labyrinth in "Phantom of the Opera". Maggie gave me a piece of blue john glass-that I  still have to this day.

She invited Joyce and myself back to her flat for tea-and I quickly realised the calm aura and atmosphere of her home was due to her being what is commonly known as a white witch-but which I now know  meant that there was a wonderful spiritiual awareness about her -and she used her spiritual gifts too help others. I remember when she gave me the piece of glass-her words were-"for the white one". I didn't fully understood what she meant at the time -but in later years-I realise she must have seen the spiritual potential that I have myself-but still haven't used to the full.

When we got back to Chesterfield-John and Russell offered to take me over for a drink at Simon Barry's country digs-as a way of getting to know each other. A pleasant evening ensued-and I got to know more about this curious company. Simon had worked with Peter,Bruce and Debbie for many years-and indeed was part of Peter's inner sanctum as it were. The three of them tactfully told me a few warning stories about Peter-and how I should be careful not to be lulled into a sense of false security.............

PART 3

 

 

The following day, being Bank Holiday-the cast weren't called for rehearsal-but had agreed to meet in the local hotel that evening  for a line run. Russell, John and Simon all decided to go for a drive in the Derbyshire Dales during the day and very kindly asked me to join them.

As the day went on -I gleaned more and more about our producer. It seemed that he went through ASM's and new people to the company like hot dinners -and was well known for his mind games and amusing himself at the new boy's expense. He'd often ring Barrie Stacey in London and ask "who have you got new for me"-hence my summons to Chesterfield ! By all account-it didn't make me feel any easier-but I was grateful for the warning, But-where was the catch as far as I was concerned ? The "catch " came the following morning on the get-in.

The set couldn't have been easier to put up-about four flats, a couple of rostra  and some masking -not back breaking stuff-and then Peter arrived to "light it".(I use the word loosely as his lighting rig consisted almost entirely of reds and greens -perfect for any panto-but not entirely suitable for a mouldy old thriller-still I suppose it was bordering on melodrama !)

Just before lunchtime-and with the final dress rehearsal looming-John asked Peter for the sound tapes for the show. Thereby came the catch-and the first of the little games-which very sadly destroyed any trust I might have had of the impresario. He informed John that he hadn't been told by myself to bring any tapes back with him for the incidental music-"but what you could use-is some music that I leant him over the weekend". ("him "being myself !) He turned to me with what soon became a recognisable gloat and asked "have you got them with you " ?(Smiling wickedly)

Of course-the tapes were still in my digs up the road-and Peter had planned it perfectly that they were. He'd known that the tapes contained the music he wanted to use for the show all along-and this was transparently obvious to John and myself-who then wasted our lunch break driving to get them-when we should have been preparing for the dress rehearsal. John knew this as well and could only look apologetically at me -as if to say- "we tried to warn you" !

The dress rehearsal was a fiasco and bordering on the hysterical- the whole plot revolving around a lord who gets murdered and comes back as his own ghost. During the play his body was supposed to be in a curtained alcove at the back. So that Simon, playing the Lord didn't have to spend the entire play in the alcove-the back window had a secret door he could escape from. Unfortunately-he hadn't checked his script to double check when he needed to be back on the set-when the curtains were drawn. The  cast were doubled up-when the whole object of their dialogue was happily  seeking composure with nicotine in the dressing room !

Peter also had a thing about putting his leading men in tights-for whatever reason-and as -for the majority of the play the two other male members of the company(Bruce and Mark) were in "period costume"-it was a good excuse to produce the most revealing tights imaginable.(I suppose I was lucky that my role disappeared fairly early on in Act two-before the costume change for everyone else!

Several of the cast slipped on a dodgy carpet and corpsed unashamedly during the dress rehearsal. At the end of it all-there were a lot of red faces -all fearing the worst ! Surprisingly though-the worst never came - Peter merely said -"well you all know where you went wrong " and swanned  off to his dressing room to await the opening performance.

Even though I was playing a comparatively small role-there is always a pressure on any opening night-and as this was my "debut" as it were-I couldn't hep but feel the pressure .It wasn't made any easier by the fact that I had to make an announcement for the two girls who weren't billed in the programme and then rush round front of house for the first entrance. This was  made from the back of the auditorium and down the centre aisle-which meant having to slip in unnoticed at the top of the show and sneak along the back row-as soon as I saw the houselights go down. I managed to get through the auditorium door ok but heard a few angry mutterings of "latecomers-typical"! from a heavily upholstered Derbyshire lady!

 

But then-we were off-and not really surprisingly -the show flowed very well-probably due to the heavy dose of adrenalin that was pumping through everyone. All was going well until the end of the first half when dear Maggie-playing Lady Jasper, dried completely. Her line to Simon should have been something along the lines of -"Charles-call your secretary"-but she had forgotten everything at this point !

Very helpfully-Simon stared her in the face and very pointedly said-"Shall I call my secretary" ?(If ever there was a more pointed lifeline-that was it !) Maggie looked at him incredulously for a moment and we all thought she'd take the lifeline that had been thrown to her. Instead-she paused, looked around the cast, then back to Simon-and screamed -"No"! That was that-no where for the scene to go and it came to a crashing halt-and reduced Act 1 by a good five minutes(not that it was any great loss!)

I don't think anything else eventful happened that night-and as weekly rep went -it wasn't too horrendous.Peter seemed pleased in the bar afterwards and asked if I would so some work in the office for him the next day-how could I refuse! (Mind you he did pay me overtime !)

The following day -after a bit of work in the office-Peter arranged with Russell that I should sing for him-with a view to pantomime and a tour of "A Christmas Carol" he was putting out in October/November. For some reason I had Noel Coward's "Bar on the Picola Marina" with me-that I'd used in a final showcase-to great acclaim. Mr Bridge was less than impressed with my interpretation of "Mrs Wentworth Brewster"-telling me that  "Noel would never have written a song about such a common woman as I was portraying"! (Bang went that bit of self confidence!) But-after trying a few other things out-later in the day-he asked if I'd like to play Bob Cratchit -which is a gift of a role for anyone. He even handed me a script there and then! (Not bad I thought for week two of my career!)

I can't recall any further problems with "A Murder Has Been arranged"-apart from some fairly horrendous drives through the night after the get out! John was driving the van in those days-and a couple of times I had to stop him falling asleep at the wheel at three in the morning-He was so tired after two performances and the get out.

Our next port of call was Yeovil-a lovely little modern theatre, in a very quaint Somerset village. We had the added joy of five of us sharing a delightful little cottage in the town of Crewkerne a few miles away. Simon had the cottage next door-which meant that the majority of the cast were all staying together-and a good excuse for chatting and having the odd drink until the small hours.

Unfortunately-Peter had wanted us to stay in "The Gables"-a hotel just down the road-and I feared the worst when I didn't accept the offer to join this little enclave. However-nothing was said-so I was safe-at least for the time being. Yeovil was un-eventful-apart from our lovely actress Jessica being poorly one night-but being the trouper she is-she manfully got through her very dramatic scene in the second act.

We then moved onto the last venue- the Key theatre in Peterborough-always a pleasure to return to-even though it has seen many changes in décor and management over the last twenty years.

When I first went there it was managed by the wonderful Mr Derek Killeen-who I realised I'd last seen at drama school, when he came to direct "A Voyage round my Father"-a wonderfully kind man-who always had time for everyone -from the "names" right down to the ASM .

(I was able to stay with my friend Richard Brett-who I first met when he was company manager for "Ladies Night" in 1991-funny how life turns around-and ten years later I ended up in the same show !)

The theatre is on the river at Peterborough-and is a delight to play-not only for the beautiful views from the dressing room window, but the lovely intimate atmosphere of  a small horseshoe shaped auditorium.

Again-we opened with little problem-and then on the day after we opened came the bombshell which almost ended a brief career ! Peter asked me -"What are you doing next week" ?

I replied that as the tour was at an end that I'd be going home.

"No!-You're doing Old Time music hall for me at Bognor Regis"!

I could hardly refuse-it was another weeks work-and as I'd already achieved my next role in "Christmas Carol"-I was on a roll.

Peter explained I'd have to learn an opening song and dance and a music hall medley-which Bruce would teach me and we discussed a solo number. I new a few music hall songs in those days-but not early the extensive repertoire I now cart around with me. As I loved the old musicals-Peter suggested a medley from Lionel Monckton's "Arcadians", which I knew very well.

"A Night at the music hall" was an infectious little tune-easy to learn-and good patter lyrics. Looking back-the dance steps were not complicated-just fast. I'd always shied away from dance at drama school-probably because of  the innate fear of getting it wrong -even though we had a very understanding dance teacher from the heart of Birmingham-with a dialect to match.(If you can imagine her shouting-"Nice box steps everybody"-in broad Brummy-you'll get the picture !)

Bruce taught me the steps-and helped me on the more complicated ones-and I probably learnt more about dance and movement in that one week-than  in three years.I assembled the medley for "Arcadians" myself(I think I borrowed the score from the local library)-as per Peter's instructions-and spent every spare moment practicing for the following week.

We closed "Murder has been arranged" on the Saturday-a brief but enjoyable tour-and at some stage -I was to work with every member of the cast again in the not too distant future.

John and I drove through the night to his house in Sittingbourne-and after a very minimal sleep-drove to Peter's house in Leigh on Sea(The address is still in my address book)

I must pause at this point-as the mind games and the "testing" were about to begin in earnest-and I very nearly rose to the bate-and chucked the whole lot in, twenty four hours later…………………

PART 4

 

After very little sleep and an afternoon's rehearsal ahead of me-it was little wonder that I was a little bit on edge-but Peter announced that he was taking myself and "Mother" out to lunch. "Mother" was otherwise known as Eileen Farrow ! If ever there was a  transformation when this character appeared on stage-this was it! She shuffled around Peter's home in a pair of old carpet slippers, looking very much like a home help in one of those old rep productions. Onstage however-Peter dressed her up in tuelle and feathers and wigs that had seen the hairdressers many times ! She also adopted an air of o who had just walked out of number one dressing room, whereas at home her "accent" was apt to drop. I suppose she thought she was another Anna Neagle (but without the star quality -and that one essential quality for a singer -a decent  voice!)

Peter wined and dined us at some restaurant or other in Southend but seemed remarkably cold-considering I'd just toured for him. Lunch finished and paid for by the impresario-we headed to the scene of so many rehearsals in the years to come-St Mark's Church hall-behind Southend Central station.ThereI met pianist John Puddick and the juvenile dance troupe that Peter employed for panto and  other occasions. Rather than doing a vocal or physical warm up-Peter had them emptying the skip from "Murder Has Been arranged" and hoisting the furniture upstairs to the balcony in the hall-which served as Peter's prop and costume store.

Then we began rehearsing in earnest the opening routine-"A Night at the Music Hall". I'd never run through it with a pianist-and I never had the chance on this occasion-it was straight into what Bruce had taught me-almost like being on the Generation Game-but without a sympathetic audience. I'd barely made my first entrance when Peter bellowed -"No-you can't come on like that" ! The rehearsal ground to a halt whilst Peter gave me a lesson in how to make an entrance in music hall ! We resumed the number-but it wasn't long before we were stopped in our tracks once again.

It was all too clear that Peter was hell bent on having fun at my expense, diminishing my confidence and showing me up in front of his dance troupe. (Co-incidentally-I'd also been cohearsed into performing for no fee at the British music hall society a month later-with more or less the same show we were now rehearsing)We ploughed on with the routine-stopping at every opportunity Peter could think of to thoroughly humiliate me -and that was only the opening routine !

Bruce had talked me through the other songs in a music hall medley that was to open Act two-and into which I was to be interpolated-but again-I had never had the chance to run through this with a pianist-or Bruce and Debbie in a full rehearsal. With only two days rehearsal-it was painfully clear I was never going to learn a routine that they had been doing for years-and boy oh boy-didn't Peter revel in it !

"Your problem is-you're not relaxed enough"! How could one be-with such a cold and gloating attitude on the other side of the "footlights" !

After the "troupe" had gone home-Peter asked me to run though the "Arcadians"-again -the first time I'd put the medley together with a pianist. First of all he blamed me for putting the songs together in the wrong order-when I'd paid special attention to his instructions, whilst we were in Peterborough ,and then it was a  case of "No ! You're singing it like Gilbert and Sullivan -Lionel Monckton should sparkle !

(I doubt if Lionel Monckton or his leading lady Gertie Miller could ever sparkle with such a negative influence on their confidence-so early in their careers"!)

At the end of the rehearsal I had the encouraging comment-"don't worry-every -one has a nervous break-down on music hall"! I wasn't at all surprised-working with such a bully !

At the end of this dreadful Sunday-Peter then dropped me off in his taxi at the most dismal B&B known to Man !(I've been back to Southend many times since-and have grown to like the place and have had many fun times there-but for years after I was scarred by the experience and this awful B&B) It would have been the perfect setting for a PD James ghost story ! (Oh how I would have loved to have nailed a kipper to the back of the wardrobe on my departure!)The crazy thing was that had I known how near I was to London and my dear friend Richard in Upton Park-I could have gone back there, drowned my sorrows in a litre of gin and good company-and have been de-stressed  ! As it was I wandered round Southend,without a clue of where to go, eat or seek solace-utterly wretched.(Ironically-Southend's main gay bar was just up the road from the digs and practically adjacent to the rehearsal room.

 

But-nil desperandum-the show had to go on ! (Noel Coward wrote the best repost to that theory !)After a dried up breakfast served up by the proprietors of this dreary incarceration (whilst arguing offstage throughout the service)-I paid my twelve pounds for the night and made my way back to the hall at mid-morning, that Monday -for the next step in this diminishing of confidence and three years training.

We started with the second act medley-with myself muddling through more choreography than I could cope with. Bruce and Debbie finally took pity on me and taking the bull by the horns- Bruce tried to give me confidence in saying what I'd achieved in just a week, with the opening routine .Debbie said the same-conceding that they'd both been doing the routine for years-and here was I being asked to do it overnight.

Once Bruce and Debbie had gone -Peter really went to town-aided and abetted by our actual pianist for the show-none other than Mr Michael Topping. To be fair-Michael was in no way responsible for Peter's bullying-but he was constantly being asked to back Peter up. Michael had in fact been the first onstage partner for Patrick Fyffe before he met George Logan-and the legend that is Hinge and Bracket was born. At the time we were doing our show-Michael was working with George Logan ,during a break in the Hinge and Bracket partnership.

We ran through the "Arcadians" medley several times-and it's a wonder to this day that I still love that show and it's wonderfully infectious music. (Anyone else would have burnt the vocal score there and then !) Peter was vile about it and made comments of "no style", "no presence" and other "goading " adjectives. It had been agreed that I would perform the medley in blazer and straw boater-very end of the pier-but Peter had other perverse ideas!

"mmm-the only way to make this work is for you to play it as an Athenaeum boy"! When I enquired about the hidden meaning behind this concept the impresario smiled evilly and repeated- "dressed as an Athenaeum boy"! With an evil wink at Michael Topping Peter gathered his coat, fedora and the aforementioned pianist-and gave me the final note - "well-I hope you come up trumps by tomorrow"! That was the straw that broke the camels back ! As soon as they'd left the room I flung the nearest coffee cup at the wall and trembled all over in anger, frustration and sheer exhaustion.(A couple of Girl Guide leaders came into the hall briefly-saw me sobbing uncontrollably-and left right rapidly!)

John Port and Russell Drake arrived about half an hour later-as John was due to pick up some costumes and set from Peter's and ferry it down to Bognor Regis the next day. My face must have said it all ! I asked John to drop me at Southend station(I'd actually no idea where it was in relation to the hall at the time !) and I was going back to Birmingham and throwing the lot in !

John paused for a moment-and saw my dilemma. To this day I don't know if I would  have carried out my threat-but I was too upset to think rationally. John and Russell then did their upmost to convince me that I'd now passed "the new boy test"! Russell assured me that once we'd opened with the show the next day-Peter would leave me alone and be satisfied. He also re-iterated that I'd already been promised a main role in "A Christmas Carol" and it was likely I'd be cast in pantomime that year. They both urged me not to give in and both promised a nice meal and wine at their home in Sittingbourne that night to help me to un-wind.

But-before that-we had to go back to our beloved impresario to pick up props and costumes-particularly mine !

Peter was still in an evil mood that night and ordered me to go upstairs at his home, whilst he found an old floral dress!! The next bit is pure farce-in front of John and Russell Peter then proceeded to cut the Oxfam cast off into an approximation of an Arcadian/Greek toga affair ! (But at the end of the day-it looked like a blue floral Oxfam frock cut down !) John, Russell and I became hysterical and turned the whole thing back on Peter saying it should be cut shorter and shorter-until the outfit bordered on the obscene. This must have proved too much for Peter's week heart and he ordered us to leave quite quickly-bidding us god speed to Bognor for the get in the next day !

Howling with laughter we got into John's van and drove down to Kent for a brief night of wining and dining-difficult to believe I'd be on the verge of a breakdown, less than an hour before !

The next day we drove down to the Alexandra centre, Bognor Regis-a very tired and white elephant of a theatre/bar/leisure complex in Bognor.(To my knowledge-it still is!)We assembled some very sad and tired drapes and a backcloth that had seen better days. Peter arrived at mid-day-and looking at the minimalistic setting remarked to me, alluding to the red swags- "those were all that were rescued from the palladium fire"! To this day I've never ascertained which "Palladium he was referring to or if  it  ever had a conflagration -but judging by the condition of the tired velour-it would have been kinder to have let combustion take it's course!

I also seemed to remember Peter giving me some lecture on how no-one would ever teach me" how to get a laugh"-and I think by that point I really had just switched off and was letting professionalism take over.

Even then-Peter wasn't done with rubbing salt into the wounds. One of the guest artists was Richard Griffin- the then young magician of the year. He was a quite unassuming lad-who must have been equally bemused at the antics of Alexander Bridge. He arrived at the theatre during the afternoon of that opening night and asked if I minded if he put his doves in our dressing room !(He was such a cute  guy-he could have stored anything in there as far as I was concerned !)The next thing I knew was Peter descending on me ,like a Veloceraptor-saying how I'd upset Bruce-who apparently(due to being in the same room) was allergic to the feathers.(I never did check  to see if that were true-in all the years I subsequently worked for Bruce !)

We opened the show that night-and-as Russell  predicted- the pressure was off. Also in the cast was the late Jack Seaton(the Chairman of the British Music Hall society)Larry Barnes (stage partner of Maggie Stables from "Murder Has been Arranged")-and of course the legend that was Eileen Farrow-warbling various songs that were incomprehensible from Row L in the stalls !(Diction was never her strong point-just a wall of sound -all vowels and very few consonants' was easy to see how she could have been an inspiration for Dame Hilda Bracket-but Patrick Fyffe's wonderful creation had far more stage presence and charisma than Ms Farrow ever possessed !)

Peter had booked us all into yet another dreary B&B-opposite the theatre-The Mimosa-owned by a Lady called DI- who obviously liked the odd sherry! I found myself sharing a room with the young magician of the year !( his  doves did awoke at dawn which saved me setting an alarm clock!)

 And so the week croaked on. There was bugger all to do in Bognor Regis in September-and we all just tended to humour Peter at breakfast with his well told tales -and then run back to our rooms and mill around town for the rest of the week. We did have a day off  on Friday (and our Young magician ran screaming for the hills !) -the rest of us were obliged to join Peter for a dreary Friday day out with "Mother" and Jack Seaton(I recall another member of the" party"-but it was another excuse for Peter to hold court and be the centre of attention. I distinctly remember "Mother" being vile about how the stage management looked after the stage furniture.(The 2nd hand stuff  that Peter had used for years !)One got the impression from Ms Farrow that she was a West End star. Years later- I  discovered that her professional engagements were rather limited-and due in entirety to her entrepreneurial son!

 

I recall Mark Burgess came to see us in Bognor(more out of sympathy than anything-and we passed a few consolatory words and looking forward to the forthcoming tour of "A Christmas Carol".

The week ended amicably-and John and Russell let me stay at their cottage in Sittingbourne on the Saturday night before embarking back to Birmingham -late on Sunday afternoon.

If only I'd know though-how Bognor was to play a vital part in my life -merely 3 years later.....

PART 3

A Christmas Carol (-Autumn 1992)

 

 

 In between finishing the music hall at Bognor and starting rehearsals for "A Christmas Carol" -I did have an extra gig(Unpaid-with the established team- at the British Music Hall Society meeting place-near the Barbican (Typical of Peter-he always announce that we were performing AT the Barbican !)

 

After the trial period of A murder has been arranged and music hall I was wary about the next instalment in the already established post drama school season with Alexander Bridge.However-'Á Christmas Carol'' is a gift of a s how to be involved in and Bob Cratchit is a gift of a role-so I wasn't going to let that go to waste-and I knew I could do a good job of it. I've always maintained that Ä Christmas Carol "is one of the best stories ever and even in the most mediocre of productions -the joy of the story and characters shine through. Years later I was appearing in an appalling pantomime and the god send was a relief to get away from it a few days after we opened and go and see a wonderful production of it at the Royal theatre in Northampton-directed by my friend Gary Sefton-restoring our faith in seasonal entertainment !

Rehearsals began at the Concert Artists association in Berwick street London-a step back in time if ever there was one. It's since been the site of many rehearsals, auditions and theatrical gatherings.

But back to1992-and having done all I possibly could to have learned the role of Bob Cratchit and Dick Wilkins I turned up at the CAA armed with enough provisions for a tour of the Antarctic-including a typewriter-much to the amusement of the first person I met from the cast-a lovely lad called Craig Barrett -with whom I was to become great friends during this brief tour.

Bruce and Debbie arrived with Peter-and then the rest of the cast trickled in-including 2 people with whom I was to work a great deal over the next 20 years. Andrew Ryan is a joy and a pleasure to have in any company-and his name on a cast list is enough to lift anyone's spirits-and secondly-the amazing Damien Williams. Damien has since forged a career as an excellent pantomime dame and comic actor-but in those days-he was fast becoming a protégé of Alexander Bridge-and cutting his teeth like the rest of us.

Russell Drake and John Port were already great friends from the previous tours-and the company was completed by Mark Thrippleton (Ex Eastenders) and Samantha Michelle.Mark Burgess, playing Charles Dickens was to join us later in the rehearsal process.

It was a far more relaxed atmosphere to assemble in than the highly charged atmosphere of the Pomegranate theatre in Chesterfield.

Rehearsals began with music calls -for a specially written score by John Puddick-nothing ground breaking but a very catchy score and easy to learn-just as well with so short a time to learn an entire show and open the following week

Listening to my rehearsal recordings from those first days-it showed what a camaraderie there was so early on-but then that is always the way with theatrical folk and professionals-no time to waste with ''building'' friendships- we just do it!

Within a couple of hours we'd just about nailed the opening number and the first number for the men- '' Scrooge''(which was later to be staged with hysterical ''Fiddler on the roof'' style choreography) and then we broke for lunch.

And then (as could only have happened during the Alexander Bridge years- disaster on a national level-struck-in this case courtesy of the IRA.

After lunch-we were just learning some more of the score-when the doors of the CAA burst open and the police stormed in and told us to clear the building. Apparently a bomb -just up the road at the Sussex pub near Leicester Square had gone off-and even though it mercifully didn't have tragic consequences as so many atrocities had done-the area was being cordoned off.

Alexander Bridge however remained totally UN -fazed and merely glared at the police officers with contempt and proclaimed- '' I'm producing a show''!!

As we were escorted out of the CAA(leaving all our luggage behind) -Peter swanned down Berwick street and onto The Strand -wearing his fedora-proclaiming to the world- '' If we give into them-they've won!

We sought refuge in a basement bar on the corner of Berwick Street-some of us needing alcohol to steady our nerves or just seizing the opportunity!

After about an hour-we realised that rehearsals were pretty much a no no for the rest of the day so the majority of the cast departed. I alas had to remain-as all my luggage/clothes etc were still in the CAA and the charming secretary had not returned to re-open the building-even though the road was now open. Myself and the chef/cook at the CAA paced up and down outside-until we realised the only way we were going to gain access was via a major break in plan! So-we scaled the outside of the building from the rear (!) and found an open kitchen sky-light! The only problem was the drop!!

I suppose it was a tribute to my agility and sheer devil may care of those days-but I found myself crawling through the skylight-and into the top of the kitchen-and then dropping ten feet into the kitchen-not not horrendous-but enough to cause an injury if I hadn't have landed properly. I thus reclaimed my luggage-enabled the resident cook to get in-and repaired myself to stay with my dear fried Richard Heggett in Upton Park.

Over all my years in the business-it was a blessed relief to stay with Richard as he knew all about the comings and goings of the businesses and was ready to have a welcome plate of pasta and a large gin at the ready-after a long day of rehearsals. Many a laugh, tear and nostalgia were exchanged over the table of that beautifully bohemian flat. I wish I'd thought to photograph it at the time.xx

The next day was a case of catching up on lost time-learning even more music/consolidating what we'd learnt already-but I don't recall any blocking taking place until the following day in Southend-at the formidable St Gabriel's-where I'd very nearly chucked the whole business before it had even started.

I seem to remember us missing Southend station completely on the first day-rather silly as the hall was directly behind it-and raising a wry smile from Mr Bridge.

Blocking begin in Ernest on that Wednesday-including the opening number and the pseudo Jewish choreography of ''Scrooge'' -and it really was a case of learn it straight away and do it ! Even the prop list for the opening number when we unpacked a hamper- was only given to us once-Mr Bridge was not going to repeat it not even for ready money !

I seem to remember rehearsals progressed well and the show came together fairly smootly.Mark Burgess as Charles Dickens didn't join us until later in the week-as he was '' reading'' from a lectern and really didn't need to worry about our shenanigans on stage.

The main casualty of the script and score came about by Mr Bridge's lack of planinng.There was a concerted number called '' London Cries'' with the entire company playing street vendors' seem to remember I was selling 'chestnuts-hot roasted'' in a very deep basso profundo !!

The number was quite tricky but it would have worked -but for some reason Peter blew up at Russell over it-when it was actually his own fault in not planning set and costume changes. (Crazy really-knowing how easy it is to switch between characters in an ensemble production)-but it was consigned to the bin-with only the memory of Andrew Ryan's plaintive cry of '' Spanish onions'' to raise a smile when the going got tough !!

Bob Cratchit is a lovely role to play-and I'd love to have another crack at it one day-particularly in the musical ''Scrooge''-which we were to see with Anthony Newley-during the run of our modest little show.

There is so much to get your teeth into-warrmh, pathos and even a bit of comedy. The most poignant scene is when the spectre of Christmas yet to come shows Scrooge that Tiny Tim has died. I didn't want Bob's breakdown to be self indulgent but I knew it had to be heartfelt-and so made sure that for the first run through I was totally in the moment. Unfortunately-Debra Karen as my wife-seemed to find it rather amusing and burst out laughing-I could have easily added her to the Cratchit's list of mortality!

 

We finished rehearsals-as most Bridge shows did-on the Saturday afternoon and John, Russell and I collected costumes and bits and pieces from Peter's house (dodging ''Mother''-minus her wig!) and the repaired to the lovely surroundings of John and Russell's cottage in Sittingbourne for the weekend (Despite a Sunday of set and prop collection to get through -the length and breadth of the country)

Sadly-in the early hours of the morning-a phone call brought the sad news that Russell's dad had died.

John and I dropped Russell at the station and then drove up to Hanley to pick up a rather dilapidated revolving set-that had obviously seen better days!

 

And then-down to London (Deptford I think) to pick up more set and costumes from the late John Roscoe,

AND THEN (already 7pm)-onto Hastings for lights and smoke machines from panto producer David Lee.

(One must remember that La Bridge shows operated on a shoe -string budget and it really was a case of beg borrow and steal what we could -and John Port drew on all his contacts to get what he could for the show) So-by the time we had made the round trip back to Sittingbourne- it must have been nearly1am and we then had to be in Bognor Regis for a 9Am get in! (Take heed wannabees or -anyone who thinks show biz is glamorous!!)

Arriving bleary eyed/sleep deprived and anxious about a forthcoming technical day was not an ideal scenario for any Bridge show-but it was par of the course. Thankfully were weren't opening that night-but in any case- '' A Christmas Carol'' in Bognor Regis in October was rather premature.(it reminds me of that quote -'' How do you think '' Goodnight Vienna'' will go down in Wolverhampton ?''

ANSWER- '' about as well as '' Goodnight Wolverhampton'' will go down in Vienna!!!)

In those days-smoking was allowed in dressing rooms and backstage-and so there was a clear designation between the smokers room and the non smokers- even though -being the first venue of the short tour-everyone was anxious to ''bond''(self included)

Peter swanned in around lunchtime-and by this time he had hired a lovely ASM/driver in the form of Steve Hallam-with whom I was to appear with in '' Robin Hood'' at Grays later n the year.

Peter in grandiose style showed me the pile of costumes-and as I was technically employed as an actor/as I was therefore wardrobe mistress! However-Peter's gleeful demand that he see everyone onstage in costume within half an hour(including the local children) was nothing short of vindictive-and I'm afraid from that moment on-I really did begin to lose faith in the whole Bridge experience.(These days-of course-you would never get someone to costume minors in a show -unless they were proper chaperones and/or crb checked( which I've been for many years)-but still in the early 90's-dressers dressers/backstage etc were all unchecked/taken on trust -which is what it should always be-but which sadly leaves people in very vulnerable positions.(I'd dressed on a national tour of '' The Sound of Music'' in early 1992 and since heard that one of the kids we'd dressed had been vindictive enough and manipulative enough to get a dresser at Birmingham rep the sack and in a lot of trouble-so please don't think that '' The Innocents'' are always so!)

BUT BACK TO BOGNOR; Mercifully Debra Karen stepped in and sorted the kids out-but it was still a tall order to sort out an entire company within so short a time -span-and to my mind-just plain stupid/vindictive and to satisfy some bizarre sense of bullying.

By the time the technical rehearsal began-the company had some sort of costume assembled-as per Peter's plot (which I still have in the back of my old script to this day)

 -and we began the laborious run-through. At every given moment-Peter stopped the run and demanded where certain items of costume were-when we were all trying to cope with costume changes and to bare in mind the impending opening night-the following evening. Decisions I'd had to make without Peter being around were just treated with scorn-and the insults from the man were flying everywhere. During the second act-Debra Karen had to physically hold my hand to stop me advancing to the front of the stage to give him a mouth-full. I don't think I have ever felt so angry at such ignorance and vindictiveness in my career

Throughout this whole episode-the question I asked was just -''why''? Peter could have adhered himself to so many more people if he had treated them with the respect that he '' commanded '' himself- and which a lot of us gave to him. I think from that moment on- I distanced myself from the man for ever more-a great shame as I owed/owe a great deal to him-a far cry from the halcyon days of working for Newpalm less than 10 years later-but I'm jumping ahead !

I think we just about got through the show that night-and then repaired to the delightful confines of ''the Mimosa'' guest house-the scene of my previous stay during old time music hall.(We'd tried to get a house/flat for a selected few-butt alas it had fallen through-so back we were at the Mimosa in all it's tatty seaside glory.

There was one luxury however-Steve Hallam and I had adjoining rooms with a communal bathroom in the middle--almost like a suite-so it became the penthouse for many a cast party during those early days of production-with the result that by the end of the week it smelt like a brewery and a tobacco factory.

Breakfast in ''The Mimosa'' was strictly between certain hours-and the morning after the show opened-we all overslept- and were woken up with the deafening thud of landlord on bed-room door and the monotone cry of '' nine--thirty''- causing half a dozen of us to grab clothes and scamper down-stairs to a tepid breakfast and stony looks from our producer! (I'm sure boarding school would have been less traumatic!)

But-the show had opened-and a charming little show it was for all that. The cast were lovely--and even though it was only mid-October-the spirit of Christmas had somehow pervaded Bognor!

 

But (with my luck)-fate had one last trick on the final performance in Bognor.

I was due to travel back with John and Russell on the final night and stay with them before travelling home to Birmingham for a couple of weeks off before resuming the tour. However-due to Peters insistence on their taking various props and costumes back in the back of their car-I was unable to be accommodated-and was thus homeless on a Saturday night in Bognor.(The other actor/asms had buggered off to get their last London train-leaving me to the elements.

AND SO- thank you-to the kindly crew member who allowed me refuse on his living room floor until the first train on Sunday morning and Thank you for whoever left the Tesco trolley outside the flat -to help me get my luggage to the station in the early hours--and thus onto London and Birmingham.

The rest is an absolute blur-I think I got myself back to my Birmingham flat--but II really can't remember-I just know I was knackered after the latest chapter in '' A Bridge too far''.. !!

There then followed two weeks off as Peter was busy rehearsing his rep season in Chesterfield and Bruce and Debbie were in the first of the plays-"Boeing Boeing"-giving us the luxury of two weeks off..(Unpaid) We resumed the tour at the world famous city varieties theatre in Leeds-famous for "The good old days".

John and Russell met me at Leeds station-in order to drive us to our digs for the week. In the early 90's-the cheapest digs were a series of self contained flats and bed sits -called "The Tops" and owned by a gentleman called Peter Miles. Ours was ironically overlooking a graveyard! They were situated about 2 miles out of town-which necessitated the need for a taxi-which further bumped up our expenses. That coupled with the hungry coin meters that controlled the electricity, further made the prospect of a week there a little daunting.

The place was freezing cold-and the hot water was decidedly ropey-and after the first couple of showers in the morning everyone had to take pot luck.

Six of us were staying there that week-Mark and Myself, John and Russell and Craig and Samantha. Looking back-it wasn't a horrendous week-but it wasn't exactly a hum dinger either!

City varieties music hall is a beautiful theatre from front of house-but backstage-it was sadly lacking in space and amenities. The stage was famously one sided-meaning that you could only enter from stage left-and if you tried exiting stage right-you ran into a side wall. The dressing rooms were small and basic-and we ended up sharing with four of us that week. Debra Karen had very wisely" bagged" the number one dressing room on the excuse that the stairs were impractical with the ladies frocks- I almost believed her!

 

(David-Leeds,City Varieties- 1992) 

We had a new set of kids to rehearse in during the afternoon and when we finally got onto the stage-we found that our revolve set was actually over-hanging the front row of the stalls-and the space where Russell would have his keyboard. We'd just started re-blocking certain scenes when the technical manager dropped the bombshell that because our set was blocking the fire safety curtain coming in-we couldn't use it! So-faced with the prospect performing the show in black curtains-we began further re-blocking. At about ten O'clock that night-the cast were dismissed and John resigned himself to staying over night in the theatre to light the show in time for the 10am show.

-When we got into the theatre the next morning we discovered the theatre had come up with 2 backcloths from the good old days to assist us in our endeavours. So-Fezziwig's warehouse suddenly became a baronial hall and the exterior of Scrooge's house became a street that just about every artist on the Good Old days had performed in front of at some stage.

The performance was an interesting one that morning-as we all strove to come to terms with the new blocking. But-we got there-and that seemed to be all that was remarkable about that week-other than my parents venturing up to Leeds to see the show in its reduced form.

The following week we were going from one extreme to the other-performing on the biggest venue yet-the old Theatre Royal at Hanley. Sadly the theatre has long disappeared(I'm not sure if it was demolished or converted)-but all I can remember about it is that there were loads of dressing rooms and the get-in on the Monday took ages-just delivering costume to each room.

 

(David-Theatre Royal,Hanley -1992) 

Andrew, Craig and I had very wisely opted to stay in some bed-sits nearby-as John, Russell, Mark and our asm (name escapes me) were sharing a dorm type room in the next house-owned by the same landlady!)

After the tense atmosphere during the opening of the show in Bognor Regis-I hadn't spoken to Peter since the last night there-where his parting comment- you have the makings of a fine character actor"- only just made up for his demeanour towards me during the technical rehearsal

Needless to say-when he put in an appearance in Hanley-I kept a low profile. He still found cast members to have a go at-in this case-Mark Thrippleton and Damian-saying- Ï didn't write it like this"-and alluding that Damian was playing old Joe akin to Bill Sykes(Well--it was Dickens after all !)

Nothing else dramatic happened that week-apart from the news on the Friday night that Windsor castle was ablaze. (That night -every lyric alluding to "generous fire! Etc-took on a whole new meaning.

Being so close to Birmingham and hardly ever having an evening show-we were able to have a night out to watch the premiere of "Scrooge"-with Anthony Newley at my old stomping crowd-the Alexandra-where I had long worked as dresser and front of house. I had in fact been offered to dress Frank Finlay and Anthony Newley (separate weeks and shows, of course)-but my own tours prevented this-but the job did go to my dear friend Maurice-who subsequently was asked to tour with Newley on "Scrooge"-the following year-and later in his cabaret at the Cafe de Paris, London.

I can only say we were humbled to say the least-at seeing such a spectacular show-in comparison to our rather basic production. There were a couple of members of the company who had worked for Peter Bridge in the past (Lorinda King, comes to mind)-and the atmosphere in the bar afterwards was rather "cool" to say the least.

At the end of that week-Mark Burgess was driving back to his home in Brighton (and I would in due course meet up again and work with him -within a very short time.)-and he very kindly dropped Craig and I back at my flat in Brum .So-I had an unexpected Sunday off-and a relatively easy journey on the Monday morning-down to Somerset.

And so- back down to Yeovil to end the all too short tour. (In those days-Yeovil had a very full digs list-a long cry from the final time I visited the Octagon in 2012 with "Bed full of Foreigners") On this occasion-we stayed again in the small cottage in Crewkerne-sharing with John and Russell and Craig and myself. I'd grown very close to Craig during that time-probably a little too close-but propriety dictated that we just remain friends (which was a good job-as I would subsequently be paying opposite his partner, Chris in "Robin Hood"-with a rather tricky sword fight! So it might have been more realistic-if any liaison dangerous had occurred!

-We had a high old time in Yeovil-simply because it is such a beautiful theatre-so well equipped and one of the biggest stages, for a provincial theatre. Peter always referred to it as "The Yeovil", for some strange reason, however. Peter-as usual was staying at his favourite guest house-The Gables-in which he had tried to ensconce the entire company-but we were having none of it this time, after our Bognor experience in the Mimosa. Steve Hallam was firmly in Peter's grasp as personal assistant-and one night after John,Russell,Craig and I had had a few libations at the local hostelry (and Russell was overdue to meet Peter for a meeting at the Gables- we emerged to be caught in the headlights of Steve's car-and the shining silhouette of Peter's dome- looming out of the fog at us !(He later gave Russell the withering response- You've been to the pub"-haven't you !")

-During the week we invited the company back to ours for pizzas and drinks-and the wine flowed liberally in our lovely little cottage-knowing that the end of the run was upon us.

 (David Rumelle & Andrew Ryan-Yeovil 1992)

-These days I don't often get sentimental over the end of a run of a show- but s this was my second tour(only 1 week more than the first)-and with a gift of a part such as Bob Cratchit-I will readily admit I was very sad about it coming to an end. I'd made some wonderful friends-several of whom I would work with again and again over the years-others-not so. Unfortunately Samantha-who played the juvenile girl roles- had somewhat become the butt of everyone's jokes-mainly because she was rather self centred (Or as Andrew Ryan beautifully put it about another actress-many years later-all roads lead to Rome" !) She became known as "Heimi" (alluded to her Jewish princess Persona)-and Damian in -particular wasted no time in sending up her intonation in a good deal of the show (Mind you-with the accumulated wigs that she's been given by Peter,to wear-it was hardly surprising -when she looked rather comical in a succession of un-dressed locks !)

But-the last night came-as it must-and having had a fantastic time by and large-we all went our separate ways-as Bruce put it-"to dash off for pantomime") Mum and Dad and my Sister and brother in law came to see the final performance-so I was able to get home in style.

-I was sad to see the all too brief tour come to an end-it had been a great show to be in -and given me that next step-up the ladder of experience.

- And it wasn't too long before another first -my first pantomime, my first villain-a course on which I was set.....

PART 4- The First of Many Pantomimes........ 

 

(DAVID RUMELLE& ALEXANDER BRIDGE-THAMESIDE THEATRE,GRAYS-1992) 

 

There were at least 3 weeks gap-between the end of Ä Christmas Carol" and "Robin Hood" starting rehearsals. During that time-I cultivated the Bob Cratchit sideburns into a full beard-which would be coloured black. I was pretty confident about how I would play the role-but I was also dubious about how Peter would behave.Russell had told me horror stories of how Peter behaved when he was in "drag"-particularly to his principal girls. I was also very worried about the sword fights-which Peter had already "tested the waters"-asking “what's your sword fighting like"? (With that look in his eyes that I'd come to understand, only too well!)I tactfully asked if Peter would set it in "phrases" (the term for breaking down the components of a stage fight)-to which he replied- It depends how I'm feeling”!

 

-In those days (and generally playing Villain)-I didn't add anything to the script (not that I would have dared!)-and was probably the only pantomime I've never "Doctored". But- I wisely got the script well learnt in advance.

Rehearsals commenced at Southend St Gabriel's church ( the dent of a smashed coffee cup still ringing in my ears-from the music hall rehearsals) We had a lovely cast in Jamie Golding(Grange Hill) as Alan O' Dale, Chris Holt as Robin Hood, Alan Terry-taking over the role of Dewberry-as Bruce had landed a Dame role at the Beck theatre in Hayes(described in the stage as "the butchest Dame this season " !) ,Steve Hallam as Will Scarlet (taking over Alan's original role) Peter as the Dame -and myself as Villain(Sheriff of Nottingham)

Ironically-Peter was actually very charming during rehearsals-and despite a few lectures about to "sweeping on the opening scene" (a note that went for nothing-once we saw the insert set!)-and a few bits of made up historical rubbish about "The Grey Monks of Grays”, abusing young boys (I actually can't believe we actually sat and listened to this pile of rubbish!)-rehearsals were relatively easy. We did come to the dreaded setting of the fight. In this case it was done with fencing foils and mercifully Peter set it in "phrases" and as my fellow Robin Hood was a dancer -it was all counted with precision. I can't recall any difficulties with it -and when friends came to see the show later in the run they were impressed with my stage combat skills (having never actually passed the stage combat certificate at drama school)

 

- In fact-the only member of the company who did seem too get it in the neck as Peter's scapegoat was the musical director -whom Peter constantly had a go at.

- Rehearsals went well-and within a week we were in the characterless surroundings of Thameside Theatre, Grays- a carbuncle if ever there was one and having no redeeming features whatsoever. It was a 60's library complex and the theatre was more like a lecture theatre-with the stage only a couple of feet high, no wing space and dressing rooms under the stage. Peter had his dresser and general assistant and was forced to share a dressing room with him as well. I fared batter--sharing with Jamie who played Alan O'dale -and the two lads playing one of the babes and the dragon respectively! The other 3 boys were next door and Helen as Maid Marion (in an awful fawn wig courtesy of Peter) was in solitary splendour on her own. 

- The show was virtually technically rehearsed and dress rehearsed in one evening (apart from Peter who didn't attempt costumes or make up until the opening night! (Unheard of I suppose in this day and age-but he was the director /producer and could call the shots. And-considering all his entrances were all done from the same side of the stage (stage left), and he was permanently sat there, with his dresser doing everything around him -then there wasn’t much that could go wrong. His costumes were interesting to say the least! The traditional dame frocks, with loud prints -were very good-particularly the opener to each act. But in between times-there was a very bizarre assortment of ladies apparel, neglige, odd punk like creations and even the occasional ladies cocktail frock for the ghost gag. But-he DID change on every entrance-even if there were seconds in between. I reckon he probably racked up at least 15 changes -the most I’ve ever done myself as dame.

Peter 's only note to me was to be a little less forceful as villain when I was working with himself as dame-as if the dame was less of a threat to the Sheriff than male characters were! (A good point about giving a panto villain-light and shade)