Wednesday, 18 January 2012


It is with great regret that I have decided to leave my little boat. In the early hours of New Years Day, I stood at a bus stop in Hackney and counted down the minutes until I could remove my heels.  As I peered down the road for the 277, I thought about the year which had just passed and the year ahead. I will turn thirty this year, and like most women about to hit that milestone birthday, I considered the things I wanted to achieve.
Some women who are about to hit this age may decide that they want certain things. A few realise that they want to get serious about their careers or they think that maybe now is the time to have a baby. Some chicks think that maybe it’s time to put an end to casual sex and that really they should be having a more adult approach to relationships instead of just hitting the Phoenix on a Saturday night with nothing but an Oyster card, a toothbrush and a spare pair of pants.  Or if they can afford it, there are ladies who decide that it is now appropriate to stop playing the renting game and get together a deposit and actually buy somewhere.
 I have decided I want a flushing toilet. And to not feel the need to go to bed wearing a life jacket during seventy mile per hour winds.
When I first moved on to the boat, I thought that any Future Gentleman Friends would find my way of life unusual, exotic and bohemian. But the reality is that there is nothing arousing or seductive  about explaining to a man that they need to go outside to the Facilities Block to use the toilet. And before you know it your Future Gentleman Friend is a Past Gentleman Friend who is seeing a six foot Brachiosaurus with tits like Eggs Benedict and an en suite.
Anyway, once I had made the decision to leave, I realised that this meant packing up all of my belongings. Again. So out came the heavy duty bin liners and I decided that I needed to be ruthless when it came to chucking stuff away.  It was time to lose some baggage.
At the bottom of my wardrobe were several storage boxes. One was full of belts and scarves, one was full of other accessories, and two were full of Press Night cards. I sat in the middle of my futon and got on with the task of lightening my load. I filled up the bin liners with polka dot headscarves and studded belts. Along with glow in the dark headbands which no longer glowed, a pair of sequinned gloves and some handcuffs.
After half a bottle of Merlot my two boxes of unnecessary tat eventually became just half a box of things which may come back into fashion one day. And after having second thoughts and a quick rummage in a bin liner I chucked the handcuffs back in there too. 
Benedict Tits might have legs like a gazelles and an en suite wet room but I have handcuffs and an open mind.
So then I started on the two boxes of cards, trinkets and signed programmes. Before I knew it an entire hour had passed and I was sat surrounded by half the stock of Paperchase and more ‘Thank You’s’ than an acceptance speech at the Oscar’s.
At the top of the first box there were cards I had received recently. I sipped my wine and grinned at the messages. There was a tiny miniature grand piano which I had only received last week, and a whole heap of other cards full of the usual ‘Thanks for all your work!!!’, ‘Here’s to a great run!!!’
But there are some other cards which are slightly more unusual. One is simply a photo of a child’s bouncy ball which immediately triggers a strong memory. This ball became the source of great pleasure during one rehearsal process as we, the entire company, started every day with a lengthy group game of Keepy-Uppy .  And to give the director credit, this did admittedly help us all bond and get our energy up at the start of a brand new rehearsal day. The morning games of Keep-Uppy would become slightly competitive and if you dropped the ball then you would be on the receiving end of some chummy abuse. I somehow gained the nickname ‘Tranny Hands’ which is weird as my hands are unusually small and I can only assume that this was part of the joke. But putting this game into our routine did help us all work together as a group and when I look at this photo of a ball with the message on the back (‘Jess, Thanks for all the hard work done with your massive hands’) it really makes me grin.
Sadly, the play only got two star reviews and was described as ‘hollow’, ‘formulaic’ and ‘predictable’.  But who gives a crap when you’re making friends and keeping a ball off the ground for a good twenty minutes?
There were other beautiful cards which made me very happy that I had made the decision to hoard these bits of paper. For instance, I unearthed a Get Well Soon card signed by Sir Derek Jacobi when I caught mumps. He wrote a sweet message about how he hoped I felt better soon and left his sweeping signature. Sadly another actor, who is now Actually Quite Famous, had also signed the card but had written a rather rude message about my swellings and how parts of his anatomy were also swollen. Not only did I find it rather vulgar but also quite surprising. If you have the opportunity to share a card with Sir Derek Jacobi, you would think you'd find something other than your cock to write about. But that’s actors for you.
Actually, the more cards I read, the more I noticed how many included innuendo and double meanings. Like one from when I did ‘The 39 Steps’ and cued the show from a box. Throughout the run I endured many salacious comments about my ‘box’ and one card reminded me of this.
‘Thanks Jess! How many steps are there to YOUR box!!! LOL!’
Several other cards also had ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ double entendre type messages inside. But others were less subtle.
‘Dear Jess!! Will miss your big tits!!’
So I continued to rummage through that first box and found many cards and little keepsakes that reminded me of shows and actors from the past year or so. But when I opened the second box and started to rifle through the cards, I began to feel a sense of confusion. My memories felt muddied and I don’t think it was just the half bottle of wine.
Well, a whole bottle of wine.  
And a small Port.
There was one which had a picture of a pot-bellied pig on the front and inside was written the words,
 ‘Jess! Remind you of someone? HA HA HA!!! Love Charlotte x’
I looked at the picture on the front and realised that it didn’t remind me of anything. I couldn’t even remember Charlotte. Who the hell was she? And why would a pot-bellied pig make me laugh? Did we have a private (and probably quite size-ist) joke about another company member?  There was no date or play title written within the card and as I toyed with it in my fingers, my eyes rested on the bin liner.
Unable to shove the pig card in with the other unloved accessories and out of date Durex packs, I decided to just keep it to one side. I was struggling to bring myself to completely discard messages which had, at one point, probably meant something.
There was one card, however, in the depths of the second box, which I did remember. It was from someone called Dave (that’s not his real name). Inside the card was the name of the show, the date of the Press Night and his full name. Along with the message;
‘Jess, Hope you have a wonderful Press Night and looking forward to getting to know you on tour.’
Sadly, myself and Dave did got to know each other on tour. He learnt that I had no time for actors with a poisonous attitude and a punctuality issue. And I learnt that he was a cunt. I considered his card for a while. Despite the fact that I had (and still) despised him and his horrific behaviour, it was still intriguing to get a glimpse of a time when we had obviously made the effort  to purchase a card and write something sweet within it.
Even as I looked at the handwriting of a man I detested, I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to throw it away having hung on to it for so long. So I laid it on top of the Mysterious Charlotte’s card and continued digging through the rest of my theatrical artefacts, silently munching on some Love Hearts I had found buried under a party invite.
The Charlotte/Dave pile started to get bigger as I uncovered more and more messages containing references I didn’t remember from names which meant absolutely nothing. Most of them were just standard Press Night messages because, let’s be honest, nobody writes what they really think in Press Night cards. Otherwise mine would say stuff like,
‘Dear Paul.
You are very good in the play but still paraphrasing lots in Scene Two. Have a wonderful Press Night and here’s to the rest of the run.
J x
P.S. You have ‘borrowed’ a million pencils off me and I want them back please. I am a Stage Manager. Not a portable branch of Rymans.’
 As the minutes passed by and my feelings of sentimentality seeped away, I decided that the most obvious thing to do was to pour these scrawling into my bin liner. Keeping this crap was not going to improve my life, help me to remember these people or get me a flushing toilet.
However, right at the bottom, my nails brushed across a glittery card with the standard ‘Thank You’ emblazoned across the front in swirly writing. I pulled it out and saw that it was from somebody called Michael. Again, the card did not contain the name of the play or the date and for the life of me I could not remember a Michael. But I read his words anyway. And for a few moments afterwards I just sat in the gloom. My legs were crossed beneath me and my hands cradled the wine glass. I stayed like that for some time. Just taking in Michael’s words and thinking that it must have been one of the first cards I had ever saved. Over ten years ago I had taken the decision to not recycle it or throw it away and had instead kept it in a box where other cards would eventually pile on top of it. Entombing it and preserving it simultaneously.
I know that we all write Press Night messages that we don’t necessarily mean, but Michael wrote something so genuine and unaffected that, even all this time later, it still made me feel that somebody had really appreciated me. To type out what Michael had written would be slightly self-indulgent and incredibly wanky. So I’ll just keep his words to myself.
I took the decision to place all of my cards back in the boxes, despite the fact they take up space I don’t have. I may not remember the well-wishers but they are all people I have worked with at some point and if they have taken the trouble to think of me, then who am I to instantly disregard them.
So no cards went into my bin liner.
Except for Dave’s.
(He really was a cunt.)

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Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Slipper and the Rose

Why did you get into theatre?
This is a question I have been asked many times and, if you work in theatre, you have probably been asked it too. By people interviewing you for a job perhaps. Or by friends who Don’t Work In Theatre. Or fucking annoying taxi drivers who have picked you up after a seven hour train journey and their only sodding task is to take you to the venue but have decided that they want to know every mundane detail of your career and whether you have met anyone ‘off the telly.’
I’m actually a bit reluctant to tell people why I got into theatre and sometimes  I lie about it. I lied about it several years ago when I had a big interview at a Reasonably Successful Company. About five people were seated around a large table and one lady in the middle leant forwards to me and asked,
“So, Jessica. Why did you get into theatre?”
I knew the real answer but was embarrassed to admit it to these wise and practised professionals, sporting their Reasonably Successful Company t-shirts. So I lied and said how I had once seen a production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the Reasonably Successful Company when I was at school and how enchanted I had been.
They all smiled proudly before another interviewee, a man, made eye contact with me and proposed the next question,
“Jessica, what do you think you would bring to the Reasonably Successful Company?”
I grinned cheerfully and blurted out my answer.
“A bag!”
This comical and also incredibly truthful answer was not as well received as my previous lie. It was met with slightly puzzled looks and I swear I saw one of them quickly draw a little blunt cross on a bit of paper. Later that night I went for a Chinese meal with my Gentleman Friend of that period.
“So,” he enquired, “how was the big interview with the Reasonably Successful Company?”
“Okay,” I nodded, “I was just myself.”
“Oh dear.”
I glared at him over my grilled dumplings and reached for the Merlot.
But actually, I hadn’t completely been myself. I hadn’t told them the real reason I had originally decided that I wanted to get into theatre.
It probably happened when I was a very little girl. About six or seven. Boys were still nasty, vile creatures that one wanted to keep a distance from and Merlot was still just ‘mummy’s special juice’. My parents encouraged my sisters and I to have outside hobbies and to not just sit staring at the TV or endlessly playing pacman on our little Spectrum. But they would also succumb to the simple pleasure of sometimes being able to plonk us infront of a VHS.
But even my video collection was slightly different to the kids I shared a play-do scented classroom with. While my peers were spending their rainy Sunday afternoons munching Findus crispy pancakes and watching ‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’ or something involving the Care Bears, I was sat on the living room floor transfixed by Julie Andrews whirling around in front of some mountains in ‘The Sound of Music’. Or I would be singing all the lyrics to ‘As the World Falls Down’ whilst I watched David Bowie prance about in his painfully tight leggings during ‘Labyrinth’.
I just assumed that all my primary school chums were watching the same things and it would come as a shock to realise that they were more likely to know the theme tune to ‘Rainbow Bright’ or ‘The Gummi Bears’ than be able to sing the entire score of ‘The Music Man’.
 (I don’t think I was always in the right key but I knew all the words.)
Another favourite film of mine from a very early age was the feature length Beatles cartoon of ‘The Yellow Submarine’, despite it being made a full 14 years before I was even born. Of course when I watch it now and take in the psychedelic cartoon imagery and the fact that everyone keeps saying ‘It’s all in the mind, y’know’, I fully realise it’s completely about hallucinogenic drugs and is probably not appropriate viewing material for an eight year old. But that didn’t matter. I liked the bright colours and learning the lyrics to Beatles songs.
Although I have a theory that if you are born in Liverpool or the surrounding areas (as I was), you never learn Beatles lyrics. You’re just born already knowing them.
It’s a gift.
But one of my all time favourite films from this innocent era, was (and still is) ‘The Slipper and the Rose.’
A few years ago, previous to my disastrous interview with the Reasonably Successful Company, I realised that owning ‘The Slipper and the Rose’ on VHS was useless as I was without a video player. So I scoured the internet for it and discovered a woman on E Bay selling a DVD copy which had come free with the Daily Mail. I decided that as I would not be funding the vile publication directly, it was okay for me to purchase it.
And as I curled up under the duvet watching it, I remembered how as a little girl, these films had struck such a chord with me. Especially ‘The Slipper and the Rose.’
It is essentially the story of Cinderella but done as a rather lavish musical. It was made in 1976 and (little know fact) was produced by David Frost.
Gemma Craven plays Cinderella and is everything you would want your Cinderella to be. She has a cherub like face throughout, a luminescent beauty when she makes her grand entrance at the ball, and a cracking set of knockers.
When I grew up, I wanted to be Gemma Craven.
Tragically, when Gemma Craven grew up, something rather terrible happened to her and she ended up making the common, heart-rending mistake that many talented yet stupid actresses make.
She was in Hollyoaks.
In fact, it’s worse than that. She was actually in ‘Hollyoaks Later’ in 2008. Playing the mum of the irish bloke who was HIV positive.  Gemma is now married to a man who changed his name by deed poll from Gary Womack to ‘Lord Odin’.  And previous to being called ‘Lord Odin’ he was self-named ‘Mickey Mouse’.
They live in Blackpool.
I’ll stop talking about what happened to Gemma Craven because it genuinely breaks my heart. I like to remember her as my exquisite Cinderella, dancing about in a field holding her treasured, sparkly slipper aloft. And then being fiercely embraced by Richard Chamberlain, after he has dismounted from his massive white horse with his shirt unbuttoned down to the navel.
It’s all terribly romantic.
When I watch the film now I can see that it is not without its flaws. The design is magnificent and the costumes are opulent to say the least. But the consequence of this opulence teamed with the poor sound quality is that when all of the ladies are dancing at the ‘Bride Finding Ball’, the sound of the rustling taffeta is deafening. Plus the special effects are terrible. There is a sequence which features a mouse being transformed into a horse to pull the carriage. Basically there is a shot of a man wearing a mouse head, then the screen goes weird, then there is a shot of a horse.
But none of that matters.
When I was doing a Shakespeare piece recently,  the director told us something that a well known writer had told him. See, stage managers do listen to this stuff;
‘Always know where the hangman is hiding.’
Even in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ which appears light enough, there is always the lingering threat of Death. If Hermia does not agree to marry Demetrius, she might get killed or sent to live in exclusion for the rest of her life. And if Peter Quince and the Mechanicals put on a crap play, they may also face the hangman.
‘The Slipper and the Rose’ is no different. There is one scene which I always used to fast forward but as I watch it now, I appreciate that it is actually a phenomenal piece of script writing accompanied by some top acting. Cinderella and Prince Edward have been reunited after some nifty detective work involving the slipper (proof that a great pair of shoes can change your life) and are about to embark on a wondrous life together. But the country is under the threat of war. And the King has decided that the Prince needs to marry a proper Princess and Cinderella, radiant though she is, just does not fit the bill. So the King’s right hand man has to go and deliver the news to Cinderella and tell her that she will be exiled to somewhere that nobody can find her;
‘You see only love and happiness staring you in the face. I see only war and destruction unless a sacrifice is made.’
‘The hangman’ is the necessary element to making all of these ‘dated’ and ‘cheesy’ films so heartfelt and so timeless. ‘The Sound of Music’ isn’t just whiskers on kittens and dancing round in curtains. There is the constant and disturbing presence of the Nazis. And in ‘Labyrinth’, Jennifer Connelly might be making friends with adorable Ludo and a whole variety of fun Jim Henson characters but she is also trying to stop her baby brother being held hostage for all eternity by the Goblin King.
Despite being within a loving and close family, growing up between Birkenhead and Liverpool under Margaret Thatcher’s reign meant that romance was not exactly very present in my surroundings. But these films changed that. There is a tender moment in ‘The Slipper and the Rose’ after the Prince and Cinderella have met at the ball. Richard Chamberlain is trying to explain to Cinderella how he has been feeling trapped by his Royal duty. But how she has changed that and made him feel how anything could be possible.
‘Whatever happens afterwards, I shall always remember this moment. And you must take my present happiness to make you happier.’
These films made me forget I was an eight year old with glasses and knotty hair and a lack of any understanding of the importance of PE. They showed me a world which I wanted to be part of. These films had drama and romance but they also had this slightly unreal edge with people suddenly bursting into song, accompanied by an unseen band. Or launching into complex yet clearly rehearsed dance routines, seemingly spontaneously.
I knew that in real life there was no such thing as fairy godmothers or mice which turned into horses, but I had been shown a place where these things could occur. My parents, noticing this trend in my favoured afternoon viewings and observing me hurling myself around the garden clutching my Clarks Princess shoe (the ones with the key in the sole), introduced me to the joys of youth amateur dramatics.
And the rest, as they say (whoever they are) is history. And the present. And hopefully the future if I can manage to stop cracking stupid gags in important interview situations.
After years perched in front of a tiny screen observing these theatrical masterpieces I now work within this industry which somehow manages to create ‘magic’ and romance in a pure, undiluted form. (I have hopes that if I play endless Ally MacBeal boxsets to my kids from a tender age they will grow up with an overwhelming desire to be a lawyer.)
So there you go. The reason I work in theatre.
Have I answered your question?

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