Thursday, April 19, 2007

Scraps of distraction: Part 6

Ordinary miracles

Tunnels without end was a disaster. That much was obvious. A couple of the actors, who had been taken by complete surprise by the savagery of the attack, responded accordingly and began acting it as though it were some embarrassingly hideous C-grade drama. There was constant talk of it closing, but Sonia was maintaining the last semblance of her belief in herself, it, and me by keeping it running.

One night, Robert (Piotr) hit Billy (who was playing Valsa, one the maestro's lovers) and almost fractured his jaw. (Undisciplined actors in this particular play of mine would become synonymous with productions of it. In the Melbourne production, Nicholas, who was playing Piotr, would be hospitalised during a performance after a wayward punch to the side of his head from Josephine, the actress playing Sasha, his sister. Discuss.) Billy was refusing to go back on and had demanded that I be summoned to the theatre by management. I raced to the theatre and Billy and I sat in his dressing room while the interval was extended from twenty to almost 45 minutes. Thank God that The Tube runs 24 hours I can remember thinking. This poor audience aren't going to be out until well after midnight!

One night, when I actually happened to be in the audience, the sound system blew up about five minutes into the performance. "Bring it on!" I think I shouted aloud to the three other people that were there. The performance continued and I watched, in complete wonder and every-increasing astonishment, as a pair of impossibly small speakers were lowered from the bio-box window at the top of the right-hand side wall of the stage. They were slowly lowered only when people would have been looking at the opposite side of the stage. I know this, because I couldn't take my eyes off them! And the music duly returned. At interval, I learned that the Assistant Stage Manager had taken over calling the show while Helen had raced outside and up the road a little to rip the stereo system out of her car! The speakers that were being lowered to just above the heads of the actors were the ones from her fucking car! Bless her precious and inspirational heart!

Sadly, we had to let the ASM go. Not only couldn't the production afford him anymore, but he got the offer of another job in another show. I remember him trying to justify his departure to me. He needn't have bothered. The part of me that truly cared about everything that could possibly still happen had departed this production a long time ago.

One matinee afternoon, there was an audience of one (a disturbing fact that would also become synonymous with future productions of this play of mine. In fact, it is so synonymous with this play that I hope it happens again - and fully expect it to - in Sydney next year. I will actually be very disappointed if it doesn't). This charming man was on his way home to New York and he had read about Tunnels without end in the London Theatre Guide and thought he might like to see it. I walked in to the foyer while the staff were informing him that, given that he was the only audience member, the performance might not be going ahead ... and would he mind waiting to see if anyone else turned up. The Union's ruling was (and still is I understand) that if there were more people in the cast than in the audience, then by default, the performance could be cancelled.

The actors were ready. Our audience was ready. The bar was ready. Where was the problem? I asked the cast if they would agree to perform for two - the charming man and me - if he was prepared to become an audience of one. He confirmed that he was. I jokingly made him promise not to walk out (which is ironic really, because that's precisely what would happen in Melbourne.) We sat next to each other and the performance was fantastic ... and our audience member loved it. He cried at the end and apologised for having to rush off to the airport to catch his flight home.

A few nights later, I was at an open air Luciano Pavarotti concert with my friends from the Royal Opera. (We were seated in the row behind Princess Diana.) The concert was fantastic and when it ended, my friends suggested we head to the New End Theatre and have a drink with the actors. The axe was about to fall, and I should stop by and begin preparing myself to finally farewell the theatre which had become my home for the most amazing number of weeks of my life. How soon would it be, they joked, affectionately, before I could again take my friends to a theatre in London where a play of mine was being staged?

It was a wonderful suggestion and we piled into a cab. I immediately knew something was up the second we turned into New End. There wasn't a carspace to be seen. I joked to my friend Ian (who was the Royal Opera's Marketing Manager), that maybe they'd closed Tunnels ... without telling me and put something else on in its place. Our cab dropped us at the front door, and as I marched up to it, it opened from the inside. The front of house manager beamed at me.

"Where have you been all day and all night!" she screamed.

I saw Sonia appear behind her and I was dragged into the foyer. The doors into the auditorium opened and people - not person - slowly started to leave the theatre. Five ... ten ... surely that's got to be it! ... twenty ... thirty. I looked at Sonia who had her hands to her mouth. I felt Ian's hand on my shoulder. Forty ... fifty ... sixty ... I didn't know where to look.

My audience were shattered and many were wiping away tears. Some looked as though they'd just been bored out of their brain, but most of them looked as though they'd seen something. Sonia took my hand and dragged me up the stairs to the bar.

"I've been leaving messages for you at home all day and all night! Where have you been?"

She didn't wait for an answer before placing a large newspaper clipping in one of my hands and a glass of champagne in the other. With my friends peering over my shoulder, I read something I barely recognised: our first good review. Not a great review, but a positive one all the same. Sure, the "destination of the journey" was "a little vague" ... but the drama was "Magnetic!" Magnetic! ... and the costumes were "stunning!"

The review had come out in one of the local Hampstead newspapers and apparently, the reviewer - a woman - was notorious for determining the success or the failure of productions in the local area: and "the journey" with Tunnels ... was, apparently for her, "certainly worth it!" The bar slowly filled up with people who toasted me and applauded. My friends hugged me and, as the actors got news that I was in the house, they too came up and celebrated. It is Helen's hug I will remember as long as I live. It said "This is actually what you deserve! This is what we all fucking deserve!"

And Tunnels without end played to almost capacity audiences for the rest of his run home. I know, because every night, I would stand outside and watch - in complete wonder and with great pride - the audiences pour out of the theatre. The conversations at the bar were epic, intense and incredibly rewarding for me - as they often are when you are among friends.

One day shortly before the end of the run, Sonia called me and told me to come to the theatre. Something else quite amazing had just happened.

I dashed to the theatre and raced up to her office. She handed me a fax: a request for fifteen tickets. The 'charming' man who had dropped by and watched the play on his own was bringing fourteen of his friends all the way from New York for the closing night performance. Not only had this never occurred at the New End Theatre before, but this booking for fifteen plus the bookings already made on the day - in person and on the telephone - meant that I had broken the New End Theatre's record for the most number of tickets sold in one day!

My dribbling, snotty-nosed little spastic had found his home ... and, more importantly, his audience.


The final performance was one I can barely remember. I knew it would be over and a great part of me desperately wanted it to be. Still. And as it came to its conclusion, I felt more overwhelmed than I had ever felt before ... and possibly since. As the actors came out onto the stage for the first time to take their final bows, fifteen people stood up and threw red roses onto the stage. I was actually quite unsentimental about the occasion until I saw Michaela in tears. She bent over and collected a rose and held it up, high in the air and looked at me like I have never been looked at in the theatre since. Everyone but me was on their feet. I couldn't stand up.

I managed one final look at the image that I had created on stage and buried my head in my hands.

It was the first time since I had left my beautiful dog Kimberley with my friends in Australia all those months ago that I had actually been able to cry.


metal_petal said...

I'm crying right now. This is fantastic!

nash said...

This is effing fantastic. I want more right now/I don't want it to end. Oh help...

Snidley Whiplash said...

What an absolutely astonishing journey you've taken us on, Geoffrey. I'm speechless.