Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Sunday, 29 June 2008

How to Put on a Musical 8 – The Theatre

There aren’t enough theatres in London. It’s that simple. As you read this there are musicals circling the West End rather like jumbo jets over Heathrow, looking for somewhere to land. Some of them will never find a landing place, some of them will be forced off to a theatrical equivalent of Schipol or Manchester, some of them will simply crash and burn. Not only are there not enough theatres, most of the theatres that we do have are remarkably unsuitable for musicals being too small and designed as playhouses. They don’t have enough seats, their orchestra pits are a crush for a string quartet, and there is only one ladies toilet in the building.

The crucial thing to consider when deciding which theatre to go for is the ‘take’. How much money can you take in box office receipts per week. If this figure is less than what it costs to run the show then either the theatre is too small or the show is too big. Obvious, you would think, but producers don’t always get this basic arithmetic right. I know of at least one show where the theatre was sold out but the producers found that they were losing money and after a couple of weeks they put the notice up and closed the show. At a less drastic level there are plenty of shows that limp along just breaking even but needing to run for 80 years to recoup their investment.

So how does a producer choose a theatre? He doesn’t, he just takes what he can get unless of course he is Cameron Mackintosh or The Really Useful Group in which case he buys the theatre, renames it after a famous homosexual and puts on whatever he likes. Lesser mortals cast around desperately saying “location, location, location” to themselves and turn their noses up at the Piccadilly or the Shaftesbury. When they fail to secure their first, second, third or fourth choices of theatre they can be heard saying “a theatre is only as good as the show that is in it”.

Project Model – Maintenance!
Producers Alvin Toxteth and Samuel J Bloodlust enter the hunt for a theatre with some foreboding. They are aware that the show, which readers will remember is based on the Haynes Owners Workshop Manual for the 1989 Skoda Favorit, has already acquired a reputation as the ‘Flop of the Year’ even before rehearsals have begun. In a curious way this may turn out to be to their advantage in that theatre owners may take the show as a short term filler, secure in the knowledge that, being a solid gold klunker, it will only run a few weeks and will pay their staff’s wages until something more durable turns up.
Toxteth and Bloodlust sift the rumours and counter-rumours that crackle through the synapses and ganglia (you can tell I’ve been watching too much House) of the West End.
Is business falling off on Happy as a Hapsburg? Has Shirley (the Shirley Bassey musical, with the underrated Bonnie Langford in the title role) shot it’s bolt? Will Lord of the Rings really transfer to the Criterion? Is that weather girl with the big lips going into Chicago? Is the New London going to be turned into a Chinese Cash & Carry?
They wheel, they deal, they are offered the Peacock (the one buried under an office block on Kingsway, which used to be called the Royalty) but decide they will only take up that offer when the Winter Olympics take place in Hell. As insurance Toxteth’s assistant, Kevin Whimper, is instructed to pencil book a pre-West End tour. There is strong possibility that Maintenance! will open in Sunderland……

Casting Update
After the Andover debacle, which has at least raised public interest in the show, the producers and Hampshire Gold TV have rescheduled Baby You Can Drive My Car, the TV audition show, and have discreetly selected two performers who they would like to cast in the leading roles and who they intend to feed into the show among the other hopefuls. A careful plan has been hatched to ensure that the judges, the public and the voting system are ruthlessly manipulated to ensure that Maintenance! gets the two leads the producers want.

Christopher Biggins has turned down the role of Max Sadistik, the vulpine Skoda production line foreman.

Monday, 16 June 2008

In the Year 2025

“Grandad. What will it be like when I’m grown-up?” asked my 10 year old grandson. A big question and not one easily answered as we threaded our way through the rickshaws and minibuses that thronged the forecourt of the Lords Go-Kart and Cricket Indoor Arena. This was my Boxing Day treat for young Cowell, the final match in the 5 match England v Moldova 20/20 Test series. I beat a path through the noodle and dim-sum sellers with my walking stick, pausing only to drop some change into the hat of a limbless veteran of the Afghan Wars. How could I predict anything, let alone something up-beat and optimistic, to the eager little boy by my side when the previous decades had been so tempestuous? Who could have foreseen twenty years ago that private cars would be banned, that mobile phones and computers could be installed in a rear molar, texts and images displayed directly onto the retina, that linguine with a light squid and garlic sauce would appear regularly on school dinner menus.

Who could have predicted that Earl Dewberry would have emerged from Louisiana at the head of the Righteousness and Apocalypse Party of America to sweep away the Republicans and Democrats at the 2016 elections to lead the US into an era of unparalleled isolationism, an era when would be visitors to the USA would have to answer 3 questions at immigration control while attached to a polygraph.
1. Do you believe in the Lord God Almighty?
2. Do you believe that the world was created by the aforesaid Lord God Almighty on Tuesday 14th April 4326 BC at 2.00 in the afternoon?
3. Are you now or have you ever been a Canadian?
Anyone giggling when answering these questions is subject to a mandatory 7 day jail term. President Dewberry has moved the seat of government from Washington to Judgement Day, Montana (pop 403) and was only just dissuaded by his wife Charlene from nuking New York and Los Angeles declaring them to be the true Sodom & Gomorrah. Nato broke up after Dewberry’s allies found his habit of quoting large chunks of the Old Testament in summit meetings tiresome.
As unexpected was the entry of the Russian Federation into the EEC, as was the Russian army taking advantage of existing freedom of movement legislation to occupy all EEC capitals except London and Dublin over a Bank Holiday weekend in August 2017. A technical fault on Eurostar and a ferry strike prevented the Russians from crossing the channel and Prime Minister Johnson promptly took the UK out of the European Federation. European President Putin (elected with 98% of the vote, the 2% are currently in labour camps on an icy marsh near Archangel) declared Johnson to be “nothing more than a mad dog barking at the tree of progress”. In order to secure Chinese support for Britain’s tenuous position on the western fringe of a now hostile continent, Johnson has been forced to sell off most of the UK to Chinese developers. The sale of Leicestershire to the Shanghai & Kowloon Novelty Co was finalised a few weeks ago and only Clackmannanshire remains unsold, partly because no one knows how to spell it and partly because the Chinese can’t pronounce it. On the domestic front the ‘Arts’ have been “given back to the people” by Ministers of Art & Culture, Ant & Dec, who in their 2015 legislation made it a legal requirement for the ‘Big Four’ national companies (the National Theatre, RSC, ENO and the Royal Opera House) to fill all leading roles by TV audition. The public now vote regularly and have recently selected Ray Miggins, a Salford quantity surveyor to play King Lear at the National and Maureen Purvis, an Ealing traffic warden, to sing Brunnhilde at the ROH. The Post Office was closed down in 2012, “in order to give the consumer more choice” according to Prime Minister Johnson. The railways were tarmaced over in 2015. Commuters now hitch their bicycles to massive tow trucks capable of pulling up to 1000 cyclists to work. The economy survives solely by serving the needs of the luxury markets to the east. Cowell’s mother counts herself lucky to have a job as a supervisor in a cyber sweatshop churning out software for entertainment and brothel robots used in the Volga and South China Sea resorts.
As Prince Regent William said in his Christmas speech (with Mandarin subtitles) “these are challenging times but I feel sure that the indomitable spirit of the British people coupled with the technical expertise of the South China Moral Uplift Co will see us through”.
So what should I say to my grandson? Can I really put my hand on my heart and say it will all be OK. Of course I can. I say “It’ll be fine. It’ll be just fine. Would you like some noodles?"

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Strangers on a Train

This coming weekend I am off to Holland to visit Megacarta, billed as the ‘Biggest Dutch Postcard Fair Ever’ with more than 100 dealers. Not everyone’s idea of a racy weekend I’m sure but as we say in Basingstoke “It certainly rocks my ring road”. I could have gone on a cheapo flight to Schipol or Utrecht but I love trains, I love travelling on trains, I love dining on trains and I particularly love sleeping on trains. So on Friday (in fact by the time you read this I will have gone and come back) I am going by Eurostar, which has, inconveniently for me, shifted from Waterloo to St Pancras, to Brussels where I can visit the smattering of postcard and stamp dealers round the corner from the Gare du Midi, have a decent lunch and then catch the ‘Thalys’ (a Belgian version of the TGV) to Amsterdam and from there a commuter train to Utrecht and an uncongenial night in an Ibis hotel. After a long day buying stock to sell on ebay I will do the reverse and come back.
The thing about train travel apart from the trains themselves is the opportunity for random conversations to be had with total strangers and, yes, I am one of those people who irritatingly start off with “Turned out nice again” or “Going far?” and before I know it I am deep in conversation with a man who thinks that ‘Chip & Pin’ is a product of Satanism or with a woman worried about her mother who retired to the Isle of Wight and has never been heard of since.

Some years ago a dance company, who were planning a European tour, approached me to recce a handful of venues but were agonising over the cost of the flights. I stunned them by saying “No problem. I’ll go by train”. It also meant that I could visit my girl friend in Switzerland on the way. I bought the requisite rail-pass which in those days covered the whole of Europe and caught the boat train from Liverpool St to Harwich and after an overheated night’s sleep in a tiny cabin I was deposited at the Hook of Holland at 5.30 on a bitter February morning. This meant that I was at my first target venue in Utrecht before the cleaners, but after a quick measure up and a few photos I was on schedule to pick up the Copenhagen Express at Amersfoort. Whenever I go to Copenhagen I am always struck by how little traffic there is and I think “Damn I’ve arrived on a public holiday and everything will be shut” but no it’s just a very quiet place to visit. The Cannon theatre was a tin shed fringe venue and there was a rehearsal going on when I arrived. This being Denmark the rehearsal consisted of an entirely naked couple simulating sex to some rather nasty electronic music in a pool of light centre stage. The local technical manager said “This chap’s come from London. OK if he takes some measurements?” The couple cheerfully waved me on and I scuttled hastily around the stage with my tape measure feeling rather provincial.
There was time for dinner and a stroll round the city centre before catching an overnight sleeper (the Ostsee Express) to Berlin. In the buffet car I fell in with a bumptious young Englishman on a sales tour of Europe. He was based in Tokyo and was employed by a Japanese corporation, a position arranged by his father who had been at university with the corporation’s CEO. He was the very worst of British, talking fluent business bollocks, in the 21st century he would have found himself in Sir Alan Sugar’s Boardroom getting fired.
“How long have you been on the road?” I asked.
“Three months”. He replied and as he said it he blinked a couple of times and I saw his confidence falter.
“What are you selling?”
“This” and from his briefcase he pulled out samples of some very uninteresting plastic netting, the sort of thing that is used to clad scaffolding on building sites.
“Have you sold much?” I asked.
“No” he said looking rather pained “the problem is that with the current exchange rate it’s very expensive”. I could see his difficulty, at that point in the nineties the yen was sky high against any European currency. Suddenly it all became clear to me, this young man’s entire being was completely at odds with Japanese business life and his co-workers had gone to their boss and said “Either he goes or we go”. In the circumstances dismissal would have been out of the question and so he had been despatched on an impossible mission to Europe. The poor lad was like a latter day Flying Dutchman doomed to wander across Europe seeking salvation but unlike the Dutchman, who gained redemption from the love of a good woman, he just had to sell some of his absurdly expensive plastic netting. I wished him luck and went to bed.

At 7.30 am we arrived at Berlin Lichtenfels and I made a lighting change of train to the Budapest Express. I shared a compartment as far as Dresden with a jolly East German lady pensioner. She immediately insisted that I eat all her sandwiches and her banana and then told me that she had been touring West Germany by train. She explained that in the communist days in the east, pensioners had free rail passes. The Bonn authorities had agreed to honour these for the initial 6 months after unification and the West’s railways were awash with ex-communist OAPs seeing the sights. My companion had bought a postcard from every place that she had visited and she proudly flourished a wad of cards 4” thick. When I told her that my girl friend (now my wife) was Polish she promptly stood up and sang a well known number from an operetta the gist of which was that “Polish girls were the prettiest girls in all the world”.
As we approached Dresden she recounted her experiences during the great bombing raid and how she and her schoolmates had watched the tarmac boil outside the main station. Sadly she left the train at Dresden but her absence was made up for me by a sight at one of Dresden’s suburban stations where every platform was packed with thousands of Soviet soldiers. All dressed in khaki greatcoats with red shoulder flashes, black boots and grey fur hats, they looked magnificent. Apparently they were the last Russian troops in East Germany and they were waiting for trains to take them home. The rest of the run down to Budapest’s Nyugati station was uneventful though the station itself was vast and splendidly Hapsburg. After a night in a revolting hotel I found the Budapest venue, which was a pleasant hall in the middle of one of the city’s parks. The local crew were enthusiastic and particularly so when I described one of the key scenes in the show which involved a nude 65 year old woman getting trapped in a phone box which slowly fills up with water. After an afternoon admiring the bullet holes around the city that bear witness to the 1956 uprising I caught the night train to Zurich. At some point between Budapest and Vienna I was joined by a very drunk American back-packer called Simon who with 3 companions was on his way to Venice. He decided that we were the best of friends but this excess of affection led him to forget that the train divided at Vienna, the section we were in headed west towards Innsbruck while the section he had been sitting in, and where his friends were sitting, turned off south to Italy. As the train was divided it clanked and shuddered which alerted Simon to his danger and he hurtled off down the corridor towards his friends, luggage and passport. The train was already divided and the train staff had not yet closed the door between the two sections. Simon lurched towards the opening aiming to make a despairing leap for the vanishing Venice carriages. Luckily for him both I and the guard grabbed him by the belt and hauled him back to safety before he fell onto the tracks below. We dumped him in a compartment by himself and he passed out to wake up in Switzerland with a hangover and a lot of problems.
As we pulled out of Vienna it started to snow heavily and the train inched its way through the Alps. By dawn we had only got as far as Innsbruck but there the snow stopped and the sun rose on a pristine new world. I had what remained of the weekend to indulge in sensual pleasures in Bern. You may well say “Switzerland and sensual pleasures? Surely a contradiction in terms”, but let’s not dwell on it.

On Monday morning I took the direct TGV from Bern to Paris. At Pontarlier, the Swiss/French border, two French police or customs men, both with guns on their hip, boarded the train and started to question a young man sitting eight seats from me. As the train accelerated into France they searched his bags and after a while they took him away, perhaps to the Guard’s compartment to subject him to a more intimate search. After some time one of them came back with a screwdriver and started to prise fascias off the interior of the train near where the young man had been sitting. Presumably they never found what they were looking for and the young man, looking a little smug returned to his seat. I arrived in Paris in time to fit in a visit that day at our proposed venue which was tiny and staffed by incompetent and rude Frenchmen. Finally I made the boat-train and was back in London that night.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

How to Put on a Musical 7– Staff (Part 1)

Production Manager
There is not a dictionary or thesaurus yet published that contains words enough to describe the awesome responsibilities shouldered by the saintly individuals who undertake the role of Production Manager on a West End Musical. If only the governance of the world could be handed over to a small committee of theatrical production managers global conflict would cease, famine and disease would be eradicated, North Korea would become a tourist hot-spot and the Israelis and Palestinians would put out a joint cricket team.
What exactly do they do? A Production manager is employed by the Producer to deliver the physical production, to employ the staff, to draw up the schedules, to run the technical half of the budget, to supervise rehearsals, the list is endless, but most importantly they need to be ‘The Most Sensible Person in the Building’.

Company Manager
The Company manager is the Producer’s representative in the theatre and apart from running the payroll, petty cash and a welter of other administrative stuff, they face other more challenging tasks like allocating the dressing rooms, not always easy when the Producer has often made contractual arrangements with both leading artists to have the ‘Star’ dressing room. Company Managers are also responsible for maintaining company discipline, a tricky balancing act between being a management ‘Iron Fist’ and having to work with an insecure group of emotional retards, oops! sorry, actors on a day to day basis.
In my youth I was a touring Company Manager for a few years (it was long enough ago that during the second house on a Saturday I would go up to the House Manager’s office to settle up over a glass of whisky. If the show had made money, a rare occurrence, he would hand over cash from his safe) and keeping the company’s morale up in some of England’s more dismal venues was not always easy. On a tour of Michael Frayn’s Donkeys Years I was faced with a bored company whose performances had become sloppy and self indulgent. So before a mid-week matinee in Scarborough, which I knew would be poorly attended I gave the cast a pep talk. Apart from giving them a “pull your socks up” speech I also said that while the matinee audience would be thin on the ground, they would have paid their money the same as anyone else and deserved as good a show as a packed Saturday night house. The cast nodded dutifully and I went round to the back of the stalls to watch and to give the cast their due they took my words to heart and gave a vital pulsing performance until a point in Act 2 when George Leighton was ‘farcing’ as hard as he could down stage centre and a blue rinse lady in the front row turned to her friend and said, clear as a bell (I heard it at the back of the stalls), “Oh this is very boring”. The performance deteriorated from then on.

Project Model – Maintenance!
The Producers of Maintenance! have struck lucky and acquired the services of Stewart Cowless as Production Manager. Stewart is one of the most experienced in the business and if ever there was a man who can impose order on the unruly elements that comprise this particular musical Stewart is that man. At his initial meeting with Alvin Toxteth he failed to mention one or two little availability clashes, namely that during the fit-up and tech rehearsals of Maintenance! he is also booked to be at the fit-up of Trevor Nunn’s new adaptation of The House at Pooh Corner, the tech of Cameron Mackintosh’s Oliver 2 and is also supposed to be organising the opening ceremony of the World Netball Championships in Hobart, Tasmania. These schedule clashes may come back to haunt him.

After interviewing 3 candidates for the post of Company Manager the producers offer the job to Anthony Fawning who is always immaculately turned out and has a nice line in psychedelic bowties. Of the other two applicants one smelled distinctly of sherry at ten-o-clock in the morning and the other had child care issues.

Casting Update
The shortcomings of Hampshire Gold TV’s organisational skills are revealed all too soon as the small ad they placed in the Basingstoke & Andover Gazette announcing open auditions for Baby You Can Drive My Car at Andover’s Corn Exchange bring 17,352 hopefuls to the town all on the same day. The town’s car parks are full from dawn, trains from Waterloo are packed to bursting, public toilet facilities give way under the strain, the queue stretches out of the town half way to Stonehenge. By 11.00 the audition panel consisting of director Kevin McHarrowing, writer Dermot O’Dainty, choreographer Bobby Brasso and musical director Gareth Dixon (grandson of Reginald) have only seen 43 candidates. This is due mainly to McHarrowing’s insistence on discussing each auditionee’s political and religious beliefs in some detail regardless of their suitability for the two parts on offer. By lunchtime the town has been stripped of all food and drink, the High St has become an open sewer as the North Rd ‘Pay & Display’ Conveniences overflow and the crowd turn ugly. Local police are unable to cope and the situation degenerates into what locals will later refer to as ‘the Sack of Andover’. Fortunately a detachment of the Welsh Fusiliers are stationed nearby and are making final preparations for their departure to Iraq. They quickly move into the town (codenamed Basra for the day) in full desert combat gear and clear the streets corralling the furious would-be Barrys & Sharons in the Cattle Market, the Bus Station and the Azda car park. Alvin Toxteth then speeds up the selection process by rejecting anyone whose surname does not begin with A,B or C and who wasn’t born in July. This cuts the queue down to a manageable 200 or so. The remainder are herded at gunpoint onto buses and trains out of the town, many are dumped randomly at motorway services all over the southern counties. Toxteth bravely trots out the old cliche about “there being no such thing as bad publicity” while a CNN helicopter hovers overhead. Questions are asked in the House of Commons as to why a sleepy Hampshire town has been put to the sword in the interests of musical theatre and the resignation of the Home Secretary is demanded.
At the end of this debacle not a single possibility for either of Maintenance!’s two leads has been found.

Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
The Map