Two weeks have shot by, and we are now approaching our final week at the Belgrade. My second home over these past months. Being hurled back into the maelstrom of a buzzing London is going to be strange. I am certainly going to miss my country cottage hideaway.
The owners of my bijoux residence, Tim and Sandy Ruffet, came to see the performance on Saturday evening, it was their first visit to the Belgrade Theatre. Firstly, they were blown away by the building, and then the play. It is impossible to prepare anyone for what they are about to see on stage. It is a thriller after all, and every twist and turn reveals something new, culminating in the extraordinary, and visually sobering ending. On Friday’s performance, the denouement was greeted by an enormous gasp from the audience, and total silence as the lights on stage faded to black. Perfect!
I am also going to miss Turmeric Gold, the award-winning, dining rooms of India on Mediaeval Spon St. I have to confess to having been there practically nightly with Sarah and Sophie for an after show dinner, looked after beautifully by the manager Jay and his attentive staff. In London, you have to pay a Raj’s fortune for such an experience.
Most of all, I am going to miss the BABYLONE company. My after dinner companions, Sarah and Sophie, the Belgrade crew members. Where is Tim? I am already missing Hamish, who has very bravely left us to get on with it. The warmth of the building is a reflection of his personality. He commands with charm and tranquillity, and the odd glass of red. I love that man! And then, there is my fellow rogue and vagabond upon the stage, whom I have shared a second life with, as well as a dressing room, Peter. He is the primary reason I am up here. His tenacious believe in the beautiful writing of BABYLONE, and his determination that an English speaking audience shouldn’t miss out on a unique piece of theatre. We have had plenty of laughs.
But, this is not goodbye; I hope it is merely, au revoir. I am going to confide in you. Andrew Fishwick paid us a special visit on Friday and things could be moving in the right direction for a transfer to the West End. Another West End producer and theatre owner came to see the show incognito, and loved it. In 2010 we will be playing at…………………….. Now, that piece of information I am not allowed to divulge. New York next? Blimey!
So, this is your last week to catch a piece of riveting West End/ Broadway theatre at a third of the price, at your very own Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. That is a first for all involved. I am humbled, proud, and just a little excited. Let’s see what our last week in Coventry has to offer. I have not been disappointed yet.
So, what happened at Press Night? The great and the good were gathered, eventually. Our lighting designer, Mark Jonathan was darting along the tunnel from dressing room out to the foyer, very reminiscent of the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. He hit the automatic exit button, and inadvertently revealed Peter and myself to the audience heading for their seats, as we headed back stage, then Mark was gone.
Peter and I took up our positions in the wings waiting for standby. Over her headphones our ASM, Sarah could hear Front of House panicking that they needed to find seats in the packed auditorium, for the set designer, Libby Watson, and a ‘very important man’. The ‘very important man’ was none other than our white rabbit , Mark Jonathan. Libby has a mischievously wicked sense of humour, and I guessed that she might have insisted on the best seats and used Mark for leverage!
Finally, they were all settled in their seats, standby was given, and we were on.
The hour and a bit flashed by again. The applause died away and we were back in our dressing room. Hardly back at all, when there was a knock on the door. I opened it to reveal our writer, David Eldridge. He was ecstatic. Very happy indeed! He stood back to introduce the original writer of the piece, Jean Marie Besset, and the director of his work in Paris, Gilbert. I smiled inwardly, as I noticed that they were both dressed almost identically to my character, a successful Parisian professional. They were hugely complimentary.
Another knock, and in came our director, Hamish Glen, a big grin across his face. He hugged us both, and exclaimed how pleased he was with our performances. I presented him with a bottle of Margaux as a thank you and a good luck present for the run. He rushed off to gather glasses, and then generously shared out the bottle for a toast. There were the inevitable comparisons with the French production, to which Jean Marie consented that we had the edge on the Paris performance, in design, direction and execution. Though, he was a little taken aback that the running time was 45mins shorter than in Paris. David concluded that this was due to the French having far greater pauses of silence between certain moments on stage. Not sure we would get away with that over here.
So, on to the opening party. I actually usually hate these events. In London, they are an opportunity for people to network and brush shoulders with celebs and potential future employers. Thank God at the Belgrade, it is far more relaxed, and they feed you. Superb! Once we had exhausted the catering and bar staff at the Belgrade, we headed across the way to the Town Wall Tavern, Jean Marie and Gilbert on-tow. Sadly, at this point we bade farewell to our Assistant Director Amy Bonsall, who we will not be seeing again until the last night. I will definitely miss her, not least because she has been my house-mate for the past two weeks, but she makes a mean pot of coffee, and was a very good ear towards ensuring that I was word perfect.
We didn’t have to wait long for the reviews to emerge, and they were more than encouraging. The Times’ approach was thoughtful and thought provoking, The Guardian, tentative about the French writer’s depth, and applauding the production, What’sOnStage.com gave it a rollicking 5star rating, and The Daily Telegraph are set to cover it this week.
The buzz for the West End transfer is a nano louder and increasingly positive. There are even rumblings of a New York transfer, though admittedly the Broadway shift possibility is mostly from Peter in the corner of our dressing room, but then that is his territory, He acted and lived there for many years.
By the end of this week, we should have more concrete answers. One thing we are increasingly aware of is the audience’s responses. They love it! The twists and turns take them by surprise, the design of set and lights delight. Hamish has done a blinding job, with a beautifully crafted piece of writing from both sides of the Channel. This is a production that deservers a wider audience.
Our thanks to (l-r) Carol Roe, Michelle & Wally Bradshaw and Nick Roe for sharing their reaction to Babylone with us following today’s matinee performance.
“This is a beautifully crafted one-act play, skilfully directed by Hamish Glen.”
“… alive with nuance.” The Times
”… its smooth thriller structure enrobes a far knottier tangle of philosophy, religion and social and political morality.” The Times
“… Peter Tate as the intruder and Johnnie Lyne-Pirkis as his victim play cat-and-mouse with finesse.” Michael Billington in The Guardian
“The two-hand chiller thriller is in sure hands with Johnnie Lyne-Pirkis and Peter Tate.” Coventry Telegraph
“… intense and hard-hitting” Coventry Telegraph
“Hamish Glen directs the new studio adaptation of the French hit and delivers each new twist with the precision of a sniper’s bullet.” Coventry Telegraph
“Once again I was struck by what a superb space B2 is for staging small-scale drama.” Birmingham Post
”A performance that will remain in memory long after the final curtain call.” WhatsOnStage
“The two characters … work perfectly together and create a really intriguing mixture of suspicion, suspense, friendship and betrayal.” WhatsOnStage
Libby Watson’s set is up and looking absolutely fabulous, complemented by Mark Jonathan’s extraordinarily beautiful lighting. The Belgrade’s set builders are truly first rate. There were a few creases which needed ironing out, but this is the purpose of the tech. It is not for the actors, but so that, lighting, sound, stage management, and the stage crew have the opportunity to be certain that they are happy with their element of the production, and that the director is satisfied with the overall picture. Having a practical, working lift on stage was bound to create a wee problem. And, it did. But, with the set builders on hand, and a seasoned (and, I have to say, incredibly well tempered) crew, the problem was solved.
It is a wonderful moment, when the team begin to see their months of work begin to come to fruition. For the actor, you finally get to inhabit your space, your character’s home for the next month. Peter and I are truly blessed to be working on a piece which is such a challenge. It is incredibly demanding on our stamina and talents. It never lets up. There is no chance of us getting bored during this run.
So, we need an audience. On Saturday, we had our first preview. Both Peter and I were blown away. Just under 200 audience members for a first night preview. How were they going to react? Our DSM, Sophie, gave us our beginners’ call, and we took up our positions back stage. The opening music swelled, the lights dimmed, the auditorium fell silent, my stomach did a little dance, and I made my first entrance, Peter not far behind me.
There was no turning back, once we were out there, we were there for the duration. The assistant director Amy Bonsall, had done a final line run with me an hour before, to keep me pitch perfect. It felt good. It felt very good. The connection with the audience creates a frisson, gives you a lift, and the piece begins to soar, it takes on a life of its own.
Suddenly it was all over. The lights flashed up. The audience were clapping, and clapping hard. Hamish had said, “If you feel the warmth of the audience, go out for a second bow. Your call.” They were still clapping hard. We came back on stage. The applause intensified. There were some whoops and cheers. Peter gave me a wink and a smile.
As I stepped backstage, our ASM Sarah gave us a massive hug and a kiss each, and as we headed towards our dressing rooms, our winch-man, Tim greeted us with a beaming smile and another hug. Poor devil! He’s the one deserving the hug, having to winch the lift up and down every night.
Our producer Andy Fishwick was in, as was our writer David Eldridge. What was the verdict? Most importantly, had we delivered for Hamish, our director? I was about to head out of the dressing room, when there was a knock on the door. We opened it to an ecstatic Denise and Paul Duncombe, who both work here at the theatre. They loved it. More hugs and kisses. God, I love the Belgrade.
So, out into the bar. More smiles, more hugs. David is a harsh critic, especially with his own work, but he was full of praise. As he headed for the train back to London, he said, “You’re a rock. Trust the piece. Keep calm and be disciplined. Do that, and you’ll be fine.” The first three I got. The last one confused me. I deferred to Hamish. He smiled wryly, and handed me a glass of red wine. “You were bloody marvellous. Drink this. We will work on your discipline on Monday.”
One more preview, one more dress, and Press Night Tuesday. The London Times, Guardian and other national papers are covering as well as the locals. And the Guardian’s placed BABYLONE on the top of their must see, pick of the week lists. David returns Monday with his agent. Hamish will be working his notes. The Belgrade continues to smile over us, as do the black faced sheep over me, as I bash this out on my PC in the kitchen of my cottage.
I’ll have another look at my lines, and then take some fresh air. It is Sunday after all.
Hamish Glen, the Belgrade Theatre’s Artistic Director - and director of Babylone, talks about the show after the final dress rehearsal ahead of tonight’s first preview performance.
The first performance of Babylone is tomorrow (Sat 24) so here’s a quick reminder of where you can buy tickets.
Earlier this afternoon we chatted to Peter Tate, one of the actors performing in Babylone, following the first day of technical rehearsals for the play.
The technical rehearsals happen at the end of the normal rehearsal period and take place on the stage set itself. They offer an opportunity to perfect all the technical elements of the production such as lighting, sound and special effects, as well as costume changes, exits and entrances.
When I first learnt that I was being sent to Coventry, I was very excited. Not merely because it was the home of Lady Godiva, but because I had last been here when I was due to commence work on a documentary film on Jaguar, and had been despatched to the legendary Brown’s Lane Plant. However, I never ventured into the city on that occasion, and now here I was about to start work in the very heart of the city, and for the equally legendary Belgrade Theatre, where numerous theatrical greats were spawned.
Although I knew a little of Coventry’s history, I was still not clear as to what was the physical layout of the city. Friends warned me that pretty, it was not. I am now aware that they had themselves never been here either. There is far more in existence of Mediaeval and Georgian Coventry than I imagined possible, and what remains is very beautiful. Especially breathtaking, being the extraordinary marriage of the two cathedrals.
I am also extremely fortunate to be staying in a delightful converted stable in Corley. I am surrounded by fields, thatched cottages, numerous pubs serving very generous portions of excellent home cooked food, and stillness and silence. All this, but fifteen minutes drive from the theatre in the city centre. You can’t find that within fifteen minutes of London’s West End.
BABYLONE, the play I am rehearsing, and which is opening this Sat, is equally a breath of fresh air. It is literally, a thrilling piece of new writing, brilliantly adapted from the French original by one of this Country’s most exciting young writing talents, David Eldridge. Add to the mix the Belgrade’s ingenious Artistic Director, Hamish Glen, and the end result is pure high octane entertainment.
I received a phone call one Friday morning in September requesting me to give the script of BABYLONE my immediate attention, and to phone the casting director once I had read it. I saw who had adapted it and who was directing, I read the first two pages, and called the casting director. It was a no-brainer. Yep! Coventry here I come.
It was only when I arrived, that I learned that two of the West End’s leading designers were doing the lighting and set-design. Mark Jonathan and Libby Watson respectively. This was a serious piece of work I had committed too, and there is even talk of a West End transfer. So….., no pressure! Less than a week to go, the fantastic set is fitted up tomorrow, we have two more days in the rehearsal room, then we get to inhabit the set ourselves and make it our own.
This is a rollercoaster, thrill-filled ride, that doesn’t let up from beginning to end, and I am very fortunate to have beside me on the journey, Peter Tate, an actor who has trained with the Actors Studio in New York, and is no stranger to the stage of our very own Royal National Theatre in London. He takes no prisoners, and throws himself headlong into every challenge, which is why last week, saw him, myself and the assistant director, Amy, doing a line run in the A&E of Coventry’s University Hospital. Fortunately, it was only a bruised limb. How did he do it? You will have to come and see the show to find out.
There is only one big disappointment with the production for me, that I can’t see it myself. It is looking more than great. It is looking awesome. And, this is my impression from only seeing the massive set in pieces in the workshop. But, I will let you be the judge of that. I hope you can come, and if you do, I hope you have as much fun in the theatre, as we have had in the rehearsal room. Coventry rocks!
Sarah Burton, a talented designer in her own right, is currently working on the set for Babylone up at the Belgrade Theatre’s workshops. This film shows her using a stencil to paint the individual tiles that will make up the entire floor surface of the set.
As you’ll see, she’s got her work cut out!
The Belgrade Theatre’s Press & PR Officer, Ray Clenshaw, chats to Head of Workshop, Andy Hilton about building Libby Watson’s set design for Babylone, particularly the 9m working lift!