Sunday, 31 August 2014

Huff Blog 17 - AGYG

Venue 13 on the Annie Get Your Gun tour and unlucky for some, you might say. This week we've been in beautiful Brighton, a cultural and theatrical mecca on the South coast and frequent keeper of my heart. I've lost count of the number of times I've considered moving here and, after some unscheduled extra time in the city, I'm understandably contemplating it once again.

We've been in the historic Theatre Royal this week, one of the more deliciously old-school theatres on our tour. The theatre itself was built in 1806 and has such an incredible history of performers that it's hard not to feel slightly overwhelmed when you consider you're treading the probably-been-replaced-by-now-but-still-essentially-the-same boards as Charles Wyndham, Marlene Dietrich, Mrs Patrick Campbell and Laurence Olivier, amongst so many others. Of course, the wonderful Annie Get Your Gun cast has now been added to that illustrious list and thus it was fitting that we made our own little addition to history by celebrating our 100th performance there on the Wednesday matinee. Or rather, some of us did.

On Tuesday evening, press night for Brighton, venue 13 did indeed prove unlucky for me and the toll of the show began to show in my voice. The role of Annie Oakley is a tough sing for anyone. The range is vast - from the low notes of 'Showbusiness' to the top Bb of 'Anything You Can Do', the styles are wide ranging - belting 'You Cain't Get A Man With a Gun' to lyrical 'I Got Lost In His Arms' and even the dialogue is pretty heavy going. I'm rather protective, possibly over-protective, of my voice because of how much my roles mean to me. I believe it's a privilege to be able to do this for a living and so I'll do anything to ensure vocal strength. This means I wear a scarf all the time, frequently don't talk unless onstage and haven't had an alcoholic drink since March. (Apart from the last night of Manchester before the first holiday, but the less said about that the better!)

As such, it was heartbreaking to me to hear some vocal cracks during the belt notes of 'You Cain't Get A Man With A Gun' on Tuesday night. The rest of the show felt absolutely fine but it seemed sensible that, if I wanted to make it through to the end of the run without causing damage, I should take a couple of shows off to rest - my first since 2009! I can't honestly tell you how difficult I found that, even knowing how astonishing Natalie Day was going to be as Annie Oakley, and how safe the role would be in her more than capable hands. With only a few weeks to go I simply didn't want to miss any performances.

Going off a show is never easy, especially on a tour as you have nothing around you. It's not like being able to take a couple of days off with your family, on tour the company are your family. And with vocal rest I wasn't even able to phone my literal family for some long-distance TLC. Let me tell you, those two days were not only hard but lonely. So I bought shoes. Obviously. Shoes make everything better and they're very pretty. 

After two days off, with Natalie bringing the house down as Miss O, I returned to the show to complete my own personal 100th performance on the Friday night. The Brighton audiences have been brilliant the entire week and it was so wonderful to be back in the warm embrace of the company, a sort of coming home if you will. After a few more standing ovations and a quick pack up of my relatively unassembled dressing room space, the flight cases and trucks were reloaded and now it's off to Glasgow for our penultimate week. There are only two tour venues remaining. Only 16 more shows to 'do anything better'. Only 272 more minutes of crazy interval change left. I better make sure each and every one counts. 

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Huff Blog 16 - AGYG

With only a few weeks left on the Annie Get Your Gun tour, there's a heady sense of excitement in the air, not least because we're finally properly hitting the beach! This week we've been in the beautiful town of Bournemouth, something of a delicious gem as far as I'm concerned and home to many wonderful surprises during our time here.

There's something thoroughly invigorating about the seaside. Maybe it's the sea air, the proximity to nothingness over the ocean or simply the fact that there's a general sense of holiday which pervades over everyone, whether they're actually on holiday or not. We've been fortunate with the weather too, glorious sunshine and dry days which have made for a nicely sun-pinked company. There has still been the need to wrap up though as the winds of Bournemouth can be pretty wick, particularly late at night. This is England after all!

As the only week of the tour where we've not had three matinees, nor understudy rehearsals, there's been plenty of time for social activities. Coupled with the fact that most of the company have been staying in the same hotel - a somewhat Fawlty Towers affair apparently - you'd be forgiven in thinking that we'd be sick of each other by now! Not so, with the midweek matinee done and dusted we hit the beach for a late night barbecue party that evening and followed it up with a sports day afternoon on the Thursday!

Splitting into teams of four, denoted by that kit box staple of any decent stage management member - coloured electrical tape, we raced around a long stretch of sandy beach recreating the sports days of our childhoods. There were valiant efforts made all round at the sandy sprint, the wheelbarrow, three-legged and egg & spoon race (with the spoon in the mouth - a first for me!) amongst others. Our taller members also proved incredibly adept at the standing long jump, although Ste's forward handspring attempt proved most hilarious of all, if not particularly successful.

Races completed and points totted up, the Red team of Iffy, Lisa, Jordan and Ste were declared the winners and presented with their trophies. As is only appropriate ice cream followed and then games of rounders and football, before a dip in the warm-for-England-but-still-blooming-freezing sea. That evening's show was sponsored by far too much fun and a healthy dollop of aftersun to boot!

Fun and games aside there's also been some exploring time. My personal find of the week was a little cafe a short distance out of the town centre called Frieda's Tearooms. I've been staying a mile or so away from the theatre and on one of my many walks in I decided to search for Bournemouth's Best Breakfast and this is where Tinternet lead me. They weren't kidding. A gorgeous boutique place in itself, the eponymous Frieda served up the most wonderful full English for me, followed by a decadently indulgent hot chocolate with all the trimmings - including Maltesers! Certainly a must for any visitor - I'm only sorry I didn't have room for cake too!

I'd also recommend a visit to the gardens that run alongside the theatre. The beautiful River Bourne trundles through them and on most afternoons there appeared to be a band of some sort playing on the bandstand there. It was all rather like stepping back in time. Listening to the strains of Cole Porter and Gershwin from my blanket on the green, it was just nice to take the time to stop for a while. Completely and utterly stop. Turn off the technology, ignore the world and take a deep breath of calmness. It was a little unnerving however when the brass band began playing what felt like a potted musical history of my career, beginning with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!

Saturday sadly saw the final shows for our lovely Alternate Frank, Jonathan Wilkes. He's been an amazing part of the show and it feels weird that he's now hung up his holster. It also highlights that there are only three weeks left on this tour and the reality of unemployment, and leaving behind this incredible company, is approaching with painfully dizzying speed. Better make the most of it - bring on Brighton and Beach Week 2! 

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Huff Blog 15 - AGYG

Press is one of the things that goes hand in hand with promoting a show, but it's always nice to shake it up from the usual tv, radio and newspaper interviews by taking a step out into the unusual. And step out we did, all the way to Wimbledon Piazza for a Wild West themed fun day in anticipation of our appearance at the Wimbledon New Theatre in September. There have been several of these fun days around the country as we've toured, but this is the first one the company have been able to attend due to the proximity of our venue for the week. Aside from giving the people of Wimbledon a taster of the show by performing 'There's No Business Like Showbusiness', there was also a lasso rope ring toss, shooting gallery and even a bucking bronco, which we gamely gave a turn - under the watchful eye of company manager Kristi of course. No broken bones here please!

Fun and games aside we headed off en masse to Woking, this week's venue, to tech in the show as we usually do on a Tuesday and then settle into our dressing rooms. Being so close to London, many of the company are commuting so the socialising has been notched down. However, there's one thing guaranteed to make everyone hang around for the last train.... ice cream! It turns out that Woking is home to Creams, the most epic of American style ice cream parlours and, as an added bonus, it's open until late! With sundaes, waffles, crepes and about a gazillion flavours to try there really was something for everyone to indulge in.

It's probably a very good thing that we didn't discover the parlour until Thursday though, as otherwise our corsets might not be fitting quite so well once we get to Bournemouth. On the Friday night a repeat visit occurred, in the necessary interest of testing the crepes this time, and showing our physio Gina our discovery. On the following Saturday night I may have even been back in the booths again for a third time. In my defence, I had a friend in to see the show and it seemed only right to share the magic of Woking.

Woking's magic was only furthered by the arrival of a new tour mascot in the form of a 15 inch high sexy ceramic cowgirl figurine! She was unearthed by Will's parents as part of an auction lot they purchased and for some inexplicable reason they didn't want to keep her. Fanny Crackawhip, as she has been affectionately named, has now joined the stage right props table where she will live for the remainder of the tour until, unless she turns out to be a priceless antique, we decide to use her for target practice!

Mascots seem to be part and parcel of touring, with many of the company carrying something that reminds them of home. I'm personally touring two of my own in mascots in my kit box. Firstly I have Treacle, a knitted cat teddy bear who was a birthday present from a friend in Japan. Treacle surveys my dressing table antics and was recently joined by a teeny tiny lego figurine of Annie Oakley. This latter gift came from my beautiful baby niece Faye, I'm assuming as an apology for her stealing the Annie Oakley balloon our illusionist Darren made me!

But it seems I'm not the only one adopting additional mascots on the road, despite the fact we have limited space. For press night in Manchester I got everyone miniature cacti. Whilst some of the team have been touring them, our DSM LĂ©onie has been slowly adding to her real cacti with a myriad of other Wild West themed items. It began when she ducked out of the rain in Oxford into a phone accessory shop, chancing upon a small cactus headphone socket protecter (who knew such a thing even existed?!) which it seemed rude not to then buy. Since that moment the Western-themed gifts have been coming thick and fast, particularly in the form of stationery - what girl doesn't need a cactus-shaped eraser or two? It does however mean she will only ever be able to do cowboy-based musicals from now on, I think.

Next week we finally return to the seaside by playing Bournemouth Pavilion Theatre and as there are only seven shows to do, and no cover rehearsals either, we're already planning the beach parties. The outdoor games from Malvern have been dusted off and there are fireworks and barbecue nights afoot. Anyone would think we're on holiday - although with an easier schedule for the week it feels almost as if we are! With that in mind it seems only appropriate that we take a paddle in the sea as well. Wait... did someone mention ice cream?

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Huff Blog 14 - AGYG

I've mentioned before that one of the joys of touring is getting to explore new places that you may ordinarily never visit otherwise. The flip-side is that you also get to return to the venues and cities that you know and love well. You look forward to the familiar territory, however briefly you are able to tread it as it makes life on the road seem, well, less on-the-road!

This week has been another of my Old Familiar weeks. We're in Liverpool at the incredible Empire theatre and whilst I've not played this venue before I am familiar with the city, having most recently played the Arena with Michael Ball in 2009. Like Edinburgh, Liverpool was on my university shortlist and my love affair with Merseyside sprung up around that time when I was attempting to fill in my university application forms. I was 17 and although I was in the middle of my A-levels, I was given 4 months out of school to make a movie with Steve Coogan called The Parole Officer. The film was predominantly shot in Manchester, where it was also set, but one particular sequence proved impossible to do there.

The movie revolves around a bank heist, during which the motley crew of perpetrators (myself included) have to access the bank by zip-lining from an adjacent, higher building. There were no feasible locations in Manchester so instead the entire film crew and cast packed up and moved over to Liverpool for four days, where we filmed the scenes whilst desperately trying not to show the Liver Birds in the background! Due to the petrol crisis at the time we ended up staying in the city rather than commuting, so in between pulling enormous piggy banks around dressed as a schoolgirl and sliding through ventilation shafts in a ladybird mask (as you do) I had the brief opportunity to visit some of the many tourist attractions that Liverpool has to offer. 

Now Liverpool is well-regarded for its welcoming atmosphere but the Empire is a big old house to fill. After the packed out (comparatively) tiny theatre of Malvern I think we were all a little reticent about how it would feel to be back in a vast space with an orchestra pit void again. We needn't have worried. The Liverpool audiences have been the most engaged and vocal so far! Standing ovations, cheering, whistles and a lot of laughter! A perfect antidote to the sudden downpours that have tried to dampen our moods.

Yet it's still all-guns-blazing-busy in the Annie Get Your Gun camp. This week we met Michael Starke who will be joining our little company to play Buffalo Bill in Blackpool and Torquay, once Norman Pace has departed for all things One Man, Two Guvnors. Joining us for the delectable Hannah Grace's birthday tea, he clearly fit right in whilst we were treated to the sight of a Double Bill-feature (Sorry, terrible joke). Company sight-seeing trips aside, our wonderful understudies have also finished their rehearsals with a full run through this past Friday. 

Understudy runs are always a slightly bizarre affair because the cast is somewhat depleted, particularly on this show with such a small, hard-working company. Ste was apparently especially funny as he covers so many roles that he was swapping characters with aplomb to make the most of it. He's like a one-man Wild West production all by himself! The fact that we also move a lot of the set boxes and barrels around also made for some set change chaos, so when they do the next cover run in a few weeks' time, I think the rest of us will be volunteering to help. I'm personally looking forward to breaking out my chaps for My Defences Are Down!

Our next stop is the New Victoria theatre in Woking, with a brief detour via Wimbledon for some of us in order to do a bit of pre-production press there. After that we'll be hitting the beaches on the south coast for some sun, sea, sand and ice cream... oh and a show or two! With only 8 weeks left to go on the Annie Get Your Gun tour after Liverpool, it feels everything is moving far too fast. I'm not ready for this production to finish as I'm loving it far too much, and as the local lads here said... all you need is Love.  

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Huff Blog 13 - AGYG

It's been a week of ups and downs. Literally. This week the Annie Get Your Gun team have been in the beautiful, and somewhat hilly, town of Great Malvern at the Festival Theatre. It's one of the smallest venues we play on the tour in terms of stage space and although we'd already had a rehearsal in anticipation of this, nothing quite prepares you for re-spacing a full show in limited tech time.

After the vast expanse of stages like Edinburgh Playhouse, playing on the limits of the Festival Theatre has meant we've all become much cosier this week. The wing space demands that you only ever walk in single file, meaning we're now super organised in terms of entrances and exits. Poor Leonie (DSM) had to call the show from a completely separate room and bits of the show couldn't even make it to the stage! Gone were the back cloths (as happened in Birmingham) but also cut were the curtain kabuki drops, whilst the cart never even made it to the shooting match! Although we did manage to lay down the entire floor, having thought we wouldn't be able to, we still weren't able to use the front four feet due to lighting rig restrictions.

All that aside though the show has benefitted from us changing it up a little. We've had to be on our toes and concentrate harder, a good thing when mid-tour complacency could set in. Having the audience that much closer, even in the circle, has also meant that we've felt more engaged with them, and they with us if the standing ovations received this week are anything to go by.

A closer company also means social activities have been at a premium too. The Festival Theatre is situated in a beautiful park and when the weather has been good enough, we've been outside playing frisbee and ball games courtesy of a trip to the local outdoor activity shop. It's a great way to expend some energy when you're on a post-show adrenalin high, although I don't think any of us realised how strong our competitive edges were until we invented a hybrid version of rounders and cricket! Fortunately a surprise cream tea laid on by Company Manager Kristi kept everyone on friendly terms.

There was also ample opportunity to get in some good walking too. The whole village is set on a pretty big hill, but looming over our dressing rooms were the Malvern Hills, the highest of which is Beacon Hill at 425 metres. Most of us took a day trip up there at some point but on Thursday night, because we're a little bit dippy, eleven of us decided to take a midnight hike up to the top! I mean, obviously, after five shows in three days that's precisely what you need. 

Bananas, torches and water in hand, and following a quick (and necessary) reminder to take the keys for our digs, we headed up the hill. About 15 minutes in some of the boys decided it was far too warm for jeans and changed into their shorts, regretting it later when we hit the more grassy areas at the top and the nasty little biting flies who decided to have their own midnight snack on our bare flesh! 46 minutes after we set off we rounded the final corner to the stunning views of the Beacon. Spending a slightly chilly half and hour at the top, we star-gazed and took in the nighttime lights of the surrounding towns. It's a remarkable view in the daytime but there's something about the peace of night that lends it a magical touch. I'd highly recommend it if you have the time to go carefully and take ample precautions.

Now if we thought the way up was at a treacherously steep and sweaty angle, coming back down on the slightly damp underfoot surfaces was most certainly harder. We'd promised Kristi that we'd be super-careful - no-one wants to get injured on a cheeky nocturnal excursion - and did fortunately all make it down in one piece. The same cannot be said for me the following morning. On my way to maintenance physio for my shoulder, which takes a good hammering in the show, I managed to trip on a grate and then, I kid you not, five metres later took the spill of a lifetime leaving behind a chunk of my foot and knee on the pavement in the process. Fortunately I took away a cracking bruise or six to even the score, and a lovely gentleman was kind enough to set me back on my feet again.

If that weren't enough after the sprained thigh muscles of last week, that same day my injured foot was stood on (by accident), I ran full pelt into a piece of set during a quick change, slipped on the stage, was elbowed in the face and trapped my hand in a door! I actually checked the calendar to make sure it really was Friday the 1st not the 13th! But you have to laugh or you'll cry so injuries aside (and now broken phone aside too - but that's another story), the only way is up. In fact I may climb that hill again to make sure of it!