Wrestling the walrus was a hard work, but turned into a truly great play, and I'm proud of the way we all created it.
I said to Leanne, (best actor you could ever hope to work opposite & lovely, giving lady too), before the last show in London that I wished so much that I could go back to day one of rehearsals for this. When you’re out of work, (fuck..it's not resting even as a joke), as I had been from fully paid acting work anyway, for just over 2 years before this, you dream about being in rehearsals for a great play and a particular dream of mine has been to be rehearsing in the Royal Exchange’s Swan street rehearsal studios. Funny how things work out.
Of course I envisaged a more traditional way of working, 3 weeks of learning script/stage directions, working on intricacies of character & the 4th fine tuning & polishing it up for performance.
If Dan, the director… (though he preferred the title lead artist), of 154 Collective had told me all about how Wrestling the Walrus was going to be approached back in November when I did a day’s workshop with him & the musicians, then I’d forgotten. 6 months on, I meet up with him at a lovely girl called Emma’s house in Flixton, SE Manchester, (just around the corner from a church my dad designed 50 years ago), where we meet up for some pre show filming and she’s my on screen wife in the visual elements of the show.
I ask him when we’d get a script and he said there’s no script, it’s all going to be devised! Cue mixture of shock and also excitement.
Never really done any devising before, though my old friend John Dunne, with whom I had a very pleasant catch up with the other day, was quick to point out that working with him I’d devised a lot of my own lines without it being a requirement!
I’d always loved hearing about how Mike Leigh worked devising dialogue around a basic structure of a screenplay, but this was going to be something else. Back in November I remember Dan saying that him and Paul, aka Fabric Lenny, artist were going to shut themselves away in a remote log cabin in North Yorkshire in January to create the thing.
Apparently though this was to create the concept rather than a script.
Working with Leanne Rowley…(Goddess, super woman and easily the best actor, I’ve ever worked with) made the process a hell of a lot easier, often I’ve joked that Leanne has been my carer both on stage and off in all this.
We got some great reviews, the Observer/Guardian called it 'Bold & inventive" even it did fail to mention the actors & musicians but its tone was positive. It gave Dan credit for the script, sadly there was no programme or details made available to press, informing them that it was a devised piece, that Leanne & I had written this script as much as Dan.
We did get five & four star reviews from online review sites who more fairly appraised it, and at the time of writing I am still trying to coax 2 agents, both Leanne's ex & current agency to take me on, one saw it, one didn't & I may or may not get a meeting with the one that couldn't make it. Trying to keep positive about this, as think it was a great showcase for me, but who knows?
The biggest excitement about all this going into it, was the prospect of working at the Royal Exchange Theatre!
Oh how I wish, I could get over myself with this venue… for fuck sake! But the place is deep, deep rooted in my psyche, ever since seeing plays here 40 years ago, even writing asking for any sort of job here when my dad was alive, (he helped me with the letter), only for them to not think at interview that this 17 year old, (still 10 years off getting confidence to act, never mind to live), intensely shy and head in the clouds, big lug was probably not someone it would’ve been productive having around, and understandably!
I’ve frequently bored anyone who’ll care to listen with the oft repeated “I’ll never really feel I’ve become an actor til I work here” like it’s a whimsical benchmark I’ve imposed on myself for success. And of course by ‘here’ I mean inhabiting the magical lunar module of the Exchange’s main house, although the studio space has been wonderful and it’s just been a childish thrill to hang out here, come and go though the stage door and frequent the green room! You could easily say too much of my mind is romantic shit, but then again, rightly or wrongly it’s that romantic shit that is actual pretty hugely bloody well important, frames my life and helps me get to levels of emotion as an actor.
Working with Leanne was easy, she is such a giving actress, she had the right attitude throughout, sure she’s worked for Dan & 154 before and knew their way of working, but also she knew how use her time for the best & most productive results. I feel she and the very excellent band of musicians, Nick, Hayley & James held this show together. It must have been hard for her with her because a lot of her time was no longer her own, with a 5 month old baby Nia to care for, cutest baby ever, though she never made it seem hard, just like her performance. In the first week she sent me a beautiful little message on WhatsApp one evening saying how she was thankful to me making it easier for her. I hope she still felt that after all the rest of the weeks had passed, because I wasn't easy!
Dan was adamant that I had to be at least 10 years older than my age, their synopsis of my character, that made it onto the show fliers description was of an elderly man meeting a young woman on a park beach” I made him a little younger than I think they were set on, in fact an ageing punk as I thought of those who saw the Sex pistols, the Damned & The Clash first time round would have 10 years on me anyway and I didn’t want him to be traditional old man. A fella in the audience at the after show Q&A said he thought this brought home dementia far more powerfully, as he was a first time punk, and that old punks not only become old men but get dementia too.
Dan’s main mantra throughout was that the play was not about dementia but rather about storytelling. This proved to be a battle to stay on track of this philosophy, right up to and beyond opening night, as before press night he wanted to 'glitch up' Mog’s only real lucid moment in the show, the wrestling story that I’d devised, but to his credit he changed his mind because I think the storytelling was absolutely paramount to this play being as good as it was.
A feature of collaboration which impressed me was Dan’s ability to take literally everyones ideas on board. There must have been pressure on him. I don’t think I could’ve worked under these conditions as a director.
I'm grateful to Dan for the opportunity, and to Leanne without whom I wouldn't have been considered. I do feel very lucky to have been a part of this I really do, working with some of the best creatives around, and most of all I really miss it now, it wasn't long enough a run.
There’s talk of doing it again at some future date dependent on funding and I hope so, I put a lot into this play, it truly was a collaboratively devised piece and it’s to all our credits that we came up with a play that deserved to be seen, still deserves to be seen, and above all is a credit to the banner of excellence of the Royal Exchange Theatre, the greatest theatre in the world.
I wrote this last sentence in a thank you email to Bryony Shanahan the forthcoming new co AD at the Exchange who came to see the show. Hope she really liked it. She ought to have done, even if it was still a bit raw in it’s previews when she saw it.
Talking of raw, the rawness and the fact that we filmed everything so Dan could often write up our lines from the video, took me right back to City Acting Studio Salford 1991-92 where as I’ve said before I got my acting mojo. Funny these rehearsals put my mojo trough the grindstone with the same process, but I’ve come out the other side a little stronger and much, much wiser. So all good.
Crying was a big part of this show, for myself and Leanne. There were 3 moments in this play where I had to cry big time. Was that too many? I think not, because all were valid.
Lots of people said to me that Leanne and I have real chemistry. We really fucking do! I’ve never found this with any other actor that I’ve ever worked with, I’ve often heard critics going on about chemistry between actors or bemoaning the lack of it and often wondered about it.. But this was powerful first hand evidence of it. It was there when we worked on Mr Browns Directions in Hull, felt it very strongly. It’s easy to get moved by her. Sad thoughts help of course too and the most powerful thought I had was something I didn’t and wouldn’t say to Leanne, for fear she’d think it sounded creepy, though I almost know she wouldn’t. It’s the big regret that I’ve never been a dad and looking into this beautiful young woman's eyes who could very well be my daughter that I’d forgot and of course she was in this, and I believed it for that moment.
What I will take away from this experience mostly is a completely different take on dementia. I still consider it a horror, but the humanity behind this attack on humanity and losing your memories doesn’t make you less human. That stories are important to everyone, regardless of whether they have dementia or not. I like telling my oft repeated stories, so does my mum and to never begrudge anyone the joy in recanting their stories/memories even if you have heard them a million time before.
Anyway here’s my first & only week of rehearsal diary entries, just so I can big up the moment of being an actor in a Royal Exchange show!
Mon 3rd June
At The Royal Exchange, I’m excited sitting in the Green room an actor in a Royal exchange show, (even if it’s not one actually in the wonderful, magical lunar module), before the others arrive. Leanne arrived with her baby, Nia, really cute baby & her mum, Gail helping her. Director Dan Mallaghan, Paul (aka Fabric Lenny, visual artist ) & Yvonne, who took the original photo that I was poster boy for and filmed the visuals that are going to be in the show.
Amy Clewes the Royal Exchange’s producer is there and she’s lovely warm & friendly. She takes us to do a meet and greet in the hospitality suite overlooking St Anns Square everyone mingles for a few minutes in pairs I seem to be the only one without a close confederate !
Then Amy gets everyone into a semi circle and we all introduce ourselves, Director of Creative Learning, operations etc, (women are strongly represented here, predominant, which is really great). I just say I’m Nik actor in Wrestling the walrus & try to appear all nonchalant & professional actor like not at all phased by being at the greatest theatre in the world!
Afterwards I admit to Amy how much I love the Royal exchange and have been coming here since seeing 12th Night & she mentions Tom Courtenay’s name before I do, who’s Malvolio in the 1978? version was the one I was alluding to, even though the Exchange did it again a couple of years ago (a version I desperately wanted to Belch in & wrote to caster JKS begging him to see me for, although I don’t tell her this!) She seems genuinely interested
Then we all walk the 10-15 min walk to the Royal exchange’s rehearsal studios on Swan Street, me hobbling away after still suffering with ankle injury and Amy shows us building, gives us a talk on how we all have the right to work in a safe environment, bullying in the workplace etc and gives us electronic key fobs for the doors.
While the set is being slotted together, it’s a massive pre built thing in segments, a grassy mound with a park bench on it and a 4 sided wooden framework which they call a pagoda, but which really is a pergola!
It’s already visually arresting without the visual effects which will be projected onto it’s back screen.
Dan, Leanne and I are sat in kitchen & Dan gets all his notebooks out with his story ideas and bullet points as well as Fabric Lenny’s nightmarish drawings.
He says that he doesn’t want this to be a play about dementia, but rather a play about storytelling and the millions of little memories that define us. Also touched on types of dementia & he’s settled on ‘Lewy bodies’ which is specifically one involving hallucinations which he wants, particularly a cat!
Tues 4th June
Paul (Fabric Lenny) & Yvonne (are they a couple? , are there when I arrive, Dan & Leanne, without baby Nia today soon after. This morning we’re going to be filming bits for a trailer on the set so close ups panning across my face and Leanne writing post it notes, which are a common thing associated with reminding dementia sufferers to turn things off, not to forget keys on leaving house etc etc.
They record me audibly saying things “ Let me tell you a story about my life”
After lunch we head over to the Exchange again where we’re going to be filming a nightmare sequence that I have in a maze of corridors and cages suggesting my mind I guess. We’re in the bowels of the Royal exchange, there’s an underground car park which I never knew about and we go through a little door into what is used as the theatre’s archives department. Amy from the exchange is with is even gets to participate as we are all filmed by Yvonne from the back of our heads. A light mounted on the camera is the only light we have, back & forth, meandering around the passages.
I say to Amy how funny it is to be filming my characters memory of a nightmare when I am surrounded by so many happy memories of my past in the form of royal exchange programmes, posters and photos of past shows.
Wed 5th June
Just Leanne, Dan & I today, so first day of working on the play properly.
Leanne has worked with 154 before knows Dan’s methods, there’s an understanding between them, so I feel a bit vulnerable as an outsider from their way of working. Dan likes his vignettes. 10 second scenes to suggest things like passage of time, try to get my head round what at first seems quite a ‘bitty’ way of working whilst not wanting to be closed to their way of working and willing to embrace it, initially find it hard to grasp and understand, but it does seem quite an effective tool.
Get ever such a lovely message from Leanne on WhatsApp in eve reassuring me by telling me she is grateful to me for making her return to work after baby so easy, which is so lovely. She obviously senses my difficulty with this process She is such a very sensitive & considerate woman and I could want no better actor to work opposite
Thurs 6th June
Had a really good morning, most rewarding rehearsal so far going through the ‘wrestling’ scene, my big monologue bit telling story of how I wrestled a bear or it might have been a tiger or a walrus. I’d come up with names for the wrestling characters for example a big fat hairy wrestler who looks the spit of Pavarotti called Pulverotti geddit!!!? And who’s entrance is to the strains of Nessun Dorma, and me with my once physique of an Ancient Greek hero Jason who arrives in a golden fleece robe! Initially I wanted heroically to save the bear but Dan says he doesn’t want the character to be too compassionate, or to care about this in a way he says that people back in the day didn’t! Or said inappropriate things. Sweeping generalisations aside, I'm just glad he let me be the ageing punk rocker that I'd come up, though remains to be seen whether what we came up with ends up in the play, as after filming us do the scenes he’ll write them up over the weekend.
The afternoon’s a bit of a blur as to what we actually did, (I keep thinking even if inappropriately that this play about a muddled mind is muddling mine), but we did come up with names for the characters. Well Fabric Lenny had apparently already come up with Meg for my missus. I’d thought of Max for me, and Dan wasn’t keen on two names the same letter, not even a hint that Meg was up for negotiation, but he let me keep Max but Max known as Mog! Meg & Mog. I thought straight away of Mog the Forgetful cat! No-one else seemed to & I said nothing as that appealed to me!
Shared a vulnerable story with Leanne on a break touching on without elaborating on feelings that I’ve had a couple of times in plays when I’ve felt so vulnerable that I’ve feared I could be replaced. Dan came in on this and Leanne although well meaning, brought him into this private moment, cheerfully saying to Dan something like “Well Dan’s not going to fire you are you Dan?” To which Dan said No…pause… ‘not yet anyway!” I am too bloody honest for my own good sometimes!
Friday 7th June.
So we started to structure the play. Dan has a role of paper like wallpaper rolled out on the floor and we were sitting around arranging bits of card on it from my story, Leanne’s story, where our memories meet in real time & memory.
I let Leanne do the writing down & arranging of things, whilst I neatly folded & tore the paper into strips, trying to get my head round the process. in truth this chart was giving me a headache, like diagrams in school used to do!
We went through the first scene in the afternoon and Dan wants a false start, I liked this idea at first bit then Dan mixed it up and seemed to throw out all the truthful thought processes that we’d found, connected to the order a sandwich box, sketch book etc were brought out and my thing about 2 ways up the hill thing into an entirely different and random order confusing things.
At this stage I don’t understand enough about dementia to be able to know that what I’m doing is convincing. It’s a bit more like OCD the way Dan’s having me do stuff just now, maybe that’s right, I don’t know, don’t think he does, and I know he wants to show good practice in all of this with it. A woman called Clare was supposed to be coming in to talk about this but Dan had made a mistake on the days. Are we in the care home or are we on the hill. Dan was initially adamant we were in the care home in this first scene, although now to his credit, he’s not sure himself and is thinking that this is a real memory. Or is he? I think he wants the whole hour or so of the play to be in ‘real time’ where I’m on the hill in my world, Leanne’s in the care home humouring me with my stories & trying to get me to eat, sleep etc, and there’s a third dimension (or fifth!!!) where we meet.
We’re into like dance territory here with me, my kryptonite!! By that I mean doing something that I’m not enjoying, can’t seem to get right, makes me weak, lessens my powers, erodes my mojo and I know I’m apologising too much!
There’s a lot going to be going on in the play, with the same visual imagery that’s in a lot of 154’s plays and I can't help feeling the actors are quite a bit down down the priority order here, but even if that's true, that’s just the way they work and I have to accept that & mustn’t let that worry affect my getting there with the character and any of the ‘effects’ distract me.
SO at the end of the first week, looking ahead to the next & with 3 weeks to go today til opening night, what I need to most is convincingly portray this man going through this thing. To not get upset by it, as I am likely to do looking into its effects more deeply. It may prove to be one of the most difficult acting jobs I’ve ever had, but if I can smash this & turn in a great performance I will be happy, even more if I can make an impression with the Royal Exchange.
I believe Mog’s spirit is still there even though it’s fragmented by the dementia and my spirit as Nik shall not be broken either. I MUST BELIEVE IN MYSELF, do what I think is right for the good of the play and the truth of the character and always, ALWAYS strive to keep good SPIRIT.