To be (onstage) or not to be (onstage)

In Features, London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Regional theatre, Ticket recommendations by John ChapmanLeave a Comment

Last night I found myself both onstage and in the audience at the same time – neat trick if you can do it and I have done… on more than one occasion.

My first attempt to smuggle myself into the onstage action came in the early 90s in a production of Alan Ayckbourn’s futuristic play Henceforward… which I was directing. At the time the use of video in a play (now seemingly ubiquitous) was then in its infancy and seemed highly revolutionary. I played the character of the pessimistic Lupus, the protagonist Jerome’s best friend, who regularly called him up (think an early forerunner of Skype) to bemoan his lot in life.

At one stage he gets punched in a nightclub and then finds himself in hospital. All of this was, of course, location filmed and then cut into the live action at appropriate points. I recall it being a great deal of fun to do – particularly being wheeled around on a bed through the corridors of a local private hospital which had given permission for us to film. I had the luxury of several takes to get things right – never an option live onstage – and it was quite a satisfactory feeling being able to sit in the auditorium and see the puzzled look on the faces of audience members as they tried to work out how I could apparently be in two places at once – as I said this was still early days for the use of video onstage.

A couple of year later I was directing a production of Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell. Now you’d think inveigling myself into a one person monologue would be pretty impossible. Think again! At the start of the play I had Shirley dashing into her kitchen from the rain, switching on the radio only to be confronted by inane DJ chatter – courtesy of myself. My biggest coup in this area however was another Ayckbourn play called Improbable Fiction in which I “appeared” as myself or at least a version of me. Let me clarify.

The time – November 2004; the place – Waterstones’ flagship store in Piccadilly; the event – a literary auction for the Free Tibet campaign. Rather than bidding for signed books and so on the audience were given the opportunity to bid to be a “character” in a fictional work by a number of prominent writers. My wife and I had attended out of general interest but auctions somehow just suck you in, don’t they? Suddenly she was engaged in a bidding war and before I knew where I was I was presented with an early Christmas present of a certificate showing I had “the right to name a character in a forthcoming work” by Alan Ayckbourn.

Early in 2005 I received a message saying I was to “appear” in a new play called Improbable Fiction at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. The premise of the play is that a writer’s group gather together to discuss the progress of their latest pieces and read out some extracts. In a twist that would take too long to explain here the various pieces (a Victorian bodice ripper, a 1930’s murder mystery, a sci-fi saga et al) come to life and are enacted by the central characters. Most oddly Brevis Winterton, a teacher at the local school is writing a musical adaptation of The Pilgrim’s Progress (!!) but his writing partner (who goes by the name of John Chapman) has gone AWOL and therefore the writing has stalled.

Poster of the original Scarborough production

Of course we went up to Scarborough to see the play and I was presented with a copy of the manuscript from which the cast were working. I have to say it is an extremely odd feeling sitting in a darkened theatre hearing actors discussing you, even if the you is a fictional version of you. Even more bizarrely I found myself in a production of the play in late 2007. I was playing the aforementioned Brevis Winterton bemoaning the unprofessional nature of his partner’s commitment to the writing process and thereby portraying a man who was making disparaging remarks about “myself”!

“I don’t know where the man’s go to. I’ve tried ringing him, leaving messages. I mean, I presume John Chapman’s still teaching at the school, he just never seems to be there. Vanished away. Probably found himself a new paramour…”

And so to last night. Cuttings is a deft and incisive piece by Ollie George Clark, which takes the lid off the world of PR and spin as an agency fights to save the reputation of a client who has insulted his fellow professionals, sworn repeatedly at an awards ceremony and made matters worse by unrepentantly posting his latest thoughts on social media. In style, think The Thick Of It meets Ab Fab. It was fast paced (courtesy of director Rob Ellis in whose production of Merry Wives of Windsor I have just finished playing Falstaff) and full of cracking dialogue from the pen of new writer Clark – of whom I think we are going to see a lot more in the future. The three actresses (Natasha Patel, Joan Potter and Maisie Preston) were exceptionally good at keeping us riveted as to how they were going to handle the situation. They captured the nuances of their various characters and delivered their dialogue with commitment and a high level of energy. I also learned a great deal about modern spin techniques where deflection of blame is perceived as not only morally acceptable but almost de rigeur. So highly recommended.And what of me? Well, it was set in a PR agency and a PR agency needs clients and “I” apparently was one of them. So there were various posters on display of me as James, a clearly distinguished actorrr, who had appeared in Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (never have), a sci-fi epic (never have) and a children’s puppet show about dolphins (certainly never have). Although come to think of it that last one does have a certain attraction to it. Any producers thinking of developing a kid’s puppet marine life based TV programme is welcome to contact me as I might just be your man.

 

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John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.
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John Chapman on RssJohn Chapman on Twitter
John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.

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