Theatre: Show Boating In Birmingham, Or Laughing In The Face Of A Charging Hippodrome

July 8, 2014

By CAITLIN CLERK

 

The last time I left the country I was crowd-funded by a couple of hundred people who were all anxious to see how I would spend their hard-earned money in New York. There was quite a lot of pressure to be awesome from the 1st of January to the 4th of February 2014. It was exhausting!

I posted a daily blog about my adventures on Musings And Musicals, and I think I managed to do almost everything that I wanted to in the Big Apple. While I was over there, I was offered a contract to take Show Boat on tour through the UK and Ireland with the Cape Town Opera. It was the best feeling to be reading my agent’s e-mail from my matchbox in the Upper West Side. The best feeling, that is, until I saw my first international audience rise to its feet on opening night last week.

So, here I am again – travelling with the same suitcases, but a different season. Thank goodness it’s summer on this trip! I’m just counting my blessings every second of every day. Sadly, this tour will not see me galavanting till the early hours of the morning and living off fumes like I did to get through my New York Film Academy classes. Although galavanting makes for fantastic midnight subway thriller stories, I think I have aged beyond my ability to do that since January of this year… oops! While a lot of the cast can be found dancing till the early hours in various bars, I cannot be found anywhere except in my bed by the hotel cleaning staff in the morning. Actually that’s a lie… I also spend a lot of time staring at the display of pastries at breakfast. I made the mistake of eating one on the first day. Now I just know what I’m missing.

But I digress… let me start by explaining what it’s like to be on a flight with 49 musical theatre performers: they sing, they’re loud, probably tipsy, they’re over excited and the dancers stretch quite provocatively in the isles (by mistake). Its not quite like the YouTube video of the cast of the Lion King Australia with happily applauding fellow passengers (watch it here if you haven’t yet: THE LION KING Australia: Cast Sings Circle of Life on Flight Home from Brisbane). In real life, which is different from YouTube, the shouts and smatterings of singing can go on for hours and create grumpily complaining fellow passengers instead.

Luckily for flight SA236 on the 28th of June, most of the 49 performers had already been loud and flamboyant on their flight from Cape Town to OR Thambo International and were all quite calm and boring by the time I met up with them in Joburg. Aren’t we glad they peaked too soon? We left South African soil, strangely scattered through economy class, and only receiving a few quizzical looks for the newly perfected “double foot five” that can be achieved by hanging between two isle seats. We were fortuitous that the local flight actually enjoyed the novelty of the “Show Plane” (Lol! See what I did there?) – and that the overnight trip didn’t end up being a “party-on-the-plane” as was the original, highly vocalised, plan.

So we landed in London on Sunday the 29th of June at the crack of dawn. My first stop through customs was to get a cappuccino! It’s usually my first stop, but this skinny cap was to cost me the equivalent of R50. Weep! I have decided since then to stop converting back to Rands because it would mean that my salary would start depressing me. Thank goodness for our pocket money in pounds – I don’t know if I could survive this tour without my coffees because after one rather rushed day sightseeing in Birmingham (see collage below) I ended up seeing the inside of the Hippodrome for the next three days in a row. Perhaps I have only convinced myself that Birmingham is not particularly exciting because I know I have run out of time to see it, but being stuck in the theatre didn’t really bother me. Maybe I just love my job? Anyway, after the third 12-hour working day, I limped (something is wrong with my foot – I might be standing on it too much) back to the hotel with a bottle of red wine in hand, feeling quite sorry for myself and singing Fatty Boombatty (a two line song composed by my sister, Sarah) over and over and laughing at myself most of the way.  Please note, this was before I had opened the wine! Post cork pop, I drank only one glass, ate a whole plate of someone else’s slap chips (no longer singing the song) and then fell asleep on my bed with my clothes on and my stage makeup smudging the white hotel sheets. Delicious!

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The second 12-hour working day, Wednesday the 2nd of August, happened to end with our opening night in Birmingham. We were all exhausted and still feeling our way around the theatre. Backstage areas are always designed to be like mazes, did you know? It has to be on purpose because I have never been in a theatre that I haven’t got lost in. I must have walked at least one hundred kilometres more than I needed to – up and down the stairs, in and out of dressing rooms, side stage, back stage, inside-out stage. We also had a new company of crew, wardrobe and wig peeps who didn’t have a clue what to do yet and I ended up doing a lot of running around in half a costume trying to find someone to squeeze me in to a corset or pin a wig on my head. If I hadn’t tried a new chocolate every day this week, I could have gotten skinny in the process. Somehow we pulled it together and presented Show Boat to Birmingham in utmost style.

I also learnt how to lace my own corset up. Being ballet trained, I still find having a dedicated dresser such a luxury. I was used to standing in a long line of tutus where everyone does each-others’ costumes up at the same time. Admittedly, a real period corset is a bit more difficult than hooks and eyes and once its laced it takes me an age to tug it around to face the right way. It also hurts mildly to do this to oneself. Pastries are yummy though. Sho! Moving on…

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Them boots what’s made for walkin’!

It’s always nerve-wracking to open yourself up to a new audience. I had no idea what to expect of a crowd from Birmingham. This is the home of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, which should make for quite an astute audience. All I knew was that if they hated us and decided to shout profanities and throw tomatoes, I wouldn’t be able to understand them anyway. An elderly man tried to talk to me in Birmingham-ese the other day. I think what he was trying to say was that it looked like rain and that he shouldn’t have worn socks and slip slops – he kept pointing at his feet and then out the window.  He might also have been telling me to leave, I couldn’t tell. He shouldn’t have worn socks with slip slops at all in my opinion, so if he wasn’t criticising his own choice of footwear, then he should have been. I did the smile and nod response. It seemed appropriate.

By the way, not all Brummie accents are this strong. The people who are not stoned here are all lovely and friendly and understandable. Anyway, our good British audience didn’t make audible acknowledgements of enjoyment until Otto Maidi finished singing Old Man River. Then they went a bit mad, got cheered up by Angela Kerrison’s Fish Gotta Swim and by the time we did Life Upon The Wicked Stage they sounded positively South African. In my solo, the lighting in the Hippodrome cut out my view of the audience almost entirely. I could see the conductor in the pit, and then a bright central spot light coming out of a dark auditorium. I could also see the cast who are placed like an audience in front of me with their backs to the auditorium. I always feel so supported in the moment before I sing my first note. I really meant what I was singing that night – in that moment I didn’t want to be anyone but me and I didn’t want to be doing anything but this. We got a full standing ovation and were rewarded with five star reviews from the press: http://www.wtfoosh.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/show-boat-theatre-review.html.

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Part of the programme.

  No opening night is complete without a little party. We schmoozed in the foyer for as long as we could still stand. I was one of the first to take my heels off for the walk home to the quirky Penta Hotel. The very next day we had two performances to get through. In the second act of the evening show on Thursday, I noticed that I was walking around the maze with my eyes closed. Literally! I bumped in to the wall. I also knew I needed that wine when I took my corset off and stomped on it a bit. I may have made angry grunting sounds while I did this. I lied on Facebook with a status that said it took all my strength not to do this. I actually did it. I jumped up and down and shouted at it a bit before I stroked it, apologised to it and hung it up with love. Nobuntu, my dressing-roomie (I’m funny, hey?) just laughed at me and sang Fatty Bombatty while she painted wrinkles on her face for our next scene together. She and Otto have been receiving the loudest cheers at the curtain calls. Queenie and Joe are fast becoming the stars of the show here.

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With Nobuntu Mphlaza (Queenie) on opening night.

  Friday was our first pseudo day off with only one show and a call time of 5:30pm. I stayed at the hotel icing my stupid foot while I should have been spending the day in Stratford upon Avon watching Shakespeare. To make up for this disappointment, I convinced Magdalene, Stephen and his girlfriend Kim to come to Jamie’s Kitchen for a pre-show meal. I indulged in crunchy tuna polpettes and a lamb ragu pasta but we ran out of time for desert. I was very sad – I missed out of a frangipani tart. Friday’s show seemed super short (since we only had one) and Saturday held painful physio for me, followed by two shows and bed. And that was a wrap for Birmingham! Some of the more sprightly cast members (ie. almost everyone except me) are yet to go to bed after spending the night at the Nightingale Bar. I don’t know how they managed to get packed and on the bus in time. I barely managed this myself and I even ate a pastry for breakfast – one with chocolate in it. Chocolate gives you power for life.

As I write this I am sitting in the front of a bus next to David-the-Driver, who told me very sweetly that he has already heard “the wheels on the bus” today and that I don’t need to sing it to him. We are on our way to Manchester where my first port of call (post skinny cap) will be to find a Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding. David is bobbing up and down behind the wheel. Lynelle has just trekked from the back of the bus, looking very distressed, to to ask him to open the window so that she can set a trapped butterfly free in to the fresh verdure of Staffordshire (although she didn’t quite word it like that). Ciko just laughs behind me. He laughs deeply. Ciko (aka CK) is the most unlikely bass singer you have ever met. He minces around looking fabulous all day and then opens his mouth to produce the richest of notes that must come from as far down as his toes. As the heavy breathing from the cast starts to turn in to full on snoring behind us, David-the-Driver comments that it must have been a long tour already. No, David-the-Driver, it’s just been one week. Oi vey!

 

 

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