I think we’ve found our level…or…why I’ll always remember the Never Forget rehearsal
“This is not for your benefit” said director Rosie Kellagher, and my heart sank a bit.
Do you mean top up-and-coming performer Adam Donaldson didn’t just uncross his legs forcefully to make sure I knew he definitely does not “sit like a laaaady”? No? But the way he thrust out his nether regions so…erm…manfully?…made me laugh out loud.
What about outstanding North East actor Chris Connell’s innuendo bullets, sniper shots of sarcasm and hand grenades of lewdness? My favourite gags involved a loose dressing gown and a novel way to use illuminated signs to highlight certain body parts. Yes, those body parts.
And the conversation where we discovered Agnetha from Abba went out with her own stalker? He used to collect her faeces. Why? “Maybe he mistook it for a Topic. What’s got a hazelnut in every bite? Agnetha’s sh…” I nearly wet myself! (If you don’t get it, look up the 1980s ad on YouTube. You’ll be laughing till Christmas).
So none of that was intended to make me giggle? Honestly?
To be frank, I wasn’t in a good mood when I arrived at Hexham’s Queens Hall to sit in on rehearsals for Lee Mattinson’s new play Never Forget. It had been an awful week and I really needed cheering up. I hadn’t expected Adam (playing Martha, a woman who receives a man’s face in a transplant operation) and Chris (as Fergus, Martha’s uptight husband) to be quite so good at lifting my mood.
Was I really being told not to enjoy the impressively daft comedy of this rehearsal room?
Having watched Rosie at work before I know she’s focussed and methodical. Disciplined, you might argue, by a desire to eek maximum meaning from the creative process. Perhaps even a driven director, with a profound comprehension of the chemistry that exists at the juncture of text, performance and audience reception.
Indeed. That’s why it was Rosie who started the Agnetha poo conversation. I mean, it was absolutely necessary.
No, seriously, it was.
You see the real meaning of “not for your benefit” was that random banter and hilarious asides were the norm for the Never Forget company. My notes list an excess of funnies, from a mocked up newspaper headline from The Toriegraph, to over-zealous wheelchair manoeuvring and limitless euphemisms for male genitalia.
In other words, the rehearsal room had found its level – a daft comedy level – long before I got there.
All rehearsal processes need a “level”. At least they do if the end result is going to be worth the ticket price. Don’t be misled by that Steven Spielberg TV drama about Broadway. Great theatre is not created by despotic directors issuing orders to submissive actors. It’s made by people collaborating in an environment that draws the best out of them.
The last time I was at Queens Hall I saw Wishbone put through its paces. Like Never Forget that was a one-act two-hander, commissioned as part of Queen’s Hall’s BITESIZE season. I watched the finished Wishbone production recently and it was a clever drama performed brilliantly.
I also saw Next Train To Depart, the first of the BITESIZE plays, in rehearsal and performance, and was very impressed. The same goes for A Dog’s Heart, another offering of the season, which adapts a Russian satire from the 1920s into a startlingly prescient one-man-show of humour, energy and power.
If Never Forget is to reach the BITESIZE benchmark, it’s going to need a rehearsal room level that matches the quality of those I saw previously. You see a rehearsal room that makes talent comfortable and cooperative is necessary if you want to create something really good.
Thankfully Never Forget follows the trend.
In banter-free pauses, Rosie worked the company through key sections of scenes one and two. Under her leadership, Chris and Adam searched for better ways to deliver lines, tried out alternate movements and discussed the psychology of their characters. There were debates about letters between Martha and Fergus, her “list of requirements”, and the anxieties behind their words.
All jokes aside Adam showed a remarkably subtle femininity, creating a believable Martha as she regresses into youthful nostalgia and rediscovers herself after surgery. Chris brought formidable presence, a considerable range of delivery, excellent timing and small a hint of menace to a Fergus struggling with his wife’s new face and changing behaviour.
Rosie pushed them to go further at every turn. Take the diary reading sequence, tried five different ways with a new layer of meaning added each time.
After a break where the director made the rest of us a welcome cup of tea, we kicked into a full run of the first scene of the play. I poised my pencil to scribble. Ok then! Business time! And then…
…nothing. Sounds bad? It really isn’t.
As a film critic I took more notes on terrible films than good ones. Pearl Harbour almost filled a notepad, Gigli two. The less I wrote the more memorable and entertaining the film had been. When I finished watching Adam and Chris reveal the world of Martha and Fergus, I had to check twice.
Yep. Not a single note! Wow.
The play has trademark Mattinson wit, humour and dialogue. (E.G. “I presume your penis is that metaphorical monkey”). But amongst the laughs, I got a sense of love and change, the way closeness and distance can live side-by-side, and even a little something about class.
As for director and actors, well, let’s say the bowels of rehearsal room banter expelled moments of fear, tenderness and sudden realisation.
As the rehearsal wound down, I became aware of the smile that was stuck to my face. My bad week had turned into a good one. I also knew that Rosie was right. The “level” of the Never Forget rehearsal room was certainly not created for my benefit. It was created for the benefit of Lee Mattinson’s smart script.
And of course for the benefit you, the theatre-goer who likes something new and different and good…the kind of stage-savvy blog reader who knows where to find a box office web page and isn’t afraid to use it.
You’re doing that now? Excellent! You’ll never forget it.
By Ben Dickenson
Live Theatre Blogger