Lloyd, producer of the show, has for reasons as yet unaccounted for, written this tale of his producing The Adventures of Stoke Mandeville, Astronaut and Gentleman. Readers are recommended to instruct their manservants to provide a glass or two of port to act as a fortifying aid, while they work their way manfully down the multitudinous paragraphs.
Stoke Mandeville Sighted at The Fringe
This account is really terribly long, and so I have put in loads of sub-headings so that you might more efficiently skip through it.
The Newcastle Premiere
I have been to the Fringe as a punter several times, and each time thought that it would be a fabulous thing to be there as a performer and be part of it all. The buzz in the city is palpable. I had seen enough Fringe shows to know that I was quite capable of staging something up to standard. With my colleague Fraser Charlton, I adapted our radio series The Adventures of Stoke Mandeville, Astronaut and Gentleman to the stage. We wrote it to be performable in an hour and ten minutes, this being a suitable length for the Fringe, and by just five people, since a large cast is a large expense.
The play was ready at the start of 2001, but I didn't get my act together for taking it to the Fringe. I didn't have the money, and without the money, proceeding seemed folly. Instead, we put on just three performances at the Newcastle Arts Centre. We advertised locally and nationally for cast, and I was amazed by how many dizzy actresses telephoned me from London to ask me about the show, and after a long talk asked me where Newcastle is. At the auditions, I was amazed at how bad some actors who have agents and impressive CVs are. Nevertheless, we cast three very good people, and each played one role ourselves.
Fraser and I share an attitude towards acting: one walks onto the stage, speaks the words correctly, and then walks off again. During the rehearsal period, one learns the words so that come the performances, one doesn't need to carry a script. Neither of us has been trained, you see. For the trained actor, the rehearsal period is one in which one experiments at random with ways of playing the part. This is followed by a period of panic-stricken line learning, and then during the performances themselves one continues the randomness and confusion by doing things differently every night, which apparently is what live theatre is all about. I have to confess that, untrained ignoramus that I am, I still prefer our method.
Putting the show on in Newcastle was even more work than I thought it would be. Promoting it was a particular chore: putting up countless posters, and distributing fliers, and contacting all the local press and pertinent people. I had hopes of getting booked for the Newcastle Comedy Festival, which was due two months after our run.
Rehearsals were fun, and we had reason to believe that the show would be a good one. The trained ones amongst us were fearful that we were under-rehearsed, but no matter, we went ahead.
We played to audiences of about thirty-five, almost all of whom were friends and family of someone involved. No press turned up. More annoying still, no producers turned up, nor anyone from the local theatres, nor even the people from the Comedy Festival, whose office was just over the road, and who had been given free tickets. Those who saw us loved us, and we had two curtain calls every night.
Our success led to near enough nothing. We had lost about seventy pounds, which is a small loss, considering. It was great to receive e-mails from people I didn't know, praising the show, asking for the script, or a tape of the soundtrack, or even the rights to do a comic strip version of it. No one who might put money into the show saw it, though, which was a frustration considering how we knew that we had a script with a great potential future.
Preparations for The Fringe
Next year, the Fringe. I still didn't have the money, nor any way of knowing whether I would get any, but I took the plunge and committed myself to doing it anyway. I looked for a venue. Almost immediately I was offered a slot at Augustine's Studio by a company called Paradise Green Promotions for £2,335. I didn't accept straight away. I applied to several other venues, including some of the big names like The Pleasance, The Gilded Balloon, Rocket, C, and The Underbelly. I also considered The Carlton Centre - a church hall away from the centre of things that I could have for a small fraction of the cost of the other places. I would have the whole place to myself, but I would have to do everything myself: get in lights, a box office, a sound system, and I would have to show in my own audience, and sell my own tickets. Also, I would not be part of the main thrust of the Fringe, and I would have trouble getting audiences to walk out of the city centre. Tempting though the cheapness of it was, I resisted.
Almost all the approaches I got came in a sudden burst - right around the time of most venues' deadlines, but they weren't all actual specific offers. The Gilded Balloon kept promising me a decision tomorrow, but that decision never came. The Pleasance eventually said that they were considering me only for a lunch time slot, and rightly or wrongly, I decided that a good slot at a lesser venue would be better than a lesser slot at a greater venue. Rocket gave me a decent offer, but I was a bit put off by the fact that they were run from the USA, and I felt some mild loyalty to the people who had expressed the faith in me to make an early offer. The e-mails I got from C were astoundingly rude, and consistently so. When eventually I was a little bit sarcastic in one of my replies, I two minutes later received an e-mail saying that they were no longer considering me. I couldn't resist the temptation to write back saying, "Now THAT'S comedy timing!" The offer from the Underbelly came after I had accepted Augustine's. I paid my first instalment of three to my venue, and the Fringe fee of £379.64, so now I was committed.
The venue - a converted church in the centre of town.
I wrote to everyone listed in the directories of sponsors I found in my local library, and to a fair few large local companies. Not a sausage. I approached various grant and loan giving bodies for this sort of this. Sausageless. I went to Northern Arts, having already been told that under no circumstances would they help finance a show being performed outside the region. I just thought that they might be able to help me find someone who would. They literally laughed at me. I would have to finance the thing some other way.
My parents stuck in a grand, as did my co-writer Fraser, and I used the existing funds of Mandeville Enterprises (about £850) and braced myself for a hideous overdraft. I had faith in this show, even if no institutions did. My parents had seen the September production in Newcastle and liked it, and Fraser had the faith of a co-writer.
I wrote the entry for the Fringe programme. They allow you 40 words, including the title of your show. I remain quite pleased with it. It went:
The Adventures of Stoke Mandeville, Astronaut and Gentleman. In the steam-powered utopia of a parallel dimension, our pipe-smoking hero battles dastardly French agents to save The Empire. A comedy of impeccable manners, swooning ladies, and magnificently rigid upper lips. www.stoke-mandeville.com
On occasion, I would be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead, but I got on with it. I organised the props, the costumes, the design of the fliers, I sent out press releases, and I started casting again. Fraser's wife had just had a baby, and he was still admiring the newcomer's perfect little hands too much to be in Edinburgh for a fortnight's run. The girl in the cast dropped out too. She was good, but never really shared the piece's humour, and preferred not to be in it again. I managed to find a guy to replace Fraser fairly quickly, but replacing the girl proved a great deal harder. There are far more wannabe actresses out there than actors, but far fewer good actresses than good actors. There are even fewer women who can do a range of accents, and hardly any who are funny. I was amazed at how actresses would lie about their abilities and age in order to get an audition. Did they think that I wouldn't spot the deceit? I was beginning to despair, and time was running short, but then I remembered a girl I used to salsa dance with who was a drama teacher at Northumbria University. Did she know anyone? She knew one - ONE - who might fit the bill. Fortunately for me, she did fit.
The cast was assembled, and mad enough to go.
Finding a flat wasn't easy. Actually, that's not true, finding a flat was very easy - there are countless flats being offered eagerly. No, the tricky part was finding one that was anywhere near affordable. In the end I found one advertised privately on the internet for £750 + £250 deposit. It was in Leith - a bus ride away from the centre.
My new lead actor had moved to the Lake District, which made travel to auditions problematic and expensive. No matter. We had a few rehearsals which went fine, and off I went to Sweden to Lindy hop, and then I returned for a week's intensive rehearsal. The week was plagued with delays and double-bookings and in the end we got more like two and half day's rehearsals in. No matter.
Choosing an insurance company wasn't easy. Quotes varied from £55 to £258 for apparently the same cover. Some policies insured me against claims made against me by my actors. The basic minimum requirement was public liability insurance. Some of the forms asked many questions about Americans. Was I an American? Did I have any Americans in my cast? Did any Americans put money into the show? Did I own any property in America? Was my venue run by Americans? Clearly, these insurance companies were terrified that I might trip over and fall on an American. In the end I chose the cheapest, and am glad I did so, because nothing happened to make a claim for. The policy itself arrived on the day of the first performance - just as well given that we weren't allowed to perform without it. Interestingly, the document suggested that the insured thing was the entire Fringe Festival. I knew I drove a hard bargain, but £55 to insure 1600 shows struck me as quite a coup.
I thought that this shot said "Edinburgh Fringe" rather well.
Arrival in Edinburgh
Two of my cast ended up being busy on the day we were due to drive up, so they came the next day. Three of us drove up with half the clobber and had a line test on the way up. Even at this stage (and right through to the end of the run) I was having to explain to my actors why certain lines were funny. We found the flat, and it looked great, but it had precisely the wrong number of rooms. There were five of us, and four rooms. If we all had to share, then there would have been no complaints. Which three of us would get our own room? The smoker should get one for being the only smoker; the girl should get one for being the only girl; the snorer should get one for being the one who'd keep the others awake; the oldest of us should get one for being the oldest and tidiest. I couldn't help feel that the guy who was actually PAYING for the flat should get his own room, but this argument seemed to carry no weight.
I shopped at the local ScotMid Co-op supermarket (twice the price of Asda, and half as good), and bought proper food to cook for evening meals. I ate none of it, living instead on breakfast cereal and sandwiches carried in with me and eaten in town.
I tried to sort out as much as I could that day, a Sunday, which wasn't much. I went to see a show at Greyfriars Kirk House, a venue also run by Paradise Green Promotions, which meant that I could see it for free as part of a reciprocal deal: the performers from the other companies at PGP venues could come and see me for free too. I thought that I might see as many as thirty shows this way. In the event, I saw half this. Many clashed with my show, many were on too early in the morning, and others I just didn't fancy seeing. The show I saw that night was an amiable way to pass the time, watching two chaps muck around for while.
The next day was the day of the dress rehearsal. It took over an hour to drive in from Leith. We could have walked it quicker. There was so much to do: so many last minute things to buy; so many things about the venue to check; so many forms to fill in. The staff at the venue was rather officious and unsmiling, and I was somewhat stressed, as I still didn't have a complete cast. I have never owned a mobile 'phone, and am trying to delay the day when I have to. The youth of today takes them for granted and seems to think that the possession of a mobile 'phone means that he never has to organise anything in advance. Stopping outside the venue was a nightmare, but so was having to ferry all the props and costumes and furniture from a distant parking place. My two missing cast members reached the venue, and then went straight past it. After several attempts to repeat this feat, but adding a stop, they managed instead to approach the venue from the opposite direction, and then swoop alarmingly across the four-lane road to alight in front of the theatre. We unloaded in record time.
We only had a short slot in which to do our dress rehearsal, and I had to train our techie to run the lights and sound in this time. I had decided that it would cheaper to hire a techie in Edinburgh, rather than to take someone up from Newcastle and accommodate him. I might have been right, but then again I was probably wrong. The venue found for me a Canadian girl with blue hair who looked about twelve. She would have to do, so she was hired. She turned out to be a pleasant and conscientious techie, who always stayed around after every show for a debrief and further tips on how to improve her job.
Everyone was feeling a bit stressed. We knew that we only had one shot at a rehearsal in the venue, and our show was not a simple one. It involved an awful lot of entrances and exits, and a lot of costume changes and props. Worse still, one side of the stage led to a cul-de-sac, so if the correct prop or costume had not been set in that space, there was no way of getting to it other than by walking across the stage. We knew about this before we went up, but still the idea of a mistake's being uncorrectable unnerved us. Some things were easier than we had feared. the step up onto the stage either side was little obstacle, and the doors either side were tall enough so that even with the raised stage, a tall man wearing a hat could exit without having to stoop.
The dress rehearsal was a shambles. True, dress rehearsals are traditionally a shambles, but a shambolic rehearsal still never encourages me. We still hadn't managed to buy the last few things for the show. Never mind, we still had the following day.
Out on the town, fraternising with performers from other shows.
Next day, we had to be ready for our first show. The Edinburgh Evening News was to be there. A good review early in the run was absolutely essential for success. A poor review or a good one too late for audiences to act on it would be no good. We all had something to buy that day. People were despatched to charity shops and cloth shops. I had lots of tasks to do that only I could do: dealing with the Fringe Office, and sorting out finances. We had to be handing out fliers too, to let the public know we were here. We fliered, but I don't think efficiently. We gave anyone stupid enough to take one from us a flier, and I'm sure than most of those fliers were binned by non-theatre-goers within yards of the hand-over point.
Mobile 'phone credit was running out. Did they have the black cloth for the table yet? No. Hell - the shops would be shutting soon. Where sells cloth? Jenners, the most expensive department store on Earth, sold cloth, I was reliably informed. "Get to Jenners!" I managed to say before the credit ran out. I heard no reply. I ran there just in case. I was informed with that haughtiness unique to British shop assistants that Jenners in fact does not sell cloth. I ran the length of Princes Street visiting all purveyors of cloth and bed linen. No luck in any of them. Every one suggested I try Jenners. Yes, said the man at the door of Debenham's, they do sell cloth, but they are just cashing up now, so I will have to try elsewhere.
I couldn't believe it. Five people with a whole day to buy some black cloth and we somehow failed. The cloth was needed to cover a table behind which people had to be invisible to the audience. I calmed myself and worked out alternative ways of staging things. Everything would be fine. At the venue I was offered a piece of red velvety cloth, which happened to fit the table perfectly. It wasn't fireproofed, so strictly speaking I shouldn't have used it, but just for this one night it would be okay. Someone managed to find a sheet of card for making the flipchart for a mere £4, but it was okay because they got a receipt. I sprayed the flipchart with flame-proofing liquid and it crinkled up, never to recover. Heigh ho.
A miraculous stroke of luck! We had hired a slot for our show that gave us a twenty-minute 'get-in' time, during which in theory we would build our set, install our techie, get into costume, set out all our props, and get our audience in. We would never have managed this that first night. However, the show before us cancelled, leaving a free slot before us, so we took advantage of this. Later we got into trouble for starting our get-in early without permission from the house manager, but relations were soon restored.
||This is the back end of a coach parked outside the venue. A bizarre coincidence.|
We start. I leap on to the stage and start roaring my way through the first scene. Scott enters as the villain Braithwaite and we do a bit of slapstick. Hardly a titter from the audience. There are very few people in. I go behind the curtain on stage and wait for my next entrance. The second scene plays to absolute silence. This is going to be a tough night. The panty-liner gag in the next scene gets a moderate laugh. The audience is alive after all.
I make my next entrance. My cravat gag gets a laugh. Things start to pick up. Pretty soon, the audience is with us, and the laughs come more and more easily. Some people are so into the story and situation, that they start laughing ahead of the joke - anticipating what is to come. A few scenes later, I can hear people whispering the next punchline to each other - they're loving it! We botch a few lines, and the lights and sound aren't perfect, but we get a hearty clap at the end, and leave the show feeling tolerably pleased with ourselves, but not enough to relax.
That night , we had 20 people in. This breaks down as follows: three who paid full price; one who paid a concession price; one press man (Edinburgh Evening News) with a free ticket; thirteen people who got in free on the reciprocal deal; two people who booked through the Fringe office (which takes commission, and pays towards my Performing Rights Society fee for the music I was using). The venue pays me a grand total of £24.
Back at the flat, relief has set in all too much, and my younger members of the cast are drinking heavily. I don't see this as a great sign. The words "Don't worry Lloyd" have no reassuring affect whatsoever; quite the reverse.
Second Night Jitters
The next day I buy some red velvet cloth, since the stuff we used last night looked better than the usual plain black stuff that modern theatre companies usually use. I spray it with smelly flame-proofer, and now the safety officer is content. I neglect to mention that I haven't sprayed the deck chairs.
In the venue, I am now greeted with smiles wherever I go. Half a dozen of the venue staff saw the show last night, and have passed the word around that our show is a goodie. The smiles increase as the run goes by, and by the end of the run I am getting goodbye hugs. It is definitely a good thing to have the venue staff on one's side. Customers asking for a comedy are recommended my show.
The second night does not start well. The techie arrives out of breath and ten minutes late. She can't find her script anywhere - the one marked up carefully with every sound and lighting cue. "I have never fucked up so badly in all my life!" she insists, apparently distraught. "You can sack me if you want to." There is no time to mark up a new script, and we have no other techie, so unremarkably I do not sack her. We are all amazingly nice to her, and she goes on and does her best from memory, which isn't perfect, but is a lot better than nothing.
The star of the show is having an odd night. He is sweating rather a lot, and speaking ever more and more loudly. By the later scenes he is bellowing. I am sweating quite a bit too. It turns out that the air-conditioning is not switched on. Technical mistakes put us off our stride, and second-night complacency has its usual effect. We make more and more fluffs. The audience, much larger than the previous night, loves us. They laugh at every single line, right from the start. The worse we get, the more they love us. Big applause at the end. My star later admits to having had a couple of drinks before the show.
Finding Our Feet
A few days later, some people are encountered in the street who saw our show on the second night. We say that that was the night when everything went wrong. They reply that they loved that sort of pantomime mucking around. There's no accounting for it.
The next night, I find that my shirt, drenched from sweat from the previous night, stinks. I didn't think it would need a wash after just two hours of wear. I was very wrong. Still, it's odour has a reassuringly theatrical feel to it. Dressing rooms in theatres always reek of sweaty clothes.
On my day off, I went for a bracing walk up Arthur's Seat.
I am having problems with my face. Seeing it as likely that we would run out of spirit gum for applying false whiskers, I went to the same shop that I bought the first lot from, and bought a second big bottle of the stuff. It doesn't come off. I return to the flat having peeled off my whiskers, my face feeling very strange. In places it glistens, in others it looks as though I have horrendous peeling skin. The gum attracts dirt and soon I appear to have a very serious black scaley skin complaint. I manage to get rid of most of it with a chisel, but my face will not stand two weeks of this. I study the two bottles. There is one tiny difference in the appearance of the bottles. In very small writing on one it says "water soluble", and the other has a tiny "non" as well. I continue using the stuff, because I have to have a lot of whiskers on for the whole show, and have to shout and sweat and be slapped in the face, and this stuff is strong, unlike the wimpy water soluble stuff. As time goes by, I get better at removing it. I buy a bottle of powerful solvent that stings and chokes, and has the effect of turning the dried glue back into glue. Having liquid soap, very hot water, and an abrasive towel immediately to hand and working quickly on a small area at a time proves to be the trick. The act of shaving is the final gum-removing stage. I explain to attractive women I meet before I have removed the gum what it is on my face. I yearn for the day when I can regrow my beard, since shaving is clearly the invention of the Devil. I do not miss the irony that a man with a real beard has to shave it off in order to wear a false one. Unaccustomed to shaving, I get a fair bit better at it by the end of the run, and even manage to shave my Adam's apple a couple of times without lacerating it.
We get a mention in Three Weeks, it reads:
"Because no decent person should ever miss an opportunity to laugh at the French." producers of "The Adventures of Stoke
Mandeville, Astronaut and Gentleman".)" Producers of 'The Adventures of Stoke Mandeville… at Augustines
Well, at least it's a mention, even if the type-setter and proof-reader were having a fight at some point.
The third night comes, and the audience is larger still. Word seems to be getting around. I get a bit hopeful. I need to have about seventy-five paying audience to break even. This night earns me £154 from the venue. The upward trend proves to be inconsistent, though, and we have a few inexplicable slumps. The high is reached on the Sunday, second from last performance, with a total audience of 87. the show is a particular hit with the venue staff and performers from other PGP shows, however, and one night 27 people got in free. I am flattered that many of these people see our show twice, and a fair few three times, but this doesn't earn me any money.
I hear some horror stories about Fringe audiences. Some get no one turning up. A fair few shows get cancelled for lack of audience. I hear about a comedy one-man show that gets an audience of one, and that the man is a friend of the comedian. The worst is the tale of a dance show that gets one man turning up to see it. The dancers think to themselves 'Never mind, we'll dance for this one man.' Half way through, he walks out, leaving the dancers uncertain how to behave.
We await our first review with confidence that it will be good, but fear that it will not be in time. The Evening News never does review us. Our first is in the specialist Fringe review paper called Three Weeks, and it reads as follows:
The Adventures of Stoke Mandeville, Astronaut and Gentleman
Newcastle lawyer Graham suddenly finds himself in an alternate dimension alongside heroic agent Stoke Mandeville; together, they must foil a dastardly French plot whose tendrils extend right to the engineering wonder of the British Empire. Obviously owing a debt to 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', 'The Goon Show' and anything by Jules Verne, the play creates a steampunk world with stereotypical Victorianisms which are marvellously parodied for ever-increasing laughs. Nikolas Lloyd revels in the role of the gentleman adventurer Mandeville, every inch the comic mythic hero and Richard Llewellyn displays great derring-do and versatility, while the charming Sarah Cleeve provides an effective foil for the pair's proto-macho banter. Fellow supporting players Scott Hutchinson and David Redcliff contribute a wide range of characters to the adventure, each funnier than the last. The script is rich with detail and dialogue, including a perfect 'Blues Brothers' parody. Pithy lines and pith helmets, steam-powered stellar carriages and stiff upper lips; marvellous! "Brace yourself!"
Augustine's, 13-26 (not 19), 9.50 pm (11pm), £6.50 (£4.50), fpp 108.
* * * *
Given how praising the text is, one wonders why we only got four, not the maximum five, stars, but no matter, this is a great review. I correct 'alternate' to alternative, and the misspelling of Sarah Cleeves's name, add a comma, and get this printed out in large type and laminated. I append the result to my placard - a broom handle with one of our posters on a bit of card gaffer-taped to it, and go out fliering. A couple of days later I pass a comic shop and see in the window a copy of a comic called 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', to which I apparently owe a great debt. I had never heard of it before, and it was written years after we wrote Stoke Mandeville. I should have guessed that the review writer was a comic reader, because of his use of the term 'steampunk'.
The show actually started at 8.50 p.m. and ended at 10 p.m. The mistake benefits the show starting after mine.
The cast is pleased with its individual mentions, even if no-one knows what a foil for proto-macho banter actually is. Richard is of course delighted with 'derring-do', as he is a fight arranger, and wannabe swash-buckling matinee idol. We tease him for being praised for versatility, since he is the only one of us who plays just the one character. I flier people in the street saying, "Flier for this four-star show, sir?" It probably does me little good.
||The star of the show, after reveille at the crack of noon, but before his seventh cup of coffee.|
Some excerpts of stuff I wrote a while back in an e-mail appear in a paper in an article about first-time writers. The mention earns me a short plug. It gets printed as "It's seventy-two thousand leagues to the Earth, we've got half a tank of water, a full coal scuttle and we're smoking pipes." The actual quote is "…it's dark, [note the comma] and we're smoking pipes." The missed-out words make the difference between the sentence's being not funny, and funny. This is part of a pattern. All our funny lines get misquoted in the press to appear not funny.
"… a plot to blow up the King's favourite pony…" is printed instead of, "… a plot to blow up the King's favourite polo pony".
"… for all the family except women," is not very funny, whereas "… for all the family except ladies" gets a laugh every time.
Journalists, it seems, have an unerring instinct to destroy comic timing and nuance by clumsy misquotation.
Fraser, my co-writer, and someone who foolishly sunk a thousand pounds into the production, turns up with his brand new video camera to record the first Saturday night show. He can't fit us in full length when near the front, and the only other place the power cable will reach is right at the back, where the pillars down the central aisle interfere with vision. Saturday is the worst night yet. The audience is tiny, and though it is enjoying the show, it is not doing so noisily. The audience is following everything we say, with big grins, but only laughs at the obvious laugh-now moments. We fluff loads of lines. If only he videod another night. This is important, because we may need to show this video to someone considering booking us. It is not Fraser's fault, of course, and I do trump him later by making an audio recording of the very worst night.
A short while later, we get a second review, on a website called The Edinburgh Guide. I hadn't been expecting this. It reads as follows:
Madcap wild script - imagine Dick Barton, Spike Milligan, The Goons, The Goodies, Vivian Stanshall, and… Brace Yourself! Played in a tight, high-spirited style Writers Nikolas Lloyd and Fraser Charlton have created a wonderful, whacky play where a parallel universe collides with ours and two men switch places with results for all.
Plain, rather dull lawyer Graham Pennyworth, Richard Llewellyn, is returning from a lunch with a pushier lawyer Rachel when a traffic accident takes him a way into the company of Stoke Mandeville, Nikolas Lloyd (Gentleman Extraordinare) and his steam powered astral carriage which can navigate to the planets as well as crash land in Newcastle. Resembling Mandeville's fellow adventurer Carstairs, Pennyworth soon finds himself using more than Carstairs' name and is off on an adventure via Jupiter and other part of The Empire. The other actors David Redcliff, Scott Hutchison and Sarah Cleves provide support with variety of accents and personas, the only feature I didn't like was the persistent and not funny, fake laugh Cleve's characters all shared.
Full of lots of cunning jokes poking digs at today and our glorious British past, it's top quality in the writing. I recommend their excellent websites for a good, rollicking browse too, best one of the Fringe.
Thelma Good 15 August 2002.
A favourable review, I think you'll agree. The punctuation is bizarre, and the spelling a bit wayward, but this (with the middle paragraph cut out) went up on the placard too. I didn't want to put one dram on the placard, so translated this to four stars. The Edinburgh Guide has a unique way of rating shows. It goes from no drams (perfection) to five drams (unwatchably awful, and therefore you'll need five drams of whisky to last through it), giving a range of six possible scores. A one dram review is therefore I think equal to a four and a quarter stars out of five review, and I conservatively put four stars on the placard.
||Handing out fliers in the Royal Mile. It is this outfit, and not the one I wore in the show, that seems to have inspired the costume of the Cambridge production.|
Throughout the run, the website got about two hundred hits, and I suspect that most of these were from people who had already seen the show, and wanted to prolong their enjoyment of it, rather than from people deciding what to see. Still, nice that a reviewer rated it so highly. I did it myself, and it was a technically very simple site, but the writing made it fun. Each page had a fair amount of text on it, and included many jokes not to be found in the play itself.
In response to this review Sarah Cleeves actually did more laughing, not less, and did get some laughs from this. Good for her.
It was also satisfying to read that the script was good. Many people commented on the quality of the writing, which of course is particularly satisfying for me because I was one of the writers. Perhaps the show will become a hit not as this production, but as a script for other productions. Already I have had a few enquiries about whether the script will be available, and two student groups have expressed a strong desire to perform the piece. For me, the pleasure of hearing an audience laughing and keenly following the show, came not from the sound itself, but from the revealed knowledge that I had done my job as writer and director well.
It was also nice, but mildly surprising, to read that we performed in a 'tight' manner. I don't know which night she saw exactly, but none of the possible nights was in our opinion 'tight'. As the run goes on, we get tighter. For my own performance, I am not at all nervous, but I continue to worry about the many things outside my control that can go wrong.
Public Reaction and Producers' Absence
The praise I encounter in the street is actually quite great. Every day I meet a few people who take the trouble to come up to me and say that they enjoyed the show a lot. Some describe it as the funniest thing they have seen at the Fringe, others as the highlight of their Fringe. One lady says that it was the best thing she has seen in years, and asks is there anything she can buy. One Spanish family says that it enjoyed the show. I don't talk to them for long, but get the impression that not all of them spoke very good English, which I'd have thought would have made enjoying the show very difficult. Performers from other shows seem particularly enthusiastic, especially if of student age. Students from Warwick and Cambridge universities want to do the show. Good stuff.
These three stopped me in the street to tell me that they loved the show. A pleasant experience.
This praise, though, is not worth much, if no producers pick up the show. I become increasingly worried that no producers or tour promoters seem to be seeing us. When it becomes clear that we are not going to be selling out for the second week (necessary to break even), I go to the Fringe Office to see the people responsible for that sort of thing. The result is an annoying conversation. Here follows a paraphrased and much shortened version of it.
Lloyd: It seems that the movers and shakers are not coming to my show. I would like your help in getting them to come.
Fringe Office: Well, the computer says that one tour promoter is due to see you on Sunday night. Unfortunately, that's after the promoters' meeting on Sunday morning.
Lloyd: Well, there are still a few performances to go. Could you not tip off the people on your lists that there is a show wanting promoters to come and see it?
F.O.: [laughs] We should have been having this conversation two weeks ago. It's a bit late now. My job gets harder as the Fringe goes on. Most promoters have seen everything they're going to see by now.
Lloyd: I have been in e-mail correspondence with you for some while. I ticked the box on the form to say that I wanted my details passed on to promoters, and in e-mails to me you said that you would let the promoters know that I wanted them to come to my show.
F.O.: [gets out big reference works] You should have done your homework, you needed to look up all these people and contacted them yourself.
Lloyd: [notes names of reference works] Perhaps, but I had been led to understand that this is what you do, and that these people would already have been tipped off. Surely that is the whole point in having a centralised data base and an officer in charge of it here.
F.O.: Well, like I said, we should have had this conversation two weeks ago.
Lloyd: Ah. Will you be at the promoters' meeting on Sunday morning?
F.O.: Yes of course I will.
Lloyd: Right, so you could tell the promoters at that meeting that there's a show that wants them to come and see it.
F.O.: Oh no - I can't sell your show.
Lloyd: Okay, then I'll come along to the meeting and sell the show myself.
F.O.: No, you have to be invited to the meeting. You can't just turn up.
Lloyd: So, invite me to the meeting.
F.O.: No, you have to be invited by a promoter.
Lloyd: So ask one to invite me.
F.O.: I can't do that. They don't know you.
Lloyd: Well, give me some names, and numbers to ring, and I'll talk to them.
F.O.: No, I don't give out their names and numbers. Besides, they have to have seen your show before they can invite you.
Lloyd: Right. Let's see if I've got this straight: I have to get a tour promoter to see my show before Sunday morning, because otherwise I can't get invited to the meeting then, and I'm not allowed to know who these people are, and you won't give me their numbers, and I can't go to the meeting, and you won't tell them about me at the meeting either. To get invited to a meeting I didn't know about I have to get someone I don't know to see a show he hasn't heard of, and you won't help me find him, nor him find me.
F.O.: Like I said, we should have had this conversation two weeks ago. The Fringe is winding down now, and people are busy going to parties and won't be seeing many more shows.
Lloyd: Thank you. It's been an education.
From this lesson in how laughably insignificant I was, I rushed around to find producers of comedy. I looked for the big obvious names that cropped up in the Fringe programme a lot: Karushi, Fat Bloke, Off the Kerb. I tracked down two of them by going to The Pleasance courtyard and nabbing people with these logos on their T-shirts and asking to speak to their bosses. These were polite, but clearly intent on going to parties in the evenings, and not seeing any more shows. "All my bookers have gone home," said one. Why had they gone home, with so many hundreds of shows unseen, I wondered, and why couldn't some other senior person in their company see a show on their behalf? I didn't know what or where any of these parties were, and I certainly wasn't getting invited to any.
The Gilded Balloon wouldn't give out numbers, and suggested that I e-mail London offices. I was in too much of a hurry for that. Eventually I got two mobile 'phone numbers and rang them. One was an answerphone, on which I left a plea to see my show. The other was a human who said that she was too busy going to parties to see anything now. The answerphone guy came back to me, though, and said convincingly that he would see my show before the end of the run.
The Scotsman booked a press ticket for the first Sunday for its reviewer. That night we were slick, the lights came on cue, and the audience was a good size and it loved us. They roared with laughter all the way through, and the bigger punch-lines towards the end got rounds of applause. Two curtain calls, and big cheers at the end. My cast was delighted. "If the Scotsman came tonight, they can only give us a great review," said one, as he came off the stage for the last time. A few people had told me that a good review in Three Weeks precedes a bad one in The Scotsman, but I attached little weight to this.
The Scotsman had a piece about us in it. We missed it because it was not in the reviews section. A day late, we read the piece, by Robert McNeil. It read:
Robert McNeil: My Festival
Mayhem on the streets, so it's refreshing to find a show celebrating old fashioned values
I HAVE been out. In the evening. Oh yes. Taking my courage and some comforting fruit in both hands, I left the safety of Wit's End, ma hoose, and headed up town.
Riot and hullabaloo: not a firm of criminal solicitors but the scene that greeted me on the High Street. On one corner, atavistic clansmen in ochre cloaks and ragged plaid honked on bagpipes and banged faux-ancient drums in a malodorous dancing frenzy.
I'd last seen them, or similar buffoons, performing dervish-style for 10,000 right-wing Englishmen on a Countryside Alliance march through Scotland's capital. So embarrassing.
On another corner, an arguably stupid man was holding forth about "the poverty of atheism". A wide-eyed heckler shouted: "What about all these priests - buggering people up the arse?"
"I'm not listening to such language," said the preacher.
"Up the arse," added the man, for confirmation.
"Not listening," said the preacher, turning away with a set mouth.
This was madness. With the aid of a stout blackthorn stick, I bludgeoned my way through the ovine masses to see a show. Since nearly everything on the Fringe is a one-bird production about wimmin driven to breakdown by household chores, I was delighted to find something called The Adventures of Stoke Mandeville, Astronaut and Gentleman.
Billed as being "for all the family, except women", this sounded just the thing for the rigid-lipped chap feebly groping for a way out of this infernal post-feminist crisis.
And so it proved. In a parallel universe, where the British Empire holds sway (on Mars), a curious lack of morale has developed, one of the symptoms being that men are "confiding in each other". The French, with whom we are at war, are blamed. Some of their master-spies have even mastered whimsy.
Our cravat-wearing hero, S Mandeville Esq, is dispatched to sort it out, asking first of the audience: "Is there anyone here who speaks British?"
Such a bracing production. It invites us into an idyllic world where food is properly boiled, people waving their arms extravagantly are shot, and an invigorating shag refers to strong tobacco.
Playing Edinburgh, it could have done with a token Scotsman, drunk or otherwise. Nevertheless, we are happy to award it an official Hootsmon quote for use on posters, fliers etc: "At no point in the entire show did my pipe go out." (Scotsman)
Terrific! The only snag was that it didn't have a number of stars for us to put on the placard. I resolved to telephone the writer the next day for permission to attach a number of stars to my placard. The next day, I got into the venue and the press officer there told me that we had a review in The Scotsman. 'Excellent,' I thought, but it was not. Two stars. Nobody at the venue could believe it. Here is that review:
The Adventures of Stoke Mandeville, Astronaut and Gentleman * *
THEATRE: Augustine's (venue 152)
THE Victorian age is ripe for plundering, whether you paint it as an age of doubt dominated by Darwin and Nietzsche or an age of Empire featuring some stiff sabres and even stiffer upper lips.
Mandeville Enterprises takes the latter view in this fun but flawed production that sees a downtrodden lawyer's life transformed when a cosmonaut from a parallel universe mistakes him for his sidekick and whips him off to Mars to foil a dastardly French plot.
The production borrows heavily from Michael Palin's Ripping Yarns and Fraser's Flashman novels. But despite some entertaining moments, this mix of irony and nostalgia ends up being, in the end, largely forgettable.
10.50pm, today. Runs until 26 August.
Clearly this reviewer considered himself quite superior to the audience members around him that were loudly loving the show. They didn't know how to spell Nietzsche, you see. I get the impression that this reviewer considered nostalgia to be a fault of right-wing political thinking, and that the Victorian British were evil for being so successful. Perhaps he had seen five dreadful productions earlier that day, and was in too foul a mood to try to enjoy our show. Perhaps he had a quota of bad reviews to fill. It is interesting to learn that we borrowed heavily from a television series that I have never seen, and that Macdonald Fraser's Flashman novels were such an influence, given that I can't think of a single thing we took from any of them. Thelma Good successfully spotted that Vivian Stanshall was an influence (though, I'd say, a very minor one), but otherwise our reviewers have done fairly badly in the spot-the-influence competition. This is especially odd, given that the biggest single influence - The Hitch Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy - is openly acknowledged in the show.
Time having passed, I have now revised my opinion of this review. My current belief is that the reviewer never actually saw the show. The first paragraph has nothing to do with the show at all. Never does the review mention any detail that couldn't be found in the press release or on the web-site. The only comments, like "fun but flawed" are vague and not backed up with specific criticisms. I see no evidence in this review that the reviewer was there in the flesh. This would explain how he managed to ignore a cheering audience. I'm sure that this must be fraud, and that I have grounds to sue.
It was nonetheless tempting to quote from this review on the placard. I could quite legitimately have written:
"Ripe for plundering"
"Featuring some stiff sabres and even stiffer upper lips"
"Mandeville Enterprises… fun"
"A parallel universe" "Irony and nostalgia" "A dastardly French plot."
"Ripping Yarns and… Flashman"
"Entertaining" (The Scotsman)
But I didn't.
The press continued its conspiracy against the timing of our show, you might notice. The Scotsman said we started two hours after we in fact did. I noticed that in The Metro, we were not mentioned in the listings, having apparently been cancelled. I 'phoned them up. They insisted that this was what the Fringe Office told them. I went to the Fringe Office, and, as ever, got sent to five people in two different buildings before being sent to the right one. She checked her data base; the one that they sent to The Metro and people like them. It had many columns, fields, each production having one line on the screen. The information was too much to be displayed on the screen all at once, so in the field for the name of our show it just said, "The Adventures of-". It turned out that the other show starting with the same words, The Adventures of a Photographer, had been cancelled, and that this was the source of the confusion. The last printings of the listings had all gone to press, and it was too late to do anything about it. How unlucky was that?
Reviews are largely a lottery. One show came to the same venue as us and got in the Scotsman immediately. One show I was considering going to see got a five star review in one paper and a one star review in another. One show I did see and which was staggeringly abysmal - possibly the worst thing I have ever seen on a stage - got two one-star slatings, and then a moderate three-star review. The moderate review could have been written by a journalist who had read the press release but not by one who had seen the show.
Since the show was put on, three people have sent in reviews to EdFringe.com. Anyone can do this, and so it was tempting to send in glowing reviews myself, but I don't like to cheat. Here are the three reviews kindly sent in by genuine strangers.
I'm glad this chap liked the play, but feel that in our defence I should state that in fact the play tells the audience very precisely what the French super-agent was up to. I can't comment on narrative focus, because I don't know what it is.
***** Best Thing I saw at the Fringe 02 Sep 2002
reviewer: Angela Mott country: UK
Wow, this was a fast paced and energetic performance and if there was any such thing as a festival God I'd be pretty cross with it;
The Original wit contained within is obviously not 'fasionable' enough with the media reviewers because this show deserves a much bigger audience than it got.
I was only down at the fringe a couple of days so didn't think tickets out ahead. This fortuitous gem made the whole thing worthwile.
Well-done, I hope they'll be second helpings with lashings of custard!
**** Huzzah! 02 Sep 2002
reviewer: Michael Hall country: UK
Loved it. A fantastically imaginitive script, and really funny performances. Only the second time I saw it (with the surprise appearance of some French infiltrators in the audience) did I start to notice any flaws - even though the performances were much more assured. The plot is not very focused, and we never get much of an idea of the full machinations of the promised French super spy. But with exchanges like: "Nothing can go faster than the speed of light." "Yes, I remember some chap from Berlin going on about that. But he didn't take into account good British engineering." I can forgive any loss of narrative focus. I hope this is not the last the Fringe will see of Stoke and Graham. Brace yourself!
***** "Brace yerselves!" 27 Aug 2002
reviewer: James Tarbit country: England
This was BRILLIANT. I didn't really know what to expect (I had been prompted to see the show by both my friends, and the sight of a man in full khaki attire wandering down the Mile wearing a BIG beard, and smoking a pipe), but whatever my expectations were, they were exceeded!
The show is essentially a big homage to good old English values, and ya boo sucks to the Frenchies. It was sterling, stirring stuff with laughs aplenty, and even random people with accordions being show by members of the audience! (Something which, I learned afterwards, the cast had expected about as much as me! Ah, directorial jokes...) I think the highlight had to be when Stoke managed to convince us that the yard was the centre of the universe - pop up formula and all, or when he won a slanging match against one of the ubiquitous (if the plot is to be believed) Gallic spies by yelling "Yeah?..Well at least I'm not French!" This show deserves to be performed again and again. There really is something for everyone.
I suppose I should explain that on one night I arranged a little surprise for the rest of my cast. I had seen a show earlier that day that included an accordion player. He had seen our show and liked it, and we hatched a plot. He would start playing his accordion at a moment specified by me, and then colleagues of his would chase him out of the theatre. In the event, they did this with great gusto and hugely enjoyed themselves, wearing bad false moustaches, and shouting "French scum!" Scott, who was arriving on stage to do his narration while this was going on, rose to the occasion magnificently, made understated reference to this "little interlude", and carried on. "Lloyd!" he said, on coming off the stage, "You're a bastard!" We did try to arrange to hand Richard a lit tobacco-filled pipe in the scene where he has to smoke furiously, but this never came off.
One night, I went to see Luma, a glow-in-the-dark juggling show. The twist is that all the jugglers are clad in black and perform without lighting against a black background, with glowing juggling equipment. At the start, the producer asks the audience to show hands if they learned about the show from one source or another. Almost everyone had learned about the show from a flier or word of mouth. No one claimed to have come because of a poster, and only one because of a critic's write up. This accords with my feelings about publicising Fringe shows. Posters are near useless, and are expensive. If you do a Fringe show, do few posters and many fliers. I had 10,000 fliers printed, and handed almost all of them out. The guy to my right said that Luma was the best thing he had ever seen. I wouldn't go nearly so far, but I liked it. The Scotsman gave it one star and put it on the 'page of shame'. That paper likes to savage shows, and this is not good.
Fliers and Fliering
We battle on. On the streets, my fliering technique is improving. For the last few days I flier for about six hours a day. 'To flier' may not be a proper verb, but all of us are using it a lot that way anyway. It becomes a mode of movement, as in, "I plan to flier my way over the Assembly Rooms." A high proportion of people will not take fliers. Though this can at first be dispiriting, I quickly get used to it, and take comfort from the thought that the sort of person who refuses to take a flier in the first place, is unlikely to be the sort of person who'd respond to the information on the flier anyway. Some people take a flier from me just to get me to go away, and then immediately scrunch it up as soon as I turn my back. Americans are very flier-resistant, and middle-aged American couples are almost flier-proof. They charge past me with a determined set of the jaw. Perhaps they fear anthrax contamination. One common but always perplexing response to an attempted flier hand-over is, "I live here." These people clearly believe, quite wrongly, that no one who actually lives in Edinburgh is interested in theatre. By the end, I am clad in pith helmet and have a pipe between my teeth, and a three-review placard in my hand, and give almost everyone I hand a flier to a short speech selling the show. I get a lot of laughs, and I feel that this is enormously more effective than just putting bits of paper into peoples' hands. I get a lot of praise for my flier design. This is interesting, given that it is probably the cheapest flier at The Fringe. All the others are on card and in colour, and most are double-sided. Mine is single sided, monochrome, designed by me on my home PC, and on fluttery paper, but people enjoy reading it, especially the last line: "The management wishes to assure patrons that under no circumstances shall persons of a French nature be admitted to the auditorium." Perhaps in response to this, we did get some French coming to see the show. Two, I'm told, walked out - the show not being quite to their tastes.
Fliering the queue outside the Fringe ticket office is meant to be a good tactic. There at least, the people are all theatre-goers. Alas, the Fringe ticket office has improved immensely in efficiency and this queue is never very long. One thing I do that goes down well in queues is hand out a flier with a different bit of patter for every person: "Something to read while you're waiting, sir? A handy bookmark for your festival programme madam? Another flier for another show, only the show's better. Are there enough small pieces of paper in your life sir? Room for one more? I know - choosing a show can be difficult - perhaps this flier will help you come to a decision. Read all about it: Stoke Mandeville sighted in Edinburgh. Pipe smoking and pugilism, madam - you'll love it. An exciting tale for all the family except ladies sir - just the thing. May I interest you in seeing a show tonight, sir? I see you're looking for a comedy show - look no further. Handy flier - could save your life under admittedly rather unusual circumstances... "
Fliering in the Royal Mile can at times turn into an exercise of swapping fliers with other people who are fliering. Several minutes can go by as I walk up and down before I spot an actual member of Her Majesty's general public. No one else has a placard like mine, which strikes me as odd since it seems so obvious an idea. Many are in costume. Many are in teams. Many get up on the small temporary stages and perform, and most in my opinion make themselves look bad. Only the best most powerful singers sound good with no amplification in the middle of a crowded street, and only the most confident dancers look slick and vigorous. I avoid the stages.
Celebrity fliering: While on the Royal Mile fliering, I heard someone remark, "That's Ian McKellen!" I overtook the person so recognised, and offered him a flier. He grunted and grasped the flier in a manner suggesting that he was unlikely to read it. It was him, in theatrical jacket and broad brimmed hat, and alarmingly orange face. I saw John Hegley come out of a shop a fair way from the centre, and asked him by name whether he'd like a flier. He took one and looked mildly interested for a moment. I was fliering the queue to the Fringe ticket office when Eddie Izzard came by. I offered him a flier and he waved it away, making drunken noises. I tried to flier a couple who were quite flier-resistant. They claimed that they were leaving soon thereafter and wouldn't be able to see my show. I was in combative mood and didn't take this rebuttal as the end of matters. Eventually she took a flier from me. She was wearing large fairly dark glasses. She might have been Jane Asher. The hair and voice and what I could see of the face all matched.
Towards the end of the afternoon, coaches turn up from around the nation, and start to line George IV Bridge in a continuous wall of single-decker transport facility. This is The Tattoo audience's arrival. When I first saw these masses of people, I thought that I was witnessing a great fliering opportunity. Not so. Tattoo audiences turn up, see The Tattoo, then leave, and care little for Fringe artists and their Fringe ways.