All For Your Delight, Part 3

Working on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation has been a roller coaster of emotions …see told you that was going to happen, didn’t I? Some definite high points on the ride were reached in our two performance runs. The first of these was at the Barbican in May 2016 and the second at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon in July. This forms the content of Part Three of our story told in pictures. If you missed the previous parts then click here for Part One and here for Part Two.

The photos show final rehearsals, what went on backstage and, of course the performances themselves; this latter group of pictures is by professional photographer Topher McGrillis (© RSC) so stand by for a sudden increase in quality. There are also some shots commemorating our appearance on the BBC TV programme “The Best Bottoms In The Land” as well as a peep at the huge after show party on the final night. Enjoy! We certainly did!

Barbican performance photos by Topher McGrillis (RSC). Some Barbican backstage photos by Ruth Anthony

To follow the written story of the third part of our theatrical adventure, start reading here


The Dream is now over. To find out more about the 14 amateur companies which took part, click on the side bar to access the page on each location.

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All For Your Delight, Part 3

All For Your Delight, Part 2

The road followed by the A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation project  has been a long and winding one – OMG: Another cliché alert..next he’ll be doing the one about the roller coaster of emotions.

So here’s Part Two of our story told in pictures. If you missed Part One then click here first and see what led up to this point. You might also want to read the blog posts that accompany these pictures. This section looks at the six weeks of the project rehearsals in January and February 2016. Fortunately for us in Tower Theatre most of the rehearsals were relatively nearby in the RSC’s rooms in Clapham though there were always video broadcasts from other parts of the country (hence all the photos of people sitting down watching screens). Proximity meant I could attend some of the professional rehearsals as an observer and, of course, there were also the Bottom Hubs every Saturday. So from first read through to final run through here’s what it was like.

To follow the written story of the second part of our theatrical adventure, start reading here


The Dream is now over. To find out more about the 14 amateur companies which took part, click on the side bar to access the page on each location.

All For Your Delight, Part 2

All For Your Delight, Part 1

A picture is said to paint a thousand words…OMG cliché alert! However clichés, by their very nature, contain grains of truth and so it is in this case. There have been scores of photos taken by the participating  amateurs up and down the country commemorating and celebrating A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. And Tower Theatre is no exception. So here’s Part One of our story told in pictures which can be enjoyed for its own sake or as a substitute for reading the reams of words I’ve already written on the subject. Hopefully, of course, you’ll have a go at both. This section covers the application and audtion process, the preparatory tasks and workshops and throws in a little bit of Xmass for good measure.

Barbican onstage photo by Topher McGrillis RSC and Task 2 photos by Ruth Anthony

To follow the written story of the first part of our theatrical adventure, start reading here


The Dream is now over. To find out more about the 14 amateur companies which took part, click on the side bar to access the page on each location.

All For Your Delight, Part 1

The last hurrah!

And suddenly, there it was – gone! July 16th 2016 – the absolutely final day of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. The evening needed to be a little bit special and fortunately it was. This had been such a big theatrical event that some form of closure was absolutely essential if there weren’t to be dozens of gibbering wrecks around the country.

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Many of the amateur teams had been finished for some time but our performances had only been at the beginning of the same week; so we hardly had time to draw breath before the end was upon us. Our previous “ending” at the Barbican had produced a massive comedown and while this one wasn’t quite so severe (there being only two performances for us to give at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre) the pangs were still quite sharp and lasted a couple of days. The real “downer” (for me anyway) was in the days immediately following the last night at Stratford but as I don’t want to dwell on the negatives let’s concentrate on the upside of our final Dream day.

On this last Saturday our team all made its way back separately to Stratford. I had been having a couple of days r and r in a wonderful country house hotel quite nearby so I was back in Stratford by lunchtime. I had thought about getting a ticket for the Swan Theatre to see a performance – after all I had nearly inadvertently appeared there a few nights previously – but, of course, this is Stratford upon Avon on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of the tourist season so there really wasn’t a ghost of a chance. Instead I headed for HandlebardsThe Dell the RSC’s outside performance space and scene of the fairy portal camp/flashmob a few weeks previously. Playing here was group called the Handlebards (sic) a group of four peripatetic young women (there is an equivalent all male group too). Their USP is that they are cycling from London to Fife between July and September stopping off and giving performances of Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of The Shrew en route carrying with them “all of the necessary set, props and costume to perform extremely energetic, charmingly chaotic and environmentally sustainable Shakespeare plays”.

Well this sounded like fun and indeed it was. I expected a highly truncated version of Romeo and Juliet but not a bit of it. Most of the dialogue was intact though it tended to be played for comedy rather than any lasting seriousness; that’s not a criticism, as on a rare hot afternoon this was far more suitable for the casual audience who lounged on the grass in front of the rudimentary stage. Best described as “rough theatre” some of the staging was quite delightful. Instead of swords, bicycle pumps were utilised and the costumes were suggestive of character rather than attempts to provide anything full on. I was often reminded of the Rude Mechanicals’ attempts to mount a serious version of Pyramus and Thisbe only for them to find it falling apart around them. The cast worked extremely hard covering nineteen roles between them. They all had their moments but I was particularly taken by Lotte Tickner as a bawdy Nurse, a lisping Prince, a meowing Tybalt (“king of cats”), and a water spray wielding Friar John (long story – don’t ask). The performance finished only fifty minutes before they were due to do it all again (and then Shrew twice on the Sunday). They must be physically very fit but I suppose if you’re cycling all that way between shows then you probably will be.

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One last selfie in front of the theatre

After a last group meal at the Dirty Duck with most of the rest of the Tower team, it was time for that momentous last performance which was to feature Belfast’s Belvoir Players. As well as ourselves there were a goodly number from quite a few of the other amateur companies in the audience and for those unable to get a ticket the local Bear Pit group was hosting a pre after show party (!) at their theatre. It was strange to listen to all the lines slipping away one by one – never to be spoken again as part of this particular production – especially those of the Mechanicals. That’s the nature of theatre though, it is immediate and in the moment and needs the live audience element to really make it work (I confess to having some ambivalence towards cinema showings of “live” productions, though have certainly used them to see things I might otherwise have missed). It was particularly joyous to see the children in this last performance as they were from a local Special School. Here was the RSC really demonstrating inclusivity and, of course, just a couple of days earlier they had given their first Shakespearian “relaxed” performance for an audience including people with an Autism Spectrum Condition, sensory and communication disorders, or a learning disability.

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I call this one – ‘The rest is silence’ (witty, huh?)

The last few minutes of the play definitely brought a lump to the throat and the final lines (delivered by Lucy Ellinson as Puck) were particularly pertinent calling, as they do, for audience approval; it can certainly be claimed that the project as a whole achieved that. There was a burst of fervid applause, the performers took their last curtain call, flowers were thrown on to the stage and then suddenly the houselights were up and the show was over not for just that night or even that week but for ever. I confess I stayed in my seat for some minutes gathering my thoughts and contemplating what a fantastic journey we (the amateurs, the pros, the schoolchildren, the directors, the creative, technical and support staff) had all been on. Unbelievable, truly remarkable and absolutely unique.

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And so to that traditional staple – the after show party. This was somewhat bigger (250 people plus) than the customary am dram affair, which is often squeezed in during the small hours after a backbreaking period of set striking and theatre clearing. None of that for us this time so it was straight off to the RSC’s studio theatre The Other Place which had been cleared for the occasion. It was a lively noisy affair populated by a myriad of Mechanicals as well as the professionals and everyone else associated with the production. RSC Artistic Director Greg Doran said a few heartfelt words about the project’s beginnings, the RSC’s hopes about what would come to pass and their huge delight at what had been achieved. Then he handed over to Erica who spoke with her customary charm and eloquence about what the project had meant to her and how she hoped it had touched all of our lives – don’t worry about that, it definitely has. She also speculated on what the future might bring and how although the Dream project really could not, would not and even should not be repeated the elements that made up its constituent parts should be encouraged to thrive and prosper. The project was declared officially over, Chris Nyak (Demetrius) presented Erica with a huge framed picture containing images of every adult who had appeared on stage in the run and then a short video featuring the amateurs was shown in which Erica and her team were thanked through the rewritten words of the song “Time Of Our Lives”. This was the videoing referred to in the last post and was co-ordinated by Nottingham’s Becky  Morris; it was a bit of fun but I also thought it was entirely in the spirit of the early rehearsals in which all shared via the medium of video.

After that it was eating, drinking, dancing, anecdote swapping, photo taking and general revelry until the small hours.

 

Eventually I found myself back at the Falcon hotel wondering how anything could top the experience we had all been through. I’ve met so many wonderful people over the last year – brilliant Bottoms, fantastic Flutes, sensational Snugs, superb Snouts, superlative Starvelings, quite awseome Quinces and dazzling directors. Not to mention the preeminent professionals, the terrific technicals, commendable creatives, a stupendous support team and everyone else connected with this truly magnificent project. Above all these people, however, sits one courageous and life affirming individual – all hail Erica Whyman and her “most rare vision.”

That’s nearly it for this blog, folks. Just one or two more posts and that will be another Dream over. In case I forget to say it later – thanks for keeping me company


The Dream is now over. To find out more about the 14 amateur companies which took part, click on the side bar to access the page on each location.

The last hurrah!

Encore

D16 Call Monday 11th July

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Well that was something else, it really was. If I’m being honest I think that after appearing at the Barbican earlier this year I may have been a little blasé about our dates at Stratford. After all we’d proved that we could do it and take an audience with us, hadn’t we? The critical reception had been highly positive and the team had bonded as a real unit, hadn’t they? How could anything possibly surpass that? Well something could and it did. And that was our first night on the RST stage a place of real wonder and enchantment. What a playing space, what a wonderful set up, what a fantastic audience, what an experience.

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The day began at 9.00 with a tour of the building which I found quite confusing simply because there weren’t many windows on the outside world which, personally, I find disorientating. However there were plenty of signs showing where everything was so that would be alright, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it? We were taken to the dressing rooms which were very nicely situated overlooking the River Avon and with a balcony on which to relax.

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Then it was down to the stage to get on with the day’s work with directing supremo Erica. There was masses to do as the thrust staging meant reconfiguring much of what we had been used to. But of course the RSC is a very well-oiled machine and had already put eleven other teams through their paces earlier in the run so all we had to do was listen carefully and put into practice what they had already established would work. There was also the opportunity to do some last minute refining of the way scenes were played which would, inevitably, help to keep the production and our performances sharp and focused.

Next the pro cast started arriving which led to some emotional moments of reunion and there was a new troupe of schoolchildren to welcome – this time from Christ Church Primary. We spent some time on the last ten minutes of the play and I was instantly reminded what a joyous finale it is. A brief break and it was back on stage for our warm up vocal and physical work with the stunningly good Michael Corbidge and Polly Bennett. Eventually the rest of the cast appeared for the full company warm up with exercises from the “old favourites “ box and then it was time to get changed and await the big moment.

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As I had at the Barbican, I felt quite surprisingly relaxed before going on – this turned out to be misplaced. On my second line I went to move forward only to find my ankles hobbled by my workman’s apron which had somehow come adrift and fallen to the ground. Great – my first time on the Stratford stage and I was the victim of a wardrobe malfunction! Nothing daunted I hauled it back into place and went through the rest of the scene with one hand firmly clamped on the offending clothing and hoping that nobody in the 1,000 strong audience had noticed – fat chance! Strangely enough the incident sharpened me up mentally and made my delivery more focused and crisper than it had possibly ever been. I knew I only had two chances at this and wanted to make them count.

However that was not an end to the potential horrors that awaited. There had been a significant number of changes with regards to entrance and exits, particularly for me. After the apron business I didn’t want anything else to go wrong.  So I immediately started to think ahead to where I was next going to appear. Having experienced some disorientation earlier I thought I’d actually better make my way physically to the vom entrance to assure myself I knew where it was and where I would be going twenty minutes hence. There’s a plethora of signs backstage “Stage Left” “Stage Right etc. One pointed to “the Voms” and so I followed the arrows, through a couple of pass doors until I could hear actor’s voices. The problem is they weren’t saying anything I recognised as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then I heard the word Mephistopheles….but that’s a character in Dr Faustus…..which the RSC are doing in the Swan Theatre! Somehow I’d wandered into the backstage area of the second RSC stage and was in imminent danger of making an unscheduled appearance in two different productions on the same night. Fortunately I was able to retrace my steps to where I’d started without further incident. When I ‘fessed up later to Erica and Kim, I’m not sure whether they felt like laughing or crying but it did make for another memorable moment in this amazing project.

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Very nearly appeared in this too!

Fortunately, after this, things went an upward curve as I motored through the scenes with Ayesha and the fairies – indeed the bower scene seemed to go down better than ever before. And then of course the comic highlight that is Pyramus and Thisbe which, as we have always found, went down a storm. Erica had made some minor adjustments to the actual playing which helped to build the laughs and the Bergomask was a joy. You can really see everyone in the RST audience (no seat is more than 15 metres from the playing area) and it was a real thrill to see the looks of pleasure on so many smiling faces.

The aftershow was a bit of a whirl with a drinks reception in the Swan bar. A number of old and dear friends had travelled to Stratford and I was touched by their enthusiasm and positive comments. Leanne from the Barbican had come up to see the show so it was lovely to see her again. Sam Redford’s father, himself a professional actor, paid us some very sincere compliments. Producers Ian and Claire were full of justified pride at the theatrical coup they had pulled off. To be honest it all became a bit too much and I had to step aside for a few minutes to regain my composure.

So one more show to go. One more last thrilling moment before it’s finally time to wake up. Let’s make it the best Dream ever!

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Twitter Header Encore

                     The Tower Theatre performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company                                at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Monday 11th and Tuesday 12th July at 7.15

Encore

Living The Dream: Act 5

I always knew this would be the hard one to write – the last day of performance week – and so it has turned out. A combination of extremely long days, euphoria, massive physical exertion, poor eating habits, lack of sleep and high levels of concentration have taken their toll, hence this last piece is a bit later than originally promised. Anyway, let’s to it and see if it doesn’t provide some sort of catharsis.

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Lucy and Maria helping out at the touch tour

The day began with yet another new experience as the RSC was offering a “touch tour” for those attending the matinee performance and who would be using the audio description facility. The tour gave audience members the opportunity to meet some of the cast, explore the set and handle some of the key costumes and props. This was a really interesting half hour and it was evident that to the patrons in attendance it would make all the difference to their appreciation of the play. I was asked to “model” the donkey ears and run through a few lines so that the sound of my voice would be familiar to our guests. They also posed some questions about how hot I got and how quickly I had to change. I explained that I had three people to get me into the ears (one for the headset, one for dabbing some red make up on and one to hold the torch by the light of which the others worked), that they were then removed by Puck onstage and that the makeup was removed in the wings by ASM Lindsey scrubbing my face with a wet cloth  – most invigorating!

After the regular warm ups it was more or less straight into the afternoon matinee which as well as being audio described was to be captioned – not that any of this would affect what we were doing in the slightest. The performance is probably best described as a game of two halves. Things seemed a bit nervy in the first half (though personally I felt less so than on the previous evening) and there was a definite blip in our second scene which, fortunately, was able to be very quickly rescued. David came round to the dressing rooms at half time to give us a pep talk and this seemed to liven us up and provide a better second half. By the time we got to Pyramus and Thisbe things were swimming along very nicely again and this last scene, as ever, went down a storm.

In between shows it was time to start clearing up, gathering together greetings cards and presents and getting things ready for a later departure (not something I wanted to think about, believe me, but it had to be done). Various messages about the clear up procedures came from stage manager Jenny and company manager Suzi; as in everything else they are absolute models of efficiency but all done in a kindly and friendly manner. A quick meal in the Barbican’s Green Room with pros Alex, Ben and Jack revealed that they too were thinking about the immediate future and the journey up to the next venue in Cardiff. A definite feeling of finality was starting to set in. Back up in dressing room F3, dresser Jen appeared with our freshly laundered costumes (don’t know how they turn things round so quickly) and it was time to get ready for the final show.

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Final notes and encouragement from AD Kim     Photo by Ruth Anthony

I’m pleased to report that we went out on a high. From the moment we first came on I could feel that the audience were with us and as it was a now or never situation I decided to use all my reserves to give them a good night. There’s a fine balance, of course, and we had been warned about overpushing or becoming self indulgent; I think we managed to stay on the right side of this particular concern. A little extra bounce, a little extra swagger, a slightly more playful grin with Ayesha and just a hint more of audience engagement and I think it was possibly the best performance of the week – running a close neck and neck with Thursday evening. There were several emotional moments in the last half hour (mostly offstage but see the last paragraph below) but generally the trend was upbeat and celebratory. I hadn’t particularly enjoyed the Bergomask section in the early days but over the final week had found myself carrying it out with more abandon – if perhaps slightly less polish each night. For this final time I was doing it for myself and I couldn’t have cared less who (or if anyone) was watching. As Adam and I swung into our final pose a little voice whispered “You did it! You really did it!”. There was one more final extraordinary and very touching moment. At the curtain call the professionals went down on one knee and applauded us; that really finished me off!

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Our visitors from all over Dreamland

Things moved apace after that. A swift get out in which I managed to leave my gifts of Dream Tour and Barbican T shirts behind – since located and set to one side for later collection – was effected. It was most unusual of course to not be going through the wearying process of striking the set and clearing the stage; every am drammer’s bugbear on the last night. For once there was a professional crew (I counted about 20 people) swiftly deconstructing the scenery and loading it onto a huge waiting van outside. I, for one, was mightily relieved. There were a few more well-wishers at the stage door and I reflected on how so many of our fellows had put in an appearance to cheer us on. Respect to the Canterbury Players team, Peter Cockerill from up north, the ever lovely Bradford Barry, Amelia from just down the road and part of Norwich’s Common Lot, Dorothy all the way from Cornwall and especially Graham for stop 12 on his tour of all venues; we thank you from the heart of our Bottoms. Just time for a brief celebration (glass of water for me as I got to the bar past last orders), lots (and I mean lots) of fond farewells and then the last train home.

As I fell into bed I reflected on a key moment that evening and one aspect of the play that was definitely different in performance. This was the “I have had a most rare vision” monologue towards the “latter end of the play”. Alone on stage for this section it is Bottom’s (and if I’m honest my) big moment. That night as I spoke the words they seemed to have a new resonance encapsulating not only what had taken place for Bottom but also what had happened on a personal level over the last year and a half:

I have had a most rare vision. I had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream.

Gentle reader, the words were Shakespeare’s, the feelings were Bottom’s but the very real tears were mine.

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Our last team photo backstage at The Barbican     Photo by Ruth Anthony

This week the  production is  at the New Theatre in Cardiff– click on the image below to reveal full details.

Cardiff

 

Living The Dream: Act 5

Living The Dream: Act 1

12 hours

D16 Call Tuesday 17th May

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The stage is set

An early call meant setting out in the rush hour and manipulating a bag full of stuff on the Tube. In the normal course of events (though not really sure what “normal” is any more) this would have meant costumes, make up, towels and a whole raft of other bits and pieces. But of course when you’re working with the RSC that’s all laid on. So the aforementioned bag was actually full of first night prezzies – more of which anon.

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Our costume rail – mine on the left

First job after signing in this morning was to get into costume. I actually have a degree of choice here with alternative versions of a 1940’s working man’s garb. Thus there’s a coat, for instance, which I can wear or not as the mood takes me. Apparently few of my colleagues have opted for this which I presume is in order to keep heat levels tolerable and, after all the play is A MidSUMMER Night’s Dream so I’ll probably follow their lead (I did!).

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The pros and the ams gather

We were introduced to the Barbican staff and given a Health and Safety briefing after which the rest of the day was taken up rehearsing. This was a bit of an odd hybrid. The professionals have, by now, many weeks of experience behind them so for them it was a cue to cue tech (passing over sections of dialogue when nothing technical is happening). However, when it was our scenes or the scenes involving the children (today from Eastbury) these were run in full – and sometimes rerun – and sometimes rerun again. Adjustments were often minute but always telling. The process took almost the whole day with the only diversion being a press call around midday. This involved running a couple of scenes with Ayesha so the press photographers could get some shots (as in photos – we weren’t that bad!)

Once the rehearsal was over the anticipation of the first night began to sink in. There were company vocal and physical warm ups to attend and then presents to exchange. One of the most touching parts of this was the relay gift from our buddies down in Cornwall – some proper Cornish fairings (look it up) and the actual fairy baton – ours for the week. For my own gifts I had struck lucky. A random internet search several months ago for “Rude Mechanicals” had turned up an Australian wine collective who produced a frizzante – couldn’t have been more perfect if it tried!

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Al and Adam check Twitter support

Almost before we knew it the first calls of the evening were being given and it was time to really concentrate on the job in hand. The BBC was still filming for the “Best Bottoms” documentary and followed the process of us getting ourselves ready. And then came the big moment – “Beginners to the stage”. Our first scene is about 20 minutes in but I wanted to be near the action so headed down to the stage. This involved quite a few stairs as our dressing room is four floors above the backstage pass. I took everything I would need with me as I didn’t fancy trooping up and down. There is a lift but we’re all banned from using it for an hour and a half before performance just in case it breaks down with us in it!

 

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The props table

The wings/backstage space at the Barbican is huge so plenty of room for some anxious pacing – except that wasn’t the case. I felt surprisingly serene about the whole thing and was confident we could do a decent job. Laura (Helena) went into the final speech of Scene1, the green light lit up and suddenly we were on. I must admit to a nervous flutter about three speeches in; that’s about par for the course so it’s just (JUST!) a matter of gripping the baton a little more firmly until the moment passes. The next two and a bit hours were just the most thrilling thing you can imagine. Lines flowed with ease, movement came naturally – the whole thing just barrelled along with its own momentum and the audience seemed to be loving it. No, actually they WERE loving it – the warmth coming back was palpable. The most magical part of all was Pyramus and Thisbe. Strange, all your life you try to avoid ham acting and then suddenly that’s what you’re called upon to do and everyone gives you a huge thumbs up for it.

And so to the curtain call – another huge wave of emotion crashed over us as the applause and cheering just went on and on. And when I found out later that one of those people was Sir Ian McKelllen oh my oh my oh my! And the children – they looked just so thrilled with the hugest grins. And the oh so generous professionals happy to let us have our moment – they truly are the best of people and they are deserves to be huge stars in the acting firmament. And the BBC cameras capturing it all. And the tears in Erica and Kim’s eyes when they came backstage afterwards and said the most moving things. And David – just like a proud parent. And Maria and Adam and Tom and Peta and Al – the best damn bunch of Mechanicals/mates in the whole land. And the generous and supportive comments afterwards at the Barbican hosted reception from friends, colleagues and even complete strangers….And I’m filling up – have to stop! Sorry!


This week the  production is  at the Barbican in London– click on the image below to reveal full details.

London

Evenings at 7.30 Tuesday 17th – Saturday 21st May

Matinées at 1.00 Thursday May 19th & Saturday May 21st

The Tower Theatre performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Barbican

Living The Dream: Act 1