About to open at The Kings Head, Islington, Geoff Ambler spends a day watching this new production in rehearsals.
The Thing About Men – The Kings Head, Islington
Over from the States
This week sees the opening of a new show for the UK. The Thing About Men opened in New York at the Promenade Theatre in 2003 and ran for eight months. What makes this production such a significant event in the Musical calendar is that it is directed by Anthony Drewe, one of musical theatre’s exceptional talents. And if he’s involved in this, then it is definitely worth a look.
Drewe is one half of the Olivier Award-winning team that is Styles and Drewe and he is already in the middle of a hectic year. The Broadway production of Mary Poppins, that Styles and Drewe wrote new songs and additional music and lyrics for, is hotly tipped in the New York round of awards that are underway at the moment and with the Tony nominations due next week life’s set to get busier.
He was even scheduled to fly out to NY for an evening performing with George at one of the pre-Tony build-up events during the rehearsals.
Our man in the rehearsal-room
Having been invited to sit in and watch an early rehearsal of the show, I arrive bright and coffee-fuelled for an unexpectedly early 9:30am start. I was always under the impression that actors didn’t get up until midday, so travelling into West London with the early morning commuters was a surprise, but it was set to be an exciting day, so I couldn’t complain.
As it happened I could have had a longer lie-in and was one of the few who took the 9:30 start literally. The actors each arrive over the following half hour, all with a story of their morning. Each of them spots the stranger in the room and comes straight over to introduce themselves and find out who I am. Choreographer Nick Winston, who had advised me of the earlier start time is, of course, last to arrive.
For a small cast and creative team the rehearsal-room is soon filled with a cacophony of conversation and it’s apparent that the actors have all arrived with a day’s energy, caffeine and cookie-based sugar pumping through them.
A working home
The room would be their home for most of the rehearsal period and Anthony Drewe is especially keen on the energy that the large south-facing windows adds to the sessions. It has been a sunny week and today looks no different; strong daylight and a view of Chiswick certainly makes a change from rows of empty seats, dark wings and hot theatre lighting.
In a few weeks they would open “Off West End” at The Kings Head, a theatre renowned for quality productions; today is to be the first full run-though. To add to the pressure the writers are expected to turn up at some point, although news they have a 2:30 press appointment possibly eases nerves, along with copious mugs of tea, coffee and unfeasibly large cookies.
Drewe’s presence in the production, in a rare directorial role, should add a lot of interest for musical theatre lovers. I first met him a few years ago at the press opening of A Twist Of Fate in Singapore. He had not only collaborated as the lyricist, with composer Dick Lee, but was reprising his role as a very British Inspector investigating a murder, alongside Laura Michelle Kelly who was in Singapore fresh from playing Mary Poppins.
To call Drewe versatile doesn’t capture the capacity he has to excel at everything he works at. Later this year he will have three shows opening on three consecutive days – more to look forward to in what is already an interesting year for musical theatre. There is even talk of a Styles and Drewe pantomime (which I don’t know if I should be writing about, so better forget I mentioned it).
One of those fortunate confluences of planets and various people’s schedules meant Drewe was available for a few weeks to fit The Thing About Men into his year and once he had agreed it took only five phone calls to cast the five actors, negating the need for another phone-in Saturday night audition show.
Hal Fowler as Tom the husband; Nicola Dawn, Lucy the wife; Tim Rodgers, Sebastian the boyfriend; Paul Baker, The Man and Tiffany Graves, The Woman. When Tiffany found I was to be writing about the day she pointed out that they were “all fantastic”. She was soon proven right; fantastically funny during the rehearsals at least.
The show is based on that most unfortunate shape love all too often comes in, the triangle, and The Thing About Men follows the effect an unexpected affair has on the lives of three New Yorkers. The three main characters are more than ably supported by a pair of extremely adaptable actors in the shape of Paul Baker and Tiffany Graves who share about twenty other parts between them.
Drewe’s plan for the afternoon is to run through the script again but this time allowing everyone to raise anything that they don’t understand. All the cast seem overly critical about their own performances and forgetting a line, even at this early stage, is a personal calamity. The director mentioning that his assistant, red pen in hand, would note any errors focuses their attention for a while.
After half an hour Hal points out that we are still on the first page of the script but things soon gain momentum. The room is still brightly lit and the warm sunlight streaming onto my back after a lunch would normally induce the need for a nap. However today I am engrossed in their astonishing craft. It is impossible not to be drawn into the aura of concentration that appears from time to time – between the laughs and tea breaks. I sit totally immersed in their enthusiasm and passion and the hours flew by.
A collaborative act
Something that stands out is the completely collaborative nature of the rehearsal, with frequent discussions and ideas aired, tried and occasionally included. During these stop-start sessions, focussing on each scene in detail, it is interesting to watch the actors slipping into and out of character. Tim Rogers seems a most intense and, when necessary, quite a serious actor and although everyone has their own method of getting into character, with Tim you can see the join. He takes a few moments pausing, obviously focussing his thoughts on the moment. Then when he next speaks he is Sebastian, the affable New Yorker.
While these rehearsals are mostly taken seriously Paul Baker’s exuberant characters manage to steal any scene he is in at will. Notably, when working out in the gym alongside a particularly poignant scene between Hal Fowler and Tim Rogers he reduces the room to tears while Hal and Tim carry on regardless.
One scene in particular gets a lot of work. Set in a park with Nicola Dawn’s Lucy feeding ducks and meeting Tim’s Sebastian for a daytime liaison, it is all about Lucy trying to finish with Sebastian. It’s a great piece of writing, a really emotive scene and it ends with one of the best songs in the show. It is worked through in segments, time and time again, each different, either though re-direction or a forgotten instruction, but it gets better and the final time is a strong piece of rehearsal room theatre.
Prior to this scene Paul and Nicola try something they had thought of, and worked out with Nick, acting like ducks with flapping arms and alternating the quacking sound between them. It looks to me like too much frivolity before a great scene. I’ll be interested to see if it makes it to the final production.
A writer with designs
During the afternoon writer Joe Di Pietro arrives and after a flurry of excitement and introductions, sits at the back of the room taking in the last hour. This is his first look at the London show and he seems quite excited about the work being done. At the end he asks about the stage layout marked out on the floor of the room. Lighting Designer Ben Cracknell conjures up a number of images of the stage on his laptop and Anthony Drewe animatedly and enthusiastically details the ingenious elements Philip Witcomb has built into the set, necessitated by the limited area available at The Kings Head. Details like a fruit bowl which becomes a restaurant lamp shade, two fold-out beds, a Jukebox for Tiffany to sing from and numerous other items will allow the set to be two apartments, a gym, a park, an office and so many other places.
And that’s not all
Having spent 1,500 words writing about a new musical, it is painfully apparent to me that I have not mentioned the music much. Nothing should be assumed from this omission other than it is really a subject for a review rather than this preview. What’s apparent is that the cast really can sing fantastically (as Tiffany pointed out earlier), some of the music is outstanding and Nicola Dawn stirs the heart every time.
The show looks strong just from the morning run-through in a bare room, the set markings drawn on the stage, a pianist as accompaniment, sun-lighting, no costumes, a cast who had never performer the whole show before and some really over-ripe bananas as props. It certainly has a way to go, but the Drewe quality hallmarks are already obvious and The Thing About Men should be another Off-West End event of note.