Geoff Ambler FOLLIES Days 1 – 3
Geoff has been invited to attend all rehearsals in Northampton for the show. His fly-on-the-wall account gives an intriguing insight into preparations. Here’s the start: days 1 – 3
Royal Theatre, Northampton
Choreographer Nick Winston passes me a script as I pull a chair up into the circle made up of the cast and creatives for the Royal Theatre, Northampton’s production of Sondheim’s Follies. Laurie Sampson, the Royal and Derngates Artistic Director starts proceedings off with a brief outline of the plan for the night. As it is the first get together for the complete company there is to be a full read through of the script, without music, all the songs will be spoken. But before that everyone has to say who they are and what they are there to do. It’s a large circle but they quickly get to me. “I’m Geoff and I’m a bit of an interloper, here to write about the creation of the show.” That’s me and I avoid the quizzical glances from those assembled. Normally the cast are allowed to learn their parts and make mistakes away from the gaze of the uninitiated, but I’m too excited to worry about that for the moment.
My brief is to follow the company through as many of the rehearsals that I can get to and report on a process that is usually invisible to the eventual audience. There are five weeks to go before the curtain rises on the first preview and the opening of the refurbished Royal Theatre, with a cast made up of accomplished professionals and a number of talented performers form the local community. On top of a show to put together there is also a theatre or two being rebuilt and one of them is looking, from the outside, decidedly behind schedule. Fortunately the Royal is looking good.
Follies is a spectacular musical in every sense of the word, with plenty of glamour, emotion, big dance numbers and a song book full of Sondheim’s greatest music. It seems almost fitting that this show will re-launch theatre in Northampton as it’s set around the demise of a once great theatre, living its last night with a party full of guests who were once connected with the building. We don’t do that now. We rebuild and refurbish and we keep theatres and theatre in our hearts. The buildings are as full of memories as the actors who performed in them. It is these memories that the last party at Dimitri Weissmans derelict theatre evokes in the guests and it’s a beautiful story of lost youth, regret and love.
Day 1: The Read Through – Full Company
This is theatre in it’s rawest form, just the script and the cast without any direction, music or dance. Everyone however had bought an accent with them although dialect coaching sessions are scheduled for week two. There is confidence around the room and the professionals are indistinguishable from the community cast except I’m sure I recognise half of them and can remember them in black and white images in programmes from past shows I’ve seen. Louise Plowright is playing Phyllis, which is a big thing for me as she was in the first musical I saw and is one of the reasons why I went back again and again and now see every show I can.
The read through sets out the blank canvas for the creative team to start shaping the show under the direction of Laurie Sansom aided by Music Director – Jonathan Gill, Choreographer – Nick Winston, Designer – Jessica Curtis, Lighting Designer – Oliver Fenwick, Associate Director – Andrew Panton and Sound Designer – Alan Mathieson.
Day 2: Beautiful Girls – Full Company
As I arrive the cast is performing their vocal warm up under the direction of the Music Director Jonathan Gill. They are singing “happy sock cutters happily cutting socks” over and over again. They all seem in good spirits even though some of them will be doing the best part of twelve hours of rehearsals today. When the singing practise starts the cast work on “Beautiful Girls”, breaking up each line, each word and in some cases syllables to ensure that the song sounds the way it should. Some of the cast sit with voice recorders to ensure that they can practise later.
At the back of the rehearsal room Choreographer Nick Winston dances to his own tune. Oblivious to all that surrounds him he is running through the tap sequences he will be teaching in the following nights “Who’s that Woman” rehearsal. It’s an odd view I have with Nick dancing completely at odds with the music. He sits down in a wheel chair (a prop) still performing the arm movements his dance requires to his own beat. I try not to stare and concentrate on the singing, hoping he isn’t fitting.
There are about twenty songs in this production and the meticulous attention to achieving perfection even at this early stage is astounding, as is the speed that the cast apply Jonathans instructions. There are some trying to achieve F sharp who shouldn’t be and they are given an alternative, later in the week I hear the instruction, “if you can’t get there then just mouth it!”
Following the song practise Laurie Sampson takes over and starts the actors on characterisation work. He pairs the young and older versions of the characters so that they can work together on how they will move; what motivates them; their back stories; all aspects of their histories. Some of the cast seem uncomfortable and one wants to get down to “some proper acting” but the night still has one huge surprise in store for everyone. Laurie paces around the room himself cajoling his cast to explore in greater and greater depth their new selves as well as their “other” selves.
Laurie leads the groups through some hot seating so the characters they are developing can be explored. He then starts the cast moving around the room, visualising different aspects of their roles, exploring how they feel, finally leaving only the youthful and aged pairs walking together, mimicking each others actions, reactions and movements. It’s a kind of graceful music less dance. Gradually they notice their other selves, split by decades, and are instructed to focus on the glimpse of their future or the youth they have lost; Laurie then asks them to move apart gradually, keeping eye contact until the last moment.
The actors are so involved in their characters that watching them lose what they thought they had rediscovered bought a lump to my throat and most of those in the room feel the emotion in the moment. This is Acting! This is Directing! This is what it is all about, stirring emotions from nothing more than a visualisation exercise. No one expected to experience such a strong sense of nostalgia and it is a beautiful moment which everyone was able to share.
Helping the pairs connect will be an important aspect of the rehearsal process. It will help intensify the link between the young and the present day characters beyond just a shared name and tonight Laurie has made huge strides in that direction. He seizes the moment and starts the first scene – Arriving for the party and “Beautiful Girls.”
Within moments it is apparent that “the inevitable Roscoe” played by Phil Abbott, one of the community cast, has an astonishing voice. His is the first number on the show and he sets a high standard for the rest to follow. The local cast obviously enjoying finally getting to play their roles, mill around the stage with delight, it is after all them arriving at a party. Laurie lets them continue using their newly discovered characters just spreading the groups out and playing with the entrances. This scene will undoubtedly change several times over the next few weeks but today allowed everyone to get a feel for their parts and play a role.
There is a euphoria at the end of the night, a feeling that something useful has been achieved however tomorrow is Tapping!
Day 3 – Who’s That Woman (the Mirror number)
When I arrive the six pairs of young and old Follies girls in tonights “Who’s That Woman” scene are practising with Jonathan the Music Director (and rehearsal pianist) around the piano. Even though he is running them through the song, in his usual meticulous detail, several of the older girls are looking behind them where Nick Winston is dancing away on his own (to the music this time.) The tap sequences look really quite complicated to my untrained eye and the distracted cast look on with either trepidation or delight.
All too soon they are tapping their way across the rehearsal room into Nicks hands and he lines them up and starts running them through the some of the routines. Some seem to be in very new or under used shoes and Louise playing Phyllis resorts to plasters early in the evening. Her partner, Haley Flaherty playing Young Phyllis, seems to know all the moves within moments of Nick demonstrating them and she provides support to Louise. Haley never seems to stop dancing, even during the breaks she is either tapping away somewhere in the room or assisting Louise. Hayley has come from a busy summer in Regents Park Open Air Theatre having performed in some of the best shows of the year, particularly The Boyfriend. She is an amazingly memorable dancer I’ve seen countless times and always seems to be smiling a smile you can’t help joining in with. After persevering with the blisters Louise eventually resorts to taping in flip flops declaring how much easier it is. It certainly looks it.
Pippa Raine, who arrived straight from the recent and brilliant West End production Sinatra, is elegance personified on the dance floor, something I noticed the day before when making her entrance as a ghostly showgirl. As dance captain she has to learn every ones moves as well as her own so she spends the evening either shadowing Nick or assisting one of the older girls. Lots of rusty skills are given some polish tonight and half of the number is pulled together with lots of support provided by the younger half of the pairs. You can see the bonds forming between the pairs as they work together, assisting unasked and practising tirelessly.
It’s a razzle dazzle number and Maureen Barwick playing Stella Deems cues Jonathan in with a “Hit it, baby”. From there on the number is hers and she is truly amazing. Although Nick says later that he is not happy with the way he’s choreographed the ending, I think he is being hyper critical, it looks and sounds fantastic to me, after just a few hours. Although it was a few hours of very hard work for the Follies girls and one of the most entertaining nights I’ve ever had. Having twelve ladies dancing towards me in a line and stopping about a foot before Louise Plowright would have either kicked me or landed in my lap was unbelievable. At least she had flip flops on so would have done little damage. I decide I want to be a tap dancer – do you think it’s too late?