Geoff Ambler completes his account of rehearsals for Follies at the Royal Theatre, Northampton.
He starts with the ‘tech stuff’ and completes his account with a note about the Press Night. Which is where Timothy Ramsden takes over – as ReviewsGate co-editor, he attended the press night to review the show.
Read on . . .Follies – Royal Theatre, Northampton
Day 26 – Run Through on Stage with Tech
This is the last week. Apparently there is a lot of “Tech” scheduled for the first three days, which Nick Winston assures me is very boring. I can’t believe him as after five weeks I still find the whole process enthralling. Thursday will have the first dress rehearsal, with the second on Friday afternoon, followed shortly afterwards with the first of three previews.
No one seems overly concerned at the lack of time left to them. In fact as I enter the theatre there is no one around. No one I know that is, as there are hundreds of people running around, climbing scaffolds, adjusting lights then cycling the lights through different lighting effects while calling out series of numbers. It all seems very technical, maybe this is Tech. I take a seat and pay attention. A short while later I’m bored.
Actors begin to arrive on set in costume! It’s the first time I’ve seen the real things. So far I have only had the pencilled design sketches to look at, stuck up on one wall in the rehearsal room. Now I can see the costumes in all their beauty. The dancers are dressed for their “Who’s That Woman” tap number complete with wigs. Laura Pitt-Pulford is dressed in her Young Heidi dress and wig which has aged about ten years. When I point out to Pippa Raine that they all look older I’m told to go and sit back where I was in the other side of the auditorium. The girls look marvellous, not really older as such, just more 40’s, which is the intention after all. Jessica Curtis, Follies Designer has done an astonishing job. Alex Gianinni arrives with his Buddy suit for the Buddy Blues number. It is brash, bright and bold and will accompany one of the comedic numbers brilliantly, in all its yellow glory. Alex is also sporting a full harness as his entrance for this comedic number will be hanging from a wire, with only his head visible through the curtain. While testing this entrance he discovers it is impossible to keep his hat and microphone on as he slides down the gap in the curtains. Changes are made.
Again the theatre fills up with the cast ready to watch what is being described as “half-tech” which seems to mean running through the show with frequent adjustments by Laurie Sansom and Nick while the Tech people play with the lighting and sound, usually at odds with the action on stage. Laurie starts proceedings and we are dropped into complete darkness. Off stage lighting is turned on and creates a blue glow through the set windows. Soon we see Brian Hall as Dimitri Weissman being pushed onto the stage by Natalina Malina as Francesca Weissman. As Jonathan plays the now familiar opening music, Whizz, the Sound Designer adds an ethereal ghostly touch to the music. I hear the instructions behind me. “More etherealness. More. More. That’s it. Save it” I imaging a knob marked Etherealness being turned up but it’s probably more hi-tech than that. Laurie stops proceedings and the pair are moved back up stage a little. This sets the routine for the evening. Familiar routines are run through and tweaked a little. The guests arrivals and the party are adjusted and replayed time and time again as Laurie seeks something that looks more natural and fluid. The focus is carefully shifted around the stage from group to group and characters interact. It’s still a complex dance, even after all the hours they have spent working on it, with Laurie, Andrew Panton and Nick refining the directions the cast, who are at this stage mainly the Community actors, are all handling it all very professionally. I cast my mind back to the first rehearsal after the read through when this scene was first set out and even after all the changes, the basis of Laurie’s initial vision for how this will work is still recognisable in this almost finalised scene.
Jonathan is now sitting behind an upright piano as the original grand piano was too big and the band and cast would not all fit on the upper floor. It also was so big Jonathan was sitting off stage, almost in the wings unable to see the stage.
During some of the breaks Nick and Oliver Tydman dance and leap around the staircase, working out steps for the Oliver and Alex’s number “The Right Girl”. Nick tries sliding down the banister, leaping over it, jumping down the stairs. Some of the moves work but it is obviously still in development.
Due to time constraints Laurie keeps jumping forward missing out the songs I now love, working on the scenes that join the musical numbers together. Entrances are made from all over the theatre, from the doors either side of the stage, down the main staircase and onto the gantry above the Bands mezzanine floor. And as we approach the mirror number everyone is dressed for, Laurie calls time and the evening is over.
Day 29 – First Dress Rehearsal
Tonight is the night! At the same time tomorrow, this magnificently refurbished old building will be full of paying customers, friends and family and the theatre will be officially open after an 18 month, £14 million refurbishment. I take a little time to wander around the theatre, possibly for the last time as a privileged interloper. After five weeks with some of the most talented, charming and wonderfully friendly people I have ever known; watching them develop their characters and share in their whole creative experience, it’s almost all over. It’s a little sad for me but a hugely exciting time for both the cast and creative team as they prepare to present their work to the world. This is what they do and until the doors open and the paying public come and watch their work, they have no idea how it will be received.
This is something I have come to appreciate over the past month. I know I love the show and certain scenes have moved me more that I thought was possible in a rehearsal room; I know I respect and admire this cast, they have never failed to impress me with their tireless enthusiasm, talent, dedication and boundless humour; I know I have watched a director and his creative team endlessly create and improve inspirational and emotive scenes, but I don’t know if anyone else will see it. Is it just because of my connection with these people and their work? Although I’ve only been watching them, I feel a strong emotional tie to the show and the people in it and am really nervous about how it will be received. However I am yet to see it with all the costumes, lighting, sound, the full band and so far I haven’t seen it in the right order.
As I wander up onto the stage I notice Alex walking through his scenes, saying his lines to himself, walking through his steps, kicking a chair across the stage. I leave him to it and have a look around, back stage for the last time. I noticed that my shoes are sticking to the stage. As I’m checking that I haven’t walked anything in, on my shoes Heidi Taunt, DSM informs me that the dancers complained that the stage was slippery so Cola has been rubbed into the boards to provide some grip. She shows me her workstation in the wings. This is where she will spend the next four weeks before having a break before her next project. Heidi has been working in this industry for twelve years now and prefers the short term contracts that allow her to do something different every few months.
There is a photographer in the theatre tonight who will be taking publicity photos during the whole show. He clears out the first six rows so he can move around freely. I sit myself in the seventh row. There are barely more than six or seven others in the theatre watching tonight.
The show starts. Jonathan’s ethereal ghostly piano playing, now with extra etherealness; sound effects of Weissmans memories of the glory days of his theatre echo through the theatre as he sits in the dark; the effects work. The opening looks and sounds brilliant. Darren Fawthrop’s Young Weissman mirrors Old Weissman reminiscing over his cigarette case before lighting a cigarette (not a real one, he doesn’t smoke). Later in a scene between Darren and Laura we see the Young Heidi giving it to him while Old Weissman shows the present day Heidi that he still cherishes it. It’s a scene in the background and could easily be missed but it these little details that emphasize the relationships and tie them together and they add to the whole Laurie Sansom experience.
Pippa Raine appears in her showgirl outfit and walks elegantly, beautifully down the staircase, a ghostly memory in Weissmans dream. This is what she did on that first rehearsal day, weeks ago, in her sheepskin boots where she managed to still look both beautiful and elegant. As she walks off stage Jan Hartley can be heard walking through the stalls talking to Natalina. The show has begun.
I’m surprised that there are still a few missed lines, but nothing too serious. The Mirror Number amazes me anew. The costumes, the set, the lighting and the crescendo of sound all adds to a number that worked so well just in rehearsals. I grin all the way through it. This, I am certain, will delight every audience. That Nick fellow certainly knows his craft.
Rita Gee, without a doubt has some of the funniest lines in the show and she delivers them adroitly. When she walks on for her “Broadway Baby” number she stands centre stage looking out into the audience. Her silence lasts as long as she wants. Jonathan is waiting for her cue. This was Laurie’s direction, to own the moment. She starts “I’m just” then silence. She pauses, again Jonathan waits for her, again she eyes the audience and then, with everyone sitting expectant, continues the number “ a Broadway Baby”. She is fantastic. I get a wink.
Act one ends with the scene that for me encapsulates the greatness of this show, “Too Many Mornings”. It’s a simple number, Julian Forsyth and Jan Hartley impassioned vocals resound through the theatre and I’m positioned perfectly to see Savannah Stevenson’s look of complete adoration as she stands, entranced by Julian’s Ben. It worked so beautifully off stage in rehearsals and now, seeing it for the first time on stage, I sit in the stalls completely hypnotised by some of the finest theatre. I never want this scene to end. It flies by and the act ends.
Act two opens almost as one finished however now Ben is kissing Older Sally with Young Sally looking on. We see more of the main four characters problems in the first few numbers. The Young and Old Buddy’s “The Right Girl” number bristles with aggression and energy and Oliver’s leap over the banister in the move Nick was working out days before. Louise Plowright’s Phyllis is positively manhandled by Alain Terzoli’s lusty waiter. Then we are into “One More Kiss”. Margaret Walker and Laura Pitt-Pulford perform their duet, exceeding magnificence, as both of the Heidi’s achieve operatic splendour again. This scene gives me goose bumps, with the young and old pairs meeting on stage during the song, Laurie has crafted some beautiful vignettes and you have to watch as much of the stage to catch more of his most subtle work.
Loveland sees Darren Fawthrop’s big number and Pippa, Suzy Bastone, Katie Lovell and Laura arrive in some extraordinary showgirl costumes complete with outlandish head dresses. Katie walks down the stairs throwing petals as she walks, Suzy should arrive in a cloud of bubbles but only one accompanies her entrance, a tech problem probably, and Pippa seems to have a huge arrow pointing down on her head and big hearts hanging around her waist. They all look extravagantly beautiful and haven’t been onstage nearly enough.
The irrepressible Haley Flaherty arrives onstage with Peter Caulfield; following them, Savannah Stevenson and Oliver Tydman for “Love Will See Us Through”. Through these two numbers, the four brilliant young leads help define the dreams of youth and their expectations for the future. This is a delightful piece of choreographed tweeness, a complete contrast to much of the show and another fine example of Sondheim’s extraordinarily lyrical genius.
Next up is Alex’s Buddy Blues with his entrance hanging from a wire. He has very little time to slip out of the harness once returned to the stage so has a number of hands assisting him with the unbuckling. This is still new and he struggles a bit tonight it this is what previews are for. All of his routine occurs in front of the curtain which sets Jan Hartley up for a truly impressive entrance.
The curtain lifts up and stood in a spotlight which is above and slightly behind her is Sally for the most popular Sondheim number ever, “Losing My Mind”. She is stunning, sparkling in a long white gown. There is a touch of insanity in her watering eyes at the end as she confusedly runs from the stage. Another masterpiece.
The last two numbers segue together in a display of choreographic brilliance. “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” and “Live, Laugh, Love” sung by Louise Plowright and Julian Forsyth respectively are fantastic dance numbers and lead this show into the climatic, chaotic breakdown Julian’s Ben experiences. Again the dancers stun in Nick’s crazy, sexy, cool spectacle of dance. It is a fitting finale for a magnificent show which as a dress rehearsal seems devoid of anything needing much work and the feeling amongst the creative team afterwards is very positive.
Day 30 – First Preview
I’m one of the first to arrive through the official Royal Theatre foyer tonight and am greeted by an unusually smart Laurie Sansom looking very nervous. When I ask him why he assures me it is because he has been asked to give an opening speech rather that the first public performance of the show he will introduce himself to Northampton with. He says he doesn’t have a clue what to say. Before the curtains rise, Chief Executive Donna Munday gives a speech instead.
One of the first things I do is grab a copy of the programme. I had been asked to write a piece about my experiences in rehearsals and have not yet seen if it made the final version. I have a whole page with Jess Curtis’s brilliant costume designs! I find another usher and buy five more programmes.
The show goes very well. Oddly enough there were several stumbles on the stair case, with Jan Hartley stopping my heart when she looks like she missed a step at the top. Fortunately she is holding the banister and steadies herself. No one had had any problems until tonight although tonights would have been missed by most of the audience.
The end of the mirror number elicits an extended ovation from the entire audience which is prematurely stopped by Maureen Barwick starting her next line. I’m sure Nick will be writing a note to remind her to let the audience applaud the dance numbers.
The audience applaud and cheer and laugh in all the right places then the show is over. The buzz in the theatre is very positive, in the foyer a small party is held and everyone is smiling. Most of the cast appear to greet family and friends. Margaret and Rita make a bee line to me to find out if I liked it. I assure them that they were both absolutely amazing. They were. Rita is a star and you won’t find many better voices than Margaret Walkers. I will have to keep an eye on the Kettering Operatic Society productions.
Day 30 – Notes
I pop in to todays notes sessions really because I’ve enjoyed the whole rehearsal experience so much I don’t want it to finish. Today will be my last day. There is a lot of tech going on adjusting sound and lighting which hadn’t been completed for the first preview. The four young leads are running through their two Loveland numbers and sound levels are being set. Savannah Stevenson gets an instruction from Whizz to watch her pronunciation and add more volume. I hear her mumble “So, just sing better”. Savannah has a really bad cold and is singing through is so well I had completely missed that she was unwell. She assures me it is down to Fishermans Friends that she can still breathe. Over the last five weeks watching Savannah work (and play) and it is obvious that she truly is a dedicated and brilliantly talented actress, singer and dancer. It is casts like the one Laurie has assembled in Northampton that West End shows strive for and don’t always achieve.
While the sound levels are being set for the personal microphones the actors are asked to talk. Most describe what they had for breakfast, not Haley though. No Haley who is never less than completely entertaining starts an interesting story about the random people who arrived in the theatre today, a week early for next weeks matinee show.
Haley Flaherty and Peter Caulfield run through their number “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” and have added a blown kiss and catch. Afterwards Nick comments that he likes it, Haley says she doesn’t know what to do with it once she has caught it and mimes patting in on her rear. Nick suggests the less controversial placing it on her heart. It is added to the show.
Jonathan Gill works with the band in the background and I hear his instructions float down from the darkness. “I’ve said this once and I’ll say it twice, follow me, not the singer!” It has been this attention to every detail, helping the cast achieve perfection through every rehearsal, that has produced such a high musical and vocal standard, a standard a Sondheim show requires, and he is pushing the band to also achieve it.
Jan Hartley performs “Losing my Mind” again but this time adding a very high “You said you love me” at the end to further emphasise the madness. In this setting it sounds a little alien to me.
An unexpected friend arrives in the theatre, only the second person not in the show that Laurie has allowed to watch any rehearsals. Laura Michelle Kelly, Nick’s wife has turned up early to meet him and comes to sit by me to watch. Laura is keenly interested in the rehearsal of the party entrances and marvels at the abilities of the community cast that Laurie is working with again. Always chatty Laura is asking me so many questions that she worries she will disturb the cast so we move back down the stalls. And this treat ends my weeks of Follies rehearsals.
Day 32 – First Night
Some of the press came the night before due to Dirty Dancing opening in the West End on the same night but there are still members of the press in the audience tonight. The show is a complete marvel.
Rita owns her audience during “Broadway Baby” plus has some of the funniest lines in the show; Margaret and Laura stir the heart during “One More Kiss”; Jan astonishes and moves during every scene she is in and her new ending to “Losing My Mind” is fantastic when experienced in context; Alex makes me laugh for the thousandth time. The deserved applause after the mirror number goes on for ever, the sound behaved itself and Oliver Fenwicks lighting is just fantastic. Jonathan Gill displays boundless energy and enthusiasm in his seat behind the piano, seemingly as active as the dancers on the stage. It is a credit to the quality of all the community cast that they are indistinguishable from the professionals, every one of them giving a completely sublime performance.
There are so many great performers and performances but for me it’s the six girls; Haley Flaherty, Pippa Raine, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Savannah Stevenson, Suzy Bastone and Katie Lovell who deserve a special mention and chocolates and not just because they looked after me so well over the past five weeks. They worked professionally and diligently during what must have been more than thirty hours of tap academy and assisted Nick in helping the non professionals in achieving a number that would grace any stage and any audience in the world. They never lost patience or humour through all those evenings. Some lost toe nails and they all blistered their feet and never once complained or gave anything less that their brilliant best, while Nick worked them to exhaustion. I’ll never forget those evenings and the bit of their world they welcomed me into. Plus they all bought me drinks and shared their food with me and who could possibly turn down a drink with six of the most beautiful and entertaining girls I have ever worked with.
I can’t help wonder if this is the Follies so many directors have striven to present, for the thirty five years of its life. If Laurie continues this standard and having watched him work I have every confidence he will, Northampton should become an attraction for all theatre goers, defining how inspirational, how impressive, how entertaining theatre can be.
In Follies Laurie, Nick, Jonathan, Andrew, Jessica, Oliver and the rest of the creative team have created a spectacular opening for this revitalised Royal Theatre and as an introduction to Laurie Sansom it’s a great start to his tenure as Artistic Director.
Thank you to all the cast and creatives who put up with me watching and recording their every move without complaint and those who welcomed me into a world I will never forget. I owe so many people drinks I hope I get the opportunity to return the favours. To Laurie Sansom and Nick Winston, thank you for your faith and this amazing opportunity. As someone who has only been a member of the audience and occasional critic it has been a continual delight and enhanced my appreciation of the work you all do. Break a toe nail!