The work-life balance of a piano playing bear

A slightly different reflection for today’s blog post. This week’s trip to the library led to bringing home a copy of David Litchfield’s picture book, The Bear and the Piano, to read at bedtime with my toddler. This is a touching book in so many ways and one I would definitely seek out to buy as a gift for a child of any age.

[Spoiler] A bear cub finds a piano in the woods and investigates it, returning to explore the funny object over days, weeks and years and eventually becoming a proficient player to all his friends. Some visitors to the forest hear him and invite him back to Broadway where he becomes a celebrated concert pianist. But he misses his friends back home and fears they may have forgotten him. On a return visit he discovers quite the opposite to be true.

The story deals poignantly with remembering your roots and appreciating those who are behind you while you chase your dreams. It also hints at the need for perseverance and practise in order to hone a skill and that bright things come to those who work hard.

David Litchfield peppers each page with musicality through harmonious splashes of colour and three-dimensional texture, encouraging an adult reader to reflect on perspectives and how we view situations from both close up and afar. These atmospheric illustrations are exquisitely beautiful.

As I read to my little Pickle, my mind twisted around my own predicament on shifting from being a stay-at-home mum, dabbling in theatre projects, to launching myself back into the working world. I thought about the wonderful women like Tamara Harvey, the impressive Artistic Director of Theatre Clwyd who is also promoting the challenges and massive successes of the #workingmum via Twitter.

I thought about the inspirational Kate Cross MBE, director of The Egg, creating theatre with and for children whilst being an awesome role model to her own. I thought about how lucky I am to have a supportive family to help with child care and to always come back to at the end of the working day, whatever time that might be.

And I thought about the incredible workers – not just in theatre – like my husband, who is often travelling for work and doing exceptional things to make our family lifestyle possible, even if he is not able to be at home with us everyday.

Finding a work-life balance is tricky in any profession but what a stunning reminder David Litchfield’s book is to the importance of remembering the supporters back home.

Hooray for libraries but also for writers, illustrators and publicists. Here is a link in case you want to pick up a copy of The Bear and the Piano for yourself or as a present for someone special who will also appreciate this beautiful book.

All images are from David Litchfield’s The Bear and the Piano published by Lincoln Children’s Books.

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Review: Hamilton, an ovation for understudies

It is not a lightly given remark when I describe the production I saw tonight as ‘epic’. The vast scale of what the script deals with alone is magnanimous. And the presentation smacks of daring and absolute reverence in an oh-so-appropriately irreverent way.

‘Hamilton’ emancipates the personal and political, a private and a public tale at risk of slipping out of the American consciousness. It is a historical acknowledgement of a founding father of America whose narrative was thrust into the history books (or so artistic licence will have us accept) by the incredible woman who succeeded him by an impressive 50 Years, in which she worked to honour both his legacy and her own. While the power of the political battles at play were the heart of Act 1 (in my opinion), the emotional battles of Act 2 overwhelmed me with affection, dread and sheer admiration for the characters on stage. There is not just one eponymous Hamilton of note that you learn about in this now infamous history lesson – and what a masterclass it is.

Layers upon layers of symbolism are packed in behind the fast-paced lyrics of this high-speed rollercoaster. We are whisked through an encyclopaedia of musical styles from hip-hop and rap to r’n’b and blues; we are chasing the choreographic details trying to decide where and what to look at with so much on offer; and we are challenged by the controversial and deliberate clash of style and substance. Paul Tazewell’s sumptuous costumes track the subtle changes in fashion through the ages: the switch from corsetry to empire lines and from boots to hose and shoes. Authenticity sits side-by-side with contemporary-modern hairstyling and accessories, highlighting that this is a transcendental story about innovation; about a revolutionary with a complete disregard for convention and a need for forward thinking. This thinking is echoed again in David Korins’ monumental set design which harbours the simplicity of a new age, a church-like provenance, and reminds us of the pioneers’ ships that arrived in America, paving the way for the actions of the founding fathers of the nation. Both the set and ensemble costumes (corsets and jodhpurs) are paired-down, stripped-back to uncover details of the story that former Vice-president, Aaron Burr, pains to admit.

The programme reminds us that many Americans know only snippets from his history, though many will recognise Alexander Hamilton from their ten dollar bills. Brits will likely know even less about the historical events he lived through. The inexhaustible Lin-Manuel Miranda (writer) ensures we go away with more than a full picture of what happened – both on a national and, to some extent, international scale – and the role Alexander Hamilton played in these events. Naturally, the soft side of the personal story is included to enchant us. And yet Hamilton’s private life is anything but; it swings to the fore dealing and receiving blows that impact on the political situation and challenge the family bond.

Tonight’s performance was a true reflection of the power of family, which the slick cast have clearly cultivated among their ranks. We saw a number of outstanding understudies stepping into roles with panache and the instant standing ovation (an overused stasis I usually avoid) was absolutely deserved.

Regular cast member, Rachelle Ann Go played the accepting Eliza Hamilton who unveils tremendous inner-strength. This pint-sized performer held proof that great things come in small packages as she delivered the female-empowering punchline of the show with heart and soul to ensure that lump comes to your throat. Michael Jibson’s mad King George couldn’t disappoint. His entrances were met with glee from the audience who hung on his every pun. These regulars were joined by understudies Ash Hunter (Hamilton), Miriam-Teak Lee (Angelica), Gabriel Mokake (Washington), and Sifiso Mazibuko (Burr).

Mazibuko charmed with his smooth smile, constantly challenging our loyalties despite revealing in the opening sequence that Burr was ‘the damn fool that shot him’. Mokake‘s Washington had soul that packed a punch, even as he aged before our eyes with touching grace. An awesome performance to witness.

Miriam-Teak Lee towers, masterfully, over her co-stars with all the strength and superiority of her referenced female counterpart, Lady Macbeth. And well she may. As Angelica she tells Hamilton to ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place’ giving him the confidence and determination not to fail, in an awful moment where he is escalated on his pedestal before a calamitous, Aristotelian fall. Lee’s voice is as outstanding as her presence and she epitomises the role-model that Angelica became to both of the Hamiltons. Her rendition of ‘Satisfied’, within the beautifully choreographed (Andy Blankenbuehler) rewind sequence, is both haunting and a mesmerising highlight in the first Act.

And unequivocally excellent, Ash Hunter (the alternate Hamilton) took the lead with every ounce of his being. His Americanised Jean Valjean-esque transition from entertaining, quick-witted youth to broken father is heart-wrenching. As a new-parent watching, his irreparable despair and stillness in ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ stole the show for me. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Yet to have seen the writer himself in his place is a thrill too much to even contemplate. That standing ovation – hugely warranted by tonight’s cast – was, for me, first and foremost for the exceptional talent of Lin-Manuel Miranda for creating such an incredible 2 hours and 45 minutes of quick fire, mind-blowing, intertextual mastery. Shakespeare, Jason Robert Brown, Boubil-Schonberg… the list of honours is endless and Miranda certainly earns his place on the pedestal with the geniuses he applauds.

Script Reading: Sea Wall by Simon Stephens

During a brilliantly informative lecture at the RSC’s Big Director’s Weekend last month, Rob Swain (Programme Director for Birkbeck’s MFA Directing course) advised us on the first reading of a script. Read it free of all pretences and without making notes, overthinking or planning, he said. He admitted the challenge in this; directors and creatives naturally want to start imagining the world of the play and how it would be conveyed. However, Swain’s point was that we ought to sit and read straight through, uninterrupted in order to receive the play for the first time as an audience will hear it for the first time. Never again, he warned, after that first reading, will you be able to hear it afresh. And first impressions do count in theatre. Very much so. For first impressions in theatre are often, also, last impressions. And when all the elements of an exceptional play come together, they have the potential to make lasting impressions too.

Simon Stephens

So, having marvelled at numerous Simon Stephens plays, I decided to pick up one I hadn’t yet read and to follow Swain’s directive. I knew that Sea Wall has been critically acclaimed for a recent revival (I don’t have the luxury of being able to get to half the things I’d love to see over in London) and I had recently read Lyn Gardner’s column on the value of short plays. This, I thought, would be the perfect play to trial the exercise.

So, I sat and read.

Swain’s follow up instruction was to reflect on my initial reaction to the reading: the potential first reaction that an audience would experience on receiving the same information.

*Spoiler alert* If you haven’t read the play, it’s 9 pages long and worth stopping and doing so now. (It’s available online via a very easy search).

The following details my responses while reading but recorded after completing the read. Details about the play may be referenced.

Response 1/ You can’t stop your mind from wandering. My mind, although attempting to focus solely on the story Alex was telling, slid into the age-old question over monologues. How long can you expect an audience to sit and listen to a monologue for? Especially a monologue where the playwright (“always honour the playwright’s intentions” said every drama teacher in the land) requests a bare stage and natural light. A monologue that’s well formed but where, let’s face it, not a lot happens.

Response 2/ Two thirds of the way in, the Director in me was itching to work with an actor to really explore the naturalistic dialogue that Stephens crafts so effortlessly, tripping into tangents, ebbing and flowing between topics, like the waves lapping the sand, and elaborating on randomly inconsequential details. However, I knew that this was the reaction of my inner directing-geek, hungry to chew on some gentle, unsuspecting prose. Whereas, my aforementioned wandering mind was well aware that the direction would need something special to keep the audience engaged. That is, unless the last three pages had something different on offer to, say, stir things up…

Then WHAM! Response 3/ Forget directing. Forget anything. How was I going to sleep tonight after reading that? How could I rest easy with an overactive imagination and my own daughter lying asleep in the next room? How could I possibly consider directing this when the thought of it happening makes me feel sick? Fills me with dread. Touches a nerve way too close to home. How could you advertise this production to an audience without giving away what happens? Because Swain was right. This. This is how the audience feel on first encounter and this is what the director is responsible for: the creation and preservation of this immediate, unexpected response. I really hope you stopped and read the play so you know what I’m talking about.

A lesson from my own drama teacher sprung to mind: you cannot play Juliet as a tragic heroine. Juliet is a young girl in love who does not know her fate. As an actress, you need to let her live in the moment, blissfully unaware of what’s to come.

This advice struck me for the poignancy of its severe opposition to Alex’s tale. Alex confronts the audience directly to tell them his story. The very raw story of what happened to him, three weeks before. There is no hiding from his fate. His fate is the beginning, middle, end and reason for the story. The important factor in his telling of the story is that, while he knows the outcome, the audience do not. Unless they are returning for a second time and, thus, filled with the dread of knowing what will happen and that nobody can stop it. And therein lies the importance of Swain’s first reading, in parallel to Alex’s discovery of the Sea Wall… Once you’ve seen it, once you know, you can’t un-imagine it or deny its existence. Your perspective is tainted.

So, now I’m ready for a re-read with all the things I now know in mind. It will change the way I receive every word. I’m not even sure if I can handle this.

What a gloriously brilliant, harrowingly difficult and clever, clever script.

I have since read this review of the revival, which sums up the stunning performance. Now to find that downloadable recording!

Look for the Silver Lining

Neither of my parents are performers so I’m often asked where my love of theatre comes from. The answer is very clear to me. When I was a child, every now and then, my lovely grandma used to send over video cassettes of the musical films that she had recorded off the television for me to watch. They were carefully selected and she would set a timer to remind her to press record after she had scoured the Sunday supplement TV guide for films for me to see. They were always musicals from the MGM golden age of film and ones that she and Grandad had loved watching when they were growing up themselves. I adored them. The musicals and my grandparents. While my peers were educated into the music of 90’s boy bands and girls’ magazines, I was transfixed by these recordings and watched them over and over, learning the songs and dance routines. I grew up alongside June Haver and Shirley Jones, adoring Ray Bolger and Gordon McRae and idolising Gene Kelly and Julie Andrews.

My favourite of these films was the 1949 musical biography of theatre star, Marilyn Miller, entitled ‘Look For the Silver Lining’. It tracks the career of Miller who grew up in a vaudeville family, aspiring to join them on the stage, and makes herself a star despite the numerous trials and tribulations on the way. She discovers the pain of young love and eventually outgrows a persistent, childish naivety by learning from those she has met along her journey.

The real Marilyn Miller (photo from Wikipedia)

Miller is played by the beautiful June Haver who, at the age of 23, played Miller across three decades of her life. While Haver’s ability to be accepted as a convincing child is questionable and Miller’s precociousness somewhat irritating, she is endearing nonetheless and it is lovely to see the interaction between Haver and Charles Ruggles as ‘Pops Miller’ as she grows from child to adult, shedding much of the immaturity but retaining just enough to give her the drive and ambition that the industry demands of her.

June Haver and Ray Bolger (photo from IMDb)

At the start of the film, the youngest Miller arrives on the Vaudeville circuit, from Ohio, to catch up with her performing family because ‘Grandmother has decided she is ready to perform’. Backstage at the theatre, she meets her dancing idol, Jack Donahue, played with charming wit by Ray Bolger, who is every bit the gentleman and not at all prone to scaring off any crows, as he was a decade before… When Donahue gives her the chance to perform on stage, she falls head over heels in love and the career that Pops forbids her is undeniable.

Gordon MacRae and June Haver (photo from IMDb)

As a precocious teenager, Miller meets her match in Gordon MacRae’s Frank Carter, who becomes the third male influence in her life and attempts to render her the Shrew to his Petruchio until he is called away from theatre to support the war effort.

Miller’s life is challenged by tragedies, not least her early retirement from performing and, also in real life, her own untimely death at the young age of 37.

The film documents highlights in Miller’s theatre career, including her appearances in the Ziegfeld Follies, as the titular Sunny, singing the classic song ‘Who?’ by Kern and Hammerstein and as Jerome Kern’s Sally, in which she sings ‘Look For the Silver Lining’, also immortalised in 1946 when Judy Garland played Miller in Kern’s Till the Clouds Roll By.

Click for link to the original film trailer on YouTube

As a child, I loved Haver’s youth, beauty and vivacious energy for the stage. I adored her cheeky tap numbers with Ray Bolger and their festive ditty at the backstage Christmas party. I pined after her beautiful costumes and grew up dreaming of a wedding dress that would move with the same lightness and grace in my wedding dance (which I got and it did!). I loved the symbolism of the good luck elephants, which prompted my own collection. And, more than anything, I loved glimpsing behind the scenes in the theatre world: the dressing rooms, the larger than life costumes, the hammy actors spouting Shakespeare, the demure dressing gowns that the actors wore while applying their greasepaint, the busy and enthusiastic rehearsals, the big smiles and huge hearts. These movies were full of the good old feel-good factor and made me want to be a part of that wholesome, singing and dancing world. I’ve since learned to see the world without my rose-tinted movie glasses but I still love the film, the vaudeville world that it depicts and, above all, I hope I can pass on recordings of precious old films to my own grandchildren one day.

Thank you to Silver Screenings for inspiring this blog post. Do head over to her wonderful blog for links to plenty more films from the golden age.