Monday, December 11, 2006

A long amble down Memory Lane

The brain is rather fogged this evening. Habibi and I are staying in tonight, and tomorrow night (Oops! No. Actually, I have a school function to attend. Dang!), but the next night for sure, and the next....... Bliss. I am so tired I can barely see straight - certainly can't sit up straight! So this will probably be a rambly one.

Howsoever, it goes with the territory. Doing a show on top of a full-time job is a hell of a thing, and doing panto doubly so, but it's so much fun to do a project like this, with such a diverse and talented group of people that we might never otherwise meet. I've not been in a show for four years now, mainly because I kept nodding off at rehearsals for the last show I was in, but also, let's face it, when you're teaching and directing every day, the urge to do more of the same, three evenings a week, completely evaporates!

Habibi moved here in August 1994, and Habibibaba and I joined him a few weeks later, as the schools reopened after the summer break. By the time I arrived, Valerie-Ann had taken him under her wing, and persuaded him that joining Dubai Drama Group was the best way to settle in, and kick-start our social life. Before we knew it, the DDG had become our social life!

We did so many productions, that I can't place them in order, but there they all are, in the DDG archive. Yay! This is our archive. (Lovefest warning. We thesps, you know...)

First off was the 1994 panto, Humpty Dumpty, written by John Morley, and directed by the indefatiguable Philippe Duquenoy. They auditioned about a week after I got here, and I got to play a Welsh Druid called Mrs Mistletoe, engaged in a battle to outwit Jack Frost in the Land of Ice and Snow. I forget the name of the actor who played Jack Frost, but he was thin as a rail, camp as Christmas (offstage!), flexible and agile: as Jack Frost, eerie and comically demonic, he had the kids in the audience alternately on the edge of their seats, and pushing right back into them! He left here years ago, but Philipppe's still here of course, as the man behind Streetwise Fringe.

At that time, Habibibaba was coming up for six years old. Rehearsals were three evenings a week, but Friday was set-building day, on the old (gone now) British Council stage, and in the yard at the back where we had a costume store, a props store, a scenery store, and all the equipment from screwdrivers to a circular saw, that you need to make and paint a set and props. We'd start at 9 or 10, and round off with pizza delivered from Round Table at 1 o'clock. Habibibaba had a backpack which would be filled with Lego, The Beano, The Animals of Farthing Wood, and lots of paper and felt tips, but I don't think he shared our enthusiasm for those Friday sessions..... There was shade outside, and A.C and a kettle inside, but once the heat and humidity kicked in in March or April, it would be a great relief to haul off to the Lodge afterwards so Habibibaba could watch Phil Duquenoy's magic show (Wibbly! Wobbly!) and bounce with the other children, while we did quality control on the chilled, golden, dewy glassed apple beverages. Oh yeah....

In Spring 1995, Mo Bell directed Martin Green's Coarse Acting - The Sequel, and we subsequently did bits of it for the first Great British Day. I played Queen Anne and a soldier in Henry XII, Part VII (or similar!). Ahh, the pleasure of wearing a maroon velvet gown in late April in Dubai! The highlight of the GBD show, for me at least, was when we corpses 'corpsed', i.e. got the giggles. I don't know how it started, but one moment we were dying horribly, to lie strewn across the 7 metre square battlefield, and the next, someone started giggling; and King H XII had to deliver his fabulous victory speech with eight figures in hand-knitted grey string chainmail twitching and snorting at his feet. Well, it was a Coarse Acting Show...... maybe no-one in the audience realised......

In Autumn 1995, Jane Purchase directed Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling. Now, I had seen the movie version, starring Julia Roberts, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, Darryl Hannah and Tom Skerret; and however good the individual performances were, I thought the film itself stank. Mawkish, self-indulgent tripe. Loathed it. So I wasn't touching this show with a barge-pole, no matter how lovely Jane (and Valerie-Ann!) said it was.

Fortunately for me, an actress had to withdraw, so I came in to replace her as 'Ouisa (Shirley MacLaine in the movie). Great part and, it turned out, damn good play; set entirely in the beauty parlour, where all the emotional upheaval is tempered by the wicked, bring-it-on wit of the protagonistas: Hollywood of course, gave us breadth over depth and - well - that's Hollywood!

It was very interesting to join a show two weeks before opening night. This was a very talented and committed cast, with fab Mo Bell as Clairee, Jane playing Shelby, the central character, as well as directing (not her original intention, but that's another story) and the remarkable Hillary Harvey, as her mother, washing her hair in cold water every night as we didn't have hot running water on stage. It's the only time I ever saw Jane in a role, and I wish she'd done more, because she was very very good in a role that takes sensitivity and stamina. When I joined, the rest of the cast was word perfect, and knew that play inside out, so while I was at a disadvantage in having to get into character and get the lines down in a fortnight, I had the benefit of all of their knowledge of my character and my cues. I'm so glad I did that show, even if it was the beginning of a long career playing women at least twenty five years older than myself!

Next up, Cherif Wehbe directed the 1995 pantomime, Beauty & the Beast, and I got to be one of the ugly sisters, opposite witty Ann Scullion. Pam Porodo was Beauty and Philippe was hysterical as the Dame. (There'll be Cha-os!) Ann & I had white dresses, and sat on yellow armchairs against a yellow backdrop: on the video, all you can make out is two heads floating in mid air. We also got to be really horrible, and to sing Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend. Heady stuff. After being a sensible, civilised citizen for most of the year, there is nothing so satisfying as chucking out all the inhibitions and taboos of polite society to play a pantomime villain!

In Spring 1996, Mo Bell was back, directing Agatha Christie's Black Coffee, a whodunnit, in which Habibi dunnit! Ha!

And next we had....OMG... the Summer 1996 production of Michael Frayn's superb farce, Noises Off. Philippe directed and played in it, and I played the too-nice-by-half Belinda. It's a terrific play, and requires a revolving set, and actors of olympian stamina. OMG. Act II is set backstage during a performance of a touring play, with characters chasing and attacking each other with , variously, an axe, a whisky bottle, a fire extinguisher, two bouquets, a cactus, plates of sardines, and knotted bedsheets - and all in silence. Imagine circuit training for two hours, three nights a week, in a sauna, and you have some idea of what it meant to rehearse Act II at the British Council in MAY 1996. But it was fabulous! I know: I've got it on tape! Hillary again, and Julianne Montgomery as Poppy, Dinuk Wijeratne (then a Dubai College student, now Conductor-in-Residence with Symphony Nova Scotia) as the hapless and exhausted Tim, Dan Sanders as the director, and Philippe in his element with his trousers round his ankles, and clutching a plate of sardines. Happy days.

Habibi was up there next, in Len Harvey's Spring 1997 production of Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit. You don't get much Expressionism in Dubai, but there it was, in a very dark tale of manipulation, venality and revenge. Hillary was genteelly terrifying, which takes some doing, but the highlight of the show was, of course, Habibi's entrance on the cue of: 'Bobby! Where are you?' Sigh.... (There's a story there, too.....)

That autumn, Philippe broke away from comedy to direct Lucille Fletcher's suspense thriller Night Watch. I wasn't playing a baddie at all: she was misunderstood, tragically warped by a confusing childhood; what else could she do but kill her husband and his lover (OK, first she entrapped them into becoming lovers, but have some compassion, she was still mourning Daddy.....), and having done so, wasn't it natural that she should swing her fur coat around her shoulders and get herself on the next flight to Switzerland? After all, police officers are so prosaic about these things.
I had to learn to smoke for that one. Very strange activity. It will never catch on.

There was a squad of us jostling to direct in 1997-8. I had found and fallen in love with Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink, but Brian O'Nunan got the Summer '97 slot with Derek Benfield's farce, Caught on the Hop, in which I played Mrs Puffet, a variation on the middle-aged comedy housekeeper, (c.f. Hillary's Mrs Clackett in Noises Off!) all pinny, curlers and saggy stockings; and my turn came in the autumn of 1998.

Indian Ink is set in India and England, in the 1940s and the 1980s, and I needed British and Indian actors. At that time, the DDG wasn't as international as it is now, so I advertised through the Indian Association, and struck gold when Aalok Aima's sister told him aboout it, and he got in touch. This man had not been on stage for fifteen years (Busy with the day job - you know how it is..) but he was mesmerising as Nirad Das, painter, opposite Teletha Orme who was posted to Dubai just long enough to play Flora Crewe, whose trip to India 'for her health', causes ripples through the local communities and three generations. They were the core of a fine ensemble cast. That was the show where Habibi designed me the snot green bungalow with verandah I requested, and the crew, when I looked at it and realised that it had to be eighteen inches further left, all got together and pushed. Directors! Huh!

In Autumn 1999, Bill Bradley, vocational lighting designer, tried his hand at directing for the first time with a satire on group therapy, called I Do Not Like Thee Dr. Fell, by Bernard Farrell. This time my character was eighty-two and definitely loopy. The set comprised a room with a kitchen Up Right, a locked door Up Left, and several beanbags. Another big budget show. Briefly consider the dramatic possibilities of locking half a dozen anxious people in a room for twenty-four hours with a therapist and a job lot of bean bags. You're probably right!

The 1999 panto was more accurately a Christmas show with panto elements, and it required a double-decker set. Philippe rehearsed Follow the Star at the British Council, but we did it in the sports hall at Dubai Country Club. In a chorus of angels in shorts and teeshirts, I was the short square 40 year-old amongst all the dinky 16 year-olds from Dubai College who were doing this as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. (There were others in between: DDG panto is open to all ages!) I'm not good with heights, so the first time I got up on that fifteen foot high platform of springy boards laid over scaffolding - fifteen foot higher than the platform stage, that is - and no safety rail at the front because it would block the audience's view), I ended up paralysed and tearful on my hands and knees; but soon enough we were all rehearsing our steps just as we had on the stage at the British Council - and enjoying it too! The best bit was the dismount: we had a wide blue chute, like in a themepark, so that we angels could descend from heaven at supernatural speed. Yay!

In Spring 2000 I took a deep breath and directed my own play, a comedy called Get a Life! I was thrilled that the DDG would let me do this, and also apprehensive: what if no-one would come to something by an amateur writer? What if it didn't work? Again, I was fortunate in a strong ensemble cast (with the exception of one actor who thought he was really good, and turned out to be a total plank - no, actually, I have seen trees less wooden than the aforementioned 'actor' - but I cast him, and we were stuck with him! Ah well. It's only a bit of fun. sob!) In fact I was very fortunate in my cast, designer (Habibi again!) and construction team.
I posed our gaffer an interesting challenge with the apparently simple stage direction, He exits. Door closes. In this case, 'He' was a ghost, so the door had to close by itself, in full view of the audience. It worked fine in my head..... Thank you Neil Ross, evidently well-cast as the handyman, for all that fiddling about with hooks, pulleys and nylon cord - It worked! Spooky...

Professional theatre companies often commission plays, and the playwright will deliver a work-in-progress, attend rehearsals, and incorporate the ideas and developments that emerge into his revisions; so that the finished text evolves partly from company workshop, and partly from the solitary work of the writer. I knew that my play was entertaining, but poorly structured, and I was looking forward to workshopping it with the actors, rather than directing autocratically.

In practice, as I discovered, an amateur group's experience lies almost exclusively in rehearsing and performing scripted plays with the guidance of a director: they lack the experience, and therefore skills, confidence and response time of trained professionals for devising and revising; and they're also more anxious about hurting the feelings of the the director/writer; so playing with a script, as opposed to rehearsing it, can be unsettling. For me too, when something wasn't working, I'd be apologetic and anxious because I wrote the thing so it was my fault - which can slow things down! In practice then, when we found that something didn't quite work, we would play around with it, but in general, the play went on pretty well as first written. It wasn't perfect but it was fun to do and well-received, so we were happy. Learning experience.
Don't give up the day job....

The British Council, until this time, provided a base for British cultural initiatives in the community. In the days before 'Cool Britannia' the slogan was 'Fly the Flag' - and not just for British Airways. Dubai Drama Group, the Dubai Singers, and the Dubai Harmony Chorus all rented the hall and stage for rehearsals and shows, and the Round Table raised charity funds by providing refreshments in the garden. We had some fine after-show parties out there! However, as Dubai expanded and changed, so did policy and practice, and around about this time, the decision was taken to focus on developing the British Council as a teaching and examining centre. Accordingly, the various groups had to move out, and the stage was duly removed. The DDG packed everything into second-hand portacabins and moved operations to Dubai Country Club. Hardly ideal as location, or for audience capacity, but it was a base until funding could be raised for the long dreamed of Community Theatre.

I was more confident with my next show, the 2000-1 pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, which opened in January 01 in the Dubai Country Club Sports Hall, which seats plenty!. This time I asked Habibi to design me a set in Hanna-Barbera Gothic. And he did. In my version, the devoted (and cute) servant Pockets metamorphosed into Principal Boy, and married Beauty; while Montezuma (Monarch of the Mat, Khan of the Canvas, Sultan of Slam) despite his royal (!) credentials, and the plonking of a noisy reviving kiss upon Beauty's lips, dumped her for the mature attractions of the Dame, Signora Peperoni ('widowed... every time.....), played with great gusto by Scott Sutton. Scott has still not gone home to Mama, but he doesn't come out to play so often nowadays. Shame. P.S. And introducing Habibibaba as Elvis Q. Wildebeest, Monty's agent. He's a natural.

Shortly after this, I moved on from freelancing to full-time drama teaching, which involved getting up at 6 every morning, whether I liked it or not, and no catch-up snoozes mid-afternoon. Huh?!

In the autumn, Cynthia Weston (who was completely fabulous as Zanzibar, my panto fairy-in-chief) debuted as a DDG director with another Agatha Christie, Witness For the Prosecution, and cast me as a
crotchety,
elderly,
housekeeper.
What can I say? I'm waiting for Miriam Margolyes to retire, then I'm turning professional.
Oh good grief. When I went searching for her site, I was reminded that Miriam Margolyes played the Nurse in Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet.
As it happens, I'm playing the Nurse in the next DDG production: Romeo and Juliet.
Maybe it's a sign.........

Last outing: playing Phil Duquenoy's wife again, this time in the Spring 2002 Plaza Suite by Neil Simon. Mimi wouldn't come out of the bathroom, and Walter Matthau and Karen Miller were temporarily unavailable, so Phil and I were down at Dubai Country Club, with Cynthia magnificent in A Hat, and Eric Dury - a tremendously versatile actor - also following up on Witness, in which he was the judge.

So here we are, coming full circle. My first panto role was a Welsh goodie, now I'm a Cornish baddie, and Habibi's a Welsh goodie...... even if Ben Gunn is a pirate, bless 'im!

I'm struck by the fact that when we came here, where everything has always seemed so transitory, we were surprised to meet the likes of Philippe and Liz Duquenoy, Sami & Brian Wilkie, Mo and Martin Bell, and Paul & Deborah Evans, all grown-ups who had been here over ten years, and active in the DDG throughout. We whippersnappers could not imagine how anyone could stay so long, and were well impressed that Sami, who is not only graceful but very funny, had been in every panto for the previous eight years! Sami continued to dance, and to choreograph pantos, and I actually wrote a role specifically for her in Sleeping Beauty, as the silently eloquent Corporal Hoo, sidekick to the ebullient Sergeant Boo. She took it - thank goodness - and was brilliant, just brilliant. I don't think I'll ever forget it!

So now 2006 is nearly over, and so is our time here - after 12 years (It seems like more!) - and in the current production, we're the - um - grown-ups....... having a hoot with all the newcomers to Dubai. We may be fit to drop at this point, but so are the new whippersnappers; and having a final fling with the DDG definitely counts as one of our happiest decisions.

And we will be here to see the group move into its new home, when Romeo and Juliet opens at Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre in March. It's been a long time coming, and has cost vastly more than anticipated. Without Majid Al Futtaim's donation of a shell at Mall of the Emirates, there might still be no end in sight. No doubt there will be issues to resolved between management and the community groups who worked so hard to fund-raise for the centre, but DUCTAC is open at last. It exists. This has to be good news for the old tenants of the British Council, and all the other cultural groups here.

It's taken me a couple of evenings to put this together. School function last night. Coursework to mark tonight. Absolutely nothing to do tomorrow night except make replacement felt eyepatches because the plastic ones slide all over my face, and then....

Friday:
Down to Dubai Women's College for 9 a.m.
Final Dress 11 a.m.
Matinee at 3
Evening Performance at 7
Home!

Saturday:
Lie-in
Matinee at 3
Evening Performance at 7
After show Party (Make mine a cocoa...... ok, maybe you can liven it up a bit....)
Home!

Tis Treasure Island, me hearties!
Wi' pirates, and face-paintin' and dressin' up (an' that's just the cast & crew, me dears).
Be ye coming to see it? Arrrr!

3 comments:

Keefieboy said...

I'm gonna have to do a post to match this - sets I have designed and helped build. A few shows I've been in. Stuff like that. But having just discovered that today is Wednesday, which means we are on on Friday, it'll have to wait!

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