Wednesday, 9 November 2011

A Place Called Dacorum

It was a couple of months ago that Ben, our booker, emailed me to ask whether we'd like to do the show in Dacorum. To me this just read as if he was asking us to do the show, but with improved manners. It was only after some research that I discovered that Dacorum Town Hall is, in fact, in Hemel Hempstead.

I gave up geography at 14. It's not that I wasn't interested, I just have no capacity whatsoever for

1. drawing
2. remembering proper nouns.

These defecits have held me back in various ways throughout my life - I also gave up art when I was 14 and am utterly against the fashion for pub quizes on principal – but for geography these two factors created a perfect storm... in my head.

Two weeks into our relationship at university my ex turned to me and said, “I've got something to tell you.” Here it comes, I thought. It's been a good two weeks, I have to view it as positive... “There may be times,” he continued, “when I forget your name, but you mustn't think it means anything. I'm just... very bad with names.”

In so many ways I had met my soulmate. We rubbed along for years forgetting proper nouns left right and centre, aware that it would not disturb the other one in the slightest.

Me: “Have I seen that film?”
Him:“Yes.”
Me: “Yes! I was with someone!”
Him: “Yes, me.”
Me: “Oh yes, you were there.... Did I like it?”

When we split up, my knowledge of what films I had seen and, more importantly, whether I had liked them was gone. I am inclined to remember that I had strong feelings about a given film, but not the feeling itself. And so, as with the name of someone I've worked with for eight years, under pressure the information does not come to me. Worse, erroneous information presents itself as indesputable and we are off into the realm of my daily horror, the place where my entirely unreliable memory has a hoot dicking about and leaves me high and.... nervously damp.

Having a bad memory for nouns in general, proper nouns in particular, verbs, adjectives and whatever someone has said to me just this minute, is not great... well, for anything really. Sometimes people imply it is because I do not concentrate and while this may be true some of the time, there is no evidence that my memory is better if I am concentrating. In fact, I suspect that if I am under pressure: “This is my new wife, Laura. Please look after her.” “You go right at the lights, past the next set of lights, there's a garage and a little Chinese, no, no, it's a hardware store now, past that and left into the cul-de-sac.” “Look at the card you've chosen. Remember it. Now slip it back into the pack, anywhere, I'll look away...” , if I am under pressure, my memory is far worse. Of course, it could be this belief itself which is causing this, in which case I need to chill out (let's just take it as read that I need to chill out, period) but I only have this belief from years of evidence of living my “life”.

So I do some research into Dacorum, a great deal of which consists of me saying to various people, “Have you heard of Dacorum?” and them responding that they have manners, were brought up proper, what am I implying etc. Of course, Bartelt has never been to Hemel Hempsted or Hemel, as the locals have it, but neither have I. I am delighted to find that it's so easy to get to from London, so easy and so close, in fact, that we will not have to book accommodation. So close that some of my London-based chums might come to the show.

Ever since this show started being... well, mooted, I guess, I have been asked over and over again when we are coming to London. The current answer is, we're not, but the answer we give is that we are working on a London run. This is true. At the moment I cannot see how it will ever work, though. I'm thinking that no London theatre that we will want to go to will want a four-week run of someone talking about their sister's murder, no matter how much Bartelt and I know that this is a piece of theatre and not my grief in a glass cabinet with the legend “Rebecca Peyton c 2011, grieving 1978 – present day” on a yellowish, curling bit of paper.

Maybe that's unfair. Maybe he has the faith. He is a man with more faith than I. He has achieved so much more in his life, which I know requires faith in the utterly unimaginable. Not entirely disimilar to religious faith, the difference being that you are almost certainly going to be proven wrong or right in your own lifetime, unlike religious faith where the reckoning will happen after the show has ended.

We are all beset with doubt, don't go thinking I'm not aware that life is a soup of confusion and we are the... croutons eddying around in it, but Bartelt has his eyes of a prize so distant that he doesn't actually know what it is. Sometimes he does, but a great deal of the time he is heading into the distance, aiming for a few degrees above the horizon. I am like that too sometimes, but my experience of life has taught me that things do not work out. Good things happen, lots of them, but they will never be what I hoped for. Bartelt could have learnt the same thing, but he has some extra reserve or, as I like to think of it, is a better person.

So, in my system, this could be the closest we ever get to London. And so it's lovely that it's a lovely theatre, that Hemel has such fantastic charity shops, that the weather's good, that I manage to stop Bartelt from crashing the photos of a wedding which is happening out the back of Dacorum Town Hall (his arthritic hands will not help him in an all-out fist fight) and that everyone is so lovely at the theatre.

But perhaps my favourite thing, and if you are following this blog you will not be surprised to hear this, is the after-show. A colleague and her partner have come, and employer of mine, a good friend and her relatively new fella. We sit and talk with a woman on her own, my employer and a woman with her 13-year-old daughter. There is so much to say, so much to be heard. The teenager writes the longest feedback form we have ever had – if only we could get more young people into the audience. The opening says it all, though: “It was very interesting. At first I didn't want to go but mum of course didn't tell me until we were in the bar. And this always happens, I complain about going to the 'theatre' (yawn, boring) and I always walk out feeling inspired and interesting and then feel guilty about moaning about it in the car. But this was very interesting.”

The holy grail of twenty-first century theatre producers and makers: temping those illusive audiences into the theatre. And I don't just mean anybody, though it can be a challenge to get anyone to the theatre, teenagers are notoriously hard, but get folk in love with the theatre as kids and you've almost certainly got them for life.

We had some 12/13-year-old students and some 15/16-year-old students come to the show in Edinburgh; they were all very appreciative and interested. And now we have this excellent young person who asks me, and Bartelt, excellently difficult questions, which stretch us and make everyone think.

I get onto a great ride about being an antheist at one point, and as Jenny, my employer for one of my medical role-playing jobs, leaves, she gives me a big hug and whispers into my ear, “I'm an Anglican vicar, you know?” or words to that effect. I didn't know, but I'm happy with that. It has been a humane, instructive, interesting series of chats – the kind of thing the Anglicans like.

They keep the bar open for us, one member of staff gives us a lift to the station to save us the cab fare AND I'm going to get to sleep in my own bed.... well, on my own sofa. Bartelt has the bed when we're in London. Next we're off to Bristol for a week. Five shows there, one in Truro and then it's all over. End of tour. I can't believe it's come so soon.

More than that. I'm hoping that Bartelt is going to get on with Katie, my best friend from 6 – 9 years of age, her husband, their child, the dog, the pygmy goats and the two slightly psychotic cats. We're going to be with them for a week in Bristol. I've decided not to worry about it before now, but tomorrow we travel to Bristol and the truth will be revealed. It is worrying as neither Martin nor Katie suffer fools and they both have quite a broad-sweep of factors which can condemn someone to foolery.... fantastic: at least they have something in common – they are both very intolerant.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The many moods of Martin M Bartelt

We say goodbye to Mum and head back to London from Suffolk earlier than intended as I have another audition: it's a real glut compared to how things usually go for me acting-wise. I met Sam from this company earlier in the year and they have invited me in to audition for a one-woman show which they are taking to Edinburgh. And, oh, joy – the audition is a pleasure! It knocks the bizarre experience of Macbeth into a top hat, or whatever the phrase is.

The audition is a load of fun – I kind of treat auditions as an end in themselves: it's great to get the job, but for me focusing on the sheer pleasure of auditioning makes the arbitrary nature of being an actor that bit more bearable. These guys are really nice and the writer even tells me I've brought something different out of the text for her. Well, if that's all I ever do for anyone creatively then I'm pretty happy with that.

Bartelt and I meet at Euston and travel to Manchester. Once there we get the Metrolink out to Bury and find our, frankly, gorgeous, B&B. Bartelt is not in the best of moods. Walking here from the centre of Bury with our stuff has been heavy weather. I often walk too fast for him sometimes he is nice about it, and others... he is not nice about that or anything else.

We have a picnic in our room and he can't decide whether he wants a lie down or not. He doesn't know whether he wants to eat or not. He knows he wants to be quite aggressive, though, no doubt about that. Oh, how tedious. We are stuck sharing the same room and there are several gigs still to go. I hope it is not going to be like this for the rest of the run.

Going to The Met helps a bit as it's a lovely place and includes dinner for us before the show. And what a dinner! Of course, we take pictures of both our food and then our empty plates. It also helps because we go into show mode: we are not us, we are Rebecca and Martin, but Bartelt is still rather snappy and difficult. I'm getting really worried, but decide not to let on. He does not like fuss.

There is an audience of 14. This might bring other performers down, but the amazing nature of this show ensures that 12 of those people stay to have a drink after the show, we all sit together, talking, sharing stories. A good friend of mine has come, an old friend of Kate's, my uncle's cousin. We talk and talk and talk. Someone gives us contacts for rural touring – she has, in fact, travelled 40 minutes to be at this show. She asks us whey the audience was so sparse. If we could answer that, we say, we'd be onto a winner.

The frustration of having a show which people seem to love, often against their own will, but not being able to get it to a wider audience is pretty big. But we have got to get used to it. Sometimes we sell out and sometimes the audiences are small and perfectly formed. It is what it is.

By the time we get back to our excellent B&B Bartelt is really rather difficult, tetchy, touchy and not much fun to communicate with. He snaps at me without very good reason at all, which I find pretty upsetting, but here we are stuck in the same room. I decide to just get on with some work before bed while he has what is, hopefully, a restorative doze, or even some restorative sleep.

So I am at my computer in our room when he says, “Please let it not be true”. I'm smarting from his snapping earlier; he's apologised, I've said that's okay, but it'll take me a while to reset my mood: we are both tired, having had the marvellous, but long, aftershow today. I don't have much interest in turning to look at him, I have virtually no interest in him at all, but I manage to – briefly – get over myself. I twist round.

He is sitting on his bed in his t-shirt and pants. He points to his leg. The infection is back, with a vengeance. He finished his antiobitics a few days ago: yet another round of antibiotics has not worked. Well, at least it explains how he's feeling, I say. He is clearly fit to kill. He will need to get medical attention pretty fast. It's a nasty bug which will just not lie down and he has a cow's valve in his heart, which makes him more than normally susceptible to infections. I know a bit about this from my work training doctors in communication skills. Because the valve is a foreign body bugs are attracted to it. Get an infection in your heart and you're in real danger: bits of the infection can fly off and give you a blood clot anywhere, for example, to your brain, giving you a stroke. An infection on your heart in the UK will mostly involve intravenous antibiotics and a six week stay in hospital. And it ain't over till it's over: that critter can fly off at any point. Oh, but a little bit of knowledge is a disturbing thing.

We make a tentative plan, from my point of view, to help me sleep. It is Wednesday. We are meant to be travelling to Chipping Norton Theatre tomorrow, together, via London, to perform the show tomorrow night. Knowing that he will not go to hospital – I don't even bother with that conversation - I suggest he comes to Chippy for the tech and then travels back to London, either to see my GP on Friday morning or to go straight to Casualty on the Thursday evening. People don't like hospitals, but Martin has now died four times and therefore has particularly bad associations with them. What is more, they do not seem able to help him as much as one would hope and he's forever meeting doctors who know less about his conditions and medication than does he.

I can see his fury and frustration. He has snapped at me, most uncharacteristic. We are very robust with one another, but gentle and respectful in our method of communication. He has been intolerant all day. When he is intolerant it is not because he is intolerant, although he can be staggeringly opinionated, impatient and damning (which is why I like him) but rather it's born of him being at his limit. He was tired on the train on the way up, he was not happy with his normal picnic food, he was not very switched on.

By the time the alarm goes off for breakfast, he is really feeling the infection. I can see his leg is even more swollen and red. Oh dear. I call the Ehlers-Danlos support group helpline and leave a message. It's weird having a helpline to call, but since Lincoln he has known the syndrome he has, so it's a new luxury.

We have a train to catch from Manchester in a few hours and show to do tonight. After breakfast he is becoming worried himself. He's one of those people who is so blessed with health problems that he is normally very dismissive, but I can see he is worried. I look Ehlers-Danlos up online and find that there is a clinic at the Northwick Park Hospital, on the outskirts of London. I call the number. A man picks up and pretty soon he is telling me he is a consultant with a special interest in Ehlers-Danlos: I hand the phone over to Bartelt. They talk.

Bartelt gets off the phone and tells me he ought to go to his GP. We laugh, but we have to decide whether to risk getting him back to London, or should we go straight to Casualty now? And if we do, what about the show tonight? Martin will soon be too unwell to move his stuff, which will slow us down considerably. It feels like we're trying to work out how to get back from the Antarctic without having to cut one of our legs off for sustinence. Thank you, universe, for the NHS. How much worse must this sort of thing be if you have to be insured but cannot afford it.

The interesting news from the consultant is that the foremost researcher into Ehlers-Danlos is based in Zurich, where Bartelt goes regularly for things medical. This is good news. We laugh harder.

My mobile rings. It's the Ehlers-Danlos support group calling back. I tell them the situation. She asks where my friend lives. I say Switzerland. There is a pause.

“Right. That's... a pity,” she says, “because they don't recognise it as a condition there.”

Why is life so like this so often? Why is the foremost research into this condition based in a country which doesn't even recognise it? We laugh a more empty laugh this time..... but it doesn't solve our problem. He is feeling worse and worse.

“Can you travel?”

“Yes.”

I don't think he should but I'm not going to endanger my life as well by challenging him. The B&B owner says the bus stop back to Manchester is outside the building, on the other side of the road. On the bus I tell him I can go to Chippy on my own, if necessary. I find the thought pretty frightening – I've never done the tech and, well, I can't tell what it'll look like as I'll be under the light. By my mate John runs Chippy and I'm sure they'll look after me.

At some point on the train journey back to London Martin finally asks if I would be okay to do the show on my own. I say, of course. And then suddenly there we are, standing outside Friends' House opposite Euston, me taking notes on all the terminology I'll need to talk about the tech. It's not just knowing what I want, it's being able to ask for it. We hug, take a photo of this, the strangest of all moments. He has seen every one of these shows, but he is so unwell he has to go, along the Euston Road, to Casualty. And me? I have to get back on a train, to Oxford this time.

Aboard I have plenty of time to worry that Bartelt is about to drop dead, that I will do a rubbish tech, a terrible show. I'm all alone. All I want to do is call my big sister for some support, to tell me I can do... whatever it is I need to do. You bastard, Kate, for dying and provoking me into making this ridiculous show, leaving me to this absurd way of life. I'm going to kill you when I see you.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Coming home

It's a curious thing to me that this hour-long show can pass in about an hour and be over. I have been looking forward to this, apart from all of my life, for six months or so, and then, there it is, gone. I expect that's what your wedding day is like, but with more expense, a bigger hangover and white goods to show for it.

I leave the stage for the dressing-room – normally, at the end of the show I go out into the bar. It's rather odd not heading for the audience. The audience are getting a drink to get them through the second half, I hope.

And the second half passes quickly too, with Chris talking to me about the experience of the show, why we made it, that kind of thing. There are a few questions from the audience and then we are in the bar and I'm talking to all sorts of folk, some of whom I don't know, but most of whom I can slot into a part of my life, my past. This is my very strange present.

It's not long before we're in the Dog and Partridge, me, Mum, cousin Ruth, Martin, Roger, aunt Zee and Miriam, whom I've not seen since we left university. She calls me Becky. Even though it's a name I am never known by and, well, sometimes react badly to, seeing Miriam and having her use it is actually very nice. She's always called me Becky.

She is a rather beautiful and brilliant woman. Miriam was actually good at Spanish at university – she had, after all, studied it before the course started - I was doing it from scratch. We had ended up on the Amnesty International committee, sharing the role of campaigns officer, if memory serves me. I do hate having responsibility on committees. There is so much I am not good at and, it turns out, a committee is the best place for me to show that to all and sundry. I am a confirmed second in command. I think Miriam and I acquitted ourselves okay, though, probably because she was half of the team. I certainly have fond memories of standing in Centenary Square in Birmingham trying to persuade passers-by to sign one petition or another to, you know, save one life or another. And Wednesday lunchtimes where anyone could drop in to write about a prisoner of conscience. I was the lazy activist.

So, here she is, and it's as if the years have not passed at all. One of the reasons for this is that she seems not to have aged at all, she's just as radiantly gorgeous as ever. We all sit round a table and talk loudly about everything. I think we're all pretty relieved. I had a wonderful time, but it is now over and that is okay.

Miriam and I get to talk to one another and she tells me her brother died a few years ago. We talk about the effects of that, what I refer to as the Smell of Death which surely exudes from a person in our situation. There's repellent and then there's grieving. I cannot believe that such a beautiful woman has not been snapped up, but then she's only beautiful up to a point. She is delightful, easy on the eye, but she is tainted by death. And, from her description of what she has been through, she is still struggling. The worst thing of all for me, though, is that with all we have in common (okay, I'm not radiantly beautiful, but apart from that) there is nothing I can really do to help. She is on her own and all I can do is observe and sympathise. We vow to actually see each other more, which will not be hard. We have passed each other a couple of times on the tube or on the escalators on the tube, over the past 15 years. That is all. How can we not have got together more when it is as if no time has passed at all since the day of our graduation? I guess we've both, in the words of Boby Dylan, been keeping on keeping on.

I nearly always sleep well, but tonight I sleep the sleep of... those who have got away with it.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The most important show of my life so far (apart from Kate's funeral, that is)

So, here we are: Chris is sharing my dressing room. We have never actually been in a show together and here we are sharing a dressing room, MY dressinig room! We giggle and muck around and enjoy having each other there. He and Bartelt are two of the most important men in my life. There aren't very many important men in my life, sadly, and I am so happy to have them here together. Bartelt takes a terrible photo of Chris and asks what it is worth to Chris for him not to put it on Facebook. Chris delves into his pocket and pulls out the change: "Four quid." Bartelt crosses the room and takes it. Chris was joking; Bartelt is not. They don't know each other at all well, but excellently Bartelt is not my boyfriend: I am not about to start explaining him to Chris – that would be a life's work, anyway.

Chris and I met when I moved from an horrendous living situation at Birmingham University to a better one at the beginning of the January term of our first year. He was in the hall of residence and, although I don't remember seeing him for the first time, both of us remember the first couple of occasions that we spoke properly. One was walking from our Hall on the way to watch some outdoor Shakespeare (the kind of work I really want to get at the moment, must focus on it: not to self). We were carrying various things for a picnic and, as we walked down the hill, we talked about how we wanted to write. Chris has gone on to do exactly that and I... well, that's a whole other book. Yes I have written a show the script of which will be stored at the British Library in perpetuity by virtue of it having been performed professionally, so that's something. But Chris makes his living from writing. Different lives, different journeys and all that, but I can't help thinking that.... well, one of us is successful and the other one is me.

The other memory I have is when I walked into the Midlands Arts Centre and a group of these new friends I'd made were sitting student-wise, gagglish on the floor in their flowery waistcoats and purple berrets (maybe that's just Chris) and I was upon them, banging on, luckily entertaining enough to get away with it. I was funny, but Chris and I were disagreeing about one political issue or another, and it went on, and still goes on even now.

It is flattering that after nearly 400 years of being single, people still ask me, in amazement, why I am single. Often I want to reply, “More troublingly, how on earth are you in a relationship?” but I try not to. And often my friends and family will tell me that it's because I'm very scary for men. Oh, yawn! I actually think that's hocum, I'm not scary, I'm just forthright and take no prisoners. I have not been brought up to believe that the opinion of a man is worth 1.267 of the opinion of a woman, a pie-eyed standpoint, in my opinion, but one which seems to prevail to this day, though secretly. It is the proportion which dare not speak its name. By even mentioning it I am ruling myself out of male attention right there, but these days I have finally understood that I have nothing to lose: despite my legendary arse nd a rack which seems to grow proportionally more than my extending girth and my propensity to wear clothes which are basically too tight for me, there is something about me which is deeply undesirable to men. I never did have anything to lose, of course, unapproachable as I always have been, but I have largely given up trying to seduce men at all these days – it's pointless.

Back at university, though, I'd not yet worked this out. I thought there was some formula I might learn to become sexually attractive and worth, well, buying a drink for, basically. Growing up with no father and a brother who couldn't stand me it does not take Mr Freud to work out that finding male friends who actually liked my company was terribly important.

And this Chris character was well up for a good debate; I could savage his argument and he still appeared to seek out my company. What is more, in answer to the question from When Harry Met Sally, this was without either of us every fancying the other. A true friendship between a man and a woman.

Very soon I am out and into the bar. They have sold about 250 tickets, not enough as far as I'm concerned, but not a disaster. There are people from so many parts of my life, family, friends I've not seen for 20 years... and my mother and brother. I knew Mum would come, but I wondered about Charlie. I am so pleased he's here, yet I feel guilty that I am doing this. This is my story, but it is very close to his story and I hope, well, so much, but I hope no one forgets him as I do my show, as my mother is seen as the primary griever, as Roger – who stands out like a tall Congolese man at a theatre in Bury St Edmunds – is hugged and introduced to various people, I want the bar to know that Charles and Kate were so close.... so close there was no one who could come between them.

The audience go in. I pop to the loo, look in the mirror: what am I doing? Again, I am taken by the audacity of this. I feel as if I have no right to speak, but the tickets have been sold and the only way to get through this is to do the performance – I have the rest of my life to regret it.

I get on stage through one of the boxes by the stage. The couple in there are not known to me. At the end they'll be the first people I speak to, she'll tell me how it was a birthday present for him, I'll say that’s an interesting gift, and they'll agree that it was a great gift, they'll say they didn't know much about the show, that they were surprised to realised that Kate really was my sister and she really was murdered.

As I step onto the stage, the audience starts to see me, the lights start to go down in the auditorium and there is a clap here and there, quickly, it becomes applause. This only ever happens at the beginning of shows where lots of people know me. It is a strange sensation: it feels like it is saying, whatever happens now, Rebecca, we respect your attempt. But I do not want it to be an attempt; I want it to be interesting, well-performed, thought-provoking art. I love to be supported, but I want to make my mother and brother, my so-nearly-present-I-wish-I-could-sense-him-father proud; I want it to be a show which would drive my sister wild with jealousy.

The stage lights come up, I look into the auditorium, somehow bigger with the glare of the lights, a darkness which I suspect spreads out beyond the horizon. I am home.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Celebrititis and all that

And here we are, Chris and me, in the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds - we were last here together in our early twenties to see a show. Now we are the show. And I am hoping and praying I’m not about to dent his fantastic career by being crap tonight. He looks at me with such love that I can’t even mention my fear, and being associated with me, however poor I am, will not make any difference to his career, I remind myself vigorously. To quote a production by the inestimable Scene & Heard Theatre Company, "I've got to stop thinking I'm all that,"... but I mind what he thinks.

Bartelt, being human, falls in love on the spot with the theatre. We both take endless photos, one of which is of Bartelt and is rather good, even though I do say so myself. Another one is of the auditorium, and it is now the background on my desktop, which I feel is exactly right: the theatre is a remarkable part of my background. I expect it to be one of the last things I see as my mind flashes before me when I am hit by a truck (I am far too impatient when it comes to crossing the road) or stabbed (I believe in challenging difficult behaviour when and where I see it). It'll be interesting to know whether it is the far more familiar view from the stalls or the extraordinary view from the stage, which I never really thought I would attain as a professional actor.

We do a little bit of a warm up/rehearsal, but the acoustic is great and we're well into the tour, so it's quick. Our dressing room has natural light and a shower and everything. It's so civilised. Yes, I can only see this place through rose-tinted spectacles. I love every cranny.

Chris and I discuss the second half of the show, which we have met a few weeks before to thrash out. He took me to a nice restaurant. I, of course, had bags upon bags. I think my average amount of Bags With Me At Any Given Time must be 2.3, but that day I was between dates on the tour and so I'm sure I had more than that. We were sat next to a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter. A lovely thing, you'd've thought, all to have lunch together, but nothing was quite right and they didn't seem to be having any fun. At all. We were. When they finally left, Chris pointed out a Bently which was driving away. Apparently it had been waiting there for quite a while and they had all got into it. Obviously money really can't buy happiness... but at least a chauffeur dives you and your misery around.

They were very distracting – I have a real failing for other people's misery – and we had been, desperately, to stay on the matter at hand, a task that has become so hard for us in our old age that virtually the first thing we do when we sit down together is get out a paper napkin to make notes on, so we create a crazy spider diagram of where we ought to have gone conversationally, and hope we have enough time to cover it. We always run out of time.

I am grateful that our friendship has not turned to the dust of silence over the years, but has rejuvenated itself. Luck, luck, luck, and the fact that I'm very delightful and understanding that the demands are many when you are very successful, like Chris, with a wife and children to whom you are devoted. He does not have the diagonally-sleeping freedom of moi, he is tied to sundry things he loves. Am I jealous? Yes. Do I begrudge him it all? No. Is that in part because I can tell him I'm jealous and he gets it? Yes. Ours is a close friendship of nearly 20 years which proves that a deal of honesty, like that top-quality emulstion wall paint the expense of which you simply cannot justify, goes further than you'd think.

And in our dressing room we run through the format of the second half. Entertainingly enough he is going to be interviewing me. For the record, when I asked him to do it to help ensure we had decent numbers in Bury St Edmunds he said yes immediately. We agreed very easily on the format, but still, it's... surreal and somewhat absurd.

Well, I suppose it's only absurd because of contemporary Britain's celebretitis. The obsession with celebrity is nothing new – what were the royals in the sixteenth century, putting aside their direct line to god, other than very famous, rich, powerful types. The differences today are that many celebrities aren't that rich and the amount of media which we purchase and/or consume is biiiiiiig. People who like standup, who watch The Thick Of It, panel games, Skins, they may well be familiar with Chris, but the many I know, the young man I met (He looked 14 then, looks like a rather haggered 18-year-old now) was interesting to me because he was interested in politics, the arts, he made me laugh etc etc. None of that has changed. His politics have changed to a certain extent, as I'm sure mine have, but not that change we are meant to experience as we approach 40: we're not... Tories... yet. But he is interesting to me because of his mind, and sometimes because of his long, pointy shoes, but I understand that's a fashion thing. He is interesting to me as a father, a husband, a good friend of our other good friends, he is a brother, a son, he has an eclectic taste in music and the kind of encyclopaedic memory I refer to, I fear offensively, as an autistic boy-brain (I should point out that I envy him his memory in a way I cannot even put down on paper, so that name is not meant as any kind of a denigration. In fact, the asperger's and autistic friends I have send me wild with their ability to name actors/directors/cinematographers from films, kinds of nerine, types of red wine, political events, capital cities, etc).

By this stage we have both had interesting stuff happen to us, but I don't think either of us would want to have to say who has had the more interesting life. I suspect mine has been rather more off-the-scale for death, depression and bad times than has his; in fact, who am I trying to kid? I know this is the case. He has an ability to cope which I simply do not possess and, as he has pointed out to me, I have been obsessed with loss the whole time he has known me – it might be argued that I deal with heartbreak even worse than I deal with actual concrete definitive death. Chris has worked very hard, learning to treat the imposters of success and failure just the same. He has become a father, he's had the troubles we all have. But what is curious to us is that he is more interesting to people because he is famous. He's also funny - mostly - about lighter things than I seem to manage. But it is his mere well-knownness is the thing which may tempt people to this show tonight.

And yet, the lesson Bartelt and I have learnt is that there are as many fascinating stories as there are people; it doesn't matter whether they are famous. We have been told so many extraordinary things by people we will probably never even see again, it has nothing to do with money or fame, whether you consider yourself a orator or not: you have a story; it is compelling.

I'm sorry – I seem to have digressed. You can blame that on Chris.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

That gem of a Georgian playhouse

It had been back in September that I went to see my friend Alys in a show at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. We had all gone to the pub afterwards and I'd met Abi, her director. We knew some people in common, had been at the same venue at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as students about 678 years ago, we talked a lot. Luckily for me, Alys had told Abi lots about the show and when I said I really wanted to bring it to the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, Abi suggested I send some stuff, and send it fast. They had nearly confirmed the spring season and there wasn't much space left, but she would see what she could do. I'd sent the information off to her and it turned out that they had one date left, which they offered us: 30 April 2011.

Mum took all three of us as children to the theatre, to concerts. I think I probably got to see far more theatre than many of my friends because Mum wanted someone to go with and as soon as any of us showed willing for one adult activity (not Adult activity) or another, we would be taken along. And I lived in a small village near Bury St Edmunds, which meant that my local theatre was Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal, a 350-seater, proscenium arch gem of a Georgian playhouse. Anyone who's ever performed there longs to go back: it has an intimacy which is rare, which must stem from the traditional layout combined with its utter miniaturity.

As a child I saw Cheek By Jowl, the Oxford Playhouse and endless other wonderful theatre companies, over and over again doing their extraordinary, ground-breaking things. From the back of the Gods, so just over arm's-reach, I saw Stephane Grappelli, and from the box next to the stage, my 12th birthday party allowed us to see The Flying Pickets: my first gig! I was as wild then as I am now: sometimes I like to go without shoes and sometimes I take sugar in my coffee, sometimes I don't. Seriously wild.

Of course, it didn't occur to me that this was not normal fare, that not every small town in England didn't have its own intimate, brilliant theatre. I knew it wasn't easy financially – by the 80s, the theatre was owned by the National Trust and so was not the commercial enterprise that many theatres have to be, and I also knew that the theatre had been saved from being a barrel store for the Greene King Brewery in the 60s. I knew this because Stanley Vincent, my father's uncle, had been a key member of the committee to do this. But I had no idea just how lucky we were and in Stephen, the artistic director, who programmed in a wonderful way, seemingly specifically for me.

And so, here we are, 30 April 2011. I walk onto the stage for the first time since performing here with my school friends. I am swept away with excitement, and this is just the tech, where Bartelt talks to the technical team and I swan around, singing to warm up my voice, pacing the stage, taking photos. Tonight this will be my stage… it’s surreal. I wonder whether I am really up to this task: all these people, so many of whom I’ve known all my life, who knew my sister, friends of my parents: not just my mother, my father as well. The terrible spectre of who on earth I’m thinking I am returns… it’s been a while, but it’s back now. Bartelt’s here, he’s confident, the team are lovely, the theatre have taken the punt: Abi and Colin have been so supportive... I am about to let them all down, spectacularly. And Chris, my best mate from university, who's coming to do the second half of the evening with me just out of the kindness of his heart, I’m about to let him down too.

We've done lots of aftershow talks with this show, formal ones, as well as an informal one after every single show. The plan is a chat with the two of us, him asking me questions. He rocks up halfway through the tech, we hug, he greets Bartelt, the technical team. He’s in one of his characteristically flowery shirts. In the end I have nothing to lose, no reputation, but this chap is a bit famous and I could be about to let him down enormously.

It doesn’t compare to him giving us a quote for the Edinburgh show, though, for sheer, vertiginous worry: he gave it to us before he’d seen the show, and it was 16 August when he saw it, a good two weeks in. I remember so clearly, him leaving the theatre, walking towards me, saying that was alright,

“Was it?”

“Yes.” Awkward, relieved laughter on both parts. We embrace, and stand back from each other. Chris knew Kate, we’d all got very drunk on ouzo together with Gav over a game of contract whist, he and I had ended up sliding down the stairs quite a long way, giggling, on our way to bring in my sister's asthma medication from the car, too drunk to do ourselves any harm, that kind of thing.

“The first ten minutes were strange, because it was you but not you, it was your story, but not you telling it… then I got used to it. I…” he breaks down in tears and I hug him hard.

He’s much taller than me, so, as he folds to hug me, I see a woman standing behind him, holding pen and paper for his autograph. Edinburgh is odd.

And here we are, in the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, were last here together in our early twenties to see a show. Now we are the show. And I am hoping and praying I’m not about to dent his fantastic career by being crap tonight. He looks at me with such love that I can’t even mention my fear, and being associated with me, however poor I am, will not make any difference to his career, I remind myself vigorously. To quote a production by the inestimable Scene & Heard Theatre Company where children write the plays and adults produce and perform them: “I've got to stop thinking I'm all that.”… But I mind what he thinks. Oh, dammit, I'm getting nervous.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Lovely men in uniform, dancing

We are up and in front of the telly for the 9am start. Mother does not want to miss any of the coverage: she loves ceremony and we are all excited about... not being at work. We even have Christmas Day breakfast: bucks fizz, scrambled egg with smoked salmon, croissants, by 10.30 I'm pretty pissed. I've not had that much to drink, but, well, it is 10.30am. By this stage Bartelt is up too. He is also celebrating having finished his antibiotics. He has been on them, on-and-off, all year... that's nearly four months. He thinks the whole thing started with some kind of insect bite back in Hawaii in December. It would seem that his leg – maybe the bone – has been infected. His leg gets red, swollen, painful. He's been on various antibiotics and we are hoping that this time they have worked. Because of his cow heart valve he has to be really careful with infections; because of all the immuno-suppressants he is on for his arthritis he has to be really careful with infections; because, unbeknown to anyone, has has a Syndrome, he has to be careful with infections. I appreciate my health so much more since I've spent time with this bellicose-crystal-vase of a man. The four of us are installed in front of the TV, around the breakfastpicnic. Actually, I am only here under sufferance. When I suggested we spend the day with mum and her sister Zee, mother had serious doubts: she has many memories of my laughing long and hard at royal ceremonies she very much enjoys and sees the point of. This spoils them for her, she says, telling me to shut up as she laughs at my stinging and pithy insights. There are crowds of people and lines of police – this wedding happens a few months before the riots of August 2011 which will hit London and spread across the country, the military in the dress uniforms, horses, flags: all that stuff. My father was one of the last people to do national service. There were lots of things he loved about it: skiing being one highlight, but Mum says he really loved the marching because it was almost like dancing, and he loved to dance. Mum is always reminded of Dad by this kind of ceremonial spectacular. She may be 71 – just – and so it's a pensioner reminiscing about her now-dead husband. But for me, for Zee, for anyone who knew him, he was 41 and she 38 when he died: young people. She was younger than I am now. I feel... helpless, as I always have, when she talks about him. Yes, it's fun to reminisce, but he is not here and he would have loved it. I was too small to have been of any help to my mother, to anyone – least of all, I'm sure various therapists would agree – to my self. Losing a primary carer between the ages of five and seven is a bad thing, according to the specialists in child development: you are old enough to understand that someone is dead (as much as any of us can 'understand' death, and that ain't much) but your ego is not well enough developed for you to deal with it (whatever 'deal with it' might mean). I know that. I know the theory, but it is painful, still so painful, more than 30 years on not to be able to magic my father out of thin air for Mum, not for my own sake, but for my hers. I'm not a selfless person, but on this one matter I feel, if I could only get him back for one of us, it would be for my mother. But we are very lucky, because we have Zee and Bartelt here. I am plugged into Twitter, watching my Republican mates and followees snipe and laugh at the whole thing, but I am in a room with Mum, who's loving it, Zee, who is a wedding-dress maker for a living, and so is looking forward to seeing the dress, and Bartelt, from Germany, that famous federal republic... but who seems to be turning into a royalist before our very eyes... He asks lots of questions and we all answer about history, about the way our government works, what the uniforms mean, who the celebrity and less-well-known royals are, the marriages, divorces, the famous people coming in and out, our constitution, Oliver Cromwell, Charleses I and II and all that. And, at some point before lunchtime, when we're into the second bottle of fizzy, he declares himself a royalist and he and mother exchange excited and secret glances. I think it's because he likes the men in uniforms, but he insists it's because he likes the choreography, precision and the way the car stops at exactly the right time and the right spot to the inch outside the cathedral. Well, I suppose he is German, like our royal family, I point out.