Category Archives: Theatre

Acting Marriage

Well, it’s finally arrived. I’m on stage, acting every night, and loving it.

Wednesday was our opening night. I was shitting myself, mainly because it was also Will’s birthday and I’d asked Gill to make him a cake, which I planned to present to him onstage after the curtain call. I even scripted out a little ceremony, in character. But the night before, Will had a screaming fit after we cocked up the curtain call, and I was terrified that this could so easily go wrong, that it would cock up his play and that rather than loving the gesture, he would be incensed. The rest of the cast seemed to feel the same as me, but even more strongly. I was warned against doing it, that such an “unprofessional” gesture would reflect badly on the professionalism of the rest of the play, that we should just wish him happy birthday quietly backstage.

In the end, everything was fine. Will was extremely touched by the gesture, and loved the fact that I’d written a script for it. Nothing whatsoever to worry about there.

If only the same could be said of the acting. I hadn’t realised quite how much I would be affected by the presence of an audience. I couldn’t even look at them for the whole first half, which was rather a problem as a large part of my character is built on asides and knowing glances. I improved a little over the second half, but I still didn’t feel great about my acting. It wasn’t that I did anything wrong – I got all of my lines at least 99% right, stood where I should have done, did all the moves, it was just that I didn’t feel I’d done very much right – those little extra touches that are essential to bring the character to life. I felt like I was basically Dan Sumption standing on stage reciting a few lines and doing the odd bit of shouting.

Unfortunately, the first night was also the night the critics came. Still, everyone else in the cast felt they’d acted an excellent play, so I hoped (but doubted) that perhaps I was just being a bit pessimistic about the whole thing. And I braced myself for the reviews, which I felt certain would pick up on my charlatan attempts to act. The first review, in the Sheffield Star, came the very next day. I needn’t have worried about the reviewer, Joy Wright (Wrong!), criticising me, in fact I needn’t have worried about her mentioning the performance at all, it seemed as if she hadn’t actually seen it. She wrote:

GOGOL’S ‘Marriage’ is
described as satirical
comedy and he himself has
been described as a leader
in Russian literature – a
thought to bear in mind
should you watch this
performance.

The production focuses
on marriage and it’s [sic] place in
social stature, marriage as
an institution and as an
event which simply ought to
happen in a persons [sic] life,
according to the times.

The character commentary
is vaguely amusing at times
and the circumstances certainly have great potential.

There are caricatures of
people within caricatures of
scenarios which , if
interpreted by another playwright, could have the audience rolling in their seats.

The volume of work
undertaken by Next Best
Thing Productions is
evident, although the end
result is weakened by a
somewhat esoteric
collection of thoughts
named Marriage.

Gogol’s script may appeal
to a select audience but is
unlikely to appeal to a wider
market.

Not quite sure what she meant by all of that. She sounds somewhat like a deranged, disillusioned A-Level literature student who has only read the script, rather than watching the play, and a different translation of the script at that. She can’t even write proper English (apart from the unwieldiness of her sentences, check out the way that the apostrophe in “person’s” has slipped back half a sentence, and landed slap in the middle of “its”. And what the hell is “social stature”? And… spaces before commas? Since when?). As Will mocked “no, I didn’t think much of that Romeo and Juliet play, I mean it’s so irrelevant, 13-year olds don’t get married, do they!?”

Anyway, the Telegraph review came out today, and, damn, Marion Heywood spotted my lack of acting:

NIKOLAI Gogol is perhaps now best remembered
for The Government Inspector, a sparkling and
savage satire about Russian bureaucracy.

Marriage was to be Gogol’s last foray into comedy
before he rather unwisely embarked on his unfinished and unfunny novel Dead Souls. Marriage is
well worth a revival and all credit to this company
for doing just that.

Director Will Bird of Next Best Thing Productions
has updated the play from the 1830s to the 1900s
which works. However, the claims in the programme
notes about a rediscovery of a classic to rate alongside, say, The Importance of Being Earnest or the
Comedy of Errors, seem a tad over-inflated. Still, this
translation by Stephen Mulrine is fresh and lively.

The farcical plot with patches of dark comedy
seeks to expose the marriage business in St Petersburg. It revolves about the efforts of a mad old
matchmaker to arrange a marriage for Agafya, an
eligible heiress, the young woman at the heart of the
action. Along the way, Gogol unveils a gallery of
grotesque suitors and the ending is surprisingly subversive.

The playing is rather patchy throughout. Some
scenes really sparkle, others fall flat and the staging
is somewhat awkward at times, too. Still, Zoe
English is an appealing Agafya and there is some
good playing between her and Rachel Sylvester as
the striking and rather scary match-maker.

Good comic timing, too, between the idle and
indecisive would-be suitor Podkolyosin (played by
Andrew Hawcroft) and his servant, Stepan (Alex
Gill).

Will Bird is a suitably foppish, shrill, Anuchkin
and Mike Gordon an impressive Omelet. David Reid
is an assured rakish and very funny Baltazar.
However, Dan Sumption isn’t really sinister enough
in the crucial role of Kochkaryov .

This is the company’s first production in Sheffield.
It’s good that this company is prepared to be adventurous, but not all amateur theatre in Sheffield is –
again to quote from the programme notes – “dominated by the over-familiar.”

URK!! She praised everyone else in the cast, and then said that about me. The fact that she was right softened the blow a little, but not much.

Anyway, I had a good and very reassuring chat with Will afterwards. Firstly he pointed out that the review didn’t actually criticise my acting in any way, just said I wasn’t sinister enough, and he had never directed (or intended) me to be sinister: just manic & weird. His main point of reference for me was Oliver Hardy, and as he pointed out Hardy isn’t sinister, just pompous and overbearing, as I was meant (and mainly managed) to be. He also took most of the blame for the criticism himself, pointing out that her main issue was with the programme notes. His comment that

“…theatre in Sheffield seemed to be dominated by the overfamiliar. Alan Ayckbourn or an adaptation of a classic novel wasn’t for me.”

seemed to get peoples’ backs up as much as I had expected it would. He says he didn’t mean it in an overly negative way, nothing wrong with the performances other amateur groups give, just that the material chosen doesn’t range as widely as it might.

Anyway, that was that and not a lot we can do about it now. But I wasn’t too bothered by the review (not too bothered)
because I already knew my performance on Wednesday was far from my best (I managed much better on both the technical and dress rehearsals), but mainly because on Thursday night I pulled out a blinder, and I know that tonight I can manage better yet. Wary of my nervousness the previous night, I realised that there was one crucial ingredient missing in Kochkaryov’s makeup: a very large glass of brandy. Well, it worked when I got married for real, so why on earth not now, eh? I quickly downed a treble before setting off for the theatre. I had some cause to be nervous: unlike the previous night there were now people I knew in the audience – my mum & dad and Sanjida. But the brandy put paid to any of that, and had me running around backstage, cracking jokes as the makeup went on, and thoroughly looking forward to things.

Despite that, the play didn’t start quite as well as I knew it could have. The audience took some warming up, and I did too. But nonetheless the first half was much better than before. By the second half… well, I was flying. I really got into my stride, full of confidence and loving every minute. After the show, Will gave us his customary de-brief in the green room. He spoke to us one-by-one, giving praise and suggestions. When he came to me he said “Dan…. excellent! In the second half I thought you acted the best…” “Yes, I know” I interrupted, expecting him to finish the sentence “you’ve done so far”. When he actually said “of the entire cast” I was well shocked and well chuffed. He went on to point out that I’d got people laughing where they’d never laughed before, and my performance had moved several notches up. And now I’m really excited because I know that I’ve enough confidence to do even better tonight (when Gill & the kids will be along, with about ten of their friends).

Postscript: just finished writing this, and got the following email from Will:

Just thought I’d let you know that Zoe’s mum thought you were the best thing
in it last night too!

Probably the first thing we’ve agreed on in the 3 years I’ve known her….

Come and see me Acting Up

For anyone within a 5,000-mile radius of Sheffield (I think that counts you out Guy) who I didn’t email this to last night, below are some details of my upcoming performance. Oh, and for the one person whose company’s email profanity filter would not allow this piece of filth through, what I actually meant to say was “there’ll be plenty of opportunities to see me male hen things up”.

As some of you have already heard, I am making my return to the stage after an 18-year absence.

I shall be appearing (perhaps even starring) in Nikolai Gogol’s play “Marriage” at the University of Sheffield Drama Studio, from 27th to 30th October. Tickets are an astoundingly reasonable £5, or £3.50 for concessions.

The play is more than a little amusing, and will no doubt be made even funnier (in either a good or a bad way, only time will tell) by my acting. It is, in the words of our press release:

“A true comic classic � slapstick, cowardice, romance, all with the whiff of revolution in the air � it’s Bridget Jones meets Doctor Zhivago. Come in your best hat and remind yourself why being single may not be so ghastly after all…” (more blurb at the end, if you’re interested)

I play Kochkaryov, an unscrupulous character who spends the entire play cajoling, bullying, persuading, lying and generally doing anything within my power to try and bring my evil plans to fruition. In a break from my previous roles (such as “man in crowd” and “third Nazi soldier on the left”) I will actually be on stage for most of the performance, and somehow seem to have ended up with more lines than anyone else, so there’ll be plenty of opportunities to see me cock things up. Am I persuading you yet?

Gill & I shall be making our floor available to all and sundry non-Sheffield inhabitants for the duration, bring a sleeping bag or a hotel booking.

So, I’m sure you’re all dying to book tickets (if not, why not?)… here’s everything you need to know about the booking process:

  • We need to know a name, telephone number, which night (27th, 28th, 29th or 30th October) and number of tickets (full price and/or concessions)
  • Payment can be by cheque (made payable to ZOE ENGLISH) or by cash (on the night) – although we’d prefer you to have your tickets beforehand.
  • Please provide an SAE if tickets require posting (or I can hold on to them, if you trust me not to lose them. Not much to choose between me and the Post Office, I guess).
  • Tickets are £5 (and £3.50 for students, OAPs and children).
  • Curtain up is at 7.30. Please arrive at least 15 minutes beforehand.
  • There will be an interval where teas, coffees and cold drinks will be served. The whole thing should be over in less than two painless hours.
  • Any enquiries, you can leave a message on the Next Best Ticket Line on 07981 685 131 or speak to Will or Zoe on 0114 268 7328. Or me.

Or of course you can contact me direct with your enquiries, monies, bookings, whatever. I promise not to take your money off to Rio with me <insert evil cackle here. Sorry, just getting into character>

In the meantime, if anyone’s available to help test me on my lines, it’d be much appreciated as my family prefer to “keep it a surprise”.

OK, below is the rest of the blurb that I promised you… more details appearing soon on www.nextbestthingproductions.com as soon as I pull my finger out and get the website built.

Love you all,

Dan Sumption
www.sumption.org

THE PLOT

“MARRIAGE” was first performed in December 1842. It is set in St Petersburg, where the bachelors of the city are literally falling over themselves for the hand of one Agafya Tikhonovna, the orphaned daughter of a merchant, now living with her aunt, Arina. One such bachelor is Ivan Podkolyosin, a minor civil servant. He has been agonising over marriage for some time and a few months before had employed the services of a professional matchmaker, Fyokla Ivanovna, who is also working for Agafya in the same capacity. On the day Fyokla is to introduce Agafya to Podkolyosin and the other suitors she has selected, Podkolyosin’s best friend, Kochkaryov, decides to take matters into his own hands. Already (unhappily) married � thanks to Fyolkla � he plans to introduce Podkolyosin to Agafya himself. Kochkaryov knows how indecisive and weak-minded his friend is and plans to be with him every step of the way until he is walking down that aisle. Agafya meanwhile, is a neurotic, unworldly girl in her late twenties, her anxieties hardly alleviated by her superstitious nature and her reliance on a deck of cards to tell her what to do. All Arina can do is try and persuade her to marry the nice shopkeeper Mr Starikov, but her niece will hear none of it � her violent father was merely a merchant and she’ll settle for nothing less than a gentleman. To the consternation of Arina, Agayfa has instructed Fyokla to find her a gentleman, and on this very afternoon, four turn up at her door. How can she decide? How can Podkolyosin hope to compete? Has Kochkaryov really already ordered the cake and booked a church before the potential bride and groom have actually met? Prepare for some surprises and plenty of laughs on the road to wedded bliss…

THE AUTHOR

NIKOLAI GOGOL was no romantic. Far from it. A talented comic actor in his youth he moved from the Ukraine to the then Russian capital St Petersburg to write. “Marriage” came after the play for which he is now most remembered – the satire “The Government Inspector”, a play which Gogol distanced himself from as he took against the audience laughing so much on the opening night � he’d written it as a savage social commentary, not a farce. Gogol was also one of the great short-story writers of all time and his absurd tales of everyday Russian life are still as hilarious and provocative as ever. “Marriage” was his last foray into comedy before he embarked on a new dramatic phase of his career � the unfinished novel “Dead Souls”. Originally planned as an epic triptych of stories, only the first third was ever published, yet it is still regarded as one of the most influential works of Russian fiction � inspiring such great novelists as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Nabakov. Gogol tragically never understood his own greatness, and for the rest of his life became obsessed with religion, travelling to Rome and the Holy Land on a lonely pilgrimage and becoming increasingly distanced from the social injusticies of his motherland he’d once sought to expose. His final writings effectively disowned the work that had made his name and confused a Russian audience that had fallen for his absurdist take on their lives. He returned to a Russia he no longer understood and died horrifically aged only 43 after fatally fasting himself to skin and bone. Like so many comic geniuses before and since he was never able to grasp the true extraordinary gift he had of making people laugh.

THE COMPANY

NEXT BEST THING PRODUCTIONS was established in 1994 in Norwich. It was the brainchild of Will Bird and Richard Jones, two graduates of the University of East Anglia, who had produced a number of plays for the University Drama Society and were keen to continue their work in the theatre. Thanks to the support of a talented team of actors and backstage crew the next year saw the company put on two epic modern-dress productions at the newly completed UEA Drama Studio: “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare and “The Country Wife” by William Wycherley. Elsewhere in the city we produced an intense and claustrophobic version of Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” at the Norwich Arts Centre, and a riotous and satirical swipe at the tabloid press in a brave updating of Sheridan’s “The School for Scandal”, which pulled in the crowds at the Norwich Theatre in the Parks Festival. The company then dispersed to pursue other projects but reformed two years later with some new blood for the Summer 1997 production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”. Again for the Theatre in the Parks Festival the company performed in a variety of historic settings for free. A plan to take Congreve’s “Love for Love” to the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe hit the buffers, but now the philosophy of classic plays performed by an enthusiastic cast, with flair, wit and a dash of irreverence is back, just in time for our tenth anniversary. We aim to bring to Sheffield a wide range of plays with a dynamic combination of experienced actors and promising newcomers We have auditioned people from all ages and walks of life and the result is a company of unsurpassed talent.

THE ACTOR

DAN SUMPTION is returning to the stage after an 18-year sabbatical. He was previously with Hampton Court’s Youth Action Theatre, where he performed many classic roles including “Man in Crowd”, “Third SS Officer” and “Angry Hungarian Strongman”. He relocated to Sheffield from London with his wife and two daughters five years ago, a move which he claims was well worthwhile, even taking into account the hills. He spends most of his time building websites in a dark office in his basement, and is fortunate to have his dog, Gizmo the lurcher, on hand to remind him to come up for air.

Next Best Thing Website

Ah, it’s always nice to get back to putting together a website, making somebody’s ideas appear on the screen. Today I sat down with Will and we talked through the Next Best Thing website. I had a play around with some of the pictures, made a new logo, and came up with this. Disclaimer: website not anything like finished yet. Or tested in anything other than IE6 for Windows XP. Or even looking vaguely like what it’ll end up as. But anyway, it was fun, making something appear.

Also a problem: the image rollovers are terribly slow when I run it from the server, almost as if the browser is fetching the images each time. I’m sure I’ve not seen this before (the rollover code is bog-standard stuff from Dreamweaver MX 2004), dunno what’s going on.