The spring play was probably the most ambitious production that HADDS has undertaken. The type of play, the rehearsal times, the set, the publicity, everything was taken to a higher level this year. In February it was decided that we would change from our usual selection of one act plays to a single full length three act one.
Our choice of play was "A Tomb With a View" by Norman Robbins. Described as a comedy thriller and written in the 80s it tells of a will reading at the residence of the Tomb household and the ensuing chaos that unfolds as the various members of the family, innocent and not so innocent outsiders come to terms with a bizarre series of murders all linked to the missing fortune bequeathed in the will.
Initially, I was slightly worried about the play since on first reading it came across as more thriller than comedy. Not a good thing in amateur dramatics since the majority of audiences at our sort of level turn up for some form of entertainment expecting at least some laughs. Fortunately I was ultimately mistaken for as the play developed the humour in the script was brought out by a combination of direction and hard work on the part of the actors.
For a play to be performed mid may, starting in February might seem like overkill but when there is only one slot in the week when all actors are available then needs must. Two particular aspects of the rehearsals stood out this year; these were the attendance of cast members and the actual length of the them. I don't think I've been involved in a play where so many of the rehearsals were conducted with all the cast members present. On the rare occasions where they weren't, then it was usually only one member. It's amazing what a difference it makes. On the subject of the length, rehearsals were a minimum of three hours and often overran for up to an extra thirty minutes.
This latter point, although excellent for the quality of the play, did make the schedule rather gruelling, particularly during the last month when the rehearsals doubled to twice weekly. Six to seven hours a week makes for a good end product but can be hard on the actors. Not that all the actors were that bothered. As the play has a number of deaths at fairly regular intervals after the first act, certain lucky individuals didn't have to stay for the ending as they were already a corpse by then! Unfortunately for yours truly, I survive until the end!
A big, ambitious play deserves a big, ambitious set and as actors we were blessed with one. Extremely wide and as deep as needed with the required secret entrance and morbid gothic design. Decorated in green and gold with pictures of the Borgias for effect, it was dominated by a specially commissioned painting of Septimus Tomb, the patriarch of the family whose death and subsequent will sparked the events.
As you can see from the accompanying photographs, it was an impressive piece of construction that took shape over the three days prior to the dress rehearsal. We do not have a permanent stage at Helperby so it all has to be constructed from the ground up. Conceived by Paul, it consisted of a large number of pre-constructed pieces built by Paul and decorated by Paul and Mary. Once delivered onsite, they simply slotted together like a big wooden Lego set. Obviously there were certain on-site corrections that needed to be made, but everything did more or less go in the right place. The bulk of the work was done by Paul, Steve and yours truly although there was regular assistance from other cast members and individuals from the village.
In addition to the set, we also tried to create an ambience that would get the audience into the right frame of mind for the play. This included decoration for the entrance to the hall and the actual hall that the play was performed in. Ticket staff were dressed in maid costumes, we played very nice Mediterranean guitar music and even the raffle prizes had some link to the play. We had also undertaken some more sophisticated advertisements for the show. One of the posters put up around the area can be seen here
As mentioned above, the play is a comedy thriller about the aftermath of a will reading at the residence of the Tomb family. This is no ordinary family, however. As Emily Tomb describes them, they are the local Frankensteins, never venturing from their home and being responsible for all manner of weird goings on and most importantly murders. Each of the family members has a particular vice including poisoning visitors to the house, conducting chemical experiments and some depraved acts that are never fully explained. One is a werewolf, another thinks he is Caesar while another is a sex maniac. Certainly not the sort you would want to meet in a dark old house miles from anywhere.
They are ably assisted in their lives by a mad, old housekeeper who believes the dead man is still alive, a financially impoverished solicitor and a nurse who is more than she appears to be. Into this mix is thrown two helpless yet not so innocent individuals in the shape of an authoress and her secretary. And it is once the authoress has inherited a goodly portion of the dead man's estate and the house then all the killings start. I should warn you that the following text and photographs do give away the plot and the killer so stop now if you don't want to know.
First to go is Freda, the authoress, poisoned. Second is the unseen Oliver Tomb shot in his cell. Both of these were at the hands of Penworthy the solicitor. Unfortunately he is next, the result of a knife in the back. Marcus Tomb, the one who thinks he is Caesar is next to go, although he is shot rather than stabbed multiple times like his alter ego. Lucien Tomb is then called away to his laboratory whereupon he has his head removed. This head does appear later on, but obviously not the real actor's one! The faithful housekeeper Agatha is brutally attacked with an axe (thankfully off stage).
Emily Tomb is next, poisoned by cyanide in an apple. Anne the nurse is then next on the list but manages to survive the fall down the stairs after tripping over a wire. Dora Tomb, is strangled by her own scarf and left a limp corpse in a chair onstage. This leaves only three live individuals, Anne the nurse, Perry the secretary and Monica Tomb. Suspicion would tend to fall on Monica since it couldn't possibly have been Perry as he spends most of the play running around wondering what's going on. Still, when Monica is attempting to finish off Anne, Perry is there to use the last remaining bullet to shoot Monica.
But there is a twist in the tale. Ann was only pretending to have a broken leg and proceeds to explain to the helpless Perry how she and Penworthy had planned the whole idea to get the Tomb fortune. Of course she hadn't intended to share with the solicitor and had planned to kill him but was beaten to it by Monica who was protecting Perry. Just when things look bad for the secretary, it transpires that Monica was also faking death and she comes to his rescue again stabbing the nurse in the back. She reveals the whereabouts of £4m and the play ends.
Rod was the rather overweight Lucien (courtesy of a fat suit) the famous scientist who ultimately loses his head. If you look at the pictures of Lucien and compare them with the painting of the late Septimus Tomb then you can definitely see a resemblance in the eyebrows! Jane, complete with awful grey/black wig stomped around the stage as played the mannish, chain-apple-eating Emily. Probably the most unpleasant character in the family, always picking on the other members. Natalie was the more delicately unhinged Dora. Her passions were twofold, making wines and burying those foolish enough to taste them. Dressed in black, she flitted around the stage like some macabre bird.
Marcus Tomb was played by Paul. He was the one who believed that he was Caesar so Paul was dressed in toga, laurel leaves and sandals and he delivered all his lines like some Shakespearean actor. He also has the misfortune of being dead on stage for the longest. Pam completed the Tomb family. Dressed in a tight outfit and hair extensions she fitted the part of the sex-starved Monica. Oddly enough she was probably the most normal of all the family. And of course she was one of the survivors.
Steve played the doddery old solicitor complete with grey wig, fake sideburns and penchant for misleading the family in legal matters. Largely due to his involvement in the plot along with the Nurse. Yvonne limped around the stage as the dour old housekeeper, admonishing the family and generally running things with the help of a bloodied meat cleaver. Note that this prop was the real McCoy, The kind that would take your hand off and straight from the village butchers. Thankfully its sharp edge was protected by tape. The final member of the household staff, Nurse Franklin, was played by Joyce. Wearing a fetching blue outfit, she had to wrestle with the two sides to her character. The cold-blooded killer and the helpful and "life-saving" nurse. She also had a huge speech at the end where she explained how she did it.
The two outsiders consisted of Charlotte as the fake authoress Ermintrude Ash/Freda Mountjoy. Played with a confidence way beyond her tender years, she was unfortunately the first to die. It did mean that she had the luxury of two acts of relaxation watching the rest of the play.
That left yours truly. As Peregrine (Perry) Potter, the real author, my character was by far the dullest of the lot. After the death of his agent, he is largely dragged along in the story in a somewhat bewildered manner, not totally knowing what is going on most of the time. When I first read the part I realised that although he is the calming glue that holds the play together, there was some room for interpretation. So it was that I decided while learning lines one evening to make him Welsh. It made the part more of a challenge and had the added bonus of making him even more nervous as I concentrated on keeping the accent up. There was also the slight matter of what I was doing with the bucket of water outside the hall and having to appear in my underwear but the least said about those two the better!
After three full rehearsals in five days we were probably as ready as we would ever be to put on the shows and in true theatre style we turned in the two best performances on the nights. Rachel had insisted that there was no fraternising with the audience during the intervals so, as you can see from the pictures we spent the time in the slightly cramped conditions by the side of the stage. It had the added bonus of reinforcing the already held notion that the actors were a team.
As I wrote about last year's plays, when you have a good quality script then the actors tend to go that little bit further. Everyone's character had unique qualities and to each actor playing that part really got immersed in their role. I've already mentioned Agatha's limp, but Dora's wonderful facial expressions and Penworthy's stuttering among others were all developed by the actors.
But things didn't always go to plan and there were a couple of things that stick in my mind as being humorous outtakes so to speak. I did think long and hard about whether to include text on when things went wrong, but the group have progressed so far that one or two examples won't destroy our confidence. Similarly I am not picking on particular individuals, we all had our slight moments when a line was missed or forgotten, it's just that these two I found quite amusing.
First there was Monica explaining how Penworthy had killed Freda and had just shot Marcus. Hmm, I thought. That's going to confuse the audience since the last time Penworthy appeared he had a large kitchen knife in his back doubled up over a chaise-long. In Pam's defence, it was Steve's hand that appeared from behind the secret passageway holding the gun. We thought that Joyce's delicate little hand would have given the game away somewhat.
The second was towards the end when Anne explains how she did it all, she pours herself a drink before starting. One the Friday she poured herself a drink from the decanter containing the poison. Being onstage at the time, I could hear a number of the audience oohing as they thought that it was part of the plot and Anne would be hoist by her own petard so to speak. Again in Joyce's defence there was not enough of the Madeira available and it is just at the beginning of an horrendously long speech so her mind was occupied.
Well, this part ought to be easy to write since I could just use two words. "universally positive". Certainly everything that I have heard from the small horde that I fooled into coming to watch has been very good. And some of them came an awfully long way to watch amateur theatre. One group of five for whom it was their first visit to Helperby stated that it was a lot better than they had expected which I take to be a compliment.
There was also universal admiration for the set, particularly the way that we had attempted to give the hall the appearance of being part of the library. This was all part of Paul's grand plan and I'm sure that he is pleased that his idea paid off. There was also praise for and the general ambiance of the whole evening, which again shows that we are getting things right, and is a demonstration of how the group is growing.
One final point is that our producer, Rachel, received a letter from someone who had enjoyed it so much that they felt compelled to write. Now this is unusual, it is one thing to say that you enjoyed a show as you are leaving the hall but another to actually make the time to write something.
Well, I've almost come to the end of this epic page about our play but I think that it was worth the time spent. It was a great experience for all concerned and well liked by the 150 or so souls who came along to watch/support.
Obviously no production is solely the preserve of the actors. Without the likes of Ann, Maggie and Jan selling tickets and doing front of house, Sue and Alison making the actors up and Dave and Carol running the bar then evening such as these just do not happen.
Finally, our tireless producer Rachel is to be commended for all her efforts and patience even though on occasions she was close to going home during the middle of rehearsals. Still, sometime actors need that and the two performances were a testament to her production style.