Farndale Avenue plays have a very special place in the world of amateur theatre. There are a series of twelve plays covering all the usual areas of theatre, from Shakespeare through Noel Coward to Gilbert and Sullivan.
The play what I chose (to quote Ernie Wise) to produce was their take on the fifties and sixties horror genre with the snappy title of The Haunted Through Lounge and Recessed Dining Nook at Farndale Castle. A tale where two young runaways stop at a spooky old castle only to discover that it has a special connection to one of them. The odd death or three do tend to muddy the plot somewhat but in the end good triumphs over evil and everyone lives happily ever after.
Or do they?
Aside from whether the figure with shredded clothing who emerges from the cellar is the evil Lady Graves or her sister Mabel, Farndale Avenue plays can be somewhat confusing to those who haven't seen one. The basic premise is that for this mythical group of ladies (and the occasional man) things never seem to go according to plan. Lines are forgotten, scenery falls down, actors don't stand where they should, sets aren't changed - you get the general idea.
Easy, I hear you say. Acting crap ought to be a piece of cake. Any fool actor can forget to learn their lines and just stumble around the stage hopelessly overacting. Quite the reverse, it takes ability to make the staged "accidents" appear to be real. So when June sits on the bed and part of the canopy falls down the actor must make the audience believe that it wasn't meant to happen rather than the fact that the director is stood behind the curtain with a length of 3lb fishing line...
The plot involves Marty and June, the high school runaways who are secretly eloping, breaking down in their car outside Farndale Castle. They are unaware that inside the castle lives June's Aunt Lady Madge Graves who had locked up June's mother, and her older twin sister Mabel, in the cellar for the past 17 years. In an attempt to keep the status quo Lady Graves attempts to scare off the youngsters assisted by a mad maid called Crematia (who turns out to be called Loony Lena the Stark Staring Mad Maid). Three different characters, a beautician, a doctor and a clergyman, played by the same actor, all try and help Marty and June but pay for their interference with their lives.
Eventually a séence is held and the mysterious Native American, Big Chief Running Water Softener, using Crematia as a mouthpiece imparts valuable information that leads June to discover her mother in the cellar. Eventually Lady Graves finds out and just as she is about to kill Marty and June, she is dragged into the cellar by Mabel. An offstage fight ensues and the victor emerges. Whether it is Mabel or Madge in Mabel's clothing is left up to the audience to decide.
There are two additional items to the evening's entertainment. Firstly the play starts with the cast rehearsing the ending in front of the frustrated producer who doesn't necessarily have to be the real producer (and wasn't in our case). Parts of set then collapse and the actor playing Lady Madge Graves, Farndale member Phoebe Reece, has to mingle amongst the audience and then give a long monologue to fill in time while the set is "repaired".
Secondly there is a poetry competition where three poems are read out and the winner is decided by the applause that the audience gets. We used two members of HADDS not in the play and one of the cast members to read the poems. Proving that you should never underestimate audiences, they actually chose the correct poem to win. Bless them.
As can be seen from the pictures we were in full box set mode with one or two extras to add to the spectacle. Paul had built some more substantial set blocks that can be reused many more times. It had the very unique feature of a hinge that allowed the downstage right half to be used double sided. This was needed to accommodate the outside of Farndale Castle, where the ghosts tend to appear...
It certainly went together easily which is why you can see a picture of people rehearsing with the set on the floor. The thing temporarily assembled in about an hour with two or three of us. Unfortunately, that night, the door didn't close properly which you might notice by the masking tape holding it shut. The major extra was the front of a Citröen 2CV motor car that Paul built for a scene in the first Act. As can be seen from the photos, it was very accurate and the squinting, untrained eye might look as if we had cut the front of the actual car.
Other notable set items included the aforementioned bed complete with staged canopy fall, a piano made out of a Sun V210 computer box, a picture of the Laughing Cavalier with eyeholes cut out and a yellow Tupperware box suspended from the ceiling on 15lb fishing wire (the 3lb snapped during the first performance). The latter prop actually got it's own round of applause on the Saturday night. I think it was either that we had a group of Tupperware appreciators in the audience or the alcohol that they had consumed during the interval!
Backstage we were a little bit stretched with only Natalie and me as the planned people. This lack of personnel was shockingly evident at the Dress rehearsal when we were late with almost every cue. I do take responsibility for this as I kept popping out front to take photographs and attempt to do some direction. In the end we roped in Clive who, playing the producer for the first four pages didn't have a lot to do for the rest of the show. This was then just the right number and we were able to cope with a baffling collection of props such as the bed, the piano, several chairs, a pot plant and a full sized pram! Not to mention manhandling the hinged set, pulling on fishing wire and shifting the car. Natalie and Clive (and I) certainly earned our corn.
So what of the actors?
It was mixture of experienced hands and new people and late replacements. Of the large cast from last year, three were unavailable for educational reasons, one for medical, one for a wedding, one was in New Zealand for most of the rehearsals and I was producing, obviously. Makes you wonder how we got a cast really...?
Well, it went like this. The only ones remaining from Tomb were Joyce and Yvonne. I'd recruited my other half Judy early on and Rachel, our usual producer, agreed to be in it despite it being her year off. When it became clear that Natalie would be too busy with her degree work, Rod asked Christine who had been in the 2004 pantomime for the Sessay Drama Group (a group I was once a member of). She agreed to do us a favour by filling in the remaining role. The part of the producer, who only appears at the beginning and the odd offstage word here and there, was taken by Clive who was in the 2004 Christmas show.
All of the five female actors take on at least two roles, that of their guild member and the parts that they take on in the play. These guild names are consistent across all the Farndales with members such as Mrs Reece, Felicity and Thelma appearing in most of the plays. The part of Mrs Reece was played by Judy while Yvonne played Thelma. There is a nice interplay here as the characters are written to compete with each other both on stage and off; this is more obvious the more plays in the series that are read. The role of Felicity was played by Rachel. The two newcomers to the ficticious Guild were the Austrian Lotte, played by Joyce and Jasmine played by Christine.
In the actual play, the two hapless runaways, Marty and June, were played by Yvonne and Joyce, the latter's poor command of the English language leading to many a confusing situation. As with Crematia, the maid who Felicity played, they have the benefit of not having to take on more than one character.
June's character was very much in the Sandy from the popular musical film/show Grease although before she gets into all that black leather stuff. As can be seen from the photos, it was long blonde wig in bunches, puffed out skirt and lots of pink. Yvonne played her perfectly switching from the character of June into the somewhat more intense character of Thelma when things went wrong.
Joyce had, probably, the hardest part since in addition to learning the lines and movements she had to learn them with an Austrian accent. There are occasions when she had to speak German as well. The large concession that she gets from this is that the character generally wanders around the stage looking bewildered. So it wasn't absolutely essential that all the movements were crisp. Costume wise Marty wore a large and no doubt very hot, duffle coat accompanying a very silly wig.
The part of Crematia is scripted to be played blacked up with much hilarity supposedly ensuing from the black make-up handprints everywhere. Obviously this was rejected. Rachel was under strict instructions to be over the top and didn't disappoint. The scene where she had to hobble off with Lady Graves was very well acted largely to an Achilles tendon problem.
The actor playing Mrs Reece, Judy, had to cope not only with Lady Madge Graves but Mrs Slaughter, Matron of the Sunnydale Orphanage, a radio announcer and due to an unfortunate costume mix up, Sister Philomena. This latter character necessitates a swift change from nun's habit into Lady Graves' coat and head adornment all while the poor actor had to continue singing an obscure piece from a light opera called The Arcadians. (No I hadn't heard of it either...)
The character of Jasmine had to play four roles, that of a Yokel, Mr Death and beautician/solicitor, Dr Blood and The Reverend Tombs (no relation to last year's Tomb family). The Main feature about this character is that Jasmine has one of her young children backstage. Laura's involvement increases as the show goes on, from a simple baby cry early on through being carried on when the Doctor enters to being in a pram with the Reverend. It was an old school pram and took some shifting. They certainly don't make 'em like that anymore.
Other notable personnel were Dave, out sound and lights person. He had the added benefit of using a laptop to control the sound, something that we've been using for a while in the pantos at The British Library. We slightly increased our light count but really need to get our own multi channel dimmer rack. It would certainly make his job easier. Rod was the prompt and probably had an easier job on Friday than Saturday.
So what of me? Well, as mentioned earlier I had offered to produce/direct which, I discovered means that you do small amounts of everything, moderate amounts of most things and large amounts of one or two things. So this meant lots of standing in front of my white board at home drawing lines and numbers where people were meant to walk. Lots of stopping actors in mid flow to tell them to use their upstage hand and lots of painting. This also included learning the part of the Producer just in case Clive couldn't make it on the Saturday due to Cricket commitments!
Taking the week before the performances was definitely a good thing although, after the hours spent painting, carpeting, fishing line threading, gluing, sawing etc. I certainly felt as if I was a ghost of my former self as in the picture. Backstage on performance nights was fun, and all black outfits are good for the figure, although I did over excitedly rush on and remove a pot plant one blackout too early.
I definitely learned a lot; which is a good thing, although this is probably not the place to discuss them. I will certainly to my best to apply them when I next don the producer's mantle. Something I hope to do sooner than later.