The Trials and Tribulations of Housekeeping: Theatre Uncut.

A few weeks ago, Seven short plays were distributed for free to theatre companies and community groups all across the UK, to be performed in solidarity on the same day, as a demonstration against the current raft of government spending cuts. The project was called Theatre Uncut.

Saturday night (the 19th) saw the culmination of the work put together by the Lancaster group, and I’m proud to say that the reception was overwhelmingly positive.

But now that the curtain has come down on a fantastic night of theatre, what am I to make of it all? Well here are a few memorable stories about the creation of “Housekeeping”, which I directed for the Lancaster event.

“Housekeeping” started out in life as a play called “Oh To Be in Tunisia”, written by Lucy Kirkwood. Midway through rehearsal, Lucy contacted us to request a name change as she thought that the “Tunisia” reference had quickly been overtaken by events. I forgot to mention this to my cast until the day of the performance (Oh, how we laughed!)

Rehearsals began on the 27th of February but straight away there was a problem; we were an actor short. Our original choice for the character of Bill had to pull out before the first rehearsal due to overwhelming work commitments – always a danger when arranging a voluntary show like this. Happily, my wife was more than happy to stand in for this first rehearsal and everything would be alright as long as we could find a replacement actor within a week. I mean, how hard could it be?

Well, bloody hard, as it happens. After a frantic week of e-mails, phone calls and Tweets, Aliki Chapple (one of the producers of the event) and I had drawn nothing but blanks. The trouble was that the character of Bill had 9 pages of continuous dialogue to learn in an extraordinarily short period of time. What we needed was a professional.

Enter Ian Brown, a local actor who had just finished a mammoth 6 month theatre tour across the UK. Gasps of relief from all! What could possibly go wrong?!

3 weeks to go and we were back on track! Hooray! And when he joined us for the third rehearsal, things started to really perk up. He fitted in to the show like a glove and had already committed large chunks of the script to memory.

My two regulars, Maria and Yvonne, were working like the clappers to learn their lines and adapt to the rigours of theatre rehearsal. Neither of them were experienced performers and, indeed, this would be Maria’s very first time on stage. With that in mind, the work that they were putting together was truly extraordinary. And, as there was a lot to get through and we had already lost a week due to the absence of a third actor, I was working them hard – a cross that they bore with remarkable patience and grace. The last thing they needed was another crisis.

You know where this is going, don’t you?

With just over a week to go, Ian pulled out. His agent had found him a paid gig for the BBC with filming due to take place on the weekend of our performance. As we couldn’t pay him for his time, he had to go for it. But boy did it leave us in a hell of a pickle!

We had two choices; Fold or recast. I don’t know if many people reading this have ever been to Lancaster but I’ll tell you this – they ain’t the folding kind!

Enter Anthony Mercer, our third Bill in as many weeks. And, with only a week to go, he had a hell of a mountain to climb! Oh, and just in case things weren’t interesting enough, Anthony had never acted before in his life. Oh, joy.

I must admit to being a little dubious. I’m something of a perfectionist as a performer and I’m no different when directing. I was a hair’s breadth from chucking in the towel but Maria and Yvonne had worked so damned hard and spent so much time on the project so far; I couldn’t let them down by dropping out myself. After talking at length with them both, we decided to push on – even if Anthony was forced to simply read the play, script in hand, on the night.

The fact that he didn’t is a testament to an almost super-human effort on his part. An effort that has my eternal admiration!

With three rehearsals and many hours of line-learning walks in the park, a minor miracle took place; Not only did the show go well – it went very, very well! The audience loved it!Maria, Yvonne and Anthony rose to the challenge heroically – problem after problem, recast after recast (after recast), they adapted and they prospered!

And you can’t ask for more than that.

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