MY FAT FRIEND
by Charles Laurence John Ahern discusses his production for The Centralian Players, Watford Summer 1998. We were fadng a production in mid-October with few actors available, and, perhaps more importantly, no producer. During one of th~ group's summer evening get颅 togethers, in an off-guarded moment (after a few glasses of wine) , I had said something to the effect that I wouldn't mind doing MY FAT FRIEND again, having been in a production some twenty yeMs earlier. One committee meeting later I was being asked to go ahead!
blocking, with the Stage Manager standing in for Tom. With only two or three characters on stage most of the time, movement was not inhibited by our lack of space. There was also an advantage in my being directly involved in the action, as it enabled me to "feel" when things were comfortable. Initially I allowed my character a little freedom of movement in order to keep things flowing, but by the end of the first four weeks we had established a pattern which we rarely changed. James had the somewhat difficult task of spending a great deal of time in the kitchen apparently busy without detracting from the main action. He was also having to work on improving his Scots accent, something he stuck to with great determination (I think he ended up near Edinburgh).
It was now nearly August, and urgent action was required. Auditions were not promising. MFF is a comedy for one woman and three men. Four people turned up. Two ladies for "Vicky" and two men for "Tom" - super! Telephone calls were made, one of which unearthed a young man who, despite only hilving played one previous role, was brave enough to tackle "James" (Scots accent to be worked upon). It was now too late to turn back, so I decided to pIny "Henry" myself - in for a penny... I We began rehearsals the first week in August without "Tom" who was on holiday for two weeks.
There are two acts with three scenes in each and plenty. of scope to vary the pace within each scene, which was the next objective, along with character development which we regularly discllssed at this stage. Apart from the obvious, there are certain things the audience should be made aware of, i.e. that Henry is fun (despite the fact he ridicules anything that moves); that James is unworldly and out of his depth (except in the kitchen or bookshop) and that Vicky, although depressed by her weight problem, is also a fun lady. It is all in the script and just needs some flesh on the bones.
'1 decided to update the play and this meant deleting! altering certain lines, and changing famous names referred to for a more topical modern equivalent. We also considered the political "incorrectness" of some aspects of the play, but argued that as none of it had malicious intent, it could and should be left alone.
PLOT AND CHARACrER1[ =-.~
There are several key moments that I believe are worth taking a Ii ttle extra care over; e.g. in the first scene Vicky threatens to evict Henry, but they both collapse into giggles, and this is a good time to understand their affection and closeness. Tom's first meeting with Vicky and later in Act Two their reunion which becomes a non-event, are scenes which we also spent some time on. Much can be made of James's discomfort (usually at the hands of Henry) and his attempts to "escape" when he senses that Henry and Vicky are about to fight. It perhaps goes without saying that the final scene between Vicky and Henry should be quite touching and, by comparison, low key.
Vicky who owns a book shop is an attractive, intelligent and normally good humoured woman. When we first meet her however, she is grossly overweight, wearing her "last resort" dress. As a result she is depressed, moody and lonely, at least in the romantic sense. She has two lodgers, James, a studious but somewhat naive Scottish youth who helps in the shop and works in an "au pair" capacity at the house, and Henry a not-50-young gay man who loses no opportunity to tease her about her size. When a handsome bronzed customer (Tom) seems attracted to Vicky, Henry taunts her into slimming. With Tom aWilY on business abroad for two months, Vicky sets to work with grim determination, and, supported by her two friel1ds, hard exercise and diet, she manages to reduce to a slimline version of her former self. When Tom returns to find himself faced with the confident, sylph-like Vicky, his new, disappointment is only too apparent. It was the old Vicky he had been dreaming about, the one that attracted him in the first place. Vicky is alone once more, to be consoled (up to a point) by Henry. A word about my interpreta tion of these characters; Vicky, who at first appears somewhat frumpy becomes happy and contented after meeting Tom. Then as the pounds fall away the new, inner, ind ependent woman emerges. Henry should not be played as the "limp wristed" stereotype ('70s style). It is, I believe, best to S\J gest the charGcter with the voice, and only .1 ernte the campness in those exchanges "/lert> he deliberateh- sends himself up. Beneath a:.-p15h wit and (\-nic;, -m there is a sensitive, t 路 loneh' man. The audience _ ' d
should also be made aware of the great bond of affection and understanding between Henry and Vicky, and this is made clear in the first scene of the play, and is also the key to the last scene. James's naivety should be endearing, not irritating, and Tom, who has the inevitable task of being the "villain" of the piece, must appear totally genuine, whilst suggesting a certain lack of worldliness, pa in the reunion scene.
Our normal rehearsal venue was unavailable, but fortunately we were offered the use of a garage which is in fact larger than our stage area. This proved to be a real bonus as we were able to mark out a permanent set, and move in items of furnitme and props. With time not exactly on our side, and Tom on holiday I abandoned the planned read-through and concentrated on basic __ SiMI
I am always preaching (often to the converted) that half of acting is reacting. It is most important to keep remembering that advice. Many of the laughs arise from these reactions and at times we unashamedly milked the situations. We have one rehearsal on the stage prior to thE dress rehearsal, and this also serves as thE technical. We needed to spend some timE rehearsing scene changes as they obviousl) needed to be as swift as possible. The mail problem is the end of Act Two Scene 1 when th, sauna is struck and the Christmas decoration need setting. To the credit of the stage crew (whl also helped greatly with costume changes) nc once did our "change music" run out, and th whole production was kept moving. With twenty minute interval we found the overa running time was two and a half hours.
The stage is not over-large. The proscenium 18ft wide and the depth about 12ft from t1 setting line. Wing space is minimal
THE. p.LAY. PRODUCED
approximately 5ft either side. There is a small apron extending about 2ft 6ins which some times enables the odd chair/table to be set each side of the proscenium. We construct the set over the tw o Sundays prior to production week, and have certain restrictions as the hall is used for other purposes in between. I had obviously prepared a scale ground plan before commencing rehearsals, and a lthough some small modifications were necessary, the basic plan survived. I wanted to preserve the "feel" of the original set, so as usual it became a compromise between maximising the available space, whilst retaining an interesting picture. A rostrum (approx. 10'x4'1") was set up left against the rear wall to break up the level, and provide the "landing" area, with the bathroom door left, and the stairs opposi te going up centre. In reality of course, the sta irs went nowhere (except out of sight). Fortunately only James had to spend any length of time upstairs and that was at the end of the play. The kitchen area up right extended across to a window just within line of sight. A net curtain and roller blind hid a not altogether appropriate backing. The garden door was sited below the kitchen, and to complete that area a shelf unit was built in front of the kitchen, and additional shelf units (centre) gave us space for drinks, glasses and other dressing. The entrance to the bookshop (left) was sited immediately below the "bathroom" rostnlm, and became a curtained doorw ay through which could be seen false bookshelves. The cabinets in the kitchen were simply old door-fronts fixed onto narrow shelves, and although they were not practical cupboards they helped to create depth. Various sma ll items of kitchen equipment completed the picture. By this time the living/ dining area was down to IS'xIS'.
tli'W'iiihli:'____J Furniture is always a problem and this was no exception. Ideally it should of course reflect Vicky's taste which I imagined as being a somewhat eclectic gathering of older pieces. Ju st as well. Eclectic it was, (although I'm not sure that Vicky really ap proved), and with space at a premium we could not use any thing too large. In the living area we used a chaise (our own, made by a member for a production of "The Heiress"), a wing armchair and a coffee table which all looked sui tably old. To save space in the dining area I decided on a gate-leg table which could be folded down as necessary, and three chairs to beg in with, one of which was m oved after the breakfast scene n to the apron (right), where it rem ained for the duration . The task j mo\'ing the chair can be handed
to James as part of his cleaning up duties. The "mini-sauna " was made for us, and the insides packed with an old duvet to give a padded effect. The control panel was created from an old washing machine facia panel, with the logo removed, and a small torch placed behind a tiny hole to give the "on" effect. The other props caused little problem, although we did have to purchase some Christmas cards. I don 't wish to teach any Grannies to s uck eggs, but I would advise that the change over to the Christmas scene (Act Two Scene 2) is planned well in ad vance to avoid unnecessary delay to the ac tion. Attempts to hire a small dresser for the living area came to nothing. We faxed four companies but had only one repl y and tha t item was too large. In the end we settled for a small cabinet. ... , , -
_ _ "r
The problem here is of course Vicky's "fatness". This was achieved by building up layers of padding on a lycra swimsuit. On top of this went a large completely padded bra, followed by an old tee shirt which was layered arollnd the arms. The whole thing was held in place at the bottom by a very large pair of knickers' Two wigs were used, one a short straigh t "Victoria Wood" style which made the actress's face look round, the other a layered softly coiffured look, which she nicknamed the "Lil y Savage". Our Vicky donned her "fat" apparel at the last possible moment - for a hour or so there was absolutely no chance of a visi t to the 100. The "fat" dress which Henry teases her about had to be long, with a high neck and long sleeves. It also had to be blue. Th is was made bv Janet our sometimes wardrobe lady. The other item which needed to be specially made was the bea ch pyjamas which had to be sufficiently large to house both James and Henry, and be of a suitably garish ma teri al. Other than that costumes were not a problem, everyone wore their own clothes. Make-up was straightforward except of course that Vicky has to be "made over" for the transformation in Act Two Scene 2.
_"3*[0___"'-',;0) Nothing fancy. I simply covered each acting area with cross lighting ensuring that individual areas (d i ning / Ii v ing / ki tchen / land i ng) could be separated for the night scenes. Three table lamps and a pendant gave a nice cosy evening atmosphere, aided by the use of a gold / pink range of gels. Floods off stage covered the kitchen area during the daylight scenes. I used a combination of fades/blackouts
depending on the tag of the scene. The end of the play worked quite well by allowing Henry to sit alone staring into space, followed by a very slow fade - before a slow curtain.
MUSIC I am a great believer in good music, but over the first few weeks I had thought no further than an overall theme tune. One evening however, rehearsing Act One Scene 1, (Tom's dinner invitation to Vicky) when he says "J'll call for you a t seven", I found myself humming "Got a date with an angel, going to meet her at seven". From there it began.
Act One - "That Wonderful Melody" (Coward) To close Scene 1 (into Scene 2) - "Go t a Date With an Angel" (AI Bowlly) To close Scene 2 (into Scene 3) "Love is the Sweetest Thing"(Peter Skellern) To open Act Two - "Keep Young and Beautiful" (Pasadena Roof Orchestra) To herald Vicky's exercise and diet regime. Fade in to James listening to Tschaikovsky on radio. To close Scene 1 (into Scene 2 "Twelve Days of Christmas"(Bing Crosby) (Gives tim e to eHect Christmas decora ti ons.) To dose Scene 2 (into Scene 3) Vicky switches on radio. I used "Time Heals Everything" from "Mack & Mabel" . This was played through to the end of the scene. As light slowly faded and curtain fell the music swelled into FOH speakers, and then faded as curtain rose on Scene 3.
No problems. The sound of church bells was taken from CD effects. The telephone was recorded from modern telephone and for the Shop Bell I used a small hand bell from SaliSbury Market (price £1.50). The Door Bell was practica I. CONCL~ ~ ~,-
A thoroughly enjoyable and immensely satisfying experience. The play has some lovely moments of high comedy, balanced, at just the right time with touches of sadness. There are some "show stop ping" lines, (a couple of which often bring quite spontaneous applause). The most rewarding part is the audience reaction. The laughter, the apparent enjoyment. As a festival adjudicator once said of our previous production, "This is sheer entertai nment". After all, that's what it's all abou t - isn't it?
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