The Play Produced
Sackville Theatre Company is now in its 49th year and is the oldest drama group in East Grinstead. We currently stage three productions a year - one each in April and October with a one-night stand in December. We have an established reputation for our Ayckbourn productions which always sell well, so latterly we have tried to widen the repertoire with Orton's Loot (cast iron money loser!) and Rattigan's Cause Celebre (expensive to mount). Given the economics of performing at our local theatre, Chequer Mead Arts Centre, and their perceived desire to accommodate one-night dates and the inevitable Tribute Bands, we have moved to a smaller venue (75 seat capacity). The net result is that each production makes a good profit and our general fund is in its healthiest state for a decade or more.
PLOT The Weekend is Michael Palin's first play and tells the story of a horrendous family gathering at Stephen and Virginia's country cottage. Stephen is a curmudgeonly 'old gil' with a withering wit and strongly cynical view of life in general. He is a typical
grumpy old man but with amazing resilience, charm and old-fashioned goodness. Throughout the course of the weekend. he rediscovers who he is and mends fences with both his family and his long足 suffering wife. Stephen was played in the original production by Richard Wilson which gave inevitable, but unfortunate comparisons with Victor Meldrew. I think this disguised the genuine attack and purpose of the piece. It is really an examination of why so many of the male generation between 35 and 55 feel the
way that they do. Accordingly, we reduced Stephen to around 55 and Virginia to 45-50. Similar adjustments in age were made to others in the cast. The play slices neatly into two halves each of about 55 minutes playing time. The first half is essentially introductions to all the characters and set up of the basic plot about the proposed construction of a Container Port nearby that will mean building a four lane highway around the village. Naturally, Stephen rails against not knowing about things. which leads to confrontation with his neighbour, Duff Gardner, and his son-in-law. Alan. Either side of the interval is a dinner party, which becomes progressively noisier and more drunken as Stephen lays into anything that conflicts with his particular values. Thereafter. the play seeks to explain why he has become the monster he has and discover if some form of redemption is possible for him and the family. Despite its serious theme it is written with typical Palin charm and is hysterically funny, particularly for Monty Python fans.
CASTING If you haven't got a natural Stephen forget it! He is only
off-stage for about five minutes during the whole play and carries the drive and pace of the piece. He has to be an experienced middle-aged actor with good range and a keen sense of humour 足 without these Stephen will become a bore with consequent loss of audience sympathy. He needs acute verbal dexterity and a sense of the ridiculous as well as the charm to convince you how much Virginia really did love him at the beginning of their marriage. Finding a suitable Virginia is just as important 足 their scenes need to reflect a long marriage that has gone stale and there is the pivotal scene in Act II when the truth is laid bare as to why they are as they are. Here we had luck. The real-life wife of the actor playing Stephen was keen to do that part and they blended together perfectly. Having a real married couple had extra benefits in that we could devote more off-line rehearsal time to their more difficult scenes. Other parts gave the opportunity to use new and experienced members of the group - we were able to cast both our youngest (as the granddaughter) and oldest (as the Communist cleaning lady) members. In all the cast is nine: three males and five OCTOBER
females. (The ninth cast member is the voice of God!) There is also a dog that appears twice.
REHEARSALS We allowed eight weeks starting in mid-August. Tip: avoid August like the plague! Cast are on holiday and you will waste at least four rehearsals going over things you have already set for people who missed it the first time around. We have two rehearsals a week lasting two and a half hours . Weekend rehearsals appear three weeks before the show. We are lucky to be able to use the actual space we will be using for performance for rehearsal, and we can store the majority of our props and furniture at that venue - so at all times we were effectively working in our eventual performance space. This is a play that is divided into a number of scenes so we agreed a 'books down' policy three weeks before the actual performance date. It concentrated the mind wonderfully and worked a treat! The published script has very poor stage directions so you will need to work out moves yourself so that the cast and crew know what is going on. For example, props disappear with a character but
are suddenly in use again by another character. Character moves are not explained at all so clear blocking is essential.
LANGUAGE Make sure that your Committee read the play in advance and appreciate the language. This is a modern play with some fruity language - the 'f' word occurs twice! So it is safer to make everyone aware of this upfront rather than endure endless debates later on over its suitability for your audience. We left all the language intact and no one, audience or cast, found it too offensive. One commented that it was ruder on the telly!
PROPS There are a huge amount of props in this play and it is essential that the cast start working with them as soon as blocking is completed . Most of Virginia's time is spent serving teas, coffees, setting or clearing dinner tables. There is also a phantom piece of 'dog poo' which plays an important part at the end of the first act! Try and get your best props people for this show, as it is very busy. Once again , there is no props list in the script.
SCENERY We have a limited space so are not able to build elaborate sets. For this play we built a set of French doors at the back and two flats on either side to give an impression of a living room. The flats were papered and painted as appropriate. To lift this 'big wall ' we hung seven paintings and added pot plants, and umbrella stand . Beyond the windows was a painted garden where we positioned some pot plants, which proved very effective . Our acting area was a carpeted area to the front of the stage. We set the living room to one side and the dining area to the other. Most of the action in the play seems to occur in these locations or at the windows. The entrances to the kitchen and upstairs were conveyed by curtains 足 no one seemed to miss working doors and they are not essential to this production .
LIGHTING The lighting in our theatre is old and very basic so we brought in some of our own to provide greater light to the acting areas at the front of the stage. These were positioned at the rear of the auditorium on T Bars and focussed to the dining room and sitting areas. This enabled us to use subtle lighting changes in the Second Act scene between Stephen and Virginia. We used a phased reduction from one area to the other and were then able to light their intimate scene with very little light, giving added effect to the scene. At the same time, as the scene is set at dawn, we were able to bring up the lights on the garden area as dawn gave way to day.
COSTUMES It is a modern play so does not present any problems. OCTOBER
Stephen does need a Trinity College, Cambridge blazer.
SOUND There is a lot of it and again there is no sound plot in the script. You will need doorbells, dogs barking, kitchen noise, telephone rings , and music to cover the eight scene changes. We used Sinatra singing I Get A Kick Out of You for the whole of Act I and the beginning and end of Act II. Prior to the intimate StephenNirginia scene we used the first thirty seconds of Dancing in the Dark performed by Diana Krall. In all there are over 30 sound cues.
OVERALL This is a great play. Not only is it very funny, it is also emotionally heartbreaking - a combination which works wonders for ticket sales. It has to be played at pace by highlighting the surreal comedy that allows the absurdity of it all to break through. I tried to get as much of a naturalistic acting style as possible - even to the extent of underplaying which had a positive effect, particularly in the difficult second act. We had great fun as did our audience - hope you do too! Oh, it also made a very healthy profit - again!
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