The Play Produced
TRAVELS WITH MY
By Graham Greene, Adapted By Giles Havergal
IP LOT & CASTING Graham Greene 's novel, published and set in the late 60s, tracks the rude but satisfying, awakening of retired, quiet-living Bank Manager Henry when his elderly but surprisingly raffish Aunt Augusta takes him on her travels in Europe and then to South America, It is a fast moving, wide-ranging piece with 20-odd characters and 40-odd scene changes, A challenging production, with the further challenge that our usual venue, Bexhill's De La Warr Pavilion. a noted art deco building, is unavailable for a year or three due to major refurbishment , so we're having to use unfamiliar halls. This adaptation is typically performed by three men with a fourth assisting, but I was not attracted by that format. A visit to a professional production confirmed this view. For all the skill and versatility of Clive Francis. Jeffrey Holland and Gary Wilmot, I felt that a male-only format lacked the chemistry needed in a show where sex is so much present in the background , and moreover that a larger cast could bring more interest and variety, so auditions in June were open to both sexes and yielded five women (Trish, Maureen , Marcia, Lisa and my wife Verena) and three men (Peter G, Nick and Lisa 's husband Danni) . Only Peter G and Nick were really Henry material, Nick didn't want a lot to do and Peter G hadn't acted for 30 years, so a single Henry wasn 't an option; anyway I liked it when three Henrys appeared together. So I shared the bulk of Henry between Peter G and myself, finding this a less hazardous option than leaning
on someone, and got Nick to playa third Henry in the tri Henry bits, plus O'Toole, Sparrow and a few walk-ons . Danni, from South Africa, was Wordsworth, Visconti, Hakim and the remaining bit parts, his white skin being no impediment in portraying the African Wordsworth . Similarly, no one wanted to play the whole of Augusta, but Trish and Maureen (both highly suitable) happily shared the part, at times appearing together and taking turns during the longer speeches. Lisa, the youngest of the women, became Tooley, a policeman (re-sexed) and 14 year-old Yolanda; Marcia was Miss Keene, Hatty and Frau Schmidt; and Verena was Italian Girl , Miss Paterson and the palm-reading Spanish Gentleman (re-sexed). All three played additional bit parts. On the technical side, father and son team Dominic and Nick (14) got their first experience of being techies-in charge, supervised by the BATS' own expert, professional stage technician Jez. Prompter Sue, Dee and Julia on costumes and Dorothy and family creating props completed the team.
THE SCRIPT This adaptation puts the novel across beautifully, but I thought the many narrative asides, some in the middle of conversations, to be an interruption; to enhance the flow I removed those which I felt were apparent from the action. Also I chose not to use the signs suggested in the script to show each new location; in the very few cases where it was not already obvious where we were, I added a few words such as, "I
think we've just crossed into Yugoslavia".
REHEARSALS Several of us were in the throes of our open-air Shakespeare until early August, so rehearsals could not start straight away. I did however work out with the Henrys and Augustas who would say which bits. and asked the actors to learn all the lines they could in the meantime, and indeed some did. Thus we had just six weeks to rehearse this challenging production - a real plus was that cast and crew were full of enthusiasm, and loved the play to bits. Blocking was an intensive effort - I split the play into si x portions and went through the lot twice, the second time through throwing up as much as the first. As a director I treat a cast as a committee of which I am chairman (as befits a retired Civil Servant), and a great deal of discussion went into sorting out logistiCS , but eventually we were happy with the result. This took time, however, and we were halfway through the rehearsal period before we could really start to get our teeth into interpretations, and what with being on stage myself I was unable to do as much directing as I wanted; indeed rehearsals got a bit muddly once or twice . It was a real help that everyone rose splendidly to their parts and contributed to the development of the play. Two weeks before performance Lisa and Danni learned that a long-sought-after happy event was to occur and understandably didn 't want to take any chances, so my daughter Sophie took over seamlessly from Lisa. Eventually we could see that
things were coming together and that it had a chance of working , though I knew we would be a bit under-rehearsed - it would have been wonderful to have had another couple of weeks, and more than one dress rehearsal in the hall.
THE VENUE AND STAGING The venue, a church hall seating up to 150, was completed 18 months ago, had never previously hosted a play and has no stage lighting or sound system, but enjoys a warm , friendly atmosphere and boasts a low stage 18 feet wide by 8 feet deep with built in steps, plus wings which lack access from anywhere but the stage. I chose to work partly on the stage , and partly at floor level in three-quarter round, to give a greater variety of playing space - which meant an audience in three blocks enclosing the floor-level playing space , with two diagonal aisles between them , allowing a variety of entrances and exits including to/from the screened off wings , though the lack of side access meant that people sometimes Ihad to get to or from them during blackouts. We had no set - just a bureau and table , and the hail's own chairs, and in Act II a couple of trellises adorned with artificial tropical-type vegetation. There were no dressing rooms as such - we screened off an area of the entrance hall and mucked in together, escaping to a handy toilet where delicacy promptea
LlGHTI-NG & SOUND We used our own lights anc. sound system . Lighting had ~ : be blacked out between scenes, and switch between
stage and floor, or light both together, according to where the action was, requiring in all about 70 lighting cues, Sound came mostly in the form of musical 'bridges' between scenes and a little incidental music during scenes - mostly Beatles, more below, I also used the sound effects (tropical insects, war noises etc) suggested in the script, running to a total of 57 sound cues. Fortunately Danni is a computer buff and was able to obtai n the sound effects needed and format the entire soundtrack disc. All this was a baptism of fire for our father and-son technical team, but in the event they drove the show along powerfully, with pinpoint reactions to cues and Dominic transcending the lighting plot by using a single light as a spotlight where appropriate. Projected scenery would have added much , but we have no projector and anyway enough is enough .
COSTUMES This was a substantial fequirement, with all characters needing at least one costume, In many cases two. The 'ariety is daunting - Catholic on signor, Turkish police chief, Paraguayan ditto, hippy, ortune-teller, Argentine palm eader, etc . Except for the "'ore specialised items, we ere able to dress every racter from the BATS' -ardrobe or from our own and _ rrowed clothes. For the rest ~ had invaluable help from _ ingenious Julia, who had .. sources including the :".3Dles Theatre in nearby -3:5llngs, and with borrowing, : ding and adapting she 3 trived the more esoteric ~-s .
MUSIC Such is the variety of Beatles songs that I found 39 apt snatches for bridges and incidentals - one of them suggested by Danni. I was particularly pleased with a choreographed tea-pouring in the Hatty scene to Henry the Horse from Mr Kite; the most manic part of the pot scene, with Henry and Tooley falling about the stage, lights switching from side to side, accompanied by the orchestral ascent which climaxes A Day In The Life; and The End for the curtain call. For a background to the Reverie I found George Martin's orchestral piece Friends and Lovers perfect. Latin music for Act II was from a CD by Esquinas - to one of them , Verena and Marcia kicked off the party scene in fine style with a Latin-styie dance in skimpy costumes with fruit-laden headdresses.
AND ON THE NIGHT? We start with eight chairs at floor-level to form seating for the congregation at Henry's mother's funeral and walk on stage to "The Magical Mystery Tour is dying to take you away .. .", taking up positions with a Henry facing each block of audience and the remainder of the cast seated, apart from Danni on stage who rapidly evolves from Richard Pull ing in an overcoat in the 'bath ' (two chairs) to the Vicar. The congregation rises to sing the last verse of Abide With Me to a recorded accompaniment, with the most musical actress singing brilliantly out of tune and the rest of us more naturally helping the shambolic effect. A general "Amen" signals a blackout with "Oh dear, what can I do, baby's in
black ... "; lights up to birdsong and the first Henry/Augusta (Peter G/ Maureen) conversation, punctuated by Nick as a macabre undertaker shuffling in with the ashes. Augusta calls "Taxi!", blackout, a burst of "One sweet dream, pick up the bags, get in the limousine ... " , and lights up reveal PG, plus Trish as Augusta and "driver" Sophie in three chairs masquerading as a taxi. Startling revelat ions and violent swerves, then a blackout with "I should have known better ... ", quietening as lights come up to a pub crowd sitting round a table as Henry and Augusta make their way round to Augusta's flat , then Peter G hands the urn to a different Henry (me) as we move to Augusta's flat at stage level and the music fades away. I soon find myself sitting between both Augustas as they share a hilarious remin iscence of a long-ago funeral. The above is a flavour - no space for more. Reactions, including the local press review, were highly favourable there was much praise for the slickness of the changes, the coherence of the piece as a group exercise and strong performances. I had wondered if anyone would remark that the Beatles were inappropriate since Henry would not have been a fan , but no - people said that the music fixed the play in the late 60s effectively and indeed I have received little credit for devising it as most thought it had "come with the play". One or two negative points: whilst no-one had any difficulty with three Henrys, there were those who thought throughout that Henry had two Aunt Augustas; actors at floor level disappeared for too many of
the audience when sitting down ; and the structure of this adaptation , with Act I tw ice as long as Act II, meant that Act I lasted about 85 minutes, too long for many. I also heard that someone - who turned out to be a helper who had enjoyed a free front seat phoned a local radio station complaining that the two f words in the script (taken straight from the novel , of course) were unnecessary. If doing the play again I would probably use the stage onl,y unless two raised levels were possible; would insert an additional , brief, interval halfway through Act I; and would make more reference to strong language in publicity, though on this occasion I did warn members (including the helper) in the BATS' newsletter. But these are minor points compared to the positives. This play is certainly a tough assignment , especially if embellished with cop ious technical effects, but I recommend it as pleasing for audiences and satisfying for actors. I found it readily available for amateurs, despite being much on tour.
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Published on Nov 26, 2011
Director Peter Bradbury writes on his production of Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene, adapted by Giles Havergal for Bexhill Amateur The...