The Water Engineer

Posted Monday 15 Sep 2014 14:09 PM

The tables for hotel breakfast were all occupied and so I chose to share with a Japanese gentleman who was sitting by himself, as my one visit to that country had been a life-affirming experience.

He took trouble to create more space than was necessary to accommodate my breakfast tray, as if it were his duty to leave as little for himself as he practically needed. I remembered the studied courtesy and hospitality I encountered in the Japanese people.

As we exchanged pleasantries, we learned that we were both in Cambridge for the rest of the weekand having respectfully acknowledged my claim to be an actor with a slow nod of his head, he explained that he was a water engineer.

Seeing my bemused curiosity, he said: "We learn by watching nature. Observing how the rain falls on a roof, for example, we can follow its natural gravitational path and, by a minimal diversion of that course, conceive a drainage system which is created simply by the water itself. It's not about the engineering: it's about the water."

"When we prepare a play,' I said, after an appreciative pause, 'our work is perhaps like yours. We must approach the telling of the story as one would go about guiding the journey of a river to the open sea: we must shape its path by digging the earth around it's banks to maximise natural confluence to the running stream, taking care never to step into the water or put rocks in its way, but letting the flow of the story take it's most simple and unobstructed course to the audience. It's not about the acting, it's about letting the narration do it's work."

In the serenity of hisJapanese countenance, I beheld an untroubled blend of salutary respect and wary incredulity.

‘How fortunate,’ I said, ‘to be able to make a living based on a philosophy of doing almost nothing.’

My breakfast companion finished his toast and sipped the last of his coffee as if the simple meal had been perfect.

‘I should have said,’ he began, after dabbing his mouth with a neatly folded serviette, ‘that we learn more by watching nature. I did not become a water engineer simply by watching. Your art, sir, is indeed analogous to my science, but I suspect that an actor himself does not become an actor simply through a philosophy of doing almost nothing. He has to be already an actor to do that. No?’

His smile was more confident than mine.

‘When a man builds a house, or buys a house he likes, there can be no denying that his house will always be at the mercy of nature, and of the elements. Of heat, of earthquakes, of fire and also of water. Water is the slowest of these destroyers but none the less lethal for that. It is necessary for me to know the power of water from the square inch of the mightiest wave down the corroding power of a gradual drip over a certain length of time. Pure physics. I must use correct angles of drain gulleys, I must carve gulleys smoothly and so need to know a certain amount about plumbing, of building, of architecture sometimes. The man bought his house because he thinks it is beautiful. I, with my work must ensure that it remains beautiful.’

‘Or improve upon its beauty?’

‘No. That is not my business. Forgive me. I must labour in the rain for hours to work alongside nature and even to be objective, I must work in the rain. And so I need to be in good health. I need resilience against the cold and damp.I need to retain my agility to be able to work from a rooftop. These are just some of the many somethings without which I couldn’t even begin to contemplate doing almost nothing. Wasn’t it your own Shakespeare who observed that; ‘nothing comes from nothing’?

He rose to leave and shook my hand, giving a more than slight bow.

‘Yes. I think, like a water engineer, an actor must accomplish his fine task by being seen to do almost nothing. But let me put to you the question. Could an actor ever be sued, or lose his right to work or even go to prison for bad craftsmanship? If such was the case, I should be the first man in the queue to defend him. Good morning.’

©DSP 2018
Lacuna Jane                                                        Posted Saturday 20 Sep 2014 14:53 PM

If my English teacher hadn’t asked me to be in the school play as Rauguel in Tobias and The Angel in1966, I doubt whether I’d have become an actor at all. He took the same chance on a girl in my school year called Jane Green, for that indeed was her name and, at only thirteen years old, he knew - and she proved - that she was, in no small measure, a promising actress. 

He encouraged her to play the part of Estella in Dickens’ Great Expectations in a specially prepared selection of scenes performed after morning assembly before the whole of our School. Even in a gritty industrial suburb of the Midlands, there could be no denying the talent that Jane Green possessed and as accolades abounded, her classmates were as supportive as their envy allowed them to be, for to be sure, should airs and graces suddenly attend her, they, of all people, would be the very first to take pleasure in letting her know. 

In our school production of Oliver Twist in 1969, no-one but Jane could possibly play the part of Nancy. I held my own as The Artful Dodger but Jane Green was simply and irrefutably charismatic in her death scene with Bill Sykes and even the most cynical among her classmates would have been hard put to disagree. In a suburban industrial milieu where fame belonged only to film stars, pop singers and the occasional sportsman, it took only two public performances for Jane Green’s reputation to spread modestly in the community with the help of the local gazette but after the final performance of Oliver Twist, it spread for a very different reason. 

Jane Green suffered the fateful Dry. Not a fluff nor a stumble; not a stutter nor a split-second lapse of memory; she dried, as they say, stone dead, right in the middle of a speech. We watched in horror as she was given a whispered prompt from our school librarian in the wings after a seemingly interminable silence. Jane appeared not to hear it, as if too dumbstruck and terrified to respond. 

Taking a second prompt, this time audible to the spectators, Jane Green turned white. The audience of parents, friends and relations began to chuckle and shake their heads. The poor creature froze, she stood as if apart, adrift on a lonely ice-floe leaving the hushed gossip and giggles of others far, far behind. To make matters worse, one or two of the spectators actually called out the line they heard the prompter volunteer. 

This turned to open laughter as the prompt rang out a third time, for all to hear and Jane Green, fighting to retain her dignity turned in tearful desperation to the prompter, quite forgetting her character and hissed audibly, ‘I’ve said that!’ The cruelly sudden uproar and tumultuous applause that followed must have stayed with Jane Green for all the wrong reasons. 

Though she finished the scene onstage, afterwards in the wings she was bitterly inconsolable, even by teachers and the curtain call, which, as Nancy, she knew she had to take and sobbed throughout, only added to what she must have felt to be her eternally indelible shame. 

In a gritty industrial Midland suburb, actors who forgot their lines couldn’t be much good and during the remaining four years we shared at school, Jane Green never set foot upon a stage again.
Posted Thursday 19 Feb 2015 13:59 PM

There's a possibly apocryphal story about Laurence Olivier, on being asked by a drama student who was playing Henry V if he had any advice about the speech "Once more unto the breach ...", replying, after a little thought, to the bewildered young actor; "Shout the first two lines, gabble the rest; shout the last two."

My very first acting job was taking over the role of Captain Jamy in Terry Hands’ production of Alan Howard's world renowned Henry V and prior to the aforementioned speech, my fellow captains and I would leap over a raised wooden wall in retreat, clinging onto the slope by ropes followed by Alan Howard, urging us “Once More Unto The Breach...’, after which, we would haul ourselves back up and over, into the fray and out of sight.

Significantly, however, Alan Howard was also playing the roles of Henry VI (three plays) and Coriolanus that season and was often prone, due to understandable tiredness, to the occasional blip in memory. At one completely sold-out matinee, our leading man blanked out after the first two lines of this, one of Shakespeare's most famous speeches, his renowned vocal clarity and precision deserting him. Two of our captains (they'd already been in the production for three years) began to shudder and giggle, hiding it as best they could. And when Alan, lost for words but anxious to maintain the passionate energy of the speech began to improvise nonsensically, they spluttered aloud and shook visibly. We knew that hewas always loathe to take a prompt but when his improvised verse ran dry, in fevered desperation Alan began to make what sounded like animal noises by which point we all four of us realised that we were so uncontrollably hysterical that we'd never haul ourselves back over the wall.

This was my first job; the Royal Shakespeare Company and this Tony Award winning associate RSC actor was making animal noises; lions, tigers, bears and possibly even Golden Eagles, they were all, to-a-species, deputising for Shakespeare's inexplicably absent poetry. Miraculously, Alan suddenly remembered the last two lines which he thundered out as if in triumph in that unmistakable and effortlessly resonant voice of his and disappeared over the top with a cry of St. George, leaving us poor captains to slither unceremoniouslydown the wooden rafter unable eitherto walk or speak, drowning hysterically in a Stygian miasma of stage smoke, steel and Guy Woolfenden's squealing trumpets. The hilarity continued as we collapsed into the Green Room: "but he made animal noises ' I kept repeating, 'Alan made animal noises!"

Two of my friends from drama school had been watching on that August afternoon but when I attempted to share with them the tale of Alan Howard's monumental dry their faces remained blank. "When was that?" said one. Incredulous, I went on to describe the event in detail. Still they shook their heads absently recalling nothing of what I described. "But he made animal noises!" I protested. One of my friends placed her hand on my shoulder and said, her eyes brimming with tears, "I’ve just witnessed the greatest Henry V I’ll probably ever see in my lifetime. His performance this afternoon will stay with me forever. The man is a genius."

© David shaw-Parker 2015

Alan Howard: A Tribute             Posted Thursday 19 Feb 2015 13:15 PM

People often used the word magnetic to describe Alan Howard’s stage personality and, having spent two and half years playing messengers in Terry Hands’ award winning history plays in the 1970s, I believe the magnetism was due to a natural pulse that characterised Alan’s work, less a stage-presence than a seemingly effortless stage energy that made him unique among so many leading actors of his generation. Audiences were attracted to it when he walked onstage and actors onstage could feel it, too; it provided a subtle wave of rhythm which gave a vitality to the texts of scenes on which Alan’s delivery would ebb and flow buoyantly, at a lesiurely or break-neck pace and would often be the key signature of the many successful productions of what is often referred to as the RSC’s golden years .

Audiences would leave the theatre quoting Alan’s line-readings from the memory of having seen him perform and he had that gift which most actors envy of making lines familiar to lovers of Shakespeare and classical authors sound as if one was hearing them for the very first time. I doubt that one could begin to teach the natural skills that Alan possessed but if you stood watching at the back of the stage carrying a spear, the was no end to what you could learn.

© David shaw-Parker 2015
Remembering Alan Howard
David Shaw-Parker October 28, 2016

is flattered to have been 'availibility checked' for the role of Sid 'Nippy' Quick, the wrestling referee in a revival of Willie Sweeting's well-loved 1960's comedy drama 'Up North, Darn South' about the luckless Jack Harris, a Wigan Wrestler who goes to London for an all-star bout at the Royal Albert Hall and falls for a young socialite left-wing lecturer at the LSE who turns his mind to a Global Socialist Future. The production is directed by Perdita Nunn with choreography by Hopsi Turville (the Ra-Ra procession at the Royal Albert Hall) and opens at The Old Cocoa Shop at Mile End prior to hotly tipped West End transfer (they're talking to Peter Kay). 

Who can forget the award-winning TV Play For Today from the original stage production directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg with Brian Glover as Harris - whose life is spread ever more thinly between training, his family and trips to London for WRP meetings - Libby Plums as his long suffering wife, Norman Rossington as 'Nippy' Quick, Diana Rigg as the young activiste Tristesse (Triss) and of course Peggy Mount as the mother-in-law who vows to 'knock some sense Into the lad' but in these troubled times for British Theatre, David is keen to hear from anyone who has appeared in it or who remembers Geoff Bullen's 1972 production at The Mermaid with Tony Haygarth in the leading rôle and a young Robert Lindsay as Sid 'Nippy' Quick…
Jos Bell congratulations dear David - sounds like a must-see xx How I failed to spot your stunning resemblance to Mr Glover I shall never know! As for memories - I once stopped Lindsay in his Me 'n My Girl tracks with Emma T but it was Rufus Hound who hopped onto my stage in the end...

Charlotte Moore I've never liked Sweeting's work, always a bit mysoginistic/man heavy, however as a revival, in these more enlightened times, it may speak to us differently.

John Craggs Another great role for you to get your teeth into David. Congratulations!!

David Shaw-Parker Thanks Jos, thanks John and I know what you mean, Charlotte - It will be interesting to see how the character of Tristesse stand up to 21st century scrutiny...

Mark Donovan I actually understudied Norman Rossington in the mid 90's production at Chichester Festival Theatre where he played Chalky, the under-the-thumb father in law. Was supposed to transfer but died on it's arse. I blame the director, who didn't really understand the piece.

Joe Figg Nice to see that Bernard Youens is still active. Like Show more reactions Reply October 28, 2016 at 2:55pm Remove

David Shaw-Parker Ha, ha! Brilliant, Joe! Like Show more reactions Reply October 28, 2016 at 2:58pm Manage

Stephen Aintree A little - known fact is that this is the play that launched the career of Christopher Biggins, who played Harris at drama school. He was seen by the famous agent Elmohamedy Barkingside, who took him on, and the rest is history. Some would say that Sweeting owes us all. Big time.

David Shaw-Parker Who'd have thought it, dear Stephen. There's a lot be said for playing and casting against type. And, of course, Elmohamedy was a major player In those days... he's in Conville Hall now, by the way... 

Stephen Aintree He's out of Parkhurst then? I didn't know THAT!

Duncan Wisbey In my experience, "availability checked" means you've virtually got it. You're only one step away from choosing your tech biscuits. If I were you I'd go out and spend the wages now.

Martyn Ellis Isn't that Bernard Youens aka Stan Ogden on the floor?

Michael Simkins Is that Stan Ogden on the cover - Bernard Youens..?

David Shaw-Parker It's certainly like him, Michael. Brian Glover was a wrestler (as I know you know) - I wonder if It figured in Bernard Youens career. The photo is not a theatre photograph ...

Stephen Aintree In other news, I'm fairly sure that's an embryonic Julie Walters in the audience, just to the right of the Wrestler who Is Not Stan Ogden as one peruses the photograph. It's well known in certain showbiz circles that she had a weakness for the grappl ...

Stephen Aintree Also, although he's sporting a somewhat obvious rug, that's clearly Alfred Hitchcock refereeing.

David Shaw-Parker This is a mysterious production Indeed.... 

Stephen Aintree Just be careful about accepting any "offer". That may be just exactly what They want....

David Shaw-Parker Julie Walters. I'll bet she was still at Drama School then... Like Show more reactions Reply October 29, 2016 at 11:25am Manage

Stephen Aintree Just visiting.

Stephen Crutcher Sounds like a classy production to me! Those days really had some innovative and risk-taking concepts. Hope it works out for you, David.

Ian Swann Christ I remember that, Libby Plums came straight out of playing Kania Rollovaha in The Cherry Orchard at the Taunton Grand. Please tell me if you hear from Sid.

Chris Bowen Dear Dave-ARE YOU MAD!! This is the best break since Giant Haystacks lost his title in the wet grass. Make it less Yorkshire and more pudding...Also watch out for Topsi, I know her, she'll have you up against the ropes while you're wearing an ill-fitting dinner jacket.
Sidney Livingstone I know a man who knows a man who saw the notorious Berliner Ensemble, all male production, prior to the fall of the wall, in which Hans Otto Puncnik gave his nude interpretation of Nellie O'Laherty. Soon after, he was arrested by the Stasi and tried for over-acting. Happily he escaped The East and ended his days as an extra on "On The Buses". 

Roger Watkins I'm sure I saw Bernard Bresslaw (prior to his notorious perf in 'Carry On Up Your Kyber) play Theodore Updick, the salacious banking exec with a penchant for Granny Smith apples the off off West End production just off the Mile End Road 

Nigel P. Herbert And it isn't even April Fools Day! 

Stephen Aintree News has reached me that Hollywood has reared its ugly head. They're talking to Tom Cruise. Script adaptation by Stoppard and fifteen script doctors. There may be some limited UK involvement. Possibly the grips. 

Richard Pearce Remember the actors studio production, directed by Nancy Strasberg. 4 months of treading apples before we even got to a rehearsal room. How our feet bled into the pippins. Shades of red. It was worth it, even if the entire cast ended up with a severe alcohol problem. Cider - always the last stop on the road to oblivion. 

Matthew Scott It's OK. It says "comedy" on the front cover, so it must be funny, right?
David Shaw-Parker September 20

After an unsettlingly quiet patch, David is thrilled to have been availability-checked for the part of Patsy 'Nimble' Trimble the pickpocket in an unexpected revival of The Scrumpy Makers of Ballykillieugh by the celebrated Irish playwright Eammon Hoye directed by Abbey Theatre Dublin's legendary Wes McGuinness with choreography by Hopsi Turville (the Tinker's Reel and resulting drunken brou-ha-ha in Act Two) at the Space2Share, Whitechapel prior to hotly tipped West End transfer (they're talking to Dara O'Briain) which, set during the Irish famine of 1870, tells the story of the otherwise cruelly impoverished O'Mahoney family who needs to find a way of concealing its providentially sudden and super-abundant apple harvest from the local landowner to avoid crop taxation and contrives a cunning plan which subsequently enriches the local publican and his wife beyond their wildest dreams as customers arrive from far and wide to sample the pleasurably invigorating home grown brew.

Who can forget Sir David Lean's black and white classic of 1940 featuring the wonderful Maureen Kiely as the innkeeper's wife and a young Miles Malleson as 'Hoops' McGann the Tinker but in these troubled times for the theatre, David is keen to hear from anyone who has appeared in the piece or who remembers Geoff Bullen's critically acclaimed promenade production at the Open Space which experimented with authentic pheromonal scents of the orchard...

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Nathan Ariss It's all boiling, repressed sexual tension and existential despair - or is that just my life? 

Peter Wild It's a shame about the ill-fated Broadway transfer. The notorious New York Times critic Elmer Dogwood laid into it with his usual venom and it was pulled after just two and a half performances. It probably didn't help that the title had to be changed for the US audience to "Is That a Jaybird In The Yard?" 

David Shaw-Parker Focus groups, Peter. They get you every time... 

Phil Williams DSP do you know if they have cast the part of Tommy Tipper the telegraph boy (Sidney Tafler in the Ealing version)? I was play as cast as this in Barry Kyle's 83 Donmar production starring Jos Ackland and Sarah Miles, but it got pulled before the fir ... 

 David Shaw-Parker Thanks, Phil! Sidney Tafler it was indeed - he was clearly destined for finer things. The dentures gag sounds fantastic. I'll give Perdita a nudge on your behalf for Tommy Tipper... now, talking of teeth, I wonder how old Bazza's getting on... 

Phil Williams I last saw him on a balcony in Hamburg wearing tight white trousers. He said his own clothes were in Vienna. 
David Shaw-Parker September 7, 2016

Is flattered indeed to have been approached for the role of Freddy Nutkins in the old 1940’s weepie ‘Do I Hear A Chaffinch?’ by Bea Lipsworthy in which the aforementioned Nutkins visits his first wife, Nadine, at a retirement home in Purley [where she is suffering from acute amnesia] which will be playing at The Old Chandler’s Theatre, Tonbridge directed by Perdita Suzman prior to hotly tipped wes t end transfer [they're hoping for Trevor Eve] with choreography by Hopsi Turville [the little valse à deux in the tea-parlour where Freddy and Nadine think they hear the tweet of the passing eponymous bird and Nadine 'almost remembers’ before they are interrupted and thereupon cautioned by Miss Cudgel, the matron, for ‘lingering after tiffin’).

Who can forget the old Ealing black and white film version with Robertson Hare, a young Peggy Mount as Miss Cudgel and, I believe, Richard Wattis as the kindly Doctor Porringe. In these troubled times for British Theatre David is giving the matter careful consideration yet with only a vague recollection of David Perry's revival with Michael Dennison and Dulcie Gray at Windsor, he would be grateful for information from anyone who has seen it, read it or appeared in it recently as to whether ‘Do I Hear A Chaffinch?’ might be regarded as too racey by current theatrical standards...
The Prop Table 

He always locked the door. People would say; ‘Why do you lock the door?’ 

At 6.55pm the announcement from the dressing room tannoy rang out:‘Ladies and Gentlemen of the company, this is your half-hour call,’ and addressing his reflection before the illuminated mirror, he began  the studious if not expert application of his own make up. 

He preferred not to have visitors during that precious thirty five minutes before the performance, and there was a polite written notice on the door to that effect. Visitors unsettled him; they would always ask him how he was, or if he needed anything, - as if he were lying in some hospital bed - or attempt to begin mundane everyday conversations, as if to purposely divert his state of mind from the urgency of the matter in hand. He liked his preparation for the play to be gentle and stressless, although the corridor outside was alive with distant laughter. 

When the make up was finished, he dabbed at his face with a tissue and rose to change into his costume; the fresh brown shirt with the collar stud, the cayenne tie and the light grey woollen suit which he wore for the opening soliloquy of the play. 

When he was dressed, he settled in his armchair, so that his costume would begin to feel more like his own everyday clothes, lacking only his newspaper and spectacles to complete the character. But those he preferred to collect after the ‘Beginners’ call, from the prop table in the stage-level corridor. He could have had these items brought to his dressing room but then, that would involve visitors and unnecessary knocking on his door. 

With solicitous delicacy, he took time to glance at a few first-night cards as well as two telegrams and five minutes later at ten past seven precisely, almost predicted another announcement over the dressing-room relay; ‘Ladies and Gentlemen of the company, this is your quarter hour call.’ 

At the ‘five minute’ call, he would always refresh his memory with a soft recitation of the first paragraph of his opening speech, - just the first paragraph - but for now, it would be pleasant to look at his greeting cards whilst from the little loudspeakers, the soft murmur of the audience entering the auditorium had a soothing, soporific effect.

Blinking his eyes, he became aware that he must have nodded off.The cards and telegrams had slid from his lap. He checked his watch.7.27pm. He had clearly slept through two tannoy announcements from the Deputy Stage Manager, either of which would surely have woken him: the first at 7.20 and the second at 7.25 for ‘beginners to the stage.’ 

But the hum of the tannoy had disappeared. There would be no show-relay. He must report that. 7.28pm. Precisely. The curtain wouldn’t rise until 7.30. More or less precisely. 

No time, now, to run through the few opening lines: luckily, he was ready - not exactly late, but cutting it fine to say the least - and he knew he must make allowance for the possibility of a disapproving glance from stage management when he picked up his spectacles and newspaper. 

Trotting guiltily out of his room and down the stairs, he reached the corridor only to find that the prop table wasn’t there. In his haste, he was piqued as to why no-one had bothered to tell him why it had been moved. The sign on his door might indeed discourage visitors but surely a tannoy announcement could have been made. 

He looked about him. There seemed to be no-one to ask: no fellow cast members; no-one from wardrobe; not even a member of stage crew. 

Aware of perspiration on his back and, independence compromised, he decided to seek out the deputy stage manager at the prompt desk and ask as to the whereabouts of the prop table with his spectacles and newspaper, without which, the opening soliloquy would be impossible. There seemed to be so little light backstage, and edging his way to stage left, he only found himself staring at a prompt desk long disused with disconnected wires reaching out like desperate fingers from an almost impenetrable network of cobwebs. He smelled the urine of mice.

In a less anxious state of mind, he might have taken time to notice an empty, abandoned stage, proffering its naked devastation to a long forsaken auditorium, resplendent only with the rancid mould of rotting upholstery, thistles and rusting metal. 

But surely, there had to be a performance tonight. His costume had been prepared for him, there had been tannoy announcements with activity from the auditorium in the background. 

Desperate to encounter anyone at all, he blundered through the scene-dock door and outside into the loading bay where a little boy happened to be sitting upon a low brick wall, just about succeeding in trying to unwrap a small cake. 

‘Young man, I’m looking for the prop table.’ called the man in the grey suit as he approached, reaching out his hand to the startled boy. 

‘My spectacles? My newspaper? It’s no good without them, you see...’ 

The boy could only shake his head, barely aware the he’d dropped his cake. 

‘Do forgive me, old fellow’ said the man with a distracted smile, annoyed with himself at having astonished the boy, and he bent down to recover the little package, returning it to the shaken lad, who could only look on in disbelief as the man in the grey suit gave a smile of helpless apology before evanescing politely and agreeably into warm twilight air. 

©DSP 2018
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