For a while there, things in Covidland weren’t so very different from real life. As an artist all too often "resting" from his acting work, I spend a lot of time in my flat writing plays etc. etc. – and, for about the first half of the lockdown, which started on the evening of 23rd March, things went on pretty much as normal. True, I was separated from Jenny – we having failed, in five years of marriage, to get round to finding a place to live under one roof – but, that sadness aside, it was largely business as usual – in fact, with the absence of any paying jobs to take me away from home, I increased my efficiency; updated my showreel, got to third-draft stage with my play Little Things That Keep Us Together, and even got to cutting together some vox pops I did in Barnstaple at the time of the Something Rotten premiere.
But then I got the notion of doing something with Quint, my traffic warden alter ego from High Vis. Why not a series of vlogs, I thought, documenting his experience of the lockdown? Yes, Robert, good idea – and one that has come to hold me prisoner every bit as fully as Boris Johnson seems to be prisoner to Dominic Cummings. Yes, as you can tell, this update was written in the wake of the revelation that the PM's most trusted adviser, at the height of the lockdown, chose to flout the rules he’d helped encode – and to me, watching his supposed boss make that passionate defence of his behaviour, it had the look and the sound of someone suffering from a brand of Stockholm syndrome.
Anyway, back to me – and, aside from partaking in a number of online Shakespeare readings (including the role of York in The Show Must Go Online’s Richard II), it’s been non-stop Quint ever since I filmed the first batch of episodes on 1st May. It’s not easy, being producer, writer, director, editor and PR guru for the project – oh, and actor, as well – but, as Paul Newman so memorably said in Road to Perdition, “This is the life we chose, and none of us will see Heaven".
Of course, he was talking about organised crime; I'm talking about show business – though sometimes it’s hard to know which is the more stressful.
After that, did New Year in Tiptree with Jenny and her ma (Pop Rowe’s in a "home"). That picture there, that was taken on 30th December, when we stopped off at lovely Alton Water en route to see Jenny’s nephew in Ipswich. If this boring you, by the way, feel free to go away, or just look at the pictures, whatever suits. On New Year’s Eve we went to Burnham-on-Crouch to see the new (and last) Star Wars film at the venerable Rio Cinema.
But a fiver to get in, as I recall, and reasonably-priced snackology, as well. We sat on big comfy sofas at the back. The film itself was better than the previous one, less good than the one before that, with, as usual, the best stuff being the interplay between Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver. Anyway, that being done, we went back to Tiptree and saw in the new year with Chinese food. Who, I wonder, could ask for anything more?
Shortly after getting back from New Year, Jenny and I were off again, on holiday – well, a sort of working holiday, a writers’ retreat in a cottage in Ansty. We were there for a week, and both of us, I think, got a fair bit done (I was working mainly on Little Things That Keep Us Together and on ideas for a Harvey Matusow podcast series), but we also did a load of touristy stuff, visiting the Tutankhamun exhibition in Dorchester, and Bovington Tank Museum and Monkey World, as well as seeing the brilliant JoJo Rabbit at the Plaza Cinema.
I’ve felt compelled to catch up on all that stuff, because of course that was when life was still normal for the world. In fact, as it was all going on, things were kicking off, over in China, with bat-virus Covid-19...
On 5th December I’ll be opening in LanternLight’s adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I auditioned to play Scrooge, but my friend Seth also auditioned, and he always gets the parts I want - at any rate, he did once, when we were both up for Prospero, and he did it again this time.
Never mind; I’m looking forward to playing Bob Cratchit and Jacob Marley (who’s dead), and a couple of other roles into the bargain.
Tomorrow we start rehearsals, so I should by now have been some way into learning my lines. Trouble is, I’ve been busy trying to finish the second draft of Little Things That Keep Us Together; I know I won’t be able to devote any time at all to writing once I’m into rehearsal, so it was important to get that done. Now it is, though, so that’s grinworthy.
Apparently it’s 18 months since my last confession. No-one’s noticed, though – no-one’s begging me to get my blog up to date. So why’m I here? Vanity, I suppose, which (let’s face it) lies at the heart of so much I do.
Anyway, what’ve I done, over these past 18 months?
Well, let’s see: I’ve been in a production of Patrick Hamilton’s Rope (and what a load of old rope it is - though artfully edited into a dynamic one-acter for the Brighton Fringe by The Rialto’s Roger Kay); I’ve played Egeon in The Comedy of Errors at the Petersfield Shakespeare Festival (that’s me in the tricorn hat, looking surprisingly untroubled by the thought of having to kick off the play with one of Shakespeare’s longest monologues); I’ve responded to the alarming rise in popular Hebrewphobia by writing and performing a one-man show called Dog’s Chosen, all about my life as an Anglo-Welsh Jewish atheist; and, in my occasional spare moments, I’ve continued to toil over two long-term writing projects – Say What You See, a musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, and Little Things That Keep Us Together, a play inspired by my old prep school art teacher.
All of that, though, pales into insignificance alongside the big news of the last year: I’ve become an orphan. My mum, Meryl Cohen (née Williams) died back in 2010, and I think it’s fair to say that my pa, Peter, devoted the last eight and a half years of his own life to the monumental task of getting used to her absence. He had the support of his three sons - especially my brother Kerry, who continued to live with him at the house in Eastbourne - but, though there were many happy times over the remaining years, and though he never lost his unapologetically unique sense of humour, the sadness was rarely very far from the surface. His late-blossoming interest in gardening was partly in tribute to Mum (every year there were new plantings to mark her birthday and her day of departure), partly just to occupy himself so his mind didn't focus too long on his loss.
Cheerful this, yeah?
Well, it gets better, cos late last year, not long before Christmas, Pop was diagnosed with myeloma, aka cancer of the bone marrow.
Better? How’s that better?
Well, distressing as it was for the rest of us, I think that for Pop it came as something of a delivery, a welcome way out of the melancholy condition that had become his lot in life. Explaining to me his refusal to have any treatment (aside from pain relief), he said, "I get up every morning and I have nothing to look forward to". He’d’ve liked it if the NHS could offer him a simple pill to see him off in one go, but, as yet, our nation withholds from human beings the mercy routinely shown to animals.
(I understand the concerns, of course – you don’t want people bumped off for their money, but there’s a balance to be struck between caution and common sense.)
Pop was lucky, in a way, to get cancer; it got him into the hospice, where, though still denied the one simple pill he desired, he received world-class treatment from a bunch of people peerless in their kindness and devotion. Not to say that everything was right all the time, but shortcomings were never, it seemed to me, the result of people not trying. Everybody cared. Anyway, the folks at St Wilfrids were, in one key area above all, highly efficient: in managing his pain all the way to the end, which came just over a month after his diagnosis. For all that he’d’ve liked it to happen quicker – Pop always valued speed over any other consideration - it was all pretty efficient.
That picture up there; that’s Pop in his room at the hospice. It’s the last one I (or indeed anyone) took of him, and it’s one of my happiest artistic achievements. I’d just arrived, and was sat beside the bed, enjoying a glass of booze (the Quavers were mine, be it noted, but whisky and Coke were definitely among his favourite things, and thus most aptly foregrounded); meanwhile, my big brother Andy was standing behind me, telling some or other anecdote – I don’t recall the specific nature thereof, but I noticed that Pop was smiling, and, with his attention diverted, I wondered if it’d be appropriate to grab a snap - it’d be nice, I thought, to capture such a moment. Appropriate or not, I did it. Now, had I a better camera on me, I’d’ve maybe got him in sharper focus; but then, had I a better camera and the means to focus more effectively, chances are I’d’ve missed the moment altogether.
When Mum died, back in 2010, the funeral was about as minimalistic as such an event could get: a husband, three sons and three grandchildren. The over-riding task was to get Pop through it, and that meant a minimum of people in attendance. It was the right thing to do in the moment, but even so, it was nice, at Pop’s send-off – which took place on an unusually sunny 14th February this year – to redress the balance a bit; thus, my contribution, in addition to Andy’s reading-out of tributes from friends and family, and a hair-raisingly brilliant rendering by Kerry of Dylan Thomas’s And Death Shall Have No Dominion, was an appreciation of "Peter and Meryl”, ie both our parents – and, indeed, that picture there, of the two of them together in happier times, was the one we displayed "downstage" in the chapel. Good, that.
Nothing much to report, except that I recently ran a workshop, in the Hove Grown festival, about the creation of solo stage shows. Having last year done all three of my one-man shows under the umbrella title Men Without Friends, it seemed the only way to follow up was to show how it's done - or at least give some clues.
So, on Easter Sunday, at the Rialto Theatre (Hove? No, Brighton, actually), I ran Holding Your Own, a two-hour workshop in which I encouraged participants to come up with a structure and a plan to write a one-person show all their own. It was, I'm pleased to report, packed out, and most of them even stayed till the end! In fact, most stayed past the end, as we ran over somewhat. As my wife Jenny remarked afterwards (she having been among the attending), I'd tried to cram a day's workshop into two hours. Still, it was the first time I'd ever done such a thing, so it was difficult until the day to know whether I'd too little or too much material to get through. Anyway, I'll make the next one longer.
Meanwhile, on to the next two acting projects, both in the Brighton Festival: Rope at the aforementioned Rialto, and Magnus Volk's Electric Train of Thought, a 20-minute monologue by Liz Tait Readman, which will receive 40 performances over the course of the closing week of the festival. I'm not doing all 40, though; I'm sharing the role with another actor, Julian McDowell.
I dunno, look at the time!
The time of year, I mean. Seems I last posted here in November. Now we're half-way through March 2018.
What's been happening? Well, I'm still working on the musical (now going under the title Say What You See), though I got rather distracted by having to write a play every day during February, as part of the 28 Plays Later challenge. They didn't have to be full-length plays, but even a 10-minuter, done properly, takes a lot of work, and some were quite a bit longer than 10 minutes. Still, it was worth the experience and the discipline, not least because it left me with a good handful of short plays I can use in the future, as well as a couple of longer projects I mean to develop. I've also got the seeds of a new one-man show, provisionally titled, How I Won the War in Vietnam, Just as well nobody wanted to distract me with any paid work at any point of the month.
That's changed just lately, and right now I'm working with some students from Sussex University, playing a grieving farmer in their graduation film Crimson Sky. It's a fabulous script, and if we can get through the next couple of days - somehow reconciling the footage shot over several unseasonally sunny days with what may come under the tyranny of another projected snow extravaganza - then I think we'll end up with a magnificent film. Aside from the talent and professionalism of the production team, things to celebrate include having almost no lines (it's all face and body) and the presence on the farm of a top dog called Honey.
Been doing a lot more writing than acting this year. Apart from two outings for the Men Without Friends triptych at Hove Grown and more recently Stroud (that's Matusow in the pic, at the British School on 1st Oct) , I've been somewhat short of offers to perform in other people's shows.
Annoying, undeniably, and yet a blessing simultaneously, it having left me free to proceed with projects that might otherwise have been disrupted by line-learning regimes. Topmost among these projects has been my musical based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes.
As you'll guess from the history of its working titles (first Fashion!, more recently Alchemy!), it's a fairly free adaptation. There again, Andersen doesn't give you all that much to work with. Some of his stories are immensely lengthy, while others, such as Clothes, are surprisingly slight. I'm not complaining, mind; on the contrary, I feel it gives me quite a lot of licence.
I've never written a musical before. I did write the book for a show called Miss Givings, weaving a story around a selection of great American songs sung by soprano Debbie Bridge; however, though I've written a few songs of my own, I've never performed any of them in public, nor have I ever before been compelled to create so many songs in such a short space of time. Not, of course, that I have to do anything; any deadline I have is entirely self-imposed. Nevertheless, I gave myself the length of this year to do the thing, and if it's not complete in about eight weeks (Jesus - where does the time go?!!?!!?!"?!!!?), I'll be very disappointed in myself.
Anyway, I've been seeking help and inspiration from various sources, including an excellent Musical Theatre Singing Course at the Academy of Creative Training, under the tutelage of Lesley McClymont. Of course, that's really about my professional development as an actor, but I can already feel my confidence as a songwriter grow with my confidence as a singer. More specifically I've been seeking to learn from the greats, hoovering up any and all musicals on CD and DVD, as well as reading useful literature by those who know. Right now I'm a little way into Tunesmith, an extremely well-constructed, user-friendly guide to the craft by the legendary Jimmy Webb, author of such greats as Wichita Lineman, Galveston, Up Up and Away and Macarthur Park - and yes, I'm aware that there are many who pour scorn on the last of those titles, but I think it the most magnificent of songs. Indeed, in my home town of Brighton I've been privileged to hear it performed live by two of my idols, Mr Andy Williams and Mr Jimmy 'that's right, the man himself' Webb. I even got to hear them do it for free, in return for writing 'em up for the local 'paper. Both of those reviews are reproduced on this very website here.
In closing, here's an interesting point that Mr Webb makes in passing. Songs, he observes, for the most part are made up of lines that rhyme, However, it's not always so. For instance, he notes, Paul Simon's America doesn't rhyme at all. "What?!???!?" I said. "America? Doesn't rhyme?"
Y'know what's funny, though? He's right. It doesn't. Not once. Check it out and see.
No, I've not been sent to prison. Not yet. Not that kind of "inside". Nevertheless, it does occur to me, as the weather turns prematurely autumnal, that I've spent rather too much of the summer admiring the sunshine from indoors. But then, I do that most summers, because I'm a writer.
I went once to a student press event in London - David Puttnam was launching his Cambodian film epic The Killing Fields - and I remember Bruce Robinson (who'd written the script) saying that the life of a writer is a very lonely one. He was right about that, but he might've mentioned too that it's also one spent largely in shadow. Well, mine is, at least. Whenever I've got a project at a stage where I can scribble all over a print-out, I like to take it outside and work on it - usually on a bench outside the church opposite my flat, or, if I'm at my pop's place in Eastbourne, then I'll work on it in the garden there (only problem being the ease of distraction - "Ooh, I'll just do a bit of weeding..."). More often than not, though, a project will require me to be indoors and chained to the computer.
This summer, of course, the thing keeping me indoors has been Fashion!, my working-titled musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes. It's robbed me of the summer, but at least now, having just completed the second draft and done a print-out, I might yet get to soak up a few rays as I slash and burn what's on the 100 or so pages before me.
P.S. I'm humbly aware (and doubtless Bruce Robinson is too) that the minor travails of the middle-class English writer are nothing compared to the problem of having your country bombed to shit by the Americans, then taken over by a bunch of sociopathic communists so far to the left that they end up round the other side of the circle and exterminate somewhere between 1.5 and 3 million people. Still, it's all relative.
Actually, now I come to look at that headline, I'm not sure what the "win some" might allude to. Maybe, after the horrors of the past couple of months - terror attacks and towering infernos - it's something of a win just to be alive to enjoy the unseasonal summer sunshine (unseasonal for the UK, I mean).
Yeah, maybe. On the other hand, it's not as if I've not got stuff to bitch about. Just last night I learned, at the monthly meeting of the Sussex Playwrights, that I'd failed to win the Constance Cox Award with my radio play Will. Still, at least I can take comfort from the fact that the first prize went instead to my friend John Dutton. No, really, I mean it, I'm delighted for him; it's just the second and third prize-winners I want to kill.
Anyway, it was nice to be shortlisted - which is more than I can say for my attempt to get into the company currently being assembled by the Kevin Spacey Foundation. Still, I won't be the only one to have learnt today that they're not getting a recall.
Watching my rivals do their pieces at the workshop audition a coupla weeks back, I was both inspired and depressed: no-one was shit, and most were much, much better than "not shit" - many were truly brilliant, in fact. Inspiring, yes, but depressing, too; not only because of the personal competition, but also because it so starkly underlines the injustice in our industry. So much paid work gets divided up among so few actors - and so very needlessly so, when there are people, including those I auditioned with, struggling to get as much as a little toe in the door.
Still cheer up, eh, Robert? There is stuff to grin about. Yes, it's true. In the writerly realm, I spent last week completing a first draft of my insanely ambitious Fashion! project (a musical adaptation of The Emperor's New Clothes), and I wrote a short story for the Brighton Prize competition. Added to which, yesterday morning I saw myself on the big screen at the Duke of York's Picture House, playing a detective in the thriller Angel on the Ceiling (that's me in the picture, without the beard). Written and directed by my friend Simon Drake, it's been a long time in the making - more than two years' shooting (I did my scenes just before Christmas 2012) and as much again in post-production. Glad to say it was worth the wait. I'm very proud to have been involved, and I wish hearty good luck to Simon and his collaborators in getting it seen now by the wider world.
Last week I went to London for an audition.
It was for a touring production of Hamlet, and if I'd got in, I'd've been playing both Claudius and the ghost of his murdered brother, Hamlet Sr. How "cool" (as they say) would that have been - to have triumphed in a one-man show about Hamlet's uncle, and then to have been cast to play the same role in Shakespeare's original!
Well, of course, it didn't happen - even though the audition, at least on the acting side, couldn't have gone any better. Granted, I stank fairly badly in playing the tin whistle, but then bringing an instrument was always an optional extra; as far as the compulsory elements went, I've every reason to think I impressed in the designated speech from the play (Claudius trying and failing in his attempt at prayer), in my own-choice bit of Shakespeare (Prince Hal's denunciation of Falstaff), and even in my a capela singing of ye ole sea shanty Liverpool Judies. Certainly, the three-person panel couldn't have been more attentive or supportive; there was nothing in their demeanour to suggest that I wouldn't at least get a call-back.
And that's the thing: people in these situations are so very brilliant at giving almost nothing away.
It occurs to me, looking back now on this and so many other auditions, that the situation is very much like the scene in 10 Rillington Place where Timothy Evans (John Hurt), awaiting execution at Pentonville Prison, goes before a panel of men with the power to save him. I don't recall specifically who these men may be - psychiatrists, perchance - but anyway, Evans is due to hang for killing his wife and daughter, and in the meeting he attempts to convince the panel that the slayings were in fact the work of his landlord John Christie (as brilliantly played by Dickie Attenborough). "It was Christie done it", he says - he keeps on repeating that "Christie done it", and the men soothingly respond, "Yes, old chap, we understand", or words to that effect. They really couldn't be nicer - and yet of course, once he's out of the room, they confer briefly before concluding that no, there's no reason to prevent "justice" from taking its course.
And that's just what it's like in auditions: you do your thing, they're really nice to you, and then they hang you.
Robert Cohen – a man in showbiz so stepp’d in that, should he wade no more, to go back were as tedious as go o’er. These are among his musings.