The Plumb Pudding in Danger

Maybe as much as thirty years ago, I came across a political cartoon called “The Plumb Pudding in Danger” and I have wanted to use that as a title ever since.

Last Monday, I did.

It’s so long since I found that image that I can’t remember what I was doing or even much about it: I have to refer to my own script in order to tell you that it shows Napoleon and William Pitt the Younger carving up the world which is depicted as a plumb pudding.

James Gillray’s The Plumb Pudding in Danger (1805)

I had that image projected onto the wall at The Door theatre in the Birmingham Rep as part of Bad Choices, a night of plays by Cucumber Writers. Even if you’re as historically ill-informed as I am, you can see that cartoon is an ancient thing and I needed there to be no doubt that the play was present-day. So I had it as if it were on the wall of the office the play is set in – and next to it I had an image of Theresa May.

Or as the script says: “Theresa May or whoever is Prime Minister when we stage this.”

I wrote all this in the script and no doubt whoever directed the play would’ve had the images shown as described, but in this case that was me. I directed it.

It was my first time directing an evening of theatre so it was first proper time as a hyphenate. A writer-director.

Only, I also then ended up producing.

And as my Plumb Pudding script has a character who you only hear over speakers, I also acted the part offstage with a microphone.

Writer-director-producer-actor.

Just go back over those words, would you? How far through do you get before it stops sounding impressive and instead starts to seem a bit cheap?

It is fascinating, though, to briefly hold all these different perspectives in your head. I was sitting in the audience for most of the evening, more aware and more conscious, more in the moment than I can easily recall. Each beat of each play, examined. Each reaction from the audience.

It makes you oddly dispassionate, or at least it did me. So for instance, I think as a producer I fell short because I took my eye off the ball about promoting the evening enough. I concentrated on the material and making it happen. As a writer, I was good but there’s one character in my piece that I need to work on. As an actor, I was adequate on a microphone but if I’d actually shared the stage with my cast, I’d have been blown away.

And as a director, I was strong on the short plays and very clear about what I wanted, very able – I believe – to have everyone contributing. But we also had two poems in the mix and there I was out of my depth. I could direct some stagecraft, I could direct about pacing and where to aim or emphasise certain parts, but otherwise it was a poem. It rhymes, I thought. And that was my extent of expertise in it.

Those poems were by Rupi Lal. The other plays that I directed were by Louise Marshall and Emma Davis. There was one more play by Matthew Warburton that he brought in pre-directed so I could just relish watching that one.

He starred in his one with Kath Waters. My cast was Alan Wales, Deb McEwan and Dru Stephenson.

My co-producer was Angela Gallagher.

And if you want an night of theatre doing, these are the people you must get. I still and will always believe that it has to be on the page, but there were a hundred moments during rehearsals when I’d stop to just marvel at what the cast were doing with the material.

There were also a hundred thousand moments beforehand where I was sick to my stomach at the entire prospect of directing. But only you know that and as far as anyone else is concerned, when can I do it again?

Doing and not doing

Don’t laugh now, but journalists are meant to be unbiased and impartial. They’re definitely not meant to get involved and do things.

It’s different with the kinds of feature articles I usually write but if I’ve written a news story and you can tell it’s me, I’ve failed. News is news.

Except of course it isn’t and while total disconnected impartiality is the goal, you know that’s not possible. It’s not possible in part because the very act of choosing what to cover is coloured by your own opinion of what’s important.

I’ve always also believed that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applies to writing. That’s the quantum mechanics claim that you can’t measure something’s speed without affecting its direction and you can’t measure its direction without affecting its speed. Our act of looking at an event affects it.

It’s the old line: if you write about a terrorist attack, you are giving it the oxygen of publicity.

Nonetheless, the aim is detachment, the goal is impartiality, and I believe to this minute that this is right, that this is how it should be.

Except for three things that happened this week. One was simply that I listened to an interesting interview with a guy who has spent his entire career as a journalist covering a particular subject. The man is entertaining, he’s informative, but I came away feeling a little sorry for him. That’s all he’s ever done. Write about other people’s work.

Then I was recently asked to join Cucumber Writers, a producing writing group in the West Midlands and I’ve been talking with them this week about their future plans. But look what I did there: the first word describing this writing group was not writing, it was producing. This is a bunch of writers who have the same ambition of being produced that we all do, but they went ahead and produced themselves.

I swear they don’t see how great and rare that is. But it’s remarkable. I’ve shaken at writers who have huge dreams but won’t take small steps. And here’s this group that’s been producing new writing for five years now.

Strictly speaking, all of Cucumber Writers and this fella I heard interviewed spend their days writing. They’re observing events or human nature and communicating it to audiences through various forms of writing.

Yet it feels to me like Cucumber is actually doing something. It’s not a passive recitation of other people’s work, it is an act of creation.

Work that is created is surely work that is worth being described: I’m not going to knock the idea of coverage, of journalistic examination of a piece of work. I think about this far too much as I must’ve written 20,000 or more reviews of various things yet also my favourite films tend to be ones where I went in cold. Where I went in to the cinema having not read reviews.

I’ve also been reviewed a fair few times and that’s fascinating: you also learn how rare it is for a review to be worth reading, regardless of whether it’s a good or a bad one. The lack of meat, the lack of point in the majority of reviews is depressing. The – what’s the opposite of lack? Abundance? Thanks. The abundance of times a reviewer has said what I should’ve done with a piece is educational. Not because they’re right, but because regularly they don’t care about being wrong: they’re not examining a piece, they’re often advertising how much better they would’ve been. Yet they don’t go do anything, they just carry on advertising.

I believe that making is better than describing, though. I believe that it’s better to be crew than passenger. And in my most optimistic moments I believe that being both a writer and a journalist makes me better at both.

Mind you, the third thing that happened this week was that I read a quote saying “It’s better to walk ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books”. And I just thought, bollocks.

It’s called children’s theatre, yet…

I want you to flashback with me to when I was at a famous Birmingham Rep schools’ Christmas play. It’s a very long way: I want you to flashback three whole days.

I don’t remember whether my own school took us to plays when I was there but then I didn’t like my school and my school didn’t like me so we just made a pact not to bother each other much. Whereas I think from the uniform colours that on Wednesday the majority of two primary schools were taken to the Rep.

Angela and I inadvertently went with them all to see The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, adapted from Dodie Smith’s novel by Debbie Isitt and directed by Tessa Walker. We went because we wanted to see it, we went on Wednesday afternoon because we wanted to see it on Angela’s birthday and there was no evening performance that day.

One school took up all the seats toward the front of the auditorium and the other took all of them toward the back. The Rep put us in the single line between the schools, like it was a neutral zone.

Look, the short version of this is that I urge you to go see this play and the only ever so slightly longer version is that I demand you see it with several hundred schoolchildren. Plus a dozen or so battle-worn schoolteachers.

I did feel for those. Outside the theatre, those hundreds of individual kids were one single, continuous roar. It was spooky: any one child you looked at was probably not saying anything but the noise was one single unbroken wall of sound.

Until the play started. The One Hundred and One Dalmatians runs for something like two hours with an interval and the show had those kids from the very start to the very end. Total command of their attention.

I’ve worked with kids of this age and I know that getting their attention and keeping it is damn hard. So I was admiring the play for that until I forgot because it totally commanded my attention too.

I’ve often seen theatre that’s meant for children, sometimes for work, sometimes just because it was the Christmas show, and every time I’ve thought the same thing. I have thought how glorious it must be to be a child experiencing this. Theatre is genuinely magical when you are exactly the right age to be swept away and to have these moments that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

It just turns out that the exact right age is 52.

 

The play has the Birmingham Rep’s typically brilliant set but it also bursts out with characters appearing way up in the auditorium. And I tell you, when Cruella De Ville appeared at the end of our row, I was actually scared.

Isn’t this just fantastic? Hang on, let me check something. Right, The One Hundred and One Dalmatians is on at the Birmingham Rep until Saturday 13 January. Go book at least one performance right now.