I dragged my suitcase, the 'Tardis' along the silent streets of Chipping Norton. Sleep was still scratching my eyes and the smell of the night before still clung, stubbornly to my breath.
The crisp morning air was accompanied by the gentle morning warmth of what was set to be another scorcher of a day; If it hadn't been for the liberal clumps of browning, skeletal leaves that littered the pavements, I could have sworn that it was the height of summer.
We were off to Guildford.
Guildford, my second home. The place that had nurtured and loved me for 3 years. 3 wonderful years, where I learned more about myself than I ever thought possible. The place, after which I left, I was qualified to call myself an actor. I have a lot to thank it for.
A plethora of the happiest memories imaginable.
I met Leo and Pete, both tapping their watches beside the van that would be couriering the sets to the Yvonne Arnaud. As nearly the entire cast were going to be commuting for the week, my options for a lift steadily dwindled until Pete, my knight in shining armor came to the rescue and offered me a place in the dream machine.
I'm always reminded of my youth when driving in a van. Not that I did it a lot, but, with Dad being a builder, I have fond memories of looking down on the piddly cars around us whenever he was using one for work. The strangest thing is that they all smell the same. Even the cleanest van smells of cement. Even if it has never come into contact with cement; it still smells of cement.
And testosterone. Always testosterone.
We bounced our way along the motorways, chatting endlessly as we did. Both Leo and Pete are fascinating people. And, despite Leo's 'Thespian' tshirt and Pete's pink hat (which looks like something he's stolen of a little girl) they are both incredibly good company.
We talked about life. About the rollercoaster that is life. And about how important it is to live everyday to the fullest.
"We're only here once," Pete said, "it's not a dress rehearsal."
I can't think of a better mantra than that.
When we rolled into Guildford, I settled myself down for the day in one of the town's pubs. Of which I all know like the back of my hand...
Over the course of the day I managed to eat two separate roast dinners and wash them down with an incredibly un-seasonal jug of Pimms. It was maybe, the most idyllic Sunday that I could have hoped for.
What made the day even better, was that mid way through the afternoon, I was surprised by the arrival of a few dear friends.
"Rhys bloody King!"
Matt, Kerrie and Sarah are three of the team behind the success story that is the Guildford Shakespeare Company. As any of you who have been charting the blog from the start will know, I finished working for the company a day before starting rehearsals for the tour. Kerrie worked as ASM and Matt and Sarah both acted in and produced the shows. They are three of the hardest working people I know and the company is now - rightfully - flourishing because of their intense commitment and love of Shakespeare.
We hugged, kissed and groped as only 'luvvies' do and caught up about the months that have passed since we last met.
They told me about their latest endeavor - Richard III - and I gave them the lowdown on the tour so far.
The hours rolled away into the evening. We laughed as they asked where we still had to visit and I (being the idiot that I am) couldn't remember any of our up and coming venues. We came to the conclusion that I'm not actually on tour and am just travelling the country with an empty suitcase, telling impressionable women that I'm a gypsy actor, in need for a place to stay...
My 'landlady' joined us at about 9'o'clock. I say landlady very loosely; Charlotte Conquest is a friend and colleague whom I have worked with on two previous occasions. She has directed me in the production of the Merchant of Venice that I just completed with the GSC and perhaps more specially, in my first professional job as an actor, in the Creation Theatre Company's production of Othello.
Charlotte radiates energy wherever she goes and within seconds of being in her company you start to feel your cheeks aching as you realise that you're grinning like a Cheshire Cat.
She has a special place in my heart for giving me a chance and trusting a young actor with nothing on his CV other than a name and an address. She took a gamble with me and for that I am eternally grateful.
We had a couple of glasses of wine and made our way to her lovely house where I was reunited with her equally smile-inducing husband, Daniel. I was FORCED to watch the X factor - something that I haven't had to suffer since Ducky accosted me in Eastbourne and then before long, succumbed to sleep.
The end of a Sunday to end all Sundays.
On Monday morning, Charlotte's kids, Vinny and Clara greeted me as I surfaced from the cellar.
I should probably explain that that is where I've been sleeping and that there is a bed down there and I am not being locked up like something from a Harry Potter book.
It is also the children's play room and I suspect that they are probably not too happy about the smelly 24 year old that has taken away their den.
They hid their resentment as they tried to remember me from our previous encounters.
Vinny threw a wet sponge at me in the pre-show of Much Ado About Nothing, staged earlier in the year and after I jogged his memory, the occasion came flooding back to him in the form of a lovely mischievous grin.
|'The Mill' - I've performed DOIG! here|
I left the house early to head into town and get on with some writing before I met with my parents at noon.
I perched myself outside a little cafe, off the high street and before long, got chatting to a couple of dear old ladies, whom I'd invited to sit opposite me when their search for a free table had proven fruitless. I'm always staggered when showing some general interest and respect towards the 'elderly', at how taken aback they are by the event. It's a pretty poor reflection on people of my age that we're seen as a segregated breed who must be avoided at all costs.
|GSA's very first studios|
When I left my wrinkly friends, I wandered the streets of Guildford and was saddened to see the empty buildings that once upon a time, were the home of my beloved GSA. Empty, they sat, gathering stagnant dust and angel's hair cobwebs, where the spiders had already passed on, leaving the shelled out remains of meals passed.
Since I left the drama school, it has vacated the old, bricker-brack studios of my time replacing them with a brand new, multi million pound building. It is brilliant - and a move that they had to make in order to keep up with the crowd, but it isn't the same school that I trained at.
With what has been found, something has been lost. And vice-versa. It's an operating example of the way of the world. Things change.
I met the beaming faces of my parents at lunchtime. I was lynched with hugs and battered with kisses, which I happily received with a familiar air of contentment.
|Hello from Vietnam!|
We Skyped my sister who's birthday it is, currently in Vietnam perusing the splendor of the Asian countryside. She teased us with tails of beers of £1 and meals of £3, which made me look at my lunch with a sour taste in my mouth. They seem to be having an amazing time and have already made friends with random fellow travelers. I can only imagine the stories that they'll be able to tell, when the eventually return.
There were no tears, which was nice - only grins and laughter.
We went for a spot of late lunch in the mid afternoon. I'd reserved a table at a great little Italian's - Olivo's - a place that I visited many times when I lived in the town. Gladly, the quality of the service and food hadn't changed.
I left them at the end of the meal and went to the theatre. The billboard for the show was going up just as I arrived and felt the first rush of nerves and excitement bristle over me.
The set looked fantastic in the space; it's just the type of theatre that Twelfth Night suits and not only that - we were blessed with wings the size of aircraft hangers!
The team had all but finished the refocus when the projector started to play up.
I left them to it.
Time skipped along and we started to prepare for the show.
I set my quick-changes, checked my personal props, greased up the wig and dressed for the performance.
As we were called for 'beginners', I made my way (more slowly than usual) backstage and stood in the wings. I was nervous as hell; uncharacteristically for me. Nerves are something from which I normally never suffer, so I don't really handle them as well as others who expect and battle them with every performance.
Anyway, I bit the bullet, looked within and stepped onto the stage.
I don't really know what to say about that first show other than it was tough. Personally tough. I'd built the moment up so much that I was uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. From the word 'go', I was watching myself. I was acting. And the worst thing was that I knew it. With every line that I spoke, I heard and adjusted the words, deliberately in my mouth. My body - normally something I can rely on - was 'hitting the marks'. Nothing more. I moved an arm here, twitched a finger there. There was no intention behind anything, other than making sure that I did something vaguely similar to what I normally did.
I was not happy, and unfortunately, the feeling remained right up until the end of the show.
It was a real shame.
I met my family in the Vanburgh Room (fancy-pants room in the Theatre for wining and dining the cast) and accepted their lovely compliments through gritted teeth. The trouble was that, I was not happy with myself. At times like that, it doesn't matter how much praise is thrown upon you; escaping the pit of neurosis is an impossible venture. I'd lost, well and truly and wanted nothing more than to forget the whole thing.
My parents were a saving grace. As per usual. They listened and, just as we sank our final drinks at their hotel bar, hugged each other the same way that we've done since I was a kid and parted with my mood at least a little brightened by their being.
The next morning, I woke, feeling no better than when I turned in the night before.
Charlotte was trying to do some work, but sensed my disappointment and talked things over with me. It's nice sometimes, just having someone to listen - nothing more than listen.
I distracted her, masterfully from her never-ending list of 'to do's' for what ended up being the main bulk of the day.
When I finally left the house, I let the breeze blow away the remaining deposits of tiredness that remained from the evening and bumped into Al and Shiv, pacing the streets.
They were heading for Pizza Express and after inviting myself along, joined them both for dinner.
I'm glad I did, because after all of 5 minutes sat down at the table, Shiv asked me, "How was the show for you Weasel? Because it was SHIT for me."
Thank God - I wasn't alone!
We vented our insecurities at one another, Al interjecting every now and then with reassuring words which slipped off our backs as we blindly continued our rant. When there was nothing left to vent of how shite we both thought we were, we finally felt better. We were determined to put the previous evening behind us. It was another day, another show and another chance. More than anything - our balls had grown back and we were not taking any prisoners.
Back at the theatre, the nerves had gone. Energy pulsed through me, the cast, the theatre and the air. I felt my blood start to pump in readiness. My focus sharpened and my muscles flexed. I was ready. Ready to - as my old man put it when he first dropped me off in Guildford all those years ago, 'Give 'em hell, Son.'
I did, Dad.
The show was a dream. Everyone was on their toes, the play was lively, the cast were playful and the audience were with us for every loop of the ride. Aside from Seb busting open his thumb and tearing his nail mid-scene it was probably the best we've done yet.
Come curtain down, my shoulders plunged as all the tensions of the night before, crept away with their tails between their legs.
I felt alive again.
Alive and fearless.
It's just as the saying goes; 'a life lived in fear is only half lived'. Well, I'm back living again.
Wednesday morning was uneventful. I was still bathing in the newly returned sanity that is self-belief and did little until late afternoon. An old GSA friend, Meriel, had contacted me and asked if I was free for a coffee and a catch-up, of which I would have bent over backwards to attend. Meriel is a giver. She demands nothing of you as a friend but boy does she give. I always feel guilty after being with her as it dawns on me what a terrible human being I am in comparison. To quote another mate of mine; "There are two types of people in this world; 'yes' people and 'no' people." Guess which category Meriel falls into?
We talked about everything that has happened since the last time that we saw one another - maybe six months or so - and we both realised just how quickly the time does go. Only 3 years ago, there we were, at GSA, prancing around the studios, pretending to be pumas and now, three years later, we're professionals; Bruised and battered actors alive in the knowledge of the complexities of life; Complexities that we knew nothing of that short while ago.
In the life of an actor, one makes amazing, life-long friends moving from job to job. In fact, I can't think of a production that I haven't done as such. The thing is though, that, due to the unpredictable nature and lifestyle of the profession, it may be years until one comes into contact again. However, if it is a true friendship, the connection keeps, across the divide until that time does come.
We reluctantly said goodbye to one another, encouraged with what was going on in one another's lives and I got ready for the show. See How They Run was back with a vengeance and we had a crowd of people expecting a good night at the Theatre.
They got it; with a little bit extra thrown in for good measure. Yes, it finally happened, the old adage has finally come true; never work with children or animals. Well, we have no children in the show (apart from arguably, myself) but we do have a dog.
Yes, our clean slate, perfect run of doggy performances has come to an spectacular end, in the form of a whiter than white, tip-bits wouldn't melt in his mouth, West Highland Terrier called 'Scruff'.
Now, Scruff's credentials are quite good - he can even boast that he once played Toto... However, as Arthur later said, 'Toto doesn't actually have to do much other than get carried around a bit and dragged along with a lead.'
We got to the big moment, top of the second half of the show. The stage was set, the lights were up and the four of us, Arthur, David, Cuckoo and myself crossed are fingers and hoped that our four-legged friend would deliver just as grandly as his predecessors have done.
He certainly gave us something that the others failed to. On he went, worryingly a little slower and lackadaisical than we are used to.
It turns out that we were right to be concerned by his rather calm manner as our little friend decided that he didn't fancy following David off the stage and would instead make a the most of his time walking the boards.
David, cleared the stage as per usual and Scruff, sniffed about with all the nonchalance he could muster. And, when that got a bit boring, decided to step off of the stage and into the audience. Rachel, as Ida, sprung to the stage, slapping her thighs with encouragement for his return. He paid no notice and Rachel conceded defeat. From the wings, we stared at the prompt corner monitor, mouths wide open, clutching our stomachs with deep churns of silent laughter. Scruff, sniffed his way up and down the entire front row. Leo and Shiv - still helpless on stage - could do nothing, but plow on. Eventually - and when I say eventually I mean it - the dog's owner rushed into the auditorium, plucking up the naughty Scruff amid a cacophony of cheers and whoops.
As far as fuck ups are concerned, they don't get much better than that.
Chris was in watching too, which added to the hilarity - imagining him tearing his chair out of its row and shattering his teeth with how clenched his jaw must have been.
It is testament to the actors that were out there, braving what was a pretty hairy - can't believe I just wrote that - few minutes, that they managed to get the audience back on their sides and not only that, exceed their confused expectations.
We went to the pub afterwards and I met with a couple of friends. Kate, whom I trained with and Garrett, whom I worked with (along with Kate) on last year's tour of George III. I haven't seen 'G' for a year and was overwhelmed with how long-overdue our meeting was. The same with Kate; now, what would be defined as an ‘old friend', she is a part of my life that I find myself luck to have. They didn't get to stay long - as the London commute loomed - but it was lovely to see them as brief as it may have been.
Oh and Congratulations Kate on your War Horse success - that's my girl!
As I wandered aimlessly into town the following day, looking for something to eat before the matinee performance, I decided to pop into M&S to see if they had anything to take my fancy. Now, you may be thinking round about now - 'bloody hell, I can't believe that I'm reading about Rhys going to M&S. How dull is this guy's life?' - pause awhile and I shall reveal all...
Anyone that lives in Guildford or has ever spent any real time in Guildford will know why that particular M&S is an attraction over any other in the country. You see, it boasts a local living legend, whom can be relied upon to be sat on the bench, in its entranceway - religiously - between the hours of 1:00pm and 3:00pm; the one and only, Bearded Lady of Guildford.
I would love to be able to call her by her name, but, as the legend demands, it shall forever remain a mystery. Sadly she sits, on her own, everyday. No one speaks to her and she is only seen by peeking glances, sneaking a look via a blank glance at a mobile phone screen.
For the three years that I lived here, rumors abounded that she was in fact a he. We never found out.
Back in those days, I looked on her with the eyes of a young man, not quite in the bud of maturity and would giggle at her appearance with a passive shrug. Seeing her now, I feel like an idiot for doing so. I feel sad; sad for myself as much as her that I allowed myself to be so complacently naive and (although hopefully unnoticed) cruel.
If I had the fortitude, I would go and speak to her, say, 'hello'. Apologise for my younger self.
Unfortunately, I lack such courage and so am reminded, whenever I see her, of a mistake of the past.
Full of self-loathing I arrived at the theatre and walked the stage as the others congregated to give our disobedient pooch, Scruff a second chance. We rehearsed his crossing a few more times...
Too cool for school.
David did not look convinced.
We began the afternoon show, the big moment approached. We stood in the wings, again, we crossed our fingers, again we held our breath, again we channeled encouragement and again -
Sadly for Scruff, he failed to deliver.
David ran on stage, he was released, our hopes high with what he was capable of doing... And instead, he turned round and walked the opposite way, back to the green room, back to his owner out of our lives forever.
Yes, in that single moment, Scruff felt the cold hand of the theatrical world.
'We're going to have to let you go.'
After the show I met an old tutor of mine, Michael Moor. Since I left, Michael has been pretty much running GSA and by the looks of things, is doing a damned good job. Having trained as a ballet dancer, Michael moves with a fluidity and grace that swims through his body and escapes out through his fingers, captivating those in his company. I remember him being someone that I would repetitively try to impersonate, always lacking that little something that someone with a dancing background possesses.
"Baby," he says, in a way that only Michael can, "look at you. You're a fucking actor."
We talked about the time that has passed since I was at the school and reminisced of the many happy memories that I had there. He told me to get in touch if I'm ever out of work and fancy giving GSA a visit. If I am - though obviously hope I'm not! - I'll be biting off his hand at the offer.
All too quickly we had to part and went our separate ways; he - to London, me - to the theatre.
The evening show was great fun. They were - as Arthur puts it - a 'small, but perfectly formed' audience and we had a great time performing for them.
After the show, everyone fancied an early night, so, I used the opportunity to visit my old stomping ground, 'The Britannia'. My memories of the place blur into one, long drunken night, of booze and excess, smoke and singing. Back in the day, the pub was as 'studenty' and you could get. Crammed with three pool tables, scrappy leather benches and enough drink on the walls to violate any number of health and safety regulations. It was - the unofficial GSA bar. It was our bar and we loved it.
However, a year before my graduation, things went horribly wrong. The management decided that they wanted to appeal to a more sophisticated clientele and with that came the refurbishment; the plush interior, the pricy menu and out went the students.
I feel genuinely sad at the memory of it. Our pub abandoned us and from that moment on, going there was never the same again.
So, on a quiet Thursday evening, I walked in and it all flooded back to me; the drunkenness, the debauchery - the endless nights of fun.
If walls could talk, we'd have to gag them...
Now, I sat with a large glass of wine.
A glass of wine.
Surely things couldn't have changed so much in so little time?
Apparently, they could. Not three years ago, I would have thought such things would be reserved to the latter days of life.
I sat down in a gently lit, tanned leather armchair tucked away in the corner of the room and reflected.
Happiness, sadness, love, laughter, life. All of it. In one room.
Shrugging away the remaining aches of nostalgia, I pulled out my book and read.
I woke at the crack of dawn on Friday. I knew that I had to be out of the house early for the cleaner to sweep and scour the house and I think that it must have been on my mind as I was already tussling with bed sheets at 6 o'clock.
Well, I was up early, so decided to make good use of it.
I washed, dressed and left the house.
Seeing the world before 9:ooam is a strange thing. Nothing is open, shops are still shackled shut and the few people that are around, plod their selves to and fro like a machine that has just been started up - the oil yet to warm.
I found a coffee shop and had the first of many cups of tea. I finished 'One Day'. A sensational book. No doubt. It's not going to win any prizes for literature, but bloody hell it's a good read.
I tucked it into my satchel, pages frilling at the edges and headed to WaterStones for my next story. I settled on, 'Water for Elephants'. Again, I wanted to read it as opposed to see the film as many have said that it is far superior. Not only that but with my Circus background ('big up' to the Hippodrome Great Yarmouth!) I wanted to see for myself how accurate the author would be toward the 'circus life'.
So, job done, I went to get some breakfast.
I traipsed up the High Street and came to the 'Three Pigeons' - I believe, Guildford's oldest pub?? Well, if not its oldest; I know for certain that it features in a play of some sort...
I plonked myself down and ordered a full English - the only way to start a day.
Sadly, there were two men in there, already on the booze. The day had barely scratched 10 o'clock and there they were, one of 40 or so and the other pushing his 80's, puckering up to the sides of a pint glass, eyes half closed, hiding the red stains that had bleached the once whites of their eyes. In my mind, there was no doubt that they had already settled in for the day.
Such a waste of a life.
I gobbled down the breakfast as fast as my meager mouth would manage - keen to escape the depression of the room - and looked for another cafe.
I found one and drank the fanciest coffee that I've ever seen. Though I'm not a coffee drinker, so that statement must be taken with a pinch of salt; anything that comes with froth is fancy in my books.
Anyway, it was pretty fancy and I enjoyed it muchly.
I spent the afternoon shopping for gifts for Vinny and Clara. I wanted to say a little thank you for stealing away their playroom for a week and thought it only appropriate that a toy each would be the right thing to do.
Shopping for kids is tough.
For one thing, the choices are endless.
Then, there's the dilemma of age. I checked the backs of everything that I picked up looking for a 'suitable for' marking. However, the trouble with those markings, is that they are only of use if you know the ages of the kids that you're buying for... I accosted a young attendant who I spent five minutes trying to make understand that I only knew their heights... Vaguely at that. Can age be translated through size? We played a brief game of charades as I tried to communicate their personalities...
The next problem was appropriateness. Would the child like it? Is it suitable for them? Would the parents appreciate me getting something that barked out instructions in a painful American accent?
It took forever. In the end, I settled on the most pc, down-the-line gifts in the shop.
I bought chocolates for Daniel and Charlotte, served by a young guy who replied every sentence to me with the word awesome. "Are you paying by card?"
After my shopping, reality knocked on my door, with a call from the guy from the estate agency. Apparently at the moment my application is an, 'outright fail'.
Up went the anxiety levels.
I went to Wagamama's for a late lunch. Dinner for one. I always used to look at people who eat in restaurants alone very strangely. They seemed to me very peculiar and lonely. I have since learned the complete opposite is true. Eating in a restaurant - regardless of company - is a treat and makes one feel good regardless.
I went to the theatre a couple of hours early and slept on stage, on the couch.
It's a rare and strange experience, waking up in a room, with one wall removed, replaced with an auditorium.
The show in the evening was fantastic. The theatre was filled with a classic 'Friday night audience', ready to unwind and pull out all the stops at the end of a long week's work. I think we helped them enjoy the beginning of their weekends pretty well.
We had a couple of quick drinks after the show and I later, went back to the house to share a bottle of vino with Charlotte. I kept her up far too late for someone whose day starts a hell of a lot earlier than mine.
I don't think that she minded too much though!
In the morning, I ate with Her, Daniel and Clara. She was then about to be taken out by her Dad to learn to ride a bike (a scab that is still sore on the flesh of my memory) so I took it as the last chance to give her, her pressy. She seemed to like it and coyly said thank you, whilst Daniel pleaded with her to get ready.
I said goodbye to them and thanked them for such a wonderful stay.
Charlotte came along for the matinee show and afterwards said how much she enjoyed it. The rest of the audience seemed to too - passing a few who were loitering around the stage door when we were leaving for our evening grub.
"So terribly, terrribly amusing." Said one of them. So terribly, terrrrrrrrribly 'Guildford' I thought.
We all went for dinner and afterwards I said thank you and goodbye to Charlotte who'd joined us. Such, such good luck for 'Christmas Carol' darling, and I hope you know how much I've appreciated you letting me stay.
Barrels of love X
When I got back to the theatre, everyone was asleep. Even the guys, who I'd just finished eating with, were already in small food comas themselves.
A new dog, Todd, was auditioning for the evening's performance.
Todd can obey instructions and do tricks.
Already he was better than Scruff.
He breezed through the rehearsal and sauntered his way into the show; David was even tempted to try out one of his tricks, midway through the run onstage - mock shooting the dog, with him 'playing dead'. He decided against it. I don't think the wound of Wednesday's Scruff ordeal has quite healed just yet.
The show, was good. Good, is how I'd describe it. Just as Friday night's audience was a 'classic' Friday night audience, Saturday night's was most definitely a classic Saturday night audience. They enjoyed the show, but as is always the case on the weekend, they watched the show through tired eyes, that have spent a day relaxing and winding down from the stresses of the week. They were attentive and enjoyed the show, but - as expected - subdued.
I think that it goes without saying that I've enjoyed my time being back in Guildford. It's been a real mix of pleasure, pride and melancholy. It'll always have and hold a special place in my heart - as will the theatre. It's my own personal benchmark; one of life's ambitions that I can tick off my list. And, as silly as it sounds, it really has meant a lot to me being back here - if only for a week.
Playing the Yvonne Arnaud: