Suffolk: Backstage fun with King Lear cast

Cross-dressing, Clare Balding and Penguins; entertainment writer WAYNE SAVAGE spends a night in Rendlesham Forest with Red Rose Chain.

Owen Morgan needs smearing in mud and all eyes are on the new boy. It’s not really the big break in showbiz I had in mind when joining the King Lear crew; but you’ve got to start somewhere.

The Regan/Edgar actor sensibly opts for more expert hands and exits stage right sharpish.

Edward Day (King Lear) is enjoying a sandwich; ventriloquist dummy Jeremy (the Fool) is off solids having had major corrective jaw surgery a few hours earlier.

Christopher Ashman (Albany/Burgundy/Oswald/servant) is enjoying a well-deserved breather after covering more distance in the first half than Mo Farah. Lauryn Redding (Cordelia/Cornwell) is trying to take being compared to Olympics presenter Clare Balding on the chin.

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Everybody’s laughing as Scott Ellis (Edmund/France) plays with his hair again; “It was very poor yesterday,” he sighed into the dressing room mirror pre-show. Some ladies in the audience don’t mind tease writer and director Joanna Carrick (Goneril/Gloucester) and show producer David Newborn (Kent).

Everybody’s buzzing back in the dressing room, despite the lack of chocolate Penguins; “I specifically asked for Penguins” a freshly muddied Owen shouts at one of the backstage crew in mock indignation.

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I’ve spent the first half hidden behind centre stage in what the cast dub the Indian Fort. In reality two bits of blue tarpaulin and a shelf.

The hub of the backstage action, I’m surrounded by everything from musical instruments and knives to smoke machines and a torture chair far worse than the wooden planks and thin foam child’s booster seat I’m perched on.

It’s a small space and there’s no room for modesty. Joanna is hoiking up her underwear in mid costume change to my left. To my right, Owen is halfway between changing from a man into a woman; his powdered wig slightly askew.

Bizarrely, you get used to it really quickly.

The first half has gone great. Lines are landing well and Jeremy’s jaw has stayed thankfully on.

In fact all the props are behaving. It’s not always been the case.

Designed to give the illusion of a minor knife wound, a fake blood pack gushed so much one night it looked like Scott needed a lift to casualty on Edward’s mobility scooter; which had only just undergone an urgent servicing itself.

“It looked like you’d severed a major artery,” whispers a smirking Lauryn as he wipes his reasonably bloodied arm dry.

Enough water is being downed to spark another draught warning; hardly surprising with everything the seven-strong cast have to do on top of actually acting.

Moments into the first half Christopher appears backstage, his arms full of instruments.

“Most things carried off stage… ever,” he whispers, before almost trodding on a cymbal. Later on it and an assortment of drums are being banged all around me; my ears still haven’t recovered.

It may sound like chaos, but it’s controlled chaos.

Gates open at 6pm but the cast and an army of backstage and front of house helpers arrive at least three hours beforehand.

“Pretty much straight away the actors go on the stage and do a physical warm up; lots of really deep stretching, silly games and running around,” says Joanna, walkie talkie never far from her ear while we chat pre-show.

“It’s a physical play; you need to be very prepared. Then we do a very big, vocal warm up, lots of articulation exercises and then we generally sing; first something not from the play, then there are two big songs in the show we run every day.”

They also take the time to look at and, if necessary, tweak scenes. There’s a fight call every day too, making sure no real blood is spilt.

That leaves 45 minutes for a quick microwave meal before getting into costume.

Owen and David work the gate, enjoying some now traditional banter with those turning up early to get the best seat.

Lauryn, Christopher, Scott and Edward continue the charm offensive inside; keeping in character as they help carry cushions, picnic baskets and generally get people in the mood.

Fast forward two hours and Joanna and David have rushed out to the gate to wave everybody goodbye. Based on this performance, they’ll be seeing them again next year.

King Lear runs until August 26. Follow me on Twitter @WhatsonWayne

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