“Take but degree away …

… untune that string, and hark what discord follows.” – Shakespeare.

I graduated from the Central School, now Royal Central, in 1983 and my qualification was a Diploma in Acting. Which was just fine because this was before it became necessary to hold a degree to drive a bus, or fry an egg.

In 2014, I established a website petition, http://www.petitiontoroyalcentral.com – there is a lot of anecdotal evidence on the comments page there of how a degree is now an entry-level requirement in every day life.


Royal Central is today a very different institution from what it was in my student days. I am grateful to the school for showing flexibility in today’s academic environment involving many levels of persuasion.

It’s been a long campaign, but long story short, Royal Central is now offering a one-year course which will allow diplomate graduates to attain a degree.

Details here

This could be interesting to Central and Webber Douglas graduates but also to those of the former Conference of Drama Schools. If you know someone who might benefit from this opportunity please pass on this info.

The Real Reason I Never Read Reviews

… Until the show is over.

Commonly, the reasons given are… because it makes you self-conscious, because it messes with your confidence, because you shouldn’t believe your own publicity, and so on along those lines.

I believe I have the reviewer story to end them all. And even though this happened more than three decades ago, the memory is still painful. Here is the story:

It was my third job as a professional. I was cast as Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations, adapted from Charles Dickens’s novel. We were to open at the Birmingham Rep in the UK, play for a month, and then transfer to The Old Vic in London for the Christmas season.

Herbert Pocket is one of Dickens’s more agreeable creations; gentle, sensitive, but also energetic and enthusiastic. In the mid-20th century black and white film a young Alec Guinness plays him to a young John Mills as Pip.


Ian McCurrach as Pip and me as Herbert Pocket. Great Expectations at The Old Vic in London a long time ago.

I was young. A young actor full of that same energy and enthusiasm as Herbert Pocket, and thrilled to have scored this gig. It was directed by a complicated man who projected his inner darkness upon his actors in a way I have rarely seen since.

This man, the director, who had also adapted this version of Great Expectations, was a fine exponent of the 101 ways a director can destroy an actor in the rehearsal room. From me, he demanded an instant performance. This happens when the director has little or no regard for process and is consumed with insecurity about what the final result will be.

If there was a positive in the episode it was where I began to assemble the director-proof kit that every actor should have in their back pocket. You only need it sometimes, but when you do, you better know where it is.

Somehow I managed to give the performance that the director seemed to want by day three of rehearsals. Fine, you might think. Not so. Why not? Because, and this is crucial, because I did not know how I did it.

To begin with it all went well. Herbert Pocket and I seemed made for each other and our scenes were funny and audiences liked them. Then, during the pre-London run and for reasons known only to himself, the director began to fire the actors at random at the rate of one a week. This quickly transformed a large happy company into a large unhappy company riven with suspicion and paranoia.

Then there came a day, as can so easily happen in comedy, when for no visible reason my stuff wasn’t funny and the scenes played like a lead balloon.

Some laughs are mercurial. They come, they go. If a laugh checks out during the run of a show, the best thing to do is relax. Gently experiment with nuances of delivery and focus, make sure you are playing the scene, not the comedy, and carry on. Did I do that?

No. I tried to make the scenes funny again. The harder I tried the less funny they were.

Meanwhile I had been in correspondence on another project with one of the critics on the London Times.

When we opened in London, the critic came to see the show. By this time the show, which had begun with promise, had become a lumbering Dickensian juggernaut, too long, too slow, performed by a company that knew it was involved in a disaster.

So the critic from the Times saw the show, which he loathed (with good reason). The review was one of the more scathing ever written and he singled me out for special condemnation. When I read it the next morning, hoping against all the probability that it would be positive, it was like a sledgehammer to my confidence, and I nearly gave up acting on the spot. That was bad enough but …

But here’s the thing; the critic from the Times saw the show, phoned in his copy, went home, and died in his sleep that night.

I wished the man no ill, but it did cross my mind to think, “If he was gonna die, why couldn’t he have died three hours earlier?”

And that, is the real reason I never read reviews.

And does that apply when the reviews are good?

You bet. There’s no surer way to mess up a performance than if you believe it when people tell you how good you are. “When Colin McPhillamy shakes the tea-pot, opens the sardines, and dances a jig on a pogo-stick, there is a delicate sunrise of joy that casts a gossamer spell over the stage.” – Oh yeah? And the odds are a hundred to one against Colin McPhillamy ever getting the moment right again.

So right now, I’m in a hit. And there are some great reviews – how do I know that? Because people say things like, “Hey, what about those great reviews?” And I say, “Don’t tell me!”


Laura Turnbull as Kate and Beth Dimon as Eileen, me as Johnnypateenmike. Palm Beach Dramaworks. Photo by Alicia Donelan.

I have not read them, and will not until after we close, but if you’re interested go here

And while I’m at it let me give a shout out to the amazing design team we had on this one; Franne Lee for costumes, Paul Black for lighting, Victor Becker for the set, and Steve Shapiro for sound. I should have mentioned them in previous posts about this play. Their work both singly and collectively was outstandingly exquisite. You can say I said so.

But what ever you do – don’t tell me!





… And Then You Open

In 3000 years of theatre no one has yet come up with a better way. There’s a fortune to be made when they do.

You rehearse. You rehearse some more, then you technically rehearse and you drink too much coffee. Then you have a production week complete with long days, previews, coffee, tweaks, adjustments, new ideas, things you should have thought of before, oh, and coffee.

And then in an unholy melange of caffeine, nerves, uncertainty, mid hysteria, anticipation and fatigue … you open.

We opened last night. Come and see us if you’re nearby!


The ‘Ould Country

We can’t all be Irish.

The next best thing is to go to Ireland and drink, in this order, some Guinness, some whiskey, some po’teen; preferably while attempting conversations on the greats of Irish literature – in no particular order; George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, C. S. Lewis, Miles Na Gopaleen (aka Flann O’ Brien), Sean O’ Faolain, Edna O’ Brien, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Hugh Leonard, Brendan Behan, J P Donleavey, and James Joyce – to name but a few, and we haven’t got all day, but you’ll find literary discussion widely available. There is something in the water, the Guinness, the Whiskey, the Po’teen.

You can also watch films like, The Guard, The Field, and if you really want to slow things down, The Man of Aran.

My own antecedents John and Mary McPhillamy of Irish extraction were transported from Scotland to Australia in 1816 for making whiskey without a license – surely a crime in name only. But I digress.

If you can’t get yourself to Ireland, the next best thing is to get yourself into an Irish play. I’m in one now. It’s called The Cripple of Inishmaan and it’s by Martin McDonagh. And we’re doing it in Florida. An Irish play written by one of London, England’s best dramatists of Irish descent, in West Palm Beach, FL, USA. It seems so obvious doesn’t it? Surely just a question of who gets there first.

Mind you, this from Palm Beach Dramaworks, the theatre with the stones to have lately staged Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, you know, the one, along with much of Stoppard’s work that requires audience members to be educated to doctorate level.

You don’t need a degree to enjoy this one; and if you don’t do booze, and can’t take on a pre-show po’teen, never mind, the play itself is sure to nudge open the doors of perception in the way that theatre can from time to time.

Oh, and the cast is brilliant.

My love affair with Florida continues.


My Guest Today…

… is the fabulous Sasha Graham, aka The Tarot Diva.


Sasha writes books (six and counting to date), cooks in a magical kitchen, and has designed her own amazing Tarot deck. SashaGraham.com for more info.

Also a seasoned media-diva she has graced my show, ‘Alternatives’, by appearing on the very first episode and you can see it right here!

Now that the means of production are totally democratic, and anyone who wants to can produce a book, a film, a TV show… well it seems kind of slow, not to.

When I moved north of New York City, I thought life might go at a slower pace. Wrong! Promoting my new day job as an astrologer, I took a listing in the local ‘New Age’ magazine to find loads of interesting alternative action.

Accordingly, I went down to the local TV station and pitched the idea of a interview show that opens with the question; “On a scale of one to ten, how strange are you?”

Well ok, not literally.

This is the very first episode and from here we talk to astrologers, psychics, channelers, eco-builders and a range of holistic practitioners.

It was fun to do.

A Common Theme

My big recent discovery is that my paternal grandfather’s grandmother was a full blood Aboriginal. Which means that I am one sixteenth indigenous Australian. I am delighted with this news, and consider it a redeeming honor in a troubled genealogy. More of this later.

I’ve been thinking a lot about father/son stories.

Edmund Gosse gave us: Fathers and Sons (which I have not read)

D H Lawrence gave us: Sons and Lovers (which I have)

George MacDonald gave us a Victorian idealization of a son’s duty to his parents in: At the Back of The North Wind

A A Milne gave us an idyllic demonstration of what a father can do in: Winne-the-Pooh

Strindberg wrote a play called The Father, John Mortimer Q.C., Voyage Round My Father. Sir Roland DeBoys got some of it right as a father and quite a lot of it wrong as told in As You Like It.

And so on.

But it is in Hamlet we find the eternal wisdom on death of fathers.

“… but you must know your father lost a father, That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound, In filial obligation, for some term To do obsequious sorrow…”

And then Claudius (who remains unnamed in the play by the way) goes on for a bit about how grief must end, and, says Claudius, to continue going on grieving  is, among other things, “… To reason most absurd, whose common theme is death of fathers, and who still hath cried, from the first corpse till he that dies today, ‘This must be so'”

I’m sure you knew all that already, but isn’t it distantly reminiscent of that story about the Buddha who when importuned by a grieving mother to restore her son to life, finally agrees to do so, on one condition. Namely; that she can find a house where there has been no death.

And that Hamlet stuff is all very true no doubt, but a bit rich coming from Hamlet’s father’s murderer.His own brother, no less.

My point is that irony often follows death.

My own father died recently and left a situation dripping with irony. Fraught with the stuff, entwined and re-entwined. In my case (one of several) I found him a little late in life, but now I’ve lost him. I wonder what Oscar Wilde would say about that?


The final resting place of my father’s last mortal remains. As a man of the sea it seemed appropriate to blend his ashes with the water. The ceremony was attended by his sister-in-law, two of his nieces, and his second son (that we know about). Others were there in spirit.

For a man who once wrote a melancholic paragraph, beginning, “Nobody came to his funeral…” His remembrance stats were quite impressive, there were at least three occasions where he was remembered fondly. Here is an account of one of them:

Ian’s Memorial

There were last minute changes of venue. There were re-directions, wrong turns taken, some uncertainties, u-turns and confusions.

No, I’m not talking about Ian Johnston’s singular path through life, this was just getting to his funeral. I was in a car with my new found brother, David, an impressive Army Reservist by the way, among other things, and his girlfriend, Judy. Both of them excellent folk and precisely the right people to be with navigating this path to remembrance.

We arrived at car park one, where we met Edouard, my other brother and a full time military man. His lovely fiancee, Lital was there too, and his mother, Lizzie. Of the 4 mothers of Ian’s 5 children, Lizzie was the only one able to attend. NB: the above figures, 5 children by 4 mothers, correct at the time of writing. Penelope, David’s daughter, and my niece, came to see her grandfather off too.

And where was my lovely sister, Georgina?

There was some conference among my brothers and we set off for car park two. Lizzie had brought extra umbrellas, also tissues and aspirin. We set off in convoy. It had been raining for days. And was doing so now, but lightly and intermittently. Initially the seven of us in three cars overshot. We did a u-turn as Georgie caught up to us, but not seeing us, passed us, now going the wrong way. Another U-turn and we collected her and then effecting a third U-turn, joined the other two cars, now we were 8 people. All of us with very different relationships to the man we came to remember, and all of us related to each other in the strangest modes and through the most extraordinary discoveries, none of them via the man in question’s own disclosure or design.

So we parked and the rain stopped, and we followed single-file into the bush along a secluded raised walkway, till we came to a secluded small circle overlooking the harbor with the harbor heads in the distance across the bay.

There were photos.

Then we stood, this unique family group, some of whom had only just met for the first time. David, as the oldest (as far as we know) spoke first. He gave a resume of Ian’s life. There were some details that I had not known, or perhaps not retained – that Ian had military involvement himself, for example. And David said how glad he was to find his father and all of us! And we agreed.

Then David read a brief melancholy passage written by Ian himself, which began, “Nobody came to his funeral …”

Among the many and varied ironies of the general situation is the fact that actually in more than one remembrance he was well attended. There was a wake of sorts in his local pub and our gathering here described and we will think and speak of him again in Melbourne.

Years ago when I met Ian for the first time I wrote an account of it, but I had lost the text. I think Peter had kept it and send it to David and David had made copies and brought them. So I was able to read a few paragraphs describing how we met at Central station in Sydney. What wasn’t in the text, but what I told was how much we drank at that first meeting, viz: 3 beers, a bottle of champagne, 2 large iced cointreau’s each, and then we retired to Annandale, where he was living, where we drank a case of beer. It was the drunkest I have ever been, but the old man appeared stone cold sober (I don’t think he can have been).

I recited the farewell from Cymbeline.

“Fear no more the heat of the Sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney sweepers come to dust.”

(I wonder if Wordsworth was thinking of this idea when he wrote in Ode to Immortality … but trailing clouds of glory do we come from God who is our home …)?

Georgina spoke next. She spoke of the positive memories she had of Ian, and in the most touching phrase said, “I loved him, although often I didn’t know why.”
Edouard began by saying, “I’ve been hard on him.” – I acknowledged that I had too – and here I say – not without cause! But we remembered him with affection and with love, through all the conflicted feelings.

The rain held off. Until as we left the promontory, it started again. And then we went for a five star dinner. Sending him off with a champagne toast.

Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shinning stars to you
Deep peace of the son of peace to you