Acting Theatre

How to play the piano

I had the best of Godfathers his name was Collin Bates.

Collin was Australian, spent the middle years of his life in England, and was one of the finest jazz pianists that ever lived. He also took his Godfatherly duties seriously and from time to time he would sit me down and we’d have a conversation that began, “As your spiritual advisor and mentor …” Then he would explain his position as a life-long agnostic, and declare his belief that the truth would be revealed to him on the point of death. With the certainty of youth I somewhat scoffed at this view, but as time passes and my certainty about most things dissolves, I see his wisdom. This is a tangent by the way …

… Check him out playing an early jazz number with his trio here

His piano playing style was variously described in print as “a squirrel gathering nuts” and my personal favorite in a long article, a passage about his stubby fingers transforming when he sat at the keyboard into “dancing sausages” making amazing music.

He was life-long sufferer of what George Melly described as the “existential conspiracy”. This meant that when Collin walked into rooms, tables and chairs would start hurling themselves about, and glasses of red wine would inevitably spill on white tablecloths. I personally witnessed him make a gin and tonic spontaneously combust, and watching him make coffee was to see coffee grounds on the ceiling. I once foolishly gave him an expensive bow tie as a Christmas present, his face fell when he saw it, and we both knew that his clumsy fingers would never master the complexity of the right knot.

But at the piano he was elegant, delicate, nuanced and subtle.

I grew up watching Collin play the piano. I went to Ronnie Scott’s (now closed), the Merlin’s Cave (now closed), and when I waited tables in my youth at Flanagans in Baker Street he played the piano there. He played jolly-cockney type songs as Flanagans was the first theme restaurant in London, billed as an Edwardian song and supper room. One night Collin came storming down the aisle, “That’s the Evening Standard jazz critic on table 19.”


“What a disaster. Here I am playing in a sawdust joint.”

“Can’t you play some jazz?”

“Of course not! It’s an Edwardian restaurant.”

As in all the most interesting people he was a mass of instant contradictions. He went back to the piano and began to play boogie-woogie. He played and he played. It went on for about twenty minutes. I never saw him play like that before or since. It was as if the piano had gone into space and was dancing between the moons of Mars and the outer planets.

The place was full and everybody stopped eating. All the staff stood still and listened. A crazy celebration of liquid rhythm pervaded, bouncing exuberance off the walls. At the end there was an eruption of applause which took a long time to subside. When it did Collin and the Evening Standard jazz critic shared a bottle of wine.

And that was all I knew about playing the piano. Until now …

End of the Rainbow is a fine play. It features Judy Garland in her last year of life. Three men play the other parts—a bit like Dorothy and her three companions. We close today after a three week run at the Actor’s Playhouse in Coral Gables, Sth Florida.

I play Anthony. The character is fictional. He’s an amalgam of all the gay men who adored Judy. He’s Scottish and he’s her favorite accompanist. I’m not Scottish and I’d like to say in these times of homophobic nonsense, playing a gay man is as much fun as a straight man can have and stay legal.

All that aside, crucially I don’t play the piano.

The excellent and supremely patient Dave Nagy, our musical director tutored me to the limits of my ability, such that I can vaguely follow the musical notation and have some idea of where the hands should be. I try to tap my feet in time, but one scene requires me to cue the band and conduct them. Early in the run I told them under no circumstances to look at me for the timing, fortunately Gary, who plays the sax said, “Oh we stopped doing that days ago.”

Did I get away with it? Well the piano was discretely angled, and during the musical numbers, such was Kathy St. George’s voltage that all eyes were turned upon her, and fortunately no one looking at me!

I get worried sometimes. When I review these pages, I see that I’m loving being an actor. Believe me, if you were a stage actor it would worry you too. Always at the back my mind, I’ve thought that sooner or later I’ll be doing something sensible, responsible, grown-up. It’s getting late … so maybe I’m stuck with it, and if every gig was a special as this one was, that’s fine.

Anthony begins the play from a point of adoration, and over time falls in love with Judy, finally declaring it at the end. Playing with Kathy St. George, no actor ever had an easier task. She is not Judy Garland—no one could be, that is sort of the point—but she has a great talent all her own, and she channels Miss Garland in way that borders uncanny. On top of all that she is one of the most gracious, generous, (and at 4′ 11″—the same height as Judy, tiniest) leading ladies I’ve ever worked with. available for Judy cabaret and more!

The show was well reviewed. More than well …

this, for example…

The patrons who attended the amazing Miracle Theatre with its Art Deco foyer, loved the show, many moved to tears …

It was a standout gig.

But when it came to playing the piano, I remember my Godfather, Collin Bates and the great gift of being able to watch him at the keyboard.


A Tale of Two Motor Cars and a Lot of Places to Stay

Once upon a time when the world was young, there was a beautiful small green car. It was built in 1961 when I was five years old. And I bought it from a fellow-student—his aunt actually—when I graduated college.


“This was owned by a little old lady who kept it in a garage and used it once a week to go to the shops.” said my friend Jeff when I dropped in on him in the Yorkshire Dales on my way north.

“How did you know?”

“There’s no other possible explanation.” he said.

Together, the little green car and I went all over Britain. Delivered by ‘Molly’ as I called her, I stayed in youth hostels, once in gymnasium with a dozen other actors on June 21st at the St. Magnus Festival, and once in a monastery on the Isle of Iona. I loved that car and felt as though I was born to drive her. She was a Wolseley 1500. They don’t make them any more.

And once … I left London for Birmingham to play Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations,  and Molly broke down somewhere on the M1 motorway. Towed by emergency services I arrived seven hours later at midnight at the residence of Mrs. Madge Morose. She was a theatrical landlady straight from central casting. Sitting in her bed surrounded by enough medication to sink a chemist, she directed me up unlit stairs to a dark room with damp nylon sheets on the lumpy bed. Her appropriately Dickension house came complete with a name over the door:


“Er, no.” I told myself.

And when Robin, the senior actor in the company and veteran of many tours, said at rehearsal the next morning, “How are your digs? Mine are pretty bloody!”

I knew I had to find a better place to sleep. Since then …

Hotels, motels, hostels, spare rooms with and without en suite, on sofas, in attics, lofts, and raw spaces. In borrowed houses, in bed & breakfasts, on a 16th floor balcony open to the air. On a beach, on a hillside. On planes, trains, and the back of rental cars, on a ship. In a palazzo, in corporate apartments, and in friends’ ones with and without views. In a chalet, in a shed, in funky studios covered with Clematis. In a room with African masks full of presence. All alone in a town house worth $10 million for just one night, and also for just one night on the marble floor of the Boston South Station bus terminal, the quality of sleep not dissimilar in these last two venues?!

But not till now …

Me and my purple shirt (see November ’13 entry) are back in South Florida. In Miami actually, at The Actor’s Playhouse where I’ve never worked before. As with every theatre there’s a story. They’ve just closed a play called ‘Making God Laugh’. I mention it here because I knew three of the five actors in the show, and now that I’ve seen it, I know them all. This was a production which achieved a unity of style in the splendid acting, the delicious design, and the expert direction, in such a way that sitting there as an actor watching … well … I remembered why we do it. I forget sometimes.

I’ve said it before in these pages, a theatre, any theatre is a triumph of the improbable over the impossible.

The show we’re currently rehearsing is “End of the Rainbow” it’s about Judy Garland’s last comeback. The script is by turns poignant, funny, tragic; a tribute to one of the great talents of the 20th century. The extraordinary Kathy St. George is Judy. It is a role she was born to play. I am excited to share a stage with her.

Dave Arisco directs. A remarkably good natured and enthusiastic man. To the extent that if you’re called late to rehearsal you’re minded to go in early so as not to miss any of the jokes.

Here’s a candid from the rehearsal room.


Dave is 6’4″, Kathy is 4’11”, I think they do a great double act.

But I digress.

What I really wanted to mention was this:


You see before you a four bedroom house circa 1960 set amidst a couple of lush acres. There are two wings with two bedrooms in each, there’s a huge kitchen with state of the art equipment (1960). And the lounge and the hall and the sitting room each have a piano. Which is useful, I’ll say why later. At the time of writing I am the only occupant, if you transit Miami, Florida before February 9th consider yourself invited.

And you should see the back. There’s a large patio, the sort of place where you could write The Great American Paragraph. There’s a tennis court under the pines. There’s a rockery and shaped swimming pool. It would be an ideal location for an infomercial about the untold millions you can make by flipping real estate. I can’t show it to you yet because the pool has been drained for repairs and it doesn’t look pretty—maybe next month.

This sort of exotic theatrical digs goes a long way to ease the trials of the road. Previous details when arriving in actor housing have included; a bath with no plug, a water filter with no filter, and a bottle of wine with no corkscrew. And we won’t mention the dead mice, the empty beer bottles, the colonies of ants. None of these inconveniences applies in this case.

And even if not 100% of the lights are working, it doesn’t matter because …

Now let’s talk about this:


That, ladies and gentlemen is a red Lexus. For my time on this show, I am driving it.

There’s not much to say except that it’s a cherry on the cupcake of the gig. It’s a piquant morsel from life’s smorgasbord. It’s a … you get the idea.

There are ascetic types (somewhere), who’ll tell you that the trappings of wealth and luxury are not the source of true happiness. I’ll tell you what, It works for me!

Another car I was born to drive.

Happy New Year!