Follow one crying eye on

Beyond the Fringe

I’m slowly coming back down to earth after a barn-storming performance on stage last night. Luvvies, daahlings, we were magnificent!

And good heavens, what a high it brings! 

The performance in question was a 10-minute set of British folk music – four pieces sung by Pielarks at our local Rose Theatre, as part of the Mayor’s Cultural Celebration ‘Vibrant Kingston’.

Pielarks is a wonderful folk choir which kept me going (on Zoom, then in the vicarage garden and latterly in a freezing church) on practically every Monday morning throughout the pandemic.  I joined this group as soon as I retired from full-time work, and it has structured each week of my life nicely for more than three years now, bringing new friendships and musical knowledge and even allowing me to indulge in occasional songwriting.* 

We perform occasionally in pubs or at street parties, plus a couple of times for residents in a care home and once at a wedding – generally on a fairly informal basis, but, we like to think, to a pretty high musical standard. Although folk music is not a particular favourite of mine, and even now I know precious little about it compared to my fellow Pielarkers, it is very enjoyable to sing. I especially like the fact that, for Pielarks, it is arranged in six voice parts. Never one to sing the actual tune if there’s an alternative available, these arrangements appeal to me so much that although the social aspect of our lockdown Zoom rehearsals was inevitably ‘restricted’ , I was at the same time ‘liberated’ because I could attempt all the different parts to my heart’s content whilst on mute without annoying anyone else (although my attempts at Soprano would usually exile the cat to the further reaches of Jillings Towers). Six parts also makes a very rich sound now that we can sing together again.

A real stage in a real professional theatre was probably the biggest and most formal venue we’d ever graced – certainly in my own membership times. However, despite the starry excitement,  this presented two small problems for me: we would be going onto this stage (1) without any printed music or words and….(2) in costume!

I have never been good at learning words. I don’t know why. With age, this has – I suppose naturally – become even harder and I was completely terrified at the prospect. Having said that, my diligence paid off pretty well, and I surprised myself with almost total recall on the night – although right up to the last moment it was touch and go. Who knew whether performing to an audience – without fixing my gaze through my office window on a particular branch of the tree in my next-door-neighbour’s garden whilst furiously casting around my grey-cells for the opening word of the next verse, or like several of my fellow singers in our last rehearsal, screwing my tightly-closed eyes even tighter in search of that elusive phrase – would unlock my fluency or clam me up completely?

Dressing up was something else though. For previous performances, I have cobbled together some semblance of a rustic nineteenth century look with the help of a few donated items and an old silk skirt found in my wardrobe. This time, we were trying to be more authentically pre-twentieth-century, and our leader had sent us a selection of pictures of the sort of thing we might choose. Like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights, I froze for several weeks and pretended this was not happening. But once again, a loaned item came to the rescue in the form of a superb red and white striped apron (which I might need to keep!) which I managed to team with my red silk skirt and an old black blouse.

The big day arrived. I had half-heartedly tried all my costume items on earlier in the week, although not completely to my satisfaction. With a couple of hours to go before our dress rehearsal, I assembled my various garments for a perhaps already rather last-minute fitting. One of the borrowed items was a voluminous underskirt/petticoat which, despite its not being on show, I was determined to wear as it gave bulk to my flimsy skirt. The problem was that it was ever-so-slightly too long, and more than three people of my girth could have fitted in the waistband which had a cuttingly-thin drawstring so needed careful adjustment and fixing to avoid unseemly slippage.  I experimentally heaved, tied, tucked and pinned myself into all this garb with increasingly frantic adjustment. By mid-afternoon, with time running out, it became clear that I would never be able to re-create this arrangement under pressure in the theatre and in front of fellow Pielarkers, so I decided I would simply leave it all in place for the duration. And thus it was that, unbeknownst to fellow cast or audience, I was at least 80% safety-pin below decks on the night.

Now for my hair. I had singularly failed to find a suitable hat and had secured agreement that I did not have to wear one. Trouble was, the absence of a hat in which to hide my hair meant that I would need to style it somehow instead. Apparently no-one before the twentieth century had a fringe. Certainly not such improbably-dyed blond bangs as I currently sport. Hmm. I had been thinking about this, peripherally, pathetically, pointlessly, for weeks, as the fringe grew ever longer and greyer. Finally, on the day before our appearance, I had purchased a stout black hairband (in desperation – and in Boots) and convinced myself it had an air of Victoriana about it. It would have to do. I decided not to worry any more – as they always say, it would be alright on the night.

Then, just before the ‘night’ in question, I remembered that not only did I need to make the fringe disappear, but, for the character I was envisaging, I would also need to put my hair ‘up’. This has only once been achieved successfully in my lifetime with my unbiddable locks – by a professional make-up and hair stylist for a well-known Netflix production at stupid-o’clock one morning in a godforsaken caravan somewhere (hahaha) using a plait and multiple fixing pins which I was still finding in my head days later (ok, exaggeration, but a scary amount of pinnage nonetheless) – and I boldly decided I could recreate this myself, with just 30 minutes to go before the time I needed to leave home. 

Well, Mr J’s face when I asked him to plait my hair was quite something. But that man has been in the forces, and is of course a sailor to his core, so he is nothing if not resourceful. “Well, I know how to splice a rope,” he offered. That would have to do. In fact, once I had twisted the resulting ‘spliced’ hair into a couple of black scrunchy-things and forced the new headband into place, the whole structure felt secure and (without looking at the back, because that might just complicate things) I decided I was ready. Slapping more foundation and mascara on my poor old physog that it has seen for a very long time and jamming a couple of hot-cross buns and a flask of water into my bag, I set off for the theatre.

Just a twenty-five minute jog through Kingston town-centre in my swishing skirts later, I crossed the final road to the theatre and hailed one of my fellow Pielarks. He was polite in his response, and possibly slightly alarmed. It dawned on me – he didn’t initially know who I was. By the time we reached the stage door (oh, the excitement!!!) I reckon he’d worked it out. He was not the only person to be confused. In fact, even Mr J wondered who I was when he spotted me talking to our son later – and he’d seen me as I left home! (Perhaps that’s just his old age though?)

I’m sure that’s elegance and not just old age

Someone actually asked me – why do you look so different? Do you usually wear glasses? Yes, that was part of it as I had abandoned my modern specs (learning the words by heart having the additional advantage of not needing them to read anything onstage, I suppose) but the greatest disguise appeared to be the disappearing fringe. The exposure of a forehead which hasn’t been on display since 1985, and which has furtively been adding age-spots and wrinkles all this time. I most definitely looked older, although I like to think that there was an air of sophistication too. # 

We milled around in our dressing room for a while, where I discovered how nervous I have become in confined spaces with other people. I am still waiting to catch the lovely Omicron and this would be one of the worst weeks to do so, as we are expecting a visitation from overseas next week which is already 18 months overdue. So I periodically clutched at my mask, and spent as much time outside as I could – showing off my non-fringe to the tourists in the Market Square and by the river – between rehearsal and performance. Perhaps the health nervousness calmed the performance nerves which seemed not to trouble me, which in retrospect is a little odd.

We were organised and in good voice for our rehearsal and all went well. A few last-minute plans were set, and we were ready to go. We watched the first half of the production from the Upper Circle, and in no time at all we were gathered back in the wings for our own bit of the show at the start of Act II. We were pre-set, which meant we walked onto the open stage as the audience began to return to their seats following the interval.  Here goes.

And I just loved it! Walking around with my swishy skirt swishing, my eyes boldly scanning the auditorium, my nerves (and my fringe) nowhere to be seen. We chatted amongst ourselves in a semblance of olde-English banter – no one could hear us as the audience were either still at the bar, or chatting noisily themselves at this point. (But, would our bucolic characters really have talked about porn-stars all those years ago dear fellow Pielark?? Really? You know who you are!) The house lights went down. A hush fell. The Pielarks froze mid-chat (and mid-swish).

Ready for the off – unrehearsed perfection

The Mayor came on stage to introduce us and as she retreated, our humble note-giver blew a few notes on his recorder – and we launched into our Fa-la-la opening number, this one being without actual words to allow us to both sing and walk to our set positions. (Oh come on, remembering steps, notes AND words all at the same time would truly have been beyond us – well ok, beyond me anyway.)

Once fixed in our line, we carried off the other three numbers remarkably fluently, to tumultuous applause. Our exit was also achieved whilst Fa-la-la-ing, many of us waving back at the audience, especially our families if we had spotted them and our oldest member who had decided to sit this one out in the Dress Circle.

There followed several other acts from different cultural backgrounds – the Bulgarian dancers eliciting in me a strong costume envy despite my own noble efforts. One of our own number also participated in a Morris Dancing display – which elicited no such envy in me, but a considerable awe at the dexterity required to wield one and a half sticks each, managing to strike only the other dancers’ sticks and not beat each other to a pulp.  A Korean choir sang beautifully, the Indian dancing was colourful and graceful. As a side note, it appeared that all the other singing groups brought folders of music on stage with them – ha! 

It was a well-considered and very enjoyable event. What fun to be scurrying (or swishing) around backstage, where all the real actors hang out during the professional productions, pushing through corridors of excitable Bulgarians and up stairwells lined with giggling ladies making final adjustments to their gorgeous saris, and then waiting in the darkened curtains of the wings – of the actual stage.

I love a stage. I have no idea why. Whilst I’m not shy, I am not usually even slightly the life and soul of a party, and don’t particularly relish being the centre of attention. But I love to show off on a stage. Performing, declaiming, singing, being someone I’m actually not. I had been especially keen to get onto this particular stage because the other three members of my immediate family have all performed there at different times, Mr J being possibly one of the very first performers even before it officially opened. And now I’d made it too! Hurrah!

I think we were all pretty pleased with how it went, and it somehow brought us more together as well, in a way that Zoom and even the camaraderie of a cold morning in the church cannot achieve. We’ve been missing those pub sessions.

On my return home, I was on a high – thinking I could join a drama club or brush up on my songs or monologues and get on an open mic night somewhere. Ludicrous ambitions surging.

Then I spent 15 minutes retrieving all the hidden safety-pins from about my person and taking down my hair. By which point, safely back behind my fringe, I recalled the exertions of word-learning and dressing up – and retreated to the sofa for the reassurance of yet another hot cross bun and a late-night TV weather forecast.

But in my inevitably humdrum daily existence, it’s nice to know there’s a hidden starry life lurking  tantalisingly somewhere beyond the fringe.

*Songwriting – see here for an earlier post on that.

# With the wonderful benefit of day-after hindsight, next time I think I will look for a simple bonnet – there were some lovely examples on display. Mine was, I believe, the only unadorned head – especially without the fringe – and especially with a black blouse was far too severe. Victorian, yes, but not quite in keeping with everyone else. Ah, we live and learn.




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