All Good Things…
At 3PM on Wednesday 17 December, 2014, I last smoked a cigarette. This was a momentous occasion for me because I had been smoking since the age of 14, which was in 1957! I’d smoked very heavily (i.e. 40+ a day) since I retired in 2003. I stopped because my lungs were in a terrible condition. I was wheezing and coughing and short of breath and realised that I’d probably kill myself if I kept on.
2015 was a strange year. From January to September, the only work I had was primarily news stories and reviews for the British Theatre Guide, which were interesting and often enjoyable but not what you might call creative.
Then in the summer, I was approached by the Westovians, South Shields’ amateur drama group, asking me to direct their panto, Puss in Boots, in a version written by South Shields playwright and actor Philip Meeks. Rehearsals would begin in October but the actual show wouldn’t be performed until January. It was a paid job—my first of the year—so I agreed.
Anyway, I enjoy doing panto.
Then things really took off!
First was a commission from The Customs House and South Tyneside Libraries to teach a playwriting course to the South Tyneside Writers’ Group which met every week in South Shields Central Library. We covered most aspects of playwriting and I tried to make it as practical a course as possible by asking the participants to do a short exercise every week. I also asked them to develop a short (about 10–15 minutes) play to be ready by the end of the course. The idea was that the play should be new, influenced by what they’d learned, but could be based on a completely new idea or something they had had in mind for some time.
I invited some actor friends to take part in a script-in-hand reading of these new pieces which we performed one evening in the Library Theatre after an afternoon’s rehearsal. I think that was the most useful part of the course to those who took part, for seeing their work performed by professional actors got over more than I ever could about what works and what doesn’t work.
At about the same time, I was asked to do Going Gently at a scratch night at The Customs House, which was being organised by Helen Dobson who was by now working there in programming. No pay, of course, but naturally I said yes.
Helen also wanted to revive Arctic Convoy with herself as producer. I was keen and Robbie Lee Hurst was up for reprising his role but Claire Kelly and Jess Johnson weren’t available so we decided to rewrite the first scene but keeping the setting and the songs. This time, however, there would only be two characters. I would play the ARP Warden again and we invited Viv Wiggins to be the landlady. We would do it at the Low Lights, for it had done really well there first time around and, anyway, it’s a great venue to play. It was timed to coincide with Remembrance Day, 11 November.
You remember the old saying that you wait for ages for a bus and then half a dozen come at once?
It's true! I was approached by Durham University’s Music Department to play in Beckett’s short Words and Music as part of the Musicon Festival. It’s a play about Croker, a crotchety old man, and his two ‘comforts’, Words and Music. I would play Croker (no acting required there, then!) while Words was played by an actor I knew but had never worked with, Damian Robson, and Music—a proper character—by a chamber orchestra.
That's not a joke! And very Beckett.
What an absolutely brilliant opportunity! I’d never played in a Beckett play before and, by this stage of my career, I hadn’t expected to—but, with the greatest regret, I had to refuse, explaining that I would be unable to learn the lines.
(The short scene in Arctic Convoy was semi-improvised so I could handle that, but I knew I simply could not learn these lines—my line-learning ability had abandoned me years before. Beckett requires absolute precision and any uncertainty in remembering or hesitation would kill it . “No problem,” I was told. “You won’t be on stage. You’ll be sitting at a table in front of the stage, so you can have the script in front of you. You can read it.”)
Well! I jumped at the chance and I have to say that I loved every minute of the rehearsals and performance.
It must be said, though, that I didn’t exactly love everything about it. You see, the Music Department building where we rehearsed is in North Bailey, up a long, steep road from the nearest car park, and the performance was to be in another building on Palace Green, right next to the Cathedral, which is reached by turning off North Bailey just before the Department and going up another even steeper road. By now, my breathing was so bad that I had to get there quarter of an hour early just to recover my breath before I could even start work.
Going back to the car park was easier because it was downhill, but I still had sit gasping in the car for a couple of minutes before driving the twelve miles home.
It was well worth it, for playing Beckett is such a challenge and an absolute joy, but it was clear to me that I was going to have to make a serious re-assessment of my health to see just what I might be capable of in the future.
The day after Words and Music finished, we had the dress and tech for Arctic Convoy (yes, I had been rehearsing all three pieces at the same time) but that wasn’t too demanding on my breathing as I could literally drive from door to door.
And then came the Christmas break, after which we were very quickly back to panto rehearsals and everything about them went as you would expect. Except…
I was trying—not very successfully, I’m afraid—to explain to a character how I wanted a particular sequence of moves to be done. She didn’t quite get it so I got up on the stage the show her.
And show her I did—and found myself leaning against the pros arch practically unable to breathe. How I didn’t end up semi-conscious on the floor I still don’t know! I had to call a temporary halt to the rehearsal, something I had never done before in my entire career.
Right Lathan, I thought to myself, a visit to the doctor would seem to be indicated.
I went, had the tests and the x-rays, and was told that I have COPD—Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease—or, as I prefer to call it TFUL—Totally Fucked Up Lungs—which, I think, gives a much clearer idea of what it’s all about.
Loads of advice and three different inhalers (one which included steroids) later and I had to recognise that I simply could not continue directing, let alone acting, so Puss in Boots (which was well received, by the way, by audiences and author alike) was my swansong.
<Very sad face>