To Be True To The Habit - Or Stray Away?
Character-based comedy is always a challenge and an interesting creative process.
Over the past eight years I have been quite successful with my musical comedy character Sister Mary McArthur. She was created when I was asked to perform at the Purcell Room, when I was performing as myself - no gimmicks in sight. My musical programme needed an upbeat fun musical comedy number to open the second half. What to do?
So whilst I was comfort-eating on Curly Wurlys, reading back editions of The People's Friend, and watching The Sound of Music, I thought, I know, I will stick a nun's habit on, sing "Do-Re-Mi", get the audience to join in and do some subtle easy dance moves.
Well, then the classical actor arose in me saying, "Well, you can't just stick a nun's habit on, your character has to have to a back story." So I created a rather thin back story that Sister Mary was found on the steps of St Peter's of The Sisters of the Third Removed in Soho, wrapped in a copy of The Stage newspaper.
Sister Mary always had the secret burning desire to leave the convent and become a West End star. I did some research on the history of nuns in musicals, discovering "Nunsense" and a great song called "I just want to be a star" and thus Sister Mary McArthur was born!
Over the years Sister Mary has had some wonderful opportunities with various one-nun shows performed regularly in London, opening the New Space Theatre 2 in Cape Town, a season in New York, supporting Graham Norton, singing at Elton John's Christmas Party and even performing at Romily Caravan Park in Kent!
However, none of these experiences would be like Sister Mary's next adventure. I went to the Landor Theatre to see Next Thing You Know directed by the wonderful Rob McWhir. After a few glasses of pinot, Rob informed me that the theatre had just had a rental cancellation and the theatre was going to be dark for seven weeks. He asked if Sister Mary would be interested in performing a few nights of her cabaret show; I replied "Stick her in Nunsense, dear." - well, within 30 minutes, dates were planned, emails sent to the owners of the rights, discussions on potential other cast members and it was confirmed that Sister Mary would play her professional debut as The Reverend Mother Mary Regina in "Nunsense".
It was quite a tight rehearsal period - we had eight days! It took a while mentally to work out that I was Tim playing Sister Mary playing The Reverend Mother. How would Sister Mary portray the character, but still keep the essence of her within the role of Reverend Mother? Confused? Anyway, lots of laughter followed in our rehearsal period, lots of ad-libbing - which was working a treat.
The part of Reverend Mother is written mostly as the storyteller, narrator as such, and keeping the other nuns in check - to be honest not really the comedy character of the piece. Just before we performed our first preview, Rob told me he didn't think Sister Mary was working. I therefore had to rethink the entire portrayal and interpretation. What followed was a week of previews and to be honest not really fully understanding what I/she was doing.
Press night came and went, to be honest I felt quite trapped within the constraints of the script, a character within a character; the feedback I got was quite overwhelming, and interesting - a fun strong show but alas lacking Sister Mary's humour and style.
I sat down with Rob and discussed my concerns and instincts of how we could incorporate Sister Mary back into the show. So all her original ad libs came back and a lot of additional humour, and gags were discovered throughout the remainder of the run.