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BWW Exclusive: Nick Winston Shares His Rehearsal Diary For London's First Post-lockdown Stage Production, FANNY AND STELLA

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BWW Exclusive: Nick Winston Shares His Rehearsal Diary For London's First Post-lockdown Stage Production, FANNY AND STELLA'Fanny and Stella', an open-air musical with book and lyrics by Glenn Chandler, the creator of 'Taggart', and music by Charles Miller, directed by Steven Dexter, is the first London stage production since lockdown.

It starts previews on August 3, as the premiere production at the Garden Theatre in the newly refurbished beer garden of The Eagle in Vauxhall. Here, musical stager Nick Winston writes exclusively for BroadwayWorld about the countdown to opening night from the first meet and greet.

Day 1: Monday 27 July

Sleep during lockdown has been erratic to say the least, but unusually it was my alarm that woke me up at 7am, ready to catch the 8:24am train from Northampton to London. This was my first commute since March and I noted a sombre mood on the barren train; the very few passengers obediently wearing their face coverings and maintaining a two metre distance.

As I journeyed from Euston to the Underground, I felt a tinge of sadness passing the posters promoting theatre productions that sit dark during their enforced hiatus - or worse, the shows that will never reopen, but whose artwork still adorns the escalators. The Tube was empty, nothing like the reports I'd seen on the news; there were only five people in my carriage, and I wondered if the hustle and bustle of London would ever return. I never thought I'd miss being squashed like sardines, contorting my body to try and reach some greasy handle, whilst simultaneously cranking my neck away from a suspicious body odour, but I did. I really did.

I arrived at the rehearsal room in Pimlico at 9:50am. The last time I was here was to work with the orphans in Annie - 20 children packed in a noisy room, accompanied by stage management, chaperones and associates. Now, there were only a handful of us who awkwardly tapped elbows as we greeted each other and exchanged pleasantries - all acknowledging the privileged position we were in, as the first company back in a rehearsal room after five months of lockdown. That honour was exemplified when Aaron Clingham, our musical director, played his first arpeggio on the rehearsal piano and the company began their vocal warm-up. Oh how I've missed that sound at the start of each day. Absolutely glorious!

Spread out in a large circle, the actors read and sang through the play. A sense of guilt engulfed me as I thought about all the colleagues who have been denied this pleasure for so long, and who may still be some time away from experiencing such joys. I'm lucky to be here and I'm grateful to Steven Dexter, our director, for choosing me to join him on this venture.

The read-through was followed by a socially distanced company photograph outside on the lawn taken by our PR, Kevin Wilson. Kevin, who is also the publicist for SIX, shared his first-hand experience of the Broadway press night cancelled two hours before curtain-up, followed by their more recent unsuccessful attempt to stage drive-in concerts in the UK - heartbreaking. At the back of my mind, I consider the possibility that this gift of being in a rehearsal room may also be terminated before its time - who knows what tomorrow brings, and the old adage "Enjoy every day as if it's your last" fills my consciousness.

BWW Exclusive: Nick Winston Shares His Rehearsal Diary For London's First Post-lockdown Stage Production, FANNY AND STELLA
Director Steven Dexter (foreground)
and Nick Winston in rehearsal

Staging began, and it felt good to be creative again - this time, however, with a few new obstacles to overcome, mostly the actors not being able to touch or have contact and always maintaining social distancing. But every venture in theatre always requires creative solutions, so these new rules felt no more restrictive than other problems I've had to work around before. The other familiar feeling was the lack of time! With only one week of rehearsals, it was important to stick to a very tight schedule and it felt good to have that pressure again, after months of being dormant.

Time went fast, but I staged the two numbers I was expected to do in the afternoon and we wrapped at six o'clock. With no stage management in the room, we all helped clear the room of furniture and props to make way for an evening class about to take place. A gratifying day had come to an end and we said our goodbyes. I journeyed home in an empty carriage, but with a heart full of contentment.

Day 2: Tuesday 28 July

I finished prep at midnight last night (or does that make it this morning?), but only managed to work on two of the three numbers scheduled for today, so I spent my commute listening to the third, "Certiorari". The train is empty so there's no fellow passengers to glance at my curious footwork shuffling on the floor. However, I can't find a way into the number yet.

Walking into the rehearsal room at 9:50am, I was pleased to see Kane Verrall and Jed Berry (aka Fanny and Stella) practicing "Making History", one of the routines I had staged the previous day. It strikes me that we are making our own little piece of history, with the first post-Covid musical.

The rest of the morning was spent staging two numbers: one I had prepped and one that was sprung on me. At the beginning of my career, I would always turn up to rehearsals with all the choreography and staging pre-planned, due to an overriding fear of standing in a room full of colleagues and not having a clue what to do. But as time has gone by, I've been more comfortable creating in the moment, responding to what is happening in front of me - especially on more narrative-led musical numbers - and I had fun with Jed, Alex Lodge and Joaquin Pedro Valdes (JP) staging "Walk Me Up the Street". The number even finished with a little soft shoe tap, what a delight!

In the afternoon we worked on "My Mother" - a number I had prepped, but which took a different direction as I started to put it on the floor. Last night it was a Michael Kidd-inspired cake walk, but today it leant further towards Fosse-induced eroticism. David Shields, our designer, arrived and brought a new selection of black Bentwood chairs with him. Well, you can't look at a Bentwood and not think of "Mein Herr", can you?

BWW Exclusive: Nick Winston Shares His Rehearsal Diary For London's First Post-lockdown Stage Production, FANNY AND STELLA
Fanny and Stella in rehearsal

For the last hour, we went over all the musical numbers that had been staged so far: five - not bad for two days' work. The company were definitely noticing the effect lockdown had had on their stamina, both vocally and physically, and come 6pm we were all shattered!

On my journey home, I noticed two giant posters for The Phantom Of The Opera, whose permanent closure had been announced today by Cameron Mackintosh in a rather gloomy article in The Evening Standard. London's theatrical landscape is fading fast, and again I am filled with gratitude to be working.

Day 3: Wednesday 29 July

Today I had a pre-arranged absence from rehearsals, to spend time with my two amazing children, Sophie and Luke. After a lovely day in the park and at my parents', my partner, India, and I go to a local dance studio at 8pm to prep the opening number of Fanny and Stella, titled "Sodomy on the Strand". I have been given several recordings of this, with varying feels and tempos and a slower rendition appeals to me most - its menacing chords reminding me of a Kander and Ebb opener - so we choreograph to that. Our studio session is fun and prolific, and we finish at 10pm.

Steven Dexter updates me on his day's productivity and I'm excited to rejoin tomorrow.

Day 4: Thursday 30 July

On this morning's commute I catch up with Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden's Radio 4 interview from yesterday. It's grim to say the least. As things stand, I can't see any theatres presenting Christmas shows this year, which will have devastating long-term consequences on the industry. I was due to direct two pantos this Christmas: Cinderella in Blackpool starring Shirley Ballas, which has already been rescheduled for next year, and Jack and the Beanstalk in Cheltenham, which is the last and only remaining job in my diary for this year. I prepare myself for its inevitable postponement.

There's certainly an increase of people on the Underground today, someone sat on every other seat. Everyone is complying with the face covering rule, which definitely promotes confidence. I do spot one man with his nose poking out above his mask and I wonder if there's a collective term for people who wear their mask like this yet. Pokers? Peekers? Snout-outs?

The morning rehearsal was taken up mostly with the opening number. I sense the company's heads are full with all the information they've consumed these past four days. This is not unusual for a musical, but with this production we only have a week to rehearse - so the pressure is on. They were only cast in the show last week and now they are learning brand-new songs, choreography and a dense script in which they all play multiple roles. Plus two of them are in heels! They're all doing an amazing job.

BWW Exclusive: Nick Winston Shares His Rehearsal Diary For London's First Post-lockdown Stage Production, FANNY AND STELLA
Fanny and Stella in rehearsal

In the afternoon we continue blocking the show, covering about 20 pages. We are slightly behind schedule, but the work is good and we are being as thorough as time will allow. I always think a show takes as long as you are given to rehearse, be it one week or seven. Everyone adapts to the task at hand. Yes, it's a challenge, but one we are all thriving on.

Dexter asks the company if they are willing to work beyond 6pm tonight. And despite their exhaustion, the company agree, so we run everything we have covered in the day. We are very near the end and plan to finish blocking tomorrow and do our first run-through in the afternoon. Quite an achievement.

On the commute home, whilst I listen to "Certiorari" again, I clock a few more 'pokers' and smugly tut under my correctly worn mask! Due to the late finish, I don't return home until 9pm. I'm tired, but it feels so good to be sleepy due to a hard day's work.

Day 5: Friday 31 July

My weekly travel card from Northampton is no longer working at the barriers, which is a bit disappointing when it has cost me £169.40. At Milton Keynes, we have to wait 10 minutes for a driver; this irritates the skater boy seated closest to me, and as he shouts his profanities I notice he's a poker! His manner is more refined when he phones his mum to inform her he is going to be late arriving in Bletchley. I listen to "Certiorari" again and have a lightbulb moment about quills which turn into ostrich feathers. I message Dexter to see if there is any chance of David supplying these?

We spend the morning getting through to the end of the play, sometimes splitting rooms so Dexter and I can run two rehearsals at the same time. Mark Pearce, one of our cast members, has to leave during rehearsals to travel to the Sondheim Theatre, as the company of Les Misérables have been told to clear their belongings from their dressing rooms. It's quite a sad moment when he returns after lunch clutching his possessions.

The company and I spend an hour going over some of the choreography prior to our run-through. We recap the opening numbe,r and after half an hour of cleaning, it starts to take shape and come alive.

At 4pm, we do our first run. It's goes really well, phew! There is only "Certiorari" left to choreograph; amazingly, David had Ostrich feathers, but couldn't get them to the room until late in the afternoon, so I'll put that together tomorrow morning. But all in all a good day and there is a palatable lift in the company's spirits and energy now the finish line is in sight.

On my journey home, I read Boris Johnson's daily update in which he has delayed the reopening of many indoor venues - including theatres that were due to open their doors tomorrow. This is due to the increased rate of infection in certain hotspots.

BWW Exclusive: Nick Winston Shares His Rehearsal Diary For London's First Post-lockdown Stage Production, FANNY AND STELLA
The last day of rehearsals
for Fanny and Stella

To cheer myself up, I search the news to see if there is any update on the 'Phantomgate' fracas between Webber and Mackintosh, but instead stumble upon the sad news that director Alan Parker has died. He was one of Britain's truly great directors and I had the pleasure of having dinner with him a decade ago. He was absolutely charming and I - an avid movie buff - was completely in awe! Since then I've directed productions of both Bugsy Malone and Fame, two musicals that wouldn't exist without his genius. May he rest in peace.

Day 6: Saturday 1 August

I have a morning call with Jed and Kane on the final number to stage, but I've let them have an extra half hour in bed, which has been much appreciated! Travelling in on a later train, I certainly feel a little less sleepy and I'm energised for our final day.

As I walk into the rehearsal room, I spot Jed and Kane sat with their boots on their laps. Jed, a Kinky Boots alumnus, is giving Kane tips on how to weave the shoelaces. Cute.

We work on "Certiorari", the number that has been my Waterloo, but as is often the case, turns out to be the most fun. We even change the style of the number for a brief moment into a stripper vamp. It's camp. The boys and I are having fun, and it's a joy to get lost in these moments and forget about everything that is going on in the world. I hope the show brings a similar sense of escapism to the audiences next week.

After lunch, we do notes and make cuts from yesterday's run before our final studio run. The composer Charles Miller arrives with his friend Fenton Gray. It's funny to have two new people enter the room, their body language similar to how ours was at the beginning of the week: guards up, super alert to social distancing and extremely tentative. I notice how physically relaxed the rest of us have become over the past six days.

The run goes very well, an improvement on yesterday, and the cuts have trimmed 12 minutes from the piece. "Certiorari" goes down a treat and is greeted with enthusiastic applause. Everyone is happy and there is a celebratory atmosphere in the room.

We pose for the obligatory end-of-rehearsal group photo - and with that, we are done. There is a spring in my step on the commute home as I reflect on the epic week. Like for so many in lockdown, it has been an emotional roller coaster, filled with ups and downs, but right now I don't want to dwell on any negatives - I just want to enjoy this moment. On Monday, the show must go on!

www.fannyandstellamusical.com


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