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Guest Blog: Robert Bathurst On LOVE, LOSS & CHIANTI at Riverside Studios

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Guest Blog: Robert Bathurst On LOVE, LOSS & CHIANTI at Riverside Studios
Robert Bathurst

I've relished the blank stares I've received when discussing this project. The only way to get people onside has been to perform it at any opportunity - in try-outs at art galleries, pubs, clubs, an orangery, theatres.

Anywhere just to get it on its hind legs and show people that the poet Christopher Reid's writing can connect instantly with an audience; his wit, clarity, sumptuous phrasing, high emotion and, I believe, superhuman ability to express feelings which most of us cannot articulate. I'd read his publications A Scattering and The Song of Lunch in 2010, and immediately thought they could be performed live.

I first met Christopher at the Dovedale Arts Festival, where I was doing a performance with Lynne Truss. Christopher was reading pieces from A Scattering, which had recently won the Costa Book of the Year award. We'd been billeted for a night in the same house and, across the kitchen table in the morning, I was yearning to ask him for the right to develop his work for theatre. But he was captive; I worried he'd feel trapped and it would ruin his breakfast, or he'd wriggle free of any commitment by muttering "Talk to my agent". I held back. Idiot, I should have dived straight in.

A year later, I was given the job of reading A Scattering as the Radio 4 Afternoon Play. It turned out that Christopher had recommended me for it. I then felt I could ask him if I could try staging A Scattering and The Song of Lunch. He shrugged in a puzzled sort of way and immediately said yes. I had wasted a year.

After that came the blank stares when I talked to people about it. There was no point trying to explain to anyone what I was planning - I had to start performing the pieces.

I grabbed the opportunity of a Poetry London magazine fundraiser in Notting Hill to do The Song of Lunch. It went down a storm, and Christopher was there. From that point he began to look less puzzled; he became wholly supportive of the project, and I've been riding on a wave of his trust ever since.

So, the literary crowd liked it - but what about mainstream theatre audiences? And would it work as a double bill with A Scattering?

Guest Blog: Robert Bathurst On LOVE, LOSS & CHIANTI at Riverside StudiosI pitched the idea of the show to Jonathan Church at the Chichester Festival Theatre. I asked him for a slot in their long summer season at the Minerva. He gave me just a fortnight in the middle of winter. Fine, that was enough for a try-out. Now, how to bring those two books of verse to a 300-seat theatre - why not just do them in a room above a pub which, surely, is where poetry belongs?

My plan for Chichester was to perform A Scattering on my own with live music, followed by The Song of Lunch as a two-hander with a setting of cartoon animation. The whole show is about love and loss, and there's a lot of drinking in the second half, so it'd be called Love, Loss & Chianti.

The Jerwood Foundation and the Arts Council gave me grants to commission the composition and animation. Chichester offered a generous box office deal, perhaps in the expectation of low audiences but, hah!, we were packed out, extended the run and ended in profit.

That was in 2015. The Chichester try-out had gone very well, but in the wider world the blank stares continued as I tried to explain to people what I was up to. Cold Feet was recommissioned by ITV and there was little time for a long run of Love, Loss & Chianti. So, I took any opportunity to perform the show in cabaret settings, without music or animation.

In winter 2016 I was in Chicago doing a production, King Charles III. I walked into a large art gallery and asked if I could do a one-nighter of both the pieces. In typical Chicago fashion the owners said yes with barely a question asked. I wanted to see how American audiences took to Reid's verse. Poetry, and the prospect of being exposed to it, doesn't panic Americans like it does the British. It went very well. (It's good stuff, I keep telling you).

Several more try-outs were put on to keep the show oiled. I have both books in my head and go through them when stuck in supermarket queues, when I'm on the train or in traffic jams. It's a perfect meditative pause.

Everything seems to take a year to set up. In autumn 2017, I decided to take The Song of Lunch to Edinburgh the following August. I'd do the show's second half, the funny one; funny sells in Edinburgh. A Scattering, Christopher's autobiographical depiction of grief, would be kept for another day. Putting on The Song of Lunch, I'd see - with Charles Peattie's animation - how Reid's comic verse worked in competition with 3,500 other shows.

Performing it with Rebecca Johnson, we packed out the month, got a five-star review in The Times, and were seen by William Burdett-Coutts, who offered to co-produce the double bill at his sparkling new Riverside Studios in London.

So here we go. Charles Peattie is doing an animated setting for A Scattering and we're booked for a 12-week run in London starting in February. I want to take it back to Chicago in its full form - I know they'd love it there. I want to take it to Australia. Big talk, maybe, but eight years into this mission I tell people about the show and, though I'm still getting the same old stares, they're not quite as blank as they used to be.

Love, Loss and Chianti, starring Robert Bathurst and Rebecca Johnson, is playing at the Riverside Studios 25 February-17 May

Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning

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