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Behind the hype with playwright Hilary Bell

A playwright doesn’t usually have the luxury of sitting in fulltime on rehearsals, but for ‘The Hypochondriac’ I cleared my diary. With Jo Turner directing this exceptional cast of comic actors, in a play positively exploding with scatological humour, this was an opportunity not to be missed. Here’s a typical day in the rehearsal room.

10 am.

The first thing that happens, as with every day, is that the set must be assembled. We’re rehearsing in the community centre across from the theatre, but because in the evenings the space is given over to trampoline classes and zumba lessons, we have to store away our stuff. So sleeves are rolled up, and it’s all hands on deck rolling out the unwieldy set elements.

While everyone catches their breath, Jo asks about people’s plans. It’s Taco Tuesday at Sophie’s place. Gabriel has a game of Dungeons and Dragons scheduled, he’s Dungeon Master. Jamie confesses to his guilty pleasure, ‘Survivor’: he’s going to his friend’s to watch the final episode, set in Fiji, so they’ll be eating pineapple.

First up, singing practice. The actors are working from demos made by the composer Phillip, who’s American, and Maria, the sound designer, who’s Swedish. So it’s an interesting amalgam of accents they’ve picked up, but strangely appropriate, the style of the adaptation drawing from sources as varied as vaudeville routines to The Muppet Show. Maria’s job has involved creating dozens of sound effects ranging from doorbells to birdsong, from gentle farts to apocalyptic diarrhoea.

11.30 am.

Set, props and costume designer Mikey arrives laden with six homemade dildos (stuffed pantyhose), a string of lacquered sausages, and a pair of fake legs. With his spaniel Carol trotting beside him, it’s a few trips from the car to bring in a toupé for Lucia, fake bosoms for Jamie, bedpans for Darren and blue feather boas for all. Yay!

1 pm.

During lunch there’s a production meeting. Prop turds are passed around the table for approval - a log, and a peaky pile that would make Mr Whippy proud. Poor Verity is still eating... There’s discussion about how to stiffen the fake legs, and the legal issues of audience involvement (no spraying them with the enema; only handing out pills while wearing gloves).

2 pm.

Scene work. This is why it’s useful for the writer to be in the room. At Darren’s command ‘Pass me a bedpan’, Emma grabs the wrong one: “This one’s already got poo in it”. Comedy gold. The line is written in. Lucia raps the window where lovelorn Cléante hovers – it’s a gentle tap but in exactly the wrong spot, and the glass shatters. No harm done but to be certain, she’s sent off to the medical clinic where she has to explain how it happened. “Ooh, a play?” asks the nurse, “What’s it called?” When she hears the title she falls about laughing, and the story must be repeated for the rest of the staff.

4 pm.

Problem: despite the enormous size of Argan’s bed, when six people are dancing the Charleston on it wearing foot-long penises, they get tangled in sheets and stumble on pillows. Further problem: in the moment beforehand, where Toinette and Angelique conspire, what are they actually doing? Various attempts to stage the little scene don’t quite work. Then it falls into place: Toinette’s a servant: she can corral Angelique into making the bed while they scheme, at once solving problems both acting and Manchester.

There are many moments during rehearsals devoted to the technical aspects of comedy, the cool remove needed to look at a joke objectively and see what it takes to make it work. Jo never lets the company forget that what matters most is the story, and there are plenty of hilarious gags that must fall by the wayside in deference to that story and its serious ideas. It’s a critique of a self-absorbed society as well as of the relationship between Big Pharma and unscrupulous doctors. It takes aim at entitled, narcissistic men who treat women as property. And it asks the question, ‘Do we need a certain degree of self-delusion in order to make life bearable?’

5 pm.

The final hour of rehearsal is set aside for more problem-solving. How best to stick on Monica’s moustache? How does Gabriel, playing three different characters, effect 17 costume changes in one scene? How to ensure that everything doesn’t get covered in flying blue feathers? Meanwhile, Mikey is in the back lane wearing a raincoat and goggles, with a tube and a bucket, bravely preparing to test the enema that goes rogue.

6 o’clock and it’s home-time, another satisfying day spent in the service of art. I hope Molière would approve.

***

Yesterday a drama teacher asked me if it would be appropriate to bring his class of Year 9 boys to ‘The Hypochondriac’.  “Who better?!” I replied. A friend told me her elderly parents, respected members of the Jewish community, had booked tickets. “Who better?!” I replied.

Yes, it’s that type of show. And how often does one look forward to a day at work that ends with the stage manager rinsing brown liquid off a raincoat?

- Hilary Bell 

 

Posted 26 Jun 2018

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