The Sunderland Empire Theatre, September 2006
I have such fond memories of this trip after spending so much of it just laughing at the most silly, random things. We stayed at a Travelodge that was positioned on the main walking route to the theatre and joked about spotting cast members...until they actually started appearing there for real! I nearly yelled things out of windows, we accidentally stalked Dean Maynard, Alex Durrant read out minds and then, to top off the perfect afternoon, we were ushered into the stage door by our two favourite Jellicles for a proper chat. This was a stage door that really stuck in my memory.
Well, the Sunderland Empire Theatre was quite a surreal stage door experience - probably more so for the cast than it was for us! Sunderland is, obviously, a long way from Stoke-on-Trent, and even for a matinee, we'd need to stay the night up there. So we were booked into a Travelodge just down the road from the theatre, so much just down the road in fact that the room Liz and me were sharing had a window which looked down onto the main pedestrian road up to stage door. The moment we figured this out we went slightly insane with amusement and excitement and, mostly jokingly, we set ourselves up on the sofa under the window and peered down to see if any cast members might be making their way up to the theatre. What we weren't expecting was to actually see any cast members...but that's exactly what happened!
The first person we saw from out hotel window was none other than the illusive Zak Nemorin - although we were fairly sure we'd imagined him at the time, it later turned out we were right! Real or not, the potential sighting got us giggling - and hoping - so we stayed at our place by the window, talking excitedly about the show and keeping a vague eye on the street below. And sure enough, we saw another couple of familiar faces; Alex Durrant and Rachel Ensor are walking along the street together, dragging their suitcases behind them, thankfully oblivious to the two ridiculous girls in the Travelodge above...even after I erupted with 'OH MY GOD, THAT'S ALEX DURRANT!' really loudly when I spotted them! My friend clamped a hand over my mouth and tackled me to the floor pretty sharpish after that, sensing that we did not want to get caught out acting like crazed stalkers! It was all in good fun, I promise, just a silly way to pass the time and build the excitement for the show by confirming that all our favourites were in. That shriek of mine was an enduring memory for both of us, and we did laugh for about five minutes solid afterwards. We were only interrupted from the hilarity by my dad knocking on our door and, when we pulled ourselves together enough to let him in, he informed us that he and my mum had been at the pub below and had definitely been sitting opposite 'That Misto guy...or possibly not that Misto guy...but definitely someone from the cast'. Cue the mad scramble to get our shoes on and follow my dad down to the pub - turns out this was a good choice to make!
When we got down to the pub, we settled in with a couple of colas and a plate of chips and before we'd even had time to have a sip of our drinks, another familiar face strolled along. Who should turn the corner onto the street? None other than Dean Maynard, of course! He stopped at the corner and looked us over in total confusion for a moment before finally realising why he remembered us. He points at us and just goes 'You!' and we scramble up from our bench and go over to meet him. 'What are you doing outside a pub?!' he demanded cheerily. So we chat to Dean for a while. Back then we ran a website - well, a Livejournal - for fans of the cast and Dean was by far one of the most popular people so we told him all about that and passed on some messages from his fans before telling him we would be at the matinee the next day and then letting him on his way. By the time we staggered back to our bench and recovered with massive gulps of our drinks, who should show his face but Kevin McGuire?! Once again there was much surprised double-taking before he came over and hugged me. Back in Stoke he'd told me he was the first understudy for Mistoffelees and I'd missed him play Mistoffelees by a day, so we talked again about him playing Misto for a while (yes, I'd missed yet another occasion to see him play Mistoffelees!) before he too went on his way. By this point, we were worried as we had yet to see any sign of John, so we made plans to go down to the theatre in time for the end of the evening show to see if we could track him down (and also to make sure we knew where the stage door was). We saw and - for fear of embarrassment/accusations of stalking - tried to avoid eye-contact with Alex Durrant and Gary Watson, we witnessed Trevor Schoonraad steal a fellow Jellicle's taxi off them and we saw Kevin McGuire again, and of course Dean Maynard - and for some reason, with him, we were always sure that his accusations of stalking were in jest so we weren't shy about talking to him again at all! We told him how great a Munkustrap he is and talked to him about the video production. After that he promised to come and see us after the matinee the next day and then went off down the street. By this point we'd seen almost everyone and still no sign of John McManus. We knew he was usually always first out, so rather than wait we headed back to the Travelodge to hope for the best and try not obsess too much over the possibility of a John-less show the next day.
We were awake early the next day for the usual pre-stage-door rituals, making sure our hair was just right, deciding what to wear and discussing who we most wanted to get photographs with at stage door, having learned by this point that going in with a plan was often the only way to not feel like you'd missed something important somehow. After a breakfast where we could hardly bring ourselves to eat a thing, we still found ourselves with plenty of time on our hands, and all-checked-out of our hotel, therefore in need of killing time. And how do two theatre-freaks kill time before a matinee? By walking round and round in circles around the theatre of course! And after running away from Kevin McGuire at one point ('He can't see us yet!!') we continued our laps of the theatre, deep in conversation about the show and the cast, before bumping into Dean Maynard yet again! Carrying bags full of fruit and shaking his head at us, he came over and we said hello and he was patient enough to chat a little with us before going off to do his make-up. It was only as the stage door closed behind him that we realised we should have asked him whether John was in that day!
As usual, the performance blew us away. After holding our breath for the understudies announcement, we were finally able to relax, safe in the knowledge John was there, and we hugged each other tightly as the Overture began. In The Naming Of Cats, Kevin passed by our seat to give us a smile and then in The Old Gumbie Cat, Dean gave us a tiny little gesture to let us know he had seen us too. Bustopher Jones was, yet again, a highlight, and this time, unlike in Bradford, we got to see Christopher Howell as Bustopher once more. John's Skimbleshanks was rehearsing seriously what he wanted to say to Bustopher Jones, before screwing it up totally by offering a handshake to Bustopher's salute and a salute to his handshake, whilst Alex Durrant's Bill Bailey was getting told off and kept pouting at the audience, desperately seeking some sympathy. And of course, as usual, Pekes and the Pollicles was fantastically funny, with Dean's Munkustrap really milking the humour out of Alonzo/Rumpus Cat's incompetence and John's Skimbleshanks this time insulting the Pekes roundly before gunning them down. Other highlights were the Jellicle Ball, which never fails to stun me, and then Growltiger's Last Stand with Growltiger's crew misbehaving in the background - Trevor's Misto turned Pete's Alonzo's headscarf round so it was over his eye and when they hid behind Growltiger and Griddlebone's sofa there wasn't quite enough room so Dean's Munkustrap elbowed Pete out the way, making him roll out with a big grin on his face before he scrambled back and was promptly elbowed right back out by Dean again. Oh, and then John pretended to fly offstage...the most eccentric Skimbleshanks ever, but I maintain the best ever too! In Mistoffelees, Tugger taunted an excitable Carbucketty who was watching him with awe as he dropped Mistoffelees' jacket on poor CB's head and then in the Finale, John came over to us and touched a paw to each of our cheeks. We were grinning madly by the time the orchestra played the final notes and we rushed round to stage door right away in search of our favourites.
The first face we saw at stage door was that of Christopher Howell. He remembered us immediately and, although he was in a rush, he was kind enough to say hello and have his picture taken with us, even when his phone rang the moment we got the camera out! He bid us goodbye quite quickly, but he had still cemented himself as one of our favourite stage door people with ease. After Chris, there was something of a lull - the curse of stage dooring after a matinee of Cats, as I mentioned regarding our Bradford trip - is that you never quite know who you're going to see or when you're going to see them, and unless you want to put a call-out out for someone then you just have to take whoever you get. One person we did see again? Zak Nemorin. Who grinned at us as brightly as ever. He'd come over to us a couple of times during the show as well, beaming that ridiculous Mungojerrie grin of his! But do you know what we? Nothing. He even had his picture taken with some other girls who were there! And we stood and watched as he did, saying to each other 'Hey, this time we can get Zak!'. And then we stepped aside to move out of his way and let him go off down the street. There was a small delayed reaction as we realised just what we'd done, then we laughed, then we shook our heads and facepalmed a lot. And then thankfully Dean came out to distract us.
One of the many great things about stage dooring for Dean Maynard? If you tell him you're coming, he'll make sure to show his face for you, even if that face is covered in Munkustrap make-up! So, just as he had said he would the night before, Dean came down to stage door to say hello to the two strange, giggling girls from Stoke. And yes, he was still in his Munkustrap make-up, and yes, this was how we first started calling him Deankerstrap. We told him yet again how wonderful he was as Munkustrap and he told us yet again how sure he was we were wrong - he had a thing about double-pirouettes, the thing being (according to him) that he couldn't do them properly and so in the Jellicle Ball he had to try and hide at the back and cover the fact he wasn't really doing them properly, only doing single pirouettes instead. When you have a voice like Dean Maynard's? Your performance is not hampered at all by not-quite-double pirouettes, I promise you.
After Dean disappeared back up to his dressing room (apologising for using his 'stage smile' for our photograph!), Alex Durrant, who had slipped past us earlier, returned from the shops. Well, I say shops, he seemed mostly to be carrying Boots bags - our theory was that, as the acrobatic Bill Bailey, he would end up nursing a lot of minor injuries, though we never got round to asking him if that was true or not! Alex was, as always, a total sweetie, and posed for pictures with us in the light drizzle that was starting to come down. At this point I think my dad was getting bored of watching us dither about, giggling and conspiring, so he pipes up and asks Alex if it would be possible for him to fetch anyone down for us. So then Alex - because he was brilliant - just looks right at me, oh-so-knowingly, and says 'Who would you like?'. I'm laughing just remembering the look on his face, my goodness! He so had me pegged! My dad and me both said 'Kevin' at the same time, but I blurted it and Alex smirked at me. My dad then ventures 'And...John?' I nodded and he went 'John McManus?' so I nodded again, so Alex just smiles and says 'Sure, I'll just go and find them for you.' I don't know if Alex shared a dressing room with them or not but I think he might've done from the way he always found them for us, and I certainly know Kevin and John were in the same dressing room, so we were fairly confident that this strategy would pay off. And it definitely did! Bless Alex Durrant!
John was the first to appear, with a clearly curious Lorraine Chappell (Bombalurina) in tow. 'Hello! How are we?! Come in! Come in come in come in come in! It's very cold!' Ever the master of exaggeration about the temperature was John - he'd been too hot in Bradford and too cold everywhere else! So in we shuffle, getting hugged to within an inch of our lives as we're asked about the journey up. Kevin appears at this point and I give him a personalised keyring which I'd forgotten to give him the night before and we talked a little about the show and yet again I told him how much I would love to see him as Mistoffelees. John, by this point, has noticed our t-shirts and so whilst Lorraine and Kevin read his keyring, John spun Liz and I around to read our t-shirts. 'What's on the back? Gawwwww! John Rules!! Kevin, John, Dean, Alex, Chris, Lorraine...' Kevin looks up at his name then and notices the t-shirts, going to read mine. 'Kevin Rocks...Aw!' so then John jumps in with 'Let's see yours! Aw!' We were just beaming.
Conversation then moved on to the show's upcoming stint in Portugal ('It's a big of a trek, isn't it' - John McManus' words of wisdom about us choosing not to go and see the show there!) and then eventually they ask about the website - Dean had obviously been talking! So John asks 'What's all this I hear about a website?' So we try and explain it a bit whilst John's asking 'I'll have to take a look, what's the address? I'll have to go and look on that'. We're telling them a bit about it then and Lorraine Chappell asks 'Awesome, so anyone can just go on and look?' and we said yes, people could log on and browse and post comments and all sorts. John then uttered a phrase which became another running joke of ours 'I'd love to log on and browse!' at which point Kevin chirps in with 'We could post like a little comment or something!' and John coos 'Yeah, like a little comment...Hi Kev, from John!' The whole conversation was madness, looking back! John then asks us if we enjoyed the performance, and of course we enthusiastically told him how much we did enjoy it, to which he replied 'I heard you cheering! I'm surprised you have any voices left! I was thinking though: What's all this cheering and whooping?! Ahhh! The girls are in!!' Cheering and Whooping then went into our big book of long-running jokes which we raked over and over for a long time to come! Kevin agreed with John, saying something along the lines of 'I know! It was so loud! It was awsome!' and then we all reached that awkward point of realising it was time to say goodbye. 'See you in Bristol!' John assured us, giving us each one of his bone-crushing hugs and beaming from ear to ear whilst I'm asking Kevin for a photo and he's insisting he looks awful as, in the background, Lorraine Chappell looked on, bemused and amused, as Kevin tried to fix his hair in a nearby mirror.