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On Deck with Nelson

October 28, 2015

I was given access to behind the scenes of actor and producer Nicholas Collett's performance of "Nelson - The Sailor's Story" on board the Cutty Sark last weekend. Have you been? If not, go! By boat, by cable car, by rail ...there are plenty of interesting ways to get to this well preserved part of London. The Cutty Sark is part of the Royal Museums Greenwich maritime experience and to stand underneath it's floating copper-bottomed hull is breath-taking and to sit in the lower hold just behind the cargo hatch and watch an unfolding performance so utterly suited to it's surroundings is an equally unique experience.


The fact that the RMG included a studio theatre within the re-creation of the Cutty Sark shows great foresight and imagination rewarded by audience feedback, time and time again. The Michael Edwards Studio Theatre is abundant in atmosphere, it is almost as if, when the last visitor has gone, the ensign lowered and the lights switched off a continual replaying of events and memories is conjured up in the gloom. When I crossed the steel walkway into the ship I felt for a moment as if the ship was moving, a gentle roll on the oceans swell as I walked suspended above ground through tea chests and giant bales of wool, the exposed interior of its sleek hull - part timber, part metal enfolding me.


There is far more involved in a touring solo show than often meets the eye. Both Nicholas Collett and his colleague and Director Gavin Robertson are seasoned international solo show performers and producers. They pare down the script, the props, the setting until the stories have no distractions and they layer in perspective, insight and humour in a way that is rare and refreshing. Nick travels light, all his props and costume arrive in the boot of his estate car, his lighting plot and Danny Brights' sound track can be downloaded straight onto the technicians laptop, he spends time ensuring the technical plot is easy to operate as not all venues have experienced lighting and sound operators and smooth cue-ing can make or break the show. There is usually only a minimal amount of time on arrival to build a rappaport with the staff and technicians, set up the lights and sound, familiarise with the stage and performance environment and create a sense of team, all working towards a common purpose.


On board The Cutty Sark, the tea chests that form the screen for a film played on loop throughout the day is being disassembled and staging produced from nowhere to make a performance area. Cooured Gels are inserted, barn doors tweaked, cues gone over, sound levels checked, front of house staff check that public areas are made ready for pre-show refreshments as the gleaming hull floats overhead and a distant gallery of colourful Figure Heads (including  the original Cutty Sark figurehead) cluster together to observe events unfolding. The events programmer Margie Barbour hustles everyone gently according  to schedule, spreading warmth and welcome to ensure that the team and the audience alike have a good evening.


Nick, having mastered the complexities of performing around the ships columns and satisfied that Matthew has the lighting and sound under control retires to the 'Tween Deck which provides a model dressing room most suited to the choice of play. Later when Nick is in costume, Margie takes him up on deck and we all have a sense of how it must have been in Nelsons day, standing on the rain slicked foredeck, the wind off the Thames and the crack of the sails. Although Nelson would never have been onboard the Cutty Sark, or witnessed it speed across oceans little had changed for the sailors of Nelsons time when the Cutty Sark came along, it was only once steam ships arrived that sea-faring for both merchant seamen and men of the Royal Navy changed so irrevocably.


As a venue for Nick's solo show, the Cutty Sark was memorable. When we arrived, talk was all of comedian Alistair McGowan's recent show, when we left everyone had a sense of experiencing something unique. Although Nick's play is as rooted in our contemporary world as it is in the Royal Navy's historical life of skirmishes and battles during the 'French Campaign' - it gave a cold distant history relevance and colour,  from Nelson's brilliance and a powder monkey's bravery to a bitter and unforgiving New Year's Eve in Trafalgar Square, all of which admirably passed muster in the cargo hold of one of the fastest Clippers to tramp the seas.


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