Mad Madge: Lost, presumed missing: Zen and the art of getting a cast to a venue

You would have thought that with a cast of only five (maximum) it would be impossible to lose your cast when travelling less than one hundred miles from the Smoke. How wrong can you be. Put a performer in a car and it’s a recipe for high blood pressure, not for them but for those waiting at the far end, whose vivid imaginations already have their Rodolfo in a road rage attack or their Dulcamara in a ditch.  I’ve waited and worried enough for a Wolfgang wigful of grey hairs.

Not that the instructions to a venue from those who live within walking distance of the place often help. One of my key requests is for a map “So we can find your venue, even in the dark…”  Directions like “Turn right at the duck pond” mean nothing if it’s pitch black and the ducks have gone home for the night.  Or “It’s halfway through the village”; how do you know you’re halfway through until you’ve gone through, tried to turn round in a quagmire and come back much muddier than you went?

Then the mobile rings, if you’re lucky and you’ve got reception, of course. Churches are built like Faraday cages, designed to keep all nasty immoral radio waves firmly outside, so the mobile is of course by the main door (only signal from the outside world) and you are rehearsing at the far end. By the time you’ve sprinted the entire length of a Norman nave, the answer phone has clicked in. Ring back and the driving performer is in a blackout zone, so you leave a message.

Finally you discover they are stuck in a queue on the Mxx (insert you favourite motorway number here). They are late and can’t find the venue anywhere. There is only one final failsafe instruction, which is for them to drive up and down the main drag whilst I run outside and wave frantically in the pouring rain. As an advert for our show, a mad mezzo flagging down cars full of strange men on a dark and stormy night does not rank highly. Frankly, your best plan is to get them to stop at the village pub and go and fetch them yourself…

This is the point where satellite navigation is supposed to click in and save us all hassle. Which is fine, until your pianist heads for the Derbyshire hills, comes to a crucial junction and her electronic wünderbox loses its way, exactly halfway round a roundabout. Twenty minutes later and several circuits of said roundabout, now somewhat hot and bothered pianist is forced to ask direction to the nearest garage so she can buy a map. Emerging, atlas in hand, the now oh so smug system promptly tells her where she is. Marvellous.

Some of my performing brethren rightly spurn the life of the open road in favour of rail, and it is amazing how far into the depths of the GB countryside you can get. Only snag is, you’re stuck there; like Royston Vesey, it’s hard to leave, and certainly not after 8.23pm, when the last train wheezes its way back towards civilisation and 24 hour supermarkets. So, they get a lift home with a driving performer, which rather defeats the object…

One tenor arrived via rail and sensibly caught a taxi to the city venue, high on a hill. Unfortunately he chose the only taxi driver in Bristol who did not know where its most prestigious concert venue was. After twenty minutes driving up hill and down back alley, he leapt out and begged help from a passing pedestrian, who dismissed the taxi and walked our hero to the venue – 200 yards away…

Mad Margaret rides again


A few years back, I wrote a column for the esteemed Classical Music magazine about our exploits on tour, under the guide of Mad Madge the Mezzo. For almost two years, readers enjoyed the high, lows and downright odd things that befell Hatstand out on the road, with names and locations changed to protect the innocent and the eccentric alike!

Having rediscovered these articles recently in a file, we’ve decided to share some of the best via our blog, just for fun. And if you like them, we might even create an e-book so you can chortle over your Kindle on an exotic beach!

So, here’s the very first article, for your fun and our nostalgia!


Opera on the Road: touring tales of Hatstand Opera

“The glamour of opera,” I mutter under my breath, swinging the piano-laden estate car round a blind bend in the pouring rain, the wipers trying their best to smudge the windscreen with mud. “I must be mad.”

“You really enjoy this, don’t you,” booms the village hall committee Artistes Liaison Officer in hearty, county tones. “Lovely month, November. I’ll switch the heat on when I get back, OK?”

As we unpack the car, sliding the piano trolley down a ravine-ridden path, through swing doors that are designed to entrap strangers, and manhandle it onto a stage so high it gives you vertigo, I do wonder. Yet, a mere hour or two later, flourescent strip lights shining, the first wave of warm, friendly audience laughter fills the chilly air. Ah, performing, you can’t beat it.

Well, you can, actually. You can be richer, more secure, warmer and with a pension. You can have a definite income next month, and a tax bill that dribbles away each month, not lurking to horrify you at year end.

Why on earth do we do it? Simple, because we get to meet the GBP (Great British Public) on their home turf, from gruff colonels with faithful Labradors to indignant Wagnerians, meringue-baking Scotsmen to Scunthorpe football fans. Not forgetting the venues, of course; from top hotels to toilet blocks, flouncy marquees to medieval castles, all filled with GBP just dying to talk to us just as we’re dying to pack up and go home.

If you only ever work in an office, you’ll never get to meet these vast swaths of music lovers who have Time During The Day. They are the people at the heart of village life, who tend the church, mind the shop, protest about planning proposals and deplore the state of the roads. And they make the cast of Little Britain look the pinnacle of sanity…

Like the Mumerset lady who informed us that the venue electricity meter took 50p pieces – “the old type, mind”, and enquired “How many 50ps does your average show take?” The only source of old 50ps was not coming that night (“She don’t like opera much”) so a wet and cold dash to the appropriate cottage finally produced the magic multi-sided currency. Our show takes five, by the way, because we didn’t switch on the £10,000 rig of lighting bought with Lottery cash, as the Drama Society wouldn’t let us use them…

Or the venue committee who were having “a few renovations done”. Now we’re not generally fussy but we do like our venues to have four walls, not three and a tarpaulin billowing in a Force 5 gale. The demolished stage replaced by piles of concrete bags we could cope with, the dressing room stripped to its bare joists with hanging live wires we drew the line at, and retreated to the kitchen. We sang in a dust-laden draft, danced around the props holding the roof up, and dodged the fire extinguishers thoughtfully placed at ankle height.

The glamour of opera? Don’t get me started…