The show goes on, come rain or canine

Andrew Cullum
Andrew Cullum
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IT’S not just postmen that have to deal with itinerant hounds while going about their duties, it seems.

Actor Andrew Cullum can cite at least one occasion where a disrespectful mutt stormed the stage midway through a show he was in.

“In Much Ado About Nothing once we had a dog that got off the leash and joined us on stage,” recalls the Heartbreak veteran.

“That doesn’t happen often, but it’s something you have to try and get around. The audience is obviously waiting for you to deal with the problem and sometimes the quickest way can be to break a minute and return the dog to its owner.”

Thankfully the worst Sheffield has thrown at Heartbreak’s three teams of five actors during visits to Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens – they opened their 2012 account there last week with a new Much Ado – is a large ginger cat.

It sometimes gatecrashes over a neighbouring garden wall and strolls among the audience blagging picnic items.

“I know the cat. We’ve met him in previous years,” says Andrew, this year starring in a reworking of The Railway Children story.

E Nesbit’s story of Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis plays the park August 10-12.

Heartbreak opened its 2012 account last week with Much Ado About Nothing and also sends Noel Coward’s comedy Private Lives there on August 16-19.

The roving cast of this well established al fresco company call themselves Heartbreakers. But often during three months of touring the nation’s urban open spaces they have to be more like trawlermen as they cope with inclement conditions hardly fit for staging a play.

“The worst conditions are where the audience can neither see nor hear. Oddly enough performing in the rain isn’t as bad as you might think. The worst enemy is wind. If you’re in a park with a lot of trees with leaves that are going to rustle in the high wind, that can be a bigger problem. That said, trying to keep costumes dry and out of the mud is something of a trial.

“But we carry on. If it’s really, really bad, absolutely coming down in sheets and the rain is bouncing off the stage six inches, it’s more about whether people can hear if it’s beating down on their umbrellas.

“If we can’t be heard the best thing is to stop for 10 minutes and hope it blows over and carry on. It’s very rare that happens. From a performing point of view, once you’re wet you’re not going to get any wetter so you might as well carry on.”

Andrew recognises the benefit of performing in such circumstances, however, not least for actors seeking to strengthen their craft.

“It’s keeping the truth of the performance that is hard. You rehearse something in ideal conditions and then you’re maybe playing a love scene or something with a lot of gravitas and somehow or other you have to hang on to the reality of that, even when it’s throwing it down with rain and blowing a gale and maybe there’s an ambulance driving past outside.

“One of the things open air theatre teaches you to do is focus on what you are doing. Most actors who have done it will say you get to a point where nothing is going to put you off. All actors at some stage should give it a go because it teaches you such a lot.”

Then again, surely England is one of the few places on the planet where people both sides of a stage would put up with such conditions, either for work or pleasure.

“Quite possibly,” laughs Andrew. “It is a peculiarly English thing to do, I think. The great British public are great at sticking it out along with the actors.”

Home comforts are Bard as cast ‘slum it’

BANISHED are any thoughts of comfy dressing rooms when the Heartbreak players hit the road for summer.

But the actors absolutely love it and keep signing up for more each year – in Andrew’s case 10.

“We are used to roughing it,” he says. “When you do open air theatre there are things asked of you as an actor and a person that aren’t when you do indoor theatre.

“Firstly you’ve got the weather do deal with, of course, and then you’re also travelling huge distances in the van. You’re also building the stage before you can perform on it. In one sense doing the show is quite a small part of it.”

Already a professional actor, Andrew was seduced by the outdoor life when he saw Heartbreak shows in the late ’90s. In 2000 a production of The Tempest prompted him to write to the company.

“I auditioned the following year for Taming Of The Shrew and have been with Heartbreak most years since then.

“It’s enjoyable work and some of the best experiences I’ve had in my career I’ve had with this company. It’s very nice when you get a company you like working with and they like having you back.

“And it’s interesting the number of people who do return year on year. Every team this year has a healthy mix of old hands and new blood.”

Many do other work at other times of the year, of course. In recent years Andrew has played Dame in panto with a different company and also performed in his own play, The Panto Girls, last year.

With Heartbreak he has played everyone from Richard III to a mermaid and Captain Hook – in the same production of Peter Pan. In The Railway Children he is The Old Gentleman, Perks and Young Jim, the lad who breaks his leg in the railway tunnel.

“For me The Railway Children was top of my list this year. People ask us ‘How are you going to do the train?’ and I’m not sure I want to tell you exactly how we do it. But let’s just say you’ll believe you’re seeing trains going past a little countryside station... in the same way that with Peter Pan people believed a boy could fly.”

Andrew won’t reveal anything more, but he does confirm Sheffield as one of his highlights of Heartbreak tours.

“We enjoy coming to Botanical Gardens. The setting is beautiful and we always seem to get a really good audience. It’s an ideal combination of being a city venue that is beautiful and suited to open air theatre, and there’s not much by way of extraneous noise. ”

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