I'd had several readings of the play with various groups of actors over the past two years. Each reading would result in further tweaks to the script, some lines cut, others rewritten. The greatest change came when I replaced young brother Michael with young sister Charlotte last year, without changing any dialogue (beyond changing "brother" to "sister" and so on), just to see if the play still worked. A reading revealed that it did, and furthermore that the play became more interesting with a larger female cast.
However, you really don't quite understand the full flavour of a play without seeing it actually directed and performed, and that's a fact.
Tom Crowley, of Crowley & Co., did a terrific job picking the play up, dusting it off and finding out what it was really all about. We assembled a ready, willing and entirely delightful team of actors - Ellie Dickens (Sylvia), Beth Eyre (Charlotte), Peter Wicks (Jason) and Daisy Badger (Hannah) - and Tom guided them through a breakneck ten days or so of rehearsal whilst I sat at home hammering out scripts for an upcoming radio series.
[Yes, dear reader, I wasn't present at rehearsals. I must admit, I'm not entirely sure if a writer has any business being in the rehearsal room. If the director doesn't look over your shoulder when you're writing the script, the least you can do is return the favour and bugger off once it's their turn to start working. I'm sure that attitude might appal a number of writers (and even a number of directors), but I've always believed in trusting to the skills and vision of the director, especially if you specifically asked them to do it. Sure, Tom and I had a number of discussions before rehearsals as to what we wanted from the production and how we felt about the themes, characters, the story of the script. If there were any problems in rehearsal (very rare), I'd receive a quick phone call. But otherwise, I wanted to place my faith in Tom, just as he'd placed his faith in the script. And I will say that his ebullient phone calls to me - "It's going so well!" - did cheer my empty, despicable heart.]
Being able to watch the play revealed several things to me. One was that, whilst I'd always thought the script had a certain something, I'd always had a suspicion that the whole thing was a bit silly, even wantonly frivolous - perhaps, though I hated to say it, a waste of time. I mean, the UK theatre scene hasn't been crying out for a play about an old lady looking for Bigfoot in Britain. But when I actually watched it - especially as it grew over the course of three performances (its last one being yesterday afternoon) - I realised this was a quietly compelling story about repression and the effects of closed-mindedness, with some real moments of sorrow and tragedy amongst the silly jokes about the Loch Ness Monster and a squabble over a comedy lamp. There was a rich stream of irony which I hadn't noticed before - that a woman who can believe that Bigfoot is outside her cottage can't bring herself to believe that her estranged son simply wants to wish her a happy birthday - and which I'm eager to explore in rewrites. This was a play which had - altogether now - "things to say", delivered through a team of quirky and engaging characters. It was even quite beautiful in places, which blindsided me.
Equally, the faults in the script became clearer. Sequences that ought to be cut down a bit to improve pacing. The fact that son Jason's motivation for being there is actually incredibly fuzzy once you think about it for more than a few seconds, and that Jason in general could do with having a few more sympathetic moments throughout the script before he goes absolutely haywire in the second act. The fact that there were lashings of egregiously unsubtle exposition throughout the first half hour for things which were adequately explained more naturally later on. The fact that there were a lot of numbers being thrown at the audience (dates, ages, and so on), to the extent that you couldn't quite remember if they were consistent or even important, and that a great deal of the story pivots rather unconvincingly on a peculiar and entirely unseen minor character who died years before the play even starts. Oh, and the fact that one of the actors was forced to utter the brazenly melodramatic line, "That was the day I learnt that dad had died!" for which I dearly hope Peter can find it in his heart to forgive me, though I wouldn't criticise him if he couldn't.
The only moment I can remember which was very much changed between performances was a kiss between Charlotte and Hannah in act two, when the two characters have reached a crisis point in the woods in the wee hours of the morning. I'd always worried that the way I'd presented it in the script felt rather unmotivated - something thrown in because "This is the kind of thing that usually happens at this point in a play!" - and yet I was convinced that it was a necessary part of my story. In our first performance, the kiss was performed as written - two kisses, in quick succession, delivered with passion and longing and so on. And it wasn't right. It didn't fit. It was only after I talked to Tom and the actors in question that I realised that what was bothering me wasn't the kiss itself - we'd briefly considered cutting it - but the fact that I'd badly fumbled the reason for it. Having watched the scenes up to that point - especially the exemplary character work courtesy of Beth and Daisy - it became clear to me that it wasn't a kiss of passion but instead of affection mixed with acute pity; perfectly in keeping with everything up till that point whilst still being a surprising turn of events that pulled together that particular subplot and became one of the most quietly dramatic moments in the play. And I didn't have a handle on that at all until I was able to watch the play being performed; it, like various other elements of the play, had been entirely masked during a simple reading.
And then there's the audience reactions. Not just feedback in the bar afterwards, but being able to hear them laughing at the funny bits, and that buzz in the air when something happens in the story that they didn't expect. You can always feel when an audience around you is engaged with a piece and, fortunately for us, our three audiences seemed taken with the play and had lots of useful opinions afterwards.
It will be my task now - amongst other things - to simplify the exposition, streamline the details, and carry on driving towards the core of what the play's about whilst still ensuring it's a jolly entertaining two hours of theatre. I'll be meeting up with Tom soon to discuss the future of the show, which will - we hope - be a full-scale production in the not entirely distant future. I look forward to that very much. If nothing else, the main thing I took away from finally watching Monster Hunters - after a few years of shopping the script around - was that it was actually a rather good play, all told. Which is a very nice thing to know.