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Autumn Magnets

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ACT ONE

[SCENE: A garden, lush and luxuriant, almost sensually so; there is a suggestion of ripe fruit indicative of early autumn, and of a mist that rose earlier this morning, but which has now dissipated.

Enter stage left the head gardener, JULIAN. He is a tall handsome scruffy Yorkshireman with a moustache, dressed in some vague approximation of a green uniform. Enter stage right his apprentice, LEON. He is a less tall, possibly rather younger, thinnish, quite girly-looking faux-Cockney. LEON has the same vague uniform, but has sought to individualise it by wearing a striped tee-shirt, a hat, and a studded leather belt with it, and sewing rock band patches onto his jacket. One may immediately assume that LEON believes he is "cool", or at least cooler than JULIAN. The two stand next to each other].

JULIAN (to audience, breaking the fourth wall and thus showing this is going to be quite "edgy" and metafictional): Hi. Welcome to the Cosmic Garden. My name's Julian. This is Leon, my apprentice.

LEON (a little flirtatiously): Apprentice? Get stuffed. You're my apprentice.

JULIAN: Don't start showing out.

LEON (smirking): Or what?

JULIAN: Or I'll come at you fast, like a northern bullet.

(Leon shakes his head, looking simultaneously amused, aporetic, and aroused by this ineffectual threat).

************************************************************

Vince read this far in his script, and then stopped. At least, he was pretty sure this was his script, and he knew for a fact he had stopped reading, because that's all there was.

"I'm so glad you were able to take the role of Julian in my devised piece Autumn Magnets", said Simon McFarnaby. "I saw you in Candide at The Palladium, and you were sensational. Perfectly captured the idiot-faced optimism that makes Candide such an infuriating character to watch".

"Thanks for asking me", said Vince. "The thing is though, I think Howard sort of had his heart set on the role".

"Oh dear old Howard", said Simon, with real affection in his voice. "He was quite out of the question though – he can't act. He gets on stage and he just ... chokes. Freezes up. It's pathetic, yet quite funny too, when you're in the right mood. But I wouldn't be in the mood when it's my devised piece".

Vince had arrived for his first day at the Camden Community Theatre, not knowing quite what to expect. He had met with Simon in the room they had been assigned – it wasn't very large, probably because they only had a cast of two. It looked rather like an empty classroom, with lines of tables shoved against the back wall to create a performance space, but they had a good view of the street below from the second storey.

"So how did you want me to approach the character of Julian?", asked Vince.

"Well Julian's from Yorkshire ... can you do a Yorkshire accent?", Simon enquired.

"Aye oop, lad, that I can", said Vince in a thick comedy accent.

"Look, this is devised theatre, not Monty Python", said Simon impatiently. "Julian is an educated, middle-class man from the well-to-do suburbs of some major urban centre, not a farmworker off the moors. Tone the accent right down".

"A major urban centre in Yorkshire? You mean like Leeds or something?".

"It doesn't have to be Leeds ... it could be Sheffield or Halifax, let's leave that open for now", said Simon. "And he needs to have a moustache, so start growing one at once. It would be good if you could make yourself a bit bigger as well – Julian is quite tall".

"Couldn't you have just got a tall Yorkshireman with a moustache for the role?", asked Vince.

"That isn't how acting works", said Simon. "You, as the actor, must be able to portray a particular character, even changing yourself physically for the role if necessary. An actor must be prepared to portray someone of a different age, the opposite gender, or a different sexuality; they must be ready to gain or lose weight for the role, or gain or lose height. They might need to shave their head, pretend to be deformed, or in this case, grow a moustache".

"Yeah, okay", said Vince, writing grow mustashe on his script. "And who's playing Leon?".

"Well, I auditioned dozens of actors, but none of them were quite girly enough", said Simon. "So I cast quite a boyish-looking actress in the role. Ah, here she is now".

"I'm so sorry to be late to rehearsal on my first day", said a tall, thin woman with a mop of untidy brown curls, trailing clouds of scarves behind her as she twirled dramatically into the room. "I know it's dreadful of me – please, please forgive me, darlings".

She looked beseechingly at them both and fluttered her long eyelashes. False, thought Vince spitefully. And that coming in late – nothing more than a bid for attention.

"That's quite alright", said Simon tolerantly. "I think for the first day, we'll keep it very informal. Vanessa, this is Vince: he's playing Julian. And Vince, Vanessa will be playing your apprentice, Leon".

"How do you do?", said Vanessa in a friendly way. She reached over to shake Vince's hand, and then decided to kiss him on each cheek instead.

"Actually I don't think Leon is an apprentice", Vince said, sounding more aggressive than he meant. "I think that's just something Julian says, as a joke or something".

"Ooh great, you're coming up with theories already", said Simon delightedly. "But what do you think, Vanessa? I mean, you actually are Leon. Is he an apprentice?".

"Well I think he probably is", said Vanessa. "But he's such a scatterbrain I can see him not realising that, or forgetting about it".

"Wonderful, Vanessa", said Simon. "I can see you're getting into Leon's headspace. And Vince, how do you see Julian?".

"He's a bit of a berk", offered Vince. "Always trying to boss Leon around, put him in his place. He acts as if he knows everything, and treats Leon like a child".

"Hm, well he is the head gardener", said Simon, not looking quite convinced. "It doesn't sound as if you're really sympathetic to your character".

"He's hardly a character yet", said Vince. "I mean, the script finishes after just a few lines".

"That's because this is devised theatre", said Simon. "Surely you understand what that means?".

"It means the script is something that we, the director and actors, create ourselves collectively from a particular jumping-off point", said Vanessa brightly. "It's a technique used in theatre since ancient times".

"Very good, Vanessa", said Simon with a smile in her direction.

"And Simon's known as the foremost exponent of devised theatre in Britain today", continued Vanessa.

"Please, Vanessa! You'll give me a big head", said Simon with a wide smile. "But even though I may be the foremost exponent of devised theatre in contemporary Britain, I want you both to treat me as just as part of the team, and part of the theatrical process. I want you to challenge me, to tear my ideas down so they can be remade anew".

"So we're going to write the rest of the script ourselves?", said Vince.

"Yes. Through improvisation, workshopping, theatre games, clowning, brainstorming, and through what I call The Simon McFarnaby Method, which means we all just muck in and get it done!".

Vanessa laughed in appreciation, while Vince wondered what the hell Simon was going on about. He'd always thought Howard used too many big words and was inclined to push his weight around, but Simon was far worse.

Vince thought maybe Howard wasn't so bad, after all. When he got home, he'd do something nice for him; offer him a Raspberry Bootlace, or ask him if he wanted to watch Colobus the Crab together. Then he remembered Howard was in a mood with him, for getting the role of Julian that he'd wanted. He wiped his brow: this was all getting too complicated.

"Now Vanessa, I really want you to have fun with Leon's hair, make-up, and costumes", Simon went on. "You'll need to have your hair straightened, cut into a shag, then dyed very dark with blonde highlights. There'll be fifteen people working on your hair at any one time".

"Goodness, that will be a lark", said Vanessa. "I never bother with my hair normally, I just leave it soft and natural".

"You can tell", said Vince, his lip curled.

"I'm really looking forward to completely altering my appearance for the role", said Vanessa. "It's great that I not only get to play a man, but one who's more feminine than I am, and wears a lot more make-up than I usually do. I'm going to be stretched in so many different ways".

Vince snickered.

"Splendid", said Simon ushering her out of the room. "Can you pop down the hall to Penny in make-up and Lucy in wardrobe? You have a lot to talk about".

"Bye, Vince", called Vanessa as she exited. "It was scrumptious meeting you, and I just know we're going to enjoy working together. I feel as if we're super chums already". She gave him a little wave.

"See ya", said Vince, looking at his fingernails.

Simon came up to Vince, and put his arm around him in a big brotherly sort of way.

"Vince, can I ask you to be a bit nicer to Vanessa?'", he said. "You didn't even greet her when she entered the room, and your attitude has been quite antagonistic".

"Sorry", said Vince. "I'm being a bit of a tit, aren't I?".

"Just a little", smiled Simon. "But why on earth don't you like her? She a lovely woman, so simple and sunny. Everyone adores Vanessa. One of the reasons I chose her for the role is because I thought you two would get on like a house on fire".

"It's probably that I'm already getting into my role", suggested Vince. "You know, working up some real grumpiness towards Leon".

"That's how you see Julian?", said Simon with a furrowed brow. "As a grouch who doesn't like Leon?".

"Yeah he gets pretty annoyed with Leon a lot of the time", said Vince, rather sadly. "You know, because Leon is a bit thick".

"But Vince, Julian and Leon are the best of friends", said Simon. "They might tease each other and get on each other's nerves from time to time, but the two of them are very close. Where did you get the idea that Julian and Leon didn't get on with each other?".

"Dunno", shrugged Vince. "I suppose it was all that stuff where Julian is putting Leon down and threatening to hit him".

"Oh Vince, Julian wouldn't hurt a fly", said Simon, ruffling his hair in a big brotherly manner. "That's how he shows his affection. The only way he can imagine getting physical with Leon".

"Don't touch my hair", snapped Vince, smoothing it back down. "I don't like it messed with".

"Ah yes, your hair", said Simon. "You're going to have to change that for the role. I want you to stop doing anything at all to your hair, starting now. Later on, we'll dye it brown, and put a loose perm through it, and then scruff it up. What colour's your hair under all that lot?".

"Um, it's sort of fairish", said Vince.

"Mouse coloured?".

"No, dark blond", said Vince, irritated. "And it's got ... I dunno, a sort of slight wave in it".

"Good", said Simon briskly. "Stop dyeing it, and let it grow without getting it cut or styled. It will be easier to turn it into Julian's hair from your natural state".

Vince looked appalled, but nodded once; a quick sharp bob of his head.

"So where did you get the idea for Julian and Leon, anyway?", asked Vince slowly, staring down at his script.

"Oh, using two clown figures who feed off each other has been a major trope in theatre since forever", said Simon easily; Vince was glad he'd stopped putting his arm around him, and was now striding around the room. "It started with the rustic fools of ancient Greek and Roman drama, and was developed by the commedia dell'arte during the Italian Renaissance. They're in Shakespeare, they're in Beckett ...".

"Wait a minute. Julian and Leon are clowns?", said Vince. "I thought they were gardeners. It says here they're gardeners". He tapped on the script with his fingers.

"By 'clown', I mean they take on the role of the clown in the play", explained Simon. "Their actual jobs could be anything – gravediggers, tramps. Or in this case, gardeners".

"And why a garden?".

"An obvious symbol of innocence, like the Garden of Eden", said Simon. "And the fact that it's called The Cosmic Garden is suggestive of a microcosm: that the world we show on stage is a representation of, not only our own planet, but our entire universe".

"What, the whole universe is going to be in a small theatre?", said Vince disbelievingly.

"That's right!", chuckled Simon. "It's incredible isn't it? And just as the Garden of Eden kicked off all the events of the Bible, are we in fact showing that The Cosmic Garden represents the Big Bang, or even, the period before The Big Bang? A place innocent of time and space? Hmm?".

"Er ... yes", said Vince, a bit desperately.

"Yes it's the Big Bang, or yes it's the period before The Big Bang?", questioned Simon keenly.

"Um ... the second one", said Vince.

He had no idea what Simon was banging on about, and his head hurt. Howard was the one who liked talking about philosophical things; he would have enjoyed this conversation, while it was just making Vince feel sick and dizzy, as if he'd been on a rollercoaster too many times.

"This has been a fantastic rehearsal", said Simon, quickly scribbling down notes onto his own script. "I love these brainstorming sessions, where we put forward and develop our thoughts for the play. You've come up with some brilliant ideas, Vince. That whole notion of getting outside time and space, or living beyond them ... really great stuff".

"Oh well, it just sort of came to me", said Vince vaguely. He was pretty sure it was really Simon who'd come up with all the ideas, and he was just saying Vince had so that he could claim they were doing dervish theatre, or whatever it was called.

"Ah, the humility of the true genius", said Simon, looking pleased.

"So you didn't base Julian and Leon on anyone you know in real life, then?", said Vince, looking directly at Simon.

"My heavens no", said Simon in amusement. "They're stock characters, done thousands of times before. Each time we, as artists, must reach into the pool and remake the characters in a slightly different image".

"You don't think Julian is a bit like Howard? You know, being tall and handsome from Yorkshire with a moustache?".

"That's one of the biggest fallacies about the creative process", Simon said with a superior little smile. "People think you must have based every character on someone you know, when nine times out of ten they're straight from your imagination. But there's often a little of yourself in your characters, and I think perhaps Julian is like me in some ways".

"Like you?".

"Yes, I'm quite tall, you see", said Simon. "And I'm from the north of England, not far from Yorkshire. And I expect some people think of me as quite scruffy, and I'm really rather handsome in a craggy way. I mean, stick a moustache on me, and I'm Julian".

Vince had a proper look at Simon, and thought he was a bit like Howard ... a sort of Alternative Howard. He shuddered to think of the universe where he got stuck with Simon as his best mate. He had an idea Alternative Vince would be a cunning, nasty piece of work who would do anything for fame and publicity, rather than graciously allowing fame and publicity to come to him, the way Vince did. Then he thought Simon must be getting to him, making up alternative universes as if they were real or meant something!

The door opened, and Vanessa came back.

"Hello, chaps", she said cheerily. "I've just been sorting my old wig out".

She gave them both a cheeky grin, and sat on a table in a lounging posture.

"Vince I have been having the most marvellous brainstorming session", said Simon. "All about how The Cosmic Garden represents the period before The Big Bang, and that the play will be set outside the boundaries of time and space. That was all Vince's idea".

"It just seemed to happen that way", said Vince helplessly.

"And then I discussed with Vince how Julian and Leon fill the roles of clowns in the play".

"Of course", said Vanessa, rapidly taking notes, one hand tugging on a hunk of her hair. "I mean, it's so obvious that Leon is the coloured clown, and Julian is the white clown".

"What?", said Vince. "What does that mean?".

"Well in a classic pair of clowns, one clown is happy and simple-natured. He wears a lot of make-up and has dyed hair, and dresses in bold, colourful clothing and big shoes. He often has exaggerated features, which means my shnoz will finally come in useful", smiled Vanessa, pointing at her own rather long nose. "Anyway, that's Leon, the coloured clown".

"And what about Julian?", asked Vince warily.

"Julian is Leon's counterweight – he's serious and intellectual, and is classically the sad clown with a complex nature. They're known as white clowns, and their faces are usually smooth and beautiful in an almost blank, featureless way. Julian will boss Leon around, but although Leon is in a subordinate position, and likes to act the fool, he's actually quite clever, and very witty. I'm so glad I'm the happy, funny clown", said Vanessa. "So, how did I do?".

"Very well indeed", said Simon. "I can tell you did your homework before coming to rehearsal".

"I know, I'm such a girly swot", laughed Vanessa. "I've always got my big nose stuck in a book".

"Well, write all this down, Vince", urged Simon. "These notes will be essential to you as you come to grips with becoming Julian, with understanding his role and how he relates to Leon".

"You make it sound as if they're not real people though", said Vince, his jaw stuck out a little. "I mean, Julian and Leon aren't just clowns, or roles to play. They're real people, working in a real garden, with real lives".

"Excellent point", said Simon. "And that's exactly what I want you and Vanessa to get across. You have to bring Julian and Leon to life, to show the humanity behind the mask. The raw emotion, the hearts beating in their chests. The sheer guts it takes to survive in a strange universe".

Vince didn't feel that Simon had understood him at all, but they went back to workshopping the play together. He did his best to be polite to Vanessa, and she continued to be very friendly to him. At the end of the rehearsal, she put her arms around him and gave him a hug as she said goodbye.

Vince stiffened, and struggled hard with himself not to push her away – he had a foolish urge to say, "Don't touch me!" to her. He wondered if this was how Howard felt when he was touched: overwhelmed and confused, mistrustful of the touching, and what it meant.

"Bye, Vanessa", he said. "Um, see you next time".

For some reason he couldn't seem to look her in the eye. Instead he glanced slightly to one side of her, as if she was a light too bright and glaring to look at directly. Vanessa gave him a slow, amused smile as she left the theatre to catch a bus home, and after he said goodbye to Simon, Vince began walking back to the Zooniverse alone.

********************************************************************

When Vince got home, he found the zookeeper's hut empty. He picked up a letter from Howard, which had been left on the kitchen table, and read it.

Dear Vince,

I've gone to Jazz Club, and might be back late as we have a rare edition of Herbie Hancock's "Man-Child" album to listen to which has two bonus tracks. We're meeting at Horace's as usual. His wife always moans about us coming over and listening to jazz to all hours, but I've got a plan to read her my poetry, which is certain to put her in a good mood.

Your dinner is in the oven. I've put it in an improvised bain-marie so it doesn't dry out, because I know you hate that. I made your favourite vegetarian lasagne, but don't worry, I didn't put any aubergine in it. There's Jaffa Cakes for afters, and I noticed you had nearly run out of Raspberry Bootlaces, so I bought you a new packet when I was at Tesco. It's in the pantry cupboard, and once it's opened, don't leave it lying around because that's how we get ants.

Sorry I've been so grumpy lately. It was wrong of me, because you got the part of Julian fair and square. I don't regret confronting that pillock Simon about it, because he almost made it sound as if he had written the lead role of Julian with me in mind, but I shouldn't have taken my disappointment out on you. Coupled with losing out on the book contract, and Mrs Gideon getting off with your panda, it seemed like a lot of disappointment to deal with all at once.

I hope you had a great time at rehearsal. I know you will get along with the rest of the cast, because you always get on well with people, it's one of your gifts. Anyway, break a leg, as they say – in fact, break two, and maybe an arm! Ha ha. Only joking. Although seriously, I could help with that.

Don't forget "Colobus the Crab" comes on at 7.30 pm. If you tape it, we can watch it together tomorrow. You don't have to though, and they always show the repeats during the summer anyway. See you when I get home. If you're still up, I'll make cocoa.

Your mate,

Howard

Vince listlessly got his dinner out of the oven. He wasn't really hungry, but Howard had gone to so much trouble he felt he'd better eat it. He'd already missed most of Colobus the Crab, and the next program was something really boring about an archaeology dig at a hill fort in North Yorkshire. He watched the first part of it anyway.

Vince washed up his dinner things, and ate a couple of Raspberry Bootlaces while he watched his archaeology program. It was probably good research for the role of Julian – it seemed like something Julian might want to watch.

He looked at his script, and at the notes he had taken. grow mustashe. garden = universe? time + space. ask Howard what big bang is. hair!!!!! J & L clowns. J = sad clown.

Vince felt lonely and depressed, so he was sure he was getting into the role of Julian already. This was probably how Julian felt most of the time: sort of empty and sad, and as if other people didn't really understand him.

Vince wondered how much longer he could keep on being Julian without going completely mental.