Touring With Stan's Cafe: The Early Years


Perry Como’s Christmas Cracker, Dec 91 – Jan 92

“It’s only a paper moon, setting over a cardboard sea…” chimed Perry from the portable cassette player.
“..If only you believed in me, when I believe in you?…
Stan’s first project was an abject exercise in the art of ‘making do’.We weren’t short on belief… just everything else.In the absence of rehearsal premises, we laid out our poster-paint set in the front room of the rented terrace in Ombersley Road; In the absence of decent publicity material, James’s Amstrad worked overtime to deliver copy to those precious venues who had booked the unheard-of Cafe; in the absence of a tour-van, Mark Reynolds’s Volvo 340 was deemed suitable for the job (being the only vehicle we could get our hands on).
With four of us travelling in it we were faced with the dilemma, though. Should we slice all of our set into 3′ pieces to fit into the boot, or buy a roof-rack? The latter meant investment that we could scarcely afford. I’d seen a ‘Paddy Hopkirk DeLuxe’ roof-rack for sale in Halfords, feeling certain that it was right way forward for the company. And so it seemed.

We were flushed with the initial success of shows at The Oval House, in Wokingham and Eastbourne. It was time to break into the Provinces. And so to the City of Bath we drove. The memory lingers like the taste of sick in your throat. What now seems like high comedy smelt at the time like raw fear. We were on the M27 near Eastleigh when a freakish gust of wind caught the hardboard panels of our set. I had taken a great pride in my fanciful square-lashings which bound rope across hardboard and onto Paddy Hopkirk’s finest. Those lashings were immovable. So, the wind ripped the roof-rack clean off the Volvo’s runners and away it went. We watched through the rear window as it took flight.In that sickening moment it was not so much the evening’s show on my mind as the imagined pile-up. A multi vehicle horror carnage involving a crap set. I kept thinking…’we’ll be in gaol for not being properly insured’. We were approaching a Service Station so Mark pulled in and we ran back along the hard shoulder, looking for the accident…..the debris….some sign….anything.But there was nothing. Save for a few splinters of wood whose source could not be verified there was absolutely nothing remaining. Perhaps our set ended up underneath a juggernaut and got dragged along to a ferryport to be apprehended by Customs? Perhaps it disintegrated on impact and vapourised into the sweet Hampshire air. A Highways Patrol Car listened to our concerns and drove to the next junction and back to investigate. They couldn’t find a thing, either.
The best we could do was drive to the next venue via a timberyard. We loaded up with a couple of panels of hardboard and some ‘2 by 1’. That afternoon we hastily built ourselves a set and by 7.30 the paint was dry and ready for animation. The whereabouts of that first set, still clamped onto the Paddy Hopkirk roof-rack, remains a mystery. If ever found intact, it must’ve been the cause of certain interest.

Canute the King, Spring 93

A grumpy king sits on a driftwood throne in front of chalk cliffs on grey pebbles. His gold paper crown shines and his red cap looks regal.

We nurtured a very healthy touring schedule for Canute, which held much promise but which was sorely let down by shifting circumstances of venues. In retrospect I think this was a turning point for the small-scale network. The support structures for promoting experimental work seemed to be falling apart. One venue went bust while we were on tour, a couple cancelled due to insufficient advance bookings, one venue ended up reimbursing audience members because it had misrepresented the show in its publicity (implying that we toured with opera singers), one gig got rained off after James and I had successfully – and in Sisyphusian style – carried 100 gallons of water from the bottom to the top of a hill in the Lake District. We arrived in Exeter to find out that the gig had been cancelled a day before. “We tried to phone you” they said, ” but couldn’t get an answer.” No – we were on tour. Strange now to think of a life before mobile phones.

It would be nice to think that, of the gigs that we did do, the venues were satisfied. Shrewsbury, Stoke, Cheltenham, Barnet, Reading, Birmingham, Lancaster…..The shows went beautifully. Afterwards we’d have to strike quickly, as the ‘paddling pool’ set had a tendency to leave a puddle of rank water on the stage, like some unfettered pup. There are parqueed floors that probably haven’t been the same since.

Voodoo City, Spring 95

A man is scalded by an iron he is  apparently holding to his own chee.

Weymouth was the scene of more van trouble, necessitating an elaborate set transfer en route. But the priceless moment I remember most well is our arrival at the venue. These are always exciting events. That tantalising first glimpse of the space after several hours cooped up in a smelly Transit. The ‘rock energy’ coarsing through your body in anticipation of the glory that will be… The Programmer and Technicians were there to meet us. “Hullo” said Ray Newe, proudly, “….we’re Forced Entertainment.”

In a scene from the show referred to internally as ‘the Terry and June bit’, owing to a peculiar but exacting intellectual rigour meted out in rehearsal, Sarah and I performed a sequence in which unholy spirits were invoked through a ritualised animation of everyday domestic appliances. During one such performance, at BAC, I hyperventilated on stage and fell unconscious off the back of my chair. What happened next I can’t be sure of. Except that in my mind I dreamed about 20 mins of material and eventually awoke feeling most relaxed. I opened my eyes and recognised Sarah standing opposite me. Then I looked round and saw an audience of faces. Not really knowing how much of the show I’d missed I attempted to carry on in a somewhat chaotic and furious way, hoping not to have freaked my fellow performers too much. The reality had been that I was out-of-it but momentarily and that I’d somehow pulled off a convincing, eyes-rolling-back performance that for once had been genuinely edgy.

Graeme Rose
July 2005

EDITOR’S NOTE: We hope that this essay will mark the start of a small series devoted to reflections on touring by various members of the company. We willattempt to keep a tight rein on the Ned Sherrin type anecdote.