We weren't in Cambridge anymoreClaire Takami-Siljedahl

It was 7.30 pm, Chinese Standard Time, and we were in Kunming. This was our second stop in East Asia – touring Alan Ayckbourn’s very British comedy, Time of My Life, and the curtain was about to go up.

We’d got the details about our audience that morning. There were going to be over a thousand of them, mostly students who couldn’t speak a word of English. We spent that afternoon translating scene descriptions into Mandarin.

I’d been worried about the play. I thought that Claire (our director) and I had done a decent job on it, for sure, and that the actors and the production team knew exactly what they were doing. I wasn’t worried about them. I thought we’d manoeuvred the language barrier, just about, but the performance was still a bit wordy, a bit slow-going, a bit sit-downy.

After all, this was a play about a middle-class family who argued with each other every time they ate out for dinner. It was about the different ways they embarrassed themselves in front of the waiters. It was about all the awkward little details of their lives.

What I’m trying not to say is that the play was, basically, a bit Cambridge. Dinner parties are a bit Cambridge. Flirty waiters are a bit Cambridge. Uncomfortable silence is a bit Cambridge. Throwing up at the end of the night is very Cambridge. I was worried these sorts of things wouldn’t be so easy to translate. As the lights went down, I looked over to a computer screen where a video feed of the auditorium was being live-streamed. We weren’t in Cambridge anymore.

What I’m trying not to say is that the play was, basically, a bit Cambridge

Claire and I had a system. She sat on the front row, watching, taking notes, and I sat backstage in the tech-box. When she had directions she’d run them to me, and I’d run them to the actors in the wings.

The trouble was that Claire sat right next to our hosts. Every time she ran to me, they’d whisper to her: “They’re not loud enough”, “could you tell them to hurry up?”, “I can’t see the blonde one.” Claire would pass these instructions on to me and I’d pass them on to the actors. We’d been at the venue all day so we’d already told the actors to play up to the people at the back. It was only going to get louder, brighter and bigger.

The first half was chaotic. Plates thrown on tables, drinks thrown in faces and actors chasing each other around the stage – try getting any of that past a stage manager back home. All the while I was miming directions from Claire, our hosts, or whoever else thought they had a good idea; I can’t remember who came up with it, but we polished off the act with a Macarena.

Twenty minutes or so after the interval, one of our hosts came backstage herself. “How long is the rest going to be?” she asked. I checked the script. We had half an hour to go, at least. She paused. “Can it be shorter? We need to finish in about ten minutes.”

Ten minutes? We were in the middle of the act. Two actors had just come off the stage, but another two had just gone on – they weren’t supposed to go off again.


Mountain View

But seriously, comedy needs to stay serious

I ran round the back of the stage to the rest of the actors. I said they needed to cut their scenes down to the essentials – and that we needed to get the message to Gus and Jess, the two actors trapped on stage.

The next five minutes was a blitz. Josh and Cara went on, and cut a ten-minute scene down to ten lines. Two minutes later, Gus was lined up for the finish. He stood up for his toast. I checked the script. “I’m not one for making speeches…” was how it began, but then it went on for over half a page. Had he got the message?

“I’m not one for making speeches… so I’m not going to. Cheers… everyone.”

Without pausing for a breath, the company jumped to their feet and spluttered out a final “Cheers!” – and we were done. We had cut twenty pages from a play as it was being performed. When the actors took their bows, they even had time to milk it a bit.

That performance was about as ‘in the moment’ as it gets

By the time we left Kunming that night, I’d forgotten what I’d been worried about. That performance was about as ‘in the moment’ as it gets – and the actors took the audience with them all the way. When that happens, all the other things translate on their own. For the rest of the tour, ‘Kunming’ became shorthand for any time we tried to do something bigger or faster or louder. When we got back for our home run, we never quite translated it back: the whole thing was a bit less Cambridge.

This year’s Asia tour will return to Cambridge with their production of Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Corpus Playroom, from the 16th to the 20th October.