photos of London rehearsals of Sideways, The Play by Pamela Raith
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/20/16
At London’s St. James Theater, the curtains are about to part sideways.
“The story and the characters and the dialogue and the humor live on!” proclaims Rex Picket, the man who wrote the book Sideways and who’s since adapted the very personal tale into a play.
Sideways, The Play premieres in London on May 26th. The story is the same one that inspired the Oscar-winning movie from 2004: two thirsty bachelors leaving their mark (and sewing their oats) in Santa Barbara wine country. The movie, with a punch in the nose to merlot and a gushing embrace for pinot noir, was filmed primarily in the Santa Ynez Valley and, arguably, made pinot everybody’s new favorite red wine.
|Rex Pickett in Sta. Rita Hills (photo by Jock MacDonald)|
“The play was based on my book,” Mr. Pickett told me during a phone interview from London. “I couldn’t use any material from the movie that wasn’t in my novel.” Any changes from the page to the screen – the adaptation by director Alexander Payne that garnered him the Academy Award – were minimal, admits the novelist. But his statement is a reminder that he still feels a bit squeezed out of the Sideways silver screen spotlight.
“When the dust settled, I sort of felt I’d gotten my pocket picked,” he says, though he follows it up quickly with compliments for Mr. Payne and the film’s stars for bringing his characters to life, and to such high acclaim. “But there’s no denying that they had their business hats on,” Mr. Pickett continues, adding to his reference the many Santa Barbara wineries and restaurants that are still riding the wave of Sideways’ Tinsel Town triumph today. “They leveraged its currency and probably saw it as a brand better than I did.”
Mr. Pickett went on to write two sequels to Sideways, “Vertical” and “Sideways 3: Chile.” But he may have figured out the best way to leverage his own story himself by adapting the original into a play. The stage version saw its first run at the Ruskin Theater in Santa Monica in 2012 – six months that broke box office records there. And it went on to a highly acclaimed production, and seven sell-out weeks, at the Potiker Theater in La Jolla in 2013.
Sideways’ success on stage has to do with a story that is “iconic and timeless,” asserts Mr. Pickett, and one that’s “full of raw honesty.” The plot is personal, indeed. The pinot-loving protagonist, Miles, is based on Mr. Pickett’s own experiences in Santa Barbara County, from a marriage beyond rescue to many nights spent at The Hitching Post, sipping at its bar and wooing its waitress. “I put a lot of truth on the page,” he says. So cathartically, in fact, that “it sucked the marrow from my brain.”
After La Jolla, there was buzz about Broadway, until a pair of producers from London came calling.
Mr. Pickett, who directed independent films before turning novelist, calls his London experience “the most rewarding creative experience of my life, ever.” He says he’ been treated “with more respect than ever before in my career,” and adds, “It feels redemptive.” That has a lot to do with the collaborative role he’s been able to play as playwright. He hired director David Grindley, he was included in the selection of the cast and, when rehearsals started in London on April 23rd, “I spent 10 straight days breaking down every single scene with the actors.”
|The London cast, from left: Daniel Weyman (Miles), Simon Harrison (Jack), Beth Cordingly (Terra), Ellie Piercy (Maya)|
|Director David Grindley, left, and Pickett work with the cast|
On May 23rd, the cast and crew will move from a rehearsal room to the St. James Theater in central London’s Victoria neighborhood. The venue seats 312, and its design is a testament to a thriving theater scene where watching a play goes hand in hand with mixing. “There’s a cabaret downstairs, a restaurant upstairs and, in the lobby, a huge zinc bar that’s manned by four people and easily fits 150 people,” says Mr. Pickett. “It’s much more of a social scene here, where actors come out after a play and get a drink and mingle.”
Imbibing will certainly be part of the Sideways experience. Fully manned bar aside, drinks carts will welcome guests as they exit. “These are people who are going to want a glass of wine!” says Mr. Pickett. And the St. James Theater is selling VIP seating with wine tasting: for £45 (about $65) guests sample pinot noir from Lompoc’s Sanford Winery and Chile’s Viña Montes after select performances.
Sideways, The Play has serious production demands. It requires a whopping 22 scene changes and Miles, who will be played in London by Daniel Weyman, appears in every one. “That guy’s got a lot of dialogue,” says Mr. Pickett, with a laugh. A London wine critic has also come in to give the cast a crash course on etiquette. “They didn’t really know about wine but they wanted to get all the details right,” adds Mr. Pickett, “like how to hold the glass.” And the program gives the audience fair warning of the same bawdy moments that made certain scenes in the book and in the movie unforgettable: “Contains strong language, nudity and scenes of a sexual nature.”
Mr. Pickett, who expects to remain in London through the play’s first few performances before coming home to Southern California, is hopeful that London opens more doors. “London is really a staging ground for the rest of Europe,” he says. Even after all these years, “people all over the world are still thirsty for this story and the play is the only way to experience it again with a live audience.”
Sideways is slated to run in London through July 9th, which happens to be Mr. Pickett’s birthday.