Sunday, July 16, 2006

The show must go

I went to see a play by a bunch of amateurs at my local little theatre and was astounded at the high standard of performance. It was one of those really sharp bittersweet comedies about three sisters meeting in their mother's house prior to her funeral. It's played out in mom's bedroom with the coffin in the corner. This is a contemporary English play with very cutting, funny dialogue and superb characterisation. It was so superior to the fare we were reduced to in my amateur theatrical days that I am tempted to get involved again.

Then I remember the hotbed of sexual pursuit, jealousy and the brandishing of bigger egos than Tom Cruise that got into full swing after the latest play had been chosen (this process itself an orgy of political backstabbing that would have appalled Machiavelli). And the kind of plays we could afford or get permission for without royalty payment were fairly creaky.

I was lured in by a talented ingenue who subsequently became my wife. The marriage only had two acts, alas. My first role was as a police constable, Lewis to the Inspector Morse of a very bad ham actor called Jack who regarded learning lines as an irritating detail.

One night we did the play in a community centre without a set except for the furniture. "Draw the curtains, Nash," ordered the inspector, despite pre-performance approaches imploring him to omit the line. I knew I was made for the stage when I turned, very slowly and theatrically shrugged my shoulders, and drew imaginary curtains at the rear of the stage. Jack was comically disconcerted at the laugh that greeted this, since he hadn't seen the business. And my exit drew applause. I was hooked.

This play also featured a misfiring gun, a common nightmare for props people. The Hungarian playing an English lord in the shooting scene clicked the hammer a few times as he tried to put a bullet through Inspector Jack, and finally shouted "Bang!"

I read an anecdote somewhere about a more creative solution when this happened in the West End. The actor playing the victim engaged in a brief struggle, whispering to the wouldbe killer: "Kick me up the arse!" When the other obliged, he staggered back crying "Aaagh ... the toe of the boot ... was poisoned!" and fell to the floor.

In an Emlyn Williams play called Trespasses, I played an Italian medium called Saviello, who is basically a victim of his powers and at the climax of the play falls back dead in his chair during a seance. The curtain came swishing across the stage and closed, I started to leap from the chair ... and the stage manager at that moment, inexplicably, reopened the curtains. This early version of "corpse suddenly comes back to life for cheap scare" earned a shriek from the audience before I fell back, fully dead again. That's the beauty of stage cockups in the amateur scene: people think it's all part of the script.

Because I could do accents and was very intense , with a huge appetite for scenery-chewing, perhaps to do with the tradition of drinking port in the dressing room before the performance (I have never had port before or since), I got some pretty juicy parts: Danny the psycho in Emplyn Williams's Night Must Fall (he had a head in a hatbox), for which I did a South Wales accent, fell for my co-star, much to the chagrin of her husband, who expelled me from a rehearsal in his house ... and I nearly killed her in the climactic scene one night, as she made her entrance. I was supposed to have a chair aloft but stay my hand when I saw who it was. I lost my balance and the chair came down hard enough to brain her. Her terror had never been more convincing ... I got an offer to turn pro on the strength of that performance. How different my life could have been: sitting in the canteen at the Space theatre with all the other umemployed thespians swapping info about parts available in crowd scenes.

There was the sex farce Hot and Cold in All Rooms, about the various denizens of a boarding house. I was a south London car salesman, and got to do a love scene with the luscious landlady in my pyjamas. My wife, knowing my dedication to the Method, sewed the fly shut. She hadn't enjoyed living with Danny the psycho killer the last time out. There was a drunk scene in this play involving most of the younger members of the cast. We got drunker every night, until the occasion when I crashed into the scenery. I remember this play very fondly for a sex scene involving a beautiful wanton called Jo, who stripped to wispy undies as several of us watched from the wings. We enjoyed it, but it caused a bit of a stir in the small town where I lived.

Well, must dash. Have to find a performance piece for the audition. Trippingly off the tongue and all that.


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