It all started at a raucous dinner party for eight in Camden town last December. In the middle of an animated and hilarious conversation comparing our youthful theatre and stage performances, exhilarating and embarrassing, I found myself accepting a dare from a West End producer.
I had better explain.
Not personally being one of life’s natural show-offs or performers, it could be said that standing out in a crowd and having the confidence to display my talent (if any) in front of the public was never a remotest desire, let alone an unstoppable urge.
Secondly, learning lines by rote was never something I managed with ease, still less ever mastered.
At my prep school, as part of an English class, we each had to perform a set poem in a form of unofficial competition.
I hated it because I was no good at the process of engraining words in my memory, still less performing them in a fashion that gave any ‘life’ and expression to the content. I admired others to whom this ability seemed to come naturally, but I was the first to admit I was devoid of it.
The apogee of my discomfort on the point came when I was twelve years of age and forced by form requirement to appear in an end of year production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As I recall it, I was playing a character who turned into an ass (was that Puck?), or possibly it was two characters, the first being Puck – I was definitely wearing a donkey’s head at one point – and then another, who (at a defining point in the proceedings) wore a painted canvas-and-wood-based contraption over his shoulders, this representing a wall through which two lovers spoke to each other in the forest.
As you might imagine, the above set-up did not bode well. In said school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I had a four-line speaking part. At the appropriate moment, I strode out onto the stage with a deep sense of foreboding churning in my gut. Somewhere in the darkness in front of the stage sat practically the whole school, all the masters and their wives … and my parents. I felt like a Christian joining a pride of lions in the parade ring of the Coliseum in ancient Rome.
In the event, I did get to the end of my four lines, but they were spouted in a machine-like ‘speak your weight’ robotic style reminiscent of that forced upon Professor Stephen Hawking, and made no sense at all to me or indeed the audience.
That, folks, was the sum of my theatrical experience. Until the 11th of January 2014, when – as a result of the dare referred to earlier – I joined the cast of a West End musical.
Although I had been the worse for drink at the point where our exchange of theatrical anecdotes had taken place, and I had accepted the subsequent challenge, in the intervening period I’m bound to say that a sense of adventure had taken hold.
Somehow being taken out of my comfort zone appealed to my inner self. If you cannot make a complete fool of yourself at the age of fifty-seven, when can you?
In consequence, I ditched my initial plan to phone the producer concerned and extract myself – as gracefully as possible – from my supposed ‘obligation’.
To be fair, he later confided to me, in a mischievous aside, that he would never have let me wriggle out of it. From his – and our mutual pals’ – point of view, the ‘joke’ was just too much fun in prospect to let go.
And so I found myself rehearsing to make my West End debut.
Mine was to be just a cameo role, an appearance on stage at the climax of the show, in the final, show-stopping number.
I have to say that the cast and crew members were universally supportive. I guess it helped that they could see the joke as easily as could those who had been at that fateful December dinner party.
For the first time in my life, I felt part of the acting fraternity – taking party in the rehearsals, getting the coffees, exchanging the gossip, getting my costume-fittings and make-up done.
These last few weeks have been some of the most exhilarating of my life. Feeling the waves of audience appreciation coming at you on stage in one of the cathedrals of British theatre is an experience like no other. For the first time in my life, I was enjoying a pastime that I had away shied away from. I even began to dread the realisation that all good things must come to an end.
It’s just a pity that is should have happened so soon – THE INDEPENDENT