Thursday, 18 February 2010

An interesting stage in my career

One of the best things about being a TV and radio performer is that you get asked to do all kinds of things for which you're completely unqualified.

For example, despite my acting experience being limited to a few school plays, I have often appeared on stage.  I've donned Joseph's amazing technicolour dreamcoat, toured in a comedy and been booed and cheered in several pantomimes.

I've even performed in the West End, something some proper actors never have the good fortune to experience.  Okay, it was way back in 1985 but at least it was at The Palace Theatre, one of London's biggest, and at least it was a solo spot: I sang one of my own compositions at the piano in a starry concert to raise money for the dependants of Keith Blakelock, the policeman murdered in the Tottenham riots.

I was such a success, I knew they'd have me back and, sure enough, a mere 25 years on, I've just made my West End comeback.  Again, it was a one-nighter but there the similarities ended.  This time, I had a non-speaking role (don't sneer; it never did Marcel Marceau any harm), and it was in a serious drama.

An Inspector Calls, J.B. Priestley's attack on capitalism and the class system, had long been an unfashionable staple of regional rep when director Stephen Daldry began the lengthy process of reinventing and rehabilitating it 20 years ago.  His tense, dark interpretation, complete with spectacular exploding house (by designer Ian MacNeil) has won raves and awards around the world.

One of Daldry's innovations is a kind of mute, time-travelling Greek chorus.  Approximately a dozen men, women and children representing the working classes, excluded from the comfortable, smug and apparently secure, middle-class, 1910s world of the protagonists, stand by, sternly watching events.  Their clothes clearly announce that they, however, are from the 1940s.  It's all a bit complicated and, in any case, I don't want to reveal too much and spoil things: see the play, or at least read it, and all will become clear.

Anyway, to get the production talked about, the PR people had the brainwave of inviting a different broadcaster, journalist or blogger each night to join the chorus, and this Tuesday, it was my turn.

I reported to the stage door of the beautiful old Wyndhams Theatre in Leicester Square at five and was taken to wardrobe for my 'costume fitting'.  All it entailed was being allotted an overcoat, scarf and hat, although I did get to choose between two scarves and two hats.  I went for the brighter scarf and bigger hat, obviously, to maximise the impact of my brief moment in the spotlight.

One of the other Greek chorus members (they call themselves supernumeraries) took me to the stage and walked me through the 'part'.  There was a step forward to remember, a 180 degree turn (on the right shoulder), a turn back (right shoulder again), a final turn away (left this time) and an exit, all on dialogue or other sound cues.

I began to feel quite nervous.  I remembered our school drama teacher stressing how vital it was for every chorus member to act as one because "if one of you does it differently, that's the one every member of the audience's eyes will be drawn to!"  Gulp...

We supernumeraries had two other scenes but these involved only standing motionless in the bourgeois family's house and bowing twice at the curtain so at least there were few opportunities to screw up there.  Finally, I was warned there would be some loud bangs and that jumping or screaming in surprise would constitute unacceptable focus pulling.

It was still barely six o'clock and our first entrance was not until after 8.30 so now began one of the main activities of an actor's life; hanging around.  Installed in the green room, I met the other supers as they arrived.  They were a welcoming and surprisingly diverse bunch including the understudies to all the main roles plus other theatricals like Paul Tate, a larger-than-life northern gentleman who had joined the cast after giving Dame in pantomime: I could certainly picture him berating Jack for trading the cow for a bag of beans or fondly cuffing cheeky Aladdin.  Other members of our group, however, weren't actors at all; there was a housewife, students, a teacher and a couple of office workers all of whom came directly from their day jobs to make a few extra bob. 

All were eager to hear about me; I suppose an injection of new blood is always welcome when you're stuck doing not much with the same colleagues eight times every week.  Teas and coffees were frequently made and distributed, and when a box of shortbread from a recent trip to Edinburgh was broken open, quite a party atmosphere ensued.

Eventually, it was time to go on.  I entered, I stepped, I turned, I turned again, I got off.  I can't say the adrenalin was pumping but it was definitely an experience I'll remember, and I was quietly proud that I'd carried out my minimal duties accurately.  Indeed, one of my colleagues claimed I was the first guest who had got everything right but I'm not sure whether he meant it or was just joking.

Well, you can't tell with these actors, can you?

Pictures courtesy of, and

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