Please don’t think that because I do amateur drama I have any illusions about being an actress. I just do it for fun. Probably the most fun I’ve had doing a play was the summer we rehearsed and performed the Merry Wives of Windsor.
Brighton Little Theatre has a wonderfully shabby charm about its cosy auditorium, that seats about 75 people, and the nifty low ceilinged bar downstairs decorated entirely in pictures from previous productions. I’ve been a member for over six years now and never go there without meeting someone I know.
I was playing a bloke as usual, Corporal Nym – down on his luck ex-soldier and follower of the infamous vagabond, Sir John Falstaff – which mostly involved saying silly things, rushing around the stage, appearing in unlikely places and constantly making sure that my partner in crime, Pistol, played by a boy called Jonah, was close by.
The rest of the cast was made up of a host of all kinds of cool and interesting people. Rehearsals began with Harry, the director, making it clear that this was going to be fast paced, hard work and completely mental. Setting it in the 1920s was a stroke of sheer genius as it meant the play started with the Host of the Garter (now a nightclub instead of a tavern) singing ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ before we are introduced to Sir John and his wicked ways. “Where’s Jonah?” I ask, as the Host does his thing and we were waiting to follow Falstaff on stage. Panic begins to rise as I can’t see Jonah and face the possibility of going on alone. It had taken at least half an hour of forgotten lines and cock ups to get to this point very early on in the play. Harry was not in the best of moods. “Steve, where’s Jonah?” I ask the total legend who plays Falstaff.
“I’m here,” Jonah says, popping his head round the corner of the flats that formed the set. I suddenly feel at ease. The corridor that runs along the side of the auditorium and onto the stage is narrow and slightly crooked. Our set had two doors that opened onto stage right with no way round the back to enter stage left. This meant that at some points almost the whole cast was squeezed in to this small space. It was claustrophobic and almost impossible to not look at yourself in the long row of mirrors that nearly ran the length of the space. We weren’t in costume for rehearsals and I found myself comparing myself to the younger girls who bothered to wear make up. Yeah, I looked pretty rough next to them but I also looked much browner and everyone looked slim next our dear Sir John Falstaff. When his rotund form had to squeeze past us to reach the stage we had play an awkward game of silent human Tetris. If we made too much noise, even during rehearsals, Harry would tell us off.
Act 1 was progressing nicely. The young lovers were professing their love against their parents’ wishes and myself and Steve were waiting to go on for the next scene.
A note on Steve – this man is my hero. He looks just like you’d imagine a modern druid to look: shoulder length grey hair, shaggy beard, big belly and dresses like a 1980s abstract artist. Charisma flows from him in awesome waves and he always has a story to tell (just don’t ask how true they are because who cares?).
“I can taste my pint,” Steve whispered to me.
“We’re not even half way through act 1,” I said.
“Mmm, nice cold pint of Grolsch.”
“We’re here for at least another two hours.”
He was standing right behind me. He always was. Thinking back I don’t know why I ever worried because he was more on the ball than I was.
Steve and I were in the habit of going to the pub after every rehearsal. This meant that my wages for August all ended up behind the bar of the Pull and Pump. Some nights there was a big crowd of us Thespians clogging up the bar until last orders and some nights it was just myself, Steve and a fabulously camp actor called Tobie. We were the hardcore but we always had a good time and I look back on that summer with real fondness.
Performance week came around and many calamities ensued. During one of the dress rehearsals Harry asked me to speak up but I couldn’t because I’d strapped my boobs down too tightly and was struggling to breathe. He also decided that I needed to look more manly. The costume lady, a very elegant woman who I hope to grow up to be like, showed me how to use make up to create fake stubble. She also gave me some black nail varnish looking stuff that I had to use to black out a few teeth. I looked really attractive.
During the second night’s performance, Steve smacked his head on the ‘buck basket’ (long story) so hard that we all heard it and winced. When we got him out of the basket, he was dazed and had a lump on his head like a golf ball. We panicked. The show couldn’t go on without him. I can’t imagine that it was very helpful to his recovery that he had pretty much the entire cast getting really close to him to watch for signs of concussion. He was a little fuzzy but fine.
Our last hilarious cock up came during our run in the Gun Garden at Lewes Castle. This beautiful venue is a walled garden within the castle walls which means it is open to the sky but shielded from the wind. We were very lucky with the weather for our entire run even if it was a bit nippy and I was grateful for my World War I jacket to keep me warm. Falstaff has a scene where he has to dress up as a woman to escape from the jealous husband of the woman he is trying to seduce. The problem was that Steve got into this outfit a scene early. When he ran onto the stage in his frock, I grabbed Jonah’s arm and said, “Oh my fucking God.”
Jonah kept his cool and just cringed. Luckily, Steve was quick thinking enough to get off the stage, say his lines off stage while he was getting the outfit off and then come back on to finish the scene. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
The after-show party involved nine people getting into a four person hot tub but I wasn’t in the tub and it’s a story for another day.