Monday, 9 March 2009

All the world's a stage

The Mossley years gave me many things – and not least amongst these was an abiding love of theatre.

In 1968, when I had just turned six, I was taken to the Scala in London as a birthday/Christmas treat. The theatre is gone now, but it was near the Post Office Tower. The show in question was Peter Pan, with Wendy Craig as Peter and the late, great Alastair Sim as Mr Darling/Captain Hook.

We sat on the front row of the dress circle; my knuckles turned white with the tension, gripping the railing, when it seemed that Tinkerbell was going to die, as I screamed back at the stage that ‘yes’, I really did believe in fairies.

I remember the colours – the vivacity of the blues and greens that lit the stage; the red and gold of the seats and the walls and floor. It was beautiful and it was magic.

It was also unusual, since my family didn’t ‘do’ theatre. Father, with a background that included a number of Plymouth Brethren amongst his relatives, considered it downright immoral – particularly for women, who were invariably rendered ‘loose’ by association with it.

There were no problems when I appeared in school plays at primary school in London – but then again, I hated the obligatory experience. Clumsy and with a voice that squeaked, I was on the receiving end of audience giggles – for all the wrong reasons – and was appropriately mortified.

The problems started when I stopped hating it. It was the end of my first year at Fairfield. I’d struggled to make friends, was seen as something of a swot and had been pretty much sent to Coventry. For some reason or other, our class decided to stage a play. We wrote a version of Cinderella – I was cast, in a act of overt bitchiness, as an Ugly Sister. Out of this, however, came the revelation. Something had happened in the intervening years – and people laughed for all the right reasons. I was a hit – and I loved it.

Now the trouble with that was that I was then supposed to become the school joker, but it was better than having nobody talk to me.

And of course there was the inevitable declaration at home that I wanted to be an actress.

I can’t recall the initial response. But the drip-drip efforts to put such a crass idea out of mind began shortly thereafter.

“You’re not pretty enough to be an actress,” said my father one day, as he drove me to Ashton for a Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme event.

My mother, hearing this many years later, huffed in annoyance – and promptly informed him that there were plenty of successful actresses who were not pretty, citing the likes of Edith Evans and Flora Robson and Hattie Jacques. She was trying to be supportive, but somehow …

Indeed, over the coming years she revealed one major concern: “But what would you do if a role demanded nudity?”

Funnily enough, I never had to make a conscious decision on that score – but some years later, when playing Mozart’s wife Constanze in an award-winning production of Amadeus, I fell out of my corset every night when Salieri pushed me away. And I lived to tell the tale.

After a full school production one spring (a sort of music hall), my father’s famous backhander was heard for the first time: “Hm. I never thought you had it in you.” I wonder sometimes what he ever did think I had in me?

Since being allowed to join the local drama group was out as it rehearsed on Sundays, it became an annual war to be allowed to audition for the school play. Since I wasn’t a tall, leggy blonde, character roles came my way.

In between, there developed the perhaps unusual habit of singing for my supper. Or put another way, I’d do impromptu lunchtime shows in vacant classrooms – singing and stuff – for a few coppers. Teachers found out. I was described to my parents as “eccentric”. They bore this news to me from parents’ evening, wearing concerned expressions. I looked up the word and worried too.

Then I got a date wrong. I gave my parents the wrong date for the annual school speech day. When I found out and gave them the right day, my father went ballistic. Having got home late at night, he stormed into the bedroom and blew his top, waking both me and my sister. The problem, it appeared, came down to the fact that: “You only want to be an actress – and that’s nothing better than a prostitute!” Goodness knows what would have happened if I’d actually really done something naughty.

But I looked up ‘prostitute’ in the dictionary too. And worried some more.

I never did quite make it as an actress – or ‘actor’, as is the accepted usage today (precisely because of individuals like my father, who would revel in ‘the actress and the bishop’ jokes or assume that ‘actress’ meant whore and the casting couch).

But it provided an escape and, as I got old enough to make my own mind up about rehearsing on Sundays, it provided the one place where I could ‘break out’ in guilt-free manner. Perhaps it’s no surprise that I made tarts – with or without a heart of gold – my forte.

College and a degree in the performing arts eventually beckoned. A paternal great aunt, ringing from Plymouth to wish me luck, happened to make the mistake of asking what course I was actually going to do.

“I’d rather die in a toilet than in a theatre!” was her really rather random exclamation on hearing the news. I was subsequently ticked off by Dad for pointing out to her that if, as she claimed, she’d never been into a theatre, then she didn’t know what she was talking about. He already had half an eye on any will she might have made.

A career on the stage has eluded me – and discovering writing eased the need to get up and perform so publicly. But I still remember the roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint. And in remembering those things, something in me – some ambivalent, anarchic, vagabond quality – skips a beat and reminds me it’s still alive and that I don’t want to get too fond of respectability.

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