More acting

When I first came to Exeter, although I had done a bit of acting at university, and even directed a student play at the Oxford Playhouse, I found myself suddenly addicted to it, to such an extent that, almost every night of the week, I was in an impro group, or a theatre group, or helping to run workshops at a primary school on a Saturday morning. I couldn’t get enough of being someone else. I was going to say that I must have had no social life, but of course, it was intensely social, going to such things. I can’t really remember if this was in my PGCE year (I certainly joined a theatre group in my PGCE year), or the year I started working full-time. Probably the former.

Eventually, I settled down into the groove of a single theatre group (known as ‘The Tuesday Group’ – guess which night we met). It was amateur, but never am-dram, by which I mean we didn’t do Christie and pantos, but generally rather riskier stuff by writers like Bond or Brenton or Brecht (or anyone else beginning with B) – usually ensemble pieces. I wasn’t a great actor. I don’t have the ability to express emotional depth (one or two in the group could, and could easily have been professionals). What I had was the ability to remember lines (apart from one highly unforunate incident when I skipped a mental page in Bond’s The Sea, and there was a fifteen-second onstage impro while I recovered my mental page), and an enjoyment of having an audience. I’m not so good at the lines any more, but I like performing. But I haven’t (bar one brief cameo) been in a play since about 1981. My first marriage clashed with impro and rehearsals.

The most enjoyable play I’ve ever been in was Howard Brenton’s Epsom Downs, a 1970s play about the Derby (but also a sort of state-of-the-nation piece, set as it was in the silver jubilee year). Most people had several parts, and mine included a) a toff (I always got those parts, I could do the accent), b) an itinerant hawker, c) a five-year-old child, and d) The Derby itself (the actor is required to be a sort of moving commentary).

Being the child involved being on the way to, or at a picnic, and being obsessed with a kung-fu kite. I was called Bobby. There were few lengths to which I would not go to achieve realism. The drama studio where we performed (to perhaps 3-400 people, so quite respectable) was laid with astroturf. On the first night, I skidded very plausibly and cut my knee open, just as a five-year-old would if he was tugging a kite. The audience was impressed with the effect (‘doesn’t it look real?’). It hurt. My leg received further treatment when a fellow actor, playing my mother, reprimanded me, and slapped my leg. She’d only patted it in rehearsal. The audience would have been impressed by my quivering lip, and even the slight suggestion of tears. The hand-mark was still there three days later.

But my favourite part was The Derby. It was a pig of a part to learn, because you had to narrate the race (mentioning countless horses in their changing positions) while on the move. The actors play the crowd and the jockeys (it’s about time they revived the play on the London stage). But I don’t remember any nerves. They say all good actors have first-night nerves. That probably accounts for their absence, in my case. Anyway, this is me, clean-shaven, and my (then very long) hair hidden under a cap, as The Derby. The photo is from the dress rehearsal, so it doesn’t give much sense of how the stage gradually accumulates litter: a terrific visual effect.

The Derby in 'Epsom Downs'

The Derby in 'Epsom Downs'


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