We had a delightful vegetarian meal in a restaurant I used to waitress in 20 years ago, Manna by name. It was a wholemeally, hippyish haunt of rock stars then, and I served Boy George, Gary Glitter and Robert Plant there as a nubile gel, supplementing my earnings as a fledgling stand-up. Ironically, George and Gary were absolute honeys and Robert was a plonker, but history has proved otherwise.
As I ate my braised fennel with onion marmalade, I was worried about my technician turning up. Lauren, a young woman I'd met at The New Players Theatre when performing the show there in March (in a festival called See You Next Tuesday - geddit?) , was to be my techie in Edinburgh, operating my lights and sound, but had not seen the show since then and had never run it on her own. Our communication had been somewhat erratic (missed phone calls, emails disappearing into the void...). I knew she was definitely coming to Edinburgh as she'd booked some accommodation, but whether she was going to turn up for Hampstead was a moot point.
Myself and Liberian buddies made our way to the Pembroke Arms, the pub which hosts Hampstead Comedy. I was doing this gig because the guy that runs it, Ivor Dembina, had seen Lady in Bed and loved it, and wanted it on at his venue, even though, he admitted, the space was not ideal. I know Ivor from my stand-up days, and he is the loveliest of men, so I trusted him, but I had not seen the room myself which added to my little crop of anxieties.
With 45 minutes to curtain up (metaphorically speaking), Lauren had still not arrived. I could feel an undigested lump of onion marmalade in my throat, and was fretting about how I hadn't gone through my lines enough. I've performed the show many times, well at least 20, but I hadn't done all of it since Oxford Fringe in early April, and, in spite of having written it myself, and it being all autobiographical material, it's shocking how much one fails to retain (perhaps my advancing years are a factor here). Suddenly, Lauren was there, full of apologies: it was her birthday which had distracted her somewhat. We went upstairs to the performance space: the stage was smaller than one of those (annoying) large postage stamps, with a big black oilskin backdrop proclaiming the name of the club, and a mic stand. It was made for stand-up. My show is, in spite of its solo-performer, definitely theatre, and has been rehearsed with me using every available inch of a decent-sized studio stage. There were no lights to enhance the action (I have up to 50 cues normally). The music was operated by the techie bending down behind a bar and twisting, yogically, to reach the knobs.
Never mind! The audience was coming in. There were quite a few familiar faces. I'd been doing my marketing as I knew the gig would need it (July, hot, not the normal gig the regulars would expect). Most people I recognised weren't old mates, but new ones, or acquaintances. There was a clutch of people from the island in Greece where I'd just been teaching impro and being Director of courses for Skyros Holistic Holidays. I felt they would be quite discerning and had another stab of fear. Then Ivor was onstage, announcing me. I stepped up. Mercifully, the spotlight was bright so the audience were hazy blurs. I got stuck into the show, trimming all the moves to fit into the space, very occasionally getting off the miniscule rostrum if I had to, and onto the carpeted floor, but concentrating on playing all the characters, keeping them crisp and distinct, and timing all the words for maximum comic or dramatic effect.
Half way through, and it was going good. I was, as the self-help gurus say, 'in flow'. There weren't as many laughs as there can be sometimes, but it's that sort of show: sometimes the punters guffaw all the way through it, other times they concentrate, but it doesn't seem to affect the quality of feedback. I was on a roll. Then I hopped down to position myself against the wall next to the 'stage'. I was having to re-block a scene I would normally do on the floor, but couldn't because of sight-lines. In this, I am being made love to by a gorgeous Greek chap, and it's normally a funny moment, where as an actor I'm making out with myself, playing both of us. I threw myself into the mime, kicked out a leg, and...Whumph...the oilskin backdrop collapsed in a shiny ungainly black crumple, revealing the mantelpiece and TV set on the wall hidden behind it. Classy work. I could feel the audience's discomfort. I was still acting but wondering what to do. Stop and make a comment? Just keep going and pretend nothing happened? I carried on - it was a crap place to stop the show, and I wanted them to get back on the bus with me, and try not to worry.
From then on, it was much harder work. Someone's mobile phone went off - it sounded like a little handbell being rung, and I thought it was Ivor giving me a signal that I was over-running. I paused to ask a woman in the front row the time. This felt clumsy, but confirmed I was on schedule. Lauren goofed on a couple of sound cues, cutting them abruptly and obviously.Ten minutes later, the bell rang again. I stopped and asked Ivor if it was him, but no - it was just some rude **** who thought it was ok to leave their phone on. I started dropping lines (noone noticed, apparently, but I did) and stumbled off that stage at the end, feeling like I had been significantly challenged. The applause sounded muted. I braced myself for a few feeble 'Well dones!' from people who couldn't wait to get out of the door.
It was fine, of course. The Liberians said nice things, the Greek holidaymakers said nice things, a girl I once auditioned for a play who'd come from Devon said nice things. (The only grudging feedback was an email I got from a stranger the next day who said it was 'Interesting'. That's all. Why bother emailing, sweetie?)
I survived! Doing another Edinburgh preview at Theatre 503 in Battersea on Monday night before going up to Edinburgh on Tuesday. Theatre 503 is described on its website as 'Possibly the most important theatre in Britain' by The Guardian. Better not kick the backdop down then...
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