Death by Theatre


I still have to remind myself that this story is true.  I sometimes tell people this story, and with every passing year and with each re-telling it becomes more and more surreal.  Every word of this is true. I suppose I could call this piece Death by Bathroom Towel, or Death by Radio Four. But no, it was theatre really. Theatre did it. An industry long suspected to be toxic was in fact once proved to be utterly fatal.

I was nineteen and home for the summer holidays, earning paltry amounts of fags and beer money selling programmes for my mother’s theatrical production company. Every year, actors would gather in the house and rehearse avidly for two weeks before a small local tour. This was unsettling. If I wanted to pop into the television room to catch up on the Wimbledon highlights, I’d be confronted with a red-faced elderly thespian telling Muriel that he simply couldn’t agree to marrying Beryl and that he must go to the scullery to “polish his maasster’s booots”. Our kitchen became a hot bed of malevolent, actorly competition, as they all scrambled for the smoked salmon that my mother generously served at lunch, and desperately tried to out-anecdote each other:

“Did I tell you, darling, about that time me and little Dickie Attenborough managed to get the barmaid at the Cottlesloe to arrange a lock in? We were there until nearly half past ten!”

“Yes, dear, do you know – it’s the funniest thing – it reminds me of that time me and sweet little Chris Cazenove stole the fireman’s helmet from the station in Woking. That was a brilliant evening – my reviews were, well they said “the best Falstaff seen this side of Berkshire” but then they didn’t see Chris’s….”

And on and on. The air thickened with desperation as each of them tried to outwit the other. Most of the actors were over 50. The two principal males were called Gareth and Alan. Gareth usually wore red kimonos around the house and we were all rather surprised to discover there was a Mrs Gareth. Alan was a bearded, avuncular chap in his late 60s who, when I asked where he lived said “In the triangle that is created by Hammersmith, Shepherd’s Bush and Chiswick”.  Brook Green, then. Gareth had very smooth hair and a very smooth, friendly face. He was naturally amenable and helpful – the first to the sink to do  the washing up.   Alan was out of the front door with his glass of red and a cigarette as soon as supper was over. The actors would basically live with us for two weeks of rehearsal, plus odd nights during local performances, which meant we were sharing the house with virtual strangers.

Once my father locked Alan out of the house as he hasn’t realised that Alan, spectacularly drunk, was still outside urinating into the rose bushes with a Benson & Hedges clamped between his teeth. Another time I couldn’t get into the bathroom as Gareth was in there, listening to the Archers and chuckling. Once in, I found the enamel of the bath was tracked with the fine, shortish hairs left behind after a leg-shaving session. Gareth gave the impression of being somehow child-like and utterly hairless, with the exception of the famed, high-lighted, slightly coiffed hairdo he favoured. Alan, on the other hand, was not liked among the other actors. They found him pugnacious, insistent and prone to niggling over tiny aspects of the scenes he was in. The only person in the cast under 30 was a black-vested tap dancing teacher who was forced to play an 1890s property speculator in the play, and who had to be restrained from hop-tap-stepping his way into the funeral scene, was intent on treating Alan as an object of ridicule.

The first night of the play was held at a converted watermill that some bright spark in Watford had turned into the draughtiest theatre in South Hertfordshire. Despite fears that most of the casts’ memory recall had not been what it once was in 1958, it went off without a hitch. The audience was about 70% capacity, which was considered a success, no words had been forgotten and no one had bumped into the furniture. After the technical staff (myself and my brother) had packed up the set we returned to the house, where most of the set had come from anyway. We took the chairs out of the van and put them back in the drawing room so we would all have something to sit on and Alan and Gareth continued to regale us with the racy stories of their years in rep, most of which involved drinking port and someone dressing up as Audrey Hepburn, or something. Gareth was in very fine form that evening, ripping through a selection of theatrical stories, stopping only to smooth down his John Frieda-ed head. Perhaps as an act of forgiveness for weeing on most of the garden, Alan agreed to be up with the lark the following morning to drive my father to the station to catch the 0834 to Euston. There was a sense of a job if not well done, then a well-done job got underway. The tap-dancing teacher drove home, but the rest of us stayed. Eventually, we tottered off to bed; Gareth in his sublime evening wear, myself after a crafty fag and Alan, last heard laughing at something on Radio 4, which he was sitting in bed listening to in the “baby” room, aka the nursery, which was the only spare place to put him.

The next morning, things happened in segments, like a picture undoing its pixellation and finally making itself visible. First, I heard angry feet pacing down the gravel drive, then slippered feet racing up and down the corridor, then mumbled voices of a distressed sort. Then a flapping sound, followed by an experienced actor clearing his throat. Then someone saying :

“We can’t get him to answer.”

“Alan! ALAN!” It was Gareth’s voice and his swift rabbit-type footsteps were followed by my mother’s footsteps. She was in a dressing gown which she had stylishly accessorized with a wide fuchsia pink belt. Gareth knocked loudly on the bathroom door, his LAMDA trained voice booming out across three counties : “Can you heeeaarr me?”

I woke up now, sitting on the end of my bed, the room next door to where this palaver was going on. Bang bang bang, on the bathroom door. MY bathroom door. Gareth had been in The Sweeney once on telly in the 1970s, and now he seemed to revert back to that character, dropping his aitches and going a bit tough copper.

“We’ll ‘ave to try to break the door dahn,” he said to my mother. Suddenly self-conscious about his drastic change of personality, he briskly added : “darling.”

My mother was a cluster of twitters, a bunch of withering exclamations, saying “oh dear, oh dear, the door is Georgian oh dear I’m going to call the fire brigade dear.”

Off she went to call 999. Whilst she was away Gareth continued his campaign to get a response from Alan in my bathroom. When she returned from calling the fire brigade, Gareth flexed his waxed thigh from the bottom edge of his kimono and gave a mighty shove and the bathroom door was heard suddenly bursting from its hinges.

“Oh.”

“Good Lord,”

“OH.” My mother shouted at me to stay where I was and not come out of my bedroom because, dearest readers, if I had come out of my bedroom I would have seen Alan lying naked and dead on the bathroom floor on top of my hot pink bath towel. Radio 4’s Thought For The Day droned from the small transistor radio on the shelf above the sink.

My Thought For The Day was Fuck. So was Gareth’s and my mothers. I had to see what was going on, despite being told to stay in my room.

“He always loved the radio ” said Gareth. Now his character had changed once more, morphing into a high Anglican vicar from a Miss Marple adaptation. “Yes. What a shame.”  He begun to give an immediate eulogy.  “He was a wonderful actor, a marvellous technician of the stage.  Dear Alan –  we shall never forget your Shaw – oh look, do you know I think he’s stained the carpet!  Shall we move him?”

“No! Oh dear. Poor Alan. Poor Alan.”

There he was, lying on one side, as naked as the day when he had been born, within that triangle made up by Hammersmith, Shepherds Bush and Chiswick. Gareth was covering him with the hot pink towel now, making Alan look like the campest shroud ever.

“He must have just got out of the bath and keeled over,” said my mother. The doorbell rang. She shrieked.

It was the fire brigade. They acted very nonchalantly after they discovered there wasn’t a door to destroy. Their heavy black boots appeared to leave dust behind them everywhere they went.  One of them, a young lady with a fringe that was very heavy and constantly in her eyes, therefore no use in the event of tackling fires, dealing with exploding chip pans, getting cats out of trees etc, spoke to me for 20 minutes about the “fantastic ” day she’d had on the Eastenders set the day before and how that man who played Phil Mitchell was “nice in real life.”. She didn’t look at Alan’s corpse once. It was the only time in his career in the theatre that Alan had corpsed, and even then he wasn’t able to pull focus.

The fire brigade told us to call the police and Alan’s doctor. We didn’t know Alan’s doctor. But my mother would have to tell his wife.

She rang his wife who said, without missing a beat, that she was so glad he died in our house and not theirs, and when would it be convenient to collect the car?  Businesslike and abrupt, Alan’s wife gave us the doctor’s telephone number, and he was shortly on his way from West London.

Now I had a chance to piece together what had happened.  Apparently, at about ten to eight that morning, Dad had gone looking for Alan, taking up his promise of a lift to the station.  But he wasn’t in his bedroom and he couldn’t see him anywhere in the house.  He wondered whether Alan was outside having a cigarette but noticed his shoes were still in his bedroom (all those years of reading Sherlock Holmes stories clearly didn’t go to waste, did they?)  Eventually, having become a bit exasperated he decided to walk the mile to the station, one of his least favourite pastimes.  These had been the feet I’d heard walking off over the gravel drive.  Walking to the station had made his mood cross and his tread heavy.  Unfortunately, he had been too slow and had missed the train, which meant he had to walk all the way back again which really annoyed him because he didn’t like walking anywhere, unless it was round and round the Euston Road telling his children where he used to push bikes, buy sweets and annoy shopkeepers.

So, when he returned, opening the front door and casually saying “Hello, who are you?” to a fireman he had no idea what had gone on.  Without any sense of alarm or surprise, he strolled through the hall oblivious to the fact that half of the village fire station was having tea in his kitchen.  “Hi,” he said.  Suddenly, a blur of velvet dressing gown whisked through the room and his wife of thirty something years came hurtling towards him like a canon out of a rocket.

“Oh, he’s dead, he’s dead, ALAN’s dead,” she said hysterically.

“Who’s Alan?”

“Oh, you KNOW.  Alan, the actor? With the beard?  In the baby room? He was going to give you a lift.”

“Oh, yeah.  Oh Fuck,” said Dad. “So how am I expected to get to work now?”

The play’s run was due to continue that evening. Only now one of the cast was dead.  My mother had the role of telephoning each cast member individually to tell them about Dead Alan.  Unfortunately, most of them thought this was a joke.

“I’m afraid Alan’s dead,” she told the tap dancing teacher, down the line to North Finchley, where the tap dancing teacher was lounging around in bed with one of his lithe, ripple-torsoed students.

“AHAHAA.  Oh, Tone, you can tell ’em, darling!  Corpsed did he, AHAHAHA!”

“No,  he is really.  He had a heart attack on the bathroom carpet.”

“AHAHAHAHA!  OH you are AWFUL!”

After some time, during which she threw around words like “constabulary”, “firemen” and “death certificate” he eventually got the gist.  The doctor turned up, looking straight from central casting – tweed suit, harried expression, a touch of excema around the neck – and announced that Alan had had a dicky ticker.  We didn’t know much about this, because he hadn’t mentioned his heart condition.  Gareth was dressed by now, in a yellow cravat and peach V-neck jumper, very much channelling Danny La Rue does Agatha Christie.   He was delighted to get a chance to open the door to the police and said “Good morning, constable!”  They walked in as Dad was walking out, on his second attempt at walking to the station.

The police began to interview my mother in the kitchen.  This was quite alarming for her because up to now our contact with the local police was summed up as PC Griffiths bicycling up the drive once a fortnight because he knew a trip to our house ensured a slice of chocolate fudge cake in the kitchen.  Once I saw him standing up and eating a slice of it in the hall, and another time was surprised to find him scoffing it in the garden.  Now, however, my mother was being asked questions to which she knew no answers.

Who was Alan?  What was his address?  What was medical past?  We had no idea.  It didn’t look good.  Here was a man,   dead on the floor, staying in someone’s house to rehearse a PLAY, for God’s sake, who was living here.  Was he paying rent?  No.  Was he a friend, then?  No.  None of us knew anything about him.  Did he have a suicidal state of mind?  Probably, most actors do, don’t they? They were utterly bemused.  Bloody actors, they thought, and went upstairs to search the baby room where Alan had been sleeping, emerging victorious ten minutes later.

“KNIFE!  I’ve found a knife, sarge….” said one policeman, who was twelve.

“Bag it, Steven, bag it!” said his superior.

No one ever knew what Alan was doing with a knife in the room, but fortunately it was clear no one had stabbed him so we weren’t hauled off for questionning, but they still took it as evidence, as well as taking a bunch of letters he had been writing.

“Might be a suicide note!”  said the sergeant gleefully.  “Now,” he flipped over his little ringbound notebook, which was like a journalist’s notebook and filled with biro scribblings.  “One more question.”

“Yes,” said my mother.

“You’re an actor – did you ever meet Eric Sykes?”

The doctor was preparing Alan’s corpse for removal, stretchering him up and arranging to take him to a morgue somewhere in Ravenscourt Park.  My mother, still highly emotional, had been slightly blind-sided by the sudden arrival of the tap dancing teacher, who must have hopped into his Fiat Panda and bombed it up the M1 as soon as he’d got off the phone.

“Hi, darlin’,” he said, parking up, wearing his RayBans as a mark of respect.  “Shame, isn’t it?  Bless.”  He had become suddenly demure and was doing some “sad” acting, the attempt at funereal reverence only marred slightly by his hot pink, lycra cycling shorts.

“I mean, what are the odds, darling?  You go to sleep, in a -” his manicured hand stretched out and he did a sort of plie in the general direction of the house – “beautiful house like this, and the next thing you know, you’d dead on the bathroom floor covered in your own shit.  He didn’t believe in God, did he?”

“Um….I don’t know,” said my mother. “He liked Vera Lynn though.”

He nodded, as if some grave and vital information about the human condition had been imparted.

“We’re going to put some Vera Lynn in the tape player, and play it.   You know, when he leaves our house for the last time.”

“What?” The RayBans were brought down slightly, resting until the bridge of his nose, as the tap dancers eyes stared, terrified at her. “You mean – you mean he’s still in the house?”

“Yes, the doctor’s just bringing him out in a minute.” And she was off in search of the tape recorder.

The tap dancer stayed on the drive and refused to come in, as if death was catching, and Alan made his last and most theatrical exit from our house, although it was odd to hear “We’ll Meet Again” being mangled through a tinny tape player in the hall when it was perfectly transparent that Alan would never in fact meet anybody ever again.  The stretchered body was lifted by the doctor at one end and Gareth, luxuriating in his role, at the other.  “Farewell!” shouted Gareth, as the doctor shoved Alan into the back of his Volvo Estate.

Gareth immediately went up to the bathroom and had a bath.  “I wanted to be the first to – break the spell.  Now we can all feel comfortable about being in there,” he said, over tea.  What he meant was he wanted to be first in the bathroom to continue his ridiculous grooming regime.  That evening, another actor friend bravely stood in for the performance, walking through the play with a script in his hand, the director telling an astonished audience prior to the performance the reason why this would be.

That night the tap dancer got drunk after the performance in a long series of guilt-driven toasts to Alan.

The lock on the bathroom door remained busted until we sold the house four years later, as a constant reminder of Gareth’s breaking of the door.

I still never worked out why Alan had to die on my hot pink bath towel.  My Dad took to booking taxis to the station, believing it to be more reliable.

No one really mentioned this ever again.

Each summer the play rehearsals did continue, with the same two weeks worth of rehearsals taking place in our house.  Oddly though, no one was ever offered accommodation.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

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