Witches, Ghosts, Whistling and Cats – A Guide to Theatrical Superstitions

Floating around the greasepaint and discarded clothes of West End dressing rooms, you’ll usually find the same four things scattered in front of actors’ mirrors : a packet of Twinings Lemon & Ginger Tea, a small can of Silvrikin hairspray, a throat sweet called Vocalzone and a superstitious outlook.  The superstitious outlook is a vital component of the theatrical character, a medieval hangover that is a remnant of the kind of logic that computed that if your saw four swallows flying southwest on a Monday it meant someone would give birth to a child with clubfoot on Tuesday.  If anyone showed the slightly OCD passion for superstition that actors show in any other work environment they would be laughed all the way to the water cooler.   There is a whole range of bad luck and good luck omens within theatres, dozy and incalculable and daft –  and no less enjoyable for their madness.

You cannot whistle anywhere in a theatre.  If you do, you have to go outside the room, turn around three times and ask permission to re-enter (John Barrowman particularly enjoys this).  The same goes for clapping backstage.  Both whistling and clapping used to be theatrical signals for large, heavy parts of the set to be lowered so a whistle or clap at the wrong time could result in an injury.  However, I think the profession has increased its population at such a rate that surely it is time to leave by the wayside those actors stupid enough to stand in the middle of the stage and invite 50 stone imitation cliff faces to squash them.  You must not, of course, any other circumstances, mention the word Macbeth.  If you have to talk about it you must refer to it as “The Scottish Play”.   i.e.  “I went to an audition for The Scottish Play and the Director felt me up and invited me to his Turkish holiday home.  Have I got the part?” or “He was performing in The Scottish Play on tour when his wife left him for that antique salesman in the Wirral.” etc etc.   The reasons are that the word Macbeth will summon burnings, imminent spirits and death by swordplay.  It doesn’t.  It summons difficult lines, being aware of shifting hordes of schoolchildren firing paper pellets at the actors whilst being forced to sit through the story of Scottish regal dynasty by their GCSE set text, lady actors dancing around cauldrons and itchy tights.

Wishing anyone “good luck” is extremely rude.  Don’t do it.  You’ll be forced to spend the next 18 months in solitary confinement with Elaine Paige, and no one on this earth wants to do that.  You have to say “break a leg” for some obscure, slightly pig-headed reason, unless you are in Portugal or Spain, in which case you must shout “Muita Merda!” – “A lot of crap!”  which is funny, because that’s probably what the critics will say too.  So perverse is the fear of magic / bad luck / terrible, awful things happening that actors will often wish each other “bad luck”, in order to stave off bad luck.  Of course, they mean the opposite when they say “bad luck” to their much-loved colleagues.  Don’t they?

One of the marvellous characteristics of working in the theatre is you get to absolve yourself of all personal responsibility by one act : by calling up the sprite-like presence of Thespis.  Should you miss your cue, turn up late for rehearsal, accidentally fuck the director’s wife or break a prop because you were playing football with it in the wings during the interval, you can blame it on Thespis.  If Thespis could only see what is being done in his name he would rouse himself up from a dry, Grecian grave and smack every actor on the head with a brick.  Oh hang on – he can’t because he never existed and is totally made up.  Exited on the wrong side of the stage?  Belched instead of sang?  Wired the costume of the person you are understudying with live electric volts so that you kill them in order to finally fill their dramatic shoes?  Blame the “accident” on Thespis, darling.  If not, you can always blame it on the Union, who are a bit like Thespis – a foreign entity, impossible to get on the phone, inept, incapable and almost certainly entirely made up.  Thespis will happily take your mistakes and sense of responsibility.  The Union, Equity, will take your money, would consider shooting you for a tenner, will not allow any mistakes and, when you are found in that regional production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with your head trapped in a revolving set and your brains are being squeezed out of the top of your skull onto the pre-war lino, and you’re calling for your lawyer in order to make your Will, leave you to die in a stagnant, fetid pool of your own blood, vomit and poo.

In the tradition of paradox that is the theatre, neither ghosts or black cats are an ominous sign.   A black cat is a convenient lucky charm, although sadly the theatre cat has been a victim of Health & Safety and there are less of them these days.  West End theatres are hundred year old hellholes of environmental madness, riddled with rats and mice, most of which are looking for an audition.  The cats would kill the mice, thereby ensuring they can’t get one.   The most distinguished of the West End Theatre cats was the much-loved Beerbohm at The Gielgud (when it used to be called The Globe).  He was from an ancient theatrical lineage, having been born in Her Majesty’s Theatre down the road and had the official title of  Principal Mouser.  I met him a couple of times in the costume room at the Gielgud when he was an old boy where he would find a particularly expensive piece of tailoring and sit and moult on it. 

“I’m too old for all this now, darling,” he said to me on that autumn afternoon in 1992.  “I mean, those bastard tap dancers took my worm pills – they must have thought they were something else, dear.  And now, I have Camden Council coming in to look at the mouse problem.  So vulgar.  I’ve got twice as many legs as any one of them, I can see in the dark, I’m highly intelligent and sinister all at the same time, I am felis catus, a natural hunter. I’ve been petted by Diana Rigg, for God’s sake. And they DARE to breathe a word about my mousing.  Peasants.  I remember what darling Sir John Gielgud-y used to say….”

Then he’d fart, roll over and dream of dead, gutted fish.  Beerbohm’s prayers were answered though.  A theatre carpenter offered him retirement out in Kent, where Beerbohm spent the remainder of his days pasting photographs of his favourite dead mice in his theatrical scrapbook.  Apparently his last word’s where “Felicity Kendal’s been at my KiteKat.”

A portrait of him still graces the foyer where he imperiously looks down his whiskers at tourists buying gin and tonics at the bar.  He is the only cat to have had his own obituary in The Stage.  The Noel Coward Theatre has two cats, none of which command themselves with Beerbohm’s nobility or suaveness.  One of them ate Princess Margaret’s bouquet during a gala performance, and both of them appeared impromptu on stage on a regular basis.   In the 1970s, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane had a much-loved cat called Ambrose, who’s frequent appearances on stage so angered Michael Crawford that he tried to ban him.  Apparently, the cat felt the same way about Crawford.  The cat won.

Beerbohm, The Globe Theatre’s  (Gielgud) Principal Mouser, late of this parish, working his diva look, bringing the theatre good luck and squashing someone’s edition of The Stage.

If the black cat’s presence isn’t enough to ensure your insecurities that the show will go without hitch, you can always refuse to rehearse the curtain call until the day on which you will actually be performing it.  It is considered bad luck to arrange the curtain call, which is astonishing.  Possibly the only part of the play where the director has to choreograph 14 narcissists simultaneously arriving on stage desperate to suck up applause and adoration, desperate to step on each other, ignore each other, fling arms around to blot the appearance of the others out, trip each other up and perform further blasphemous acts and no one considers it wise to rehearse it in good time. They would rather wait until 5pm on the night of the first preview, when the cast’s nerves are shot to ribbons, when they ignore the precedence of casting, put the cast’s actorly noses out of joint and make a right mess of it.  A further, more lunatic version of this is never to rehearse the last line of the play.  Ever.  A play cannot be finished until it’s rehearsal is finished.  The last line remains unspoken.  This means you can be doomed to spend three weeks in a draughty church hall listening to:

“And, so!  The murderer is———!”

Director, purple-faced, with a bit of diabetes, throws A4 notebook onto the floor and stands up. “No, Harold, darling.  Last line sweetie!  No. DON’T SAY IT.”

This can happen throughout the entire rehearsal process.  Most of the actors don’t know (or care) who the murderer was because they haven’t read all the play yet. 

The Theatre Royal Drury Lane is Britain’s most haunted theatre.  In fact, a theatre is only a genuine theatre if it has a black cat in residence and a ghost.  Actors love to recount stories of that time they saw an uncanny visitor, pale, death white and hollow of face, although they often forget to add that it turned out to be their agent.  Actors love getting a sense of ghostly frisson by the idea that some old dear is hovering about the dress circle doing hauntings and suchlike things that dead people do.  The most famous of London’s theatre ghosts is the imaginatively titled “The Man in Grey”, at the Theatre Royal.  He appears only in the daytime and apparently is keen to watch rehearsals (he’s probably been waiting to hear the last line for the last 150 years to see how the damn thing ends).  As a thespian ghost, he’s relentlessly dull.  I mean, he just hasn’t put any thought into his performance or presence, duckie.  The appearance of him is a wonderful omen that the impending show is going to be a success.  He is dressed as an 18th century nobleman with a tri-cornered hat and a grey cape.  Oddly, he appeared during the rehearsals of “Oklahoma!”, “Carousel”, “South Pacific” and “The King and I” which suggests he is actually from the Oscar Hammerstein estate and has come to collect royalties.  As an 18th century nobleman, I imagine he’d find mid-20th century theatre a bit surprising.   Imagine his correspondence:

My dear—I alighted to my usual post in The Olde Theatyre at Drury Lane to find the place much altered.  Syphilis Sally, wont of height and wooden of leg, is no longer purveyor of fine oranges in the marketplyce.  In her post I found a rugged gentleman of native charm who was pinning paper notices on people’s carriages regarding parking facilyties.  In the theatre I was taken aback.  Gone are the Comedies about parrots and dear old Lady A and gone are the swills of beer and rakish gentlemen.  In their place I found a diverse piece of machinerie which was loathe to take my money and produce a Whole Nut for consumption.  Alas, dear lady, Twas a fool I was made, as I gave this diabolical machine my sovereign and I did not get a Nut.  It produced a strange rectangle coating in purple shiny paper and twas not a Whole Nut.  Or a Half Nut.  I took my usual seat in the theatre and I thought my eyes confounded me when I saw a dozen farmyard workers making a jolly song and dancing with metal taps on their feet, making a devils abomynation, singing about Oh What a Beautiful Morning.  Twas not a morning of beautee.  Twas horrid.  I shall forthwith locate the assistant stage manager and lodge my complaint and make mine sentiments known, I thought.  Alas, I found him in a small, sordid, black box at the rear of the auditorium, playing Bejewelled Blitz and unconcerned with my ague and temper…..

p.s. Have you heard whether they’re recasting Mamma Mia yet?”

Anyway, don’t be disappointed if you don’t see “The Man in Grey” in the evenings.  You can always listen to Dan Leno rehearsing his clog dancing routine in his dressing room, another one of The Theatre Royal’s hauntings.  Thankfully, dead theatre critics have yet to rise from their cantankerous graves and cause more misery than they did when they were alive.  

A whole range of further superstitions are rarely known these days.  You must never clear out your make up box.  If you do it might mean you’ll never work again.  You must step out of your dressing room onto your left foot.  If you find a thread you must tie it around your finger, if you wear blue on stage it is bad luck unless it is countered by something silver – it’s a whole host of craziness that actors give weight to, and sometimes prioritise over something like calling their agent.  Rather than theatres being traditionally spooky places were ghosts hang out, is not the rich superstition of ghosts, whistling, cats and claps the unifying religion that actors identify themselves with?  Is all this because actors are so terrified at jinxing any employment, so desperate to avoid the label “resting”, so enthrall to a profession where bad pay and maltreatment go so often hand-in-hand that they put importance on this balderdash as a kind of employment insurance?   The rituals, the cleansing, the homeopathy, the fault lines, the ley lines, the lines to learn, the break a leg cards – it seems the theatrical community – an irreligious, liberated community by nature  -self-imposed just another organised faith with its own orthodoxies, fears, limitations and outdated rules by which it is doomed to live by.  Somewhere in the back of the theatre, you can hear the cat laughing.

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

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.


“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.”


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.

Audition Blues

Once upon a time, many years ago, I auditionned in front of a theatrical panel in a room that smelt of soup.  The panel looked as upset as I did.  I was upset because somehow I had got the wrong information and turned up wearing a school uniform, plaits and plimsolls.   I should have taken the plaits out in the waiting room, but instead stared at the other auditionees, smugly, thinking how I had the advantage on them as I was the only person to have truly heeded the “School girl; RP accent; High-spirited; xylophone playing an advantage” agents’ brief.  Imagine my horror to find it was actually “The Threepenny Opera”, to be performed with deep, Weimar-Germanic intent in Bury St Edmunds.  Apparently it was school-age-ish girl, and a tragic looking German one, to boot.  I realised that it was too late to change anything about my outfit.    I didn’t even have time to remove the wire from my schoolgirl plaits, which made them stand out in large arcs either side of my head.

When I went into the room to audition all the blood drained from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s face.

I wasn’t even sure what he was doing there.  The thing is he wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing there, either, because he was nothing to do with Bury St Edmunds. I mean,  he had heard of it.  Probably.  His Rolls may have gorgeously oozed through it on his way to Bill Kenwright’s country estate , but it was clear after ten minutes that he was in the wrong room.  The panel was headed up by a dreary, burgundy-trousered director whose face had had all the hope and protein sucked out of it, and who had a skin tone that spoke of early morning Nescafes and Berkeley Menthol fags.  At his feet was a black canvas bag on which were loudly printed the dates of a San Francisco play tour from 1986.  He may have ventured to the States but he clearly hadn’t been to Planet Fashion.  Drainpipe burgundy jeans can work in a certain setting, but the accompanying mules were very risky for February.  He gazed at my plaits intensely. 

“Hello.  What are you doing for us today?” 

Fortunately I didn’t have to do any acting.  I just had to play the xylophone and do a song.  Being a pianist, the xylophone wasn’t a problem – off I went – banging the keys masterfully, tapping away on plimsolled-feet, plaits a-flying and generally grooving away.  The petulant Artistic Director of Bury St Edmunds must have been well impressed, because he basically just sat there with his jaw hanging.  At one point, I removed my right hand from the keyboard and clicked my fingers enthusiastically to the  beat.  It was at this point that I think Andrew Lloyd Webber realised he had a previous engagement or something, because he instantly walked out of the room, whispering eerily “Sorrymydear” on his way out.  My version of Fly Me To The Moon ended with a lovely major 7th blues chord, which I punctuated with a wiggle of the politically incorrect bottom half of my uniform. 

The silence was stunning.  Then they asked what I was going to sing.  What they wanted was Don’t Tell Mama from Cabaret or similar.  Everyone was going to sing Don’t Tell Mama or something else from Cabaret, because that was the only other German-set musical anyone’s ever heard of.   But, due to the theatrical crossed wires, I only had You Can’t Get A Man with A Gun.   I knew I was about to die a grisly, appalling theatrical death, whilst watched with vicarious vigour by Mr Burgundy Trousers and his accompanying orange lipsticked costume designer.  They wanted a nubile creature, stretching 40 denier-tightclad legs over the orange plastic rehearsal room chairs, drawling Berlin vowels about the place and trying to hump the chairs like Liza Minnelli faking an orgasm.  I was bereft.  What they were going to get was a cheery upstart from the dustbowl of the American Midwest whose only conclusion about romantic love was that if you wanted someone to kiss you, it was better not to shoot them first. It had nothing of the Teutonic ennui about tawdry Berlin life. I had no bowler hat or green nail varnish or false eyelashes.  But what I did have, unfortunately, was laryngitis.  

Singing You Can’t Get  A Man With  A Gun is a business one must dive into headfirst, with fearless guts, with crisp enunciation and a look in the eye that suggests you’ve just spotted a dustbowl on the Kansas horizon.  Admittedly, it’s tricky to pull off in the Holborn pre-fab, but by golly I gave it my best.  But singing it with laryngitis was a whole different story.  It made it evil.  As soon as I began croaking and growling through the first verse, I realised I was in deep, sinister trouble.  So I pushed myself through it,  this school-plaited idiot with hands on her hips singing about being “…out in the cactus and practising all day” in a voice that sounded like Louis Armstrong’s would, if you’d had made him sing after putting his head through a blender. Looking up, I realised the director looked strange.  In fact, he looked like he had just had some sort of stroke.  Or something.  His head slumped down to one side and a little bit of dribble came out the corner of his nicotined mouth.  Oh God, I thought whilst battling uphill belting out that “I lose all my lustre, when with a Bronco Buster!” I’ve killed him.  Watching me do this is actually fatal.   Finally – after years of dreaming of killing people like that – I’ve succeeded.  I’ve actually bumped one of the bastards off.  And it’s happening when I’m high on Sudafed.   And, unlike Annie Oakley, it turns out I didn’t even need a gun. 

I had pushed my voice so aggressively that I could feel a deep burning at the base of my throat, and I had a tense jaw with the effort of it all.  Swooping down into the main philosophy of the song, the undeniable truth that, indeed, you “can’t get a hug from a mug with a slug”, the end of the song looked like a cool, wide beautiful oasis.  When I finished, I think they were relieved as I was.  I stood, listening to my career opportunities softly sifting away.  Still, at least I wasn’t dead and dribbling onto a canvas bag which advertised a touring production of My Fair Lady.  

What should you do with a dead Artistic Director anyway?  At least the Actors Church wasn’t far away. It’s handy for funerals.  And actors tend to the predictable spiritually, hovering ominously in the half light between humanism and agnosticism.  So they’ll probably just cremate him then.  You can’t prove you’ve killed someone by singing Irving Berlin songs at them until they died after they are cremated, can you?  Can you?  Perhaps this is how I shall finally get famous, I mused.  It isn’t going to be whilst taking a bow in gold tap shoes on a first night, the tired soles of my award-winning feet cushioned by a blanket of first night pink roses. It’s going to be by the headline  Actress sings as Director keels over.  “I think the authenticity of my performance devastated him,” says North London ingenue, 26″. 

No sooner had I been enjoying this reverie of red-top scandal and notoriety than the bastard woke up, sat bolt upright and said “Can you snort like a pig?”

After the audition, I did what I usually did.  I wondered what on earth I was doing and thought about how long it would take to train as a lawyer, vetinarian, train announcer, street-cleaner, or other, more dignified, forms of employ.  Then I went home and comfort ate some spaghetti carbonara, washing down my antibiotics with a generous slug of Mount Bay Rum.  I returned to diligent work in the office as a temp the next day.  I must have been unwell in the brain because I actually did the filing.   Life was stupid : this constant merry-go-round of auditions and interviews by people who demanded I impress them whilst being so relentlessly unimpressive themselves.  Two days passed, at the end of which I returned home to an ansaphone message telling me I got the job.  I mean, I actually got the job.  I GOT THE JOB.  It turned out they liked the maturity of my voice, which was alarming.  What was I going to do when I got better and my voice changed beyond recognition?  By then I thought, I would be in dire Bury St Edmunds, smack in the middle of Britain’s soggiest, dampest county and by then they wouldn’t be able to get rid of me.

The irony wasn’t lost on me though : that the best audition I ever did was one which I turned up to in inflatable plaits, dressed like a moron, appalled an impresario and sung with a fractured voice out of tune.  Such is the business of show.  There’s no other like it.  Thank God.

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1997 called : It wants its actors back

I ended up in a timewarp yesterday – or, as the authorities call it – White City.  It’s a gothic, Gotham-like monolith of a shit-tip, Television Centre.  It has all the flavour and allure of a municipal swimming pool, but one with cardboard cut-outs of Strictly Come Dancing presenters and participants in every corner.  Have you ever had to share a lift with a cardboard, life-size Bruce Forsyth?  I did yesterday and it was deeply sinister.  An avuncular hand tapped me on the aged shoulder yesterday and offered me a day and a half’s salary for turning up to the BBC for an hour and a half and doing some undemanding acting which involved dirty hair.  Well,  I’m not going to say No, am I?  Tapping away on here every week imparting bits of nonsense has precisely netted me £0.00 since February 2010 and the clip joint business isn’t what it used to be.  There’s a recession on and we must exploit whatever remedial-level acting talents we may have once had here at Bluebird Towers.

The first time I came here was in 1997 when, fresh out of drama school, I headed here on a very hot day for a voiceover appointment with Fiona Bruce, ate all the crisps and got my period.  This heralded a great panic of half an hour where I argued with, in order of sequence : 1.  My mother.  2.  The tampax machine, mainly by physical aggression and thumping and 3.  The lady whose job it was to replenish the Tampax machine and who had – clearly in this instance – failed.   By the time I got up 5 flights of stairs to be met by a remarkably groomed, smooth-voiced Fiona B, I was out of my mind, red-faced, insane and more than a little teary.  I wasn’t asked back.  In those days it all seemed to matter.  Now, I’m like, oh fuck ’em – I mean, it’s a day out isn’t it?

I rocked on up there yesterday, prepared to knock out one of my fruitiest non-speaking performances and taking along a packet of ginger biscuits.  The biscuits are an imperative.  Whatever time you’re told to turn up to Television Centre, you won’t be seen for an average of 78 minutes.  It’s a guaranteed smorgasbord of top class people watching in the reception.  Getting there at 3.30 meant we would be used at 4.38, I calculated.  I was right – to the second.   Walking in I was pleased at the effort all the other actors had made with the costume instructions, as we were told to be a bit scruffy and environmentally friendly-looking.  I joined the cluster of non-speaking, non-working actors who were shuffling around looking like all the spirit had been slowly sucked out of them by years of this type of nonsense.  Some of them had great backpacks, hadn’t combed their hair and were clearly going for the method acting.  I admired their pluck and motivation.  Then a man came along, who called everyone “guys” (even the ladies) and they all went off.  It turned out they weren’t actors but just random messy unclean people who had arrived for the BBC Tour.  Fortunately, I didn’t follow them, otherwise I’d have been having a tour of the Holby City coffee room and being made to sit on Jeremy Paxman’s lap or something, whilst I should have been unrolling my dusty acting diploma and doing a bit of work in the salubrious confines of Current Affairs.

In the corner there were a small cluster of people, whose faces were further faded than those who turned up to do the BBC tour, who looked very anxious about the state of their lives and who nervously chewed the chords on their anoraks.  I had, it seemed, found my people.

These were background artistes (the label by which Extras go in these times) and they bear the countenances of people who have worked for years in jobs where they have had no agency of voice or character and where they slip away through the catering truck at 7pm after a thankless day’s work in which no one had bothered to learn their names.  In the main, it seemed, it had broken them.  Most of them were like faded photocopies of the real, voiced, characters they may have once had the capacity to be.   Still, it had been fun for the hour to sit in the reception area – although the mid-afternoon children’s TV that boomed out from three televisions and which it was not possible to escape from seemed starkly sinister in this great grey, glass horror of a waiting area.  I have yet to determine why people who work in the BBC at White City always get dressed in the dark.  The Crimes against Fashion were abhorrent, frequent, and nearly put me off my ginger nuts.  People, I ask, when did it become acceptable to go to work dressed in faded black jeans that last saw high street clothes racks in 1992?  Why is the errant choirboy haircut that Jason Donovan sported in the mid 1990s now worn by intense looking middle-aged chaps with chubby tummies and moobs who strut about petulantly in boat shoes?  Why is everyone white here, except the cleaner?  Why do the women feel compelled to dress like depressed Geography teaching lesbians of a minor public school?   This is the national broadcaster, for God’s sake.  There should be a little bit of pride, or if not pride then certainly a mandatory dress code that should on no account include the hateful button-down collar.  Two miserable Strictly Come Dancing glitterballs do nothing to counteract the dreary awfulness of this mausoleum of a place.

We are collected, although we still know not what for.  One of the background artistes thinks we may be used as activists regarding something to do with the current protests.  Another extra, a bizarre 1980s hybrid sort of chap with a beanie hat and a leather jacket with the legend “Motorhead – England” on the reverse in Tippex-white gothic lettering, says “What protests?  There are no protests going on are there?”   The first chap fills him in.  Motorhead twitches and looks like he is in the wrong building.  The fellow lady actor is risible and depressed and dislikes everyone.  This is not unusual for a background artist; whilst actors hate directors, producers, casting officials and editors, background artistes hate actors – oh, and directors, producers, casting officials and editors.  It isn’t mandatory to be a misanthrope if you are a background artist, but by golly, it helps.  On arrival in the room in which we will be doing our filming, the producer, a warm and enthusiastic woman, leads us through the main story which will give us some context.  Mid-flow, when she gets to the crux of the story and is getting quite animated about the current affairs issue, Motormouth holds his fingerless-gloved hands up:  “Scuse me luv, but where’s the toilet?”  The nature of his enquiries varied little throughout the course of the afternoon.  When our pleasant producer said she was going out that evening, he enquired whether she was going to “get mashed” at which point she just looked a little thrown.  Throughout our job,  we are instructed to “rhubarb”, the nonsense mumbling tomfoolery that actors are required to produce to give impression of talking.  But I soon realise that everything, when amplified through the confines of Motormouth’s beard, sounds like “rhubarb”.  The general conversation consists of travel, who lives where and a bizarre anecdotal trawl through the annals of Extra-ing, during which I learn : Ricky Gervais is difficult to work with, carrying a spear ought to come under “special skills” and therefore imply a pay rise and if you work with dwarves sometimes they fall off tables.   The room we are sitting in is not insulated – either that or someone forgot to turn the heating on.  But it also seems that someone forgot to turn the acting on as well.

Being a background artist has a great democracy and freedom about it; training isn’t needed and the business is open to all.  This in itself is a wonderful thing, as training often doesn’t create good leading actors, and personal experience has not made me a huge fan of training.  But you do need to have something.  If a director asks you to improvise through a scene, it is no good to sit there looking embarrassed.  All actors look like idiots when they’re improvising in someone else’s clothes.  You just have to get on with it, and, if it’s a serious scene, you shouldn’t have to be reminded by the director every 10 minutes that you shouldn’t be laughing.  All in all, then, it was a very odd business.  Motorhead was more interested in locating the loos and my fellow lady actor was incredibly good at bad mouthing every element of the process that has been her job for the last fifteen years.  We sat about looking serious and nodding and being told to turn our coffee cups around so that no one could see the logo.  Extras are a bit like that : you aren’t allowed to see the logo : the agency of true identity and visibility is banished and instead they must be that beige slab of background upon which other, better, actors appear.  I cannot think of a business more likely to drive you out of your mind and render you with a overwhelming feeling of futility than being a background artiste.  And if that isn’t enough, you’re in cardboard-looking White City.  In October.  And it’s raining.  And at home, 6 hours later, we discover the story was not shown anyway.  Now they were extras not only devoid of name, character and voice, but devoid of visibility of any kind, having left no celluloid mark whatsoever.

Three cups of coffee and £100 later we were out of there, slipping out into the West London night and braving the rush hour Central Line home.  The extras shed their paint-by-numbers characters and before I knew it they had disappeared – nameless, wordless, hopeless – into the black night, whilst the constant crowd of self-important men with biros in boat shoes, continued wandering through the great corporation doing extremely important things and being very busy and not even noticing the extras who had just disappeared out through the automatic doors.

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

Joe Allen : Theatrical nirvana or theatrical hell…

I had the oddest experience on Thursday.  I left Joe Allen sober.  Before you start wondering what seismic shift in the universe must have happened to bring this about, I ought to tell you it was only 6pm.  Plus I had a slight cold and two hours of Jeff Goldblum to get through.  And he is a biyatch when you’ve had a few because he looks even taller and is twice as scary.

I go to Joe Allen because its sort of what I do, and what I have always done.  It’s where my parents used to take us, and where me and my siblings celebrated several of our birthdays, because they always did good birthday cakes.  I have been known to cross counties for one of their brownies.  It’s where you go before a show or – more appropriately – after a show, where people crane their necks to see if the bastard actor they saw IN the show is walking in.  They pretend to not be impressed, and return to their caesar salads with a frisson of smug glee.   London is bereft of decent dining after 11pm, so when Joe Allen opened in the 1970s it must have knocked everyone’s showbiz socks off.  It’s a stage away from a stage, unashamedly showbiz and unashamedly brash.   It looks like someone’s idea of what the West End theatre world is.  I enjoy the fact it’s fabulously dated, with it’s stripped back to brick, New York style walls crammed with more theatre posters than Danny La Rue’s bedroom.  Most of these posters are from 1974, many of which feature that doyenne of 1970s and 1980s Broadway, Bernadette Peters.  Of course, like everywhere, it hasn’t been the same since the smoking ban.  It used to be compulsory to light up in Joe Allen (fag or no fag) because acting is the last industry where smoking is mandatory.  It’s against the law not to smoke in rehearsal rooms.  I have not touched a cancer stick since 2004 but I still miss smoking in Joe Allen, so much so that I left with several of their ashtrays in the 1990s.   My attachment to the potato skins (with sour cream; always ordered “off-menu”) is partly gastric, partly clubby and hugely emotional.

Joe Allen has stood proud and unchanging in the face of dietary concerns and restaurant fashion, a bastion of carbohydrate excess in Exeter Street.  Whilst not having a Proustian madeleine moment with the potato skins of my childhood, I can look at the rest of the unchanged menu – still filled with the same ribs, steaks, large potato fries and corn muffins with no nod to the low-GI- obsessed, fad-driven, green juice gulping legions of actors who sit in there pretending to wait for casting directors.  Eight years ago, when I was still scooping up non-roles in the shallow end of the acting pool, the cast I was in had a birthday.  Deciding on what to do, I suggested Joe Allen.  I got a RADA-trained withering glance, and the unpleasant retort: “But it’s SO showbiz!”  They weren’t even interested.   I thought that as they seemed so much more intent on aggressively nurturing their careers than I did, they could do a lot worse than spend several evenings at Joe Allen trying to drag theatre producers into the toilet cubicles for sex acts.  After all, that was how half of them ended up in that play in the first place.   But apparently not.  They wanted to go that ugliest of all ugly private members bars, Teatro, drink Chablis with Soho media boys, and toy with a disgusting club sandwich before throwing up in a taxi all the way home.

Joe Allen is not a venue for those uptight, chin-stroking, miserable, prudish actoooors,who I spent most of my youth avoiding, very often slightly sadistic woman-haters, who do very very serious dramas, sniff and sneer at the out of towners (whilst pretending they’re not really from Guildford) and who look like they’ve never been laid properly.  Oh, no – this is more for the seriously glitzy actors – the blowsy but loveable Vaudevillians, the stage door Johnnies and West End Wendys.  They have more heart.  In Joe Allen you’re more likely to see teeth and tits that black polo necks.  This is what stops it from being pretentious.  You see, they are not pretending to be bottle blonde West End Wendys getting smashed on a Tuesday night while recounting anecdotes about John Barrowman that cannot be repeated in front of children; they actually are. They have no delusions about it, and neither do we.  They are not pretending not to look at the door to be resolutely unimpressed by whoever is coming in; they wallow in it.  The actors who come in for dinner wallow in being recognised too, so it’s all gravy.  The West End Wendys don’t have prejudices towards the out of towners; they couldn’t care less what town you’re from frankly, as long as you join in with the singing.

The unchanging menu has turned out to be Joe Allen’s winning ticket; by removing itself from any competition in the arena of so-called fashionable fabulousness it can be itself – and that is, I am relieved to say, better than ever.  I had heard horrid reports.  Several people had said it wasn’t what it was, that their steaks were tough, the staff dismissive, the service sub-standard, the food overpriced.  I saw Craig Revel-Horwood negotiating a steak last time I was there and he looked well miffed; like he wanted to put it in the dance-off.  Part of the bad reports from Joe Allen broke me a little, not only because I draw comfort from those aspects of London life which are impervious to change.  So, I was half dreading my experience, when I rocked up there last Thursday, grappling through the door with my London Library bag and my Italian grammar exercises.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that I’d booked a table in Italian, but it didn’t throw the door luvvie, who was so polite and kind and showed me to my table.  Service was attentive and the best I have received in London for two or three years.  I had a ten minute wait for my friend and ordered a small carafe of Chianti (enough for two glasses.  £8.50.  You can’t find that anywhere else in a good restaurant) and the only disturbance to me trying to translate the “Corriere della Sera” was the lady on the table next to me arranging her smear test loudly over the phone.  The place was fairly full with pre-theatre goers, as it offers a competitive pre-theatre menu up to 6.45pm, a cut-off time they stick to religiously.  The dining space is wide and divided into two – cheerfully lightly air-conditionned on this hot day – and all tables cunningly allow visual access to the bookings desk at the door, in honest recognition that what everybody really loves doing here is wolfing down a sirloin while watching that successful fifty-something, brutally blow-dried television actor arrive carrying an expensive overcoat and a third wife for a bash at the dover sole.

I don’t need to tell you how wonderfully gay-friendly it is, obviously.   Last time I was here two men were sitting on two separate tables on opposite sides of the restaurants wearing leather skirts and we spent the evening wondering which of them would go up to the other one to swap fashion notes.  When they eventually did, they left the restaurant together.  This kind of thing has been accepted in theatrical circles long before the rest of the world caught up, of course, and it’s been usual for that sort of thing to go on here for years.  Many years ago, after an evening at the theatre with a friend of mine, he said to me “Come on, let’s go to Joe’s….” and after mildly protesting that I had to be up in the morning for work, he twisted my weak arm.  I had assumed he was going to be bringing me HERE, but he actually took me to Madame Jo-Jos, where you have a very different kind of evening.  And they don’t give you a steak.  At least at Joe Allen you can have a hearty meal, a good bread basket, a bottle of Chianti – all the while accompanied by the tinkling of the resident piano player – and then pick someone up for a spot of consensual S&M.

My friend arrived and we ordered what we always order (rare sirloin, fries which are more like very very good 1970s wedges, buttered spinach with garlic and a tomato and onion salad) and it was the best steak I have had in a long time – probably since the last time I was there.  Soft as butter inside and perfectly cooked.  The potatoes were excellent, although nearly so hot as to blow your head off.  Craig Revel-in-yer-Wormwood would have given our dinner a “10”.  We even got service with a smile, proving that this New Yorkist London restaurant has learned its best trick from the city that inspired it; most London restaurants have waiters bristling with resentment, underlined with a smidge of class resentment. In America (and in New York in particular)where waiting is a respected profession, this is not the case.

I nearly forgot to go to the theatre.  This is quite understandable because being in Joe Allens is like being in the theatre; the restaurant cocoons you below street level in a strange pre-Blackberry, pre-internet theatrical alternative universe.  If the waiters waltzed in pirouetting their way through a Mack & Mabel medley you wouldn’t be shocked.  You just want to wallow forever in the bread baskets and the chitchat.  We ordered a swift double espresso, in my struggle to stay awake during a play when I was coming down with a cold, and headed off to the play.  I was delighted that the restaurant had exceeded my expectations, and yet another small section of my transient city life has proved slightly resistible to change.   Each time you return to a much-loved place is a revisit to the evenings and moments you had there before, and in that way a restaurant experience can be so much more than the sum of its pan-fried parts.  I had feared that this entry would be a disappointed and sad one.  I am delighted that it is not.


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