Saturday 9 January 2016



'Stop. Cut. Jesus, whatever directors usually say.' The director, raking his hands through floppy, Brideshead hair, frowned wearily in the general direction of Lady Bracknell. 'Try 'A handbag.' again, and this time, less 'Kenneth Williams plays Edith Evans', more - I don't know - more bewildered.'

'A handbag?' [faintly]

'No, that won't work either. Try sounding exasperated'

'A handbag.' [plaintively]

'Christ, how many times? No sodding Edith Evans. Go again.'

'A handbag' [challengingly] 


'A hand ... bag?' [tentatively]


'A handbag.' [wearily]

'And again.'

Rehearsals for the University Drama Society's production of The Importance of Being Earnest were not going well. It wasn't simply that the director's expectations were bafflingly high: Rehearsal Room B was right behind the main stage of the Student Union and any Lady Bracknell would struggle to make herself heard against a Motörhead sound-check - UEA being the default East Anglian concert venue in those days, the band were due on later that evening and from the sound of it were rehearsing as hard as we were.
Anyway, our director, flushed with the triumph of his 'Look Back in Anger' the previous term - some even said the cast's heroic battle with a collapsing ironing board added a symbolic dimension - was determined to put his own stamp on Wilde's classic - perhaps he hoped people might later refer to it as 'The Jonty Jones' Importance'. Jonty had updated the production to the nineteen twenties - motivated less by artistic intention than by availability of costumes, most of which had done service in last year's  Present Laughter. He cast a man as Lady Bracknell - very radical for the 1980's - and we had instructions to rehearse wearing a part of our costume, and with the odd prop so that we might better inhabit the role and collapse the artificiality of Wilde's mannered dialogue. I'm afraid, as Gwendolyn, I didn't take this terribly seriously; the best I managed at rehearsal was to fish a Letts diary and a pair of broken spectacles from my pocket ('Mama, whose views on education are remarkably strict, has brought me up to be extremely short sighted') but others of our troupe were more method. An aspididstra appeared. Miss Prism invariably brought a toaster, so we might eat muffins unrepentantly in the second act, there was a battered briefcase (barely big enough to have concealed a baby in a railway station cloakroom but still), Canon Chasuble had borrowed a chasuble from a friend at the Cathedral, Jack Worthing had taken up smoking ('a man must have an occupation of some kind') and Lady Bracknell wore a large picture hat, white gloves, a feather boa and a Cupid's bow of scarlet lipstick beneath his moustache. Our director had the added challenge of directing himself as Algenon, and wore tweed plus twos and a ritzy pair of co-respondent shoes. No one brought any cucumber, there being none available, not even for ready money.

Every term, the cool kids in DramSoc got to do a Brecht or a Beckett for an audience of about seven and to rave reviews from the university paper's drama critic, who smoked a pipe and referred to himself entirely unselfconsciously as 'channelling the late, great Kenneth Tynan'. Every term, the less cool but more commercially-minded members of the society underwrote the inevitable losses of Great Art with a play that guaranteed bums-on-seats: the people of Norwich would turn out for endless Coward or Wilde at a tenner a ticket and so we balanced the books. Credibility was sacrificed on the altar of a full-house and cash-flow traded for predictably poor notices: there was little evidence of a Tynan-shaped Spirit Guide in the critic who wrote after the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest, 'Jonty Jones' Algernon Moncrieff has all the aplomb of a wet Labrador in a production neither important nor earnest.' Fortunately, no one read the University newspaper, and as any actor will tell you, rapturous applause trumps a would-be hack's savaging any day of the week. Fortunately, as long as it was Wilde or Coward and nothing too avant-garde, and you said the lines and didn't fall over the furniture, the good people of Norwich would still come and see it, regardless of how you tinkered with the detail, and were very good at clapping, particularly if you added a strong clacque of parents to the middle of the stalls.

So there we were, less than three weeks to curtain up, full of enthusiasm, telling ourselves that saying our lines against the thrash of drum and guitar was good practice for projecting to the back of the circle, as Jonty Jones became more and more frustrated by the delivery of the play's most famous line, his tweeds bristling with artistic ill temper.

'Let me hear it again.'

Lady Bracknell burst into noisy tears at the very moment the rehearsal room door was flung open by a skinny, long-haired, rather grubby looking man - be-jeaned and be-leathered. 'What the fucking fuck is this?' he said. 
'Lemmy. Blimey. I mean, gosh, Mr erm ... Lemmy,' Jonty Jones glided obsequiously towards Motorhead's lead singer, flicking back the Brideshead hair, 'How do you do?'
Lemmy ignored the outstretched hand and glared terrifyingly at the assembled company. Seen through his eyes we were a sorry sight, like refugees from the set of It Ain't Half Hot, Mum. With the exception of Lady Bracknell, who stopped sobbing and gave Lemmy a saucy, appraising look from underneath the brim of the picture hat, evidently harbouring fantasies of being carried off on the back of a Harley, we all imagined he might call the roadies in to give us a good going over with a length of bicycle chain. 'What the fuck are you doing in my Green Room?' Said Lemmy.
'This is a rehearsal of The Importance of Being Earnest - do you know Wilde? Er, no?  Well, you'll find the Green Room on the other side of the corridor - just go back out and the door is right in front of you.'
Lemmy turned on his cowboy boot heel and stalked off. As he slammed the door  behind him, the opening bars of 'Eat the Rich' came pounding through the breeze blocks that separated us from the gig.

Jonty Jones undid and re-tied his cravat in a more pleasing shape and turned back to Lady Bracknell.
'Lady Bracknell, Jack? Let's take it from "You can take a seat, Mr Worthing"' 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Love random brushes with the famous. My sister once telephoned from the food bit of Harvey Nichols all hushed and out of breath. Can't speak, she hissed. Following Cher. She's buying a Diet Coke.

(Though I was hoping you were going to say he delivered the line to perfection!!)