29 April 2009
A friend's teenage daughter has just acquired herself a role in her school production. I didn't ask, rather rudely in hindsight, what the production was, as I was too busy recalling my one spot of board treading in my youth.
When I was 14, I was doing GCSE Music (a revelatory pupil, me - I was a wizard at playing Walk Like An Egyptian on a Yamaha keyboard) and we were all encouraged to take part, either in the school band or choir, in the summer production which the drama department had chosen.
As it turned out, a few of the music students were quite keen on auditioning for acting roles. Given that it was a musical, and therefore solo singers were needed, this was deemed a good idea and so the two departments came together to find their leading boys and girls.
We were doing Smike, the pop adaptation of Dickens' tale Nicholas Nickleby. The modernised production featured the boarding school Dotheboys and one small lad's rescue from the victimisation of his headmaster by the benevolent young assistant, Nickleby. The part of Nickleby was the major one, and needed to be played by a mid-age lad, around 14 or 15. Chris Tyas and I auditioned, and he got it due to being able to hit the high notes better on Don't Let Life Get You Down. As consolation, I was handed the role of Nickleby's elderly uncle Ralph, who wasn't required to sing but had one key scene.
Working on the play was incredibly hard, but also one of the most joyful experiences I had at school, though aside from the success of the football team and my liaison with a gorgeous girl who lived on Roslyn Crescent, I didn't have many others. The drama teachers, Mr Deakin and Miss Kott, worked very long hours, with amazing patience, coaching all the kids with speaking roles in basic acting, stage direction, interpretation of the script and so on.
If you don't know the story, then essentially Dotheboys Hall ("... is a very nice hall and a very nice place to beeeeee!") was a dilapidated but reputable boarding school in Yorkshire, Dickens-stylee, where the kids were heavily disciplined in harsh but approved Victorian manner by the head, Mr Squeers. The kids were roundly whipped for even the most minor of felons (and often despite the absence of the most minor of felons) and fed solely on brimstone and treacle ("good for young people, helps to keep their appetite at bay!") while the Squeers family luxuriated in proper meals and better accommodation. This regime changes when Ralph Nickleby (me) blackmails Squeers over a dead boarder for whom he had unwittingly continued to pay and forces him to give his keen, inexperienced nephew, Nicholas ("here I am, and Nickleby's my name!"), a job as his assistant. Slowly but surely, young Nickleby begins to influence the boys and forces an uprising over the Squeers family, with young Smike the focal point of the revolution.
I hope that's a) comprehensible; and b) accurate. I'm sure I'll be marked down if not. The musical, which was put together by Simon May in the 70s, used the Victorian saga as a long imagination sequence, stemming from a modern day English lesson in which Nickleby (as Mr Nicholls) was teaching the Dickens book to a class.
I dread to think how tough it was for Chris and the other leading players, who were essentially in the play throughout. I had one simple scene to learn, in which I introduced Squeers to Nickleby and told him he had no choice but to give him the advertised job as the head's "able assistant", as I'd otherwise report him for making me continue to pay the boarding account of a kid who'd copped it.
That condenses it reasonably, I think. The actual script was far better.
As I didn't have a song to sing, for which the audience and windows still offer blessings to this day, I rarely saw the rehearsals which knitted the music with the drama. The actors who had to sing were learning their songs at the piano with the music teacher at lunchtime, then rehearsing their lines with the drama teacher after school. Only in the last couple of weeks were the two conjoined, when we had two full play rehearsals, one of which had an impromptu audience of future first years who were on their tour of the school, ready for their arrival in the September.
In the three days prior to opening night, we had two dress rehearsals. I didn't see or know much about my costume until I saw it. I had cream satin breeches, black boots, a frilly white shirt, a bow tie, a royal blue jacket and a top hat. I looked a right malcolm, but once the whole cast had been dolled up we looked superb as a group. Other teachers were recruited as make-up artists and I had all sorts of stripes and shades plastered on me to a) do the necessary job as far as the lighting was concerned; and b) make myself look wrinkled, as I was supposed to be playing a pensioner. To capture this image further, my boring blonde, fringed hair was centrally parted and I was, to all intents and purposes, ducked upside down in a large pail of talcum powder, creating snow white hair. I was told not to sneeze under any circumstances - difficult when even breathing prompted white dust to fall before your nostrils - as all the talc would fly off. I looked like one of those Sunday Sport characters who were 14 years old but with the looks and frailties of a centenarian. At the very least, my reflection told me I needed to start investing in Head & Shoulders.
The amount of talc required was measured, I remember, by the amount which fluttered into the light when, as dictated by the scene, I had to remove my top hat. At the first dress rehearsal there was a titter or two as all this powder cascaded around me as I sat down and took the topper off. Next day, less talc. Eventually, I looked like the Ralph I needed to be.
We had three performing nights in total before an audience of parents and teachers, plus a few students who came along to giggle, heckle (though none dared, in the end) or watch jealously as they'd not got a part. My parents and grandma came along. We were in three groups - the actors and stagehands, the choir and the musicians. A mate of mine was the lead guitarist and as the lights went down and the curtains closed, he was required to play the opening bars of the theme from Smike. He did so brilliantly.
I watched the play from the upper gantry, where the changing areas (or sixth form lecture rooms, as they were normally known) were based. I had to clamber down a sheer, vertical gantry ladder - in boots and breeches and top hat, remember - prior to my scene, as did the other supporting cast members to another classroom which acted as the wings, prior to entrance. I can still remember the sheer terror of that ladder as I considered the noise I'd make and the ruination of everyone's work I'd cause if I fell.
My scene, on each evening, went fine. No speech garbling, no memory loss, no needless improvising. Upon stage exit, again I had to return to the upper gantry and watch the rest of the play. At the end was a rock 'n' roll song called Dotheboys Rock which the kids playing the school class sang and the rest of us joined at chorus time. The deputy headteacher who addressed the audience at the end of each night was congratulatory of us and my parents politely said I'd done well. The only thing I got wrong was going to see them for some reason during the interval, and Mr Deakin saying I'd ruined the moment by being myself while still attired in character.
I didn't exactly get the acting bug, unlike one or two of the other cast members who went on to do Theatre Studies at A Level, but I did enjoy it. I auditioned for a role in the next year's production, Rats, but then decided not to do it because of GCSE revision. That one was based on the Pied Piper story. Chris Tyas, whose role also luckily allowed him to slow dance with Annalise Quest onstage every evening, is now a successful entertainment entrepreneur, while the lad who played Smike did, I understand, go on to a stage career.
I hope my mate's daughter enjoys her production. I just remember having the best time on the one I did, and I can still remember my whole scene, word for word, plus a good handful of the songs. I spoke to Chris Tyas on Facebook recently and pointed out the similarity of the verse melody to Human by the Killers, and the verse melody to Don't Let Life Get You Down, the big showstopper he sang on each of those three nights. He was justifiably nonplussed.
Photographs were taken of the show by cast members and teachers alike but I've not seen any since 1988. I suspect it will stay that way.