MY FIRST LEADING LADY
I am carried away by the knowledge that the game I am playing is the most serious and exciting there is.
Albert Camus, Notebooks
CLICK TO HEAR PART ONE OF THE AUDIO RECORDING
I learn from the latest edition of the West Bowling Local History Journal that my childhood first leading lady, Pamela Craven, is no longer with us. She was a sunny and apple-cheeked girl, my first leading lady. Craven’s was her father’s butcher’s shop on Gaythorne Road. In my 11 Plus year in the big school, she sat over on my right amongst the other girls. I played the part of Barney Blue-Eyes to Pamela’s Mrs Lollipop in what I think of as my acting debut on the English-speaking stage.
This inaugural stage, at the end of the hall, was quite high, had footlights and huge drapes of blackout curtaining reaching right up to the lofty ceiling. I always thought it superior to the stage of my Methodist Sunday school hall at Rehoboth. (That was Methodist, this was Church of England, my elementary school.)
For a start, the bulbs at St Stephen’s for the footlights were fixed, not vertically, but horizontally behind the curved length of metal that masked them, so that audiences might almost see the footwork in the song and dance numbers in the pantomimes at Christmas. This arrangement at least approximated the real thing I eventually observed at the Alhambra and the Prince’s Theatre in town, where the footlights were cunningly positioned so that the entire surface of the raked stage and every artiste, the very last sylph en pointe could be seen head to toe from any seat in the stalls.
CLICK TO HEAR PART TWO OF THE AUDIO RECORDING
We gave just one afternoon performance to an audience of our mothers. I entered from stage right and Pamela was on the left. ‘Good morning, Mrs Lollipop. I’ve brought the eggs you wanted; six, I think, you ordered.’ This is all the dialogue I remember. My eyes were not blue, so I must have been cast on the strength of talent, rather than type – I like to think that. The highlight of the performance, however, was nothing to do with acting, mine or anyone else’s. It was the surprise appearance of real life on the stage, as opposed to our overwrought attempts at realism.
There was a crowd scene, centred on a picnic, in which we were all supposed to be having strawberries (just as unlikely as being able to order six eggs in 1947). I don’t know how they kept it a secret from us, but, to our surprise, we were suddenly served with saucers of red jelly, and the way we must have fallen delightedly upon this feast raised the performance to a completely different level of commitment. That layman’s first question to the professional actor, after ‘How do you learn your lines?’, is ‘Do you ever lose yourself in your part?’ Luckily there are enough un-strangled Desdemonas, unstabbed Poloniuses, sane Ophelias and promiscuous Saint Joans to prove that it is finding oneself in the part that is the important thing – that, and knowing the lines so deeply that they are rooted in the automatic memory like one’s knowledge of the controls of a car. Only then can one be free to play at saying them spontaneously as if they have just occurred. These are perhaps the two first and most important lessons in acting. My young mind must have found little labour in learning Barney Blue-Eyes. We learnt hymns by osmosis and our times tables by chanting.
As the red jelly appeared, art and artifice went out of the window. I suddenly became conscious of the fact that the afternoon audience of mothers was laughing. It was for me a curious kind of acting lesson as well as a treat.