Sometimes things didn’t go smoothly and, like all good disasters, the Saturday performance of this show was jinxed by a string of unrelated factors, all either remote or minor, but all contributing in themselves to the final nerve-wracking result . . .
I suppose it could be (perhaps unfairly) blamed on the late David Mayne for dying several years back and leaving a lonely widow; it could be blamed on greedy Post Office workers throwing a wildcat strike a few weeks prior to the show; it could be blamed on our patrons’ long-standing habit of assuming a 7.30pm start for our shows; it could be blamed on Fred’s deafness and forgetfulness with times and keys; it could be blamed on the fastidiousness of the performers for wanting a quick pre-show rehearsal; it could be blamed on me for over-lighting them with no audience in the house: it could be blamed on Anne Mayne’s wedding that day. Finally, it could be blamed on the great god Sod for deciding to tweak our naïve tails just for the fun of it, after letting us get away with thirty-odd years of relative peace.
But to start at the beginning, as they say. The Maynes had lived in Little Tew for many years and brought up their family of three boys and a daughter in a tiny cottage just up the road from the theatre. David was in charge of the patrons’ car park, Anne dispensed the patrons’ coffee. When, some time later, a son (Robert) was born and had come to teenage years he, too, joined us and helped dad in the car park and, later, for a couple of shows was on the sound board until his busy teenage life precluded regular rehearsal attendance. It was back to the car park then, along with schoolfriend Liam (who appeared in several of our comedies with great effect). Over the years they’d both become part of the regular team.
By this time his father had died and Anne was being courted by Gerald, a tall, dark, handsome stranger who lived two miles away in the far-off lands beyond the crossroads, at Great Tew. Their joyous marriage took place at noon on this Saturday of which I write and, naturally, Robert, Liam and all their other friends and relations were at the service. (The guest of honour had to be dear old Norman Pearce who, with his late wife Beryl, lived in the village and had been staunch members of, respectively, the acting and costume team in the early years of our theatre. They had subsequently removed to a tiny cottage in the Scottish highlands and, upon Beryl’s death seven years ago, Norman had lived there on his own. He had, however, always kept in touch with the Maynes and was delighted to hear of the wedding: although nearly eighty, Norman had just driven 560 miles to attend and I was delighted to meet him and talk over old times.) After the service came the roaring good country wedding feast, stretching on into the evening. Which event took both our car park lads from us for the show that evening.“No matter, old boy,” said Fred, “you and I can do the car park between us.”
Five weeks previously the mailing letter had been posted out and, with awful inevitability, that same night saw the Oxford Sorting Office staff walking-out over working practices. The sack containing our three hundred letters thus found itself on the floor beneath the ever-increasing mountain of letters and parcels which rapidly began to form during the following weeks. And because it was at the bottom, its contents still hadn’t been sorted and delivered by the show dates. Fred was obviously well aware of this and, in desperation, had begun contacting the regular patrons and soliciting bookings by phone. To his credit, both nights were sold out. Unfortunately, he’d forgotten to tell folk that the show was timed to begin at eight o’clock, half-an-hour later than usual. Equally unfortunately, he had told the front-of-house staff that they could arrive half-an-hour later than usual . . .
The stage, as you might say, was set. I arrived at seven and parked in the staff car park in the orchard. Fred was laying out the evening’s tickets on the table in the hall ready to greet the patrons and looking, I might say, quite the pinnacle of sartorial elegance in his evening suit, bow tie and paint-spattered, greasy old baseball cap he always wore (and which he’d forgotten to take off). That small detail corrected, I walked through the bar and into the theatre to wake the office up and get ready for the start before manning the car park.
Surprisingly, the sounds of music and singing greeted me from the gloom: the performers were taking a last-minute stage rehearsal, lit only by the low-wattage working light bulb on the stage. The main tabs were open – in fact, they weren’t used at all during the performance except at the very end, the set being lit with dress-spots to look nice.
“Hi Keith,” said Kipper. “Can we have some lights please?” I threw the lighting main switch on, unlocked the back door and nipped round to the office. It was locked. Back into the house and through to the kitchen for the keys. Which weren’t on their usual hook. Back to Fred, who by now was fending off the first horribly early arrivals, no other front-of-house staff having yet turned up.
“Where’re the keys, Fred?”
“Ah, in the gardener’s loo” – where James Harper (the Saturday gardener and yet another very long-serving member of our acting and singing community) has his lair.
[An aside: Jim was a professional gardener but was never happiest than when pottering around the Grange’s flower borders. One day, Fred misguidedly enquired as to whether Jim might consider mowing the couple of acres of lawns? Drawing himself to full height he replied, “Frederick, I am a grower, not a mower!”]
Off round the house, only to find that door locked and no sign of the keys. On my way back to Fred (and his increasing numbers of patrons) I could hear the foyer door being energetically rattled for all it was worth.
“I’m sorry,” I called out, “the keys are just coming.”
“Try the bench in the conservatory, old boy, then for pity’s sake get back here and help me!”
Back through the house again (“Keith, please can we have some lights here!”) Joy of joys, there were the keys. I galloped round past the office, unlocked the door, shot in, ran all the dimmers up to full, nipped round to the back door and into the auditorium and thus through to the foyer. (Where sounds of elderly wooden doors being given heavy grief were still emanating.)
“I’m really sorry,” I said to the generously proportioned late-teenage girl who was grimly hauling on the handle. “Here, let me unlock for you.”
“I’ve never been here before, and I’m desperate for the loo,” she confided. I opened the door, pointed her in the right direction, then hurriedly returned through the blazingly-lit auditorium (still rehearsing) to relieve Fred. By now Paula Michell (surprise, surprise, another equally long-serving friend of the theatre who was equally at home on front-of-house or the stage) had joined forces with Val on coffee and I was able to leave Fred with his tickets as I took over the car park which was half full.
Alan Mauro (a front-of-house stalwart from the village) was strolling casually up the drive.
“Come on, Alan!” called Fred. “We’re desperate for you. Get inside and man the bar.”
Alan turned to me: “Good evening Keith,” he said with heavy politeness. “So very nice to see you.”
“Yes Alan, and you too! Fred’s a bit excitable tonight. Be kind!”
A few minutes later, Paula hurried out and called to me. “Someone’s fallen over and hurt their ankle – she’s sitting sobbing in the auditorium.” (Well, yes, I’m really sorry, but so what? Why me?) Then my blood ran cold as Paula added, “She says she was dazzled by the lights and missed her step.”
Ah. It was my loo lady. Apparently she’d returned refreshed to the auditorium and in the glare of the lights and with the distraction of having to pass before the ensemble rehearsing in full voice, had failed to notice the aisle steps. No shadows, you see; the backwash from the stage lights cancelled out the houselights and the carpet appeared smooth. Down she went. Her father stepped out to bring his car up to the door while mother and assorted folk attended the ‘corpse’.
Fred came out to alert me.
“The chap looks a nasty beggar,” he confided. “The stinker’ll probably sue.”
“Oh come on, Fred,” I replied. “That’s what our public liability insurance is for.”
“Yes old boy,” came the peevish reply, “but if he does, next year’s premium will go up, you wait and see.” [point of fact, the dear man never did . . .]
Meanwhile, there were still three cars to arrive, one of which would be containing a party of high class, elderly (but aggressive) ladies, two of whom were partially disabled. They’re regular patrons, always turning up late, always insisting they simply must park by the front door. (You’d think they’d have learnt their lesson: some years back they played the same stunt on Robert and Liam – unfortunately for the occupants, as the driver shot off up the drive away from Robert, he heard her cackle that “it always works!” Joining Liam, they neatly arranged for their Mercedes to be so boxed in by other cars that, come the end of the show, it was just about the last one to be able to leave!)
I shot round to the office, checked the rehearsal was over, then brought the lights down, set the dress spots and lit them, quickly plotted the proper full lighting preset to follow, switched the phones on and armed the houselights’ dimmer.
Back to the car park. The funeral cortége was still loading as the big Mercedes swept up the drive towards me. (Every other patron would draw carefully alongside me, roll down their window and accept the car park staff’s instructions of where to drop their passengers and where to park the motorcar with friendly good grace – it’s a tight fit on the drive and there’s a definite order in how and where cars must be parked in order to avoid total gridlock.) From behind the windscreen I could see a blue disabled badge being waved in my general direction. The windows were tight shut, the car determinedly bowling up the slope to pass me. I stepped in front of it . . .
No, nothing happened! Well, it stopped, is what happened; and the occupants peered out at me. I gently tapped the driver’s window. It opened an inch. These girls were taking no chances with this lunatic daring to impede their progress. I explained that a member of the audience had been taken ill and was even now being escorted into a car for onward conveyance to hospital. Please would they pull up and clear the top of the drive in order for the ambulance-car to depart?
“Can’t we go in first?” came the muffled demand from within. I glanced towards the theatre entrance where the victim, supported by some forty well-wishers (or so it seemed) was making her lurching, painful way down the steps.
“I’m afraid not,” I replied, resisting the urge to turn into Basil Fawlty and storm off to harangue the funeral party into greater speed. (“Come on, come ON, there’s five old ducks worth at least two million quid simply dying for their gins and tonics – shift that fat lump and get a move on, can’t you”?!)
Common sense prevailed and, a moment later, the hospital car began to move slowly away from the house. The Merc sprinted forwards, narrowly missing said car, and just as narrowly missed Fred as he came forward to greet the late arrivals. By now the final two patrons’ cars had been parked safely and the owners were hurrying up to the house. Fred had primed Alan to dispense the tickets and came down the drive towards me.
“We’re horribly late, old boy. The performers are ready to start and I’ve sent the audience in. Get round to the office and, once these last few are seated, begin the show.”
“OK Fred,” I said, a little warily. “You mean everything’s checked and Oberon’s in the drawing room [their dog simply HOWLS at music . . .] and the phone’s off the hook, and I really can start the show?”
“Yes, yes,” came the exasperated reply, “everything’s ready and we’re all waiting. Just do it.”
So I did. Donned my headset and plugged it in, to hear the welcome hiss of the sound relay system; watched last bum on seat; final front-of-house staff check the loos; my left hand on the houselight dimmer, right hand on the preset master; a glance across the empty office to make sure ‘sound’ was ready (habits of a lifetime!); fade houselights, fade dress spots to leave one pin spot illuming a carving of a violin on a gilded ground of leaves – trés posh – hanging on the set; and wait for the audience to quieten down in the darkness. Which they did. Then, nothing. The silence grew. A few lifetimes passed (well, a good minute anyway, and THAT’S a long time for a missed cue in theatre). The blue cue lamp flashed frantically in front of me. I pressed my respond button.
From the auditorium’s sound relay speaker came Fred’s muffled tones; from my headset nothing, his unit wasn’t plugged in. What to do? In the moment while I weighed the chances of rushing round to the Stage Manager’s desk and plugging in his headset, against the probability of the cast emerging onto a damn-near black stage, Fred’s voice came over the relay, this time redolent with agony and panic. “For goodness’ sake don’t start yet old boy, where ARE the singers?”
Having shared this alarming snippet with me and seventy other equally bemused people, Fred then commenced talking at his usual rumbling volume to – I suppose – Val, who was there backstage to give Fred support and encouragement (because, you see, the poor chap was by now so very deaf that he missed much of normal conversation never mind quiet backstage murmurs, and Val would act as interpreter).
At precisely the same moment the door to the upstage centre entrance slowly opened and the faces of the two musicians (electric harpsichord and viola di gamba) peered nervously round it and into the dark auditorium. Seizing the day, I brought up a number one bar spot that covers that area and, thus encouraged, the victims crept forward. The lights came gently up on the instruments then, and the chaps settled down to re-tune the strings. (In the bar afterwards I rather petulantly said to the viola player that I thought the brute would have been tuned during their impromptu rehearsal. The sharp reply came back that yes, indeed it had been, and that it had subsequently been cooked by the heat of the full stage lights for a good twenty minutes thereafter . . .)
By now all was quiet from the S.M. corner and, a moment later, the concert began. You might think that was that and, indeed, it mostly was. Except that for a running order all I possessed was a partial list of the excerpts being sung, tastefully photocopied in black onto deep red paper, thus rendering the text pretty much invisible. The performers wanted different lighting states for most of the numbers – the numbers were referred to (and quite properly had every reader been a knowledgeable music buff) by their composer’s name and sometimes the title of the opera – sometimes in Italian, sometimes in French, occasionally in English – from whence they came.
The evening was arranged chronologically, starting with plainsong from the medieval period and trawling through to the 1950s. Interspersed with the choral numbers were three musical interludes and four poetry and prose readings which required yet another lighting state. Just for the fun of it, these weren’t included in the printed programme. We’d had one rehearsal (for songs only) and I felt just like I image a novice pilot must feel on his first solo night flight, relying utterly on altimeter, airspeed indicator, compass and stopwatch to grope his way through the pitch black and trust to the small gods to let him safely down to his destination. At least I was firmly on the ground!
In the interval I attended the S.M. headset. Amazingly it was quite dead, yet had been perfectly okay the previous evening. Strange. I caught sight of the injured girl’s parents in the coffee bar (they’d taken her to the father’s brother who lives nearby, with the request for him to take her on to the hospital while the parents returned to the theatre) and I suggested to Fred that it might be a politeness to offer them the use of the telephone to check on their daughter’s progress.
“No fear, old boy. They’re not coming backstage. If they want a phone, they can ask someone for a mobile. Anyway, she couldn’t have broken the ankle ’cos she was bearing some weight on it as she left the house, so it’s only a bad sprain I expect.” Zero out of ten for customer care, do you think?
And so the evening passed. At the close, the audience applauded loud and long, and in the bar afterwards I overheard one of the performers saying to a guest of theirs, “This place is quite fantastic. So professional.”
Just behind them, as I spluttered with helpless mirth, my shirt front was completely drenched in Guinness . . .
You may, gentle reader, wonder how the events of that evening had remained so strongly in my memory after sixteen years. In fact, they hadn’t: I have recently worked my way through a load of old e-mails and came across one which I’d sent to Gordon Bowen, a one-time sound engineer for us but who in 2004 was living in his home in America and succumbing to late stage esophageal cancer. I used to send news of the theatre, which seemed to cheer him up. He told me that he’d laughed so much at the above chaos that he needed extra medication to cope with the resultant pain . . .