A Day in the Death
'A Day in the Death of Joe Egg' at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham was, and still is, the most fulfilling job I've ever done and deserves a page all to itself.
It came at a time when it seemed all my acting 'facilities' and self-confidence were at a peak. I had finished Maid Marian 4 in the July of 93, my second son was born two weeks later, and I had been booked to appear in a sports-star-studded pantomime at the beautiful Theatre Royal, Bath in the December.
Joe Egg was a remarkable piece of timing for me. Rehearsals started the day after the last performance of the panto, so I drove from Bath to London and got back in the car the following morning to make the trip to Cheltenham. I was an actor on a roll.
I was to play the part of Brian, the parent of a little girl suffering from Cerebral Palsy, whose marriage collapses under the emotional strain. Not a barrel of laughs you might think, but Peter Nichols wrote a man whose only way of coping with his personal tragedy was humour, self-deprecation and foolery - and I knew exactly what he was about.
I was offered the part two weeks before the pantomime started and used this time to work on the three or four soliloquies Brian has during the show where he 'shares' himself with the audience directly. I'd never done that before. I had always found it impossible to learn lines in isolation, away from the rehearsal room. They never seemed to go in without the physical presence of the people I was supposed to be talking to. Learning lines to me is very similar to learning a dance (not that I ever have!), physical relationships are as important a memory aid to me as the relationships of the thoughts on the page.
In this instance, though, I knew that it would be very handy to at least just get a handle on the monologues and then put the script away, forget about it, and get on with some serious panto-partying.
I couldn't have asked for a better preparation for the play than the six weeks of actor/audience interaction that only panto can provide. 'Joe Egg' begins with Brian standing on stage, house-lights up, using the audience as his classroom - he is a teacher at a depressing Bristol secondary school. The entire first half consists of Brian and his wife, Sheila, discussing, berating and joking with the audience as confidant, and eighty-odd performances of Dick Whittington gave me more than enough confidence to be able to do this.
Eddie Izzard has recently been given the chance to shine in this play in the West End. I imagine his history of stand-up comedy also put the play into familiar territory for him, but, unlike him, I could immerse myself in the character and have the advantage of anonymity. Eddie Izzard was always 'Eddie Izzard' in his production. He even added his own bits of business to the script and put some of his own material into it too so it became merely a vehicle to show how funny 'Eddie Izzard' was.
Unfair? Perhaps. But I cherish the play as my own, and for four weeks in 1994, it was.
The first week of rehearsals was spent working on the first half. Such was our enthusiasm and concentration, Theresa, who played 'Sheila', and I knew every single line of the hour-long act by the Thursday. We'd rehearse during the day, and then go through the lines for an hour or so at night back in the huge house we were both sharing. I'd sleep twelve hours every night - the panto had taken its toll - and wake refreshed and ready for more.
The most astounding piece of luck we had was having Elizabeth McCoy play our daughter. Elizabeth was an accomplished, mature, talented actress masquerading as a nine year old local school girl. Theresa and I would listen to her in awe. She made me look an idiot - not hard - and she created an atmosphere of such commitment to truth in the rehearsal room, it was easy to follow her lead. Thinking back, I suspect the production would have been ordinary in the extreme had 'Joe' been played by some other child. Elizabeth, of course, had no lines, but the talent and quality she gave us inspired us all to match her. She made it easy.
That first week, Theresa and I laughed and laughed. She too had a wonderful quality that gave our scenes together depth and fragility. The play was fantastic to perform and I just couldn't wait to get into the theatre and put it on.
We visited a local school for children afflicted with this unlucky happen-stance. During the birth process, an entire life can be blighted in sixty seconds. It's shockingly easy and arbitrary. Back in the late sixties, such children - 'spastic' was the term used - were assumed to be lost causes and were treated as unintelligent, unfeeling vegetables by the medical profession and the world at large. Nowadays, maths and French is on the curriculum and the children prosper with the stimulation and attention these schools provide. Heart-breakingly, there were one or two children there whose parents had been unable to come to terms with what had happened to them and would leave them, alone, strapped into their chairs, unvisited, for weeks at a time. Life expectancy is also very short - most die around the age of twelve to fourteen. A few live to their late teens, and those that do, seem more and more physically unpalatable to the world and so engender less sympathy from all but the most committed.
We left the school humbled by what we had seen, and, instead of feeling shallow and criminal - robbing real tragedy for our own ends - got back to rehearsals feeling that what we were doing was more worthwhile than ever.
The three other actors in the show joined us at the beginning of the second week. I felt invaded, as though an intimacy was being breached, and I suppose it was. The slight resentment I felt served to feed the show even more as these three characters were written as meddlers and ignorant, coming into our house uninvited.
I felt curiously relaxed before the first performance in spite of the enormous task ahead. At the "beginners" call, five minutes before curtain up, I had to walk from my dressing room to the front of house and remain out of sight until the last member of the audience had left the foyer for the auditorium. I then followed at a discrete distance and stayed behind in the darkness of the corridor with the assistant stage manager who had radio contact with back stage. When given the "go", the ASM turned to me with fear in her eyes and nodded. It was then up to me to jump out of the aeroplane and force myself to enter the auditorium, making my way down the centre aisle and onto the stage. There's always a moment when the mind tells you, "It's all right. Just walk away! Go out of the building and don't come back! They won't mind, and you won't have to put yourself through all this torment..." We can never listen to this little get-out voice, though, we have to bungee right on down.
My partner and her friend from home were in the audience for this performance. I remember looking up to the circle and seeing them both there in the front row, the friend beaming at me, and my partner looking as though she was going to shoot herself.
The evening was a huge success. Theresa had a very scary moment in the first half where she completely lost her way in the middle of one of her speeches and had to ask for help after struggling for what seemed like forever. She was inconsolable in the interval but the fact was the audience were more interested in the play than her tiny hiccup and in the bar afterwards, people came up to us both full of congratulations and total surprise that a play with "Death" in the title had been so enjoyable and thought provoking. My partner was the first to meet me after we'd finished and had so enjoyed herself, the first thing she said to me was to complain about the seats.
The performances grew during the run. Tony Robinson came with the Mayor, not as a major event complete with red carpets and popping flash bulbs, but because he happened to be in Cheltenham that day meeting her for lunch. Everyone who came expressed wonder at the effectiveness of the play and how well we were doing it. I knew I was in the zone. I enjoyed every single minute I was onstage, and enjoyed even more the effect it was having on our audiences. Tony came near the beginning of the run and let me know how I was rushing through the first speech. I knew what he meant. The night he came with the Mayor, David Bell - the director of Maid Marian - had joined them too. I felt very nervous. When nervous, I speed up, subconsiously hoping to get it over with quicker. The following performance, I took Tony's advice and slowed right down during the beginning. Suddenly it all clicked into place. The speech is all about staring the audience out. Their enjoyment comes from realising that the actor won't start the show until they're all quiet, and that he has the confidence to wait for as long as it takes. By rushing through it, I let them all off and it simply became a monologue.
Peter Nichols came to see the show in the last week of the run. One problem I'd had with the play was that I felt I looked physically wrong for the part. A photograph from the first production is on the cover of one of the scripts I had and the actor in this photograph, Joe Melia, is as far from me as you could possibly get. I assumed he must have been the ideal, being the first man chosen to play Brian, and it took a concerted mental effort to get rid of him and accept me. Performing the play in front of the man who wrote it was a daunting prospect. Although he stresses his play is not autobiographical, Peter Nichols' daughter, Abigail, had the condition and passed away aged 10 and to have him there in the auditorium, the pretence felt a little obscene. Luckily, I chose that day to be ridiculously late. I'd got caught up in the eight mile queue for the Cheltenham Gold Cup and eventually arrived three minutes before the show was due to start giving myself no time at all to worry about what lay ahead.
It was a reasonable performance in spite of knowing that the man who had written every single word was out there and, afterwards, he made my attachment to his play complete by telling me that he had found it fascinating to watch, as I looked exactly like the man he had had in his mind when he wrote it, right down to the moustache. The icing on an already fabulous cake. I was walking on air...
For the first time since that evening in 1977 where I felt taken over by something outside of myself, magic was in the air again. Years later, I happened to meet the director of the recent West End production, a year or so before it was put on, for a play he was about to direct in Leeds. When he found out I had played Brian, all thoughts of Leeds were cast aside and we spent the meeting talking animatedly about Peter Nichol's play. Not only did he not cast me for his play in Leeds, he used Clive Owen in the West End and then, of course, Mr. Izzard. Most of me didn't care. Clive Owen is famous and the producers would have wanted that. He had also played the part a couple of years before in a small, pub theatre to fantastic reviews. But, more importantly, I didn't care because 'A Day in the Death of Joe Egg' became a part of me during my time in Cheltenham and will stay a part of me for the rest of my life...
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