As a non-observant polytheistic neo-pagan, I’m able to tell you that the end of January/beginning of February is the Celtic festival of the start of the year (northern hemisphere). Imbolc. I’ve always considered it an advantage to be able to have a second go at those New Year resolutions.
I’ve come across two varieties of theatrical memoir recently. One, a solo stage piece by Ed Dixon, chronicling his friendship with his idol and long-term mentor, George Rose. Georgie: My Adventures With George Rose, is playing at The Davenport Theatre on West 45th Street, NYC, as we speak. The delivery of the show is immense in its precision. It is hugely funny, and masterfully constructed. Just when you get the whisper of anecdote saturation, the show turns unbearably dark. For an actor, seeing this show is one of those times when you remember why you got involved in the first place.
The other, is a book called Acting Foolish by Lewis J. Stadlen, recently a colleague of my wife’s in her Broadway run of the late production, The Front Page. A word on the show before I talk about the book. This was lavishly produced (produced in the old-fashioned mid-20th century sense of the word – I mean where do you get companies of 29 actors these days?) by Scott Rudin. A 1928 play, modified for its audience 70 years later, impeccably directed by Jack O’Brien, impeccably acted by a starry Broadway cast, featuring a list of splendid performances, (I include here my wife – I tell you, the things Patricia Conolly as Jenny the cleaning lady, can do with a mop…) but one performance, which for sheer energy, commitment and comic inventiveness was matchless in my experience. I refer, of course to that dynamo of the raised eyebrow, the throwaway, the twisted emphasis, the seductive tone laced with menace, Nathan Lane.
Usually I reckon I can see how it’s done. After 35 years if you don’t know how the sausage is made you might be in the wrong game. But now and then, there is a performer whose secrets just won’t yield to scrutiny, Brian Bedford was one, the late Bill Fraser another. Not so with Nathan Lane. One could see exactly how it was done. All you’d have to do to bring that role to life is: gain every single laugh latent in the text and many not, play with searchlight focus, lift the entire stage with one hand like a superman of energy, whilst spitting comedic bullets all around the house with the other, and above all break no sweat. Make it look easy. Simple, no?
Lewis’s book is a memoir, it tells in more or less linear narrative the story of his adventures in the business. It’s wry, sad, funny, original. Takes you backstage, on set, and to lunch with stars. There’s an overarching awareness of the irony of it all. It’s written with open honesty and tells in depth of the self-awareness that can come to you with a career in show, well sometimes. And there are laughs. Lewis has worked a lot, and you may know of him, but again maybe not. He’s had a ‘that guy’ career, as in “Who’s that guy in the thing with, you know, about the lawyer, the astronaut, you know, with Julia whatshername, where they fly kites on Chinese New Year, you know – him”. What it is, is authentic. A view from behind the scenes, oh, and did I say, funny?
These two memoirs have me thinking about two of my beginning memories.
One was when Juliet Quicke took a party of school kids to see She Stoops to Conquer at The Young Vic theatre in London. I was about 13. I had tried to read Congreve’s play but it might as well have been Sanskrit for all the sense it made. And then…
Nicky Henson played Marlowe, the dashing young blade who was overcome with shyness in the presence of a lady of refinement. The actors were so close you could touch them, they wore period costumes, but we were close enough to see the fabric. Under the lights it seemed more real than anything worn in the audience. The men, led by Nicky were virile and sexy, the women were sexy and stylish, the language was frivolous and funny, and most astonishingly, it made sense. For the young Colin McPhillamy it was a destiny moment.
Mrs. Quicke organized other theatre trips, and in general in her English classes opened doors and windows for me in the way I began to love language. Now I knew what I wanted to be. But somehow all through my teens I just could not find a way to begin.
About six years later, consumed with ambition and frustration and also very shy, I was given an introduction to a man named John Line. He was an actor about the age I am now. He invited me to his house and we sat in an upstairs sitting room with cups of tea.
John: So you want to be an actor?
John: Well that means you must get an Equity card. And that means training. I don’t think you should go to RADA. Central is where you should go.
John: There’s a phone book over there, why don’t you give them a ring and ask them how to audition?
Me: ?!? Hrm…
I made the call, was told I should write and request an audition. Internally I had a sort of tsunami of revelation – all you had to do was pick up a phone and ask. Astonishing.
John and I chatted for a while. I hung on every word. We agreed that we should meet once a week, which we subsequently did and he very generously coached me in Shakespearean monologue. We would work in the local park among indifferent kids and dogs, and slowly, slowly, I began to understand what I might be getting in to.
That first time we had tea, I didn’t know that was going to happen, nor that I would audition and get in. When I got up to leave, John said the words that now, 40 years later, still make me cry.
John: Get that letter off for me this weekend, will you?
So now, decades have passed, as decades do. And the end is, if not exactly in sight, well not as far out of sight as it used to be, and as we learn from metaphysical literature, beginnings and ends may well be connected in ways that are not exactly clear. And in troubled times it’s good to remember that wonderful summation of all wisdom: Even this shall pass away… And in this game every show is a new beginning anyway, and for me there have been several auxiliary – what to call them? – experiments along the way. Here’s another one: