Tag Archives: Noel Coward

Breaking Cover

The Manhattan Theatre Club production of INK by James Graham directed by Rupert Goold starts previews on April 2nd and opens on Broadway at the Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street on April 24th 2019. It is a brilliant play which tells a story of the young Rupert Murdoch. I am contracted to be in it.

By which I mean actually going onstage on a nightly basis and saying words aloud while at the same time moving to and fro and generally replicating human behavior, a practice known in some circles as acting.

Michael Caine covered Peter O Toole

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It will be a contrast to my last five months occupation where I was employed to catch up on my correspondence, work on my Sanskrit calligraphy, and paint my toenails. None of which I actually managed to accomplish. And all this while maintaining total readiness in full crouch position to leap in at any moment for one of three principal actors.

I understudied on The Ferryman on Broadway for 20 weeks. And I did actually go on as Father Horrigan. It was long odds to be honest, The actors I was covering were all robust character men. And here I observe that among actors of a certain generation the work-ethic tends to the formidable. These are men and women who scorn to be defeated by flu, fleas or food poisoning. My three runners; the friendly and ebullient Mark Lambert, the gigantic, sensitive Justin Edwards, and the splendid and splendidly robust Charles Dale, all with a long history of never or very seldom being off, were coming in at odds of about 100-to-8-against in a strong field. Picture my surprise then when Charlie was suddenly indisposed. But then, absence was more than usually rife over this New York winter season, see below.

The original Broadway cast disbanded on the 17th of February, most of them returning home across the Atlantic. A few are staying on, and a new company began performances on the 19th. I watched the final performance given by the first company. Mostly during the course of a run, performances hit a par, in this case an excellently high one, but last nights sometimes create an extra intensity. As was the case on that final Sunday matinee. It was an outstanding rendition of an already outstanding performance.

Sir John Gielgud stood by for Noel Coward

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A word about this understudying business …

Understudying, also known by the more delicate term of “covering” — which sounds like something out of stud farming — or the even more delicate term of “standing by” – which sounds like something to do with an airline on a bad day, is one of the more demanding yet least understood jobs in all theatre. To be done well it requires a very specific skill set. A deep personal reserve of flexibility, patience and nervous energy. It does also help if you can act.

Times are changing: in my earlier youth back in London, taking an understudy job was seen as the last resort of the desperate actor, and such was the anonymity of the position that many times there was no listing or credit in the playbill. Nowadays, the enormous over-supply of acting talent, the fierce competition for a job, any job — this, coupled with the trickle-down casting of recent years — and plus the fact that Broadway, even in its minimum salaries and almost uniquely among stage-acting markets, pays something approaching a living wage — all this combined, means that the status of any Broadway involvement is high.

Even so, few actors undertake such a gig as a first choice, but in 40 years of acting (nearly), (nearly) all the actors so engaged that I have known, have been exemplary in their diligence and professionalism. Here I salute my colleagues of the 5th floor at The Bernard Jacobs Theatre, (full billing here in alphabetical order: Glynis Bell, Peter Bradbury, Trevor Harrison Braun, Gina Costigan, Holly Gould, Griffin Osborne, and the kids, Will Coombs, Carly Gold and Bella May Mordus, also mentioning the two principals who also covered a role: Dean Ashton and Glenn Speers), each of us having multiple opportunities to prove our dollar worth (and also saluted for it in a generous post on social media by Mr. Judd Apatow, who happened to attend when no fewer than 5 people were on).

It is an irony worth noting that one of the least visible occupations in theatre should also be one of the most valuable. In the initial 20 week Broadway run of The Ferryman there were 47 performances when one of the principals was off. Due to everyone doing their job, loss of revenue to the tune of more than $4million in ticket sales was prevented.

It doesn’t always happen that way, sometimes no one is off in the course of a run. But in this case the insurance which a management is obliged to purchase in the form of actors learning lines and moves which they may never perform, yielded a near-tenfold return on investment. And where else can you get that sort of dosh these days?

This season of Broadway theatre fields at least two outstanding transfers from the West End, originating at The Royal Court and the Almeida theatres in London. I am lucky enough to have been involved with both of them, in the first as cover for three roles, in the next actually playing three roles — is the juice fasting having the desired effect, I ask myself? (See recent previous posts).

As it stands I am contracted to return briefly to The Ferryman to stand-by for the role of Tom Kettle for just one week — Tom is the gentle giant in the play, given prose to speak of heart-breaking sensitivity. This involvement with the new company of The Ferryman is an overlap while rehearsing INK, and after protracted and formidably expensive negotiations (not really, they asked and I said… “Yes”), the managements of both plays have agreed to allow me to be on call in both productions for the week in question.

Albert Finney was a substitute for Sir Laurence Olivier

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In an uncertain profession the prime feature of cover jobs is the uncertainty. Sometimes there is notice of when one will be called upon, as when a principal actor has a vacation booked, or has negotiated a release so as to go and make a film; and sometimes there is zero notice, or less. By which I mean an understudy can be called to take over a role in the middle of a performance – Jeremy Northam famously taking over from Daniel Day Lewis in Act Two of Hamlet at the National Theatre in London, for example.

Perhaps this is why one should never count the geese, the rabbits, or the apples, until the INK upon the deal is dry. See here

One Midnight in Paris

I met Lauren Bacall just at the turn of the millennium. She was in Waiting in the Wings on Broadway, Noel Coward’s last major play, the one he wrote for his distinguished actress friends of a certain age, the play being set in a retirement home for ladies of the stage. Seldom produced, revived in New York in 1999, this was a production to celebrate Coward’s centenary.

Our two leading ladies were Lauren Bacall, screen goddess of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and Rosemary Harris, stage star on both sides of the Atlantic and now known to a global audience as Spiderman’s Aunt May.

Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris in Waiting in the Wings. Playbill.com

Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris in Waiting in the Wings. Playbill.com

The other actors in the play comprised a who’s who of New York theatrical names, including Britain’s own Simon Jones (Arthur Dent in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide), I understudied Simon and later went on for him for almost a month when family matters took him back to England. If you are curious the full cast list is here. Initially, I was included in this illustrious company playing the relatively modest (but utterly crucial) role of the 2nd St. John’s Ambulance Man under my former stage name of Collin Johnson. In fact the redoubtable Geddeth Smith (1st St. John’s Ambulance Man), and I, carried a dead body down the stairs on a stretcher and out through the common room of the home where the play is set, in the pre-credits opening sequence. It was a solemn moment which gave a foundation of gravitas to the play.

Until one matinee about 90 performances into the season, I did what Sir Noel Coward famously said you must never do, and tripped over a bit of furniture, dropping the body.

One of those things that technically you are indeed not supposed to do, and yet somehow, one of those which many actors do seem to do after all. All the distinguished ladies of Broadway had to turn upstage to hide their giggles, and for the rest of the run Liz Wilson would sometimes whisper mischievously to me as I was waiting to go on, “Drop the body again, Colin!”

Opening in Boston, the show ran for six months in New York, playing first the Walter Kerr theatre and then The Eugene O’ Neil. The run included one of the most masterful bits of producing I’ve ever seen – but that’s a story for later.

Miss Bacall, had a reputation and deservedly so for being smart, feisty and direct. She was a creature of the movies and all that can mean, and she knew it. She trailed clouds of glamour. She was also of course, one of the greatest movie stars that ever lived and one of the most beautiful human beings ever to act in front of a camera.

Later I came to think that Miss Bacall’s tough exterior also functioned in a protective way. It took a little time, but by slow degrees a manner which could be truly challenging turned, in my perception, into a graceful charm. Midway through the run she hosted the cast at a dinner at Joe Allen’s and hair was let down on all sides.

It wasn’t as if she and I became buddies with weekly phone calls, but there was a charming coda to the experience of being in a show with her.

The show ran till May, and then Trish Conolly, who had baffled me by appearing to be far too young to be included in a cast specifically about ladies of retirement age, and I, took a romantic trip to Paris.

In Paris we met up with Betty, as we now called her.

She used to go to Paris in the summer when she could. This was Bastille Day, July 14th. Oddly, on this day, instead of haute cuisine, she took us to a favorite Chinese restaurant — and very good it was too. Gong pao chicken, and we each had a Vodka and tonic.

Betty was relaxed and charm itself, and she had plans, insisting we were to see the fireworks. At about 20 minutes of midnight we left the restaurant and began a gentle stroll along a boulevard, getting slightly lost. Suddenly the boulevard filled with about a million people and I became acutely aware that I had LAUREN BACALL on my arm. It was distantly reminiscent of a tricky moment in an early technical rehearsal of Waiting in the Wings when I had to go on in a blackout to guide Miss Bacall off the stage. This delicate function, taking some ten seconds or so, became my nightly task. But lost on the boulevard as we were, this was a scene change without end. “What happens,” I thought, “if she is recognized, and the crowd demands Humphrey Bogart?”

We found our way, we sat on a bench in the Place de la Bastille to watch the fireworks. Betty, enjoying the evening, reminisced with details about her glamorous career, in a way that would make a biographer thrill. When the fireworks were over Trish and I escorted Betty through side streets to the modest hotel where she liked to stay low profile.

And then there was an incident which was all film.

The setting was just right. Like one of those Noir exteriors lit by a master of lighting. We were on a cobbled street and the lamplight was something Fellini might have come up with. There was moonlight too.

The crowds were gone, the street was empty. And then we heard footsteps as though made by the best of foley artists. A young man of maybe 17 or 18 years old approached shyly. He spoke softly to me in French, “Is that? It is … isn’t it, Lauren …?”

“Yes.”

“Do you think she would give me an autograph?”

“I don’t know, you can ask.”

The young man offered a ragged piece of paper. Betty turned to him, gave him a smile that dazzled him and glamorized the night. It was a gracious moment, as she favored the boy — he was scarcely more than that. Her smile unleashed the full force of the silver screen. It made him weak at the knees — I know because he turned to me, as Miss Bacall signed her name.

“Mes genoux tremblent.” he said, “My knees are trembling.”