At the moment it’s like we’re all in a bad sci-fi movie with no hero and no third act.  With mass closures, restricted movement and widespread panic it makes the old theatrical saying, “The show must go on,” not have the same ring. There are the odd apocryphal stories about the times when the show didn’t go on …

… like the story of the actor who had been out of the game for some time, because he’d had trouble memorising his lines and thought he needed a break.  After a few months he felt rested enough to give it another go and as luck would have it, the first role his agent sent him up for was a take-over in a new off-West End play. The actor currently playing the role had been spotted and snapped up for a movie, which seemed to bode well for the comeback actor.  During a short audition he was warned the part wasn’t very big, in fact it was just one line – but it was an important line.  It was the first line of the play and the line that set the scene and the action.  The line was … “Hark, I hear the cannons roar!”

The actor thought this was a perfect way to commence his come back and it was agreed he’d start rehearsals the following week and then take over the week after.  

Two days later, just after a lunch of healthy food, his phone rang. It was the director – big problem. The actor he’ll be taking over from is in hospital after being knocked off his bike by an elderly lady who objected to him riding it on ‘her’ pavement.  The play has a matinee and it’s a full house.  He knows the line; can he come immediately and play the role?  It’s curtain up in less than half an hour.

The actor was nervous, but agreed he’d do it and off he rushed to the theatre, a smart place which held 500 people.  He rushed in through the stage door with just minutes before curtain up.  As he was bundled into wardrobe and dressed in a Jacobean outfit, he kept saying his line over and over again, “Hark, I hear the cannons roar! Hark, I hear the cannons roar!”   He was then dragged into make-up and a false beard was stuck on and a wig added, but he never stopped saying his line – “Hark, I hear the cannons roar!”  The ASM whilst talking on her cans … “Actor travelling … actor travelling …”  pulled him towards the stage.  The actor, still reciting his line “Hark, I hear the cannons roar!”  protests he needs to know more about what he has to do. All he has to do, he’s told, is say his line and stand there until the black out – he can’t go wrong.

The DSM gives the cue for the tabs and the lights. The audience hush, the curtain goes up and the actor repeats the line one last time – “Hark, I hear the cannons roar!”  The ASM gives him his cue and on he strides, not hearing the DSM giving the sound cue for the cannons. As the actor approaches centre stage there is a huge explosion and the actor jumps in shock and says – “Fuck me – what the fuck was that?!”

The teachers that had brought their pupils because they were studying the play for their exams, suddenly decided the show wasn’t suitable for their students and as one, got up and left. And that show didn’t go on.

That’s probably not at all true, but what is true, is an incident that happened to me sometime in the early 70s.  I was at the time working at Chesterfield Civic Theatre which every year had a rep season.  I’ve bemoaned the demise of repertory theatre before, see the blog: One Day The Reps Will Rise Up Again, but I suddenly realised that there will be a number of my younger readers, who won ‘t know what a repertory company is or was. 

It’s generally accepted the first repertory theatre was started in 1908 in Manchester by Annie Horniman and Ben Iden Payne.  Payne was an ambitious 26-year-old Mancunian actor and director, while Horniman was a 47-year-old heiress, the granddaughter of John Horniman, the man who made a fortune out of tea.  The couple were a match made in heaven.  They had met at The Abbey Theatre in Dublin.  Horniman had bought the original building, turned it into a theatre and supported it financially. However, she felt she wasn’t appreciated in Dublin, so much to Payne’s delight, she came back to England with him to open a theatre – he must have thought all his Christmases had come at once. At 26 he’d struck gold, won the lottery, landed on his feet – all at the same time.  They announced in the Manchester Guardian Horniman and Payne intended to create a repertory theatre using the name the Manchester Playgoers’ Theatre. Their aim was to “produce good new plays, to revive old masterpieces and to present translations of the best works of foreign authors.”  

This was the start of the first weekly rep, which simply means the company did a different play every week.  A gruelling schedule.  

This type of theatre, using a company of actors, who would play a variety of roles throughout a season, flourished in the provinces.  The Manchester Playgoers was housed in The Gaiety Theatre, which Horniman had purchased and renovated, reducing its capacity from 2500, to 1300.  Whether it was for the comfort of the patrons or because she felt the lower number of seats would mean they didn’t play to half empty houses, it’s not clear. However, it was the start of the repertory era.

Gradually most of the larger towns and cities opened their own rep companies, some with better reputations than others. Slowly weekly rep virtually disappeared and was replaced by fortnightly rep and three weekly rep.  This naturally generated a higher standard of production with a lengthier rehearsal period.

I never did weekly rep, but I did my fair share of fortnightly and three weekly.

Chesterfield Civic Theatre was owned, not surprising by the local council and received subsidies from both the local council and the Arts Council.  It did a season of approximately 40 weeks of fortnightly rep, so each season it did somewhere around 17 or 18 plays.  The reason it wasn’t 20 plays was that pantomime always ran longer than the statutory 2 weeks – it always attracted a larger audience.

The season would offer a variety of plays – Shakespeare to Cooney, Ibsen to Osborne, Albee to Simon, with the odd musical thrown in – hopefully something for everyone.  For the actors it was pretty full on, Tuesday was opening night, but there was no rest, Wednesday you’d start rehearsing the next play.

Two thirds of the way through one of the seasons, we were performing a farcical comedy called Friends and Neighbours by Austin Steele. I’m not sure, but it may be the only play he ever wrote, let’s put it this way, I don’t know of any others. The story revolves around a Lancashire family who are playing hosts to a Russian delegation who are visiting a factory in the area.  Naturally mayhem and confusion ensue. I played the son of the family. My role involved a lot of falling over the back of sofas, walking into doors and other general slapstick schtick.

About halfway through the run I woke one morning feeling like death and discovered some sort of abscess on my thigh. What the fuck …?  I didn’t get ill, but there was no doubt about it, I was far from well. As it happened there was a doctor and his wife, John and Doreen Cormie, who were big supporters of the theatre and often laid on after show parties for cast and crew. I had seen them just a couple of nights previously and I thought I’d just cut to the chase, throw myself at John’s mercy and ask his advice. 

John Cormie was a gentleman, you don’t really get many of those to the pound these days, we’re all too busy trying to be ‘cool’ or ‘detached.’ John was a genuinely nice person and after a quick examination he had me down to the local hospital, clutching a letter explaining what he considered to be the problem and how they must attend to it as swiftly as possible as I was due on stage that night.

The hospital doctor was clear and to the point – I needed a minor operation, which would involve a general anaesthetic so they could drain the poison.  To quote him: “There’s no way you’re going on stage tonight, it just isn’t going to happen.”

The next hour or so I spent trying to persuade him otherwise.  I knew if I didn’t go on, the show would be cancelled, (you didn’t have understudies in rep) and that was something I couldn’t be responsible for.  To try to get him to see my point of view, to try and make him understand the importance of the aphorism ‘The show must go on’ – I lied.  I told him my role was only small and during most of the two-hour show, I was sitting down.  I was tempted to say that I was actually playing a cripple, but I thought that might be going a bit too far.  The patient hospital doctor either bought into to my story, or I simply wore him down, because he agreed that if after the operation I was able to hold a conversation, then he would allow me to go  the theatre, in an ambulance, do the show, then come back to the hospital, in an ambulance, where I would spend the night so they could keep me under observation.

And that’s what happened. They did the op, I came round probably about a hour or so before curtain up. I talked coherently.  I was taken to the theatre, in an ambulance, I did the show, falling over sofas and walking into doors, I was then put back in the ambulance and taken back to the hospital.  The truth is I can’t remember a thing about that night. I was told I didn’t forget any lines and didn’t miss any of my entrances, so I guess I got away with it … The show had to go on!!!

And now the theatres, pubs, restaurants, offices, cinemas, just about every place people meet, have shut up shop.  The show is definitely not going on. This didn’t happen in the war; places of work and entertainment were open until those air raid sirens went.  Now it seems, even without any sirens, we’ve all capitulated.

I have this deep belief that at some point we will, as a nation, say enough is enough, and somehow fight back, because THE SHOW MUST GO ON!!! … or what’s the point of anything?                                                          

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