The London Evening Standard advertises some 52 “live” theatres open nightly in the city. That’s without the National and the RSC, Covent Garden, or the English Opera Company. Then there’s the three ballet companies currently in town, and scores of stand-up comedy shows and fringe venues. With front-of-house staff, musicians and backstage staff, it probably adds up to some 10,000 people making a living from the London theatre. At least 2000 of these would be actors, dancers or singers. The average West End contract is for six to nine months, so working in town quickly becomes a settled way of life. Dressing rooms are second homes, with fridges, TVs, ironing boards, armchairs and family pictures on the wall. A long run in Auckland is five or six weeks, not six to nine months (or longer), so the opportunity to settle into a role or a dressing room in this way is a luxury the New Zealand actor doesn’t often enjoy. Over the longer period one can fine-tune a performance in a rather enjoyable way. On the other hand, after about a year, the experience can be mind-numbing. The role one is playing begins to take over one’s life.
It isn’t enough that he sets your daily timetable with constant anxieties about getting there on time and never travelling too far away from the theatre. He has the added gall – at any time of the day or night – to constantly nag you with suggestions on ways to improve his performance. He’s merciless. If you question his growing authority he’ll simply remind you that he’s paying the bills! You are in service to him. Or so it seems month after month, as you leave for your 500th performance with another mental note from him about how to turn a chuckle into a belter.
Long runs are full of danger. The “stars” of the show may gradually grow to hate each other. I’ve known them argue on stage in strangulated demonic whispers, usually about money, sex or the billing. I can still hear Joanna Lumley in a pair of bikini briefs and some Chanel No 5 suddenly yelling out – in the middle of a Brian Rix farce – “I can’t take any more of this!” and running screaming into the wings. I don’t think she did live theatre for another 10 years after that.
Then there’s the increasing danger of the dreaded “dry” as lines are taken for granted or you’re feeling ill with the flu. Suddenly it’s Gobi desert time... Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing here? Every other actor on stage recognises that sudden glaze in the eyes and ducks for cover.
On the other hand, there are evenings where everything is on song and you experience a continuous “now” of insight and understanding. That’s what makes live theatre so exciting, why no other dramatic medium can finally match the audience’s thrill at “being there” as it happens.
In the 70s I did nine West End plays in 10 years without a break and suffered a sort of burn-out. This was complicated by the fact that I discovered that I wrote very little poetry when I was working in a long run. The muse refused to share me with the character I was playing. She demanded more of my attention than a long run could justify. So I settled for camera work and performances that are quickly disposable.
But I still run my eye down the West End theatre list, recognising old friends, remembering past performance, admiring those of my fellow actors who continue to walk that delicate tightrope between triumph and disaster.