Diary of a Gossip: The British Tour: The Ego Weeks.

Newbury, Newcastle, Norwich, Plymouth, Coventry and The Blue Mountain Coffee Shop and Holiday Home, East Dulwich

"Pride comes before a fall”, so sayeth Anne Widdicombe on her Strictly Come Dancing exit last series. This sage advice from a fellow foodie went completely ignored, I am ashamed to admit, as I stepped forward into the dry ice, naked to the belly button, arms to the adoring millions at Newbury six weeks ago. Idolatry is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Now I know what James Corden felt like in One Man, Two Guv’nors, or Benedick Cumberbatch in Sherlock, or Marlon Brando in Last Tango in, erm, I mean, Godfather Three. You see, I’m all over the place. Fame has hit me hard, and I haven’t come down to earth yet. You’re going to have to scrape me off the ceiling, like so many Waitrose ready meals.

We played three weeks in Newbury at the buzzing two hundred seater venue that is the Watermill, and we rocked it. Henry was a very satisfying meeting of testosterone and corduroy, but for me, and my personal quest for attention, The Winter’s Tale was the icing on the chocolate brownie. It’s true most of the Newbury audience members have supported the old guard since we were innocent nobodies in the flush of youth (well, thirty seven and claiming housing benefit) but even so, the people of Bagnor welcomed Propeller’s late-blooming superstars with the kind of adulation normally reserved for Michael Ball, or Michael Buble.

And boy, were we ready for it. We grabbed those open hearts with our calloused palms, and re-invented Berkshire history (in a metaphorical way, not literally, that’s more Henry Fifth). I’m surprised the roof stayed on, and the ducks stayed sane, though it’s questionable whether ducks are ever mentally stable, especially the ones chilling by the Mill Pond. They couldn’t get enough of us (the audience, not the ducks). We got exit rounds in double figures. They even threw underwear at us. To be fair I threw it first, but there really was no need to throw it back, the costume budget can stretch to a pack of Primark assorted thongs once a week.  Why not keep them for wedding anniversaries and Mothers day? I know I do, and I’m not even married, or a mother.

Flippancy aside, the truth is I don’t know how I’m going to cope with the reserved appreciation of a London audience, or the bewildered incomprehension a man in a rabbit skin will get in Shanghai. You never know, they may go wild in China and throw Sharks’ fins at us, hopefully not in a soup. And I do Hampstead a disservice, they actually went quite whoopy in the schools matinee of Comedy of Errors, especially when my sparkler ran past them, attached to a naked arse, or rather a cork stuck up a….but I digress. (Just imagine if the young shepherd’s more pert posterior had carried said sparkler within a synged eyebrow of a North London Goth in fishnet’s and hair spray. Sparks would have flown, and I mean metaphorical hormonal ones, not building-threatening ones).

But back to Newbury, and the moment I truly arrived. Arms aloft, about to launch into ‘Daffodils’, and a St Trinians cheer raises that wooden roof. Most of the audience is my age and above, so it was quite a shock. I know we’re called the Bleatles, but Beatlemania died out in 1964, and I don’t think toddlers fainted at the feet of Ringo, so this audience has no precedent for hero worship, despite the demographic.  I heard on the Berkshire grapevine that wives cajoled their husbands into wearing red trousers and biker jackets at weekends following Dougie’s thrusting Petruchio in 2006, and it’s true Marks on the High Street was clean out of red jeans when Dominic Tighe went shopping for a replica outfit while Dougie’s arm was in a sling. Some say Dougie was incapacitated by repetitive strain syndrome from signing programmes but I’m sure I saw him dragged through the car park by a coach party from Hungerford.

There is a history of Watermill audiences getting carried away with Propeller boys, even the forty something boys, but this was my first time (poetic license, he’s fifty – ed.) and it went to my head, so much so that when “Daffodils” ended I lost it, or “dried,” as we say in the profession. One part of my brain was looking at a lovely punter on the front row, the other part of my brain was scanning my entire role for the next line, while my mouth was rattling through two speeches I’d already done, and three more I hadn’t, until I got to the word that would stop the tape loop and bring me back down to earth. For the next ten minutes the audience heard parts of the play they’d just heard through my rabbit in a headlight haze. I put five minutes on the show, so Chris missed his London connection, and much as I tried to pretend Autolyclus repeated himself for a “I’ve taken too many drugs aren’t I wild?” effect, I couldn’t hide the fact that audience love had swallowed me up and spat me out in a smug, self-satisfied mess. As I say, “Pride comes before a fall.”

The rest of the tour to Coventry, Newcastle, Norwich, and Plymouth went by in a mix of good houses and copable adulation, including cheers, mini standing ovations, return visits from die-hard fans, and a Propeller regular who delayed my entrance for “One Summer Evening” while she harangued me for not making Simon Scardifeld come and play Puck immediately. ‘Doesn’t he know how good he was? Why aren’t you doing The Dream? Why haven’t you told him to play Puck? What’s wrong with you?’  I was wearing my balaclava, so she couldn’t see my jaw dropping, or my aghast face, or my eye signal to fetch a straightjacket.  Otherwise, I’m sure she would have realized that we did a revival of Simon’s Dream, without Simon, appallingly, only two years ago. And we all survived to tell the tale. Please don’t tell me I begrudge others the glory, I don’t, I really don’t. Do you think Beijing has heard of Tony Bell?


Tony Bell, May 2012

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