Juliet England on her first experience with the group as we prepare to bring Much Ado About Nothing to Reading Abbey ruins .
It is Sunday morning. Nursing a mild to moderate hangover, I have stayed at a friend’s.
“What are you doing today?” he yawns, pouring coffee.
“I was thinking of trying out for Progress Theatre. The open-air Shakespeare. It’s Much Ado About Nothing this year,” I say proudly.
“Ooh, luvvie!” he snorts, choking on his first swig of coffee.
“You’ve got a nerve,” I say, shooting him my filthiest look. Why should I not audition? I was in school and uni productions, and dabbled a bit on the Hungerford stage, even if I’ve never made it into a Progress show before.
In fact, my friend has made my mind up. I am so auditioning for this. And yet. And yet. Back in Reading, I wonder if I should. Surely the whole idea is too scary to contemplate?
Maybe it’s been cancelled - there is snow on the ground, after all. I send a Facebook message to enquire.
“Still on! Please join us!” comes the disappointingly encouraging reply.
On the bus, I try and reread the audition pieces, but the words dance a jig on the page. By now, I am really feeling quite ill.
After a bolstering pitstop in a nearby café, I steel myself and walk towards the theatre.
Carole, who’s producing, is having a crafty cigarette outside. I know her a little from hanging round Progress before, and we exchange greetings. There’s no escape now, but I am overwhelmed with nerves and nausea.
Inside, we’re sent off in little groups to practice the pieces before coming back to ‘perform’. I even have a crack at reading Beatrice, even though, at my age, landing the romantic heroine gig seems risibly unlikely.
Still, the members of the Dad’s Army-style watch, a collective of committedly bungling incompetents, can be any age and played by men or women. (Indeed, for this production, director Trevor Dale has worked hard to beef up the female roles.)
In the props area, I find a walking stick and use it in the audition. Dale smiles, but it’s unclear whether that’s in genuine amusement or at my hopelessness.
In the days that follow, the agony of waiting. I get so impatient I send a Facebook message pleading for news. The polite reply is cryptic – I will be told in due course, but don’t need to attend the callbacks.
Right, that’s it, I think. How could I have been so naïve as to think I was in with a chance of being cast?
Another Sunday afternoon, and, resigned to rejection, I have all but forgotten Much Ado. I am unloading shopping bags in my kitchen. My phone buzzes, with a text message from an unfamiliar number, Carole’s as it turns out. It asks me whether I would like to play Verges, a member of the aforementioned Watch. I need to respond promptly.
I actually scream out loud, dropping the phone and sending it clattering across a work surface. My next act is to knock a tin of tomatoes onto my foot. I have barely stopped hopping up and down in pain when I text back my acceptance. It is quite the easiest question I’ve ever had to answer, and quite the most thrilling ‘You’ve got in’ message I’ve ever had. I may need to run around the block to calm down. I can’t stand still,I am fizzing with delight.
I turn on the laptop to Skype the friend who was so scathing.
“You’ll have to come and see it!” I scream.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” is the typically sardonic, laid-back reply.
I arrive at the first read-through still a-fizz.
“I’M SO EXCITED!” I shriek at Trevor.
“Yeah, great. Could you just read your lines, please?” he mutters.
And so the hard work of rehearsals kicks off. And it is hard work, no matter what anyone says, even for a small part such as mine. Far, far harder work than I could have possibly imagined.
It turns out that remembering the moves, getting your positioning right with laser-precision accuracy, perfecting your entrances and exits, knowing where you are in relation to the others on stage, all of these things take endless practice. Never mind learning lines or trying to say them properly.
We’ve also been trying to make the watch bits funny, and working out the comedy has been a deadly serious business.
So it’s not easy – few rewarding things are. I have a hearing loss, my spatial awareness isn’t the best and I don’t always grasp instructions first time round. On several occasions, I have been disbelieving that we are expected to do the scene again. (What do you mean again? It’s going home time!) I know I will be terrified, waiting at the Ruins to go on for the first time in front of an actual audience. Even some of the rehearsals have been nerve-racking enough.
But it’s hard to put into words how much I have loved the experience, how it has made the whole summer golden.
I have been lucky. Dale has shown exemplary patience throughout - and then there is Mikhail Franklin, who plays Dogberry, the Basil Fawlty to my Manuel, and without whom the whole thing might have been very different. His boundless talent, enthusiasm for the work, perfectionism and willingness to act as mentor and explain things over and over (and over) are truly the stuff of heroic legend. Every time I thank him, he shrugs it off as though it were nothing, but it isn’t.
In fact, everyone has shown professionalism, a lack of arrogance and a cast-iron commitment to the project.
But not the other Friday evening, a cast night out away from the show, billed as ‘just a few quiet drinks’. It ended with me arriving home around 1am, barefoot and carrying my heels, and, most worrying of all, from what I remember, actually singing.
Apart from the nerves, though, there’s just one problem. How does one possibly handle the sadness when it’s all over?