Deathtrap". It was a wedding anniversary treat.
The play has a special significance for us. In June 1987 we opened in the play at a local Community Hall in London. I played Sydney Bruel and my wife, who wasn't then, played my wife Myra. It was an astounding production even if I say so myself. I was sensational, getting all the laughs at the right places and fluffing only a few lines and entrances.
You might think that it is a prerequisite for an actor to be word and move perfect; and normally you'd be right. Amateur actors, however, inhabit a different universe. First, it is not always the best person for the part who ends up playing it. Often, I have shared a stage with a female juvenile lead who wouldn't be seeing 40 again. If the play is demanding - when aren't they darlings - the member with the photographic memory is likely to get the part even if they couldn't act their way out of a wet paper bag.
Another obstacle to a successful amateur production is the director's over ambition and the cast inability to all turn up for rehearsal. If we did all turn up on the same day the chances were that the lead would have the hump, a cold, a bad back or just finished with his boyfriend. I can on one hand number the times we actually had a complete run through before the dress rehearsal. On many occasions the 3rd Act was as much of a mystery to us as it was to the audience.
In the play "You should see us now" by Peter Tinniswood we managed to jump three scenes and then seamlessly jump back again without anyone noticing. At the time the prompt could be seen frantically flicking back and forth through the script desperately trying to find out where we were in the play.
As I recall three of us were on stage when all of a sudden this actress appeared stage left. This threw me as I was about to speak my lines. I looked to actress on my left who looked the actor on her left; we then all looked over to the prompt's corner from whence so often "my deliverance cometh". But not this time. Luckily, by some superhuman effort the actor nearest the rogue actress figured out where in the play she thought we were. Without skipping a beat he said to her " I think you better check to see if they're on their way".
Her smiling face dropped as she suddenly realised that she'd got the cue completely wrong and without stopping turned 180 degrees and went off into the wings again. Professionals that we were, we picked up where we left off and no one was the wiser.
Our habit of not getting past Acts 1 and 2 and winging the 3rd Act meant that people came up with stratagems to get them through. In one play, whose title I can't remember, a member of the cast stuck his lines all over the set. Unfortunately, he didn't place them close to where he'd be on stage when he was required to deliver the line. That's not surprising since most of the time we never got to block the stage moves beforehand or if we did we'd forget them by the night of the production. Being on stage in the group was like being at a road junction in heavy traffic with the traffic lights malfunctioning.
On this occasion the effect was quite bewildering to cast and audience. The actor would have a vague feeling that a line would be coming up which should prompt him. At this point he would look from one member of the cast to another in the hope that he'd get some sort of a hint. When his prompt line was delivered he would startle with recognition and then look around the stage for the appropriate line pinned on one of the walls of the set. Having found it he would deliver the line with such gusto that the rest of the cast was completely thrown.
I recall that at one point in the play he was pointing a gun at one of the characters: except he would not be looking at them but slightly adjusting his head and feet so he could read the lines on the wall behind the character he was about to shoot. He looked like a clucking hen about to lay an egg!
My greatest triumph was playing the eponymous hero in "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime". The play's denouement saw me crashing through the French windows - naked save for a plant pot strategically placed over my vitals. So alarmed was I at the risk of exposing my manhood to a paying audience of pensioners and schoolchildren that I got the biggest pot I could find. A photograph of that moment found its way into the HM Treasury's house magazine "Checkerboard" and at my retirement party. "Don't put your privates on the stage".
However, the most spectacular mishap occurred not because of fluffed lines or miscues but through a technical failure.
In the play "Stage Struck" by Simon Gray, a scene closes with a dummy dropping out of a hole in the ceiling hanging there on the end of a rope. On the fateful Saturday the dummy dropped on cue - eliciting the appropriate gasps from the audience. But could they get the dummy back up into the ceiling?
What was meant to have happened was that the stage hand backstage would pull on a rope and slowly raise the dummy back up. But the rope stuck. There on the stage stood the actors looking hopelessly at the dummy as it jerked up and down like a murderer on the end of a hangman's rope. Except being very light the dummy went all over the place as the jerking got more and more frantic and the audience began to titter.
Then we noticed that the ceiling was moving. It was clear that someone was up in the eaves trying to dislodge the stuck prop. It wouldn't budge. It just jiggered and jumped all over the place. By now the audience's titters turned into laughter.
This went on for what appeared to be ages. Cast members were jumping up trying to push the dummy through the hole in the ceiling, but nothing worked, that bloody dummy just hung there.
And then a hand appeared through the hole in the ceiling, tugging at the rope. No luck. Then two hands and arms reached down and finally drew the recalcitrant prop back into the ceiling space.
The audience was besides themselves.
It's rumoured that the show was being video taped that night. But if so, it's never surfaced. Such a shame.