I’m still struggling with a dodgy elbow but, while that’s recovering (or doing its best to) here’s long time friend of the blog and brilliant human, William Rycroft, on theatre. (He has a book out too, All Quiet on the West End Front. Details at the bottom…)
Christmas. Season of goodwill, comfort and joy. Time to gather with the family; eat, drink and be merry. Or at least that’s the theory. Are you going to see a show over the holidays? A panto perhaps? A musical? A show for the kids? Whilst many businesses can wind things down over Christmas, Theatreland speeds up, if anything; building into a frenzy of extra performances to meet the demand for family entertainment. So, if you’re off to see something this festive period, I want you to spare a thought for those sweaty performers on stage. They might be as nutty as the walnuts in the bottom of your stocking.
You see, most acting companies are used to an ‘eight-show week’ – performances each weeknight, two on Saturday and a mid-week matinee. Eight shows a week takes its toll, especially if you’re doing it for forty-eight weeks of the year. That’s what I did during my time at War Horse in the West End. Eight shows a week, forty-eight weeks a year, for four and a half years. Longer than the actual First World War. Except of course at least once a year, on top of all that, we’d have to enter the mythical territory of the – drum roll please – ‘nine-show week’.
Pantomimes famously have insane schedules with two or even three shows a day but those runs are at least limited to a fixed period over Christmas. You buckle up, give it your all for a few weeks and if you’re the celebrity drafted in to get bums on seats you buy yourself a new house afterwards. Over at War Horse, an extra matinee in the week before or after Christmas, coming after an arduous year, might have been enough to tip some of us over the cliff-edge of sanity and into the precipice of mixed metaphors.
So how did we cope? Well, Christmas is all about family, and if work kept me away from my actual relatives until the day itself, then I was lucky enough to have a company of people around me that functioned like a slightly dysfunctional surrogate. You support each other with concern, kind words, back rubs and post show drinks. You eat festive treats, hang decorations and observe the most important ritual of any work-based Christmas: Secret Santa. In the West End, we’d heard that musical companies would often get some kind of celebrity in to play the role of Santa. No such glamour for us. Each year, those gifts were handed out by a member of the company dressed up as some kind of bastardised version of Father Christmas. Usually avuncular, often vaguely seedy, it’s a unique Christmas when ‘Santa’ is wearing a form of red tunic/WWI uniform hybrid.
And the same rule applied at this time of year as any other: no matter how exhausted you might’ve been when the show began and the company assembled onstage for the opening song, looking out into a sea of a thousand expectant faces had the effect of filling you with the energy required to do the show justice and to tell them that important story. This is even more the case when the audience is filled with children. Your responsibility isn’t just to tell the story; this may be their first time in the theatre and its within your power to enchant them with its possibilities or turn them off for life. So you take a deep breath, look out to them all, and remember what the words you’re singing really mean – ‘Only remembered for what we have done…’
So have a good Christmas, enjoy the show and, if you think they deserve it, then a standing ovation is a great way to send actors off for Christmas with a spring in their step.