It was just before the show and I was backstage, sporting my headset and waiting to be told that all of our audience were in their seats and that we could start our performance. Waiting in the wings with me were Adam and Chris, two of my actors. Both young, attractive and brimming with fresh talent. I had come to the conclusion that with the right agent, at least one of them would appear in an ITV murder mystery in the next six months.
I had been chatting away on my headset to Leah, my fabulous DSM, and Austin, my lighting board operator. Austin graduated about a year ago. He is a whizz at programming an ETC Ion and when he’s sporting his harness, he swings expertly and adeptly around a rig like a monkey. A bespectacled, slightly overweight, Super Dry wearing monkey. I would have a lot more time for Austin if he didn’t assume that his extensive knowledge of various lighting desks meant that he was also an authority on absolutely everything, including how I did my job. He reminds me of a young Piers Morgan. And I’ve told him that.
I checked my watch; 7.31. We had loitered here for about five minutes and the boys had gone through their usual warm ups. (Lots of punching the air and humming loudly) All I was waiting for was for my DSM, Leah, to tell me over the headset, that we had Front of House clearance. Once that happened I would give Withnail and I the signal, and as soon as they were in position, I would get back to her and tell her to start the show.
‘That’s clearance’ Leah trills.
‘Thank yoooooooou. Let me tell the boys.’ I waved to Adam and Chris who nodded that they were ready. Some last minute punching happened and then they both settled. I crossed to my Sliding Doors and opened my mouth to let Leah know she could start. Then suddenly, in the darkness, I felt a hand grip my arm. I looked round. It was Adam.
‘I can’t go on.’
Bloody hell. I had heard about things like this happening; actors getting actual stage-fright and just suddenly being unable to perform. Stephen Fry famously walked offstage during a 1995 West End production of ‘Cell Mates’ and was only discovered a week later in Belgium. (Who knew that vast quantities of chocolate and beer could cure stage fright.) And Ian Holm was struck by such awful stage fright during a 70’s production of ‘The Iceman Cometh’ that he didn’t grace the stage for almost two decades.
The grip on my arm was tightening and even in the darkness I could see Adam’s pale face and the whites of his eyes. The panic started in my stomach, quickly rose through my body and made the vein in my temple throb wildly against my headset.
‘What do you mean you can’t go on?’ I hissed back, bracing myself for him to suddenly flee the wings and hail a cab to Gatwick. He gulped and I could now see small beads of sweat on his forehead.
‘I need to poo.’
‘Really? Right now?’
‘No. We’ve got clearance.’
‘ It’s a Party Poo. It’s urgent.’
But he’s gone. He has left the wings and fled in the direction of the Gents. I turn to Chris who is nodding solemnly.
‘What was that all about?’ I ask him. ‘Party poo?’
Chris is wise and knowledgable in the ways of Party Poos.
‘Its when you’ve been on a heavy one the night before. The next day you have an upset tummy and your poo is....’ He looks uncomfortable.
‘.....a bit runny and unpleasant. And it smells reeeeeally bad. But it’s totally necessary. He has to go.’
‘Right.’ Despite my annoyance I flick a switch on my headset and relay this information to Leah.
‘Adam has gone for a poo.’
‘But we’ve had clearance.’
I sigh. ‘Yes I know but it’s a Par..... It’s urgent.’
Austin wastes no time in telling me his opinion. ‘You shouldn’t have let him go.’
‘Well I didn’t have much choice.’
A minute passes by but it feels like a lot longer. The audience are shifting in their seats. All of these people are tense with the anticipation of the theatrical magic which is about to unfold before them. I am tense with the knowledge that the play can not start until one of my cast has had a poo. God he’s taking his time.
‘He’s been ages.’
‘Yes, thank you Austin. I’m going to go and find him.’ I remove my headset, leave the wings and head off in the direction of the Gents Toilets. On the way I bump into the Front of House Manager, Rob.
‘Oh hi Rob.’
He looks aggrieved. ‘We gave you clearance ages ago. Why haven’t you started?’
‘It’s Adam. He needs to po.... prepare.’
Despite my current annoyance with Adam, I always feel a very odd sense of loyalty towards my company. I love them all dearly and am not prepared to disclose information about Adam’s embarrassing bowel issues to other theatre staff. But Rob isn’t buying it.
‘Well tell Adam to prepare quicker. The audience are all in and if we don’t start soon I’ll get complaints. And if that happens,’ he pauses for dramatic effect , ‘I’ll tell them we’re having technical difficulties.’
‘Oh for fu.... Fine. Fine. I’ll get him,’ I promise and march past.
I discover Adam in the Gents toilets where a cubicle door is, thankfully, preventing me from seeing what is happening within . Sadly the door does not stop me from being able to hear Adam’s extensive and strenuous battle with his Party Poo. I quite fancied Adam when I first met him. I don’t anymore.
‘Adam babe. You really need to hurry up.’
‘I’m........ trying,’ is the strained reply.
When I started this career in theatre, I was excited about where it would take me and who I would meet. I never envisaged myself in the mens loos of a small theatre, waiting for an actor to empty his bowels. And I’m not even waiting for someone important or worthy of a dinner table anecdote like Rupert Everett. I’m waiting on an actor who has starred in a Burger King advert and is yet to even audition for Midsomer Murders. As I contemplate a career move, I hear a door creak behind me. Adam and I are no longer alone. Rob has joined the party. He’s gripping a walkie talkie and looking very pissed off.
‘What the hell is going on and what are you doing in the mens?’
These are two very good questions and ones I am beginning to ask myself. Rob doesn’t even give me a chance to reply.
‘Helping Adam prepare are you?’
I know exactly what’s being insinuated here and I am painfully aware that this situation looks slightly dodgy. But as I have said before, I am fiercely loyal when it comes to my cast and am not ready to embarrass one of my male leads in front of other theatre staff. However, I do enjoy working at this theatre and would like to again. Being caught in the gents, with an actor, when the show should have started is not the way to go about it. Bollocks to it. Sink or swim.
I point accusingly at the cubicle door.
‘Adam has to poo.’
Rob looks unimpressed. ‘Poo?’
‘A PARTY POO!!!!’ comes the anguished wail.
Rob looks from me to the cubicle door. ‘A party poo?’ He contemplates this. ‘Feeling rough mate?’ he calls.
‘Yeah.’ Adam whimpers.
‘Good night was it?’
‘Yeah. Think I need a pint to sort me out now though, bruv.’
Rob leans casually against the doorway and plays with the antennae on his radio.
‘Well, come the pub with us after the show mate.’ He suggests.
‘Ace.’ And with this we hear the flush of the loo and Adam emerges from the cubicle, looking satisfied and triumphant. The battle with the Party Poo is over and Adam has emerged victorious. A nation rejoices. ‘Which pub?’
‘One round the corner. The Rose and...’
‘HELLO!!!!’ Both of these men seem to have completely forgotten my presence and I am starting to wonder if I should be ushering the audience in here so that they can witness a scaled down theatrical version of ‘Brokeback Mountain’. As far as I am aware however, both of these men are very straight so maybe its more like ‘Bromance Mountain.’
‘Adam. Backstage. NOW.’
Adam reluctantly exits the loos and I follow him. In Scene Two he serves food and drink to other cast members. He hasn’t washed his hands. Nobody needs to know.
Backstageand next to the Sliding Doors, I replace my headset and check my watch. Christ, we’ve been gone for ages.
‘You were gone for ages.’
‘Yes thank you Austin. Leah, we’re ready. You can start’.
7.41. The show hasn’t even begun and I am now officially In A Strop. Through gritted teeth, I growl ‘Stand by.’
Adam is now standing behind the Sliding Doors, awaiting his entrance. He stands tall, shoulders pushed back and presumably feels a pound or so lighter. He looks over at me sheepishly and apologetically.
‘I’m sorry,’ he mouths.
And when I look at him, something inside me softens. He looks so handsome in his medieval costume with his strong jawline clearly visible in the backstage gloom. His hair falls across his face and when he takes that preparatory breath, his shoulders rise and fall as if he is readying himself for war.
I try to forget what has just taken place and I remind myself that I must not take for granted what a privileged position I am in. Every night I get to witness story telling at its greatest and work with truly talented individuals and Adam is definitely one of those talented individuals. Reviewers have used words such as ‘mesmerising’ and ‘rising star’ when describing him.
I make a mental note to try and treat Adam with slightly more respect. I have shown him little so far and was maybe not as sympathetic towards his pre-show panic as I could have been. As his stage manager, I should be somebody who he feels comfortable to approach in his hour of need. Not somebody who begrudges him a few short minutes so that he can feel totally at ease when appearing before an audience.
I return Adam’s slightly nervous smile with an encouraging and supportive grin to show that I forgive him and that all is well again between cast and crew. Just before the Sliding Doors open he again mouths something at me. Another heartfelt apology? It takes a second for me to work it out but then the smell of rancid milk and overcooked cabbage hits me.
He passes through the doors and I slam them shut behind him, practically locking myself within the stench of his hungover innards.