Why did you get into theatre?
This is a question I have been asked many times and, if you work in theatre, you have probably been asked it too. By people interviewing you for a job perhaps. Or by friends who Don’t Work In Theatre. Or fucking annoying taxi drivers who have picked you up after a seven hour train journey and their only sodding task is to take you to the venue but have decided that they want to know every mundane detail of your career and whether you have met anyone ‘off the telly.’
I’m actually a bit reluctant to tell people why I got into theatre and sometimes I lie about it. I lied about it several years ago when I had a big interview at a Reasonably Successful Company. About five people were seated around a large table and one lady in the middle leant forwards to me and asked,
“So, Jessica. Why did you get into theatre?”
I knew the real answer but was embarrassed to admit it to these wise and practised professionals, sporting their Reasonably Successful Company t-shirts. So I lied and said how I had once seen a production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the Reasonably Successful Company when I was at school and how enchanted I had been.
They all smiled proudly before another interviewee, a man, made eye contact with me and proposed the next question,
“Jessica, what do you think you would bring to the Reasonably Successful Company?”
I grinned cheerfully and blurted out my answer.
This comical and also incredibly truthful answer was not as well received as my previous lie. It was met with slightly puzzled looks and I swear I saw one of them quickly draw a little blunt cross on a bit of paper. Later that night I went for a Chinese meal with my Gentleman Friend of that period.
“So,” he enquired, “how was the big interview with the Reasonably Successful Company?”
“Okay,” I nodded, “I was just myself.”
I glared at him over my grilled dumplings and reached for the Merlot.
But actually, I hadn’t completely been myself. I hadn’t told them the real reason I had originally decided that I wanted to get into theatre.
It probably happened when I was a very little girl. About six or seven. Boys were still nasty, vile creatures that one wanted to keep a distance from and Merlot was still just ‘mummy’s special juice’. My parents encouraged my sisters and I to have outside hobbies and to not just sit staring at the TV or endlessly playing pacman on our little Spectrum. But they would also succumb to the simple pleasure of sometimes being able to plonk us infront of a VHS.
But even my video collection was slightly different to the kids I shared a play-do scented classroom with. While my peers were spending their rainy Sunday afternoons munching Findus crispy pancakes and watching ‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’ or something involving the Care Bears, I was sat on the living room floor transfixed by Julie Andrews whirling around in front of some mountains in ‘The Sound of Music’. Or I would be singing all the lyrics to ‘As the World Falls Down’ whilst I watched David Bowie prance about in his painfully tight leggings during ‘Labyrinth’.
I just assumed that all my primary school chums were watching the same things and it would come as a shock to realise that they were more likely to know the theme tune to ‘Rainbow Bright’ or ‘The Gummi Bears’ than be able to sing the entire score of ‘The Music Man’.
(I don’t think I was always in the right key but I knew all the words.)
Another favourite film of mine from a very early age was the feature length Beatles cartoon of ‘The Yellow Submarine’, despite it being made a full 14 years before I was even born. Of course when I watch it now and take in the psychedelic cartoon imagery and the fact that everyone keeps saying ‘It’s all in the mind, y’know’, I fully realise it’s completely about hallucinogenic drugs and is probably not appropriate viewing material for an eight year old. But that didn’t matter. I liked the bright colours and learning the lyrics to Beatles songs.
Although I have a theory that if you are born in Liverpool or the surrounding areas (as I was), you never learn Beatles lyrics. You’re just born already knowing them.
It’s a gift.
But one of my all time favourite films from this innocent era, was (and still is) ‘The Slipper and the Rose.’
A few years ago, previous to my disastrous interview with the Reasonably Successful Company, I realised that owning ‘The Slipper and the Rose’ on VHS was useless as I was without a video player. So I scoured the internet for it and discovered a woman on E Bay selling a DVD copy which had come free with the Daily Mail. I decided that as I would not be funding the vile publication directly, it was okay for me to purchase it.
And as I curled up under the duvet watching it, I remembered how as a little girl, these films had struck such a chord with me. Especially ‘The Slipper and the Rose.’
It is essentially the story of Cinderella but done as a rather lavish musical. It was made in 1976 and (little know fact) was produced by David Frost.
Gemma Craven plays Cinderella and is everything you would want your Cinderella to be. She has a cherub like face throughout, a luminescent beauty when she makes her grand entrance at the ball, and a cracking set of knockers.
When I grew up, I wanted to be Gemma Craven.
Tragically, when Gemma Craven grew up, something rather terrible happened to her and she ended up making the common, heart-rending mistake that many talented yet stupid actresses make.
She was in Hollyoaks.
In fact, it’s worse than that. She was actually in ‘Hollyoaks Later’ in 2008. Playing the mum of the irish bloke who was HIV positive. Gemma is now married to a man who changed his name by deed poll from Gary Womack to ‘Lord Odin’. And previous to being called ‘Lord Odin’ he was self-named ‘Mickey Mouse’.
They live in Blackpool.
I’ll stop talking about what happened to Gemma Craven because it genuinely breaks my heart. I like to remember her as my exquisite Cinderella, dancing about in a field holding her treasured, sparkly slipper aloft. And then being fiercely embraced by Richard Chamberlain, after he has dismounted from his massive white horse with his shirt unbuttoned down to the navel.
It’s all terribly romantic.
When I watch the film now I can see that it is not without its flaws. The design is magnificent and the costumes are opulent to say the least. But the consequence of this opulence teamed with the poor sound quality is that when all of the ladies are dancing at the ‘Bride Finding Ball’, the sound of the rustling taffeta is deafening. Plus the special effects are terrible. There is a sequence which features a mouse being transformed into a horse to pull the carriage. Basically there is a shot of a man wearing a mouse head, then the screen goes weird, then there is a shot of a horse.
But none of that matters.
When I was doing a Shakespeare piece recently, the director told us something that a well known writer had told him. See, stage managers do listen to this stuff;
‘Always know where the hangman is hiding.’
Even in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ which appears light enough, there is always the lingering threat of Death. If Hermia does not agree to marry Demetrius, she might get killed or sent to live in exclusion for the rest of her life. And if Peter Quince and the Mechanicals put on a crap play, they may also face the hangman.
‘The Slipper and the Rose’ is no different. There is one scene which I always used to fast forward but as I watch it now, I appreciate that it is actually a phenomenal piece of script writing accompanied by some top acting. Cinderella and Prince Edward have been reunited after some nifty detective work involving the slipper (proof that a great pair of shoes can change your life) and are about to embark on a wondrous life together. But the country is under the threat of war. And the King has decided that the Prince needs to marry a proper Princess and Cinderella, radiant though she is, just does not fit the bill. So the King’s right hand man has to go and deliver the news to Cinderella and tell her that she will be exiled to somewhere that nobody can find her;
‘You see only love and happiness staring you in the face. I see only war and destruction unless a sacrifice is made.’
‘The hangman’ is the necessary element to making all of these ‘dated’ and ‘cheesy’ films so heartfelt and so timeless. ‘The Sound of Music’ isn’t just whiskers on kittens and dancing round in curtains. There is the constant and disturbing presence of the Nazis. And in ‘Labyrinth’, Jennifer Connelly might be making friends with adorable Ludo and a whole variety of fun Jim Henson characters but she is also trying to stop her baby brother being held hostage for all eternity by the Goblin King.
Despite being within a loving and close family, growing up between Birkenhead and Liverpool under Margaret Thatcher’s reign meant that romance was not exactly very present in my surroundings. But these films changed that. There is a tender moment in ‘The Slipper and the Rose’ after the Prince and Cinderella have met at the ball. Richard Chamberlain is trying to explain to Cinderella how he has been feeling trapped by his Royal duty. But how she has changed that and made him feel how anything could be possible.
‘Whatever happens afterwards, I shall always remember this moment. And you must take my present happiness to make you happier.’
These films made me forget I was an eight year old with glasses and knotty hair and a lack of any understanding of the importance of PE. They showed me a world which I wanted to be part of. These films had drama and romance but they also had this slightly unreal edge with people suddenly bursting into song, accompanied by an unseen band. Or launching into complex yet clearly rehearsed dance routines, seemingly spontaneously.
I knew that in real life there was no such thing as fairy godmothers or mice which turned into horses, but I had been shown a place where these things could occur. My parents, noticing this trend in my favoured afternoon viewings and observing me hurling myself around the garden clutching my Clarks Princess shoe (the ones with the key in the sole), introduced me to the joys of youth amateur dramatics.
And the rest, as they say (whoever they are) is history. And the present. And hopefully the future if I can manage to stop cracking stupid gags in important interview situations.
After years perched in front of a tiny screen observing these theatrical masterpieces I now work within this industry which somehow manages to create ‘magic’ and romance in a pure, undiluted form. (I have hopes that if I play endless Ally MacBeal boxsets to my kids from a tender age they will grow up with an overwhelming desire to be a lawyer.)
So there you go. The reason I work in theatre.
Have I answered your question?
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You can 'Like' my page on Facebook 'Girl in the Dark' or follow me on Twitter @agirlinthedark