I wrote this a little while ago, when I was working on a very enjoyable touring production of A Murder Is Announced by Agatha Christie. During my tenure on the show, we went to approximately thirty venues across the UK and Ireland and I had some truly marvelous experiences with a great cast and crew. Below is a little insight into what goes on backstage during a show and how we try to keep sane when life is a weird version of Groundhog Day. I've also included some photos of my favourite places we went on tour. You may notice a seaside theme. Ladies and gentlemen, this is your beginners call. It's time for curtain up.
An Evening In Chipping Cleghorn
After five months of living in Chipping Cleghorn land the mind does start to lose its structural integrity and become a concoction of steadfast routine yet constant change. The show begins with the residents of Little Paddocks discussing the highlights of the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette and the impending murder that is due to take place on the property. A Murder Is, as it has been for quite some time now, Announced.
Backstage, Holly Jackson-Walters, Wardrobe Assistant/ASM/Understudy/Dance Instructor, and I are conducting our nightly ballet lesson in the wings. Tonight Olga, Ms Jackson-Walters' Russian ballet instructor alter-ego, is explaining the importance of straight legs and firm buttocks while performing rises in first and third position. Though not always an entirely attentive student, I have enjoyed my ballet lessons with Olga. Apparently I have excellent facility. This is not a compliment I had ever received before joining Olga's class, but it seems to suggest I may not currently be at my most flexible but if I worked at it I could be rather bendy. Always good to know.
Miss Marple has arrived and departed on characteristically “nudge-nudge-wink-wink” lines and it’s time for the first costume changes. This is my first significant point of interest in my glamorous role as Wardrobe Mistress. A grand sounding title with less grand duties attached to it. The costume change brings with it a rapid update on the life of Janet Dibley, known to those sitting on the other side of the red velvet curtain as Miss Letitia Blacklock. In the thirty second change of blouse we catch up on one another's days, discuss how alert or absent the punters seem to be today and engage in some banter regarding the grumpy Scottish techie lurking in the wings this week. You can cram a lot of information into a quick change if you're skilled in the art of rapid conversation. Then off she goes to scold her Hungarian housemaid, Mitzi, for wasting her finest Fortnum and Mason's pate de foie gras on such a frivolous occasion. The guests arrive and an evening of murderous shenanigans can now commence. If Ms Christie had not already done so I would say that you could not make this stuff up.
After preparing the area for the impending bloody mess of Act One Scene Two, I move onto the far more entertaining part of my evening: casually distracting the actors.
Sir William of Huntington really is a jolly good sport. Throughout the last five months he has smiled politely as I have presented him with almost anything other than the bottle of sherry he is supposed to be collecting when he exits upstage right. A stage weight, a folding bicycle, a sizeable toy gun, a blue beach ball named Marjorie that became the centre of a temporary cult on a beach in Jersey and even Ms Jackson-Walters herself. Sir William has played along with all of these and more, before remembering to grab the bottle of sherry and seamlessly transforming from half of a backstage comedy double act into his onstage persona, Patrick Simmons, Chipping Cleghorn's resident quick-witted student layabout.
Anyway, back to work. I loiter in the corridor of the Blacklock residence behind the “locked” door as Rudi “where's-my-accent-from” Scherz prepares for his grand entrance. The lights go out and carefully choreographed pandemonium ensues on stage. I open the door (you didn't really think it was locked did you?) and retrieve Janet from the now dark stage. Ms Jackson-Walters goes all Jackson Pollock on Janet's neck with a sponge loaded with blood while I swap her blouse for another one that is completely identical apart from the artistic blood splatter on the right shoulder. Theatre-bloody-magic at its best. Once Rudi has literally died on stage I deposit Janet back through the door, while casually checking how many people are in the auditorium and pulling the most appropriate face I can muster to myself. Miss Marple arrives and pronounces Rudi dead at the scene. The actors scamper from the stage as soon as the curtain hits the now somewhat battered dark wooden floor and as quickly as it went on the blood is wiped off Janet's neck, seven actors perform rapid costume changes and a new day dawns in Chipping Cleghorn.
Enter Monsieur Butcher. It really never has occurred to me why I decided Tom must be referred to with a French title. Maybe it was the moustache.
His character, Inspector Craddock, surveys the scene of the somewhat improbable crime while his trusty Sergeant Mellors, portrayed by Jog Maher (affectionately named Jogeroo by my good self) listens and indulges his rantings about his hard life as the local copper. Midway through the tour I came up with another actor-distracting game for Jogeroo, involving holding up items or signs while he looks through the French windows into Miss Blacklock's apparently fascinating garden. This game sadly was brought to a premature conclusion when I couldn't think of anything to top flashing him, which I did on roughly show number three. Even a full view of my C-cups could not force him to corpse. They're ever so professional these actors.
Costumes are returned to dressing rooms and I don my industrial looking rubber gloves in order to clean up the bloody mess that only Agatha Christie can leave in her wake. Blacklock's blouse, Julia's handkerchief and Rudi's tie all get a rinse to remove the stage blood, which ever so obligingly comes off promptly, leaving no trace. The bloody towels are hung to dry and I can finally get around to doing the important stuff: having a smoothie and doing the crossword with Dotothy Smith.
If everything goes as scripted the audience will never have the pleasure of seeing Dotothy, known to the rest of the company as Dot, on stage. Aside from the seemingly infinite number of words she seems to store in her head and eventually fish out while filling in the Guardian crossword, Dot also holds within her mind the majority of the script. At least we hope she does. She leads the odd life of a touring understudy. So many stages visited but not performed on. So many audiences that missed out on her charm and marvelous acting. So many stairs the main cast so infuriatingly managed not to fall down or trip over and temporarily incapacitate themselves so Dotothy could have her time to shine. She copes with this potentially unsatisfying way of life by heroically keeping me company, reading the Guardian and tutting at the Tories (or “fucking Tories” to give them their full title), enjoying videos of her cats sent by her doting cat sitter and drinking a lot of tea. It’s a hard life but she's up to the challenge.
I use the end of Act One and the interval to catch up on the important items of business of the day. Booking train tickets, phoning Mum and Dad, catching up on the latest antics of my Spain dwelling husband, reading the news, watching climbing videos on Youtube and, on special occasions, lying on the floor with Ms Jackson-Walters with our legs propped up on chairs reciting the script in a very strong, if occasionally inconsistent, northern accent. By this point in the tour the show has become somewhat of an inconvenience to an otherwise quite entertaining evening.
The interval comes and goes and I return to the stage with Cara “Manchego” Chase's Act Two Scene Three shoes in hand ready for the next quick change. A suspiciously in tune rendition of Happy Birthday is sung to a delighted Dora Bunner on stage while we affectionately mock Monsieur Butcher's “walking quietly” walk. This involves delicately tippy-toeing along with a gentle bounce so one’s heels do not hit the ground, creating a sound of epic proportion, shaking the set to the ground and shattering the illusion for the poor unsuspecting audience. What started off as Monsieur Butcher trying to be respectful of his fellow actors by not making a racket backstage has become a very chaotically choreographed half waltz, half bumper car crash of Ms Jackson-Walters, Monsieur Butcher and myself bouncing around almost silently in the stage left wing.
Uh oh, there goes Bunny again. Philippa “The Horticulturist” Haymes very wisely decides to call a doctor while Bunny dramatically chokes to death on Mitzi's chocolate cake. Unfortunately, the beautifully authentic 1950s telephone is, as are most things on the set, completely non-functional. Rather than connecting her to the finest physicians the 1950s can offer, the wire simply leads through a hole in the wooden flat. It is actually connected to nothing more than a piece of gaffer tape which stops it swinging about and tripping up actors and backstage staff alike. The most useful thing she receives through this inch-wide circular hole in the piece of wood are the slightly squeaky words of Monsieur Butcher telling her she has the wrong number or giving her highly inaccurate medical advice depending on the evening in question.
“I'm afraid it's too late” declares Miss Marple, suspiciously quickly. They've not even tried CPR yet.
“Delicious death!” Sir William announces while holding up two pieces of £1.50 Iceland chocolate cake that Rudi's alter ego, ASM Matthew Wellman, lovingly slops together with Michelin-starred finesse before each performance. The audience falls into stunned silence or awkward laughter depending on the mood of the evening as the tabs are lowered once more.
Some props are shuffled and costumes speedily changed before the next scene begins and another clue is revealed as to the true identities of the bunch of liars we've been duped by all night long. Patrick Simmons and his “sister” Julia are locked in a passionate kiss, which should be alarming to all audience members except possibly those who thought they'd stumbled into a heavily adapted production of 'Tis Pity She's A Whore.
In the stage left quick change area Cara “Manchego” Chase is standing patiently with her dress hoisted up around her waist waiting for me to help her manoeuvre it up over her shoulders and head and safely off her person. When left alone to attempt this task Miss Chase generally ends up with the aforementioned dress stuck around her shoulders, neck and head like an overly clingy koala bear. Once she is out of the old and into the new dress she perches herself on an empty chair and sits upright like a poorly groomed meerkat ready to have her now rather untidy wig tamed. I give her a quick comb then squeeze her gently on the shoulders to let her know it’s time to roam free again.
Another round of costume rearranging takes place as garments are returned to dressing rooms and replaced on stage ready for the next show. By this point “Julia Simmons” is about to drop a bombshell. It’s the end of the penultimate scene and she and her overly affectionate brother are about to be caught out.
“Who is that woman?!” Miss Blacklock demands to know from a flabbergasted Patrick.
The fabulous Lucy Evans swaggers onto the stage, hips swaying sassily from side to side. Due to the fact that multiple people needed to get changed in the rapid transition between Saturday night and Sunday afternoon her character, Julia, is wearing the same green dress she was wearing the day before but with a very stylish grey cardigan over the top, which we hope will hide this fact from the audience. Time moves quite differently here in Chipping Cleghorn.
“Who are you? WHO ARE YOU?!” Miss Blacklock asks again.
Insert dramatic pause here.
Backstage we gather together to see how long Lucy is going to keep the audience waiting for the big reveal tonight. One, two, three, four, five. . . we count in unison . . . six, seven, eight, nine and ten! The average length of pause is approximately eight seconds, as verified by any members of the company with nothing better to do at this point in the show. She's milked it a little more tonight, but why the heck not? This is the kind of enthralling activity we indulge in to stop ourselves going completely cuckoo after so many performances.
After the final scene change, Jogeroo takes his place in the corridor between the two main doors at the back of the set, where he will remain trapped until almost the very end of the show, clutching a handful of loose pearls and a Dresden lamp. We have already agreed that tonight he will take the role of Miss Blacklock, while I will bring a new kind of life to Miss Marple. As the final scene plays out between the two leading ladies, myself and Jogeroo perform our own version of the play, which nobody except the shepherd on the Dresden lamp can see, and, let's be honest, he is loving it. We run through the lines flawlessly, if not entirely in time with the actors speaking the same script on stage. Neither of us needs prompting by this point in the tour. And just as we recite our final lines the rest of the cast appear for the all-important “goitre” moment.
Imaginary handfuls of pearls are distributed amongst the company members as the anticipation builds. As the string of pearls is ceremonially ripped from the on-stage Miss Blacklock's neck, backstage we do our best to throw our own imaginary pearls in time with the sound of the real deal hitting the floor and cascading about the stage. Sheer jubilation occurs backstage when we manage to get the timing right on this little ditty.
With the true villain revealed and the day saved by Miss Marple, Inspector Craddock, and Sergeant Mellors, the suitably tongue-in-cheek last few lines can be delivered to an audience that hopefully now understands everything that has passed in the last two hours and twenty minutes. The mood is quickly brought back up with some gentle banter and a hearty handshake between Marple and Craddock as the lights fade once more and the actors take the place across the front of the stage for the obligatory curtain call. Didn't they do well?
The cast head off to their dressing rooms after handing over any costumes that can be easily removed and replaced on stage ready for tomorrow's performance. A flurry of laundry baskets brimming with tights, shirts and socks are deposited outside their dressing rooms ready for collection by Ms Jackson-Walters. Cara's wig is rapidly removed, as is the hairpiece from Lucy's head that we have affectionately named “Rat”. I think it’s a male lump of curls but Lucy still sees it as a female. We never ended up agreeing on the matter. The washing machines are fired into action and wigs returned to their less than life-like blocks, ready for re-styling in the morning. A calm descends over the venue as the company departs and the stage door keeper circles the theatre locking up and putting the building to bed.
Goodnight until tomorrow my friends, when we will do it all over again. Exactly the same, but slightly different.