I saw my first West End play as a newly arrived backpacker in London in 1987 and was immediately hooked on live theatre. Living in Brighton and Windsor from 1987 to 1995, I saw countless professional and amateur productions. But I didn’t dream in 1987 that one day I’d be up on stage, too, taking a bow.
The Theatre Royal in Brighton is a beautiful venue (across the road from the equally beautiful Royal Pavilion), presenting West End and professional touring plays and musicals. But Brighton also has a vibrant amateur theatre scene. And seeing these amateur performances inspired me to sign up for an evening college acting course.
La Môme Piaf
My big break was in La Môme Piaf, a homage to Edith Piaf, at the Arundel Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in August 1991. I had seen plays by Piaf’s Director, Roy Grant, and knew him socially through mutual friends. And my friends mentioned to Roy that I was a budding actor, keen to get on the stage.
“Can you sing?” Roy asked me with his theatrical baritone lilt over a gin and tonic at a local pub.
“Um, no, not very well,” I answered honestly.
“That’s a shame,” he replied. “My Piaf is a musical tribute.”
“Oh, sorry.” I was crestfallen, but not for long.
Bless him, Roy found roles for me in his play as Robert, an Australian soldier, and Jacques, one of Piaf’s husbands. And he covered for my singing voice by burying me deep in the chorus line.
Thirty-plus years since my debut, I only have vague memories of the week-long run of La Môme Piaf. But I vividly recall basking in the standing ovation of the opening night bow. And how one of my fellow (more experienced) actors seeing my beaming smile backstage, asked, “Was this your first time?”
“Yes!” I gushed, feeling so high and happy from the dopamine hit of the applause and bow that I promised myself it would not be my last.
Brighton Little Theatre
Roy, bless him again, suggested I audition to join the Brighton Little Theatre Company. I had seen several Little Theatre productions. And though it was an amateur theatre group, I knew many of their actors and directors had been or could have been professionals. So I was hopeful but realistic at my audition, as noted in my diary in September 1991:
Read for a part in Our Country’s Good (by Timberlake Wertenbaker) at the Little Theatre. Saw several of my fellow actors from Piaf. Felt I read well, but given the talent of others auditioning, I won’t be surprised if I’m overlooked.
I didn’t get a part in Our Country’s Good, but my audition was deemed good enough to join the Little Theatre. And this led to regular auditions for other plays. Like my writing back then, however, I soon learned actors must steel themselves for rejection.
Little Theatre Debut
Bless him once more, Roy gave me my Little Theatre debut as Tony, The Cop, in Small Craft Warnings by Tennessee Williams in March 1992. I only had three lines in the second act, but I was back on stage. And bowing with the cast at the end of the play, I got my dopamine hit again.
My next roles at the Little Theatre in May 1992 (without Roy’s patronage) were more challenging, with more lines. Single Spies by Alan Bennett is a two-act, double-bill depicting members of the Cambridge spy ring.
In the first act, An Englishman Abroad, I played, Tolya, the Russian toy boy of Anthony Burgess, at his Moscow flat meeting with Coral Browne. And in the second, A Question of Attribution, I was the cockney assistant, Colin, helping Sir Anthony Blunt hang paintings at Buckingham Palace when HMQ unexpectedly enters the room.
I still have my yellowed copy of the Single Spies script (Faber and Faber 1989). And inside are the handwritten notes from the director to help me with my cockney rhyming slang for Colin and my scribbles against my Russian lines in the script to help me with Tolya.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Although I didn’t realise it then, I performed in my last play at the Brighton Little Theatre in November 1992, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Bearded in Elizabethan breeches, I juggled three roles as a Tragedian, Courtier and Soldier, juggled three balls and simulated a sex scene (not while juggling!).
During my brief time with the Little Theatre, I often dreamed I was on stage and hadn’t learned my lines. “Improvise,” a fellow actor would hiss at me in my dream. I also had these dreams during the rehearsals and run of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And yet, my parts (including the sex scene) were mime — I had no lines!
I moved from Brighton to Windsor in 1993. And although I still craved the dopamine hit of acting, I couldn’t find a theatre group that felt as “welcoming” as the Little Theatre. So I retired from the stage but continued attending professional and amateur plays in Windsor and London and back “home” at the Little Theatre in Brighton.
In 1996, I returned to Australia. I did a couple of evening drama courses but returned to the stage only once for my one-night stand as a stand-up comic. And after my son was born in 2002, I had other priorities and being a dad provided an alternative source of dopamine hits.
Writing this blog post has rekindled many happy memories. I’m glad I kept my diary entries from my time in England. And the theatre programs, scripts and cast photos. For one thing, it made the research task for this post much easier!
And for another, they reminded me of the thrill I felt on the stage all those years ago, performing with my fellow actors, soaking up the applause and taking a bow.
© 2022 Robert Fairhead
Note: This post originally appeared on the Tall And True writers’ website.
N.B. You might also like to read another blog post about my time in England, Writing Can Be Lonely (May 2018).
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of Robert Fairhead. A writer and editor at the Tall And True writers' website, Robert also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast. In addition, his book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media, and he's published several collections of short stories. Please see Robert's profile for further details.