Monday, 26 January 2009

White socks for the convict's opera

My career as an actor, singer and member of a pioneering boy band peaked in a sailor’s suit on the stage of Liverpool’s Neptune Theatre at some point in the 1970s. There were a few of us loosely associated with the Liverpool Youth Theatre who got roped in as members of the chorus in a production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Written in 1728, it’s currently enjoying a short sold-out season (anyone give me a ticket for old time’s sake?) at the Royal Opera House, where it’s been billed as the ‘world’s first musical’.

A variation on John Gay, The Convict’s Opera, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, is also touring the country at the moment with its mix of songs old and new and performances good enough to wow any West End stage. I caught it in Salisbury, being in that part of the world for back-to-back trail marathons around Portland and Stonehenge over the weekend. Very bruised and aching limbs were not enough to deter me from the chance to revisit my teenage triumph (somewhere my mum has a Liverpool Echo photo of the sailor-suited boy band), especially since I managed to wangle a front-row seat with plenty of room to stretch out.

Mistake. Sometimes you go to the kind of theatre where audience participation is de rigeur or you know the ‘fourth wall’ is only there to be broken down. Sometimes you go only to reminisce, relax and be entertained. It was only at the start of the second act, when the The Convict’s Opera’s leading convict was leaning over the edge of the stage, fixing me in the eyes and asking to loud and very camp dramatic effect what my name was, ‘little boy’ (yes, he really did add that suffix), that I realised that, for a few minutes at least, I was going to be back in Gay’s opera again as a comic prop.

I have a pre-prepared get-out script running in my head for occasions such as this. It goes something like, ‘My name is Michael Barrymore. I’d love to get up there with you, but I’m so dangerously unpredictable that you really wouldn’t want me to. And anyway, I’ve only been let out of the unit for a couple of hours on the understanding that I don’t go anywhere near bright lights, and I really must take my medication now. Why don’t you talk to one of them [gesturing to the empty seats in the rest of the auditorium] instead?’

Unfortunately, the brain was far too slow (all that pounding on the paths of Salisbury Plain). And so it was that ‘Sailor Steve’ (far too slow to make the obvious ‘seasick’ joke) was press ganged into a centre-stage appearance as a convict-ship crew member, where he was lathered up for a public shaving with a gleaming cut-throat theatrical razor, doused with a bucketful of glittering clown’s water and then made to walk the plank back to his front-row seat with all dignity demolished.

And I was wearing a pair of white running socks, which the spotlight illuminated exquisitely between the comfy trainers and scruffy Levis. White socks at an opera, I ask yer …

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