imageBLURRED LINES is the title of a rap song by Robin Thicke. The producers of the play were not granted permission to use the music in their play.

I managed to grab a day seat for BLURRED LINES at The Shed at the National Theatre. It turned out to be the Press Night and I was sitting between two reviewers. We thought we had the equality thing licked in the 70’s, didn’t we? Not so…

To a backing track of several current rap songs, packed with mysogenistic lyrics, I watched the all female cast show us how it is for women of all ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, in this country in the 21st century. 100 years after the first suffragettes demanded women’s right to vote, nothing it seems has changed.

It’s not an easy watch. Patched together in a kaleidoscope of fragmented dialogue, snatches of songs and raw physicalisation, the action drags you along with little time to reflect, packing so much into 75 minutes you feel as if you’ve watched a 2 hour play. But there are moments that strike a chord, hit a raw nerve, show us something with which we can deeply empathise.

As the applause died away and the audience rose to leave, the two reviewers turned to me and asked me what I thought of the play. “Ask me next week when I’ve had time to assimilate” I replied.

photo by Sue Odell (2004)As any actor will know, only too well, the business of auditioning for an advert is a completely unpredictable one. Over the years I’ve been required to do the most bizarre things, with varying degrees of success, very few of which have actually resulted in getting the role and appearing in an advert.

I once walked into an audition room to see a large, grey leather sofa, standing upright on its end. Ok, Amanda, said the casting director, this sofa represents one of the many well-known public buildings in Birmingham. We’ve had quite a few people approaching it in a comedic way…we’d like you to behave in a warm and tender manner toward the sofa. Show us how much you love this building, Amanda… and….Action! I snaked my cuddly middle-aged body around the sofa, planting affectionate kisses on its non-too-clean cushions whilst uttering little moans of pleasure. On this occasion, I failed to convince.

Another time I was asked to get down on all fours and frantically clean up an imaginary pile of biscuit wrappers as if my life depended upon it, while the casting director shouted at me through a loud-hailer. One memorable audition required me to be a middle-class white woman, rapping with wide-eyed enthusiasm about a new chewing gum in Jamaican patois. (I almost got that one!)

The photo (taken in 2004 by the lovely Sue Odell) was one of several still shots for a dog-shampoo bill-board advert to be shown in Denmark. “Imagine you’re enjoying yourself, shampooing your Dachsund in the sink,” she said without a trace of innuendo, as she clicked away, expertly capturing my obvious rapture at the very thought. The shampoo marketing people, however,  were not impressed.

In an audition earlier this year I was asked to look out of an imaginary window, recognise someone, smile and wave. This is by far the easiest thing I’ve ever been asked to do in an audition. It took 30 seconds to get the take. I got the part.

Last week, I found myself snuggled in bed with a complete stranger, another auditionee I’d only just met, pretending to be asleep (as you do). The advert was supposed to illustrate the complete peace of mind one gets from contacting a new, free government-backed debt-relief service. We lay there snoozing while the director made helpful suggestions. He asked us to move closer, turn over in our sleep, put an arm over our partner, cuddle each other, roll onto our backs. I admit there was a moment where I wondered where this was all going. Let your face go completely soft, intoned the director, like the voiceover on a relaxation tape. You’re having a lovely dream…no, Amanda, it’s a nice dream, not a nightmare. Needless to say, I’ve heard nothing.

I must say, though, it was the most pleasant advert audition I’ve ever done. As we emerged relaxed and refreshed into the waiting room, my partner turned to me, looked at his watch and said, “Same time next week…?”

Have you ever received a gift that looks, shall we say, somewhat familiar? A bottle of fine wine you bought in Tuscany for a dear friend’s birthday, or a box of hand-made artisan chocolates for your mum last Christmas, suddenly returns to you some weeks or months later, from a different source. Co-incidence, it may be,  but you know without a shadow of doubt it’s the very same one you chose with care and bestowed upon your loved-one and which has made its way, via a circuitous route, back to you.

You imagined your friend savouring the wine, your mum enjoying the chocolates, and thinking what a perfect choice your gift was. They may have spotted one in a shop and noted, with a smile and raised eyebrows, the price tag. They even sent you a card, didn’t they, describing in detail how much they enjoyed your gift and thanking you profusely, complimenting you on your taste and discernment? But never for one moment did you imagine they had given it away, unopened and unappreciated, to someone who also valued it so little that it was passed on to another, and so on until it returned, possibly even (perish the thought) via a charity shop, to its original source. They can also see at a glance the use-by date.

There is an art to re-gifting. Many have perfected this art to the point of obsession. This is an example of how it works. They throw a party. Friends turn up with seriously good wines, expensive port, designer olives, and the gifts are enthused over and then, by slight of hand or mis-direction, they mysteriously disappear. Whilst bulk-buy wine is served, cheap port poured and supermarket “basics” olives are being proffered by one host, the other is secreting the gifts into the utility room. The delicatessen delicacies brought by the guests are conspicuous by their absence.

You may suppose that the party-throwers keep these goodies to be enjoyed by themselves on another occasion, but you would be wrong. I know of one person who keeps a pack of sticky labels and a marker pen in the gift-hoard cupboard. Each gift is identified with names of the givers and the date upon which it was received: “Sue and Roy: Nov 2012” That way, when the item is re-gifted, they can ensure that Sue and Roy will not be the recipients.

When I lived, many years go, with two such re-gifters, I found in the garage an entire fridge full of chocolate: Easter eggs, Lindt reindeer and Santa Clauses, Galaxy selection boxes and After Eights. Some of them, according to their labels, should have been consumed in the late 90’s. It took me several weeks to persuade my friends that the only place for this hoard was the rubbish bin. When we piled the lot into black bin bags, we freed up the fridge for its proper use: chilling dairy products and meats. But it wasn’t long until new chocolate gifts crept back in with the excuse, “2 for 1 at the supermarket”. Meanwhile, a “make your own gingerbread cottage” kit stood on top of one of the kitchen cupboard for a full 12 months until, just before the next Christmas party, it was unceremoniously dumped in the bin, its “Fred and Babs: Dec 2010” label betraying its origins.

As far as use-by dates are concerned, however, wines can be tricky. A couple I know never drink Champagne, although they receive many bottles as gifts. These are stored in the cupboard under the stairs. Some of them have been there for decades. Now even I, with my limited knowledge of wine, know that most Champagne is sold when ready to drink. Unless it is of a very fine vintage, and stored horizontally at the correct temperature, it won’t be worth opening. This random collection, half of them already re-gifted many times, is kept in the warmest place in the house, standing upright in a cardboard box. The stash is pilfered only occasionally, when a bottle is selected and popped into a re-cycled shiny foil gift bag (a generous supply conveniently hangs nearby in a hessian bag) and is trotted round to the next party, where it is no doubt secreted into the garage to await its next outing.

My mum had the best idea to prevent the re-gifting of her carefully chosen goodies, and openly admitted that this was her intention. Instead of wrapping her gifts and attaching a label she wrote directly onto the chocolate box, or the wine label, with a thick black marker pen, eg. “To Mandy, Love Mum x” No mistaking for whom they were intended or where they had come from – and not a cat in hell’s chance of re-gifting them.

*all names have been changed to protect the innocent.

This blogging isn’t as easy as it looks, is it? In fact, this is my third attempt to write and publish this, my very first piece.

Anyway, about this photo, taken in the Green Room at the Garrick Theatre in January 2011…she looks relaxed, reading her book in that comfy armchair, doesn’t she? Amanda Reed, understudy. The play was When We Are Married, a J.B.Priestley play, a comedy set in Yorkshire, directed by the incomparable Christopher Luscombe. I was understudying Maureen Lipman and Lynda Baron, amid a star-studded cast comprising most of the top comedic actors of my generation. What a privilege it was to work with them, and learn from them.

It was Maureen who used the quote “They also serve who only stand in…” The job of the unseen and largely unsung heros, the understudies, is to be ready to go on at a moment’s notice…something I did in this show for both the actors I covered. It was around the time my mum died in December 2010 I had to go on for Lynda and then, shortly after her funeral, for Maureen. How does an actor do that: put behind her all that is going on in her private life and give a performance in front of 800 people who have paid an arm and a leg to see a well-loved household name….and instead gets “who? – never heard of her!”

But that’s what I was paid to do, and that’s what I did. Not everyone is cut out to be an understudy. When the wonderful Beryl Reid’s mother died, she had no understudy. She was the comedy turn in a panto, doing her famous character “Marlene”. Not wishing to disappoint the audience who had come to see her, she did her three performances that day to an appreciative crowd who were completely unaware of her situation. Reading her biography whilst on holiday with my mum, also called Beryl Reed (though spelled differently) I wondered what I would do in the same situation. Luckily I did not have to choose. But going on for Maureen and Lynda, experiences which should have been moments of triumph, were tinged with deep sadness. I have not understudied since.

 

 

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