Here at Official London Theatre, we have a white board full of ideas for future features and for as long as it’s been in existence it has borne the aspirational ‘Charlie is an extra’ nugget of an ambiguous dream. So when, on one unseasonally warm day in December, an email popped up in my inbox asking me to not only appear on a West End stage but have an actual line during a performance of Monty Python’s Spamalot at the Playhouse theatre, I jumped at the chance. Christmas had come early. It was only after Christmas had been and gone the reality dawned that I would actually have to step on stage, with actual people in the audience and actually perform.
It would seem appropriate at this point to explain that a) while the last acting I did was aged 10 when I appeared – okay, let’s blow my own trumpet here, starred – in The Wizard Of Oz in a school hall, it wasn’t too much of a problem given that b) my line in Spamalot was one word and that word was ‘sorry’. So even if it all went horrifically wrong and, as I’d begun to think of late, I really could ruin a whole show in a matter of seconds – sets falling down, costumes tearing or me manically breaking into a rendition of One Singular Sensation in a moment of stage fear-induced temporary insanity all seemed likely options – at least my line was appropriate.
When the day – or as my sister likes to call it ‘the pinnacle of my career’ – finally dawned, nerves were temporarily replaced with excitement. All I knew was that I needed to go to the stage door armed with black boots and appropriate zeal; not hard for a life-long musical enthusiast. After a quick rather surreal tour backstage – mainly people sleeping curled up on tables – and the auditorium itself – filled with cast members killing time between the matinee and evening performance watching the very un-Spamalot film Leon on a huge projector – it was straight to the costume department where the transformation from theatre journalist to West End star would take place.
Of course, when I’d originally touted the idea of being an extra I had images of corseting up for the barricades in Les Mis or donning a ball gown for the opulence of Phantom. It turns out though, getting to dress up as a knight in the jazziest trousers you’ve ever seen, a jaunty hat and full on suspiciously light armour to play Sir Not Appearing – yes, I got to play a named character – beats all that. Especially when, after worrying about sending in your pre-Christmas measurements, you’re met with concerns that “You’re the smallest Sir Not Appearing we’ve ever had” and “I’m not sure what we do if it doesn’t fit you?”. (Un)fortunately, this was swiftly followed by “Nope that fits you perfectly, must have been deceptive.”
From costume I was whisked up to a rehearsal where, fully knighted and mic-ed up, I met my fellow cast members for the night; all dressed in jeans and t-shirts. After trying and failing miserably to subtly remove my hat to feel less like a total keeno, I watched the cast perform the scene to get an idea of cues and what I would need to do. This is when I learnt I’d been cruelly misled. Not only did I have one line – the crucial ‘sorry’ lest I need remind you – there were head movements. Yes, as my colleague who was there documenting the event reminded me, only three head movements, but still. It was an added challenge and one I decided I would tackle…. even with a total lack of ability to remember choreography under pressure and without Equity minimum.
Spurred on by Spamalot star Stephen Tompkinson’s encouragement, we ran through the scene until I had those tricky head turns – one to the audience, one to the person to my left, one to the audience, for those wondering – and it was back to costume for my last vital accessory. Facial hair. Yes, they’d saved the best, and most painful to remove, to last, fixing me with my very own goatee and moustache. I felt uncharacteristically wise with my new ability to twirl my beard whimsically and suddenly, with five minutes to go, a bit shaky and pathetic to boot, given my minuscule – is there something smaller than ‘miniscule’ to better describe it – role in comparison to the rest of the company who actually had to sing, dance and act for more than three seconds and were confidentially mucking around in their dressing rooms and performing vocal warm-ups while casually getting dressed. Remembering Tompkinson’s advice to “Leave any sensible thoughts in the wings and just go out and be silly and have fun”, I headed up to the wings to watch the first 20 minutes from my privileged, if not slightly restricted, viewpoint.
“Love the red lipstick”, a becloaked actor told me, “it really suits your moustache,” before galloping off on stage for a quick routine before galloping back and wishing me luck. Standing in the wings it turns out there’s quite a lot of galloping, running and logistical prop preparations and costume transformations, all performed with perfect precision. While I tried, and failed, to stay out of the way, stage managers wheeled carts on and off stage frantically while staying out of sight, make-up was quickly and skilfully applied to transform peasants into cheerleaders and suitably silly pre-show rituals were performed with muffled giggles while the audience watched on seeing, what felt to me, like only half the show.
So what of my final part in proceedings, when Tompkinson rushed past me saying ‘We’ve warmed them up for you, now go make your stage debut’ and I took my position to dance on to stage – I think I was meant to walk but it definitely turned into a dance – for my moment in the spotlight? Why not watch the video above and find out. But whatever you do, don’t blink.