“Would you like to go on stage as a Supernumerary in An Inspector Calls and write about it for the blog?” I was asked at what, up til that point, had been a fairly normal meeting with one of London theatre’s PR firms… The answer, of course, was yes!
So, last night I arrived at the Stage Door of Wyndham’s Theatre at quarter to six, ready to be transformed into one of the accusing extras who appear on stage as J B Priestley’s Inspector Goole pushes the posh Birling family into confessing to their neglect of a local girl.
Climbing more stairs than seemed possible (was it four floors up, or five?), I met Sid (Sinead Kennedy) in a room filled with polystyrene heads wearing brown and black wigs. Sid immediately pinned back my hair, and began chatting me through my make-up. Mixing colours in front of a bulb-framed mirror, she explained that the 1940s Blitz look wasn’t particularly glamorous. Very little on the eyes; slightly exaggerated, flat “surly” red lips; and rouge on just the apples of my cheeks. In no time at all, I looked completely different (although the silly grin I’d been wearing since that meeting was still there, I have to admit).
Along a corridor, in a room heavy with the smell of laundry and ironing, Bet Burrow (the Wardrobe Mistress) handed me a brown skirt with pockets, a cute little beige short-sleeved jumper, and a beautiful blue peacoat. My tights would have to be changed for flesh-coloured ones, she said; they didn’t have black back then.
Back down all those stairs, Tom Cottle (who understudies Eric Birling and Gerald Croft) took me on stage and talked me through my cues and actions. His explanation was fantastic, but it was very hard to concentrate: there was so much else to look at. There, for the first time, I was seeing the other side of a London theatre: Wyndham’s gorgeous light-blue-green seats, stretching up and up into the distance, lights shining on stage from a hundred different directions. I wanted to examine the props on stage, the fake cobblestones, the grills where the smoke came from, the painted backdrop, Ian MacNeil’s now-iconic dolls house set, the lights, the curtain… It was all a bit overwhelming!
Tom then took me to the green room where I was introduced to one of the loveliest groups of people I’ve ever met. Described as “actors, students, opera singers, retired people and helpers”, these are the dozen or so extras who work as An Inspector Calls’ “Supers”. (One girl did tell me this was the nicest bunch she’d ever worked with, but I hope every extras’ green room in the West End is full of as much laughter and banter.) Over shared biscuits and tea, everyone was interested to know what I thought of the show, and what I was going to write. Would I tell people that they didn’t really go drinking with the principal actors (who kept themselves to themselves in their separate dressing rooms)? Is it strange that the differences on stage spill out into their social lives? If I make a comparison with the executive team at VL with their separate offices, I have to admit I don’t go drinking with them either… Perhaps it’s not that surprising?
Bet reappeared and asked if I wanted to watch the start of the show from the wings. Interestingly, the cast and crew were all ready, chatting and laughing in their places, at least 5 minutes’ before the 7.30 curtain; when a show starts late, Bet explained, it’s always because of the audience. While a member of the crew stood repeatedly spraying an umbrella with water so it dripped as it was carried on stage, the Inspector appeared at my elbow. “You must be our guest,” he said, giving me a firm handshake. “I’m Nick. Welcome.” For me, this was the most nerve-wracking moment yet. I found my voice and lamely whispered “Break a leg?” at his retreating back. He turned before heading on stage, “Oh. I hope not,” he said, with a tiny Inspector-like smile. And vanished.
Back up the stairs again, Sid added a curly wig (human hair, if you’re interested) and a brown hat to my costume, and the transformation was complete. We stood in the wings, waiting for our cue, and then the moment came to step out on stage, and into the lights.
I could see some of the audience, but tried to concentrate on the faces of the principals in front of me. It was great watching the powerful argument going on between the characters from such close range. We stood for about 13 minutes (I’m told!) with the smoke swirling about us, turned once, then again, and headed off stage.
“Well done! Well done!” chorused in my ears. “Did you enjoy it?”
I did. The whole experience was fantastic: I struggled to keep the silly grin off my face during the curtain call. I wanted to pinch myself to see if this was really happening. It was a real privilege to be part of such an amazing show. Thanks to everyone who made it happen. (Particularly Bet, who was still there after almost everyone else had gone, piling clothes into washing machines ready for tomorrow’s show…)
An Inspector Calls plays at Wyndham’s Theatre until 13 March