Once upon a time there was a stage door cover called Rachel who had the easiest job in the world. She worked on a show in the West End called ‘Chariots of Fire’; a quiet piece of theatre which apparently stayed under the radar of the majority of the public. The most famous actor in it was one Simon (‘Brenda’) Williams, of ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ fame (yes, him), whose demands hardly stretched beyond a clean costume and working fridge.
The cast was large, and Rachel was at first bamboozled by the number of new faces to learn, but she astutely studied the programme when front of house and sitting in (well, it was preferable to actually watching the show) and soon managed to match face to name. Many of the actors never recognised her existence, but as long as she knew which key to give to which primo uomo, she was happy enough.
Those were simpler times. Cast and crew came in, did their thing, forgot their keys, left to get the tube; she found their keys and locked up after them. During a show there was time to chat with the smokers, eat, catch up with iPlayer and write her novel (ie stare at a blank Word document). She got paid good money and was happy.
Then, the world changed. The quiet show faded away and, after a couple of weeks of practising her art when there weren’t any actors at all to look after, a new show entered the building. If Chariots were the little helpless villagers, The Audience was the huge giant whose booming, earth-shaking footsteps could be heard weeks before it arrived. A true titan of theatre, its reputation was global. It had the star. It had the esteemed director. It had the experienced writer. It had the faintly glittering supporting cast. It had corgis. The ‘House Full’ sign was dusted off and has taken up permanent residence outside the doors on Shaftesbury Avenue.
And so, Rachel embarked upon her first stage door shift in the brave new world...
I wanted to write about my experiences of two recent shifts in the box because, like I say, it’s a different beast altogether these days. Normal service happens to an extent: keys are exchanged, people sign in and out, call outs and phone calls need to be made. However, with the end of a show in particular, this all has to happen alongside a whole new, somewhat complicated set of tasks.
This is the first time I have experienced working with/for a truly VIP actor. I assumed that at least by working a stage door shift I would finally get to meet Dame Helen, but in fact I've achieved nothing more than brief eye contact. As I worked on matinee days, she was already in the building when I arrived, and stayed downstairs until leaving at the end. Everything regarding Helen is directed through her PA, thankfully an incredibly helpful, kind and easy-going lady. She will take down her post, guests and messages, as well as answering her phone and helping to deal with the business of autographs.
So here’s what happens for Rachel the stage door keeper these days.
All is quiet at first, for, arriving in the building at 3, the show has already gone up and everyone is hopefully where they should be. So, unless the usual messages, visitors and phone calls happen, I can relax at first. There may still be some undelivered post so I ensure that is bundled together by recipient (on Wednesday Helen had a huge stack, from as far and wide afield as Germany, Australia and the USA) and pass it on if and when I see the actor it's destined for. The radio tends to be quiet, again, as the audience are in their seats and happily watching the show, so there shouldn’t be any problems for the front of house team to discuss until the interval.
Des the dog man comes in and out of the building several times during the show, usually accompanied by his fluffy charges Cocoa and Rocky the corgis. These are truly lovely dogs, with a great temperament, wagging tails and friendly disposition, manifesting itself in a hearty lick if they get the opportunity. He will also deliver and pick up the Golden Labrador puppy working at the Apollo next door, who is utterly heart-breakingly adorable and I want to take home.
At the interval, the radio buzzes with updates on ice cream stock, auditorium temperatures and booster cushion requests. Backstage, things mostly remain quiet: a crew member may come up for a cigarette or an actor pop their head round the door to inform me of a guest they’re expecting, but generally nothing much happens. At any point it’s quite possible that a sparkly-eyed member of the public may come in to breathily enquire about Helen Mirren’s movements or obtaining an autograph, but that’s easy enough to deal with. I am amused that Cocoa and Rocky are included in the Act Two beginners’ call.
We ease into Act 2. Edward Fox, who does not appear until the curtain call in this half, has been known to come to chat to me, or to inform me about his expected guests. At some point towards the end, I will don my coat, grab my radio and go outside to unfold the metal barriers we have at the door, designed to keep back autograph hunters once they appear.
It’s then a waiting game until the curtain comes down. And it’s at this point that things are different.
A few minutes after the show comes down, people begin to trickle round to stage door. Generally, thankfully, so far, the autograph hunters are sweet and polite, but I am always prepared to deal with those who aren’t. The most difficult adjustment to make is having to let all the ordinary things that would happen at the end of a show just happen. Usually, I would be in the box, collecting in keys, signing them in, greeting visitors (last week these included Jude Law) and calling actors to send them to the right room etc. Now, however, I have to stand outside the door, ensuring the crowds are behaving themselves and must let keys come and go with trust. Visitors, of course, must still be dealt with, and it is difficult trying to balance making and receiving phone calls with being outside. I am just having to be less precise with signing them in, and focus on the basics of making sure they’re not a complete randomer. Once the throng of fans outside is at its throngiest, I make an announcement to them all. The arrangement is: they write their name of their programmes or tickets, I collect them in, give them to Helen’s PA, who takes them down to her dressing room to be signed. I try to keep the crowd entertained, until she comes back up with them and I can dish them out again – a process reminiscent of handing back kids’ homework.
After a matinee, that is the end, and I say goodbye to them all, console anyone who missed the boat and explain that sorry, that’s it. After an evening show, an extra added layer of complication is involved.
During the second act in an evening performance, I have to contact Helen’s car company and make arrangements for her driver to pick her up. I then contact the driver himself and we try to liaise when and where he’ll be. After the show, all of the above takes place, plus extra guests come and go, plus all of the keys are exchanged, with crew, cast and front of house staff all leaving the building. In addition, the handing back of signed programmes still does not get rid of all of the crowd, who want to hang on to meet Helen. I try to warn them against taking photographs, which they will ignore, and have to keep them entertained even after the excitement of giving them their programmes.
As slightly stressful and complicated as all this can be, it is actually rather fun. I enjoy the extra pressure and exhilaration it causes and the bubbling feeling of excitement amongst the crowd as they sense the moment they will meet their idol drawing nearer.
I am given a warning of how long she’ll be, and ensure the driver is in position, as close to the theatre as he can get. And then, in a flurry, Helen appears, heads outside, graciously greets the crowds as if she weren’t expecting it and, if she feels like it, signs things that are yet to be signed. I stand beside her as a sort of pretence at extra security and she gradually manages to make her way towards her car, accompanied by the company manager. I get great amusement from seeing people being starstruck: the shiny eyes, breathy voices and shaking hands are brilliant entertainment when watching from the outside, and once she’s safely in the vehicle, say a firm goodnight to those still there.
Some hardcore fans stay to await any remaining members of the company still inside, but generally I then get a moment to gather up and log the keys that have been thrust onto my desk in the interim, ensure Mr Fox is being looked after and try to work out if any of the guests have gone.
When the last of the autograph hunters have gone, I can return to normal service: updating documents, helping to lock up the dressing rooms and preparing to lock the building. It’s a little rollercoaster and a unique experience, but I’ve loved my stage door shifts so far!
In other news, the front of house celebrity spots have not disappointed. Whilst during Ladykillers, the constant trickle was fun and easy to keep up with, with this show it’s almost exhausting! There have been at least one famous name nearly every night: so many I have given up trying to see them, on the whole (although I did make a special effort for Victoria Wood and Ian McKellen, in on the same night. Myles and I were together in the stalls and developed a code we could use over the radio if we saw either of them: ‘Coat on the curtain!’)
One notable occasion was the night we heard rumours Russell Brand was coming in. I was checking tickets in the foyer and tried to spend the whole incoming looking out for him, to no avail. When the curtain went out and it was time to look after latecomers, I approached a lady who was left on her own in the foyer. She said her friend was coming with the tickets, so I directed her to the screen and said I’d look after her and take her in once her friend arrived.
Well (and I’m sure you can see where this is going), her friend came in about 3 minutes later, along with a small group of others and lo and behold, there he was: big hair, tight trousers, boots, the lot. It was quite hard work looking after Russell’s crew, but I managed somehow to gather them all together, explain what would happen and lead them all down to the back of the stalls. He called me ‘love’ and I had to stand next to him behind row W until the scene change in which I could lead them to their seats. Quite an experience! My colleagues were split between envy and pity. He was actually very nice though. Just another one of those bizarre experiences to add to my list (other recent additions involve prepping interval drinks for Annie Lennox and angering James McAvoy in a pub).
Lots of fun times have been had recently. Viv and I went to the BBC to see a recording of a new sitcom called ‘Up the Women’, with lots of my favourite actresses in. It’s the last recorded programme being made at Television Centre, so I am grateful and humbled we got to go. There have been birthdays and my birthday trip to Florence came around, which was absolutely wonderful. Mumford and Sons were amazing, the city is beautiful and it was so nice getting away, getting some slightly warmer weather (this winter is still dragging on to the point of complete ridiculousness) and drinking lots of proper coffee! Did not want to come back. We saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the rain and climbed the 463 steps to the dome of Florence Cathedral, with spectacular views over the city below. Loved it.
The end is definitely nigh on my London adventures. I feel ready for that. More to follow.