‘The audience will be grumpy, having had to park in the rain and pay £1,000 for a plastic glass of warm sauvignon’
Simon on the terror of first nights
ON THE NIGHT before I open in a play I treat myself to a sleeping pill. On the packet it warns me not to use heavy machinery – a bonus for me, as I’m not allowed near any of our domestic machines (the episode with the blender and my beetroot smoothie was the final straw). Before I’m fully awake I feel nauseous – either I’m pregnant or it’s a first night. Then I remember I’m 72 so it must be the latter.
In a recurring dream, my lines have flown the coop. I am speechless centre stage and a pointy-faced man, more frightening than the Child Catcher, shouts from the stalls, ‘You’re rubbish, mate – get off!’
All over London bloodthirsty people will have booked to watch me vaporise on stage that evening. Critics, now scoffing pain au raisin and sharpening their pencils, will be there disguised as humans. As we take our bows they’ll scamper out of the theatre like dogs to bury a bone.
The day is taken up with rituals – you’re on death row, so you tell your wife all your pin numbers and make peace with a few old enemies. The script becomes your Linus blanket; it’s balanced on the edge of the bath or next to the kettle. Walking the dog you mutter your first funny line to him – not a titter. You can’t find the nasalhair trimmer. You gargle frequently. You floss and re-floss. You intone: ‘Me me me,’ to the mirror – it’s both a voice exercise and a mission statement. Your heart thuds with caffeine and fear. You write good luck cards stuffed with hyperbole: ‘You’re utterly totally sublime, darling.’
The most comforting message I ever had came from the actor Marcia Warren, ‘Remember Simon, there are over a billion people in China who probably have no idea you’re opening in a play.’
On the way to the theatre my superstitions kick in, I’ve accumulated thousands over the years, like odd socks or loyalty cards. There’ll be a magpie, a piebald horse, a nun on a pogo stick – all omens of disaster. Outside the theatre there’ll be a ghastly picture of me (note to self: don’t do the quizzical smile). After 25 years of not smoking you’d kill for a cigarette. The audience will be grumpy, having had to park in the rain and pay £1,000 for a plastic glass of warm sauvignon.
In the wings, your hands are shaking, your mouth is dry. You need a brandy, a Valium, a nappy, a ticket to Kathmandu. You wish you were a shepherd or a monk. You check your flies for the tenth time. You’re on the cliff edge. Your cue comes. You jump… On Sunday evening Simon will be a celebrity waiter at The Ivy in Covent Garden in aid of theatrical charities