Just Wil­liams

‘The au­di­ence will be grumpy, hav­ing had to park in the rain and pay £1,000 for a plas­tic glass of warm sau­vi­gnon’

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

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

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