About six weeks into the first time at University, I have a bit of a crisis. Rather low level by comparison with what’s to come but I panic – about the subject, about workload, about living away from home, however tense home may be. I seriously consider changing degree – I am taking a free unit in Philosophy, so I consider switching to that, also to Theology, given that RS was such a strong subject for me at school. I totally fail to have the guts to think of switching to the subject I would really like to do – drama.
From getting the first laugh on stage in the Sixth Form, I have been bitten by the drama bug. Unfortunately, like everything else I contemplate doing, it has to do battle with the Shit – no confidence sub-routine in my brain which is a bigger bug and bites harder. Drama has its own department at Manchester – an academic course but with a large performance element and many student shows – I see fantastic productions of Macbeth and The Crucible quite early on. It has a fine reputation which makes me feel ridiculous to even contemplate switching to that course, so naturally I don’t even explore this possibility.
As well as generating the odd professional actor, Manchester at that time has started to chuck out future stars of the alternative comedy circuit. When I arrive at Manchester, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson have just left. Caroline Raphael, now Commissioning Editor for Comedy and Entertainment at Radio 4 is there the same time as me – I get to know her a bit. And Ben Elton is in his final year.
Ben is already a star in waiting. He writes play after play after play, like a real-life Ernie Wise, and people speak his name in awe. He comes into a rehearsal I’m involved in on one occasion, and I nearly dry up simply because he is in the room! In the first year, I find this bunch of hugely confident people who are clearly going places collossally intimidating. Surely the English department offers a less stressful alternative?
Happily it does. There is a drama group in English, called the Masquers’ Society. It was set up by a lecturer some years previously in order to perform Restoration Tragedy. No, I’m not surprised you’ve never heard of it. Restoration Comedies are frequently revived in the modern era, but Restoration Tragedy has a poor reputation – even a light Google doesn’t turn up much. In the year I arrive at Manchester, an enterprising student in the year above me called Susannah Levene has persuaded the department to change the rules and allow Masquers to stage modern plays. As a first production she has settled on Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup with Barley. This review of a recent revival gives you a flavour of the play.
Chicken Soup is an intensely political play, and an intensely Jewish one – it deals with the political, social and personal lives of a Jewish East End family over three decades. Susannah herself is Jewish and she casts a number of Jewish actors in the production. The family heads are Harry and Sarah Kahn. Caroline Horowitz plays Sarah, and Adele Levine plays Cissie, Harry’s sister and a trade union organiser. I am cast as Harry, whether in part because I look Jewish, I don’t know. I have a large Roman nose with a dorsal hump (or rather I did have, it’s now been dealt with) which makes me look a little Jewish and I discover, midway through the production, that my Jewish co-performers have all assumed I am also Jewish. That’s not the point though – I have been given a lead role, that’s the point!
I have a really great time. We rehearse the show to death. People like my performance. We invite Arnold Wesker to attend – he declines but writes a nice letter back. After the first night someone comes up to myself and Caroline and asks us to sign his copy of the play – he wants our autographs! We play to decent houses in the University Drama Studio – a proper theatre. My parents, and godparents come to see it. I get on with my fellow cast and we have a lovely post-cast party. I am in heaven, because I am enjoying performing but because it is an English department production it feels a bit protected from those superstars down the road, but we still get to use the same fabulous theatre they use. What next, I wonder?
What next is the Drama department strikes back. Masquers is no longer performing restoration tragedy – they can now potentially stage any play. Drama swiftly argues that because Masquers no longer has an unique selling point, the spring performance slot should be taken away from English and given to their department, which has all these important students who need every opportunity to hone their performance skills. English gives in with barely a murmur.
So the following year we English students are competing in open audition for productions in the Drama department – competition is tough. I do land a role in the Jacobean Tragedy ‘Tis Pity’s She’s a Whore. The play has always been controversial as it deals with incest – I play the father of a brother and sister who fall in love and come to a terrible end. At least one fellow performer turns professional – David Lloyd is perhaps best known for his role in the children’s TV comedy Maid Marian and her Merry Men. I see he’s still writing and performing – a very nice man as I recall.
‘Tis Pity is the only other production I perform in. As becomes my pattern, I rub shoulders with creative people and leap back, scared. My work starts to go to pieces in the second year as my transness strongly reasserts itself, and although I am cast in another show I drop out of the production to try (though fail) to concentrate on my studies.
After university, the increasingly successful alternative comics scene – Saturday Live, Fry and Laurie, Harry Enfield, The Young Ones, The Comic Strip Presents … is bittersweet for me. Although I like a lot of the comedy, my brush with some of the people involved at college is almost a reproach. As my slightly chaotic career takes shape I cannot help but compare it with the stratospheric careers of those I almost knew. It used to bug me a lot, but not anymore. Two reasons – I can look back at my life post-university now, see through the twin impostors of Triumph and Disaster and see I dealt with things, by and large, as best as I was able. The other reason is that I have, in the end, managed to look my life in the eye and reboot it. I have really started living (finally) and am having a better time than I ever dared hope. And most of the jealousies, disappointments and regrets of yesteryear have evaporated – they only had any power while I was too scared to act. No longer.
In the summer between my first and second year another opportunity presents itself to me. On that occasion, I behave in way which is, for the time, quite unlike me, and actually pounce on it.