It has been my privilege over the weekend to appear in the Mudgee Disability Support Service’s production of Mary Poppins, taking on Dick Van Dyke’s role of Bert the cockney chimneysweep.
For the last few months, each Tuesday afternoon I’ve joined the actors for rehearsals full of surprises. You never know who’s going to say what - including your own lines, which are likely to be called out by anyone who remembers them.
The Mudgee Disability Support Service staff seemed a little concerned that I, a serious actor accustomed to dramatic roles such as being kicked over by a pantomime cow and seriously brutalising the steps of a Regency dance, might be horrified by actors who were determined to improvise their entire performances and perhaps saw sticking to the script as a sign of a weak imagination.
In fact, though, I was tremendously pleased to discover that learning my lines would be an inconvenience for everyone, so I went with the spirit of the thing, and Tuesday afternoons became a regular hour of play in the setting of London, 1910.
Once I had got away from my last job for the day, we had sent the paper off and I had eaten an afternoon lunch, I would arrive at rehearsals and fall back into the familiar songs and characters of a childhood misspent with worn VHS tapes of Julie Andrews classics (my younger cousin, who remembers the tapes but for whom they all blur into one, asked if it was the one where they dance with penguins or “the curtain clothes nazi one”).
When we took the show on stage on Friday night, it was just as I’d been promised - anyone could say anything. My introduction to a song turned into an ad for 2MG, and an extemporised rendition of “Chim Chim Cheree” was unmarred by our lapses in the lyrics - it was a pleasure to be accompanied on stage by a singer who, like me, prizes volume over slavish devotion to staying on key.
I remember being in the audience of last year’s Mudgee Disability Support Service production of Alice in Wonderland and being impressed by how lively and funny some of the actors were once they were in character, when I knew that under offstage circumstances, they were people who were not outgoing, who were quiet and retiring and kept their eyes down.
With a new name, a costume, and the glare of the stagelights, though, these actors came alive and were brilliantly and spontaneously funny.
The actors in Mary Poppins - and I could name favourites, but I won’t, because everyone was very good - did a fantastic job of doing what some aspiring actors find difficult.
They were alive on stage, they were surprising, they made the audience want to see what they were going to do next.
Actors are fond of promising, when they miss a rehearsal, that they do know all their lines, but the truth is that as difficult as learning the lines can be, it’s only a fraction of the performance.
When you pretty much take learning lines out of the equation, you’re left with what matters and what gives live theatre the edge it has over television - real people, on stage, where things can change and surprise you, where whatever is in the air and the audience will affect the way the experience turns out.
I was thanked very kindly by the staff for the work I did on stage to keep things moving and occasionally steer them back to the plot, but the truth is the usual cliche - I got more from Mary Poppins than I gave to it, and I learned more than anyone learned from me.
I was very pleased to be involved and will be the first to sign up if and when the group announces they’re ready to stage Les Miserables next year.