Lobsters, rabies and wardrobe malfunctions: stars on their school plays

Michael Ball did Mother Goose with two black eyes and Tim Pigott-Smith lost his petticoat … as schools gear up for Christmas shows, stars share their memories

Michael Ball child mother goose
Michael Ball, front of group aged three, in the panto Mother Goose in Bromsgrove. Photograph: Private collection
Michael Ball, front of group aged three, in the panto Mother Goose in Bromsgrove. Photograph: Private collection

Last modified on Wed 26 Aug 2020 09.56 EDT

Nina Wadia

I played Bert the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins when I was 11: the brush was taller than I was, I had braces, short rolled up trousers. The “chim chim-in-ey” song? That was my big number. I went to an expat school in Hong Kong and I was the only Indian girl in the class. So there I was, with this very strong Indian accent, trying to copy Dick Van Dyke cockney.

Michael Ball

When I was three I was in Mother Goose at a local amateur panto in Bromsgrove. I was in lederhosen, with a curly blond mop haircut and two black eyes, because I’d fallen down the stairs at home (well that’s what my parents told everyone!)

The leading lady had to get all the kids around her to sing Do-Re-Mi, as you do. My older brother was in the production too. He had one line: “Special delivery for Mother Goose!” and we were all jealous of it. I didn’t want to be upstaged. It wasn’t enough for me just to be part of the chorus. So instead of going to sit on Mother Goose’s lap and sing, which is what I was supposed to do, I went to the front of the stage and mimed playing various brass instruments – a trombone, a saxophone! The audience were cheering me on and the leading lady was in hysterics. It was the best feeling ever.

John Hurt lady bracknell
John Hurt, rear, as Lady Bracknell in a school production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Photograph: Private collection

John Hurt

At my boys school, I had the good fortune to play Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest when I was 16. We had false tits and everything. It was all a huge amusement. But we treated the play very seriously. When my housemaster asked me to play the part I’d never even heard of Oscar Wilde. When I delivered the line, “In my book, Mr Worthing, the truth is rarely pure and never simple,” it brought the house down. Many years later, I realised that line is not Lady Bracknell’s but Algernon’s. It’s possible that there is another version of the play, or perhaps I just made it my own line because it was so good…

Jemima Rooper

I used to go to a drama group at All Soul’s Church on Fulham Palace Road. They put on a production of Oliver! and there was a bloody fight to get cast as the Artful Dodger. No one wants to be soppy Oliver. After a series of brutal X Factor-style auditions, it eventually boiled down to me and a boy called Elliot to be cast as either one of those parts. They finally made a call by measuring us against each other. My heart sank as I was about a head shorter, so thought I was doomed to play weedy choirboy Oliver. But it wasn’t so; I triumphed against the odds to play my dream role.

Some years later, I went to open auditions for Oliver! at the London Palladium. I dressed up as a boy, thinking that I’d fool them all until press night, when I’d rip off my tail coat and scream, “I’m a GIRL!” I got as far as the door. When they asked for my name, I replied “Jim” in a sophisticated baritone. There was a short pause and the lady said, “We’re not auditioning girls today.” And I went home.

Elliot now goes by his DJ name Example, and I take great pride in having been there for his first foray into music – his exquisite rendition of Where-ere-ere-ere-ere is Love.

Lia Williams lobster
Lia Williams plays a lobster in Hiawatha. Photograph: Private collection

Lia Williams

I was too shy to go on stage as a child, though I did once appear in a play at primary school based on the story of Hiawatha, the Native American hero made famous in the epic C19th-century Henry Longfellow poem – not that I knew that aged seven. All that interested me at the time was the boy playing Hiawatha, which made me desperate to play Minnehaha. I never did, though. I got hay fever during the summer months, when the play was on, and sneezed an exclusion zone around myself. Also, I had short fair hair. The teacher chose a girl who had long dark hair, which could be easily turned into pigtails. Instead of Minnehaha, and for some reason I have long forgotten, I played a lobster.

Michael Pennington

Our school plays were all male, so someone had to play the girls, just like in Shakespeare’s day. Not me, though; I always got the older men, and if an emotional breakdown was involved, all the better. When I was 16, it was Prospero in The Tempest. My school had got hold of the magic cloak worn by John Gielgud in Peter Brook’s production at Stratford. By the time I got to wear it, it was a threadbare thing, much hired out since he’d doffed it; but the exceptionally cunning director of the play – a teacher of German grammar with some of the instincts of an impresario – told me not to worry, it would look terrific under the lights. How many times have I heard that since?

Lamb dressed as mutton, I held my head high, topped off with a wig from Bert’s which looked like a mob-cap, above a face with Leichner’s No 5 and No 9 stage paint applied with a trowel. The tattered cloak worked like a carpet sweeper, its extrusions of wire and gauze picking up whatever nails, fluff and wood shavings were lying about the stage.

Since the theatre requires the willing suspension of disbelief, I stalked through the production thinking that the mantle of Gielgud had descended on me in more senses than one. How dull was the Monday morning after that: daft as I’d looked, I’d been in a musky, intoxicated heaven.

Celia Imrie fairy
Celia Imrie, right, as a nursery Christmas fairy. Photograph: Private collection

Celia Imrie

My very first acting role was in a Christmas production in my nursery. The costumes were made by my wonderful nanny – which makes me sound terribly posh. The very first Shakespeare I ever did was playing Jessica in the Merchant of Venice at school. It was with the very frightening Ms Nesbitt, who taught algebra. She was an anathema to me and I never understood what on earth she was talking about. However, having been very fierce in the maths room, she was an absolute marvel as director. I can remember getting my big, black old Shakespeare book with gold writing to see how big my part was. I was so excited. I’ll never forget Ms Nesbitt because, stupid me, during the rehearsals, I got myself hospitalised with anorexia. And she kept the part open for me for about two months.

Brandon Victor Dixon

At school we did Pirates of Penzance and Oliver Twist, West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Because they wanted to make sure they sold the shows out for two weekends, the cast numbered roughly 70 to 80 people. That is a lot of Jets and Sharks – if we’re being real, Officer Krupke would have needed some significant backup.

One of my favourite performance experiences was in my first year of college when we took a production of Romeo and Juliet to a women’s prison in upstate New York. As I came running in to the auditorium to challenge Tybalt, they went crazy, jumping out of their seats and rushing up to the 10-inch high stage yelling: “Get him, Romeo!”

Cynthia Erivo

When I was 15, I played Juliet in the Young Vic youth theatre’s version of Romeo and Juliet. It was about two weeks into rehearsals, and we had been having trouble creating intimacy between Romeo and I. So, we had to do an exercise where we would kiss for 10 seconds without breaking apart. We began, and it got to about nine seconds and I could not take it any more. I pushed him off, wiped my mouth, spun on my heels and walked out. I was mortified. He kissed like a wet fish! Spit everywhere!

Kevin Bishop, right, in a nativity play.
Kevin Bishop, right, in a nativity play. Photograph: Private collection

Kevin Bishop

Having been a professional child actor since the age of 10, I was very used to being on stage. However, whenever the school plays and assemblies came around, I was often overlooked. I was told by the drama teachers that this was because “somebody else should have a go”. I could taste a bitterness in my mouth every Christmas showcase. The excited children running up and down the darkened corridors, getting to kiss that girl you’ve always fancied because you’re in a play together. I suffered at the hands of jealous bullies because of my child fame and even more so at the hands of frustrated, failed actors/drama teachers who used to bark at me every time I made a mistake: “Shut up, Bishop. You’re not on the television now.” One overzealous religious studies teacher attempted to impress the wincing crowd as The Rocky Horror Show’s Dr Frank-N-Furter at the “Christmas celebration of Jesus” concert. I’m sure Jesus would have loved the fishnets but the parents weren’t so impressed.

Jenna Russell

At junior school we celebrated the life of Louis Pasteur in a dramatised assembly. I was cast in a scene where he discovered a vaccine for rabies. Sadly, I was neither Louis nor the coveted role of writhing rabies victim, but the nurse, whose sole job was to hand our hero a vaccine-filled syringe in a metal kidney bowl when he asked for it and say “Yes sir”. Not a demanding role, but very much remembered. My costume consisted of lots of tied-together tea towels, one of which was wrapped round my head, and I was terrified it might slip off. Bizarrely, at the same assembly the headmaster spontaneously got me to stand up and sing Donald Where’s Your Troosers. I have no idea why, I just remember being terrified... It didn’t get any laughs either.

Tim Pigott-Smith school caucasian chalk circle
Tim Pigott-Smith, left, fears for his petticoat in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Photograph: Private collection

Tim Pigott-Smith

At the age of 11, I appeared in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle. I auditioned for the female lead of Grusha. To my disappointment, that part went to the amazing musician Daryl Runswick, and I ended up with the part of the mother-in-law; plus various even less rewarding citizens and maids. For one of these maids I was given a petticoat – as a rugger-playing adolescent, I considered this an unnecessary detail on the part of our wardrobe mistress. During a scene with four or five other “wenches”, the elastic broke and the petticoat began to slide down my thighs. So I opened my knees as wide as they would go, in order to prevent the slip from falling any further. As my concentration was focused entirely on the problem under my peasant skirt, I inevitably failed to come in with my line. Somehow we completed the scene. I drew my knees together, allowed the petticoat to slide to the floor, picked it up and exited with my dignity intact.

comments ()

Sign in or create your Hlcarpenter.com account to join the discussion.

comments ()

Sign in or create your Hlcarpenter.com account to join the discussion.