Royal Shakespeare Company

Getting ready to be Jenny
Getting ready to be Jenny

Last year I had the great good fortune to be cast in Gregory Doran’s production of “Death of a Salesman” for the RSC.  Starring Antony Sher and Harriet Walter the play opened in Stratford upon Avon and then moved to the West End.

I had a wonderful time.

It didn’t start well, mind you.  I was late on the very first day of rehearsal.

Mortified doesn’t even begin to cover it.  I’m never late.  I’m pathologically and embarrassingly early.  I’d left myself two and a half hours for what was supposed to be a one hour journey. I needed three.

Sometimes I hate public transport.

Everyone was very kind about it – even though Greg, giving me a welcoming and sympathetic hug as I crept in, did whisper in my ear : “I’m never using you again”.

Come to think of it, he hasn’t employed me since…

Working in Stratford is such a joy.  I had my own little cottage on Waterside, just moments from the theatre.  I was working for a company whose work I hugely admire, in a pretty little cottage in a beautiful town just bursting into Spring, with a warm and encouraging gang of actors and a brilliant director.  I was doing what I loved – and someone kept paying me money.

Sometimes, life gives you gin and tonic to go with the lemons.

I was helped so much by the kindness of the cast, all of whom were vastly more experienced than I.  In particular, the warmth and generosity of Emma King and Alex Hassell  – they became good friends and comforted me whenever I had wobbles.

Everyone working in the RSC building helped too.  There’s a real sense of community there and a great backstage atmosphere.  As for the dressing rooms, they must surely have one of the best views in the theatre world.

We moved the show to London and I stayed with my son and daughter-in-law in their flat in Eltham- I stayed there during the initial rehearsal period in London too.  They’ve invited me back since so I can’t have been too bad a guest.  It was great to have fellow actors (Michael Grady-Hall and Mariam Bell) to relax with.  They’ve both worked with the RSC, though not at the same time. We consider ourselves the RSC tag team.  I did overlap with Michael, who was appearing as Frank Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer in the West End.  We did manage to see each others’ productions, though I was very sorry to miss seeing him when he went on to cover for John Heffernan as Robert Oppenheimer.

Every role in an RSC production has an understudy – sometimes one person will cover several roles.  We had quite a few occasions during Death of a Salesman when someone had to go on for someone else.  Although my role as cast was small, it still needed cover – and unfortunately it was needed on the first London preview…

Robocop boot for offstage Jenny.
Robocop boot for offstage Jenny.

Whilst we were running through the technical changes needed because of the change of venue, I slipped on an unseen step back stage and hurt my foot.  (Break a leg jokes aplenty).  Miranda Nolan, who played Letta, took my place for the first preview and the wonderful company manager Ben Tyreman sent me to get my foot checked at the hospital.  I thought it was just a sprain, but it turned out that I’d chipped a bone and I had to wear a “Robocop” boot for a few weeks.  Fortunately, I was allowed to take it off for performance, so the brilliant folk in wardrobe quickly provided some flat footwear (and a walking stick if needed) and I prepared to be a hobbling secretary for a few days until I could begin to walk properly again.

Jenny's shoes for the Stratford run.
Jenny’s shoes for the Stratford run.
Jenny's shoes after the backstage mishap.
Jenny’s shoes after the backstage mishap.

My designated dressing room was a few flights up, so I was allowed to use the downstairs wigs room as my dressing room until I could hobble back up the stairs.

I learned so much from my stint at the RSC.  I learned more about acting, from watching some inspirational people work; I learned a good deal about directing, from watching a creative and patient and tireless director;  I learned about Miller and Brooklyn and how hot it can get backstage in a London theatre  I also learned a lot about the importance of friendship and kindness and how the little things in a company make a really big difference.

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