Stepping out

    27 September 2014

    I seem to have developed a propensity for falling over. Sometimes it is dramatic, as it was on stage the other week at the Haymarket theatre, when I hurried out of the kitchen with a cup of tea for my co-star, the actor and vocal genius Harry Shearer. ‘I’ll see you later,’ I said, then yelped, buckled and descended softly to the floor behind a sofa. The tea went everywhere, and on a stage with a rake that means it trickles into row A.

    We continued our stage badinage from a kneeling position, wielding paper towels, with me improvising wildly about missing my bus and laddering my stockings. I was unhurt and the audience seemed to love it. At the interval we had a post-mortem. My boots were rubber-soled and the same ones I’ve been wearing for weeks, the lino floor was dry and I hadn’t had a pre-show drink — ah, those were the days… when all actors drank, before, during and after the show, and were, as I recall, none the worse for it.

    Champagne and a running game of bridge in the dressing room for Miss Rigg and half a bottle of Scotch for Sir Laurence and Mr Quilley… all the dames and knights. As for Mr Hopkins… well, the rest is a mystery. One night, after opening as Macbeth, he disappeared and was not seen again for the remaining six months of the run. In those heady, pre-24-hour news days, it didn’t even merit a mention in the papers. We just thanked God that his understudy, John Shrapnel, was wearing brown trousers.

    I can’t decide if it is my mind that slips, or my trifocals that distort or my dropped foot that gives way to gravity. Walking down Great Portland Street one day, on my way from a radio play reading in a pub basement to a theatre awards ceremony at the Palladium, I failed to notice a three-inch step down and crashed down on to my knees with a resounding crack. ‘Oh, Lord, this is it,’ I remember thinking through a wave of panic. ‘This is the big break and you’ll be in a plaster and splints and a wheelchair and how will you do the quick-step in Act 2 and will there be compensation?’

    By now, a small crowd had emerged and stood bowed like priests around me, asking if I was OK. I got up, examined my bloodied knees and accepted an arm to a nearby chemist where they gave me a wet wipe and sold me an expensive ice pack which reluctantly, stayed warm. I came out and stood woozily for a moment before espying a gents’ outfitters opposite. Now, I am the daughter of a gents’ outfitter and they always feel like home to me. And so it proved. A chair was fetched, a cup of tea with sugar was produced and sympathy and jokes flowed in equal measures. To express my gratitude, I bought a smart, shower-proof car coat for my partner and hobbled to the Palladium to give out the prize.

    I do have a condition called hypermobility, which may be responsible. It means my joints are over-stretchy. I used to be double-jointed as a child and my party trick was to skip with my hands clasped, using my arms as the rope. Well, you had to be there. The condition comes in several sizes, the most severe being Marfan syndrome. Mine means that I can still place both palms on the floor without bending my knees — always useful — and it awards me a thin, but very soft skin. Thin-skinned both metaphorically and physically. I choose to blame the lax stomach muscles, droopy eyes and poor sleeping pattern on the hypermobility, too, although my total lack of exercise, aside from the 52 steps to the dressing-room, is the more likely culprit.

    Exercise would seem to be the answer to everything these days, from memory loss to diabetes. Don’t buy an expensive exercise bike, though, don’t join a gym you’ll pay not to go to, don’t pretend you will swim every day — it does in your expensive highlights and a swimming cap with a small head and my nose is in questionable taste. Just do what the Mennonite women did. One thousand steps a day and build up. Ten thousand is five miles. Get a pedometer or better still a rescue dog.

    And dance. Alone in your flat or out with a friend. Nothing makes your heart pound and your mind chill like a tango. Remember when you went to the Palais three times a week instead of watching Brucie mangle his cues?

    It took three-hour sessions twice a week with choreographer Matt Flint to do the one minute of ballroom dancing required each night on stage in our play Daytona. Nothing makes me more exhilarated than when, like me, they fall over themselves to applaud.