The things these actors get up to

...well, I mean, says Julian Clary, it's just not polite is it? The comedian describes some sticky moments in rehearsal for his straight role in Jean Genet's 'Splendid's'

Woke up with a streaming cold for my first day of rehearsals. I didn't mind as it would make me sound a bit Fenella Fielding. I play a gangster in the play, but he's not exactly Reggie Kray.

After coffee, we file into the rehearsal room and I immediately feel claustrophobic. It's a windowless computer room with strip lighting - not flattering for the over-thirties. I don't suppose the budget can run to some amber lampshades and patchouli incense?

The things these actors get up to. I can cope with the discussion groups, where we all sit around in a circle to talk through the text and start every sentence with "it seems to me". But once or twice we've been asked to say nothing and just stare at each other. For minutes on end. Real eye contact. Well, I mean, it's not polite.

We do improvisations, too; the more bizarre, the better. I was at last able to "do" Swan Lake. I made all the other actors squat on the floor as dreary cygnets while I glided about the stage as magnificently as a rumbling stomach will allow. Everett Quinton took all his clothes off for his. We all had to kneel before him, and as he peeled off each garment, he threw it to one of us. I got his shoes. Another actor emptied a packet of crisps over his head and instructed me to clean him up with an old mop and wipe his bottom with a bit of rag. He's American so I thought I'd better oblige in case he pulled a flick-knife.

It's a Genet play, so we're allowed to be strange and dark and weird and wonderful. In Splendid's, our characters are rats caught in their own trap. Fear, death and mortal terror are what we're dealing with.

After eight hours of this each day, we emerge blinking into the sunshine, ready, indeed desperate, for a good laugh. David Foxxe, my dancing partner for our grand entrance, can usually supply us with the necessary.

At night, the play percolates in my brain. Lines like "the carcass of a lovely young girl" inhabit my dreams. Death, fear, fear and death. It makes a change from saucy innuendoes about policemen's helmets.

I haven't felt this fulfilled since I got lost in the sand dunes at Playa del Anglais in 1987.

By the end of the week, we had bonded together sufficiently to attempt a group outing to the White Swan to see Her Imperial Highness Regina Fong. She had, of course, been at the VE Day celebrations the week before in Hyde Park. "So I said to Princess Margaret in the beer tent, 'How do you tell an old man in the dark?' and she said, 'It ain't hard'."

Week Two

Blocking the second act. I am placed downstage left, sitting on the floor, looking upstage. This means left profile constantly exposed. Not good. I explained to Neil Bartlett that in televisionland I never allow a camera to capture that unfortunate angle. The public may not like it. A less sensitive director may have put me in my place at this point, but Neil looked at me with sympathy and understanding.

Concern furrowed his brow, and with the tenderness of a true sister, he led me across the stage and turned me around 90 degrees. I'm now posing in a doorway for the crucial scene, and much more attractive for it.

Spent the morning doing an exercise. We split up into pairs and had to imagine the man of our dreams melting in our arms as we hugged one another. After a while, we switched partners. I had a clinch with Keanu Reeves (or was it Vic?) before settling for Ethan Hawke. You don't get paid much in this game, but who cares?

Four birthdays in the company this week. Four times we had a birthday cake complete with candles supplementing our afternoon tea break. I thought my cake looked decidedly phallic, but it turned out to be Thomas the Tank Engine. This is what happens at 36, apparently. You get confused.

Spent the evening looking for my character. Waited until 5am in Substandard, but he didn't show.

Plunged suddenly into the world of Light Entertainment again, being a mystery guest on What's My Line? in Bristol. "Is it Arthur Mullard?" guessed Kate Robbine.

Week Three

While Neil is giving instructions to other actors, David demonstrates for me the Barbara Jefford walk. It's not as easy as it looks.

Wednesday. Suddenly, everyone else seems to have learnt their lines. I'm the only one still clutching his script. Bravely, I cast it aside. It was a rash move, as it left me shouting "line seven" more often than Elton John in the bad old days. Cassie, our SM and prompter, fed me each line like a starling at the nest.

Thursday. May have been a bit sweaty. Not nice for my waltzing scene with the policeman, Richard Hawley. He always smells of something heavenly and expensive. Must be good stuff. When I nuzzle into his neck for our intimate moment in Act 1, I'm transported. I don't know if it's An Evening in Paris or Turning-out Time at the Docks, but it does the trick for me.

I notice that now we're rehearsing "off the book", as they say, you're often obliged to look your fellow actor in the eye. And speak at the same time. And there's one very tricky scene where I'm obliged to look, speak and walk all at once. I don't know who Genet thinks I am. Some kind of circus freak? For another 10 quid, they could have had Peter Duncan playing my part.

We have one more week in the rehearsal space, then we move into the theatre. We get a set, costumes, haircuts, lighting, technical people in heavy- metal T-shirts and, at some point, an audience. The thought of letting others into our world of death, fear and mortal terror is daunting. Seems indecent, somehow.

Inevitable, though. With this thought in mind, I rang my godmother who lives just down the road from Hammersmith and invited her to the press night. I explain to her that it's a thriller, but not exactly The Mousetrap. "Is it a mystery, then?" she asked. "Cause it'll be a mystery if I understand it!" Anyway, she's coming. On the 93 bus.

'Splendid's' opens at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 on 15 June (Booking: 0181-741 8701)

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