How We Met: James Dreyfus & Robert Portal

'Things that set us off are incomprehensible to others, such as my impression of my dead cat'
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The Independent Online

James Dreyfus, 39, is a stage and television actor who has appeared in West End hits Cabaret and The 39 Steps and sitcoms including Gimme Gimme Gimme and The Thin Blue Line. He lives in Chiswick

Bert and I met at school in Harrow when we were about 13, playing servants in a production of Romeo and Juliet – roles so inconsequential I can't remember who we were. I picked him out instantly because he was good, but there was never any rivalry between us, as we were so different.

As we rose through the dizzy heights of the drama club, if there was a king to be played, it was always Bert, and if there was a quirkier part, it was me. When it was Henry V, he was Henry and I was Pistol; when it was Hamlet, I was Hamlet and he was Claudius. It worked well.

As Bert was in the year above me, we were never in lessons together and just got to know each other through the fun times. I assume he was intelligent but I have no proof – he may have been a right thicko. He was definitely a hard worker, though – very disciplined – which is why he almost went into the military instead of acting. He always had his lines learnt before me. I remember a production of Oedipus where I made him work particularly hard; I was making my part up as I went along, so every performance he had different cues.

After leaving school I went to Rada and he ended up at [rival drama school] Lamda. We've kept tabs on each other ever since, going to each other's shows and catching up for a drink or a play. Thanks to the advent of mobiles we have stayed in touch by text a lot – or rather, by abusive text. When I find out he has a new job I'll send one saying, "Was having dinner with your director last night. We were screaming with laughter over your performance!" His standard textual response is "Pfft..."

He's terribly amusing. Since we have such a long shared history, it takes only a look or word to know exactly what the other is thinking. The things that set us off are incomprehensible and dreadfully boring to other people – an impression of my dead Burmese cat Sly or a mention of a drama course in Cheltenham when we were 16. We both snogged inappropriate people on the first night and woke up the next day laughing and remorseful.

I think the roles that have defined our friendship are the ones we played at school in Nicholas Nickleby. Bert was Nicholas and I was Smike. We have the same kind of long-standing, teasing friendship in real life, though fortunately, unlike Smike, I'm not a cripple.

Robert Portal, 40, is an actor who has appeared on stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company in plays including Henry VI and Love's Labour's Lost, and in films including Mrs Dalloway. He lives in north-west London with his girlfriend

If it weren't for James I might never have become an actor. I remember sitting in the Hereford Arms on Gloucester Road with him when I was 18, wondering what I was going to do with my life. I was torn between acting and the Army, and James gave me the kick up the arse I needed to pursue my first love and go to Lamda. It was the best advice he's given me.

We first met in 1982 when we were pond-life in a production of Romeo and Juliet – servants A and B from the opposing families. I suppose it was a case of art imitating life, as we were in different houses at school. I was in the sporty house and we were a bit sniffy about James's house. If it hadn't been for the acting, we would never have been friends at all.

As it was, we were both always in the school play, so we were forced together and it turned out that we had great on-stage chemistry and we had a lot of fun off-stage too. When we were 16 we set up our own production company, which James named Pistol Players (after a character he had just played, the arrogant child), and rented out a theatre at the Barbican during the summer holidays.

We put on one play, The Creeper, which we thought was quite good at the time, but a couple of years ago James and I went to the West End version and we couldn't believe what a terrible old pot-boiler it actually was. Ian Richardson was in it shortly before he died – it probably finished him off, the poor fellow.

James is known for playing very bold, flamboyant – I baulk at the word "camp" – creations. I admire his daring as an actor – it's very hard to do those big, outrageous characters. In real life he is actually a very serious, low-key guy. Neither of us are theatrical, "actor types" in fact, although our relationship does sometimes resemble a farce. We have a very absurd sense of humour that revolves around a kind of invented language we share – I imagine we irritate the hell out of other people with it.

I think a school production of Nicholas Nickleby was our finest hour. We did the full, seven-hour version, which took nine months of rehearsals to put on two performances. Ridiculous really. It was wonderful though – the pinnacle of our school acting careers, if not our careers. I don't know why it's taken 23 years for us to get round to working together again. n

James and Robert are appearing now in 'The Common Pursuit' by Simon Gray, which runs to 20 July at the Menier Chocolate Factory (020 7907 7060, www.menier chocolatefactory.com)

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