He was an accountant from Cairo, but now he's a star: Rosie Millard meets West End theatre staff who have been roped in to join the performance

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The story of Daniele Coombe - elevated from a humble ice-cream seller in the stalls of the Adelphi Theatre to the onstage ensemble in Sunset Boulevard - must bring hope to every usher's heart.

In the West End and regional theatres alike, dozens of fully-trained, card-carrying actors are working the cloakrooms, selling programmes or tearing strips off tickets, hoping to be in the right place at the right time to be discovered by Lloyd Webber or Mackintosh.

In some cases, however, front of house is merely a job, not a calling, and donning greasepaint is something to be avoided, not dreamed of.

Pity Sam El Masri, for 14 years an official fireman at the Garrick Theatre: he was quite happy working backstage, keeping the fire regulations in order and growing flowers around the stage door. But if you wander past the Garrick about 20 minutes before curtain up on its new show, The Canterbury Tales, you will witness Mr El Masri transformed from a fire officer into a morris dancer, waving his stick and hopping about the Charing Cross Road with an air of determined vigour.

The producers' idea is to create a 'themed' English village fete from the stage through to the front of house. For Mr El Masri, the experiment has been nothing if not . . . well, experimental.

'I always like to get into the spirit of the show we're doing - but I can't act. I actually trained as an accountant,' says Mr El Masri. 'I like to talk to the cast members and I call them all luvvies, but that's about as far as my acting goes. In fact, I really had no idea what morris dancing was.

'I come from Cairo and I thought it was a sort of folky sand dance' - he makes Egyptianesque hand motions - 'with snakes coming out of baskets, that sort of thing.'

His partner on the pavements, flyman Paul Cooper, is even less keen about including performance within a job description, which ordinarily involves shifting stage scenery.

'I was in the choir when I grew up in Iowa, but that's about it,' he says, somewhat grumpily. 'I've never, ever been tempted to go on stage. When Sam asked me to be a morris dancer with him, I just said 'No way'. But he was so keen . . .'

He looks gloomily down at his breeches and beribboned calves, then picks up his sticks and faces Mr El Masri, who is beaming at him. The thumping beat of 'Morris On]' resounds from a portable tape recorder and the men begin to dance in the strict square formation they have been learning for three weeks. 'You know, we've got some drama students here who usher,' gasps Mr Cooper, waving his stick. 'They'd love to do this - even here outside on the streets.'

This performance, however, is probably not one that will launch Messrs El Masri and Cooper into the world of professional dance. 'Are they meant to be Italians?' asks one passer-by, clearly missing the impact of what Mr El Masri calls an 'English fertility dance'. 'I'd say they were trying hard but, if I were running Sadlers Wells, I don't think I'd stop and give them a job.'

Up the road at the Lyric, ushers at Five Guys Named Moe are more than used to 'thematically performing' with the cast.

To keep the publicity promise that 'the joint never stops jumpin' ', the front-of-house staff have to be prepared to wisecrack with the audience in the foyer, clap along to the songs in the show and assist with the Conga danced by the entire auditorium just before the interval.

Attention-shy staff who work the other Shaftesbury Avenue theatres steer clear of shifts at Five Guys.

'When I came here, I didn't know the job involved performing,' says day-time painter and usher Hamish Blakeley, whose twin brother, Cameron, is currently playing Puck at Regent's Park. 'I like to watch my brother acting but I know I couldn't do it myself. However, the producers thought that the entertainment should start at the front door and that we had to get away from being sullen and surly ticket-tearers.'

Mr Blakeley, whose actor father, Colin, is admittedly a tough act to follow, cheerily admits that one of his colleagues was 'discovered' as a result of an exuberant performance in the stalls.

'But it's not for me. I'm realistic. I once saw myself acting in a film shot by a friend and I thought: 'Hamish, keep to the day job]' Being an attendant here is good fun and it's very active. I spend all day painting and it's a good change. You have to keep clapping along and smiling, and you have to be an extrovert. It's helped my confidence but that's really about it.'

'It's made me much more social,' says his colleague Biljana Radosavljevic, who has worked at the Lyric for two years. 'But acting is not something I really wanted to do. I trained in Yugoslavia as an agricultural economist. I came over here to study English and then the civil war started, so I got stuck here selling ice-creams and waving my arms and legs around in the Conga.

'I quite enjoy it, but my wish is not to be an actress. I don't want to be noticed. Lots of other people do, but not me. I would love to be an agricultural engineer.'

'You must know your limitations,' says Hamish Blakeley, summing up the message from the stalls to all ticket-tearers yearning for the big break. 'Getting up on stage is a totally different game. Let the actors get on with it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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