A walk-on part in the theatre of the absurd is no small feet

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The Independent Online
EVER BEEN on a sponsored walk? No, nor had I. Not till last Sunday. I've been on one now. Look, here are my blisters. This one is called Fred and this one is Sid . . . .

I have got involved in a small theatre company called Antidote Theatre, which is taking a couple of shows to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Being as underfunded as most theatre companies are, and it being expensive to take shows to Edinburgh, they spend more of their time than is healthy on fund-raising. So it was that a group of actors and actors' friends (yes, actors have friends) set out from Bradford-on-Avon in the middle of the hottest Sunday since the Great Fire of London to walk along the canal to Bath.

Now it isn't enough just to walk if you are theatre people, you've got to walk interestingly, so various people had pledged themselves to walk a) as a waiter with tray b) in Father Christmas costume c) barefoot d) backwards e) tied round the ankle to two other people f) and so on and so forth. It certainly made the dozen or so miles from Bradford to Bath a) more interesting b) more challenging c) sheer murder, especially for Alison, Isabel and Catherine, who were tied at the ankle and kept falling over till they got the hang of it.

What was most interesting for me was the reactions of passers-by. If you are out for a Sunday afternoon and you see coming towards you a waiter, a man with horns beating a drum, a cleaning lady with hair in curlers, three women joined at the ankles, and a barefoot man, all shaking buckets and chanting: 'Give generously to a small theatre group and we promise to go away]', what would your reaction be?

Well, I can now tell you. If you are on a narrowboat, you would be very cheerful and promise that the people at the other end of the narrowboat would throw money, which they normally did. If you are a fisherman, you would behave as fishermen tend to, and ignore everything that is going on, even when actors stood behind your chair and said: 'We will stay here and frighten the fish until you give us some small change' - though one angler did give us some maggots.

If you are a bicyclist, you would just charge past, scattering people and frightening children. I am sad to say this, as I am a cyclist myself, and I like to think of pedal people as rather green and over-gifted with politeness. Not on a canal towpath, they aren't. There was one particular pair on a tandem who passed us near Bathampton at about 20mph, shouting 'We're coming through]' without slowing down whom I would personally like to drown slowly in canal water.

Actually, some of the cyclists were generous to our proffered buckets. Almost all the walkers were. They would pass the actors, turning round and scratching their heads at the mystery of it all, and then they would pass the three girls yoked together, and finally they would encounter me walking with Father Christmas.

'What was all that about?' the walkers would say.

'We're a small theatre company walking to Bath to raise funds to go to the Edinburgh Festival,' we'd say appealingly, though this got amplified as we progressed to: 'We're raising funds to go to the Edinburgh Festival via Bath,' which produced surprising generosity from people who assumed we were walking all the way to Scotland.

The reason I was walking with Father Christmas was that I was married to her, and I have it on the best authority that it's bloody hot in those costumes. In fact, my wife is planning a best-selling diet and weight-loss programme based on walking around in Father Christmas robes.

(The most impressed customers were two small girls on a canal boat who shouted, 'It's Santa Claus, Mummy]' I could hear Mummy shouting back, 'Don't be silly, it can't be Santa Claus]' But the girls made her come up to have a look. The expression on Mummy's face was worth waiting for.)

Just before the end of the walk the heat finally got to Father Christmas's brain. I heard her saying to two walkers: 'Would you like to help us? We're collecting for Edinburgh.'

'What does she mean, dear?' the baffled man said to me. 'Are you collecting for the Duke of Edinburgh?'

'Yes,' I said. 'He's desperate.'

'I think he's got enough money already,' said the woman doubtfully, but she gave anyway. Good old British public.