Backstage despots and Mr Sands

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The Independent Online
LIKE many top politicians, I, too, lead a double life, except that my other life is even more innocent than the first. When I am not seated at the typewriter, I am standing behind a double- bass with a cabaret group. As a result I have been privileged, nay condemned, to occupy theatre dressing-rooms all over the country, and it has occurred to me that the theatre dressing- room is an area of life that has not been well chronicled.

Most people never enter one, so are unfamiliar with the gentle air of wreckage that tends to fill the place, like a campsite just vacated by a gang of merrymakers. There are always, for a start, messages stuck in the crevices round the mirror: 'Break a leg]', 'All the luck in the world, Martin]', 'We know you can do it, Fiona]' and similar cries of jollity, all of which must have been terrifically atmospheric on the first night, but now lie around like last week's confetti.

There are clothes hangers on racks, usually empty but sometimes containing a garment so diaphanous it is hard to imagine anyone wearing it, or so outlandish that even Alan Ayckbourn would be hard-pressed to write it into a play. There are cups of dead coffee. There are nearly enough chairs to seat everyone. There is a large shelf with a mirror surrounded by bare light bulbs, at which a number of people can sit side by side and apply make-up. Arriving in a dressing-room, in fact, is a bit like coming downstairs the morning after a party and finding that not as much clearing up had been done the night before as you had hoped.

The air of faded bohemianism is counterpointed by an equally faded air of state despotism, shown in notices ordering you not to leave lights on, not to leave things lying around, not to do anything which might lose money for the theatre and, if the dressing-room is too close to the stage, not to flush the lavatory during a performance. (I find it impossible to believe that there isn't a whole chapter of theatre stories about loos being heard inopportunely off-stage, as after the line: 'The isle is full of noises . . .)

Sometimes, to compound this air of state surveillance, a dressing-room has a small speaker lodged on the ceiling through which you can hear the tinny noise of the audience coming in and coughing, and from time to time the voice of the unseen Stalinist boss: 'Curtain 10 minutes]' There must be many people who have come to the paranoid conclusion that it works both ways and that the theatre management out there can hear you, the actor, in here.

There seems no way of turning this maddening Maozak off, short of ripping the speaker off the wall, which is presumably why it is fixed so high up and out of reach.

During a run of a week or more an actor must come to see this strange Orwellian space as home, but it is hard to do this in one evening. What makes it harder to relax, for me, is the sign you see casually posted, in most dressing-rooms, about the announcement to be used if the theatre should be swept by flames. Every theatre has a pre- arranged code word, such as 'Mr Sands', so that if the staff hear an announcement on the public address casually asking Mr Sands to come to the box office, they know the theatre is joyously aflame and, presumably, can run screaming outside to safety before the ordinary playgoers are aware that anything is wrong.

I started to make a collection of these phrases for publication, but lost it, and now 'Mr Sands' is the only genuine one I can remember, although I have forgotten which theatre it comes from. But recently I came across a chilling new development. This was a notice telling the staff of a new code word to be used, in case a bomb had been found on the premises.

'Ham sandwich' was the code word, and I still can't work out how you would use 'ham sandwich' convincingly in an announcement. 'Would everyone leave the theatre immediately, as a ham sandwich has been found on the premises?' sounds a little direct. 'A small ham sandwich answering to the name of Lionel has been found in the stalls,' perhaps?

Anyway, if you are in a theatre in the near future and hear someone announce: 'Would Mr Sands please come and collect his ham sandwich from the buffet', don't stick around. Get out. You won't be the first out, of course. Just ahead of you will be the actors, taking the welcome chance to get out of their dressing-rooms.