There are probably experiences weirder than sitting in a rehearsal room just off Tottenham Court Road watching actresses read for the part of your wife while the high-spirited singing of what sounds like a group of munchkins carries through from the room next door, but it was hard to think what they might be.
I had dropped in to the Drill Hall in Chenies Street at the invitation of Orla O'Loughlin, of the Pentabus Theatre Company. Orla is directing Tales of the Country, the new play based on my book of the same name, which in turn was based on the column of the same name (the forerunner of "Home and Away"), about our move out of the metropolis eight years ago in search of the elusive rural idyll. The play is due to open in Shrewsbury in April, then tours for seven weeks, mainly in the Welsh Marches. The tour ends up in London, with a run at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington. And after that, who knows? The Palladium? La Scala? A Peter Jackson film trilogy?
I've had no creative input into the project apart from having written the book, which has been adapted – brilliantly – by Nick Warburton. Nick is a hugely experienced writer for stage, screen and radio whose credits include episodes of EastEnders. That proves what a versatile fellow he is: murder, rape, abortion, adultery, armed robbery, incest, and now cowpats.
Anyway, back to the Drill Hall. In the casting process, Orla and her associate director, Kate, have had to whittle 600 CVs down to around 50, and on Tuesday they were looking for someone to play Jane, my wife, and one actor to play 16 assorted characters, including all three of our children. I'd never been to an audition before, and never leafed through actors' CVs either. They make absorbing reading. Most of them specify 'voice character' and 'voice quality' – which got me wondering how I'd define my own voice.
One of the actresses who read for Jane had "assured" vocal character and "clear" vocal quality, but that seemed a little dull next to the woman who claimed "earthy" and "velvety". I know Jane would like to be earthily and velvetily represented on stage. In the event, of course, I had nothing to do with the casting decisions, but just sat there relishing the weirdness of the situation, which got weirder when the munch- kins started up next door (although Orla told me they'd had an aria to contend with the day before). For a non-theatrical, it was fascinating to see how these things work, not least because several of the actresses auditioning for Jane had just come out of panto, and were still ever so slightly in thigh-slapping mode.
There followed a succession of eager young men trying out for the multiple-character part. Orla got each of them to read the scene in which my daughter Eleanor begs me for a puppy, and it was interesting to see how differently they did it: one of them made her like Violet Elizabeth Bott, one made her like Lolita, and one made her borderline autistic. The same actors also had to play a scene in which a policeman stops a motorist for speeding.
From the CV of one of them I noticed that his range of accents included: "Birmingham, Black Country, Bristol, Cockney, Geordie, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Yorkshire, American (West Coast), American (New York) and American (Deep South)" and impressively there were traces of most of these contained in the highly idiosyncratic accent of his Herefordshire copper. Still, at least he seemed like a reasonably benign copper. Another interpreted the character more like a Stasi officer with toothache – and you'd be very unlucky to come across one of those on the A44.
But I really don't mean to belittle their efforts, which on the whole were excellent, and heaven knows it must be a hard and often unrewarding business to go through these auditions. Eleanor, who is now 16, is currently thinking of pursuing an acting career, and yesterday's experience makes me wonder whether to discourage her. Either that or I'll send her down to the Drill Hall. She knows better than anyone how she asked for that puppy.
Meanwhile, the search goes on for a Brian. They thought they had one, but he's landed more lucrative telly work instead. So back in London next week they're seeing 25 Brians. I might give that session a miss.