Culture: The day I was lost for words

By Toby Young
Sunday 08 February 2009 01:00

During the interval of the press night for Joe Sutton's new play Complicit at The Old Vic, a journalist asked me whether I had spotted the earpiece being worn by the lead actor, Richard Dreyfuss (pictured). I hadn't, as a matter of fact, but most of my colleagues had – and in the following day's papers, almost every reviewer took him to task for committing this cardinal sin.

As someone who has been in Dreyfuss' shoes, I am not so quick to judge. In 2004, I appeared in a one-man show based on How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, my memoir about working for Vanity Fair in the 1990s. During rehearsals I forgot my lines so often – performing the part involved memorising 8,585 words – that I pleaded with the producer to hire a prompter. "No room in the budget," he said.

The first ever performance in front of a paying audience went OK, but on the second night, disaster struck: I got about 10 minutes in, when I completely forgot what my next line was. The director had warned me that if this happened I should walk around the stage in a circle and by the time I returned to my mark the missing line would have come back to me.

I followed his advice, but... nothing. So instead I simply repeated the last thing I had said – thereby making it completely obvious that I'd forgotten my lines. That, in turn, made it even harder to remember them. There were about 350 people in the audience, all staring at me expectantly, and I had to fight an overwhelming urge to dive into the wings. It was like a moment in an anxiety dream: I wasn't naked, but I might as well have been.

In the end, I just skipped to the next line I could remember. The trouble was, I didn't know how much of the play I had left out. What if there were only five more minutes left to run? People would be walking out, looking at their watches, thinking, "Fifteen minutes? That was a little bit short."

Luckily, I'd skipped only two lines and the rest of the evening went swimmingly. But I don't blame Richard Dreyfuss for requesting an earpiece. If my producer had been able to afford a prompter, I would have had one, too.

'Complicit' is at The Old Vic, London SE1 (0870 060 6628, www.oldvictheatre. com), until 21 February

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