Sometimes being an actor can feel like being in Witness Protection. New town, new home, new identity. On Easter Sunday, as most families were preparing lunch or driving to the coast, our group of actors were loading cars, getting on trains and heading up to Stratford to our new rehearsal room at The Other Place to continue fine-tuning The Provoked Wife. Venice Preserved, our other play, would open later and so wouldn’t be revisited for a while. That seemed quite scary. What if we forgot what we’d been rehearsing these past weeks while we were concentrating on the other one? 

No time to worry about that. After moving into our new homes, unpacking bags and getting familiar with the town, we were straight into our final week of Provoked Wife rehearsals on the Bank Holiday Monday. Then, the following week, we moved into the Swan Theatre to start the tech. 

Technical rehearsals are just that: You put the play into the theatre and concentrate on all things technical. Lighting, sound, costume, makeup and stage management take priority over performances as you work against the clock to be ready for the first performance later in the week. It takes three 12-hour days to get to the end of the play. Although the character I play, Colonel Bully, only appears in two scenes, I am also part of the ensemble involved in the complicated transitions (scene changes) and musical numbers. All the actors are in the auditorium all day, every day, ready to go over complicated sequences again and again.

I have never set and reset a chair so many times in my life. 

A woman stands over a man who lies on the floor with an orange wedged in his mouth.
Les's Colonel Bully gets more than he bargained for in The Provoked Wife.
Photo by Pete Le May © RSC Browse and license our images

These are the days when you find out how close the company is. As tiredness takes hold, temperaments are tested to the limit. I’m pleased to report that we are indeed a united group, who coped well with the long days and still found time for a nightcap and debrief in The Dirty Duck before crawling into bed ready to do it all again the next day. 

The dress rehearsal on the Thursday afternoon proved that we were ready for an audience and they duly filed into the theatre that evening when our first preview, and my RSC debut, began. The laughs came thick and fast and when the play took a darker turn there was pin-drop silence. Our leading players did sterling work, as did all the actors, and we took bows to rapturous applause. That sound is like food and drink to performers, though it didn’t stop us from indulging in the real thing -- honey glazed sausages and wine -- at the after-show drinks reception.

If we thought we’d worked hard so far, we were in for a rude awakening. Every day until press night the following Thursday (apart from Sunday, when I legged it home to catch up with family life), we honed scenes in the day and performed the play in the evening. The attention to detail at the RSC is impeccable and is what makes it one of the most respected theatre companies in the world. 

A man wears an ornate blue and gold hooded cloak over a pinstripe suit.
Les as Priuli in Venice Preserved.
Photo by Helen Maybanks © RSC Browse and license our images

Press night is a strange occasion. You’ve already proved that the play works but now you have to do it in front of not just family and friends, but a group of theatre critics who will judge the production and performances and write about it in various publications the next day. Nerves had subsided during the previews but they came to the fore again, giving that dread of a looming driving test or visit to the dentist. Even though you know what you’re doing, you have that irrational fear of being the only one who will forget your lines and let the whole side down. 

Phew! That didn’t happen. The show went splendidly. 

At the after-show party, we celebrated and relaxed knowing we had done a good job.

A nice lie in and a lazy day before the next preview? In our dreams. A run of Venice Preserved in the rehearsal room and the whole process began again. Luckily we all remembered the play even though it had been nearly three weeks since we last did it. 

We are now up and running with this thrilling 80s' take on Restoration Tragedy. Press night number two is over and we’ve just had a Sunday to ourselves. It’s Monday morning and what shall I do with my day? A leisurely walk along the Avon? A visit to Warwick Castle? No. There's an understudy call for those who are covering other roles and we’re in for a line run of The Provoked Wife, which is back in rep from tonight. Our stage management team and crew are refitting the stage from cyberpunk to lavish Restoration elegance as I write.

And to think I still get people asking me “What’s your day job?”...

Venice Preserved and The Provoked Wife play in the Swan Theatre until Saturday 7 September 2019.

Les Dennis

Les Dennis

Les first came to prominence as a comedian in the 1970s after a winning set on Opportunity Knocks. He became a stalwart of Saturday night TV in the 80s and 90s starring in TV comedies including The Russ Abbott Show and The Les Dennis Laughter Show performing sketches and impressions, and most famously as the host of Family Fortunes between 1987 and 2002 on ITV. His most recent work in theatre includes End of the Pier at the Park Theatre, for which he was nominated for the OFFIE award for ‘Best Male in a Play’. Follow Les on Twitter @Les Dennis.

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