I have been in show business for 38 years. I measure the length of time I’ve been “working” (or not, as the case may be) from the moment my flatmate shoved an envelope under the bathroom door containing my Equity card, which proved my membership to the UK trade union that represents performers.
It was 1980 and back then an Equity card was your golden ticket to work. “Nothing can hold me back now,” I muttered. “Apart from the fact that I can’t sing or dance.”
Fast forward almost four decades and there are many things I have never managed to do on stage. A musical, obviously, or any Shakespeare for that matter, even though I’ve been old enough to play Juliet’s nurse for yonks now.
Let’s face it, my acting skills have never been called to the National or the Royal Court or the Globe.
But on the other hand, I can drive you through London and point out hundreds of pubs where I have changed next to deep fat fryers before gigging in the “room upstairs” or “out the back” or “across the yard”.
I can point out places where Paul Merton first did standup as Paul Martin in his pajamas and Julian Clary performed as the Joan Collins Fan Club, complete with faithful sidekick, Fanny The Wonderdog.
I know exactly where I first saw Jo Brand and can still feel the ache of jealousy that seized my gut when I realised how good she was.
I’ve been around a long time – my sweet 27-year-old face is somewhere among the roll call of black and white photos on the stairs at The Comedy Store.
Over the past 38 years I have done just about every arts centre in the UK and can lead you blindfolded to the backstage microwave in any regional theatre. I have spent so much time in Edinburgh at the festival I probably owe them council tax.
I have performed in my bra and pants and in the altogether in Steaming at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1997, when The Guardian reviewed my pubic hair (unnatural apparently) and the Daily Mail reviewed my breasts, (basically saying they weren’t big enough to warrant my character’s job as a topless waitress).
I have been booed off stage at festivals and spent days hiding in a tent; I have done encores and seen standing ovations and no, people weren’t just standing up to put their coats on. Basically I’ve been around the block, I laugh at pop stars who count five dates as a tour. Ha! Try 60 dates, babes.
I’ve done it all, I’ve started unexpected periods half way through gigs, had tampons fall out and accidentally exposed the occasional bosom when the script did not require it. I’ve performed with temperatures and raging migraines and back in the early days, with hellish hangovers. I once tripped up coming on stage and only noticed when the front row went white at the amount of blood that was seeping out of my knee. Adrenaline is a curious thing, and I have always believed that if I am ill, Doctor Theatre will see me through. Well, I used to.
Until the gig last week at the Theatre Royal Newcastle, when, feeling queasy before the show, I gave myself a pep talk: “It’s a couple of hours, you can be back at the hotel by ten thirty.” My stomach rumbled like a boiler ripped of its lagging and I felt a pang of alarm before throwing myself on stage with the other two Grumpy ladies.
With the first half under my belt, I sipped some water in the interval and lobbed myself back on stage – there are no understudies in standup.
Ten minutes in, I knew with horrible certainty that I was going to be sick and with fellow Grumpy Dillie Keane mid-monologue, I sidestepped into the wings and very efficiently vomited, and went back on stage with only a tiny bit of sick on my shoe, the show continued.
Sadly, after a vigorous movement in a music sketch which includes a sort of cartwheel, I began to feel worse and with 15 minutes to go before the finale, I again leapt into the wings where I puked on all fours like a dog that has eaten a rancid rabbit and the show kind of juddered to a halt for about three minutes while my ladies told the audience that I was experiencing, ahem, tummy troubles.
Confronting your fears is quite interesting, being sick on stage has always been my worst nightmare and now it had happened, there was only one thing to do – I went back on. We finished the show, I didn’t dare bow in case the front row copped it – the 800 strong, predominantly female audience knew exactly what had happened and couldn’t have been kinder. As for me, because I hadn’t died of embarrassment, I felt weirdly invincible, until I got back to the hotel where I continued to throw up on the hour, every hour until dawn when I had to catch a three hour train back to London.
That’s showbiz, folks.