A.G. Bole #1588 – 1949/50

Why, in every group of people, is there one extrovert budding thespian who assumes that everyone else shares his passion for showing off on the stage ? It was a bleak day in August, Burberrys were the ‘rig of the day’. We were back for our second half-year in purgatory as chums. The food was awful, life was miserable and Christmas was a long way away.

To make life even more unbearable – armed with only a clipboard and a pen – one of the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ Old Salts appeared in the Main Hall, and summoned all ‘chums’ within earshot and informed them that he was to be the producer, director, stage manager etc., of the ship’s annual concert. He was looking for actors and performers to participate and while he would welcome volunteers, participation by ALL chums was COMPULSORY. We were given a week to get our acts together, at which time, he would be putting names to performances with a resume of the act. Woe betide anyone who failed to respond within the seven days of grace. The show was still two months away but rehearsals would start the following Thursday after ‘Church Parties’.

Gloom was apparent everywhere among the lower ranks. Pathetic attempts were made to turn comedy sketches, heard on the wireless, into something visual. One chap could play a clarinet. I had decided to offer a stirring epic poem – ‘The Battle of the Fleet’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which I had to learn from the poetry set work at my previous school. Could I remember enough of it? Could my mother get a copy to me in sufficient time for me to re-learn the parts I had forgotten ?

A week later we were called to record our intentions. I was plagued with doubts. What would I do if my plan fell through ? The first chap in the queue proposed repeating ‘Rule 9 of the Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea’ and received very short shrift, a fine of 5 tings and a dire warning of what would happen next week if there was not a more positive offering. The Clarinet Player was next. Offer accepted. Equipment/ props required ? – new reed for clarinet and music stand. Assistance required ? – nil. Special costume requirements ? – nil. He was through. The next duo offered a slapstick routine with a bucket of water and a mop which they had seen at the circus. After a brief demonstration, they were accepted with reservation and a warning that it would have to improve by next Thursday. A group claiming to be a choir offered a selection of songs which we all sang while out rowing but it was rejected on the grounds of obscenity – anyway, we all knew them and besides, there would be ladies present. A double act as a pantomime horse was thrown out because there was a doubt about getting a horse’s costume.

A juggling act was accepted in spite of dropping the two tomatoes and an apricot which had been purloined from the mess deck a few hours earlier. The conjuror was rejected as it was obvious that the teddy bear which he was supposed to make disappear was stuffed up the back of his shirt which suddenly gave him the appearance of The Hunch Back of Notre Dame. The foil he proposed swallowing was the real thing and came from the P.T. Store and was likely to do him a serious injury. A big chap ahead of me, stepped up confidently and announced that he would do a monologue in Zulu – he would require no assistance, props or costume and was already completely prepared as he had done it a number of times before. It was accepted without reservation or audition – he was in the clear. It was my turn. I offered my nautical poem but foolishly expressed my concern at my mother’s ability to secure a copy and get it to me on time. I was required there and then to recite the first verse – on the spot. After a faltering start, I managed to get through the verse with a few ad hoc additions which seemed to go unnoticed. I was over the first hurdle. Now it was up to mother. One week, two weeks – no luck – we were into warning and harassment. Everyone seemed to be receiving the same treatment except the clarinettist who spent hours practising some boring classical piece that he had learned at his prep school, and the Zulu linguist who seemed to be immune. Finally my poem came and with the aid of a torch underneath the blankets after lights out, I made fair progress but some 15 verses is a lot to commit to memory. Others still hadn’t had their offering accepted and were going through hell.

At last, the night of the concert arrived. Back stage was a hive of activity with plenty of make-up, Bra’s filled with everything from cotton wool to cricket balls, stockings, high-heel shoes – all obtained via the Padre. The slapstick act with the mop and bucket was still trying to get the timing right. The Clarinettist was having trouble tuning his new reed and someone had taken a bite out of one of the juggler’s apples. Those performers requiring no props, costumes or assistance were already seated on the front row of the audience and would be called to the stage from there. I was part of that group. At the appointed hour, the cadets were all seated, the noise back stage was hushed, the staff party arrived and the lights went down.

The MC was resplendent in tails, with a good line of natural patter and the acts followed one another with ribald good humour. Surprisingly, what had promised to be a fiasco, was coming together pretty well. I said my piece all the way through for the first time, dramatically enhancing it by stabbing hand gestures as Sir Richard Grenville “……… fell upon their decks and he died” A record of “The Flying Dutchman” by Wagner, played quietly in the background and I made my exit to muted respectful applause. The first half finished with the bucket and mop duo bashing seven bells out of each other and sending water and suds everywhere. The final bucket was thrown over the staff party to great applause – but it turned out to be nothing more than confetti.

The second half proceeded much as the first but for me, the highlight was the monologue in Zulu. Following an expansive build up, the big lad came on majestically in a lion cloth improvised from a discoloured towel, a few beads here and there and seed pods around his ankles. The attempt to turn him brown with sun tan cream had left him looking rather blotchy. After a sustained pause to heighten the tension, he stretched forth one hand and in a deep voice, said ” My’pepsi Cola ” and walked off.

The ‘producer’ couldn’t believe what had happened, the MC was quite taken aback and the audience didn’t know how to react but gave a belated cheer. The big lad paid a heavy price afterwards.

It was, in retrospect, a lesson which stood me in good stead many times in later life – short sharp retribution is often preferable to months of hell and besides, when in a corner, a confident facade will often carry off a mediocre performance.