For ninety seconds, in July 1991, the Olivier stage of the National Theatre, London, was mine. All mine. I remember the deafening silence. In that split second before my solo speech, it felt like an eon. I looked straight at the spotlights at the back of the auditorium and I remember the glare that thankfully masked the sea of faces in front of me. I could barely take it all in! How did I end up here…?
It all began with Anthea Dobry’s arrival as Youth Theatre director in November 1990. Anthea had come in after a year’s interregnum when Clare Rankin left in 1989; directors were coming and going so there was no real cohesive leadership and numbers of attendees at workshops had begun to dwindle. Anthea acted quickly to remedy this. Sometime earlier, the Youth Theatre had entered the National Youth Theatre challenge (now NT Connections) with a piece they had devised themselves called Happy Families, in 1989 at the National Theatre. They were one of the lucky entrants to be invited to perform this at the National at the end of the project. Anthea said we were to enter again.
Two years later, our entry was A Diary of Death Row (DODR). It centred on a man falsely accused of murder and sentenced to death in contemporary USA. DODR reflected global issues, dealing with racism and prejudice within the justice system. I remember my friend Philippa having a written correspondence with a real US death row inmate. These letters provided a fascinating insight into the mind of someone in this situation; not just his despair or anguish but his optimism and coping strategies. The letters were all very interesting and informative and we had plenty of raw material to use.
The finished piece was performed at the Minerva in January 1991, for the very ‘Glee-esque’ sounding Regional Selections. Nothing more was heard until the 13 April, the final night of the CFYT Easter production, when, as we filed offstage, news filtered through that DODR had got through to the NYT Finals in July.
I remember walking home the day after we found out. My brother, Phil, in his excitement had painted the words ‘We Are Going To The Natonal’ on a massive sheet and hung it from the front of my parent’s house. I didn’t know whether to cringe or laugh! One neighbour thought we meant the ‘Grand National’. My dad took one look, paused, and said “there’s an ‘I’ in ‘National'” but for me it really summed up the intense excitement we were all feeling, as expressed by Phil in his own inimitable way.
We got the train to London on a hot July afternoon to check into the hotel that was to be home for four nights. My mate Angus and I, in our recent London pub meet, recalled waiting in the wings of the Olivier stage full of nerves on performance night. We had TV documentary cameras following us too, even backstage, and we all agreed this added to the tension.
I played a state lawyer and had to deliver one of my speeches solo. That was my ninety seconds of fame and I’ll never forget the experience.