Groucho Marx is reputed, almost certainly falsely, to once having said “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it”. I think I can echo that line many times over, but there were also evenings that – if not exactly perfectly wonderful – were at least memorable.
One that comes to mind was when I was a young librarian working at a college that has since turned into the University of Chichester. In my student days at Bangor I had been very active in its Gilbert and Sullivan Society, and was delighted when the equivalent group at Chichester allowed me – as a non-student – to join their ranks.
After chorus appearances in The Mikado and Iolanthe I was promoted in my third year there to a principal role when they performed HMS Pinafore. I duly appeared for three nights as First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Joseph Porter KGB. I managed to remember all my lines, including getting the verses in the right order in “When I was a lad” shortly after my arrival on stage in Act I.
In Act II one of my numbers was a trio with Captain Corcoran and his daughter Josephine, who is reluctant to accept my marriage proposal, mainly because she is in love with Ralph, one of the ship’s crew. However, my only explanation for her coldness towards me is that she is dazzled by my exalted rank.
I therefore offer the salve that “love levels all ranks” and that she should therefore not imagine that being a humble captain’s daughter means that she cannot enter high society as the wife of the head of the Admiralty.
Josephine does not dissent from this view. If social rank can be ignored when it comes to matters of love, then her devotion to a humble “tar who ploughs the water” is equally legitimate. Hence the famous trio in which everyone seems to be in full agreement despite arguing in opposite directions.
The director of our production had the bright idea of illustrating the tangled web by having the three of us swinging about on ropes at various stages of the trio and getting our wires crossed almost literally. He apparently imagined that it would not look out of place for three vertical ropes to suddenly appear on the deck of a 19th-century Naval vessel, presumably as pieces of rigging that had come loose for no obvious reason.
We were all young and foolish, and we reckoned that if it got a laugh, why not?
I was not quite as young as my colleagues, but equally foolish, so I suggested an extra piece of “business”. I thought it would be a good joke for Sir Joseph to swing right off into the wings at the end of the song, giving a loud despairing cry that would be followed the sound effect of a huge splash. He – by which I mean I – would then stagger back on stage soaking wet.
So that is what we did.
On the first of our three evening performances the stagehand in the wings scooped a tumblerful of water out of a fire bucket and threw it in my face. It got a reasonable laugh, but I doubted whether anyone more than three rows back would have seen any wetness on me at all. I therefore asked the stagehand to throw more water at me at the second show.
This is what he did. Instead of a glassful of water I got a jugful. This was a distinct improvement, but it still wasn’t enough. More water for the final night, please!
The guy in the wings was determined to get it right on the night. Instead of scooping water out of the fire bucket, he – being quite a strong lad – just picked up the bucket and chucked the lot over my head.
I don’t know if you have ever had two gallons of ice cold water thrown at you, let alone when you are in costume and about to return to a stage to deliver a couple of lines before you can escape, but I can tell you that the shock is a considerable one.
On the plus side, the laugh from the audience was the biggest of the night. As you can tell, that was an evening that I have not forgotten.