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Happy daze

Matthew Hemley on the Happy Days set
by -

It’s been a year since my West End stage debut, and in that time I have experienced what I believe actors call a ‘resting period’. Or, to be blunt, a lack of acting work.

I thought my last cameo stint – in the West End production of Spamalot – may have been enough to earn me other roles here and there. Okay, I had only one word in Spamalot, but I delivered that word with gusto, meaning and heart. Surely someone would spot me and put me in another show? Alas, poor Yorick, it wasn’t to be.

And so I continued with my day job – writing about the stage rather than appearing on one. Until, that is, producer Amy Anzel emailed. Here’s how the story unfolded:

January 6
An email arrives and the subject line literally screams out of me – CAMEO APPEARANCE it says. Well, hello, I reply (internally), about time too.

It’s Anzel – that pushy producer of Happy Days the musical, who – as Channel 4’s The Sound of Musicals demonstrated – isn’t one to take no for an answer.

She asks if I’d like to appear for one night in the show when it plays in Bromley. Bromley! Okay, it’s not the West End, but it’s better than nothing. And if I say yes I’ll be appearing alongside Bucks Fizz’s Cheryl Baker, Heidi Range from the Sugababes and Ben Freeman from Emmerdale. I’ve dreamt about casting like this.

And, she continues, this time I will have four lines to say. Four lines! That’s a big step up from the one word I had last time. Plus, the part – that of a television announcer – requires an American accent. It all feels too good to be true! A proper character – one I can bring a backstory to and provide motives for. So naturally I say yes. Immediately.

Jan 13
The first (official) step in my Happy Day journey begins with a costume fitting. Well, not so much a fitting, but a root around a retro clothing shop in Shoreditch – the home to cool people. I feel lost.

After much rummaging (and an unsuccessful attempt to find trousers in a 50s style long enough for my 6’ 5” frame), I find something I hope will work – a fetching tank top and brown T-shirt. Okay, it isn’t sexy like the Fonz’s fitted T-shirts and leather jacket, but it’ll do. Correctamundo! (I make a note to myself that repeatedly saying that phrase could get irritating).

Jan 14
I have been practicing my lines. I find myself quoting the lines in the shower, while walking to work – and experimenting with different ways of saying them. Is my TV producer a nerdy sort? Or is he a confident type, perhaps a tad cocky? How actors ever come to a decision, I’ll never know. I change my mind as often as the Sugababes have changed their line up.

It isn’t long before I hit my first problem, however. I can’t do an American accent. No matter how I try. This concerns me, but my editor, Brian Attwood, moves to console me. “Don’t worry,” he chirps. “Dick Van Dyke couldn’t do cockney but the audiences didn’t care”. He makes a good point. Maybe I can be one of those “he’s so bad, he’s good” actors. Like – well – I won’t say here…

So, with lines learnt and accent (nowhere near) perfected, I await the big day.

matt-backstageJan 16
On a wet, windy night I arrive at the Churchill Theatre, where I am met by the show’s company manager and immediately ushered on stage for a run through of my part with dance captain Grace.

It is important, I learn, to time my lines perfectly, as there will be music underscoring them and if I finish them too quickly there will be an awkward amount of time to fill. I’m not, I decide, prepared to spontaneously tap dance to fill some time, so I vow to get it right.

I try it once. Too quick. I try it again. Too slow. I try it one more time. Perfect. Or, to my mind it is. “Sorry about the accent,” I quip, as I leave the stage.

Is that an embarrassed look I see on the face of Grace? who tells me I am “fine”. She’s supposed to be a performer. At least try and be convincing, I’m tempted to say.

With my five-minute rehearsal done, I am shown to my dressing room – named Langford. How stagey. I love it. There are no signs of any rats or mice, despite Equity claiming they seem to make dressing rooms their homes. It is big too – and I can hear the musical being performed on stage through a Tannoy system while I await my shining moment.

An email arrives. It’s Amy, the producer, telling me The Times are in to review the show. No pressure, she writes. Ha ha. Passing some time, I make a cup of tea, and bump into Baker, the shows Mrs Cunningham. She’s about to go on but fills me in briefly on the hectic week she and the cast have had. They have done a show already today, I learn, and tomorrow they will be up bright and early to appear on This Morning.

“You must be exhausted,” I say. “It’s what we do, isn’t it?” Baker says, disappearing cheerfully on to the stage. What a pro.

Soon (sooner than I’d like) I am moments away from my cameo. I pace my dressing room, recounting my lines, trying to sound American. I may sound more Welsh, but it’s too late to worry now.

Then a disembodied voice booms into my dressing room. “Could Matthew Hemley please make his way to the stage?,” it says. What if I say no? I have butterflies. But I try and keep my cool (in a Fonz kind of way) as I walk to stage left and stand in the wings.

Here I witness life backstage – actors being a little bit silly with each other while they wait to go on, Heidi Range reapplying some make up and the wardrobe department giving some cast members the once over before they return to the stage.

Then it’s my turn. I stand before the head of wardrobe in my fetching tank top and brown T-shirt. I feel like a kid being inspected by his mother before a visit from the grandparents. She looks me up and down and gives me an approving nod. Which is good, because I am not sure what she would have done had she suddenly decided I didn’t look right… I spot Ben Freeman, the show’s Fonz. “Enjoy,” he beams, before adding: “I’m going to review you.” I laugh nervously and make a mental note to deal with him later. (I never do).

Then, I’m given my cue. I’m on. It’s a blur, and I walk on to the stage – to a microphone set for me – and almost on autopilot say my four lines. Then, it’s done. I don’t even remember saying anything, or coming off stage, but before I know it I am back in the wings. I spot Baker, and in some sort of weird adrenalin-fuelled craze I put my arms around her and kiss her. She looks taken aback. But I am too high too care. I just said four lines. In a musical. I feel ready for anything.

Next time (if there is one), perhaps I could tackle a song. Or not. Let’s just see how it goes.

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