Memories of Nairobi City Players
Sometimes things happen in life which on reflection are pivotal. Little did I realise that evening in the early 1990s when I auditioned for a part in an NCP production how much it would change and enhance my life. I had just arrived in Nairobi to take up a posting at the British High Commission. Then situated in Bruce House. I was settling into my new life and into a job which would tax and test whatever abilities I might have to the full. Dealing with the misfortunes of war, famine and disease in Somalia and Sudan among the rest. Theatre was the antidote which sustained me.
Through the NCP I would meet some lovely talented and creative folk. I made friends and am still in touch with many. The play was the delicious “Habeas Corpus” by Alan Bennett. I
had a wee role as the unfortunate Mr Purdue – “a sick man”. I had long had an interest in theatre and was delighted to be given this opportunity. Working with an excellent Director, Cast and Crew.
But all was not straight forward. You see, Mr Purdue was a lost and troubled wee soul and the patient of Dr Wickstead – one of the large cast of eccentric characters which populated this black comedy. Mr Purdue’s attempted demise closes the first act. Apologies for those of a delicate nature as I try to recollect what happened. Purdue tries to hang himself. This required some interesting rigging which I doubt would now pass any health and safety regulations. a faux noose was rigged from one of the bars. Hidden behind it was a steel cable. I was to wear a harness on to which I would hook the cable. By slight of hand-making it looked like I was being hung by the rope. I had my misgivings but decided to place my trust nay my life in the hands of the crew. Now no such harnesses are readily available in Kenya so I was measured up at a saddlery. They created a fine, sturdy canvass and leather contraption which I would wear under my clothes. For some reason it only arrived in time for the opening night as I recall. No time to fully rehearse it. So in the dressing room I stripped down to my undies and was strapped in by the crew amidst much hilarity.
The big moment came. I stepped onto a chair to do the deed. The noose and the hidden cable dropped from the lighting bar. I gingerly attached myself to cable whilst putting the noose round my neck. I kicked away the chair and was left swinging. I yelped in pain. There was a gasp from the audience. My legs flapping. An audience member said my performance was so real – dare I say lifelike. What I did not tell him was that when I kicked away the chair my full weight was indeed taken by the harness. But in my crotch area. Unfortunately, I had not tucked myself in properly in the nether region. Chaps will know what I mean. So my manly bits got twisted by the harness. Luckily as soon as the curtains closed the crew rushed on and disconnected me. I can feel it to this day. What one does for art eh.
The action of the play takes place in Hove. Years later that’s where I now live.
The pantomime “Dick Whittington“ was great fun. I played Alderman Fitzwarren. As always the costumes team were at the top of their game and pulled out all the stops. The amazing costumes for the finale were a joy to behold. Christmas was not Christmas without the NCP panto.
I suppose my most profound memory was directing Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa”. That production came to pass via an interesting and circuitous route. As an admirer of Friel’s work I determined to get the performance rights of Lughnasa. I felt it’s story of four sisters coping with a subsistence existence on a small farm in Donegal had a universal appeal, especially in Kenya which also had a connection with the storyline. The Rights were refused by the Agents. The only option was to go direct to the playwright himself. Much to my delight Brian Friel intervened and gave me the Rights. He even wrote us a message for the opening night. So our production became both the African and the World Amateur Premiere. I recently learned that in Friel’s papers in the National Library of Ireland there is mention of this and him being challenged for allowing it. We also received unbidden the complete SFX cues from the Abbey Theatre who had heard that we were doing it. A kind and generous gesture. A few years back I was delighted so spend a lovely evening with Brian Friel’s widow Anne through a mutual friend – Pat Hume. I regaled Anne with stories of the Nairobi production and of Brian’s generosity. She enjoyed hearing about it
The opening night at the National Theatre was jam packed. It was the hottest ticket in town.
The Irish Defence Minister and the British High Commissioner attended. The Minister had been visiting the Irish Army contingent with the UN in Somalia. I knew the Irish Army contingent and had billeted with them in their camp in Somalia. Indeed it was via the Irish soldiers that they brought out Irish turf to lend authenticity to the stage fireplace.
I was blessed with an amazing cast who all delivered magical performances. The women’s manic and raw Irish dancing scene nearly brought the house down. Included in the audience were a number of elderly Irish missionary nuns. One of whom got so carried away by the plot that she loudly voiced her low opinion of the behaviour of one of the characters – a young man and how poorly he treated one of the sisters. It was unintentionally very funny. There was one near disaster. A white dead cockerel features in the script. It is carried on at a pivotal moment. Our deceased cockerel was kept in the freezer. So came the time for it to be brought on to the stage and dropped to the ground. But as it had been kept in a freezer longer than necessary it was frozen solid. So it fell to the stage with a bang and then bounced like a ball . A heart stopping moment. From then on the Cockerel was kept away from the freezer.
So the opening night was a success. When the performance ended the audience departed. Many went over to The Norfolk Hotel where the Kenya Irish Society hosted a great post show drinks party. In the theatre the crew were tidying props etc away. The cast were getting changed out of their costumes. End
I wandered onto the empty stage. Now only lit with a few basic lights. The auditorium was dark but through the half light I noticed an elderly couple still sitting in the stalls. I asked if they were alright. They replied in soft Scottish accents and said how moved they both were by the play. They were transported back to the Scottish Highlands of their youth and found many resonances.
The sisters in the play reminded them of their aunts all of whom had long since passed away. They said that so profound was the story that there and then they decided to make a sort of farewell pilgrimage back to Scotland and the village of their birth. A place they had not been back to in decades. They were both obviously deeply moved. I told them not to rush and they could stay and think happy memories as long as they needed.
After a while they left. I hope they did make it back to Scotland one last time. That incident made me reflect on the power of the theatre. The telling of a fine story well-acted can change lives.