My own first experience as a scene painter was as a teenager at my local youth club in Gorseinon, near Swansea, in Wales. The director of our pot-boiler play The Sky is Overcast, which had been entered in a one-act play competition amongst Glamorganshire Youth Clubs, was a lovely chap called Howell Edwards. He’d heard somehow that I was safe with a paintbrush and so I got drafted in to paint the fairly straightforward box set as well as playing a character in the play. The story was set in occupied France during World War II and concerned a dastardly German plot to parachute in a spy purporting to be an RAF officer but whose real aim was to infiltrate the French resistance. I remember doing the set painting very fast and extremely broadly using really bold brush strokes.
The part I played in The Sky is Overcast by playwright Anthony Booth (not to be confused with T Blair’s Father in law) was that of a very unpleasant SS Officer whose name I now forget. However, what I most certainly couldn’t have forgotten is the fact that when the costumes arrived in a wicker trunk from costumiers Bermans and Nathans in London, mine wasn’t among them! Yikes! There wasn’t enough time to get another costume sent, so Howell went to a fancy-dress shop in Swansea and picked up the kind of Nazi uniform some people might wear to a silly eighteenth birthday party! The aim of this costume was clearly to be funny rather than authentic. Take a look at the picture of me above at fifteen threatening my mother (Mam looks about as terrified as she’d be if mauled by a King Charles Spaniel named Cindy). I don’t know how he did it - hypnotism perhaps - Howell managed to convince me that nobody in the audience would probably even notice it wasn’t a proper uniform.
The night of the competition, which took place in the Little Theatre, Aberdare, arrived. I come originally from Aberdare so I was even fielding a few family members in the audience. I had a big powerful entrance set up with the characters on stage rushing about nervously announcing that my approach to the house was imminent. There came a loud rap on the door, centre stage. My friend Paul Davies, taking the main part in the play, went to the aforementioned door and drew it open, only to reveal me in my fancy-dress Hitler. It was an entrance designed to bring hush and awe, but when the people of Aberdare saw what I was wearing, there was just a huge, spontaneous guffaw of laughter. It was the theatrical equivalent of Benny Hill’s Ernie the Milkman making an impromptu guest appearance as the ghost in Hamlet.
Anyway, teenage chutzpah got us through on the night. And things worked out well in the end: we won the cup for best production, the main adjudicator gave me a special mention for a good performance despite a bad entrance she said was beyond my control, and perhaps most unexpectedly of all, we won the prize for the best set.
The Youth Club took us all out to a posh hotel in Llandeilo for a slap-up meal to celebrate. Happy days!