The end of summer and the sun is flowing across the concrete campus of the University of East Anglia where I was a student from 1973-77. It’s late September and I really am back at school – to take part in the celebrations for the University’s 50th birthday.
There are loads of activities – a big top featuring Kid Creole and the Coconuts on a bill with former student Nina Conti, a fun fair, some serious academic lectures and discussions, an invasion of zombies, a firework volcano and umpteen eclectic performances.
Grizzled old alumnae like me get to hang out with legions of dimly-remembered contemporaries and to gaze in wistful wonder at the current crop of undergrads resplendent in their youthful zeal.
My duties at the University Theatre (a patch of grass in my day) were to perform a 50-minute comedy set and, far more taxing, to play the main character in an extract from Samuel Becket’s play Fin de Partie.
The director, Prof Emeritus Ralph Yarrow, and fellow (bi-lingual) actor, Erwann Limon, helped me through a rehearsal the night before. My French is probably better than yours but I have hardly spoken it in recent years; I went to sleep drenched in apprehension and spent the day studying the text of the play.
It had been agreed I could read my part – a hunched, sickly man in a wheelchair – from a script. When the time came, I was wheeled on stage. Erwann and I charged off and he got several laughs; we were doing well until I turned over too many pages and lost my place…
The audience could see I was in trouble so I ad-libbed in a way I felt appropriate to Beckett (in French bien sûr, but I translate for you): ”I have arrived at the wrong page. This page means nothing to me now. Where is the right page? I look and look for the right page but it has gone. It is lost. I am lost.
No, wait, the right page is found!”
The audience laughed and we made it triumphantly through to the end. I was thrilled to have got away with it and reminded that doing something unfamiliar provides a bigger buzz than doing what you know.
By now I was beginning to remember the French flourishes I had adopted during the year I spent in Paris as part of my degree. The corners of my mouth began to droop and my shoulders arched into that gallic shape. Alors, quoi?
And then I bumped into Eddie Izzard. Eddie has an honorary degree from UEA and was performing his French stand-up show in half an hour’s time. We reminisced in French together before Eddie invited me to do a spot to introduce him. And so, as I once did in Paris 20 years ago, I cracked gags in French and, still fired up by my debut as a French actor, je me suis bien amusé
Afterwards I took my place among the throng of students past and present who were draped on the steps overlooking the square at the centre of the campus. I smoked a fag and reflected that I had first sat here 40 years ago – an excited fresher, newly-departed from the nest, hungry for fresh ideas and experiences.
My self-importance was confirmed by the arrival of 2 attractive undergrad women who flirted with me for as long as it took to cadge 2 cigarettes, at which point they immediately got up and set off to the bar.
How little really I have learned.
Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen (Volume Too) – Feb & March 2014 Soho Theatre, London – Tickets & Info