Noël Coward’s Advice for Actors ( at a Baptist Church in the West Midlands)

Back to London for the weekend … and the laundry, the ironing, the admin … 24 brief hours to unpack, repack, recharge and then set off up the M1 again to the beautiful city of York and my first Airbnb of the tour – a very nice Airbnb but…no tea and biscuits outside the door in the morning!

The morning…not the time actors or singers want to be using their voices at full stretch, but ten in the morning is the only time Bootham Quaker School (founded 1805) could fit me in – so I arise early in order to be ready for a full throttle performance at 10am.

300…yes, three hundred students file into the school hall quietly and without fuss and sit attentively through my slightly shorter school’s version of 70 minutes. The odd rustle, the occasional gleam of a phone screen, but really … they are pretty attentive. 300 of them. Can’t quite believe it.

Afterwards, they’re a bit reticent about asking questions, until one boy right at the back pipes up: ‘Yes, COs in the First World War, okay. But what about Hitler?’
Huge question, the big one, and so little time to explore it in. In fact that student was unwittingly shouting out one of the early titles I had considered for the play. ‘What About Hitler?’

The students filed out, I packed up my crates and prepared to set off to the West Midlands.  ‘Can you stay for lunch?’ Sarah, Religious Studies teacher, asks me. I look at the time… ‘Erm…’  ‘The lunches here are fabulous,’ she continues.

‘Yes! Yes, of course I can stay!’

Later that afternoon, I arrive at Bewdley, a charming little Georgian town near Kidderminster. I will be performing at the Baptist Church the next day as part of Bewdley’s independent and thriving annual Festival. Jenni Murray, Sara Pascoe and Dan Cruikshank were some of the highlights this year – oh and some chap with a load of wooden crates doing a play about conscientious objectors.

Wonderful hosts Val and Rob provide a lovely supper (I’m burning up so many calories doing this play, I have to keep stocking up) – and next morning we set off with my crates to the Baptist Church to set up.

Ritchie, very friendly and skilful tech chap, says there will be quite a few hard of hearing in the afternoon audience. There is an induction loop, but I should be fitted with a radio mic too – ‘oh and do articulate and project as best you can.’

It’s a good space for the play, it feels quite intimate, even with its balcony area and 150 plus seats – most of them already sold.

But the ceiling at the back of the playing area slopes down making for very little headroom when I’m ‘upstage’. Oh and there’s a lovely wooden cross suspended from the sloping ceiling as well.  Which cannot be removed. So I will have to be very careful when I construct a tower of crates on two occasions in the play at the back of the stage. Very careful indeed.  The cross will add a special resonance though at certain points when Bert, a religious CO, is standing right under it making his case against war and for the upholding of the Sixth Commandment.

A lively audience fills the venue, and they seem very jolly indeed – could that have something to do with the gorgeous display of homemade cakes in the room next door ready for tea afterwards?

I reserve a piece of delicious-looking fruit cake and get set.

And that’s when that wittiest of playwrights and performers Noël Coward’s advice to actors pops into my brain. His instruction, many decades ago, was: ‘Speak up, and don’t bump into the furniture.’

This afternoon I adapt that advice for myself to: ‘Speak up, and don’t bump into the crucifix.’

2 thoughts on “Noël Coward’s Advice for Actors ( at a Baptist Church in the West Midlands)

  1. Bewdley was buzzing with praise for ‘This Evil Thing’ long after you decamped to Gloucester, Michael. Bewdley Festival may have had bigger ‘names’ but no other event had the ‘stay-in-the-mind’ power of your play, its message and your performance.


    • Private Noel Coward was in the 22nd Battalion London Territorial Regiment during WW! (ironnically named “the Queens”) He enlisted in March 1918 and was discharged in August 1918 due to being medically unfit. The reason given is 30% tubercular disease, He was given silver war badge 313929 so that women would not ostricise him, call him a coward and give him white feathers in the street. I wonder whether any of these things would have troubled Noel?


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