My mustache takes center stage

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"I think I should have a mustache," I said.

Kate, who is in charge of costumes - and gives the added impression of being in charge of everything - always shoots straight from the hip. "No, no! We won't have time."

I wondered how many other inspired ideas have bitten the dust in such brush-offs.

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Anyway, surprised by her brusque dismissal, I muttered: "Oh, I didn't want to waste anyone's time. I thought of doing it myself."

"Humph. Well. We'll have to ask the Director."

Sean, the Director of our play (J.B. Priestley's "When We Are Married," a Yorkshire farcical comedy much favored by amateurs) always seemed a little too preoccupied to be troubled with questions like "Should I have a mustache?" So I let it ride, planning to have a go at the job on my own just before the dress rehearsal, and then wait for thumbs up or down.

I believe some actors - you know, of the professional persuasion, the ones who know what they are doing - like to start outside and work in. A mustache (or nose or item of dress or a walk or whatever) can set them off on a deep voyage of character discovery. Others start with the inner and arrive at the outer. I guess Kate is one of the latter. And actually I think I am, too.

My conviction about Albert Parker's mustache arrived only after much rehearsal. He didn't seem to me to be first a moustache and then an insufferable, humorless, pompous male chauvinist. The play is set in Edwardian times, and mustaches were popular then, particularly with sideburns.

But period isn't everything. I just felt sure Parker would have a mustache.

So I spent the afternoon before the dress rehearsal deeply involved in spirit gum and gray crepe hair and some white woolly stuff sold in joke shops for Christmas jollities, attempting to cobble together something convincing and hirsute to disguise my facial features. And I wasn't too displeased, finally, with the result.

I arrived at the theater very early, ready to repeat my hard-won makeup. And when I had just about finished, in walked two young women. "Ah," they said, and "Oh."

"We were going to make you a moustache. But you've already made one...."

They seemed a touch disappointed.

It turned out that the redoubtable Kate had arranged for these two college students to come and practice their budding skills on the cast. Far be it from me to thwart their voyage of discovery, so my hairy efforts were removed, and the experts started work.

They knew what they were doing. They used a latex base, so that for each night of the performance the three-part unit - moustache and sideburns - could easily be reglued in place, without having to start all over again from the beginning.

Well, I think I can say that the mustache was a success. Someone asked me much later if I thought it had improved my performance. That's a hard one to answer without some degree of immodesty. I know it gave my face a different shape, and to some extent this meant that I worked less at trying to make facial expressions that I thought were Parkerish.

On the other hand, I didn't exactly feel the whole character of this laughable fool was contained within the span of his unshaven appendage. I had to do a bit of acting.

There were nights during our short run when the mustache threatened to come unstuck and I was conscious of a comic potential beyond the strict outlines of Mr. Priestley's script.

Although the word "farcical" is mentioned, presumably by the playwright, in the play's description, nowhere does he suggest descent into that cliche of low comedy and amateur incompetence, the suddenly dislodged false mustache. After all, this performance was not intended to be pantomime as such.

The two makeup artists promised they would keep a watchful eye open for droops and disengagements on my upper lip and facial margins, and they were usually ready just in time with the gluepot.

What my fellow actors thought of this thorough-going makeup of mine, I can't say - because they didn't say (not to my face, anyway). Probably they thought it over the top.

One of we three husbands who are the male protagonists of the piece has natural hairiness of his own, and the other opted for the cleanshaven look. We were meant to be different.

But our wives had hairy additions of their own. Parker's downtrodden wife, Annie, appeared at the dress rehearsal with a black thing on her head. The other two wives looked comparatively normal, wig-wise, but poor Annie! Her black thing most resembled a deceased kitty.

What could I say? Well ... nothing honest that wouldn't have sent her scuttling back to the dressing room in tears and denial, never to tread the boards again. So I kept studiously silent.

But then Annie (and Kate also, incidentally) didn't say much about my mustache, either. The dreaded wig was improved a little for the subsequent performances, though it was never easy to love.

One notable event in the audience the next night I do attribute at least partially to The Mustache. The Visiting Artist had brought along two friends for a laugh. I am not sure if it was a laugh with me or at me, but we amateurs are grateful for laughter whatever its motive and origin.

In the first interval she recognized, just along the row, a face. And the face recognized her. Both suddenly remembered where they had seen each other before. It was on the allotments where I grow my vegetables. The Visiting Artist has been painting and drawing there. So I was the link between these two.

The plotter said: "I haven't seen Christopher at the plots for ages."

The V.A. replied: "Well, I think he's been pretty busy."

"Oh, what's he been doing?"

The V.A. looked at her in disbelief. Quite clearly she had not realized that the horrible Albert Parker was actually moi.

The V.A. pointed to my name in the program.

The plotter turned to the friend she was with and said: "Well! He's not at all like that in real life!"

Which could be either a put-down to acting - or to a rather prominent piece of facial fuzz.

I don't care to guess which.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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