I have great pleasure in dedicating my first book to Marcel Steiner, and for those who never met him, here’s a treasured memory of a typical Marcellian day!
It was a hot July day in Milton Keynes. Circa early 90’s. The Smallest Theatre in the World, which consisted of a motorbike and sidecar, was parked in a small amphitheatre. Marcel Steiner, proprietor of said theatre, lounged against the side of the theatre, deep in conversation with some Harley Davidson riders. They looked confused. It could have been the copious festival beer, or perhaps they’d followed the dizzying whorl of Keynsian roundabouts and were now trapped there for all eternity. Still, at least we had an audience for our twenty minute version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But something was wrong here. We were early. We hadn’t crashed. And we hadn’t got lost. In fact when I turned back around, I saw a relaxed looking Marcel queuing at an ice-cream van. There he stood, a shaggy giant of a man, dressed in his ‘Pierre’ costume, which consisted of a wig that looked like a nesting crow, tiny pince nez, a fluffy 19th century shirt and high boots. The little girl in front of him clutched her mother’s hand that little bit tighter. As I squeezed into my empire line dress he returned with his 99. I watched as his massive tongue lapped around the side of the melting cone, and chomped down on – A wasp!
“Marcel, stop. Stop.” Too late. The thing stung. Marcel bellowed with the gusto only a true showman could muster and hopped around, as the wasp hung there on his lower lip. He turned towards me, eyes wide and desperate, so I reached out and pulled the dead thing out, sting and all. “What happened?” Pat Brown ran up, cigarette in one hand and a loaded pyrotechnic in the other, as Marcel moaned and groaned and gripped his face in his hands. “Look at me.” I said. Perhaps it wasn’t that bad. We were on in five minutes. Perhaps the sting would calm down. He pulled his hands down and Pat and I backed away. His lower lip, which was on the large side at the best of times, had ballooned hideously. “Can you speak? Say a line.” I said. “Ah thwoar fwenchies are cwoming. Rthweet!” Oh good grief. “Perhaps we ought not to go ahead.” Pat said, but Marcel shook his shaggy mane vigorously and the crow wig on top nodded agreement too. No the show would go on. I looked dubiously at him and he stared resolutely back. Well, perhaps dialogue wasn’t all that important anyway. He usually roared, gesticulated and gurned his way out of no end of fluffed lines. What I hadn’t realised when I had started writing ‘classics’ for the Smallest Theatre in the World, was that Marcel was profoundly dyslexic. Despite my efforts to minimise dialogue, he could take the simplest of lines, for example ‘Ah what fate awaits humanity now’, and turn it into ‘what awaits humanities fate now’ ‘now awaits humanities fates’, ‘fates what humanity awaits now’, in other words – total rubbish. Still he was adept at getting away with it. So perhaps we had a dog’s chance of pulling this off. Pat and I nodded at each other and got ready. “Wrurph!” Cried Marcel. “What?” “Wrurph my currrummmdnnn.” He tried again. “What?” “I carnph fin murrr currrummmubunnnn.” “You can’t, what,” I stared at his gesticulating, as he made circles around his waist with his hands, and with the joy of winning a Christmas game of charades I cried out the answer. “You can’t find your cummerbund!” I felt quite pleased with my success, until I realised the consequences of what he said. The cummerbund was a long piece of cloth that wound around his paunch. Apart from adding historical costume detail, its real purpose was vital in keeping his saggy white leggings from falling from his belly down to his shanks. Jeeze. Without that cummerbund he would blunder around the stage and end up exposing himself. Pat and I frantically searched through all our props; under the Russian army uniforms, in the furry hats, peered down the mouth of the cannon, under the hobby horse. Nothing. Where could it be? “Ah, I don’t want to rush you, ah theatre people, but are you, ah going to do your, ah show thing?” Said the organiser, cool and ordered in his fresh cream linen suit. He stared suspiciously at the total mess of our props, my hot dishevelled face, and Marcel’s fat lip.
The other side of the theatre I glimpsed the audience that now sat impatiently in the sweltering heat. I stared in frustration at Marcel. Why? Why? Why did he always do this? Why did something always have to ‘happen’? Why couldn’t we just have something go goddamn smoothly for once? Why was I even with this tin-pot outfit? Didn’t they know I was a serious actress? The man was impossible. But perhaps we could still do this. Let gravity do its worse in the hope that Marcel could improvise his way out of exposing his grey y-fronts. It wouldn’t be the first time. But as I stared at him, it came to me. “I know where you cummerbund is.” I said to Marcel. His eyes lit up and he looked around. I stomped over to him and lifted up his fluffly white shirt, and yes, sure enough the thing had been there all the time. It had just worked its way past the legging elastic and the shirt and sat nestling shyly against his belly fat. I’d like to say the show went smoothly once we were underway. Though as the 1812 blasted out the sound system, the battle of Borrodino proved a tadge too dramatic as Pat had selected a large smoke bomb that set off no end of car alarms. Marcel’s cannon worked for once and a bouncy black ball shot out of the cannon’s mouth, only to hit a small boy on the head, who erupted in tears. But looking back my overarching memory is of the end of the play. Where Pierre wins his true love Natasha. And the nightmare sight of that giant lip looming down at me to give me a kiss. Eurrrrghhh!