The Allegheny Theater, Pittsburgh, was a chaotic hive of activity at 11am on Saturday morning, as stage hands scurried around, fixing set, unpacking props, sawing unidentifiable pieces of wood. The lights flickered disconcertingly as the lighting and sound techs attempted to wrangle an antediluvian lighting desk into some kind of preset order. Everyone seemed to be looking for something or someone that they couldn’t find, but probably most of them were simultaneously looking for Tim, the harassed and sleep-deprived stage manager. Failing that, Poppy, the assistant stage manager, who had locked herself in the bathroom and not been seen for half an hour.
Picking their way through the mêlée, the cast attempted to unload their own personal effects and props, those too precious to be left to the usual unpacking team. Garry had a bottle of ‘lucky’ cologne, Poppy a series of fan letters, Selsdon a cunningly disguised fifth of scotch. Famously superstitious, any actor in the company would certainly refuse to go on if their own particular metaphorical rabbit’s foot could not be found on the night, and almost two months into the run, they were leaving nothing to chance. They had had to perform in Miami Beach with a children’s toy telephone, when their own prop had been left behind at the previous theater, and even Tim’s last minute grey sprayed-on paint job hadn’t really managed to conceal the original lurid red and yellow design, nor its diminutive size.
Nothing On was intended to be a hilarious English farce, but it was gradually dawning on cast and crew that its journey from conception to tour was more farcical then anything the playwright could have envisaged. So far, they had endured power cuts, van breakdowns, lighting and sound failures, sets collapsing, and more. Their director Lloyd had abandoned them to direct Hamlet off-Broadway three weeks ago, various in-cast love affairs were dangerously close to running their course, and the stage crew were at their wits’ end trying to manage everyone’s bruised egos and every new theater’s staging quirks.
In an effort to be helpful, Freddie had volunteered to carry his costumes down to the basement dressing rooms. As one of the (slightly) less superstitious members of the cast, he didn’t have anything too personally important to keep hold of, although it helped to have all his costumes in the correct places for the quick changes. But while trying to maneuver his way around two stage hands sawing at a large piece of raw wood, draped in multiple sets of clothes and hangers, he was overcome by a sudden, explosive sneeze.
“Heh’HIISSSH!!” The force of it bent his 6’4’’ frame almost double. Freddie awkwardly attempted to find his handkerchief, which was in his actual trouser pocket, among all the other myriad pockets currently about his person. Before he managed it, however, he was forced to pause again, mouth hanging slightly open, eyelids fluttering, before…
“Hah’ISSSHHH’uh!!” Even in the noisy backstage area, several members of the cast and crew turned to look towards the sound, and Freddie blushed, standing slightly dazed. Giving up on being able to get his handkerchief, he continued towards the dressing rooms, wrinkling his still-itching nose in an attempt to ward off any further sneezes. Once inside, he flicked on the lights around the mirror, bundled the costumes onto the dressing table and leant with his back against it, reaching into his pocket at last.
“Heh!” Holding the cloth a few inches from his face, he waited, frozen, eyes half closed, mouth open. “Hih!” The sneeze hung on for a few seconds longer, teasing him. Freddie wrinkled his nose again, hoping to coax it out, and finally…
“H’ISSSSH’uh!!... Heh!” A beat, then another. “H’ESSSSH!!”
The loud noise made the small room ring for a second, and Freddie dabbed at his nose, relieved that it seemed to have stopped tickling for the moment. As he returned the handkerchief to his pocket, there was a quiet knock on his door, and Belinda, his fellow cast-member and on-stage wife, opened it. She was wearing an extraordinary low-cut teal dress, heels and looked perfectly turned-out, as usual.
“Goodness, Freddie darling, are you ok?” She asked, striding straight in and laying a solicitous hand on his arm. “You aren’t getting sick are you, sweetie?”
Freddie blushed even deeper, busying himself with hanging up his various costumes around the room. “Oh no, I’m…that is, I’m sure it was…only the dust, upstairs,” he stammered, awkwardly. “You know how stupid I am about dust.”
“Well you must be sure to rest up over the weekend, dear,” Belinda continued, as Freddie found hangers for his jackets and trousers. “We’re all going to need to be on our best behavior, what with Garry and Dottie falling out again.”
Freddie stopped, crestfallen. “Oh no, they haven’t. Again?”
Belinda nodded conspiratorially, “Apparently, Dottie went out last night and didn’t come back to their room until the following morning,” she continued in a gleeful undertone. “Anyway, must rush, darling, lots to do, you know.” She gave him an unexpected kiss on the cheek, just slightly closer to the lips than would be completely chaste, and swept her way out of the room. Freddie blinked, leaned back on the dressing table again, and shook his head. Just what the production needed: more drama.
Sunday was, thankfully, a day of rest, one of the first proper days off anyone had had since the tour began. Even Tim, their perpetually-panicked stage manager, could get at least one night of unbroken sleep before they opened in Pittsburgh on Monday night. He arrived at the theater early to open up, and mentally ticked off the six cast members as they arrived one, or sometimes two at a time.
Dotty, the grande dame of the company (most experienced, and also co-funding the tour) was first, which was unusual, and went straight down to her dressing room without speaking to anyone. Then Brooke, the youngest and most air-headed actor, breezed through, humming to herself. Closely followed by Garry, with a face like thunder. Tim crossed himself and prayed that Dotty and Garry would both turn up for their calls and work something out amongst themselves. He just spotted Selsdon out of the corner of his eye, disappearing down the corridor with a particularly sneaky air, and made a mental note to check the dressing rooms for stashed alcohol ASAP. That just left—
“Tim, darling, how are we?” Belinda stopped to ask, radiant in a midnight blue clinging number, hair and makeup already done.
“Oh, um, fine, thanks,” stuttered Tim, wrongfooted by the attention. “Did you have a good weekend?”
“Just gorgeous, darling. Perfectly restful. How is everything here?”
“OK, I think. How are things between Dotty and Garry, do you know?” Belinda’s eyes lit up and she leaned forward against the prompt desk.
“Well, what I heard was-“ She stopped, looking over his shoulder. “Oh hi, Freddie, darling!”
Full House, Tim thought to himself in relief, turning to see Freddie arrive, his tall, thin frame wrapped up well against the November chill, a scarf swathing his neck. He gave his usual embarrassed smile to Tim, and nodded to Belinda.
“Oh, hi Tim, hi Belinda,” he said, not stopping on his way to the dressing rooms. “See you in a moment.” And he was gone.
“Well, anyway, must dash, Tim. See you at curtain-up!” Belinda called back to him, following Freddie.
Somehow, for once, at 7:20pm the entire cast (minus Selsdon, who wasn’t on for the first twenty pages), had assembled backstage. Tim and Poppy weren’t sure that Garry and Dotty were on the finest of terms, but they weren’t angrily glaring or screaming at each other, which was better than previous shows. Poppy was just putting the final plate of sardines into its taped-out square on the props table when she heard a truly enormous sneeze.
“Huh’ISSSSHHH!!...ugh…” She turned around to see Freddie, bent forward, handkerchief clamped to his face.
“Bless you!” Chirped Belinda. Freddie straightened up, shame-faced.
“I’m so sorry, everyone,” he began, thickly. “I have a really…h-horrible c-cold…” He stammered out the final words, voice rising uncontrollably as he raised his handkerchief again.
“H’ISSSSSHH’uh!!!” Several members of the cast took an involuntary step back from Freddie, and quickly started to go about their usual pre-show preparations, but Belinda immediately crossed to him and began commiserating.
“Oh Freddie, how awful for you, you must be feeling just terrible,” she said, taking his arm and steering him towards the chairs backstage. Freddie, a little dazed, still dabbing his running nose, tried to respond, but she was already continuing without him, “I told you, you must be careful about overdoing it, it’s a long run, I said, and we all need to be at the top of our game…” Freddie nodded vaguely as they sat down, not really listening. Turning away from her, he blew his nose, wincing at the foghorn-like noise which ensued. His eye was drawn, inevitably, to one of the many ‘no noise backstage!’ signs plastered all over the flats and pillars. He sighed, tipping his head back and pinching the bridge of his nose. It was going to be a long night. He had been hoping all day that his cold would clear up a little before the evening, but he was as congested as ever, and there was a constant niggling itch at the back of his sinuses that just wouldn’t let up.
Sitting waiting for the start, Freddie watched as Tim emerged from the dressing room corridor carrying something which looked suspiciously like a whisky bottle. Shortly afterwards, Selsdon followed, looking around as if for something he had lost.
“Oh, Selsdon,” Freddie stood up to intercept him. Selsdon attempted to focus, with apparent difficulty, on the tall, blazer and linen trouser-clad figure in front of him. “I just wanted to mention that, um, it would be really good if you could, um, start coming on really as I’m going off in our first scene. You know? You can be breaking the French windows glass as soon as I’ve finished the line. ‘I’ve heard of people being stuck with a problem, but this is ridiculous’? So then there should be no long gap between my exit and your entrance. How would that be?” Selsdon nodded slowly, eyes scanning again for a bottle-shaped object anywhere backstage. Freddie sighed and sat back down, hoping that some of his prompting might have gotten through. You could never really tell with Selsdon.
Freddie was struggling to hold it together convincingly: his timing was off, his energy was low, and the over-bright stage lights were cutting right into the center of his headache and magnifying an ever-present urge to sneeze. He was sure the audience could hear how congested he was, struggling to enunciate his lines clearly as he rushed around with Belinda and Poppy, panicking about Inland Revenue and ‘pigeon-houses’. Credit to Belinda, she didn’t flinch from their couple of on-stage kisses, although he knew he must look a sight. It was with relief when he got to exit offstage into ‘the study’.
His next piece of business was from offstage anyway, so Freddie stood out of the way of the set to wait for his cue. He glanced over to the stage door, wondering if he had time to step outside and blow his nose, but Garry and Dotty were having a whispered argument (shouldn’t they be on at the moment?) Even his attempt at a discreet sniff won him an irritated glare from Poppy at the prompt’s desk. So, dabbing at his running nose, Freddie waited.
“Oh by God!” He managed thickly, at the appropriate moment, and then from on-stage, heard:
“What was that?” Garry’s line, his character not thinking anyone else was in the house.
“Oh by God!” Poppy’s character covering for his. Freddie closed his eyes in despair as he heard Poppy put on a ridiculously stuffed-up voice to copy his own. He calculated in his head to his next entrance, and made a dash for the stage door.
He made it through the next couple of scenes fairly smoothly, and was just starting to hit his stride with the slapstick section. Belinda was also playing up to him sympathetically, and finally Freddie started to enjoy himself onstage. The audience was warming up nicely, and they particularly enjoyed his being glued to a tax return on one hand and a plate of sardines on the other.
“Oh don’t be silly, darling, go and get that bottle marked ‘poison’ under the sink, it eats through anything,” Belinda gave him his cue and he turned to leave stage left. He had just inhaled to begin his line when his nose began itching uncontrollably.
“I…heh!...I’ve heard of being stuck with a problem but this is…heh!...” his breath hitched as Freddie tried to hold back the sneeze and get his line out, struggling on, “ridi-…heh!...ridic-“ He wanted to rub his nose, but was unable with the tax return and plate of sardines “glued” to his hands. With dismay, he heard from behind him the unmistakeable sound of Selsdon breaking the fake glass in the French windows, right on cue. Of course, he would take the one night Freddie was slow with his line to take everyone’s advice and be early with his entry. But it was crucial that their characters didn’t see one another. He had to get offstage.
“Ridiculous!” Freddie gasped out, hurling himself through the door and offs. He practically threw the plate and letter at Brooke who was standing just inside the wings, waiting to take them from him. Grabbing his handkerchief, he hurriedly covered his nose and mouth.
“Hh’NNKT’tchuh!” He stifled as quietly as he could, while Tim and Brooke attempted to exchange his trousers with a pair of humorously acid-pockmarked ones. Unfortunately, Freddie was still completely at the whim of his sinuses. He tried again to keep it as quiet as possible, pinching his nose hard through the fabric. “Hih’h’NNNKT’tchuh!!”
“Gesundheit,” whispered Tim, who was fiddling with his belt. Freddie, sniffling into his handkerchief, caught a line from onstage, almost his cue. Stuffing the cloth into his new trouser pocket, he grabbed his props back from Brooke, elbowed the door open, and went on.
Somehow, the adrenaline kept him both on-script and sneeze-free for a brief time, and Freddie was gratified to hear the audience laughing enthusiastically at his trouser predicament.
“Darling, I think I’d better get these trousers off…” Freddie began removing his belt, all according to plan. But it was when Garry came on and confronted him that his nose really started itching again.
“Hold on, you’re just an intruder! An ordinary intruder!” Garry shouted, running to the staircase.
“N-nice to meet you,” Freddie stammered, holding out the tax return in his right hand. “Um, I mean, um…heh!...have a sardine,”, proffering the plate of sardines in his left hand. On cue, his trousers fell down. Also perfectly on cue, he gave a tremendous sneeze, doubling over, still holding his props, costume boxers on display.
Poppy froze backstage at the unplanned noise, but it was followed by an equally loud chorus of laughter from the audience.
The laughter continued all through the next few lines, right up until Freddie whirled off through the ‘front door’, trousers around his ankles. This was the part of the first act where everyone was running around frantically. He desperately needed to blow his nose, but his handkerchief was in his trouser pocket, which was rather too far away right now. On autopilot, sniffling, he ran on, then off again, then Brooke ran off into him, he took her nightie, they ran on, trousers falling down again gag, running upstairs with trousers round his ankles gag, Selsdon the burglar in the bathroom, finally he got off again into the upstairs ‘bedroom’…
He and Brooke threw on the ‘Arab sheets’ for their next comedy costume, rushed back on, then he left Brooke and went off through the study, Tim taking his place. Freddie pulled up his trousers, put his belt back on in the scant seconds before his cue, pulled on the headdress and sunglasses and rushed on through the garden. A few more lines, hit over the head with a vase, pass out on sofa, more lines, and then, at last, thankfully, curtain. Interval.
Making his way backstage in the blackout, Freddie was gratified to hear the audience applauding enthusiastically. At least they were having a good time. Fumbling in his reinstated pocket, he finally blew his nose, the noise no longer an issue. Still sniffing, he was surprised when Garry clapped him round the shoulder.
“Hey, great timing with the sneeze back there. You should do that every night!” Freddie hardly had time to mumble some vague thanks before Tim thrust a steaming mug of something into his hands.
“Honey and lemon,” he explained, then leaned forward, “and a tiny dash of Selsdon’s stash.” Freddie sank gratefully into a chair, hands cupping the hot drink. Tipping his head back, he pinched the bridge of nose, closing his eyes.