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A Master-class with Elaine Paige


WILLIAM McBRIDE:

“There’ll be no more applause!”

A beaming Elaine Paige, OBE takes the stage after an introduction sprayed with superlatives that only a thespian could stomach.

The applause, her applause, surges and the audience, chuckling, positively beams back at her.

Taut, blonde and compact, ‘The First Lady of music theatre’ is getting on a bit these days, but she sure is spry; high-heeled, she clocks around downstage-centre, turning, stopping, grinning. Good-natured admonishment is her native tongue.

“I mean it! Enough! This is not a stage. This is a classroom!”

Well, kind of…

A few distinct demographics make up the student-body this afternoon: young would-be musical theatre stars, all great posture, moontans and the animal eyes of self-consciousness, alert but myopic; the fan-boys, mostly settled into their non-performance theatre careers, who shoot inscrutable stares of appraisal about the room, like grappling hooks; and the middle-aged-to-elderly diehards, who probably saw EP in her ‘original creation’ in the title role of Evita, and who now radiate forth a collective faith in her infallibility. I’m not sure where I fit in.

“These are the Fans,” one fan-boy insisted in the foyer before class. “Everyone is here just to see Elaine.” His phone rings and he repeats this assertion to the person down the line.

The Theatre Royal Haymarket Master-classes take on the loose structure of Famous-Person memoir-lecture, followed by pretence of formal education in which a few brave volunteers get up and perform for, and are often skewered by, the Master. The focus is usually on the performing arts, but the program does occasionally expand to include literature and other creative disciplines. Over the past few months Masters have included Patrick Stewart, Brian Cox, Tara June-Winch and Deborah Warner.

Back in the classroom (TRH’s gilded detail and private boxes make it one of the West End’s most beautiful theatres), not knowing where to pitch her lesson for the nonspecific audience, EP goes back to basics. We learn her ‘Seven Objectives’: Technique, Research, Memorising, Interpretation, Perseverance, Health & Fitness and Auditions/Performance.

“Never be late – it’s an ABSOLUTE failure!”

“No SHORTCUTS – the same as everything in life.”

EP’s well-enunciated advice is commonsensical but good, and it nourishes the Young Hopefuls in the room like some basic sustenance, like brown rice or sunlight.

“I hope I’m not boring you?!”

She peppers her talk with un-vain name-dropping – a hazard of one’s peers being mostly famous, no doubt – and jokes, where getting the punch line is often dependent on knowledge of her career.

“Memorise! You MUST memorise! I should know something about that! Huh?” After each blague she cocks her face to the audience, as in an aside, and cackles.

(The program has reminded us that EP ‘created the role of Grizabella in the original production of Cats and the classic song Memory became one of Elaine’s many hit records.’)

When it comes time for the volunteers, each one – all excellently groomed and poised almost to the point of levitation – apologetically admits that, while they have memorised the songs, they haven’t known them long. It seems one of the Master-class’ organisers compelled the Young Hopefuls to learn, in a little over a week, hits made famous by EP. This sounds good in theory – the Master illuminates material they know better than anyone else – but the singers’ only modest familiarity with the songs undercuts the main thrust of the Seven Objectives and for a while everything feels a bit frustrated.

As a teacher, EP pulls no punches: “Give it a bit of welly!!” “I got a bit bored, actually.” “That was…interesting.” “Could you hear her, everyone? Perhaps the piano was too loud…” And the stinger: “I’ve never seen it done like that before. I might be wrong. I don’t know? But I don’t think I am.”

The theatre is a tough game, and to survive you have to understand that this code of indirect-yet-lacerating criticism is really quite thin on the ground – EP is no bitter crone, just a disciple of the cult of No-Nonsense. And with a display of reverence and ready self-deprecation on the part of the young ’uns, everyone can remain friends.

“Yes, you’re right,” said one Hopeful. “I was probably playing his internal angst too externally.”

Fact box:

The Theatre Royal Haymarket run Master-classes of this kind every other week. They get some very impressive names (this Friday it’s Miriam Margolyes, OBE :-) and membership is completely free. If you’re into theatre (and you don’t work on Friday afternoons), it’s a no-brainer. There are other fringe benefits, too, usually in the form of last-minute tickets to West End shows, or preview invitations.

Sign up at: www.masterclass.org.uk/

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