At Oxford, over the river, there is a long road which winds into Cowley, the multicultural sink estate where most of the students live out in their second year, very far from the play of dreaming spires and punting rich.
Stuart Holmes lived there for a time too in the early 2000s. He lived on a suburban street called Boulter Street, a shabby little tumble of houses, a haphazard cul-de-sac. One May morning he shut the 50th one of its doors and walked away from it, pulling up his jacket. It was very cold and bright. He passed a house in which a few days earlier a man had died, his face having been burnt beyond recognition by indoor fireworks. A journalist had come round to interview Stuart and asked him to confirm that was what had happened – ‘if you say it, I can write it’ – but Stuart had somehow felt compelled to refuse doing that.
He walked along the street to where Boulter met St. Clements Street, the long thoroughfare which led on back to the centre of town, towards the Oxford of history, of virgins and bookshops. It was also the Oxford of extremely expensive sandwich shops and, if he ever had occasion to write a memoir of this time, it would surely have been called ‘Baguettes.’
Walking along the road – for Stuart was a habitual walker in this town of bikes – came a figure he knew well, a rotund, bulge-eyed man dressed as ever in a waistcoat. ‘Stuart!’ called the man, lifting his arms exuberantly as he did and performing a mock-stunned stumble backwards, ‘Stuart Holmes!’
‘Peter.’ Peter Lowel.
‘Oh my God! I love you!’ said Peter, moving round in a kind of weird dance, his eyes fixed on Stuart the whole time. ‘I love him. I love Stuart,’ Peter shouted to a passing cyclist.
‘How are you Peter?’ asked Stuart.
‘Nomnomnomnom.’ Then Peter flinched suddenly, and looked at him almost angrily. ‘I hate you,’ said Peter. The little dance resumed but now it had grown almost vengeful, animalistic. ‘Hate you!’
Stuart was already walking on towards the town centre. ‘See you later,’ he called to Peter.
‘I love you!’ he could hear Peter calling back.
Stuart walked on. His mind was turning to the show tonight – of course it was. He had received a text from his producer, Julia, that a London West end promoter was due to come; they didn’t know exactly where the promoter was from, or what they indeed looked like, but they were definitely going to come. It would be nice to be famous Stuart thought. He pictured it now; being able to peremptorily quit Oxford, a place he despised deeply, and move straight into a theatrical career; that, anyway, was his ambition. And he wasn’t sure he was going to be staying here anyway. He had recently applied for a scholarship to study Old Finnish at the University of Helsinki. It had been that or Icelandic scalds in Reykjavík.
Though of course, there was always Nellie, his actress girlfriend, who loved Oxford.
And Oxford was beautiful, in its rococo arches, and cold medieval courts, and curved bridges under which the punters glided, and Stuart couldn’t see it. Stuart could only see as far his own nose, which was today incidentally full of cold, streaming down onto him, onto his green corduroy shirt. He needed to get to the Playhouse, though first grab some lunch, so he stopped at a busy sandwich shop on Oxford’s main shopping street.
Flo Doherty was there, sitting upstairs with a friend.
‘It’s Stuart!’ he called as Stuart moved into the room and sat with his sandwich and caramel square. Stuart looked over, pale and sweaty.
‘Excited for tonight?’
‘I don’t get nervous.’
Next to Flo was a British-South Asian man with bloodshot eyes. ‘What’s tonight?’ the man asked.
‘Shaf, this is Stuart Holmes,’ said Flo. ‘Stuart’s the President of the Oxford Revue. And it’s the annual show tonight – this year it’s the Oxford Revue vs. Not the Oxford Revue.’
‘Where is it?’
‘The Oxford Playhouse,’ Flo smiled. ‘Are there still tickets?’
‘Yes, but they’re selling fast.’
‘It’s going to be amazing,’ Flo continued. ‘The reviews were brilliant.’
‘One of them was. The Oxford Student one was done by a German and he just said that we made too many jokes about paedophiles.’
‘Yeah, but everyone knows the Germans have no sense of humour.’
Shaf said slowly, ‘I was in Berlin recently. You can take a lot of drugs there.’
‘Do you want some drugs?’ asked Flo. ‘We’re going to have some coke later.’
Stuart didn’t, and in fact his chicken and sweet mustard sandwich was just about done. ‘Guys – much as I’d love to stay here chatting, my actors need me.’
‘It’s going to be a smash. Everyone’s going to be there,’ said Flo.
‘I’m not,’ said Shaf.
‘Everyone’s going to be there apart from Shaf,’ said Flo.
Now Stuart was out of the cafe, walking along Magdalen Street, turning onto the main boulevard. It was tourist central here, the buses crowding along the road, the tourists hoping to catch a little of that Olde English charm behind the blackened facades. But Stuart still didn’t see all this, felt only the dribble of his nose and the swirl of his dreams of glory. And he bent to check the screen of his ancient Nokia, which was telling him he had an unread message in its small black font. He unlocked the keypad; the message was from his production manager, Jonny.
I HAVE COMPLETED MY PROPS LIST
Stuart sighed. Jonny was an authentic idiot, a man who a few days earlier had texted saying he couldn’t find a button. Imagine a production manager who couldn’t find a button, and who had also several months previously won student production manager of the year. Lost in criticism of others Stuart came now on his left-hand side to the Playhouse, where he had last performed a year previously in the Oxford Revue’s show ‘Gonads’, in which he had portrayed a gonad. In the world of student comedy this counted as paying your dues. But tonight he would be judged, on his Revue, on his contribution to British comedy history, to his playing – him, the boldest and most radical student comic – the Andy Kaufman in a sea of Dudley Moores. First, though, he had to find the correct entrance.
He made his way round the back, which extended out onto a concreted beer garden. There was a door slightly open out of which a man was heaving a keg.
‘Excuse me,’ said Stuart.
‘Yes?’ the man said.
‘I, erm, have a show here tonight.’
‘Oh, you’re one of the artists. Let me show you to the dressing room.’
‘It’s OK,’ said Stuart. ‘Just through here, right?’
Stuart, who had never been called an artist before, entered the corridor. The man continued to walk behind him, while ahead of them Thwaite approached, the sound of flushing behind him. ‘Sorry mate,’ said Thwaite, ‘wouldn’t go in there. Major post-shit situation. Absolute stinkoid.’
‘I’m actually just going through to the main stage.’
‘Correct decision matey.’ The flushing roar continued as Thorpe leant in, shouting ‘Good luck for tonight.’
The hangar-like backstage gave way to the main auditorium and the beautiful sight of an empty heritage theatre with its hundreds of red-upholstered seats. Stuart paused a moment calming himself. There were actors on the stage talking, though not his actors. Several of those actors were there already though; Tubby Rikes, a magnetic young baldie who was his leading man, and Paul Talbot, a huge muscular Welshman who greeted him with a roar of ‘Stuart!’
‘Did they call you an artist too?’ Stuart laughed.
‘Come here,’ said Talbot, taking him in his arms and walking him slightly to the side. ‘Tonight is going to be so unbelievably brilliant.’
Stuart was smiling as he looked over he saw Nellie. His beloved Nellie. He looked over at her; her expression was stern.
‘We can’t rehearse,’ she said.
‘What?’ said Stuart, moving swiftly out of Paul’s hug. ‘Why can’t we?’
‘Because ‘Not the Oxford Revue’ are in there.’ She dropped her voice lower. ‘They’re blocking literally every cue. I don’t know when we’ll get on. If we can get on.’
More people were coming now; Cathy Lambert, Sophie Parkin, Jeff Dambo. All the main female and cameo roles. Stuart had for his part been seized by a horrible hacking cough, much to the perturbation of the assembled cast.
‘Are you alright mate? Want a tissue?’
‘No – I’ve got one…’ Stuart straightened, his teeth gritting: the deal had expressly been that Revue would be allowed in at one pm. And his watch now showed five past one. He said ‘I’ll deal with this.’
Stuart marched through the auditorium, past the hundreds of seats which would soon be filled, seeing none of them – well, perhaps he took time for a cock of the head and a prideful inhalation. Then he bustled up the stairwell to the sound booth.
Rupert Ruffles was bent over the mixing desk with a technician, wearing a black polo neck. He was leaning over the techie giving detailed instructions in a perky whine. Stuart just stood at the entrance.
‘Stuart,’ Rupert said noticing him at last. ‘OK, that’s good Andy. Just a little more spot.’ Rupert looked up. ‘Sorry about this Stuart. We’ll be done soon. Excited for tonight?’
‘When are you going to be done?’ said Stuart. He took a step towards Rupert, a much smaller man.
‘We’ll be finished, ah-ha,’ said Rupert, giving a weasely laugh, ‘when we’re finished.’
‘Because we have curtain call at 17.30. And you’ve had all morning.’
‘We’ve had since ten actually,’ Rupert said.
‘We had a lunch break.’
‘So what do we do?’ said Stuart.
‘I don’t know,’ said Rupert. ‘I’m not your director.’ Rupert leant into the mic. ‘OK guys. Run the whole thing again from the top.’
Stuart stared for a moment. ‘Best of luck for tonight’ he said.
‘You too,’ said Rupert, and looked up with a big smile. ‘Ursula – starting position.’
Stuart walked into the auditorium; Ursula was onstage, dressed as a plum. He crossed past her and backstage to where his actors were standing around.
‘They’re blocking their whole show,’ Stuart said angrily upon entering.
‘I booked us the Graves room,’ Nellie carefully replied.
‘Thanks,’ he said, and leant in to give her a quick, professional kiss.
And so the group of actors made the journey across Oxford from the Oxford Playhouse to St John’s college, back along the main drag, so that they could use the Graves room, a small turquoise-walled chamber where they had been rehearsing for the last months, repeating until deep in the night at which point one of the grumpy porters would usually appear to toss them out. In a pack they strode: the American Gary Price, already bearing the long stage cloak he wore for the role of the villain Fumhat, was walking ahead of them with two of the actresses, Sophie and Cathy, both in green dresses, explaining to them as he did the intricacies and humiliations of archaeological digs in New York: ‘And this guy comes up to me and says – you guys digging for gold?’ Talbot was laughing with his actress girlfriend – but in a fine, safe way, he’d trust Talbot with his life – and Tubby was hauling, in its big worn case, his tuba, which was to be used just for a single joke. Stuart looked over to them proudly as he walked; he was very young and had a gang.
They came marching round into St. Johns, laughing and shouting, receiving baffled looks, and not just from tourists, as they moved down the corridor and to the little room, bounding through the door and then inside, taking up positions around the room, conversing, loosening, ready. ‘Alright,’ said Stuart with authority, ‘Let’s run the kazoos.’
Yet just a few minutes later all was chaos and rabble. Tubby was dozing besides his tuba, and Gary had gone to get coffee with the girls. His girlfriend was reading a magazine.
‘What – is going on?’ said Stuart.
‘We’ve outgrown the Graves room, that’s the problem,’ Talbot rose to declare. It was true; they couldn’t block their movements here, and this little carpeted square was very far from the vast stage they were soon to play.
‘Did you see it,’ Jeffrey was saying. ‘It’s big, isn’t it? I mean, there’s going to be an awful lot of people there. Like a large number.’
Nellie looked over to him. ‘What?’ she said to Stuart.
‘I think we should go back to the theatre,’ Stuart said. ‘Where’s Gary? Where’s Marie?’
‘They went to get coffee.’
‘Well somebody go get them!’
Twenty minutes later Gary returned, sipping coffee and eating something out of a grease-stained bag. ‘Sorry,’ Gary said. ‘Did you want coffee?’
‘No,’ said Stuart. He didn’t drink it. ‘Is everybody here?’
‘We’re missing Caps.’
Caps entered. ‘Sorry. Was phoning my girlfriend.’
‘Right, everybody here?’
‘I think so.’
‘Stuart!’ It was Tubby.
‘I think I lost my kazoo.’
Stuart flashed a look to his girlfriend.
She looked over, coolly chewing nicotine gum. ‘I told you. I’m not the production manager on this production. I’m purely an actress. Phone the production manager. It’s his job.’
‘Fine, I’ll phone him,’ said Stuart.
He did; the familiar nasal whine answering. ‘Jonny’s phone.’
‘Ah Stuart. I did send you a text earlier. I have now completed my props list.’
‘Yes, Jonny, I got that, thank you so very much. But that’s not the right issue now. It’s that – could you get us another kazoo?’
‘I have said props should be left at the theatre at all times.’
‘Yes, Jonny, I totally agree – I think you’re absolutely right about that – it’s just, it’s, the show tonight you see and we really need an extra kazoo.’ He looked over at his girlfriend. ‘And a sign, right?’
‘Laura’s making the sign.’
‘Does she know that?’
‘She said she was…’
‘Somebody phone her!’
‘There’s no need to shout,’ said Jonny.
‘I’m not shouting!’ Stuart shouted. ‘Just get us a fucking kazoo will you? Thank you.’ He ended the call and launched into a hacking cough which ended with a yellowy burst of sputum into his handkerchief. ‘Let’s go to the Oxford Playhouse.’
When they arrived back at the Playhouse Rupert was still rehearsing.
‘Nearly there,’ Rupert said before Stuart had even got through the door.
‘How long is nearly there?’ said Stuart in the doorway. ‘It’s almost three-fucking-thirty.’
‘Run that again from the top.’ Rupert looked over but didn’t stand up. ‘Sorry Stuart, we’re busy.’
Stuart went down and sat in the auditorium. Julia, his producer, came and quietly sat next to him.
‘We’ve sold 400 tickets.’
‘We’re going to get at least 450 in. BBC Oxford is coming. And that Oxford website.’
‘That’s good. You know, I’m just really proud of the show.’
‘Excited?’ said Julia after a pause.
‘Indeed. I’ve been working my whole life for this moment.’
‘Well – it’s an amazing show.’ Julia hadn’t actually seen it yet but, there you go, Stuart would take it.
‘Finished!’ called Rupert, bursting into the auditorium from the back. ‘Right everyone,’ he cried, ‘Let’s go to the pub.’
And Rupert and his little mob went off stage, laughing and joking and bounding out the door. Stuart stared at them with his sourest look and then sprung up.
‘Nellie! Cathy! Sophie! Marie! Positions ! First scene!’ Stuart spluttered and shouted. ‘Come on, come on, we only have just over an hour!’
By the time the hour was up they had blocked exactly forty-five minutes of their two hour show and certain actors had never set foot on the stage at all. The result of all this was that the audience would in effect be watching their dress rehearsal.
About then Andrew the technician entered. ‘You all have to get out right now,’ he said.
‘But we’ve only just started,’ Stuart said.
‘That’s not my issue. Playhouse regs are quite clear; everybody has to be out of here by five thirty at the latest. It’s five thirty.’
Stuart took a spaced-out pause. ‘Alright everyone, clear the stage.’ Tubby and Talbot, dressed as a bee and a priest respectively, shuffled offstage together, talking in low tones. Stuart for his part shuffled together his tawdry, coffee-stained script, saying despondently to Julia as he did, ‘I can’t believe this.’
Jonny was approaching.
‘I have a kazoo,’ Jonny said.
‘It cost 65p.’
‘Just sort it out with Nellie, will you?’
‘I’ve told you, I’m not the production manager!’ Nellie called back.
‘I don’t have any change,’ Stuart said quietly. A new man was standing in front of him, with a huge shock of curly hair.
‘Cool. I’m a comedian. For tonight – you know, from the Cambridge Footlights. Well, alright, I’m not technically a Footlight but I’m representing the Footlights. I’m representing Cambridge. How long do I have?’
‘Sorry but – who said you were on tonight?’
‘You did. You’re Stuart Holmes right?’
‘Yes, I’m Stuart Holmes but…‘ Stuart thought back; he dimly remembered sending an email at 4am, some months ago, enquiring if the Footlights could send someone down. But he didn’t remember receiving a reply any. ‘Oh, Tig,’ he said. ‘Have you got five minutes?’
‘I can do 15.’
‘Five will be fine. I’ll tell Rupert – or, if you find him, you can tell him. He’s a small fat man in a polo neck. He talks a lot.’
Laura burst in, holding something large wrapped on a stick. ‘I’ve got it!’
‘What have you got?’ said Stuart.
‘Right,’ Stuart said.
‘And about my cameo today – I practiced saying the line. Can I try it? “Hello sailor. Hellooooooo sailor.” What do you think?’
‘It’s great Laura.’
‘Or is it more – ‘hell-o sailor’? And I thought I could wear this cap.’ She popped a white woollen cap on her head.
‘I already saw Rupert,’ said Tig, standing to Stuart’s left. ‘He said I could do 15, at the start of the second half.’
Stuart sighed. ’Did Rupert invite you?’ he said, standing up; some of the actors were calling him. ‘Please do five. And keep it tight – we’ve got a very long show tonight.’ Of which his part, the Oxford Revue, was to form the second half.
With the auditorium being cleared and hoovered for the 7.30 start, and Not the Oxford Revue, plus Tig, safely ensconced in the only available dressing room, there was nothing for it, as Talbot suggested, but to go to the pub.
Stuart didn’t drink. Indeed he disapproved of drinking, living for his part on a diet of marijuana and 50p mix. Gary sat opposite with a pint and a chaser, and Stuart didn’t approve, it seeming to him a bad omen, imagining sloppy line deliveries to come. But nobody was getting paid, so how hard could he be on them?
They were sat in the yard behind the Oxford Playhouse, near the small Burton Taylor theatre, where Emperor Penguin had been staged. He remembered Nellie selling the tickets, newly together and so happy to give out the stubs. Kissing when the last one was sold. Now the sky above was very black, cracked almost, in a May as dark as winter.
‘Come on everybody,’ said his girlfriend.
‘I’ll see you at the start of the second half,’ Stuart said.
Stuart moved to the theatre foyer, which was already filling.
His Mum was stood near the entrance with a concerned smile. ‘Stuart – Pam’s come down. Isn’t that good of her?’
Pam was an old retired friend of his mother’s who now spent her days photographing dogs.
‘Thanks for coming, Pam,’ Stuart said.
‘I hope it’s good,’ said Pam with an unimpressed frown. ‘The train ticket was expensive.’
‘Thanks so much for coming, really,’ said Stuart. ‘This is a very big opportunity for me. This is probably the biggest venue in British student theatre,’
‘You have done very well,’ said his Mum.
‘Stuart,’ said his Dad, approaching with a plastic pint cup.
Laura approached, dressed in her college scarf. ‘Hello sailor!’
His Dad said, smiling, ‘Lively this one, isn’t she?’
‘Laura, these are my parents.’ Stuart showed her his parents, together as so rarely. The two of them, little old people in Marks and Spencers wear, stood smiling back.
‘You must be proud Mr. and Mrs. Holmes,’ said Laura.
‘Miss. Sachs,’ said his mother.
‘Stuart,’ said Laura, standing a little too close to him, ‘I made Italian fig cake for the after party.’
Stuart nodded. ‘Thank you Laura. Now, if you excuse me, I have to go. We’ll be starting in five minutes.’
‘Good lad!’ they all said, or words to that effect.
Stuart moved into the main auditorium. There were hundreds of people streaming in, coming into the stalls, friends, acquaintances. The strangers were often older and louder, and had a coarseness to their speech that the students, the reedy needy students, did not.
‘Ready for a good laugh?’
‘Am I fucking ever.’
‘Hope it’s not shite.’
‘Students though innit. Wankers.’
Stuart took his seat towards the rear of the audience, directly before the main left entrance. Julia was already there, and excited.
‘We had to open the dress circle,’ she said. ‘Biggest student show of the year.’
‘People always want to see comedy,’ Stuart replied.
‘We’re a hit!’ said Julie.
Already the lights began to dim. In the pit to the right, Stuart could see his mother and father, and his girlfriend’s family too. ‘My mother likes you,’ Nellie had said. ‘I think she thinks you’re the only genius she’s ever met.’ And his girlfriend’s little sister, there in a tasselled cinnamon dress – smiling in anticipation of success. Now the lights were beginning to dim, and he noticed other familiar faces dotted around as the dark fell upon them.
‘Good luck,’ whispered Julia.
Arnold Thwaite came onto the stage first. He was wearing a black waistcoat and a silver bow tie, and said, raising his silver-topped cane – ‘Welcome everyone to Not the Oxford Revue vs. The Oxford Revue.’
They went wild.
‘We’ve got an amazing night of comedy for you tonight. But first, I want to talk to you. You know I read a headline recently that said ‘Porn is being literally pumped into Britain’s homes. And I thought,’ Thwaite squealed, ‘Really? Porn is really being pumped into Britain’s homes? Like –‘ Thwaite, thin and red-haired, made a gross squelchy noise. ‘Scwurppp.’ Then came Stern Dad voice, Thwaite’s specialty. ‘Oh no dear. There’s porn being pumped into the house again.’ Generic Posh Woman: ‘Oh no darling! Can you turn it off?’
The audience laughed for about five seconds straight, savouring this joke on the most radical of subjects, porn. It normally took the audience five minutes to warm up but with such excellent tech specs and at eight pounds a ticket, these people were like butter waiting to be spread.
Where had Tig come from? This detached Cambridge Footlight, this man who seemed to end up on stage almost by accident, and was now there again, blethering bollocks about penguins and, once more, porn, and of course, that indispensable comic trump card, his possession penis. Tig seemed to go on for hours, shouting about doing ‘a number three, a poo-wee’, but there was a God, he was at his closer now. ‘Can all the black people put their hands in the air?’
Nervous laughter into which Tig bellowed ‘Come on!’
A few hands.
Tig said ‘I still can’t see you.’ Then he said, ‘Welcome to Oxford admissions.’
With the ghost of satire securely slain, off went Tig.
Thwaite reappeared. ‘Wasn’t that incredible! Stealing my porn jokes, though. Ooo-er! Being pumped into our homes! Scwurppp! Now, are you ready for your first main act?’
What the hell was that, a first main act? You were either a main act or you weren’t.
‘I didn’t hear you! Come on now!’
The audience roared louder.
‘OK guys let’s do this! Let’s bring onto the stage – NOT – the Oxford – REVUEEEEEEEEEE!’
Stuart checked his watch; they had already been running for twenty-five minutes. He felt uneasy.
For now, a groovy little piece of pop funk began, and ‘Not the Oxford Revue’, these glorious specimens, these dancing clowns, these accessible fools, bounded onto the stage. Such enthusiasm! Here was Jerome Woodford, blonde and juggling, here was Ursula Blade, twirling and sashaying across the stage with her dress blown up by a fan. And here was Thwaite himself, who had expressly changed into jeans and a T-shirt to feature in the show he had himself warmed up for, and who was blowing bubbles.
It was a hell of a start and of course the audience loved it. They wanted to be entertained. The cast members twirled off, always in character, and the first sketch began, with Ursula emerging, dressed again as that gigantic plum. And now she began to pun, discharging a litany of fruit-based puns upon the audience in a way which left them rolling and gasping. Fruit puns! It would ever be thus; English audiences loved a juicy pun.
There followed funny videos of people dressed as cows, a song about soup, and not a single joke with bite or edge until, upon the finale – which featured all the cast dressed as rapping nuns, the laughter thinning now after over one hour in – ‘Not the Oxford Revue’ were dispatched to rapturous applause.
Stuart looked at his watch. Fuck. It was 9.15 with a twenty-minute interval still to come.
The Oxford Revue’s turn; Stuart’s turn. Triumph’s turn? He walked out the foyer and round to the auditorium, to the apparent ‘artist’s entrance.’ When he got backstage his whole cast was waiting for them, this numbering about twenty people.
Nellie was abuzz. ‘Where’s the oboe? The tuba? The dart?’ Various things were being found and tested, and some things couldn’t be found at all. Jonny stood at the side of the prop’s table with an air of inert pride.
‘OK everyone gather in,’ Stuart said. It was time for his motivational speech; the actors for their part moved into a huddle.
They all leant forward so their heads were at the same level looking over to him. But it suddenly occurred to him that he had prepared nothing, and he suddenly felt very sick, cold and frail. So all Stuart did was throw up his hands and say –
‘It’s there if you want it.’
And his arms fell back.
Then for a few minutes he strolled around, watching his actors, his heroes; Grimes was explaining medieval scholarship to Tubby, Paul was singing a rugby song; Jeffrey Dambo was practicing his line. Stuart suddenly felt greatly proud of them; perhaps they could pull it off after all. He kissed Nellie, he touched her hand, offered everyone a few last words of well-wishing, and walked back to the auditorium.
He passed his Dad emerging from the toilet.
‘Stewie, good luck,’ said his Dad.
And Stuart’s show began.
This is an extract from the author’s novel ‘Midlands’. If you enjoyed it, and would like to encourage him further, why not buy him a coffee?