FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY! An Evening of Hilarity with Colin Cheeseman.
Unbelievably, I’m late for my first gig in three years.
Over the road, my face gurns at me from the posters. The photo is ancient: my jaw thrusts ridiculously and my eyes gleam like some crazed Mr Punch.
I also feel reassured. Dyeing my grey hair last week was clearly a good idea, because I still resemble the man across the road, the bloke from the telly.
I wait outside a boarded-up shop till the pain in my hip abates. Maybe the painkillers I took earlier are making me nauseous, not the nerves. I limp into the flow of traffic and cross my tarmacked Rubicon.
To avoid the groundlings who frequent these pub theatres, you should arrive early. But because I’m late, the door leading upstairs is closed and will only open to admit the punters in a few minutes. Reluctantly, I push into the bar downstairs. Just inside, a man blocks my way. He has his back to me and steps heavily on my foot, scuffing the polish on my shoe.
‘Sorry mate,’ he says, not sounding at all sorry.
‘I’m behind you!’ I say in my best pantomime voice.
The man will not budge. If anything, he’s deliberately trying to block me.
A drunk, I decide, judging by his clumsiness.
‘I really must insist on being let through.’ I deploy another of my disarming comedy voices and elbow my way past him into the room.
The bar is rammed. Despite the fact I can glimpse my face on A4 sheets stuck here and there, nobody recognises me.
I need the manager. What’s her name again? Chloe. That’s it! I feel ridiculously relieved. I need to fight my way to the bar to ask for Chloe.
The atmosphere is boisterous. Spilt beer is trickling from the bar top. Several people seem wildly drunk. And their clothes! I look at a bloke about my age resting his forearms on the bar, a spiked dog collar around his thick neck and a Never Mind The Bollocks tee shirt stretched over his paunch. Even the younger folks are dressed in some sort of costume: deliberately torn clothes, leather jackets and Doctor Martens.
Bewildered, I check one of the posters to reassure myself I have the right day. Can they really be dressed up like this for my show?
A couple notice me. I grin but they don’t smile back. The woman wears crazy mascara, a white shirt and a bowler hat. Blimey. She’s Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. I hope she behaves. Her gangly girlfriend is entirely in black, with peroxide blond hair tweaked and gelled into spikes. Perhaps coming to see me is a nostalgia trip where you get to wear fancy dress from the twentieth century, a miniature Rocky Horror Show or Mamma Mia!
I gulp back the cocktail of Tramadol and stomach acid surging up my throat. Just nerves, that’s all.
Someone grabs my arm.
‘Colin – there you are!’
‘Thank God,’ I say.
‘Needle in a haystack,’ Chloe shouts above the noise. ‘I was getting worried. Do you need a drink?’
I shake my head.
‘Need? No. Not since breakfast,’ I say.
‘Let’s get you sorted,’ she laughs.
‘That would be great.’ Is my voice shaking?
She grabs my hand and forges through the knots of drinkers, a few of whom finally clock me. It’s as if Chloe makes me visible. One – no two – of the women, probably in their twenties, even begin to wave.
‘Are they really my crowd?’ I ask, giving them a rascally thumbs up.
‘Yep! A lively crew tonight.’
‘Oh great,’ I say rolling my eyes.
As if to prove the point, the bell rings. There is an announcement for the show. It starts in ten minutes. Rapidly, everyone begins to filter noisily upstairs. The room is clearing. There’s no doubt now, they are here for An Evening of Hilarity with Colin Cheeseman.
Chloe releases my hand. Sweaty, so I don’t blame her. She leads me to the rear of the pub, and unlocks a door marked PRIVATE using a key from the chain around her waist.
‘Upstairs,’ she says. ‘I’ll find you backstage.’
The door is closed and locked. I am alone. At least Chloe can’t see me wincing in pain as I climb. In fact, these stairs provoke déjà vu. It’s quite possible I gigged here once. I get a flash of memory: a tiny room backstage, little more than a cubicle. It had a sink which I pissed into. Maybe I’ll do the same tonight, for luck.
Eventually I reach a landing, where absolutely nothing is familiar. There are the remnants of red flock wallpaper, like an old-school Indian restaurant. It is peeling in places, and where the paper has detached people have scribbled on the wall. I decipher one scrawl: Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat.
At first I’m blank, then I remember an earworm, a song from my childhood. What’s the name? Two brothers … Sparks! That’s it.
Come on! I yell at myself abruptly. It’s happening again. Focus!
There is nothing here. What was Chloe talking about? There is an outline sprayed in luminous pink on the wall, as if to indicate where an entrance might be, but no door. I grow distracted again. There are insects, tiny papery moths in the air. I look at the carpet. It is crawling.
Only then do I notice a square of cardboard propped against a skirting board: BACKSTAGE it says in thick black marker pen with an arrow that points down another flight of stairs. It makes no sense, but as there is nowhere else to go I descend till I reach the bottom, where I push through a fire door which immediately – on its own? – closes behind me.
I am standing in an alleyway.
This can’t be right.
Somewhere a full house is waiting for me. This performance is the only opportunity I have had in three years to breathe life into my career – and here I am: late. Late and locked out …
I bang on the door.
‘Hello! Is anybody there?’ My shout is magnified by the slippery walls either side of the alley.
I wait, sampling the smell of stale piss, and as I do, I half hear a kerfuffle in the air. Distant applause? Has the show started without me?
Rattled, I limp hurriedly out of the narrow passage back towards the high street. I can see the boarded-up shop across the road, and the theatre on my left.
When I reach the front, the place has gone dark. I try the street door to the theatre upstairs, then I shove the door to the bar downstairs. Both are locked.
‘For Christ’s sake!’
Again I imagine the restless house; Chloe must be frantic. I go a bit mad, hammering on both the doors in turn. I peer in through the dimpled windows of the bar downstairs. No one.
‘Calm yourself,’ I say aloud, then: ‘phone, you idiot.’
In a few seconds of scrolling, I find the number.
You’ve dialled an incorrect number, says the voice.
I try again. Same result.
I press my face to the windows. Darkness. Nobody.
Tears of frustration begin to sting my eyes. This is ridiculous.
Overhead, a CCTV camera rotates on its stalk. The movement catches the tail of my eye. I look up imploringly into its lens.
Is that laughter? Is this some kind of set up?
The door opens.
‘Where were you?’ Chloe says. She is exasperated. ‘What happened? Everyone’s waiting. You’re late.’
She races upstairs and I hurry after her as best I can, trying to ignore the pain.
I’m panting as we turn right at the top of the stairs and open another door opposite. I find we are standing behind the rows of seats. There are bums on the seats, I smile to myself. It seems I can still fill a theatre. The house lights are down, the punters are hushed with anticipation and seemingly transfixed by the lit but empty stage.
‘JUST GET ON!’ she mouths at me.
Sod it. No elegant entrance from the wings, but I am a comedian after all. I’ll make it work for me. I walk a few paces down the aisle, nodding gravely at the crowd, and clamber, exaggerating my clumsiness and pain, onto the boards.
There is absolutely no reaction from the audience.
I scramble inelegantly to my feet. Take stock.
The lighting is unfussy. There is a single and quite dim floodlight with a blue gel, which provides a background wash of colour, plus a tightly focused white spot that spikes centre stage. Next to the mic stand are my sparse props: a tall chair, a table holding a bottle of water and a glass. This simplicity is designed to send a message: Colin Cheeseman is a raconteur, not the in-your-face psycho of yesteryear.
At the back of the room Chloe claps and whoops once or twice to provoke applause. Nobody joins in, and after several seconds she stops.
‘What’s the sound of one hand clapping?’ I ask.
Starting feebly, with a Zen koan, means I justly receive tumbleweed and crows in return. My fault really. It is up to me to grab this lot by the scruff of the neck now. I glance out at them. Can this spiky-haired, leather-clad, splashily made-up crew have all sworn a monastic vow?
Sod them. I am safe here, in the spotlight. It is a bright island in a blue sea. I cross the stage to check if the spot will follow me.
It does. Up there in the dark the tech person is still on my side.
The silence is thick with judgment and hostility – but there’s excitement, even hope in here too. I want to make the soupy stillness work for me.
Hell. Suddenly I’m quite prepared to jettison my artfully structured anecdotes, bon mots, name drops and dollops of this and that. I look at the set points written on the back of my hand.
Just busk it? Why not. I unscrew the cap of the fizzy mineral water, pour it into a glass. I look out at the audience again, as if I had only now just seen them.
‘Ah,’ I say. ‘There you are.’
I exit stage left into the tiny wing, slip off my jacket and tie, and re-emerge in my white shirt and black trousers. My shirt gleams against the black backdrop. A bit of a Hamlet vibe. I roll up my sleeves.
You either have presence or you don’t: I ooze presence.
Although this mob remain resolutely quiet, I can feel their eyes on me like the sun through a magnifying glass. But instead of shrivelling me like a sun-scorched ant, I find the effect to be wondrous.
Doctor Spotlight never fails. He transforms anxiety into glorious exhilaration, makes my heart thump with life. I feel no more sickness, no hip pain. I’m free of everything.
Joyfully, I twist in his light like a little kid.
Is this a sniffable hostility? Yes. They think they smell blood. Good. I can use that.
I don’t speak.
Someone titters nastily, so I appear to be mildly affronted.
I am channelling Max Miller. I glance into the wings. Naturally, there’s nothing there, except for my jacket and tie on the floor. Oh, and a red fire extinguisher which, by the magic of theatre, I metamorphose into a mysterious force behind the scenes.
So here I am, defying the censure of the extinguisher, confiding in my audience. I walk downstage towards them, past my chair. Of course these sods know nothing. They couldn’t tell Max Miller from Brighton Pavilion. Miller was way before my time, but I am a professional. I learned what he could do.
At last, I approach the mic stand. I do a gag. (Mindful of the tyrant backstage.) I do another one. It goes even better. A boxer’s one-two, just to show them I can do it when I’m in the mood.
There is laughter.
Suddenly, I’ve gone all music hall. I transform into Arthur Askey. I skip back and clap. Once, twice, then pause.
Finally – finally – the punters get the idea. They applaud. The tension releases. Someone even whoops.
In this instant, they’re mine. Flapping their forelimbs together like performing seals.
I return to the high table next to the chair. Gulp the water. Display the dampness of my shirt under my arm. I don’t care. I’m not on a screen to be dragged at with smeary fingers. I am real and in the flesh, it’s what they want.
‘Only joking,’ I say. ‘I want to tell you everything about my life in one and a half hours,’ I announce, returning to the set list on my hand.
I inhale exorbitantly.
‘I was born on the first of April and after they wiped the blood and goo off me, Ma Cheeseman said: shall I call him Colin after Colin Cheeseman his grandfather the meat packer, or should I call him Jesus seeing as we celebrated his resurrection the day before my baby’s birth? And lo! Ma Cheeseman decided to float her baby away on a basket of reeds down to Greenwich or maybe into the North Sea as she couldn’t decide if her boy child was a bit like the Messiah or just an alien that had just produced a demonic black poo. Eventually she was talked out of it, and so endeth the first day of Colin Cheeseman’s life. On the second day my mother sang like a bird in our shoebox rooms, because we were so poor, so poor … so pour me another glass, barman … from the age of fifteen I began to drink beer, I was a beer barbarian, blubber blub …’ But now I am gibbering and spit out the words too fast to be heard till, eventually, I have to breathe. Once I have inhaled, I expel a stream of wordless nonsense.
It’s all a mix of Dada and the Theatre of the Absurd. Samuel Becket and all that. Don’t think Sammy boy wasn’t influenced by comics. Waiting for Godot is pure Laurel and Hardy.
There! One or two have started to laugh as I gabble, despite the fact there’s no funniness here. It’s all tragedy. Whether they know it or not, they are being confronted by the absurdity of having paid to hear nonsense.
‘Tell us a bloody joke!’
Interrupted, I peer into the crowd. Jesus. A heckler. A loud one.
I inhale again with great theatricality.
‘I hadn’t expected an antagonist.’ It is one of my catchphrases. Usually I like to drop them carefully, but the occasion calls for rashness. There is delighted recognition.
‘This,’ I continue, ‘was intended to be a night of soporific anecdotes.’
‘Get on with the show then. You putrid clown.’
‘Daddy? Who let you out of the home?’ I ask, adjusting to heckle-handling mode.
That wizened face. Oh Christ.
‘Chaz?’ I say.
‘You were supposed to be the funny one. Is that crap all you’ve got?’
I am staring into the squinty eyes of my former sidekick, my oh-so-straight man, for the first time in thirty-five years.
‘Any soporific anecdotes about me?’ he adds sweetly.
There is a pause. I sweat freely.
‘Thought not,’ he says.
‘My old mucker Chaz Chalker,’ I say. ‘My original partner in comedy crime.’
I extend my hands towards him and begin to clap.
Nobody accepts my prompt. The needling atmosphere has returned.
Chaz stands up in his seat. I see he is absolutely bald.
‘I’ve brought some friends,’ he says.
‘Friends!’ I say, feigning amazement. ‘Well done! But what you really need is to bring a few more follicles. Now, moving on …’
But he keeps standing.
‘Want to know where they are sitting?’ he yells. The no-talent is enjoying himself.
‘Imprisoned in your Austrian basement?’ There. Bonked back over the net with a beautiful backhand.
‘Everywhere,’ he says, opening his arms to indicate the room. ‘Fucking everywhere.’
When he says this there is an outbreak of unhinged hilarity in the room. A laughter that’s unrelated to fun; the snicker of hyenas and jackals.
I retreat to centre stage. This is tough, but the sustaining spotlight shines life on me.
I chug some water, a boxer between rounds, and have a flight of fancy. Is there a source of help in this world? Some broken-nosed trainer in the wings? Nope. Just my clothes and the red censure of the fire extinguisher.
I’m on my own.
‘Why not,’ I say after a moment’s thought, ‘join me up here?’ Enough rope, I think. ‘Still got it in you, Chalky?’
A mangy animal bursting out of the undergrowth. I experience a physical disgust as he scrambles onstage.
I have to humiliate him. I have no choice.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen …’ I start. Chaz is a squat man, with an unusually loud voice. Over the mic I announce: ‘The original space invader!’
Instantly, he imitates the crude, pixelated jerking of the Space Invaders and criss-crosses in front of me.
For ten seconds this works brilliantly. The crowd responds, some even begin to mimic the game’s throbbing vintage effects. But he makes it go on far too long.
I close my eyes, savouring the delicious sound of evaporating enthusiasm. You see, with Chaz Chalker nothing ever gets funnier; nothing builds, it all grinds to a halt. But he soldiers on, bless. I can hear his shoes squeaking on the boards.
I open my eyes.
‘So, Chazza chappy, anything else for our entertainment before you leave?’
‘Well,’ says Chaz, ‘funny you should ask me that.’
‘I sincerely hope so.’ I slacken my face, winking at the audience.
I get laughs.
‘When you eventually crawled on,’ he says, ‘I couldn’t help thinking you’ve let yourself go a bit.’
I do my sniffy, affronted decency face.
‘You see,’ Chaz continues, ‘until now I thought you were very well preserved for a man of ninety-seven.’
Silence. Whatever that line thought it was doing, it has fallen flat.
‘Ah,’ I dead bat. ‘Does the comedy – such as it is – reside in the suggestion that I am old and past it? Well, I’ve recently turned sixty-three, dear heart, which is quite senior enough, thank you. Got anything else?’
They laugh. For me. Against him.
Where, I wonder, are all his friends now?
Chaz is the epitome of a damp squib. Me? I’m funny – can’t help it – but this poor sod was useless even as a straight man. He always manages to get in the way of the joke. I had no option but to sack him, but at this precise minute I feel almost sorry for him.
His pathetic ambush – or whatever this is – is falling on its face.
‘A big hand for Mr History! Chaz hands everyone!’ I yell, waving an exaggerated two-handed goodbye to him.
The audience is generous, and I fully expect him to leave. Point proved.
But he stays.
At last I look at him properly. I have avoided doing this till now, because when you look at someone on stage it gives them power. I am shocked by how lined and worn out he is, his grey skin overwritten by a boozer’s broken veins. He appears to be circling the drain, as a medic would say.
‘I’m not joking,’ he says.
‘We all know that,’ I say brightly. Too obvious, I think, but it gets a laugh.
‘One of the many, many things about you that annoys me,’ says Chaz, ‘is that you look like you’ve got a picture of a scrotum in your attic. You look too young.’
That’s almost quite funny, for Chaz. He edges closer to me, a piteous expression on his wrinkled face.
‘I just want to share it, that’s all.’
‘Share what, you turnip?’
Poor bloke. The thought surprises me with its surreptitious decades-old guilt. I come to a decision: let’s kill two birds with one stone. Let’s get this rabble on my side and be nice to the old fraud for once. Anyway, what harm can this rag on a stick actually do me?
I slide the mic into the stand and beckon him.
Entering the brightness, he stands between me and the mic. I can see over the top of his head into the room.
This action is met with a burst of vigorous and warm applause.
Curiously, I find there is a tear in my eye. I feel shocked at my own sentiment.
From behind, I put my arms about his shoulders and embrace him. I look down over his bald head and give it a noisy kiss.
As I do this, I notice something wrong. The hands that are clasped over Chaz’s stomach are covered in dark liver spots. Whose are these? I look at them for two seconds. Experimentally, I clench my own hands into fists. The liver-spotted monstrosities weakly obey.
His head is still under my chin. In the last seconds, I have noticed that in close-up, several dark hairs have bristled wirily from his scalp. I thought he was a proper slaphead. Wait. Is this part of the set-up? I can feel his skull straining – no, rasping – into my chin.
Firmly, Chaz pushes out from my arms. Nonplussed, I watch him slide the mic from the stand and move downstage, closer to the throng.
The spotlight follows him.
I stare into the dark over the audience, disgusted by this betrayal. Gasping, I lean against the chair, barely visible in the faint, enervating blue of the floodlight.
My shirt seems too big. My trousers are loose, almost falling off me.
‘What a trickster I am, Ladies and Gentlemen,’ says Chaz. The audience bursts into a frenzy of savage glee.
Energised, he commands the space, and flashes a smile at two women sitting next to one another in the front row.
‘Ah. Roses,’ he says, ‘surrounded by thorns.’
The audience howls. I don’t know why, but they are on his side now. It seems they always were.
I drag myself off, collapsing into the wing, stage left. What is happening? I am on all fours. What’s wrong with my belt? My spotted, dithering fingers cannot seem to tighten my belt.
From nowhere, tinnitus howls in my ears. I attempt to stand up on my shaking legs. My knees are loose. Everything is too heavy.
I must get back out there. It’s my last chance.
I scramble out on my hands and knees, still hauling at my trousers.
My entrance receives an astonished laugh of delight.
‘Well hello, chap, back already?’ Chaz sneers, running his hand through his dark crop of hair.
Like a damaged moth, I crawl towards him, trying to reach the tantalising ellipse of light.
But I can’t. I lay my head down on the boards. The world is ninety degrees from true. My ear is pressed against the boards and I can hear them squeak and groan under Chaz’s moving feet. My other ear is full of voices.
I’m losing the plot.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the last performance of Chalker and Cheeseman,’ a voice announces. Is that dear old Chaz speaking?
He is singing the Sparks song.
‘This town ain’t big enough for the both of us!’
‘Dah-dah der-der!’ sing the crowd in unison.
My chest is being skewered. Blackness tightens around me.
An enormous dark needle pins me to the boards.