Early roles can cast a giant shadow

Image of Susie Boyt

Christmas plays are being cast throughout the land, and school halls are fraught with tots and teens with big dreams. Somebody has to be the hind legs of the oxen; not everyone can emulate the Blessed Virgin herself. For each Artful Dodger who trills “Consider Yourself” with spry cheeky-chappy abandon and gaily coloured kerchiefs, there will be many Third Peasants who must keep very still, trying to look hungry and bespattered and oppressed. There will be Innkeepers desperate to eke out that single line, “NO”, to maximum effect. There will be tears and tantrums. Drums of Quality Street will be consumed. And so it all rolls on: Christmas, show business, time, life, you name it.

But what if the dramatic roles we are cast in at school affect us all our lives, hinting at our destinies and even shaping them in some spooky, predictive way. Do teachers choose us for our strengths and our weaknesses, mapping out our lives’ likely journeys for their sport? If you are Mary in the nativity, are you guaranteed a super-successful career? I expect so. The ballast of that kind of childhood thumbs-up cannot be matched, perhaps.

If you specialise in old ladies, headmistresses, dowagers, the occasional dodgy uncle, plus the slower members of the animal kingdom, can lightness of heart and fleet footedness ever be your domain? What do you think?

My own life’s trajectory was most roundly suggested by my childhood theatrical roles. First stop Miss Piggy. You may titter, but I fought tooth and nail for that part in a campaign so dynamic it could have launched a new product in several territories, including Scandinavia. Miss Piggy – a paranoid hysteric with a huddle of needs and a love of glamour, prone (facing upwards) to jealousy – did not fully express my junior persona, but in a Venn diagram scenario there would have been some substantial intersections between our characters.

Next stop was Dame Crammer in School and Crossbones, a sharp-hearted headmistress with a hidden romantic core and a passion for the high seas. While my sea legs never quite got out of stabilisers, my headmistress-y desire for immaculate behaviour all around (with me in charge, naturally) had begun to emerge by age 11. It has stayed with me since. Dame Crammer, a sort of Malvolio crossed with Julie Andrews, is first seen dismantling a midnight feast with a most recherché maritime admonition sung at full throttle: “Lord Nelson never turned his eye/ On conduct slightly shady.” Indeed.

If I appeared to my teachers as a hysterical pig, and then an elderly prig, it was observed from on high in the staffroom that, perhaps, some spiritual aspect in me required encouragement, and so I was given the role of Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. My Abbess was cheery, an optimist whose gentle wisdom was kind and soothing. “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window” – I spoke the line so it hinted dimly at farce, moonlit flits from the landlord, spry carryings-on with bags of swag conducted in loose stripy knitwear. But could the teachers have somehow guessed that, aged 26, I would find myself guest of honour at my own Christening? I’ll never know.

The view from the staffroom can be very hierarchical, so from the dizzy heights of convent head-office I was dashed down to Second Snail in The Insect Play. It is hard to be immune to status anxiety when you are got up in a pink leotard with an 11.5 tog duvet strapped to your back (I snipped off the label). The number of matinee idol molluscs to have graced the pages of Variety is awfully slim. However, I was quite proud of my Gloucestershire accent stolen from a gamekeeper called Ben Legg, as I crawled across the stage making the best of things, something at which I excel. “You may be wise beyond your years, young lady, and that old head of yours may sport a mortar board or a habit at times, but let us not get above ourselves,” this harsh bit of casting said. Humble pie, I ate you, even leaving a few bits of the pastry for Miss Manners. This kind of enforced modesty lives on for ever.

And then next stop Lady Lucre, who wore so many diamonds that she developed RSI issues around the neck, wrist and ear lobes. If First Snail could only see me now! Were the teachers dimly signalling that the poverty of my childhood would not extend into adult life? That one day there would finally be enough to carry me through? I’ll never know.

But when my best friend was cast as Catherine de Medici, I immediately saw it was time to sit up and start to play my cards a little closer to my chest.


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