When Phil met Michael
In June 2001, I directed Jonathan Harvey’s play Beautiful Thing at the Loft Theatre. Though the six weeks of rehearsal wore me to a frazzle, the week of the run was a dream. Fans of the play came to Leamington especially to see it from as far afield as Glasgow, Surrey and Germany; two even stayed in Leamington for the week and saw every performance. And the reviews were just astonishing.
The problem was the comedown. I felt really depressed after the last night. Fortunately, I’d foreseen this and arranged a safety valve. My mate Vanessa was directing a big, stylish, end-of-season bums-on-seats production of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Nile, and for a giggle I’d offered to do a politically incorrect cameo as the garrulous Arab beadseller you see here.
Rehearsing something so trivial with a fun group of people was just
what I needed. And then something totally unpredictable happened...
Flashback twelve years, to 1989. I visit Rugby Theatre to see a production of R.C. Sherriff’s First World War play Journey’s End. The pivotal role of Raleigh is played by a charismatic young actor called Michael Barker.
Over the next few years, I see him in more shows at Rugby, and occasionally bump into him socially; he seems friendly but reserved. And he has a long-term boyfriend, John.
Ten years go by; it’s December 1999. I attend a Millennium Ball at Leamington Town Hall, organised by one of Leamington’s amateur operatic societies; they’ve invited representatives from all the local theatre companies, and I’m there in my best bib and tucker with a bunch of Loft people. I spot a friend of mine whom I’ve heard has a new boyfriend, and go over to say hello; and I realise that the guy with him is the aforementioned Michael Barker. My jaw hits the floor. "Are you two... together?" I venture. Neil nods, beaming.
Later, I’m starting to get interestingly drunk. At one point, I find myself talking to Michael. "Do you know," I slur, "all the years you were going out with John, I secretly had a thing for you." He’s not fazed; instead, he smiles and says, "I wish you’d said." As this is within earshot of Neil, I interpret it as nothing more than flirty small talk, not meant to be taken seriously. But it makes my night just the same.
Another year passes. In November 2000, Michael is tempted to the Loft, to play Tobias in Sweeney Todd. Being friends with several of the cast, I join them for a few post-rehearsal pizzas, and get to meet Michael some more; I gather that he and Neil didn’t last, and he’s single again. But we’re always in a group, and talking is awkward. Besides, he can’t possibly be interested in me. I see the opening night of the show and then I’m off to Australia for a month.
July 2001. Back where this tale started, with Murder On The Nile. And things definitely start looking up when I discover that the young schemer Simon Mostyn is being played by none other than Michael himself. After both working prolifically in local theatre for over fifteen years, we’re to appear together for the first time.
Michael and I find we spark each other off, and spend a lot of our time in the green room flirting and exchanging witty remarks. But you can’t base a relationship on banter. So, having pushed us together, fate decides we clearly need one final helping hand.
The middle Sunday of the run is Vanessa’s 50th birthday, and Richard (her husband) has arranged a surprise party at the Loft. Michael and I are there, and end up chatting together for ages at the end of the bar. I pluck up my courage: "I feel I haven’t really had a chance to get to know you properly," I say. "When the show is over... would you like to go out with me some time?" "I’d like that very much," he says. Not wanting to build my hopes up only to be let down, I tell myself he’s probably just being polite. (Later, I discover from the mutual friends who gave him a lift home that night that, as he tumbled into the back of the car, he blurted out: "God, I have so pulled!". This has to be the most flattering thing I have ever heard said about me.)
By the last couple of nights of the run, though, the genuine attraction on both sides is clear; even I can’t talk myself out of believing. After the last-night party, he’s got a lift back to Rugby again, so it’s a hasty goodbye and a promise to phone next day. When it comes, the phone call amounts basically to him saying, "What are you doing today?", me saying, "Nothing," and him saying, "Well, why don’t you come over right now?"
And so I did. And so began the rest of my life.
The time since then has been wonderfully happy. After so many years
of living alone, I always imagined that I would find it very difficult
adapting to having a partner; but I don’t. Being with Michael
feels completely natural and familiar. He doesn’t displace any
of the other things that are important to me; he just seems to fit
snugly into all the gaps in my life, completing the puzzle, making me
a whole person.
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