Alex James

Slow Life | 3 October 2009

The royal treatment

I played Big Brownie in the Bournemouth scouts’ Gang Show at the Pavilion Theatre when I was 12 years old. That was the first time I had a dressing room. I must have spent a vast amount of time in dressing rooms from Greenland to New South Wales since then, countless hours and not so much as a moment’s anxiety about performing. But I’ve never dressed so carefully as I did on Thursday. I was terrified. I am quite at ease in my own comfort zone — playing loud and fast and hard — but orchestras are different. They are like stately homes, relics from a nobler age that nobody really knows what to do with. I suppose that’s why I get to have a go.

Actually, the dressing rooms at the Albert Hall, where last week I attentively polished my shoes and tucked my shirt in twice and once again to make sure, were not dissimilar to the ones at the Bournemouth Pavilion: Victorian, solid, subterranean, small, hot and as full of pipes as an engine. I suppose all dressing rooms are quite similar — even the ones in Portakabins and tents in muddy fields at Glastonbury aren’t much different from those underneath Kensington Gore. They are never much to look at, even when full of flowers and champagne. But the sense of allure and expectation backstage on a show day is enough to make the rest of the world seem dull by comparison, and the most rational of people clamour and fight to get inside.

Even when it was empty, the glamour, the suggestion of an expectant audience was all over the Albert Hall by about mid-afternoon last Thursday, prior to a night of orchestral extravaganza with huge choir, Coldstream Guards, fireworks, cannons, guest stars and visiting conductors galore.

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