(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/13; Photograph: Marilyn Kingwill.)

Starring in a Zoom production of the play Masks and Faces tested my acting skills – not to mention my singing

About six weeks ago a small bombshell landed in my inbox. Headed “A Job Offer”, it was an email from Neil McPherson, director of the Finborough theatre in London, asking if I would like to play the role of a theatre critic in a Zoom recording of a Victorian play, Masks and Faces, by Tom Taylor and Charles Reade. I hesitated for a while (don’t real actors need the work?) but eventually accepted, deciding it would be cowardly to chicken out. And I’m glad I did as the experience was an eye-opener.

One good reason for saying yes was the play itself: a hidden gem that I had seen at the Finborough in 2004. The play, which was first performed in 1852, is a paean to Peg Woffington, the Dublin-born actor who conquered the London stage in the 18th century. During the action we see her returning an infatuated admirer to his rustic wife and rescuing an impoverished dramatist from penury. But there is much wit in this Woffington: when the dramatist claims that his wife laughs at nothing, Peg replies: “Try her with one of your tragedies.” The play also contains an intriguing debate about illusion and reality with Peg concluding: “We oft confound the actor with the part” – as true now as when the play was written?

But what on earth could I bring to the role? For a start, there are two critics in the play – the waspish Mr Snarl and the oily Mr Soaper – and it was left to me and my colleague Fiona Mountford to decide who was to play which. Fiona generously ceded to me the role of Mr Snarl, who bitches about the players with whom he hobnobs and who is given to loftily sententious remarks about art. As a critic, I may be prone to the latter, but I hope not the former. Early in our two-day rehearsal period, I said to our director, Matthew Iliffe, that I was going to model my performance on that of George Sanders as Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. I don’t come within spitting distance of Sanders’s supercilious arrogance but that, at least, was my inspiration.

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