Screeching tyres and white knuckles – my blink and you’ll miss it Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival debut

Deep in the gloamy darkness of the grounds of Rathfarnham Castle, I’m behind the wheel of a beautiful Austin Healy 3,000 Mark III. The steering wheel is creaking under my white knuckles, while the engine rumbles impatiently. A woman of no little intimidation is in the passenger seat, swathed in a tartan suit and with a black beehive that Norman Foster would be proud of. You could cut the tension between us.

“Why the silence?” she asks dramatically. “Are we supposed to be in character or something?” With one killer line, Helen Norton dispels any nerves, just seconds before my Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival debut.

Several weeks earlier, the Performance Corporation made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – a small part in Slattery’s Sago Saga. There would be no lines, and no real rehearsals, but I would get to drive an Austin Healy.

Now, this might not be the motoring pages, but it’s worth dwelling on the car. This is the only instance in the office when I have made the Motoring Editor jealous. The Austin Healy 3,000 is the most beautiful car I have ever laid eyes on, and when you turn over the engine with the push of a button, a symphony of refined aggression rolls like thunder from its exhaust pipes (apologies for the purple prose, I don’t often get to write about cars). Put a man in a Ferrari or any modern super car, and there is nothing he can do to stop himself looking like a complete tool. But put a man in an Austin Healy – well, like James Bond, women will want him, and men will want to be him.

But back to the drama. Slattery’s Sago Saga is an off-site production, adapted by Arthur Riordan from an unfinished Flann O’Brian novel. In the opening scene, Tim Hartigan meets and greets the audience outside Pog mo Thóin Hall (played imperiously by Rathfarnham Castle). He is interrupted by the arrival of Crawford McPherson (Helen Norton) who barrels up the driveway in the Austin Healy. With me on board, Norton has gained a chauffeur, and I’ve got a chaperone to get me through my debut.

Captain Smug in an Austin Healy 3,000 at his home, Smugly Hall, near the village of Smugly-on-Sea. Photograph: S.M. Ugly (actually Tom Swift took the pictures)

On the night, I arrive a few hours early to get suited and booted. While the real actors go through their vocal warm-ups, I watch director Jo Mangan and her crew preparing the room that is home to the majority of the action. There is no stage, and the play takes place in a grand, crumbling drawing room, so every seat is checked for positioning until they are inch perfect. Lights are tweaked millimetre by millimetre, and checklists are gone through laboriously.

I’m handed a chauffeur jacket and cap and man-handled by three different people until they are satisfied I look the part. Then it’s out to the car for a quick drive through, while Mangan peppers me with questions, advice and motivation.

I’m handed a chauffeur jacket and cap and man-handled by three different people until they are satisfied I look the part. Then it’s out to the car, while Mangan peppers me with questions, advice and motivation.

“What will you do if someone asks about the car?” she says. “What kind of horsepower does it have?” This is theatre, not Top bloody Gear, I think. All of a sudden, having a stage to protect you from the audience seems very pleasant. “Where are you going to look once Helen is out of the car?” she asks. I stare non-committally at the “stage”. “Good,” says Mangan. “Now, she’s a formidable woman. Give me your best nervous look.” It turns out I won’t have to act at all. Mangan looks satisfied with my pale face and wide eyes, but I can’t help feeling she wants anxiety, not sheer terror.

An hour later, we’re in the bushes and raring to go. “Well, at least the car is running,” says Norton cheerfully. “Last night, it wouldn’t start, and I had to run up the driveway.”

We fire out of the bushes at a sudden lurch, when I get too heavy-footed with the accelerator. We round the corner from our hiding place and tear up the tree-lined driveway, bashing the horn to herald our arrival. Ahead of us, a sell-out crowd is enjoying Tim Hartigan’s opening monologue, and the Austin’s beeping fails to arouse any interest, other than a few angry stares from people who cannot quite believe that some louts in an admittedly splendid car would dare to interrupt a terrific production.

Up we drive – at much less than breakneck speed – as the crowd parts reluctantly before us, still not quite convinced that this is part of the show. No sooner have I stopped than Norton is off like a greyhound out of the traps, her character’s Scottish burr barrelling its way on to centre stage, and mercifully taking any lingering attention away from the pale-faced driver sitting in the most beautiful car in theatre.

It’s over in moments. I didn’t stall the car, although I didn’t manage to stop it in the right place either. The Tony committee knows where to find me.

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