All Quiet on the West-End Front

By William Rycroft

Go behind the scenes of the National Theatre’s production of War Horse.


This is how it begins. I’ve just moved out of London into Hertfordshire with my wife and baby son. The very weekend we hand over the deposit to secure our new rental we find out that our family of three will become a family of four in about eight months time. I currently have no acting work lined up. None at all. Not a thing. But then comes a call: a meeting for War Horse, which has enjoyed two runs at the National Theatre, six months in its new home in the West End and is now looking to recast some roles for another six-month contract. Perfect. I’ve worked at the National before, I have a range of physical skills that will lend themselves perfectly to the show and hopefully lift me above some of the other actors auditioning, I even know that director Marianne Elliott has a young one herself, surely she’ll sympathise with my plight and give me the job just to provide for those two hungry mouths!

The day of the meeting arrives. Now, as a little side note, I should add that the previous day our ageing car had died so catastrophically that it was now being made roadworthy at a garage which had kindly provided a courtesy car so that my now noticeably pregnant wife could take our son up the very steep hill to nursery. Anyway, I make my way to the station to catch my train into London and sense as soon as I enter the building that something isn’t right. I look up at the boards and see lots of horrible turquoise which means cancelled or delayed trains. This is fine. I have left loads of extra time to get there, this being possibly the most important audition of my life, a slight delay is only going to result in my being on time rather than stupidly early. Except that when I get up to the platform I see one of those huge, tilting Pendolino trains stranded on platform 2. These beasts only ever speed through our lowly station, doing that scary tilting thing that apparently helps them maintain speed, but now that the train is stationary all it’s doing is to make it look as though it might topple on its side as well as making it very hard for those in first class to keep all of that freshly roasted coffee in their china cups. This is not a good sign. The signals are all red, the information is sketchy and I have no other way, bar a prohibitively expensive cab, of getting into town.

I wait a little. I phone my agent to let her know what’s going on. I wait some more. Nothing is moving, nor does it look like it ever will. My agent rings back: the latest they can see me is four o’clock that afternoon. After that they will have left the building, goodnight Vienna, opportunity gone. I have to get there....

“...Darling? I need the car.”

You can imagine how well that went down but it was by now the only way of getting there. So it was I took an unfamiliar, and frankly uninspiring, Ford Mondeo on the drive of its life. Through Hertfordshire and Greater London I drove like a god amongst men, a lifetime of experience teaching me the best routes to my destination, suggesting alternatives when new problems arose. But I’m only mortal after all and quickly realised as I got nearer town that I would need to dump the car and get on the tube. Near Highgate I parked up by the woods and began running to the station, my once pressed linen suit now a crumpled mess and beginning to stick to me. This short run seemed to take forever, a slight incline felt like I was trying to run up Ben Nevis, and why did I suddenly feel so unfit ?

There are moments sent to test us and I’m afraid for moment there I wasn’t man enough. Still miles it seemed from the station entrance I literally looked up to sky, panting, and said ‘I can’t do this!’ But then almost immediately I knew that I had to, there was no other option. I wanted this job more than anything and if I had to push myself to the limit to get it then that was just what I was going to have to do. I ran again. I finally got down to the tube platform. The next train was in two minutes. One minute. I got on. Then came a glance at the tube map, a check of the time, and the fateful calculation: 13 stops (not now damned superstitions!), two minutes or so a stop, it’s nearly quarter past three, three minutes the other end to get to stage door. I could still make it. Just.

This calculation was repeated after every stop. Every three minute stop was a disaster, each two minute one a little victory, less than two minutes and I actually got a little giddy. As the stops got closer and quicker towards the end I felt like fortune was on my side. Out at Waterloo, I began running once again, feeling as though I’d only just got my breath back from the last sprint. The National Theatre isn’t the most beautiful building in the world but I had never been so glad to see it in all my life. I pull open the glass doors of Stage Door, slap my hands down on the desk in front of the ever dependable face of Linda and lift my head to look at the clock...five to four. “I’ll let them know you’re here” says Linda.

I collapse.

It sometimes helps when going into an audition if you have something to talk about, a story, something to break the ice, something to make you seem like the interesting, exciting actor that you are. Now, they presumably know about my train troubles but they don’t know quite how bonkers it’s been so I have a great opening gambit here: a story that shows just how much I want to be part of this company. It tugs on heart strings, it pushes buttons, can it open the door? I make my way up to Casting, down several plastic cups of water-cooler water, try desperately to make myself look less like the sweaty maniac that I am and shortly after four o’clock make my way into rehearsal room 6 (notoriously small) to meet Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott along with the casting director. ‘Hi William, how are you?’ asks Marianne, and I know from the way she asks it that she has no idea what I’ve just been through to get there, doesn’t even know I’m late probably, let alone about train troubles, broken cars and impending births.

So now I have a choice. Do I tell them about it all or do I just carry on with the meeting normally, as if nothing unusual has occurred? Do you even need to ask? I give it to them with both barrels of course, they need to know that nothing short of a Herculean effort has brought me through that rather ordinary looking door into RR6 and even after all that I’m going compose myself and deliver an audition of devastating insight and emotion. And that of course is exactly how it goes. Sort of. Admittedly it does involve talking in a rather questionable German accent and pretending that the casting director is a horse (this still remains the only occasion on which I have stroked a casting director’s head and kissed them as part of an audition) but all I know is that the next day I receive a call about going back for a recall.

I decide to make multiple travel arrangements.

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