Stage Fright

When is the last time you were really nervous? I mean so nervous that all the clichés came true. When your heart pounded in your chest and you wondered why nobody else could hear it. When you had to run to the loo constantly, though your bladder was empty. When you felt that surely there must be a seismic movement deep within the earth, so shaky were you. It is a cruel menu of symptoms to choose from: sweaty palms, throbbing head, shaking hands, wobbly voice. You might even be one of those poor beings whose voice doesn’t wobble, it’s steady, but instead out you come out in red blotches – probably on your neck – giving the game away. Yes, once the nerves kick in, they can be hard to keep a lid on.

I know someone who was so nervous about meeting her prospective in-laws that, when she invited them round for afternoon tea for the first introduction, she adjourned to the kitchen to pour a generous splash of Bordeaux into her china teacup to calm her nerves. What she hadn’t thought through, however, was that the contents of the cup would be clearly visible to her guests when she took her seat. “Aren’t you taking tea?” she was asked (reasonably) by her would be mother-in law. “No, no,” she explained, “It’s Ribena, I’m low in vitamin C.” The look bestowed upon her, complete with raised eyebrow, was one that relayed neither belief nor sympathy. We do silly things when we are nervous: drink too much, talk too much, move about too much, drop things. We become clumsy of action and clumsy of speech, making social faux-pas, giddily launching into subjects and conversations that we really ought to avoid. It’s just like that famous sketch from the old television comedy show, ‘Fawlty Towers’ (you’re bound to remember this one), when a German party came to stay at the hotel. Sybil tells fellow hotelier Basil, “whatever you do, don’t mention the war”. Whereupon the inimitable Basil (John Cleese) checks the German guests’ breakfast order by repeating it back to them with the words: So! It’s all forgotten now, and let’s hear no more about it. So, that’s two egg mayonnaise, a prawn Goebbels, a Hermann Goering, and four Colditz salads.” Yes, it is crass and ridiculous and, on paper, so terribly unfunny; yet Basil’s nervousness at saying the wrong thing, which then hastens him to say the very things that are off limits, provides us with moments of pure comedy gold.

Recently I took a call from my friend C. as she waited outside a music room where her 10-year old was plinketly-plonking his way through a grade one piano exam on the other side of the door. “He’s on the scales now,” she whispered down the phone to me. “Why are you calling me from the doctors?” I asked, bewildered. “Piano scales, can’t you hear?…. now he’s onto his sight reading. He’s playing too slowly. I’m so nervous. I can’t stand it. I had to call you. Let’s talk about how to make pavlova, distract me, just talk.” Miraculously, her nervousness had not been transferred to the child who, thankfully, couldn’t have cared less. It does seem to be something that develops with age. How about pre-wedding nerves? Something I propose is more common in men. I have one brother who lost his shoes on his wedding day and another who, on the morning of his wedding, wandered around holding a crumpled shirt away from him, arm stretch like he’d found a mouse in a trap, willing it to somehow be taken from him and fixed. (I did and it was). Both were so nervous they were stricken incompetent at managing the simplest of tasks.

It’s rarely a good thing, nervousness, but sometimes it might give you the edge. They say a healthy dose of nerves makes you hyper alert; time goes in slow motion making your reaction times extra quick as the adrenalin courses through your system. Like that pause you take at an interview – the one just before you answer the question – that seems to last forever, but it may only have been a reasonable and reflective five seconds while you sharpen up your answer. This weekend S. is performing in his drama group’s spring show. I can’t be there; I wish I could. I think he’s young enough for his nerves not to be overly jangling. So, to S., break a leg this weekend; and to any others out there who have something coming up that might be activating your nerves, the best of luck to you!

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