PRUE LEITH: My stage fright was so severe I had to take beta blockers
Nothing prepared me for the horrors of stage fight: PRUE LEITH reveals she was so terrified on her first one-woman tour that she had to take beta blockers to get through
- READ MORE: ‘I’d been excited about meeting him!’ Prue Leith claims David Schwimmer ‘didn’t want to talk to anybody’ while filming Celebrity Bake Off
Eighty-three is probably not the best age to launch myself as a stage performer.
When I agreed to do my first ever live show – talking to audiences about the ups and downs of my life as a restaurateur, novelist and Bake Off judge, before submitting myself to their questions – I’d no idea what my expectations were other than to have a two-month jolly with my husband that might make a bit of cash (I only get paid if the venture breaks even). I didn’t think: ‘What if no one books tickets?’
Looking back, I realise I’ve spent my whole life winging it. I opened a restaurant without ever having worked in one; launched a cookery school with no teaching qualifications; hosted a television series having never been on telly before; and adopted a baby from war-torn Cambodia against everyone’s advice.
The only time I was properly qualified for a new venture was as a food judge: by the time I was asked to judge Great British Menu, and later The Great British Bake Off, I’d done some telly, eaten and cooked a lot of top-notch food, had a Michelin-starred restaurant and judged thousands of student chefs’ exams.
But a stage show? In proper theatres? With hundreds of people having paid a lot of money in the expectation of entertainment? Thus far, that’s outside my wheelhouse.
Nothing prepared me for the horror of stage fright. When rehearsing in an upstairs room at the Groucho Club in London, I’d been unaccountably nervous and embarrassed and there were only four people in the room
I’ve no idea where my confidence comes from; maybe my mother, who was an actress with a theatrical company, or my happy childhood with encouraging parents. Or maybe I just lack the imagination to imagine failure.
But from the first night, that confidence turns out to be woefully misplaced.
Nothing prepared me for the horror of stage fright. When rehearsing in an upstairs room at the Groucho Club in London, I’d been unaccountably nervous and embarrassed, and there were only four people in the room: me; my agent; the producer, Clive Tulloh; and a techie in charge of the film clips and pictures on the screen.
‘Don’t fret,’ said Clive, ‘it will be easier when there’s a proper audience.’ He was wrong.
When we do the first try-out in Bath, I’m so frightened I can’t breathe. My heart seems to ricochet from my chest to my throat; my mouth is dry; my hands are shaking; and my mind goes completely blank. I am fixated on the prompt cards stuck to the table in front of me, but my ability to read seems to have forsaken me. Somehow, I blunder through.
The audience has cheap tickets on the understanding that they tick or cross the question: ‘Would you recommend this show to a friend?’ To my astonishment, we get 100 per cent approval.
But I want to quit. Why commit to doing something for two months that you hate?
The point of try-outs, I am told, is to discover if the audience enjoys it and the show will make money — not if the performer is having a good time.
When we do the first try-out in Bath, I’m so frightened I can’t breathe. Pictured: Prue with (from left) tour manager Jim, producer Clive and husband John
Given I could barely speak for terror, I persuade my doctor to give me propranolol pills, a type of beta blocker, to calm my heart.
I’m surprised at my fear. I’m never nervous on Bake Off. But maybe I should have realised that I flunked out of drama school at 18 because I hated being on stage. I’d forgotten that…
Since there was some interest from an American promoter for a tour in autumn 2023, we go to test the U.S. waters, too, staging two try-outs in New York and two in Los Angeles in November.
The propranolol certainly helps. I’m still nervous, but not terrified.
The Americans are nuts about Bake Off — and the LA audience is the nuttiest. When I walk onto the stage, they whoop, shriek and holler, stand and clap and yell: ‘We love you, Prue.’ I get a standing ovation before I open my mouth.
I fly through the performance, and walk out on Cloud Nine.
My show mostly consists of me telling disaster stories from my restaurant and catering years, and tales of feeding royals and celebs.
After the interval the audience asks me questions: ‘Are Paul Hollywood’s eyes really that blue?’ (Yes) or ‘Is his tan fake?’ (No). Someone asked: ‘What does Paul Hollywood smell like?’ ‘Crumpet,’ I reply. I’m flying.
But by February 1, the first proper night of the UK tour in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, I am back to being nervous as hell.
I’m particularly worried about doing my own hair and make-up. Bambi, my Bake Off make-up artist, gives me a few lessons.
‘Just do what you normally do,’ she says. I usually just slap on foundation, eyeshadow, mascara and lipstick. To that list, Bambi adds face primer, eye primer, lip primer, eyeliner, lip liner, stuff to make my fat cheeks look hollow and interesting, and blusher.
When I finally use them all, I think I look like a clown. Plus, I manage to jab the eyeliner into my eye, get lipstick on my teeth and burn my ears with the curling tongs.
But there’s no time to worry — the Bake Off theme tune plays and I’m on. Despite the wild make-up and completely losing the plot minutes into the show (‘Sorry guys, I’m lost. Where the hell was I?’), Clive and my husband John say it goes well. But they would say that, wouldn’t they?
Phew! One down, 33 to go.
Venues differ wildly. Swindon is the worst, and not just because we don’t like the theatre. On arrival we get into a sort of traffic vortex they proudly call the magic roundabout. Looking for the Wyvern Theatre with the help of the satnav lands us in an underground car park of the wrong building.
Eventually we arrive. The green room is full of a previous performer’s dead cola cans and remains of supper, the loo bins are overflowing. The attitude of everyone is: ‘Not my job, mate.’
Here, I give my worst performance to date, which I can’t blame the town for. I think it’s my family turning up in force to watch. I don’t know why they make me (even more) nervous. Perhaps because my grandchildren are there, I feel the need to edit out the F-word, and I am conscious that the grown-ups know all my stories anyway.
It’s not until February 25, at the Palace Theatre in Southend in Essex, that I start to relax. I forget to take my anti-stage-fright beta blockers, and find I’m fine without them. In fact, I enjoy it. At last!
Then it’s over to Ireland: Belfast’s Waterfront Hall is sold out weeks ahead, unlike the venue in Dublin, which has seats available the day before the show.
There is nothing worse than a tiny audience in a huge theatre. Though managers are very clever — they fill the stalls and circle first, and if the upper circle, boxes and side aisles are empty, they leave them in pitch dark with only the audience faintly lit so, to the performer, it looks like a full house.
Thankfully we’ve broken more than even, and I now love doing it. So far we’ve not had a poor or unenthusiastic audience. And, to my surprise, it’s not tiring.
It’s really enjoyable: waking in a strange town, time for breakfast and a brief walk, guidebook in hand, then bowling along in the tour bus, arriving at the next town in time for a quick bite followed by an afternoon kip, then the theatre, a nightcap and sleep.
My final performance in the UK is at the London Palladium on April 6 — and suddenly, contemplating that, I find the nerves return a little. It’s so huge, I’ll be lucky to fill the front row.
Wish me luck!
- Nothing In Moderation tours until April 6 at theatres in Oxford, Basingstoke, Cambridge, Ipswich and London. For ticket information, go to prue-leith.com
Source: Read Full Article