A supporting actor prepares

A supporting actor prepares

Actor Chris McHallem, who plays Peter Shirley in Major Barbara, reveals his preparation for rehearsals.

Day one: the read through.

For the first 10 or 12 years of my career, I always regarded the read through as a prelude to getting the sack. The Company would meet, read the play and then I would return to my digs. There I would sit, surrounded by signs which thanked me for not smoking, and wait for the phone downstairs to ring. I would hear the landlady shuffling around and expect her to call up at any moment, ‘Hello…Your agent wants a word.’

‘The director’s been on,’ I imagined Jean saying, ‘they’ve decided to get someone else to play Banqou, or Caliban or Luigi.’

‘Oh,’ I would reply. (As you can see I spent a lot of time thinking this through.) ‘Who have they gone with?’

‘It’s no-one I’ve heard of,’ the agent would continue. ‘It’s just someone funnier / thinner / nicer than you are.’

I gave up thinking like this several years ago when I realised that no matter how inevitable my dismissal seemed, it still hadn’t happened. When I worked at the Tate Gallery and clocked in one day having bleached my hair (imagine Billy Idol dressed as a traffic warden) I was back on the street with my P45 in my hand faster than Jackson Pollack could re-decorate your bathroom. I was employed as a waiter in the Strand Palace Hotel for twenty minutes (and five of those were spent putting my uniform on !) The truth is, if people want rid of you, you’ll be out the door quick enough and if you’re still there fifteen years on it suggests that you’re either doing something right or your incompetence has very little effect. Isn’t self-confidence a wonderful thing?

Glowing with this kind of iron clad self belief I swagger into the Abbey Theatre’s rehearsal room and am met at once by Fiach MacConghail, the Jose Mourinho of Ireland’s national theatre. We share one of those slightly awkward hugs which is more than a handshake but less than the full Mafia style embrace which we were both expecting.

Having never been to University, I have always enjoyed the way that an acting job can open areas of social or historical importance which were previously a complete mystery. I have, as a result of various shows I’ve been in, learned to drive, learned to ride a horse, been bitten by a lion, discharged a wide range of fire-arms, been shut inside three coffins and read books about Mussolini, Bob Dylan, and the Mapping of India. In Major Barbara I play a character who comes into direct contact with The Salvation Army, an organisation about which I know next to nothing having spent my childhood thinking that it’s founder General Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. This may explain why Steven Spielberg didn’t want me in his Oscar winning bio-pic; even Daniel Day-Lewis might struggle to achieve the right note of gravitas if the President’s final moments had featured me wandering into the theatre carrying a cornet and a freshly minted copy of The War Cry.


I am not hugely fat, but think that it might be best on my return to the Abbey stage, to make sure I’m at my fighting weight. I think briefly about taking some regular exercise but basically just settle for staying away from the chip-shop (there’s a fantastic one facing the theatre’s main entrance) and cutting down on the beer. With the end of the week approaching however, a couple of the other cast members say they are heading out for a quick drink after work and invite me along. Simply, you understand, in the interest of cast bonding, I say I’ll see them in the pub and as soon as rehearsals finish I grab my coat and hurry to meet them. It is as I approach the bar that I discover I have spent the whole day in Dublin with 7 cent in my pocket. It’s a bit early to rely on anyone else’s charity (save that for later in the run) so I make a quick excuse and head home.

It seems ironic, given the themes of the play that poverty has led to temperance and as I wait at Tara Street station I wonder whether the distant rumbling I hear is an approaching train or the gentle laughter of GB Shaw.

The end of the first week.

During the first week, the cast sit around a large table and talk the play through; reading a section and then going slowly through each speech looking for its meaning, whether hidden or overt. I don’t have a huge part and am therefore careful not to say too much. Cast members may generally be supportive and well meaning but no-one relishes another actor coming up with too many suggestions about your character or performance. Whatever insights or interjections I manage are kept to a minimum but I realise at the end of the week that I have nonetheless managed to quote the works of Mao, Gandhi, Gloria Gaynor and Dexy’s vocalist Kevin Rowland.

As a curious footnote, one evening after rehearsals I am walking a dog through Bray, when a woman pulls up in a car and asks the way to a place I’ve never heard of. I explain my ignorance and she starts away with a smile.

Suddenly however, she puts her brakes back on and calls out, ‘I know you from somewhere. Are you in Dexy’s Midnight Runners?’

I feel that I am disapointing her hugely when I tell her I’m not and as she goes I make a silent pledge never to wear this beret/dungarees combo again.

I don’t know what it is about my face but I have in the past few years been mistaken for Bob Geldof, Jonathan Pryce, Christopher Eccleston, the guitarist from 80’s funksters Rip, Rig and Panic, and Eastenders resident ‘wrong ‘un’ Nick Cotton.

Find out more about the cast in our Major Barbara programme, available to purchase in our online shop.

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