There aren’t many moments I can recall in vivid detail from Birmingham School of Screech & Trauma, and I certainly can’t recall learning an awful lot, but I remember well the first moment I met Sharron Byrne.
"Hi I’m Shaz" she said to me in her rich, deep, well spoken, sexy voice, looking me up and down, she was at once vibrant, beautiful and a little terrifying!
She wore dark clothes, shirt & leggings & had long, luxurious, brunette hair with a bit of a perm to it. I was 30 she was 20, although she looked youthful and indeed retained that youthful look & spirit all of the 26 years I have known her. Her whole demeanour, not just her voice, suggested a more mature sophistication, Shaz was a classy girl!
She reminded me a little of Helena Bonham Carter in the face, same angular jaw & as I got to know her & see how fine an actress she was, she also brought to mind a young Bette Davis with all the passionate intensity & flashing eyes. Ah but Shaz was really her own unique self though!
In our class of 1994 there were not unluckily 13 girls and 7 lads including me.
I remember Shaz as the definite alpha female in the group! If we are comparing it to Rydell High in Grease, Shaz was very definitely the leader of the Pink Ladies, Rizzo! Toni, Shaz’s best mate would be Riz’s right hand girl Marty, er…gets a bit more difficult then, because we had slightly more Pink Ladies than in the film! Either Jo or Leesa was Frenchy and Ondine was Jan! They ruled the skool! My old mate Tasha would be Rizzo’s contender in the formidable stakes, Cha-Cha, boyf of the Scorpions head honcho, (“what did she give him? A lock of hair…. from her chest!”), and Amy who was a very pretty, lovely girl, was definitely Sandy, definitely not allowed in the Pink Ladies!
In the lads I think Kevin Tucker would think he was Danny Zuko and Gareth? Gaz would be Danny’s wingman, Kenickie. Me? I was more Coach flippin’ Calhoun!!!
Although I loved Olivia in the original film, Rizzo played by Stockard Channing always held an allure, a good bad girl. Formidable, sexy and dangerous. Not to be messed with with, but a secret fantasy, just like Shaz!
Toni reminds me that it was Gaz in our year who coined the nickname ’Satan’ for her. Shaz wasn’t offended in the least, but rather turned it on it’s head and revelled in it with a pride that said “Yeah don’t fuck with me!” Toni came to use it as term of endearment for her, but it was still something I never dared call her!
I was about 10 years older than everyone, not that I played the age card at all well, I was rubbish with women before doing acting gave me a bit of confidence, and seemingly when it did, I only became confident at being a twat! According to Tasha, who's always been a good friend to me, at that time I had a bit of a mullet, looked like Nick Cave, (although from looking at old pics I think more Shane McGowan), and a propensity for wearing jogging pants that didn’t show my willy off to it’s best advantage!!!:D So I’m not sure what Shaz thought of me.
Indeed in the first of our three years at Birmingham, aside from seeing her everyday in school (and boy was it run like a primary school), I don’t really remembe hanging out with Shaz. I was definitely not cool enough to mix with the Pink Ladies, more’s the pity!
Funnily enough, considering how much we both liked a drink over the years, she wasn’t like me one of the regulars down the unofficial drama school pub, the ironically named ‘Unspoilt by Progress’ in the concrete 1960’s precinct just off Fiveways in Brum, (and where I was eventually barred!), I think The Pink Ladies did their drinking somewhere far more cooler. We weren’t assigned to work together in scenes or shows that we put on in the famed Regency Room of the Georgian house on Church Road, Edgbaston that served as BSSD’s main HQ. The Regency Room where the height of technological advances to enhance our performance was a dimmer switch on the chandelier!
As first years we had to stage manage final & second year shows at was called the Apex theatre, the pokey former billiard room of the old Georgian house, and there was a much larger space at an old dance hall several miles away in real ‘Peaky Blinder’ country, Smallheath or as I remember Shaz calling it, Smelly Heath! I wonder what the Shelby brothers would have made of that? My guess she’d have taken them on, or bonded with them, she’d certainly have been a rival to Helen McCrory’s formidable Helen Gray character!
My aversion to dance became legendary, well more the stuff of hilarity and despair in equal measure. When we were streamed according to ability, advanced, intermediate or basic, they had to invent a whole new group below basic for me and Tasha as well, (she didn’t quite have Cha-Cha’s moves), which was unofficially christened ‘The Sunshine Group!’
The teachers just gave up on me at the end of the first year as a bad lot and I sold my tap & jazz shoes to a first year by the start of our second. However I had learnt to do a basic tap dance time step and all because of Shaz!
She was very funny and I remember her sympathising with me over my tap dancing anxiety, just before I gave it up. There was a rhyme that Vicki Maxine the tap dance teacher taught everyone to do this basic step...
But Shaz had a much better rhyme that she’d come up with directed at Miss Maxine’s unpopularity particularly with the girls that she’d always have a go at...
Oh whenever I’d remind her of that in the years later, she’d find it hysterical and was really pleased I’d remembered it, although I’m not sure I could remember the time step to go along with it now Shaz!
By the second year we’d bonded. I do remember she had the idea that we share a birthday celebration as ours were just 2 weeks apart which was lovely. We were both vegetarian which back in those days was less common, and we both loved the Smiths. Most importantly we had become a mutual admiration society in acting, something we were to remain always, Shaz was always my greatest supporter in acting & I like to think I was hers.
I was truly bowled over by her, she had a real old school presence about her, huge watchability, a chameleon like ability to change herself dramatically in look and only a part of that was make up and hair. Most wonderful of all she had the most fabulous singing voice.
I’ll forever hear her singing ‘I love Paris’ In her rich dark contralto voice to rival Ella Fitzgerald’s famous version. She originally sang this in a second year production we did called ‘Cole Porter Songbook’ and would later sing at our drama school showcase in London.
I was cast as the narrator in that show, not allowed to sing anything! (Singing is the thing that most embitters me about the school as I went from the getting top marks amongst the lads in the school to almost lowest after they’d fired & not replaced the singing teacher, a guy who I remember Shaz christened Fonzie as he had the definite look of Henry Winkler and wore a leather jacket. She was always good at coming up with nicknames for people!
I was struck by how such an attractive woman could play with ease, unflattering and often male characters, this mainly because the short sighted choice of plays with a heavy bent towards male characters, and the girls would often have to play male roles, without a thought amongst the directors, (even the women) of adapting them as female, or more often doubling up on the female roles, so that in production one girl would be on one night and another girl in the same role the next! This was very odd because there were a lot more girls than lads on the course as there always where at drama schools, in fact one of the main reasons I wanted to go to drama school in the first place!
Shaz though seemed to revel though in playing a succession of unflattering blokes roles extremely well, from a thuggish but well dressed football hooligan in Arrivederci Millwall, (I played the skinhead leader), to the treacherous & pompous King Alonso in what was possibly the worst as well as campest version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest ever committed to stage, where I had fun wearing mascara and a skirt as the jester Trinculo, while doing the gayest Scots accent ever!
Oh and not to mention Fanshen! David Hare’s play. Oh bloody hell! Travesty amongst travesties even at Birmingham, with us all playing Chinamen, and directed not by one of the teachers, but by the drama school’s accountant, who just wanted to have a go. God It was like primary school. Oh you had to have a sense of humour to go to Birmingham back then!
Shaz always made the best of whatever she was cast in though, despite a lot of eye rolling at initial casting she went for it hell for leather, whereas often I confess if I was unhappy I’d get a bit sulky and turn in a substandard performance as a result! Shaz was always a true professional. This something she did for all the years I knew her, in plays, short films and working in a succession of unattractive attractions like London Dungeon & The London Bridge experience where she played warty old hags and plague victims like her whole career depended on it. God I believe she never put in a bad performance.
Shaz & I came together to adapt a couple of classic book scenes in a show our group were doing called Victorian Scrapbook, which was lots of scenes from Victorian era books and plays tagged together. She did Jane Eyre, I did Nicholas Nickleby mainly because I wanted to play the fabulously pantomime villainous Wackford Squeers, then got all grumpy when I was cast as a minor, dull character in my own fucking piece!
We were also cast together for the first time in a creaky old piece called ‘Judged by Appearances’ by Frederick Fenn about a jealous husband, Arthur (me), goaded by his wife, Helen (Shaz) for not being man enough, so he then decides to shoot himself in desperation, only to be surprised by a burglar (me old mate Kevin Tucker) who I then ask to do the job for me, but when he refuses, I get angry with him & a struggle ensues, whereby Shaz as my wife discovers us, thinks I am defending the house & sees me in a whole new light! “Oh Arthur”, I can still her intone!
I asked Shaz to work with me on the Poel Prize in our final year at Brum, which was a creaky old competition specifically about doing duologues from the Elizabethan & Jacobean stage where all the old accredited drama schools across the country used to put forward final year candidates to represent them in a national heat in London to decide the outright winner.
I originally wanted to do Macbeth with her, as I thought she’d make a fabulous Lady Macbeth, as I was always attracted to her strong personality (I’ve always been drawn to strong, formidable women), anyway I thought that too well known for a competition like this, that others would surely do it and we were encouraged to do lesser known pieces.
Whilst back home in Manchester on a break I’d been browsing the old university bookshop and found a play called ‘The Maid’s Tragedy’ by Francis Beaumont & John Fletcher, both guys who knew & wrote occasionally with Shakespeare. It was a real melodramatic potboiler but I thought no one else will do this, so went to Shaz with it.
She was enthusiastic so we set about finding a scene in it to edit down it to a couple of minutes that was the stipulation. I’ve still got the play with her notes in pencil adapting it. The speech we did as the brother and sister, Melantius and Evadne, had me calling her a whore every other sentence and manhandling her a lot! We had great fun with it, although I did lose confidence in the piece!
Oh bless her, literally every time we met years after drama school, she’d tell me how happy she was that I’d asked her to work with me on this & I told her quite honestly that I wanted to work with no one else but her. She’d then go all serious, close her eyes momentarily, (I loved her naturally melodramatic manner), & go on to remind me, in the sweetest, hurt voice of how I appeared to lose heart in the piece & then delightfully her voice would change to a stern reprimand, as she reminded me that were it not for her giving me a kick up the arse we would never have won though to represent BSSD in the national heat held in London. And she was bloody right!
This event was held on The Olivier stage of the National Theatre, though it’s strange I have almost no recollection of that now, wish I could vividly remember us being on the Olivier stage even though I can vaguely recall it wasn’t a very big audience, I don’t know what I was on! I also get this confused with the Laurence Olivier bursary which was a different thing we both represented the drama school for as well, with monologues this time, (God we must have been good), and I can remember being on stage at St Martin’s Theatre in London for that, where the Mousetrap is still forever in residence. And Shaz and I going drinking round the west end afterwards, which understandably this time I can’t remember much about!
I think the reason why I lost confidence in the Poel was because I’d had second thoughts about what what was a ridiculously melodramatic piece. This in spite of working with the best actress in the school and having the only teacher who I respected direct it, Ron Williams.
I loved Ron, he was the only teacher who made me want to work & as well as being the only teacher I ever had (and that includes my rotten school), who inspired me. Shaz loved him too and like me was blessed to have him as a tutor. We did a lot of psychological brother & sister relationship impros verging on the incestuous, which was great and very Ron!
There was no disguising though that it was hard getting such truth from the overly dramatic text, it was a huge challenge for me anyway if not for Shaz.
Not taking anything away from Ron, but it was Shaz who really motored that piece through, got me working, completely true that she got us that place in the national heats. She took me on like the force she was, she was beautifully fierce and when I saw her at close quarters taking control I loved her and was totally convinced she was going to be a hugely successful actress post drama school.
We didn’t win but fuck it, no wonder Shaz was proud, my greatest accolade to be with her on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre.. the fucking Olivier stage!
Shaz was flat sharing in our final year with one of the post grads, Claire Harding, (those on the one year post grads course got an even rougher deal than we did, but I had some great mates in them over the years), Claire was going out with Jack Wild, forever famous for playing The Artful Dodger in Oliver. Ebbe in our year, who was my best mate out of the lads, had become along with Shaz and I, regular drinking buddies by then, I was modelling myself as the drama school hell raiser, boasting that I’d got barred from 8 pubs in Birmingham, (well it was actually only 3!) and Shaz invited us both back for a dinner party one night and Jack was there.
I liked him a lot, and he was happy to chat about his career. He didn’t eat and certainly not drink anything, (he’d had a big booze problem of course and was off it by then), held this cute shih tzu virtually the whole time and a lit ciggie was in his mouth on a chain. It was a great, great night, such good atmosphere. It was the best dinner party I’ve ever been to, great assembly not just because of Jack, but Shaz was on great form too, so we were all laughing and drinking, (apart from Jack, he said “Oh don’t mind me fill your boots!”) til the wee small hours.
I met Shaz’s mum Margaret a few times when she came to see Shaz in shows at Brum and once as for a bit we were streamed into different groups in the final year, a show that I was in that she wasn’t, because Shaz particularly wanted her mum to see it.
The show was called ‘Ladies in Retirement’ a regular old antique of a play & a staple of amateur dramatic groups, directed by an affable old codger called John Bromley, who always seemed like he was on his last legs, and even if he wasn’t before, got much nearer to being directing us!
It was an unusual & on the face of it refreshingly girl heavy play, 6 female parts & just I male role, me.
Margaret had done some acting when she was younger and been in this very play as Lucy, the housemaid, but prominent character in the action. She was very sweet about it, but what she might’ve thought I can only guess, because quite honestly it was dreadful, I was dreadful, we all were dreadful.
Toni, who would become Shaz’s dearest mate was made up to look like the old spinster character Miss Fiske in this mad old wig that you couldn’t look at her in without creasing up. I was just making it up as I went along playing this dodgy, wide boy character Albert & trying not to corpse around the others, particularly Toni & Tasha!
It is unbelievably described as being the finest stage thriller ever written! Well if it is, we really fucked up! I think all of us in it were only too aware of it being a being a turkey, so we just had a laugh at the plays expense & so it became a farce, but not a good one!
I said to Shaz years later when she’d regularly bring this up about her mum who she loved dearly, being so keen to see the play because of her doing it, how sorry I was that we’d been so shite, but Shaz was adamant that her mum had enjoyed it, so maybe it wasn’t as bad to watch as it was to be in!
Oh we did some stupid plays in our final year when we were supposed to be doing our best work and don’t even get me started on the very last play we all did together at the school, The Balcony by Jean Genet, the play apparently considered his masterpiece… er not the way we did it!
Fucking hell It was an eccentric, absurdist play anyway and an equally eccentric choice for a final show, and I seemed to have blanked most of it out now.
I can just about remember Shaz wearing an executioners mask & apparently playing a character called Arthur!!!! No doubt even Shaz only disguising her disbelief at this rubbish by the mask she had to wear!
No better evidence of how the girls in our year got fucked over by our drama school something chronic by the casting in this & the lads didn’t do much better!
I think we were all, even Shaz just going through the motions with The Balcony! The best I can say about it is I remember going down the pub a lot with it’s director Richard Syms both after and during rehearsals & getting totally shit faced!
Happily though Shaz had already distinguished herself as our years best singer in the musical ‘Hair’ one of the best shows in the final year, and as I said before her rendition of ‘I Love Paris’ from that second year show was revived for our the end of year showcase in London, and it was easily the highlight of an otherwise unspectacular finale for us at Birmingham & happily she at least came away from it all smelling of roses!
When drama school ended I didn’t see her for a couple of years. I’d stayed on in Birmingham for a year after the course ended trying to pay off debts!
I remember well our little reunion in a bar she worked in called Truckles near the British museum which had a big open courtyard in the centre of it and Shaz had an idea about persuading the management to do outdoor Shakespeare productions here, and if it happened wanted me in on it, and if anyone could have persuaded them it was her. Shaz loved her Shakespeare dearly, or Shakey as I was reminded by her lovely cousin Martin recently that Shaz would call him!
Sadly It never happened least not with Shaz anyway, and not long after that she went off on a theatre job in Italy, a tour of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost, where she played one half of the American couple who move into a haunted old stately home. I didn’t see it but know the story quite well and can just hear Shaz after her character finds a famed bloodstain, which has made the house something of a haunted tourist attraction, saying cooly “I do not care for bloodstains” and insisting it is got rid of immediately!
I saw a lot of Shaz around 2005/2006 when we were working on a helpline for a company that made cordless telephones for BT which Toni our friend from drama school had told us both about as she was working there. People would call in if they had problems using them. Usually it was people who’d charged the phones up and then unplugged them thinking that these cordless phones worked like mobiles! We used to all go a bit crazy in that little underground room. I remember Shaz would often get to her feet and pace as far as the headset wire would allow her when she had someone on who she’d lost her patience with, and dear Shaz didn’t suffer fools gladly. She’d roll her eyes dramatically and comically pull a face of an imbecile.
There was a type of cordless phone called a Quartet, one with large buttons, Fisher Price like jobs aimed at the elderly and I remember Shaz on one occasion on her feet trying to make the obviously elderly person at the other end of the line understand what the phone was called… “It’s called a Quartet…QUAR-TET! You know like STRING QUARTET!!!” She’d always crease me up.
The best thing about this job was that I got to hang out with Shaz every day for the first time since drama school, and dear Toni too. Also there was John Myers who I’d bonded with, a very talented professional musician who became a part of our little drinking team after work. John and I got round the monotony, (or mongotomy) of life on the helpline by creating ‘Mong corner!’ Not at all pc, but nevertheless a much needed source of spirit amidst what was otherwise a soul destroying environment! Shaz didn’t really approve of Mong corner and I can see her face now looking at us & Toni too, with a distinctly nonplussed look, whenever we’d go as we did frequently “MUH!”
It was at this time I really fell in love with Shaz.
I’d always liked her, we’d had a brief moment at drama school, there was an attraction but we never went out. She was seeing someone outside of the drama school I think. I was always seemingly besotted by a succession of completely unsuitable nutters in other years who were destined to fail, such has ever been the story of my disastrous dating life! And at the time in reality I just couldn’t see the wood for the trees, or the flames for the Byrne!
But yes the helpline job saw us spending more time together than we’d spent in years and I fantasied about being with her, but by then she was with Antony who would be the love of her life, and that was that and that was how it always was, and I eventually accepted that.
Even if she hadn’t been with Ant I’m not at all flattering myself she’d have ever been with me, but I always felt we had a real chemistry both onstage and off. She was the kind of a girl I felt I could take on the world with and quite honestly even though I knew it was impossible with Shaz, no one else I’ve ever met has matched her.
Such dreams as well as my persistent abject stupidity, still making the same bad choices after all these years, why I still find myself alone!
I was glad that Shaz was my very dear buddy. But I never stopped being in love with her from that day forward.
Yessss! I’m all too well aware it was all a fantasy about being with her, I live my whole life in one big fucking fantasy, a fantasy of acting glory as much as bra less mermaids and gothiccy, sexy witches putting me under their spell, and for that reason alone she’d never have put up me anyway, I think she needed someone more grounded. In fact we’d have probably ended up killing each other if we had gone out, a stormy, Richard Burton & Liz Taylor style relationship, although it would never have been dull!
I remember having a massive argument with her once after she turned up late missing a play I was in in Battersea in 2006. I think I was disappointed because I’d really wanted her to see the play I was in. It had been quite a hard, mentally challenging one to do, really got to me too, a bit of a gloomy, doomy one man play where I played an English businessman held hostage in Iraq.
I was upset because I really wanted Shaz to see it, I was proud of it and because I loved her wanted her opinion above anyone.
It was the only ever time we ever had a bust up and it may have been heightened because we’d both had too much to drink in a restaurant after, but the next time we saw each other not long after, it was completely forgotten.
Funnily enough the Burton/Taylor Taming of the Shrew movie was on telly the other day & I was reminded of Shaz’s great, great Kate in a Cambridge Shakespeare Festival show, put on in the grounds of Downing College Cambridge in the summer of 2008. It was her role, in fact in many ways it was the greatest role I ever saw her in and that’s saying something. I had some photos of her in this which to my very great sadness I seem to have lost, but I can still picture her in it in my mind.
I remember we the audience were seated in a very wide semi circle, far too far away really from the acting area but even so I still got the full impact of Shaz’s amazing flashing eyes! The guy playing Petruchio in this wasn’t up too much and Shaz although she had to of course succumb to him in the story in the end, in reality looked like she’d just have eaten him alive and never be tamed! Oh! We should have done ‘Shrew’ together for the Poel prize or better still a production of it, because that would have been amazing. How I wish I’d been her Petruchio!
Shaz also got me into her theatrical agency Rosebery Management about this time, my first agents in the 8 years since I’d left drama school which is amazing when I say it now, but I just couldn’t for the life of me interest anyone in taking me on! Rosebery was a co-op so you had to audition in front of all the actors on the books to get in, and I know that Shaz spoke up for me where at least one of the actors had cast doubt over offering me a place, She I’m sure argued my case in her own formidable way and got me into it. Bless her for that because Rosebery and her saved my acting career!
Shaz was the most hard working actor I have ever known, very conscientious and dedicated whilst doing her stint in the office at Rosebery, finding work for the everyone else on the books and going to check out shows to recruit possible new members. She was a very popular and well loved member of Rosebery.
I’m just laughing because I’ve found a comment she made on a group email to members around Christmastime which was pure Shaz: “Rosebery ladies remember: Santa really prefers the bad girls not the good!
She kept giving it the large with her career, doing theatre jobs on the fringe and off West End. I saw her in ‘Salaam Bethlehem’ for Riding Lights Theatre Company at Greenwich Theatre in 2007. This was a really interesting play from the point of view of the small Christian community in Israeli and Shaz played a doctor with great integrity and verve.
Then I saw her play an inmate in a lunatic asylum in ‘Ward 6’ at The Lion & Unicorn in Kentish Town which was a very odd play indeed!
Bless shaz, seemingly bomb proof to the eccentricities of our drama school shows, she gave it her all in a show worthy of Birmingham in it’s er, whimsicalness, to put it kindly and an equally eccentric director .
But she played the part with huge conviction and kept positive and was as committed as her character was! I always admired her focus at such times.
I also saw her in little known Ben Jonson comedy ‘The Magnetic Lady’ at The White Bear, Kennington in September 2010, apparently the first time the play had been performed since 1632! As usual in this she fabulously upstaged the more glamorous leads, even though de glamourised as she was herself playing a rather prim, dowdily dressed secretary type character Mistress Keep, (it was set in the 1930s). We got very drunk after as invariably we did when we saw each other in shows, and I can just about recollect that I kept saying to her over and over again… “but you’re the magnetic lady!”
Someone on that show I think it was the director was an absolute fucking bitch, according to Shaz, but it was very rare that she had run ins with people professionally.
Shaz had a heart of gold, she could seem fierce at the beginning if you didn’t know her and certainly understandably didn’t take shit from people, but she wasn’t at all difficult and she was never a diva. When you got to know her and if she became your friend, you really were in luck, because she’d go that extra mile and a lot for you, she’d be your best friend and she’d make you feel like you were hers.
To illustrate one of just thousands of examples of how great a friend Shaz was to me, when I was doing a fringe play at a pub near Belsize Park, just two days into rehearsals the absolute cunt of a director, a fella called Andrew Neil, (not the broadcaster), took me aside to say it wasn’t working out and he was going to have to let me go! Unbelievable, even though I’d realised the play was a turkey, I was doing my best and was really upset to be kicked out like this, so I rang the agents Rosebery to tell them and a few minutes later Shaz called me back. I think Phil in the office knowing how upset I was kindly phoned Shaz for me as he knew we were good buddies.
Shaz was lovely, she dropped everything and came out straight away to meet me at The World’s End in Camden. Well it was a shite play but I did feel temporarily like the world had ended!
She was so comforting when she got there, gave me the biggest hug ever and reassurance and sympathy by the bucket load, over quite a few drinks absolutely what I needed.
Oh yes she was just the best friend anyone could ever have. And that’s why she was extremely popular and well loved in companies that she worked in. Keeping in touch as close friends, and not just facebook friends, (Shaz hardly did facebook, not entirely trusting it), to many, many people she met on theatre jobs or the make ends meet jobs that we all did whilst living the dream.
Shaz was never afraid of playing unflattering roles, in fact revelled in playing them, she was in every sense a character actress first and foremost, although she could play the leading lady with ease too, (she was a very stunning & gorgeous looking woman & I often times told her that), but she was far much more interested in playing the roles with depth, the unsexy real characters, and she could play vivid characters with conviction.
She often times talked about how proud she was of her Snug the joiner, one of the gang of ‘mechanicals’ providing light relief in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was another outdoor theatre that I saw her do for a company she worked with a lot, Rainbow Theatre Company in Greenwich park. I told her how fab she was and I can see her beaming now. Her Snug was riotous, hilariously funny, played with huge conviction, vividly memorable and of course yet another case of herself as a relatively minor character totally blowing away the leads!
I really wanted to work with Shaz again, and was trying to think of something we could do ourselves, and then had the idea about writing her a one woman play about Bette Davis, who as I said before, Shaz had always reminded me of. I was inspired by the book ‘The Girl who walked Home Alone’. which my mum had been reading, and fancied for the first time directing it too. It's true it was because I was in love with her, but I genuinely really wanted to do something to help increase Shaz's profile in acting and I felt this would be a great vehicle if we could get it off the ground
Sadly it never happened, I guess it was really just another of my grandoise, Billy Liaresque dreams that never come to fruition, I'm no writer even though I've dabbled, but I still regret it as she would have been so fabulous as Bette Davis.
Shaz left Rosebery Management in 2012 to go with Ben West who’d broken away from being our administrator to form his own musical theatre based agency and he very nearly broke Rosebery too, initially wanting a vote to turn the agency into a musical theatre heavy, personal management, which would have required the likes of me, being like turkey’s voting for Christmas, but I didn’t blame Shaz for leaving, she’d been with Rosebery a long time and had been a hugely valuable, proactive member, keeping the agency afloat in difficult times.
Shaz’s star was encouragingly on the ascendant. She was doing a couple of number 1 tours, as understudy, first in Calendar Girls in 2011 and again in 2012, the first being a 6 month stint. The cast included famous names from British telly like Sue Holderness from Only Fools & Horses and Birds of a Feather’s Lesley Joseph. Shaz wrote me at the end of the first tour that Hi Di Hi’s Ruth Madoc, who she’d clearly bonded with, had been trying to pull strings for her to play the dual part of the clueless Brenda when the show returned. Sadly that didn’t happen but Shaz did get to do a couple of runs and how I wish I’d seen her!
And then there was Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, on a tour for the famous Hull Truck theatre Company. She wrote me from being on tour in Stoke on Shithole (as she called Stoke on Trent! :) ) where she was understudying the titular character, Miss Sheppard, that one of the lead actors, (there were two actors playing different versions of Alan Bennett), had seen some of her rehearsals and was very impressed and supportive. But she went on to say that the actress playing her, Miss Sheppard, Nichola McAuliffe would have to be dead before she went on!
Such is the lot of an understudy, and although she was working at the top, it must have been frustrating for her not to get out every night and do what`she loved, as I know she'd have been pure magic in that role and had she somehow nobbled Nicola McAuliffe and taken over the role, it could have been the making of her. Oh wish I'd gone over to Stoke and hung outside the stage door of The Regent Theatre and er accidentally tripped her up as shew as entering!
Shaz’s lovely little doggie, Sebbie died at this time and he was the last link to her mum and dad. I'd slept over on Shaz's sofa in her living room in East Finchley quite a few times in that same house where she'd grown up over the years and little Sebbie was always a large character in the house. She was heartbroken and I told her how sorry I was, to try not to be sorrowful, and that someone like Sebbie will never really die and will be a spirit that will be known again, and told her what my mum had always said, that if animals aren't in heaven, I don't want to go there!
Shaz was really touched & said that her Mum and Dad would be pleased to have Sebs back with them again.
I read that email back now with tears in my eyes and think in that same spirit, how she’ll be with her mum and dad and Sebbie again.
She wrote me in 2013 after seeing me in my self produced play, ‘Beatle Mal’ which I’d done over 2 years, (and which Shaz of course came to support) of her exasperation after the last couple of years of doing high profile theatre that she’d had a shit year. She said she didn’t just expect to sit on her arse & get a phone call from the RSC! But that she’d started to think that things were going somewhere for her!
It was a rare note of despair, but she countered that she was going to give next year her biggest shot, but that if it turned out like this she might throw in the towel, but was terrified about what she’d do with the rest of her life.
I wrote her back a long encouraging email saying that I totally emphasised with her & that I’d said to myself that if I still wasn’t making money by the time I was 50, (as I was going to be next year), that I’d give it up, but told her that I didn’t really believe that, as anything else would make me more miserable! Shaz was obviously as acutely aware of her 40th year approaching as I was of my 50th. I suggested rather naively that she she should do some singing in local clubs, as I’d always loved her voice, and a a show where she could do like a stand up act, as she was very funny, telling stories and doing characters she’d done like Kate in Taming of the Shrew, perhaps tieing it in with Cole Porter’s ‘it’s too darn hot” from the musical Kiss me Kate.
She told me how much what I’d said had meant to her and I told her that I loved her very much and really wanted her to be more successful than her wildest dreams and I fished by saying.. “you could be, I REALLY believe that.”
I never stopped believing that.
That following year in January, perenially a shite month for me, when I retreat into my shell, (I’ve just had the worst January this year), I became really depressed and as I am want to do at such times selfishly pushed my friends away including dear Shaz.
‘Beatle Mal’ which I’d done over 2 years had just come to an end before Christmas & had been a bit of disaster really, doing nothing to increase my profile as an actor and losing me a lot of money. It also coincided with me stopping living in London so I saw less of my all my friends anyway and felt isolated. That and being acutely aware of my impending half century!
To my great sorrow I’ve found messages from her concerned that I hadn’t been in touch & not been to her 40th birthday bash in February, and asking me if she’d pissed me off as unusually for me I hadn’t even sent her a little message! Oh! I didn’t even reply or see it til now. I don’t know what the fuck I was doing! Makes me kick myself stupid with such regret now…
Dearest Shaz, of course it wasn’t that you pissed me off if, I was being a dick with
my head stuck up my arse in my self centred twattishness! When I should’ve got over myself and picked up the fucking phone, overcome a pathetic phone phobia that has cost me dear, and never more so than now!
I wish so much I’d been there to give you a big hug and get wonderfully pissed with you. My colossal loss for not being with you!
I did recover my senses enough to see her though just a few months after her birthday though in a play called ’Sitting up for Michael’ at The White Bear in 2014. This was a really excellent piece, humorous and involving, about a family coming together after a death which magnifies divisions and secrets.
Shaz played Frieda, the daughter of the titular character, a forthright Northern Irish woman from Country Tyrone, It was a typically strong role for Shaz with a faultless accent, and there was a great ensemble cast. I told her how particularly convincing I thought her accent was, and lots of people had congratulated her on this, as well as her performance generally and she beamed with pride: “well it’s in the blood!”
I knew how very proud she was of her Irish blood because she often spoke fondly of her of her mum and dad and all her cousins, aunties & uncles & nephews and nieces in Ireland, who she regularly visited in Meath, with great affection, lovingly putting on the accent as she did and I’d share my love & experiences of that wonderful country with her.
Whenever we got together at times like this, we’d both take great delight in recanting stories from Birmingham through rose tinted or should I say Pinot tinted glasses. We both liked a drink, oh and some!
I think we were both at the time of being in Brum, gob smacked in disbelief at some of the shortcomings of the place, although Shaz back then was the first to shake her head in disbelief as well as roar with laughter at all the absurdities and eccentricities of the drama school, she was always forthright and positive about dealing with them. Many times then and over the years since, I’ve thought what the fuck kind of drama school did I ever go to!
Oh but Shaz, you'd laugh when I say this, considering how I would diss the drama school sometimes, but I’m so, so glad that I went to Birmingham, because I met you, and that you became one of the most important persons in the half of my life that I've known you. it would be unthinkably awful never to have known you
Shaz was always a kind friend and occasionally I took up her invitation to sleep on her sofa as despite having left London, I was still coming down a few days a week to work as a tour guide for the coach company I worked for. I really didn't like to impose on her & Antony's privacy and they had a couple of lodgers in the house too, so there wasn't a lot of space, but Shaz was really lovely and said I'd be welcome anytime.
She was working at that time at the RSVP call centre in docklands which almost exclusively employed actors to do things like sell subscriptions to various businesses etc. I'd often meet her from work at the strangely named 'Pepper St Ontiod' pub (an acronym for being on Pepper Street on the Isle of Dogs) and we'd sit out drinking looking over the water on the quayside, or we'd go back to take in a film at the lovely Pheonix cinema near where she lived in East Finchley.
I met her for a big old catch up in the summer of 2018 , the first time I'd seen her in a couple of years shockingly , after seeing her strut her stuff working at The London Bridge Experience, a museum of horrors themed around the horrible history of London Bridge. She was of course brilliant playing a crude old crone hilariously making mildly lewd suggestions to the crowd assembled within the dark dank conditions of the museum. She was very funny and put in the same deeply felt and charismatic performance that I'd seen her do in all her acting work.
Afterwards we went for drinks first in the Mudlark near the museum and then on my suggestion we repaired to the Old Thameside Inn next to The Golden Hinde, whIch had been my regular watering hole in my first job when I came to live in London in 1998, as an actor hamming it up something rotten on that replica ship!
It was a beautiful, joyful evening sitting out on the terrace by the Thames with London Bridge as a backdrop and the lit up night skyline of the city. I'm looking at the photos now and want to walk back right into them in all their slightly out of focus and poorly lit glory, Shaz was as radiant and fabulous as she was in all the years I've' known her.
We told all the old stories, laughed blissfully and got wonderfully pissed. It was the happiest I'd been in a long time, a perfect moment I thought that at the time and I remember not wanting the evening to end.
The last time I saw Shaz was when she came with Toni to see me in the play ‘Wrestling the Walrus’ last year which after playing in Manchester came to funny little venue called The Yard Theatre in east London.
We didn’t have a very long catch up at the end, no time to get her news, it was all about me!!! Oh it was so fabulous to see them both, I hadn't seen Toni for over 10 years, really made my day, if not month! Sadly they didn't want to stay late, understandably as it wasn't the most salubrious or easy to get home from location.
If I’d known or even had some inkling that this would be the last time, while giving her the big bear hug, that I’d always give her, whenever I met her, or parted from her, lifting her right up off her feet, I’d never have let her go!
eI've tried to keep a spirited touch whilst writing all this, true to her dear self, regrettably though this is where this all gets very sad and even more indulgently reflective though, so if I flatter myself that anyone else is reading this, you might want to finish here.
It never occurs to me that anyone else might read my navel gazing blogs on this my anyway ’vanity website’, rarely anyone does as I don’t push them. And anyway such streams of consciousness without a much needed edit, are really meant for myself and do help as therapy for my mental health, never more so than at times like this.
I have been through an almighty depression this year and for the first time I’ve admitted to myself as well as others to suffering from depression for a long time.
I was just getting over it when I got news of Shaz whilst on my way back from a shift guiding at the Coronation Street tour and on the eve of an almighty storm!
God everything is totally surreal at the mo, the biggest, lockdown & curtailing of civil liberties since World War 2 as a backdrop to losing dear Shaz at only 45, both as equally unbelievable. Even though what has happened has begun to sink in after being in a daze the last few weeks, including at the funeral, just writing this blog I still have to have a double take or twenty, just writing about her in the past tense and frequently still can't.
My emotions are all over the place, at the moment, I'm laughing at remembrances of her one minute and weeping at photographs of her the next..
I can't believe when someone well meaning says it was her time. That’s not right, it’s just not right that a vibrant young woman like this should go when she still had so much to live for. Shaz was magnificent in everything she did, whether it was her career as an actress, or any of the fill in jobs she did, and of course she was the most magnificent company.
In a room full of people she was very much where the party was at, in the quietest pub or in the most soulless office she was a breath of fresh air, the bright light that you would desperately want to be near to comfort you.
Shaz lived her life dealing with epilepsy and faced that with the same courage and positivity that she displayed in every area of her life.
Writing this almost 6 weeks after I first heard the worst news, hasn’t done anything to get me accustomed to this, in fact as time goes on I’m getting more upset by it. I wake up each morning hoping that I’m going to awake from a bad dream, that Shaz is ok and that I would break the habit of a lifetime and call her later today for a much needed catch up.
I’d become more fatalistic from having this depression in January anyway and what has happened to dear Shaz and what is happening in the world on all our doorsteps right now has just heightened this.
I’ve cried more in the couple of weeks since the funeral than I have ever cried for anyone in my life, and I’m a bit of a soppy crier the best of times!
Grief is like a selfish emotion, it replays if only’s and what if’s and why’s over in your mind. It misses the person deeply, wishes the person there again as if this were a bad dream to almost the point of obsessing about it. It desperately, overwhelmingly needs them here for just for you.
Someone said that grief is all the love you want to give, but can't. Grief is love with nowhere to go and that' exactly it.
My dad who I absolutely loved to bits, died 38 years ago this year and honestly not a day has gone by since when I haven’t missed him and thought about him. Dad had been suffering from lung cancer for a year before he died and was brave, strong and protective throughout. Even though I’d been dreading losing him, I think I was probably in denial that I would, even on the night he passed. And it’s very odd but I felt strangely cushioned, numb when he did, almost like I was being given strength to cope. I always remember at the funeral a little bird flew into the church & settled on the coffin for a moment, dad always loved birds. It was amazing, almost like this was an affirmation that all was well and although you could say I have never stopped grieving for him, this grief over dear Shaz is different.
I was upset last year when a lovely old friend I knew from tour guiding 20 years ago, Jacqueline died very suddenly too, ironically the same age as Shaz. I’d been in love with her as well, and similarly had pushed her away because she wasn’t interested in me romantically, though she wanted to be friends, I’d made myself lose contact with her, hadn’t seen her for 15 years, so even though I was deeply sad & deeply remorseful about doing that, and it did affect me, with Shaz though the shock has been far more profound.
Of course I am well aware I am not alone in deeply missing her, particularly Antony and all her many friends and family will be feeling the pain too, she is so well loved and deeply grieved for. It has been absolutely lovely and comforting talking to Shaz’s fabulous cousins Mairtin and Bernadette about her, as it has to dear Toni, sharing our grief and our joyous memories of her.
I was originally asked to do a eulogy at the funeral but gave way to her old friend Danny who really wanted to do it. In the end because of the current shit going on, he couldn’t come from the US where he lives and sent me what he was going to say. I used a lot of what he’d written which was lovely but when I came to do it, I just had to put a lot of my own thoughts in too, trying not to make it too personal to me or Danny, but trying to speak for everyone who loved her.
Here though I wanted to talk about Shaz very personally and how much she meant to me,
I also imagine in my outrageous self importance here that I am a voice to tell the fucking acting world's movers and shakers what a lot of ignorant short sighted cunts they are in missing making this fabulous woman a star! Makes me angry when I think how brilliant she was. It's not a fair business I know and Shaz did work, and do good stuff as I have said, but fuck it she still should have been a household name!
I’ve tried to be honest here and I wanted to capture her in all those now precious moments I spent with her or heard from her. But ultimately no amount of fine words said here or as I did in the church take away what is an absolute, awful tragedy.
My heart goes out to Antony. It’s true at times I have envied him being her love but I knew how much she loved him and how ideal they were together and to lose that, to lose one so fabulous as your partner in life is unbearably awful.
Whilst selfishly reflecting on my own grief, I can barely imagine the heartbreak he has had. He is understandably inconsolable. I heard him say later in the day after the funeral that there’d never be another woman in his life. Really got to me.
I set out to write a celebration of you here dear Shaz. You are a glorious woman and you've been helping me as you helped me in life in inspiring me to write this, which is helping me deal with this current highly depressing self isolation. I have been writing this piece on and off over almost two weeks, I haven't wanted it to end.
My memories written down here are like a kind of communion with you to reaffirm how fabulous I think you are, and always did, and always will and how much you meant to me.
Of course I've caught nowhere near enough of your gorgeous spirit and your wonderful, infectious sense of humour and it’s got all got a bit maudlin and introspective. Sorry Shaz because you were always an absolute joy to be with. I loved and cared about you dearly. I’m going to be eternally sorry that I went for long periods of time without seeing or contacting you after I stopped living in London. Never more have I regretted that decision to leave London!
I’ve been speaking out loud to you a lot in the last couple of weeks of my lonely , heightened introspectiveness, flattering myself particularly with a few whiskies inside me that you can hear me. More soberly I know that if you’d be with just one person on earth it’d understandably be with Antony. it is to him you would give an ear from wherever you are if you are anywhere and I believe you are somewhere, as big a presence as you were in all of our lives, There are more things in heaven and Earth, than are dreamt of in our philosophy, to misquote Shakey!
I'm sure you're somehow transmitting comfort to him even if you're not allowed to!
Oh I wish I'd seen more of you, even just picked up the phone. I should have got over myself and just stopped being such a fantasist and a twat!
I blame Facebook! Fucking Facebook. I dislike and mistrust it as much as you and understand why you rarely did it, in fact a bit like you have stopped using it very much, I’m more wasting my time on twatter these days, which peversely is even less sociable. Fucking, evil Facebook! I resent and blame Facebook for all the stupid group emails I put out which you didn’t see about times I was in London when it was you more than anybody that I wanted to see the most.
You see what I did there? Blamed facebook for all the times I should’ve have just picked up the phone and called you. For all my shortcomings, blame fucking Facebook!!!
You didn’t need social media to be social as you you were a normal and decent human being who actually phoned and spoke and frequently saw your friends and I regret most deeply all the missed calls, and often unanswered messages from you.
I may have even gone more months this year, even without a national lockdown in place, in my frequently stupefying haze in not seeing or contacting my dear, dear friend. I think you understood that I got down sometimes and went awol, not that I think that it was acceptable to behave like that and it depresses me even more that Shaz might have thought I was a depressive old git!
I know the next time we met, no matter how long it had been it would have been as it always was, as if no such time had passed at all, but that doesn't do anything to alleviate my eternal fucking shame.
Oh Shaz I can loudly hear you say jokingly in reply … “For fuck sake, it's ok, please don’t be such a misery guts babes, we all need a laugh especially now!
It's hard not to let memories of her be associated with sadness now, but that would indeed be doing her a disservice. She’s a bright light in life who always cheered me when I saw her. I quoted The Smiths song ‘There is a light that never goes out’ at the funeral and have been listening to it since partly in tears but also smiling at the grim humour of Morrissey’s lyrics that Shaz adored!
I can’t believe I’ll never see you again, so I won’t. I didn’t say goodbye to you at the funeral, because I couldn’t. I just said farewell for now, it’ll be just another slightly elongated period when I don’t see you, but you’ll be with me especially whenever I think about acting or Ireland, or writing & anything creative that I might want to do. Or whenever I have a drink, and whenever and if ever I get to drink in a pub again, I’ll always get you a large glass of Pinot in just like I did in The White Lion after the funeral.
There's talk of a big celebration of you when all the current anxiety is over, maybe on or around your birthday next year, which your cousin Mairtin has already christened 'Shazfest!" And everyone else who loved you, but who couldn't be at the funeral because of current circumstances would come, and we could all have a good old do, with music and much love for you!
Oh I’ll miss you particularly deeply because you were my greatest supporter in the increasingly mad to worse world of acting and I’ll miss you to give me a much needed kick up the arse! So I’ll keep talking to you, and until I see you again, and it may not be that long, yes I’ll dream it’ll be as if no time has passed, your memory, your spirit will be kept up large, dearest Shazza!
I won’t say wish, because wishes at such time are particularly cruel and detrimental to our own psychological well being, but I will say this. That I would willingly trade all my dreams of acting glory, any amount of fame and money.. lottery fortunes, any of these impossibilities, I’d trade for another impossibility if impossibly it was possible for me to some how be allowed just one impossibility!!!
And that would be to go back as I am in my head now to you smiling up at me, that cheeky, sexy smile 26 years ago in the Autumn of 1994 at 45 Church Road, The Birmingham School of Speech & Drama, and you introducing yourself to me with all your life in front of you.
Near the end of our time at drama school, I had a pretentious little notebook that I got anyone I liked, students & teachers to write quotes about leaving in as a keepsake. I’ve still got it. Most people wrote famous quotes meaningful sayings they could remember, Shaz was different and wrote something hilariously typical of her and in a funny way more meaningful than any of the fine words…
“The best poo has sweetcorn in it!”