‘There’s something special in every show’: 40 years at the stage door

  • london
  • July 7, 2020
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The staff entrance of a theatre is where cast and crew clock on for work and fans ask actors for autographs. For 40 years, at the Shaftesbury theatre in London’s West End, Harry Gabriel has stepped through the door most nights at 5.30pm. As the evening stage-door keeper, his job involves making sure that those who should get backstage do while those who shouldn’t can’t.

On 16 March, at around 7pm, Gabriel could hear the cast of the musical & Juliet warming up on stage, when it was announced that the building was closing as a precaution against Covid-19.

Since then, the 83-year-old Gabriel has been “shielding” while furloughed from his job. To his great sadness, he can’t go to the theatre – but the theatre is coming to him on 15 July, as many of those he has welcomed to the Shaftesbury, including Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard and Sharon D Clarke, will take part in Hello Harry!, a 40th-anniversary tribute concert, raising money for causes including Black Lives Matter and Cancer Research.

The job of a stage-door keeper, Gabriel says, “is to welcome staff and visitors, and attend to their needs. Stage door is the contact between every department.” Is his own costume important? “That is a personal choice. But one of my biggest passions apart from theatre is clothes. So I like to wear beautiful things.” For premieres, he puts on black tie, in the old theatrical tradition. “I love first nights – the friends and fans bringing gifts and drinks to the stage door. And then the party afterwards!”

The main business is gatekeeping. For much of his tenure, people signed in and out in a ledger using a Biro on a piece of string. But, latterly, members of a production team were admitted by a thumb recognition system, which registers their presence or absence in the building.

New technology was one way that the workplace changed after the September 11 attacks in New York and 7 July terrorism attacks in London. Until then, it was left to Gabriel to decide whether visitors or packages for actors should be let in. But, subsequently, there were “cameras everywhere and extra security”.

Stage-door keepers at The Mousetrap, Les Misérables or The Phantom of the Opera could have worked for several decades on the same show, but Gabriel’s time at the Shaftesbury has encompassed dozens of productions. “Yes, it’s suited me well to look after so many new and different shows. That’s why it’s been 40 happy years.”

His first production, in 1980, was They’re Playing Our Song, a Neil Simon-Marvin Hamlisch musical starring Tom Conti and Gemma Craven. Subsequent highlights included a series of concerts at the Shaftesbury by Eartha Kitt, and appearances first in Pygmalion and then in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell by Peter O’Toole, a favourite of those who passed his way.

O’Toole was often seen as a laidback type of actor but the door-side perspective gives an intriguing insight into his pre-show routine. “He would do anything for the people waiting at the stage door – talk to them, chat to them, pose for pictures, sign photographs. But, then, when he got into the building, it was total concentration. The only people he would speak to before a show were me and his dresser.”

Theatrical anecdote suggests that stage-door keepers witness extraordinary displays of egotism, vanity and anger. But Gabriel insists that the actors who have worked at the Shaftesbury since 1980 have all been “without exception kind and lovely human beings”, although, looking at the list, some of them must have made a rare exception for him.

He watches each new production during rehearsals or at matinees. “Every show has a meaning for me – the story, the music, the costumes, something. There’s something special in every production.” That includes Out of the Blue, an Anglo-Japanese musical about the atom bombing of Nagasaki, which closed within two weeks, after brutal reviews, in 1994. “The theme of that musical – which was anti-war – meant a great deal to me. I loved it but I think it opened at a time when there was a lot of controversy in Britain about Japanese treatment of prisoners of war.”

When the building has a flop – another was the musical From Here to Eternity – he is strongly aware that the people coming in to work are about to lose their jobs. “That is a sad thing in theatre. Especially the ones who are not in demand, who won’t walk into another show. My job is to cheer them up. The same if they come in and something has gone wrong at home.”

For most of his time at the Shaftesbury, he didn’t have a favourite show. But, since 2016, it’s Motown: The Musical – because its three-and-a-half-year run was the longest of his tenure, and the African American cultural history it depicts has such resonance for him.

It was through the anti-racist movement of the 80s – “Just as now we have Black Lives Matter, then it was anti-apartheid” – that Gabriel first got involved in theatre. A friend in the campaign against racial segregation in South Africa got him work at London’s Astoria theatre (“Which has gone now, for the Crossrail”), during a residency by the American basketball team, the Harlem Globetrotters. The Astoria’s owner also controlled the Shaftesbury and “without a lot of ceremony” Gabriel was offered the stage-door post there.

Before finding his theatrical vocation, he worked in a variety of administrative roles, including at the National Centre for Children and Families in north London. He describes its founder, the psychoanalyst Anna Freud, as “one of the best people ever on this planet”.

All British theatres look haunted now, but, for centuries, most were reputed to harbour ghosts. Has Gabriel ever seen one? “Well, they say that every theatre has ghosts. But, personally, I don’t believe in them. So I am one of the very few never to have seen one at the Shaftesbury theatre.”

During his furloughed period, “the theatre gets in touch with us every week to tell us the latest and cheer us up.” His tentative hope is that the Shaftesbury and other venues might reopen towards the end of the year, although it may not yet have been judged safe for the currently shielding Gabriel to return by then. “I understand that,” he says, but he shines brightly when he looks back at the “40 amazing years” that will be celebrated next week.

Hello Harry! will be streamed on 15 July.