In the second instalment of MATTHEW PECKHAM’s series of informal and random memories titled The View from Prompt Corner, he recalls his 2011 encounter with comic Rachel Berger when she toured with her one-woman show Hold the Pickle.

rachel berger flyer 01This story is pretty much what it says on the tin—it really does hinge on the view, literally, from Prompt Corner.

Some years ago I had the great good fortune to become involved with a brilliant production conceived, written, produced and performed by the fabulous Rachel Berger. The show was Hold the Pickle, a one-woman drama-with-laughter where Rachel enacts her parents’ long journey from Nazi-occupied Krakow to St Kilda. The eponymous pickle is in Berger’s Delicatessen, of Acland Street sandwich renown.

Rachel is a brilliant, spontaneous, gifted performer, and as I contemplate the composition of the narrative that is to follow, I preface it by stating that she is my dearest friend and I love her deeply.

And she is hell on steroids to work with.

The problem (not really a problem, a gift) is that Rachel’s long and illustrious career in stand-up gave her the cabaret artiste’s sixth sense—to hear or feel or smell an audience’s mood, and adapt her performance to suit it, as an octopus changes colour to match its background. This gift enables her ex tempore to add, subtract or re-number pages of the script (which, she is never reluctant to remind me, is her effing script). A precious gift, indeed, but for a Stage Manager in prompt corner trying to call lighting cues from the effing script, an effing nightmare.

While on a regional tour, upon arrival at Camperdown we learned that the venue had no production equipment. The Officer in Charge had been using the hall to screen movies, regarded live theatre as an unwelcome intrusion and assumed we would bring everything we needed.

As luck would have it, I knew that the Lighthouse theatre in Warrnambool, a scant 70 kilometres away, was closed for renovations and might have some spare gear. After a couple of phone calls an extraordinary, gnome-like man arrived in a battered and rusty utility crammed with stage lighting equipment, some even in working order. With his help we cobbled together a lighting rig, got a sound system working and installed a talkback system so I could communicate from prompt corner to the balcony, where he would operate the lighting console.

Prompt corner in this unique venue is a sort of enclosed cubicle, and this is where I set up. My view of the stage was provided by a narrow window, and the shortness of my headset cable meant that only by contortion could I look through it at all.

The play opens with Rachel descending a staircase; to get there unseen she had to pre-set herself onstage before the audience entered. Only then did I realise that my cubicle lacked any sort of discreet desk-light, being illuminated by a high-wattage bulb. This meant that Rachel would be able to see me clearly from the stage. I knew this would bother her but it was too late either to fix it or to warn her.

The performance began, and was actually progressing quite smoothly, even bearing a strong resemblance to the script. As a crucial cue-point approached, I gave the gnome a stand-by and leaned into the awkward position from which I could observe Rachel’s movement. My motion distracted her, and our eyes met. Fatal.

This happened again, a lighting cue later.

Fixing me with a marrow-chilling stare, she mouthed, as loud as anyone can without sound, one word: “WHAT?”

Naturally, I had no answer, so withdrew from her view, and the play continued, though less smoothly than before.

When it happened again, Rachel marched across the stage towards me, her hands balled into fists and murderous fury in her eyes. “What the f**k are you looking at?” she hissed.

“You, of course.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing – what are you doing?”

“I’m going to fucking KILL you.”

The play continued. In many ways it was one of Rachel’s best performances.