As a journalist, I've often found myself in some pretty sticky situations. For instance, there was the freezing night I spent on the Brecon Beacons in a misguided effort to simulate an SAS survival course. Then there was the time I got a Hollywood special effects team to transform me into a woman so I could embark on a tour of New York's lipstick lesbian bars.
But nothing has prepared me for my latest stunt. On October 25, exactly a week on Monday, I will make my debut as an actor on the West End stage. How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, a play based on my autobiographical book of the same name, is opening at the Arts Theatre and I'll be playing myself. I'll also be playing my wife, my father and my ex-boss. How to Lose Friends is a one-man show so there'll be no one to cover for me if I screw up. I'll be on my own out there.
To give you some idea of just how foolhardy this is, the only other time I've done any acting was as an extra in the film version of Another Country--and that was 21 years ago. (The director judged my performance so poor it ended up on the cutting room floor.) This isn't a one-off gig for charity, either. How to Lose Friends & Alienate People is a proper, commercial show. I'm going to be treading the boards for the next six weeks.
The icing on the cake is that I've been working as a theatre critic for the past few years so the people sitting in the front row on opening night, pens poised to strike, will be my backstabbing colleagues. If you think Simon Cowell is uncharitable, you've clearly never encountered a theatre critic. Remember the final scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? When I enter stage left and take my place in the spotlight I expect to be met by a hail of bullets. Adios amigo.
So why on earth have I agreed to do it?
The story begins two years ago when I approached a playwright called Tim Fountain to see if he'd be interested in collaborating with me on a stage adaptation of my book. How to Lose Friends & Alienate People charts my disastrous stint as a British magazine journalist in New York--I started out as a Vanity Fair editor and ended up road-testing sex toys for a top shelf men's mag--and it became a surprise bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. The movie rights had already been optioned, and it's currently being made into a film by Miramax and FilmFour, but I'd always thought it would make a great one-man show. Tim had already written two successful one-handers--the first about Quentin Crisp, the second about Julie Burchill--so he seemed like the perfect author to team up with.
The result ran for three weeks at the Soho Theatre last year and, to my immense surprise, was a smash hit. Every performance sold out, largely thanks to the fact that Tim and I managed to persuade Jack Davenport to appear in it. Jack is a gifted actor who made his name playing debonair bachelors in This Life and Coupling--and he has the advantage of being about a thousand times better looking than me. As one ex-girlfriend pointed out, it was the most flattering bit of casting since Jeffrey Bernard was played by Peter O'Toole. "If you looked anything like Jack Davenport I never would have chucked you," she said.
After the play's successful run, I teamed up with a commercial producer called Ian Osborne and we set about trying to find a West End venue. Our task was made more difficult by the fact that How to Lose Friends & Alienate People is only an hour long so we couldn't charge normal, West End prices. That meant we wouldn't be able to afford the rent on a West End theatre, at least not by ourselves. The solution was to find another production, preferably one that was also an hour long, to share the costs with. They would be entirely separate plays, with tickets to each sold separately, but at least we'd be able to split the rent.
We scoured London theatreland, but couldn't find anything suitable. There are surprisingly few good short plays out there. One option we explored was to team up with Happy Days, Samuel Beckett's 90-minute two-hander, which arrived in the West End last year. But the director, Peter Hall, decided he didn't want to share the billing on the theatre marquee with us. Another possibility was to partner up with Hurricane, a dazzling one-hander about the life of Alex Higgins. But the people behind that production decided that they, too, wanted to go it alone.
We began to think we might have more luck if we commissioned a play instead, so I approached Candace Bushnell, the author behind Sex and the City, to see if I could get her to write a one-hander about her experiences on the London dating scene. She's been out with several British men, including the entrepreneur Stephen Morris, and has spent quite a bit of time on this side of the Atlantic. I hoped I might be able to persuade her to create a British version of Sex and the City. Who knows, I might even be able to get Gwyneth Paltrow to star in it. But, alas, Candace was too busy.
Then, Ian and I caught a break. Exactly the play that we'd been looking for opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory in South London. Fully Committed is a hilarious one-man show that charts a hectic day in the life of a booker for an ultra-fashionable, New York restaurant. Not only was the subject matter a perfect fit, but it was only 65 minutes long--and London audiences had fallen in love with it, turning it into one of the biggest hits of the fringe. It was a gift from the theatrical gods.
David Babani, the producer of Fully Committed was very keen on transferring to the West End and, as luck would have it, a last-minute slot suddenly became available at the Arts. The Arts was perfect because, with a capacity of only 350 seats, it's the smallest theatre in the West End and, accordingly, has one of the lowest rents. However, there was a catch. The director of the Arts, Ed Snape, said he'd only allow Fully Committed and How to Lose Friends to book the space if we found a well-known actor to play me.
Naturally, the first person Ian and I approached was Jack Davenport, but he'd just been cast in Pirates of the Caribbean 2. Not surprisingly, he wasn't prepared to pass that up in order to play a short, balding, British hack.
We tried a number of other people and eventually hit the jackpot: an A-list actor who seemed very keen to do it. Unfortunately, Ian got bogged down in negotiations with his agent, who wanted an unfeasibly large sum of money, and by the time the Arts deadline was upon us the actor still hadn't committed. It was then that Ed Snape dropped his bombshell: the only way to secure the booking would be if I agreed to play myself, at least for the first six weeks. By that time, hopefully, Ian would have concluded negotiations with the big star and he could step in and take over.
Naturally, I poo-pood the suggestion.
"I'm a journalist, not an actor. I wouldn't have the first clue how to go about it."
But Ian thought it was a good idea.
"Just how good an actor do you have to be to play yourself?" he asked.
"You have to have a pretty good memory, for a start. What if I forget my lines?"
"So what if you forget a couple of words here and there? Just ad lib. After all, it's not as if anyone will be able to say, 'No, Toby just wouldn't use an expression like that.' It'll be you up there saying it."
I still thought it was crazy, but I was loathe to let the Arts slip through our fingers. Ian and I had spent over a year struggling to get this project off the ground and the prospect of another opportunity as good as this one seemed remote. We'd found a venue, one of the most affordable in the West End, and we'd found a hit play to split the rent with. We even had a star waiting in the wings. Surely, I was capable of stepping in and holding the fort for six weeks? Who knows, it might even be quite fun.
In the end, after a night of soul-searching, I agreed to do it.
My wife, Caroline, thinks I'm completely insane. The whole idea makes her so anxious that she's forbidden me to talk about it after 8pm because she says it has the same effect on her as a double espresso: she can't get to sleep for thinking about it.
Oddly enough, as D-Day approaches, I'm less nervous than I expected to be. I managed to persuade the person who directed Jack in the play the first time round--a young up-and-comer called Owen Lewis--to reprise his role and I've persuaded several actor friends to look in on rehearsals and give me a few pointers, including Tom Hollander and Emma Kennedy. No doubt I'll become more fearful over the course of the next seven days, but at the moment everything seems to be going fairly smoothly. I've even managed to memorise most of my lines.
The most surprising thing that's emerged during rehearsals is how difficult playing myself has turned out to be. Because I saw Jack in the play half-a-dozen times last year, I find myself doing an impression of Jack impersonating me, rather than simply being myself. Ironically, Jack may well turn out to be a better version of Toby Young than me--and I don't just mean taller, younger and more handsome. My wife has said that, if push comes to shove, she's willing to make the trade.
By far my biggest worry, though, is that I simply won't sell any tickets. I remember taking Caroline to see Jack's final performance at the Soho Theatre last year and telling her how touched I was that so many people had turned up to see a play based on my book.
"I hate to break it to you," she said, "but I think Jack is the big drawer here, not you."
Sure enough, when we went backstage to congratulate Jack we had to stand in line behind dozens of teenage girls, all clutching glossy photographs they wanted the actor to sign. Somehow, I doubt many schoolgirls will get equally excited about the prospect of seeing a 40-year-old father-of-one in the same part.
We do have one thing going for us, though: tickets start at £25, which is extremely low for a West End show. How to Lose Friends will go up at 9pm each night and last about an hour, making it easy for people to combine it with dinner either before or after. Over 100,000 people bought the book and if only 10% of them come and see the stage adaptation we won't have any trouble staying open until a proper actor can take over.
I know I'll be ridiculed by my colleagues--and many others, besides--but you can't go through life worrying what people are going to say about you. Even if the whole enterprise is a catastrophic failure, at least I'll be able to write a sequel to How to Lose Friends about my disastrous career in show business. Who knows, I might even try and turn that into a one-man show as well.
Special offer for Night & Day readers. Call the Arts Theatre on 020-7836-3334 and quote "Night & Day" and you'll be entitled to top price West End tickets for £15. Offer limited to first two weeks.