diamond geezer

 Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Saturday Night at the Theatre
Date: April 2012
Venue: London fringe
Author: Mike Leigh
Play: A modern classic

We arrive early. The theatre has its own restaurant attached, tonight with a specially themed menu, so a pre-performance dinner has been booked. Prawn cocktail, obviously, then chicken Kiev, what else, and finally chocolate fondue. It's the only way to kick off a seminal Seventies evening, and the cuisine is as gloriously mainstream as you'd hope. The crowd assembles in the bar, its walls lined with posters from past glories hereabouts. There's even one couple we know, and haven't seen in years, so we say hello while we wait to file in.

The theatre is compact, little more than a few raked benches squished in front of a low stage. The set is perfectly dressed - a symphony in browns and oranges, from the tacky ornaments on the rear bookcase to the disturbingly floral wallpaper. Even the rippled glasses lined up on the coffee table, almost certainly free gifts from the local petrol station, are just like my living room used to have. We shuffle along a rear bench, squeezed in between fifty-somethings and trendy youths who couldn't possibly remember this from first time round. And when Donna Summer is finally switched on, we're off.

That woman who used to be that bloke's wife in that soap opera hogs the stage. She wafts around the set in a lime green dress, daring the audience to accept her in place of the iconic actress who made the role famous. It takes a while, but with force of personality (and a knowing smirk) she soon succeeds. That woman from that never-ending BBC3 sitcom, she's the less confident neighbour, you know the one. She plays her part with goofy aplomb and straight-faced understatement, earning many a laugh from the audience. And the lady who's the posh neighbour, once I've wiped her many TV drama performances from my mind, brings the awkwardness of her character completely to life. Elsewhere on the sofas a considerable amount of facial hair is on show, but that seems somehow normal because male grooming has come full circle since 1977.

We all of us know all of the words. When the "cheesy pineapple one" appears, we're mouthing along. When the first "little top-up" is offered, we know several more are on their way. And when Demis Roussos lights up the record player, we grin in anticipation of what's coming next. The tray of cheesy pineapple ones proves irresistible to one member of the audience who slips one off the coffee table on his way out at the interval. We spend twenty minutes or so in the bar downing wines and cocktails far superior to anything the suburban partygoers might be sipping on stage. Then, before the second half begins, a stage hand nips out and politely harangues the audience. "Please don't eat the props. You know who you are."

The remainder of the play is a relentless joy. The characters carp and snipe to the expected crescendo, firing off each line with increasing frustration and bitterness. And even though we all know how it's going to end, our familiarity never gets in the way of enjoyment. The final round of applause is heartfelt, even prolonged, and nobody steals any olives on the way out. It comes as no surprise to hear, a few days later, that the play is heading off to the West End for a longer run. Beverley would be so very proud.
 Saturday Night at the Theatre
Date: May 2012
Venue: Norfolk village hall
Author: Alan Ayckbourn
Play: A relative unknown

We arrive early. A few of the cast are wandering around in the car park, taking the air before the curtain goes up. There are no soap stars here, and nobody hassling for autographs. The audience is slow to arrive, filling up seats at the front of the hall and leaving rather a lot free at the rear. Tickets have been available at the village shop for weeks, but Saturday night TV appears to have won out. Punters below the age of sixty are rare, below forty almost non-existent. Programmes are free, although donations are requested, and raffle ticket purchase is encouraged. The kitchen doubles up as the bar, serving canned beer for two quid and shandy for one. Grab your glasses, we're about to begin.

A cable strung across the fire exit powers the speakers with some introductory music. The lights go up - new lights, of which the village hall committee are very proud. And then the actors are on, diving into the fast-learned script with comic timing. The play's a strange one, and not from Ayckbourn's inner repertoire. This is good, because the evening will be a proper voyage of discovery for almost the entire audience. Only the prompter in the front row has seen it through before, and they'll only be needed twice when a slight pause threatens to become a hiatus. The scenery's been kept simple, as suits best for a limited run, and it's no surprise (for Ayckbourn) when a bed makes repeated appearances.

I know none of these actors because I'm a stranger here, but to locals these are familiar faces. They all had different roles in the pantomime, remember, and different again in the serious play they did last year. Today they're doctors and technicians and disabled media moguls precisely as the script demands, the parts shared out in line with talent and bodies of best fit. Some have minor roles, cameos even, requiring a quick change between scenes to walk on again as somebody new. Others have the major parts, a considerably more taxing requirement, yet memorised and delivered as well as might ever be hoped for.

During the interval, the audience takes the opportunity to socialise. Unlike the West End where everyone's a stranger, here everyone knows the councillor, the newsletter editor and the lady from down the lane. Chatter is curtailed so that the raffle can be drawn. It wouldn't be a Norfolk community event without a raffle - the most acceptable means hereabouts for recycling unwanted gifts to a worthy cause. Everyone perused the prizes on the table on their way in, and is now hoping that their coloured strip of tickets might win them their favoured choice. The basket of fruit goes first, then the bottle of whisky, and even the gift pack of foot scrub goes earlier than might have been expected. Only when the last ticket has been drawn, and the final bottle claimed, can the second half continue.

The scenes run faster now, with quicker changes, tightly honed. The pace hots up to a frenetic conclusion, yet still providing food for thought rather than belly laughs. And then it's all over, with only a single brief curtain call for the audience to show its genuine appreciation. There'll be no West End run, but why travel that far when there's a talented troupe on your doorstep?

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