Stage Post

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Photo: Angela George

Last week I heard one of my favourite actors almost lose his composure. Tom Hanks was the castaway on Desert Island Discs and talked about the impact that theatre had on him as a teenager. By the age of thirteen, he’d already had a mother and two stepmothers, and had lived in ten houses in five cities. Life was unsettled but he started going alone to the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and there he discovered a new world. He saw ‘plays he never even knew existed,’ and when he talked of it giving him a ‘vocabulary for loneliness,‘ he was audibly moved. In these situations radio feels very intimate. As listeners, we heard him gulp and swallow and we waited as Kirsty Young gave him a moment to recover.

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I could relate to that in my own way, as I, too, learned to love theatre as a teenager. Growing up in a sleepy Devon town where nothing happened I was hungry to move to London. Once there, I stretched my wings and explored what the city had to offer. Museums, galleries, cinemas, dance, and music were shiny, but for me, theatre was the jewel in London’s creative riches. I could breathe the same air as accomplished actors, famous or not, whilst knowing that the performance I’d seen was unique and ephemeral. It can’t always be good, but theatre was then, and still is, a favourite treat. A prospect to relish during a busy day, before you slide into your seat in the dark, and let it take you over.

Many plays are just confections but others have the potential to disrupt society and at times their performance has been tightly controlled. The Puritans under Oliver Cromwell banned staged plays because they feared civil unrest. Then after the Restoration, theatrical performances started up again, often in converted tennis courts. But they were quickly brought under control so that ‘the spoken word for gain’ could only be performed in a theatre that had been granted a royal patent. Initially there were just two; one in Drury Lane, the other in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and then gradually through the eighteenth century others were created. These were the Theatres Royal and several still continue today including the Theatre Royal, Haymarket and the Theatre Royal, Bath. Right up until 1843 it was illegal to perform a serious play unless it was in one of these theatres. Anything with music, however, could be freely performed and this helped to boost the popularity of opera, pantomime, music hall, and plays with musical interludes.

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In 1809, a theatre itself was at the centre of unrest. The management of the licensed Covent Garden theatre, raised the prices and created boxes that could be rented. There was outrage amongst the theatre-going public and during a performance of Macbeth the audience began to riot. These riots continued for 67 nights. The theatre was filled with banners and it was difficult to hear what the actors were saying. At one point the management brought in a famous boxer and his associates in order to try to contain the mayhem but it just made things worse. These Old Price rioters, as they called themselves, ranged across the social groups and saw the price rise as a suppression of their liberty. Kemble the theatre manager was forced to lower the prices again and to issue an apology.

Today, theatre continues to explore new territory. I wrote in a previous post (A Postmodern Mystery) about the wondrous Punchdrunk with its immersive productions. Another intriguing company is You Me Bum Bum Train. I’m on their mailing list but the tickets are allocated by lottery and I haven’t yet been lucky.  Anyone who does get to go to one of their pop-up performances in an unusual London location, is sworn to secrecy. A Time Out reviewer said, ‘Part of the terror and joy of it is not knowing what might be on the other side of the many, very different doors…it’s also sort of a game and sort of like nothing else on earth.’ I’ll carry on applying.

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London theatre is a big draw for tourists and some Australian friends had an odd experience a few years ago. They’d heard that Judi Dench was playing in ‘Peter and Alice’ at the Noel Coward Theatre and that a small number of returns tickets were available every evening. They joined the queue, only to get right to the front and be told that they’d missed their chance for that day. Suddenly, a man dashed out of the theatre in evening dress. He thrust two top-price tickets into their hands and said, ‘It’s your lucky night,’ as he dashed into the night. They thoroughly enjoyed their treat and spent the interval speculating about who their mysterious benefactor was, and why he’d not been able to use his tickets. Their favourite theory was that he was an eminent surgeon and had just been called away to do a life-saving operation.

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I’ve been keen to share my love of theatre with my children. It’s clearly worked with my elder daughter, Emma, as one of her current treats is to see all of Shakespeare’s plays. So far she’s seen quite a few at the Globe Theatre, including a gory production of Titus Andronicus that caused over a hundred people to faint. But I misjudged the situation with Molly, my younger daughter and started too early. When she was seven, Emma and I decided to take her to see ‘Anything Goes’ in London. We told her that it was a special treat and that she’d love it. She agreed happily but this was probably because she adores clothes and it was a rare chance to wear her smart hand-me-down coat. To anyone seeing us on the train that evening she looked the perfect theatre-going, middle-class wunderkind. However, she didn’t want to play ball. The performance started and within ten minutes she’d decided that she didn’t like it. She sat with her back to the stage and spent the next few hours with her arms crossed and a stony expression. Later, on the train we laid her down on a seat and she went straight to sleep, snoring loudly. People peered across to see where the noise was coming from and instead of seeing the corpulent banker they presumably expected, there was just a very small girl in her best coat; tired out after a rebellious evening at the theatre.

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And here’s a theatre-related bonus. I recently met the fourth link in my chain interview experiment. Holly is a young theatre director and is currently associate director on the National Theatre’s award-winning production of People, Places and Things. I learned what her work involves and she told me about the things that inspire her. We talked about her successes and also about a recent challenging experience.

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System Overload

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I like my neighbourhood very much but one of the disadvantages of living in a terrace is that it’s rarely possible to park outside our house. We often have to resort to the next street and sometimes this causes problems. Fortunately, our neighbours have dogs and regularly walk to and from the park. They’re impressively observant as several times they’ve spotted Mike or me wandering along vacantly trying to locate our cars, and have pointed us in the right direction.

This week, though, there have been many things to occupy my mind other than parking spaces. The most important of these is that Frank is in hospital. I’ve written before (in The Old Man and the Pea), about this rather wonderful 96-year old gentleman who last summer came to live with us. Five weeks ago he was admitted to hospital with stomach pains and then he got pneumonia. It’s very upsetting for him as he’s almost blind and matters are not improved by the fact that his hearing aid has disappeared. We think it got caught up in his bedding. His beloved talking watch has also gone. It probably went down the same laundry-oriented route. However, he does press the button every five minutes so we can’t discount the possibility that a fellow patient got fed up with the continual updates and disposed of it for him.  We’ve bought a replacement that he can use at home but for now, he is without it.

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It’s hard seeing him in hospital as he is so disoriented. The other day I went in just as two nurses were changing him, and he looked so small lying there. I felt compelled to tell them that this frail, confused man once took an engineering maths exam and got the highest result in the whole of South Africa. My comment was no criticism of the staff, incidentally, as it’s been heartening to see the kindness and respect that they show to patients even when dealing with challenging behaviour.

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We hope to get Frank home soon but his care needs have increased and we’ve had a number of conversations with the occupational therapy team about new equipment. He needs a pressure-relieving mattress, a special cushion for his chair, a frame to go round the toilet and an alarm to warn us if he gets up at night. There’s a lot to consider.

Something else to think about is our forthcoming move. This should be happening in about three months after the new house is  renovated. Currently it’s a building site. We’ve cleared the overstuffed loft, disposed of the old appliances, and had many, many trips to the tip and charity shop. Now we’re into the stage of constant questions from the builders. It’s exciting but there are so many decisions to make: kitchen units; bannister rails; door handles; sinks; windows, paint—my head feels full.

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The other big thing that has preoccupied me this week is the birth of 31 Treats And A Marriage; my first book. It was published on Tuesday and is something I’ve been working towards for over four years. That morning my editor emailed and reminded me that I should post something on Facebook. But because of this ‘full head’ problem I couldn’t think what to say. I couldn’t even remember how to put up a post. Then after a bowl of porridge and a strong coffee, I got some perspective. An elderly gentleman, a house that’s a building site, and a book launch are a lot less demanding than previous bouts of juggling. The most challenging memories are those when I had four children at four different schools, a stressed-out commuting husband, an acre of out-of-control garden, and a pair of goats who spent every spare moment plotting their escape. These are all in the book together with plenty of things that made me laugh, and plenty more that didn’t.

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Eventually I managed to post something. The day improved as the book crept up the ratings and by the evening it was number one in its category on Amazon. Suddenly it all seemed very real. Then Amazon went into its own kind of system overload. It uses a complicated algorithm to work out how much stock to keep and when demand exceeds this then it puts up a message that says ‘temporarily unavailable’. If you were thinking of ordering a copy then please don’t let this put you off. It should get resolved quite quickly anyway, but will undoubtedly be helped by people placing orders. Click here for the link.

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That evening after all the palaver, Mike took me out to a New Forest pub to celebrate. It was old with atmospheric woody corners and the air was full of a fishy deliciousness. We had a happy few hours and managed for the most part to keep off the subject of juggling. But as we got back, the day’s concerns sidled in again. We drove past our house and into the next road looking for somewhere to park. ‘I must have a good look for my car, tomorrow,’ said Mike. ‘I don’t know where it is.’ We both stared blankly into the darkness ahead.

Then I had a moment of clarity. ‘I know where your car is,’ I said. ‘We’re in it.’

Thank you to everyone who has sent such supportive and kind messages about the book. I hope you enjoy it. And I hope, too, that the system overloads for me, Mike and Amazon are quickly resolved. Winter2012