Here’s an embarrassing confession — and I fear that I’ll never be admitted to polite society again once it’s out in the open: reader, I’m not at all keen on live theatre.
Indeed, my heart used to sink before the lockdown on those mercifully rare occasions when kind friends would ring to say they had two spare tickets to whichever show everyone was talking about at the time. Everyone, that is, who had highbrow pretensions.
‘Please say you’ll join us. They say Charles Dance/Judi Dench/Mark Rylance/Ian McKellen [delete as applicable] is absolutely brilliant in it. We thought we’d go out for a meal and make an evening of it.’
What were we supposed to say in such circumstances? It would have sounded monstrously philistine — not to mention ungrateful — to come out with the truth and answer: ‘Frankly, I find the theatre more an ordeal than a treat. Can’t we just go to the pub and skip the show?’
But then nor have I ever been much good at making up excuses on the spur of the moment. The best I could generally hope for was to buy time by saying: ‘That sounds wonderful. But I have a horrible feeling we’re doing something that night.
A pedestrian walks past the Lyceum Theatre, which remains closed due to Covid restrictions, in London’s West End
‘Can I get back to you when I’ve checked with my social secretary? She’s in the bath at the minute/just popped out to the shops/having her hair done/taking the dog for a walk [delete according to whim].’
There would follow a frantic summit with my social secretary (a.k.a. Mrs U), as we both tried to come up with convincing reasons why we couldn’t join our friends in the West End on the appointed day.
But as often as not, we’d decide we couldn’t decently get out of it. So I’d have to ring back and try to disguise the gloom in my voice as I said: ‘Great news. We’re not doing anything on the 14th after all. We’d be thrilled to come.’
Thus, we’d be condemned to the crippling expense, discomfort and — in the case of an avant-garde production — boredom and bafflement of an evening in Theatreland.
There would be no question of driving, of course, since there’s nowhere to park within miles of London WC2. And have you ever tried finding a taxi or a seat on the night bus on a Saturday in the West End, when the theatres and restaurants are disgorging their customers on to the streets?
Then there would be the matter of when to eat — before or after the show? If before, it would be far too early.
Anyway, there would be no hope of relaxing as you’d be constantly looking at your watch, worrying the coffee and the bill wouldn’t come before curtain up.
Opera-lovers await the start of a rehearsal of the first socially-distanced performance by English National Opera in the London Coliseum, October 24 2020, in London, England
Leave it until after the show, on the other hand, and unless you’d booked ages in advance, you’d be reduced to traipsing round Chinatown, looking for the only restaurant with spare tables.
When at last you’d find one, you’d soon realise that the tables were spare for the very good reason that the food was twice as bad as at your local takeaway, and three times the price.
More from Tom Utley for the Daily Mail…
As for the theatre itself, all too often it would be stiflingly hot, smelling of an unpleasant mixture of men’s sweat and ladies’ scent.
To reach your seat behind a pillar, with legroom for a three-year-old and a view of only half the stage, you’d have to disturb all the people already settled in your row, muttering to each as you shuffled along: ‘Sorry… sorry… sorry…’
Then latecomers would arrive and the disruption would start again (‘Sorry… sorry… sorry…’), forcing you to stand and tripping over your overcoat, folded on the floor. ‘Sorry… sorry… sorry…’
After an eternity, the curtain would go up, and we’d all strain to catch what the actors were saying (whatever happened to the lost art of projection, as perfected by the likes of Sir Alec Guinness, who could fill a huge theatre with a whisper?).
Alas, there are no subtitles in most theatres — and there’s no rewind button to hit when we realise our concentration lapsed at a crucial moment.
Give me the telly, the remote control and the comforts of home any day.
Well, if there’s one thing to be said for this wretched lockdown, at least it has given me and my fellow reluctant theatregoers a year off from this torture — and from having to pretend, for the sake of appearing cultivated, that we enjoy it.
Ah, but if all goes according to plan, the theatres will be opening again before we know it. Social distancing rules, however, will remain in place. And as someone once said: ‘There’s the rub’.
For the word this week is that when the curtain finally goes up again on live performances, many theatres will be forced to scrap the only part of the show that makes it endurable for the likes of me, and by that, of course, I mean the interval. But I’m not saying that I positively enjoy the experience of queuing up in a massively overcrowded theatre bar to buy a massively overpriced glass of warm white wine between acts.
A quiet Shaftesbury Avenue with the Gielgud Theatre in London. March 22, 2021
Nor do I derive any pleasure from overhearing snatches of half-time conversation between fellow audience members, showing off to their friends: ‘Of course, nobody can compete with Gielgud’s sublime performance in ’52…’; ‘She was better as Goneril last year, don’t you think, but then Pirandello is always so much harder to get exactly right…’
No, it’s just the sheer relief, when the lights go up for the interval, of knowing that for a precious 20-30 minutes, I’ll be free to have that drink I yearn for, a cigarette on the street outside, a much-needed pee — and the freedom to cough to my lungs’ content without being scowled at by the lady in the row in front.
Yes, I know that some theatre purists think intervals can disrupt the flow of a play and break the dramatic tension. Take Michelle Terry, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, who welcomes the excuse social distancing rules give her to do away with the break.
Shakespeare, she reminds us, never wrote with an interval in mind — and his plays ‘work better without them,’ she says.
That’s all very well, perhaps, if you’re a non-smoking teetotaller with a cast-iron bladder, a comfortably-cushioned bottom and an ability to concentrate for hours on end.
But it’s not so great if you’re a chain-smoking old soak like me, with the attention-span of a gnat, a sore rump and a bladder weakened, like his hearing, by the cruel passage of the years.
If it’s culture you want for me, give me Glyndebourne every time. There, whisper it softly, the wining and dining in the interval — ideally on the lawn, on those rare occasions when the rain holds off — is half the point of the experience.
Make that three-quarters of the point. I’d love to pretend I’m a serious opera buff — and I can truthfully say I’ve enjoyed some truly wonderful music there over the past ten years or so, since revered friends took to inviting us every summer before the lockdown struck.
But I’ve never quite shaken off the feeling that the opera itself was the fish paste sandwich we were forced to eat at childhood birthday parties before we could embark on the treats. The interval picnic and the after-show drinks were the jelly and cake.
As for the West End theatre, I’ve been racking my brains to remember the last time I saw a play I thoroughly enjoyed, without reservation of any sort.
I fear the answer must be a magical Christmas production of Toad Hall, featuring my grandfather’s university friend Dickie Goolden, who played Mole. That would have been when I was about six — which would put it in 1959.