I went to the theatre last night. Big deal, I hear you say. But for me it was kind of a big deal, because it was the first time I had been to the theatre for pleasure since… since… well, I can’t remember. There was a production of Happy Days at the National I went to with my mother which was perfectly fine until the interval, when they actually played the theme tune to the TV show over the PA system. Fifteen years on and I am still seething about that.
I was for a while the Oldie’s theatre critic and I liked the weird kind of kudos attached to the role, although the business of going to the plays and then making the last train back to Brighton got a bit tiresome. It’s funny, but when your main living is as a book reviewer you tell people with shifty, downcast eyes and in an apologetic mumble. Whereas if you are a theatre critic you come over all Brian Blessed and say: “I shall have you know, my good fellow, that I am a critic of the thespian art”, in a voice loud enough to wake the dead. And you pronounce it “thesbian” like Uncle Monty in Withnail and I. OK, you don’t. Or I don’t. But all the while one is conscious of being given a certain prestige: after all, a publication will have several book reviewers but only one theatre critic. (I used to delude myself into thinking that I had a special position as a Guardian book reviewer, writing for them week after week for something like 25 years – about six years longer than my marriage lasted – until they sacked me without much of an explanation, although I have my suspicions.)
Anyway, Covid happened and the theatres closed and when they reopened the Oldie found someone who was going to be keener on seeing a musical production of Mary Poppins than I would have been, but I still write for the magazine from time to time, so everyone’s happy. A friend once suggested that a collection of my drama criticism should have the title A Shadow Falls on Theatreland, but last night’s experience was a joy: my friend R— and I went to the Theatre Royal in Brighton to see the opening night of Spike, the new play by Nick Newman and Ian Hislop about the comedian Spike Milligan. As this is not a review I am under no obligation to say anything about Spike except that it was hugely enjoyable, and oh, what a relief to be able to sit down after a few glasses of wine (no more than one before the performance and one in the interval when on duty) and soak up the play without having to get your notebook out.
It was also pleasant to have a chat and a drink with Nick and Ian before the play. (Those of you wondering how I can afford a theatre ticket can stop wondering: I can’t, but I twisted Nick’s arm until he coughed up a couple of comps.) If I am going to do a little name-dropping here let me do it properly and say that… well, remember when I told you the story about meeting Stephen Fry and discovering he was the coldest and rudest celebrity I had ever met? Ian Hislop is the opposite: friendly, attentive, and very good at laughing at other people’s jokes. He appears not to read this column but nobody’s perfect.
But the Theatre Royal, Brighton, is a delightful, old-school kind of theatre. I often walk past its stage door and love it because it has clearly not been altered since it was originally built. This is so often the way with stage doors: they are, really, where the soul of a theatre is located. But I’d never been inside before, and it was perfect, all gilt and plush and mahogany and quite unspoiled. Outside, R— and I had a smoke and talked about various Brighton attractions. I mentioned I’d never been to the Theatre Royal before and she said neither had she.
“You been to the Pavilion yet?” she asked.
“Um… no. Have you?”
“How long have you lived here?”
I think of these milestones as rites one passes when living in a new place that make one more invested in it. Registering with a GP in Scotland was significant: registering to vote up there even more so. Here I have yet to get round to that, despite the council sending me reminders (mea culpa; mea maxima culpa). I did go to the Brighton Museum, though, and was delighted to learn that residents get in free. (As proof, I waved my letter from the council asking me why the hell I haven’t registered to vote.)
The other thing I have done to consolidate my roots is join the library. That was a painless procedure and I strolled around the big glass building like I owned it, but they only have about a dozen books for grown-ups and they’re all in the crime section. Still, it’s a library. Anyway, today I feel like a bit more of a Brightonian than I did yesterday. This is a good thing. Last week’s misery would have been unendurable if I lived almost anywhere else. Anyway, Hurrah for Spike, Nick Newman, Ian Hislop, R— , and the Theatre Royal.
[See also: Not much like heaven]
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency