Thursday, 14 April 2016

As if we never said goodbye

I was up in the village this morning, writing in Costa, when I looked across at the bloke next to me who was reading a newspaper. He turned a page, and there was Arnold Wesker's face. The article described him as the "last of the angry young men." Funnily enough, Arnold always used to claim that he wasn't an angry young man, but that he was very definitely an angry OLD man! The man in the cafe had a cursory read of the article before turning the page and I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and say, "you should read Chicken Soup with Barley and then you'd understand the importance of this man." Actually, when Arnold, a notoriously bad speller, handed the first draft of Chicken Soup with Barley to the Royal Court theatre, a spelling mistake meant he'd actually titled his first play, Chicken Soup with Barely!

There's little else to say about today. Yesterday's Sunset Boulevard at English National Opera was a proper treat. It's very rare to hear a musical theatre score played by a 51-piece orchestra and Michael Xavier was tremendous in the role of Joe. Glen Close delivered one of those performances which I will be able to say I saw for the rest of my life. She created the most astonishing moment when she sang As If We Never Said Goodbye, and brought a breathtaking pathos and fragility to Norma Desmond. We sat in the Gods, so I was too far back to see the subtleties of her facial expressions, but something special was happening which the entire audience seemed to be buying into. Of course it's very difficult to know whether a lot of the buzz was happening because this was Glen Close. If a less famous actress had delivered an identical performance, would everyone have gone so gaga over it? She certainly didn't sing the music beautifully...

The show instantly took me back in time. Almost exactly twenty years ago (in fact to the actual month) I did my drama school work experience on Sunset Boulevard, observing a director called Andrew McBean as he rehearsed a new cast which included Petula Clerk and Graham Bickley. Pet Clark was taking over from Elaine Paige, who had done a limited run of the show. I remember sitting in on a rehearsal with the bloke who'd played the butler, Max, since the show opened some three years before. The resident director suggested that maybe he could shake things up and keep things fresh by changing the position of his hands at the end of his big song, to which the actor replied, "my dear man. If this hand position was good enough for Trevor (Nunn, the show's original director) then it's good enough for me..." I learned a lot about a certain type of actor in that one session!

I was very good friends with the stage door keeper of the Adelphi theatre in the run-up to that week of work experience. I was there when the news of the massacre at Dunblane broke. I remember discussing it with a well-known actress who was dating one of the cast at the time. I told her about the shooting at my own school and how strange I was feeling in a sort of "there but for the grace of God" kind of way. Strange days.

Twenty years in the business and never dropped a sequin!

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