Have you been to the theatre recently? I thought not. Opportunity would be a fine thing, wouldn’t it. Blame it on that box on the wall; the one that use to be in the corner with a small screen, but now takes up half the living room wall. TV screens seem to get bigger every year, while the programme content gets worse and worse.
Those of us who do not walk around staring at a smart phone and walk into lampposts are very fortunate; we had many opportunities to see live theatre than are available to young people today. Going to the theatre wasn’t always a grand affair either. My first experiences were the theatres in Ilford and East Ham at Christmas time. Pantomime. That was live theatre, and it was very much alive. Whenever I make a cup of tea in the kitchen for my wife I still, to this day, tell her when it is ready by saying: "It’s behind ya!"
Half the people reading this will know what I am talking about. For the benefit of the other half, "It’s behind ya!" is what we in the audience were supposed to call out to warn Buttons or his mother when the evil monster was creeping up behind them. I won’t go into detail about the odd traditions of pantomime, like Button’s mother always being a man; the principle boy always being a woman; the song that had to be sung by everybody, etc. I will mention that I always thought the principle boy was the most interesting. No, I’m not gay. He was a she remember; usually dressed in hotpants with long legs in thigh boots or high heels. Oops! I mustn’t get carried away.
The seaside holiday usually included a visit to the End-of-the-Pier theatre. Programmes always changed mid-week so that visitors had the chance of seeing two shows if they were only "down" for a week. Those shows too followed a traditional pattern, as familiar as a Punch & Judy show. They have been parodied many times and criticised for their amateurish performances, etc. etc. but they were training grounds for artists and performers while giving us yet another chance of seeing something live and different from everyday life. Local dramatic societies have diminished in number and repertory theatres have almost all disappeared. Hornchurch was a favourite haunt of mine at one time. Alan Ayckbourn and Sheridan were favourites there. Did you know that Sheridan used to own the Theatre Royal Drury Lane? I’ll come back to that place later.
I’m more than a bit out of touch with today’s schools, but at Eastbury, and pretty well every other school at that time, they used to put on a performance of a play, or more often a Gilbert & Sullivan opera, each year. The Mikado was a favourite and that’s what they performed at Eastbury in my last year there. Gilbert & Sullivan did much to introduce us to the world of theatre and opera. D’Oyly Carte was responsible for bringing the two together and promoting them, but his heirs did stifle performance, I think, with their insistence of following traditions to the letter. Many updated performances have been produced since the expiry of copyright that have revitalised old G&S. Nowadays people can quote song texts by heart. My generation still remembers lines form famous Hancock Half Hours but never Gilbert & Sullivan. "What never?" "Well, haaardly ever?"
Theatre and particularly opera, like so many things in Britain, was always, a matter of class. This is why, I think, pantomime and end-of the-pier were so important. Repertory theatre was one step up the ladder and deterred some. Going to see an opera was unthinkable for most people, and quite simply out of reach to many too, because the cost of a ticket was astronomical.
Lillian Baylis was the lady who came to everyman’s rescue. Not only did she breathe life into the Old Vic (not me) and Saddlers Wells Theatres, which eventually developed into the National Theatre and the Royal Opera, but she was also a great reformer on many levels; helping people living in London slums to acquire decent living conditions for instance. I am most thankful to her for introducing opera in English to London audiences. We are not great linguists so listening to long recitatives in Italian or German can be off-putting to the most enthusiastic music lover. I have many fond memories of English language translations of operas at the Sadler’s Wells theatre, particularly of Offenbach, that were hilarious experiences. I forget how much tickets cost, but they were very cheap in the "Gods" where I used to sit, despite my fear of heights.
Opera at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden was way out of my league. In those days, the sixties, Covent Garden was the reserve of the well off and particularly the well connected. So I have never been to a performance there - but I have stood at the centre front of the stage at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Fortunately for me there was no audience, but to stand there and look out at that auditorium, the walls lined with boxes, covered in gilt and red plush, and to think of the great names that had stood on that spot was awe inspiring. You are probably wondering how that came about.
My brother-in-law ran the social club at NTGB for many years and organised several outings for its members. As a young teenager he kindly asked me along when they visited Covent Garden and also the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where I took the opportunity once again to stand "on the spot". Having done so it is easy to understand why so many are drawn to the stage. It must be like standing at the centre of the universe to be Pavarotti, or Sutherland or Nijinsky or Julie Andrews and take a bow in front of an audience at either theatre.
Covent Garden has been demolished, rebuilt and is now much more open to a wider public. Black ties and diamonds are no longer required when attending, thank heavens, though theatre ticket prices generally are still high in my opinion. London theatre has, to a large extent, become the province of visiting foreign tourists who are presumed to have money to spend. As a consequence the performances on offer tend not to be language based. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber who, incidentally, now owns the Theatre Royal, knows how to please such an audience. He doesn’t please me, but that is not his problem. Drama has largely moved to the small screen or should I say the wall screen. At least it is widely available.
The Theatre Royal Drury Lane is a remarkable building. If you have ever been there you will know that the auditorium is the largest in London. What you were not aware of, perhaps, is that the stage is equally large. It is tilted slightly so that you can see it all, though the whole stage is rarely used. The building is divided into three parts and the third part behind the stage is just as large again as the stage and auditorium and is used as a storage area and for making scenery and backdrops for other London theatres. I must also tell you that the colonnade down the side in Russell Street is the colonnade that once covered the pavement in Regent Street. That was added to the building in 1831 when Regent Street was revamped. As Sir Michael Caine never said: "Not many people know that!" But enough of facts and figures.
There is nothing that can compare with live theatre. Not even the latest block-busting, hyper-realistic, computer-generated Hollywood epic.
I once went to a summer evening performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, performed by amateurs in a small, grassy amphitheatre in the middle of Mayesbrook Park. It was a perfect evening. The circle of grassy steps, on which we sat, down to the central stage was quite small and as I sat and waited I wondered how they could perform on such a small area with no scenery. Suddenly there was a commotion behind me. It sounded at first like two men arguing. I turned around and there were two men dressed in costume. They were servants of the House of Capulet. The performance had started; without prologue or prior introduction. It just "happened" and we were suddenly transported to Verona and held spellbound for the next two hours as the sun went down.