Treating ourselves, in troubled times

I can still remember how disappointed I was to miss the National Theatre production of Twelfth Night, back in early 2017. No, I wasn’t planning to head up to London, it was to be a live broadcast in cinemas and theatres across the country.

I’ve mentioned these productions before. They’re popular. This one was drawing a lot of media interest thanks to casting Tamsin Grieg as Malvolio, and Doon Mackichan as Feste.

There was only one problem, I’d let my ‘friend’ status lapse, so was denied access to the first wave of booking. Seats were snapped up almost as soon as they went on sale. I kicked myself. It was far from the first show I’d missed that way.

However, soon after the ‘lock-down’ started, National Theatre announced that they would re-release some of their catalogue on YouTube, on a weekly basis. They started with, One Man, Two Guvnors, another show I’d failed to book for.

The night before my surgery, we pulled the curtains, turned the lights down, and joined James Corden, in Brighton. Oh how I laughed.

I’ve missed a couple of weeks. Last Saturday afternoon, though, I settled down Madam Recaimier style, with a cooling drink to hand, and let myself get washed up on the shore of Illyria alongside Viola and Sebastian.

I hear your concern: ‘Did it live up to expectations?’

Oh, yes, and more. Even watching on our large household sized screen, on a sunny afternoon, it was a smooth transition.

The stage design alone was stunning. Add to that some brilliant casting, exciting costumes, lovely musical interludes and witty modern references, and I was hooked.

If you’ve somehow missed hearing about these shows, up to now, let me recommend you drop in at the National Theatre website. The programme changes weekly, on a Thursday, at 7pm GMT, so there are still a few days to catch up with Olivia, Orsino, Antonio and friends. After that, I’m looking forward to Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Frankenstein.

All My Sons, by Arthur Miller

The Bacon Theatre is in Cheltenham, in the grounds of a school. It’s a lovely airy building, with comfortable seating, and I’ve seen some fine live shows there. Still, it’s not quite the space where you might expect to find Sally Field, Bill Pulman, Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan on stage.

These, though, are the days of ‘live recordings’ being broadcast in cinemas and theatres across the country. Some of the top plays, operas and ballets from top theatres are now available in tiny local venues at affordable prices.

I’d be happy to shake the hand of the person who brought this dream to life, because the effect is that I get a best seat in the house. I wish I’d seen more but I’m generally slow off the mark, and those shows sell out fast in the provinces, too. This one was booked by my friend Claire. She’d not tried theatre on the screen before.

‘That was amazing,’ she said, as the lights came up at the end of act I, ‘nothing like I expected. It really is almost like you’re there.’

I nodded. ‘Despite being projected onto a screen.’

‘And this play finished in London, last spring, but it feels as if it’s all happening right now.’ We looked up at the screen, where the National Theatre audience were milling about the auditorium, eating popcorn and ice-creams, chatting and taking photographs. ‘I wonder if they realised they were being filmed…’ said Claire, sipping her cup of tea.

The timer in the corner of the screen counted the seconds down, and I heard the bell by our door being rung, then the light in our auditorium went down, and the on-screen stage began to brighten. In a moment I had slipped back into my place as interloper in the garden outside the Keller’s house, just in time to witness Chris Keller sawing through the trunk of the fallen apple-tree.

It was a beautifully produced and acted production. I believed in all of the characters and nearly everything I saw. I forgot that I was sitting on a cushioned bench and that the talk came from lines that had been learned. I felt joy and pain and fear, and believed in the interior of the house, and that when someone went out of sight they were doing what they said they would.

The only thing that jarred me out of my belief probably says more about me than the production. It was that fallen apple-tree, which was surrounded by apples of at least two varieties.

Half looked like either Red Delicious, or Jonathans, and the others looked like Braeburns or Jonagolds. I tried to ignore it, but at moments when the action centred on the tree I began to speculate. Maybe it had two or three varieties grafted onto its trunk. Since the tree was symbolic, could the mixed apples be of obscure visual significance?

Luckily, before I became fixated on this, Chris and his dad cleared the evidence away. I slipped back into the human action.

An hour or so later, when the curtain calls had been taken, Claire said, ‘I’ve always loved Sally Field, but I never realised she could act like that. Wasn’t it amazing?’

‘It was. They all were.’

‘Yes. How do they do it, night after night?’ said Claire, ‘Not just saying a few lines, picking up laughs. This was emotion, real emotion. You could still see it in their eyes when they took the curtain call.’

Claire’s in a band. I knew she was comparing the way she feels after a gig. We’ve talked a few times about the buzz of being on stage, and how she feels in the hours afterwards.

Do I need to add that if you haven’t tried out ‘live broadcasts’ yet, you should give them a try? Too late, I have.

We waited for Godot.

He didn’t arrive, but you know what? That didn’t matter. Estragon and Vladimir kept us so enthralled that time was irrelevant. Words were exchanged, movements made; visitors arrived then departed. I was gripped, even though I couldn’t really tell you now what was said.

I’ve wanted to see this play for a long time, and yet at the same time, I’ve worried. It’s a difficult play, people say. Nothing happens. Two men stand by a tree and have conversations, mostly about waiting. Was I really going to pay money for that?

Of course, it is a classic. It’s revered by writers and playgoers. But what if I didn’t understand it? Would I come away feeling a fool?

It’s a favourite of Rays. He often regrets our failing to get tickets for the Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart version, back in 2013. So last December, when I saw that it was coming to The Everyman theatre, I knew that I’d not only solved my ‘what-Christmas-gift-do-I-give-to-the-man-who-has-everything?’ question, in the process, I’d found the prompt I needed to see the play for myself.

‘Tweedy’ as Estragon & Jeremy Stockwell as Vladimir

This week, as the evening got closer, I was having doubts. The lead actors were a professional clown and a vaudevillian actor, this version could be terrible.

There’d been a serendipitously appropriate discussion about Becket on the radio a week or so ago, and the academic panel had explained how important clowns were to the playwright, so I got that clowning could fit. But, that didn’t mean a clown could act, did it?

Well, in this case, yes. From the moment the curtain was raised, as Estragon struggled to remove his boot, I forgot he’d ever had anything to do with face-paint, or colourful clothes. He was a man in search of boots that would fit, and I was hooked.

He was waiting for Godot. He had no more idea than I had, of why he was waiting for Godot. I knew that he wasn’t going to arrive. Maybe Estragon did, too. I waited with him.

Time passed. I laughed, I wondered, I smiled. I doubted the rightness of my responses. I forgot that I was watching men act, even though the stage was so obviously artificial, with its washed-out blue sky, bare rocks and man-made tree.

It was as if I was in a dream, the way I accepted everything. And yet, I never stopped thinking, and asking questions. Maybe I never will. I hope not.

Photo by Antony Thompson: Mark Ropper as Pozo, Tweedy as Estragon, Murray Andrews as Lucky, Jeremy Stockwell as Vladimir.

School Drama, BBC Radio 4: teaching Shakespeare

This week, I’ve been gripped by a four-part Radio 4 play, School Drama, written by Andy Mulligan.  I’ve listened on the I-Player, rather than as it was scheduled, and it’s available there until 13th April 2018, if you’re interested. Professional actors take the leading roles, other parts are played by students and teachers from Portsmouth Grammar school, where it was recorded. It’s a lively production, with some contemporary sub-plots.

school drama, andy mulliganGeoff Cathcart, ‘has-been actor’, steps in to direct a production of Romeo and Juliet for a secondary school that’s taking part in a Shakespeare competition.  The teacher who was in charge has taken indefinite sick-leave, and his drama colleague would rather direct ‘Oliver’, but is told she must work with Geoff on the Shakespeare.

The two director/producers are as far apart as the Capulets and the Montagues. They don’t agree on how to cast, interpret or stage the play. When Geoff’s innovative approach draws in some challenging students, tensions are hiked-up.

Andy Mulligan, explaining where his inspiration came from, writes:

A few years ago I was hired to direct a Shakespeare play in a school that was inching out of special measures. The project foundered, partly because of internal politics and resentments, but also because the joy of interrogating a provocative play with teenagers didn’t sit well with a school frightened of upsetting parents.

Teenagers, the play demonstrates, are not only capable of exploring the intricacies of the plot, exposure to the whole text transforms them. Given access, and encouragement, the players blossom.  Students from opposite ends of the learning scale earn the respect of their peers, and develop inter-personal skills.

In contrast, the responses of the teachers, bound by the rules of safe-guarding and the dictates of biased school-governers, gets narrower.  As Geoff and the students take control of the play, the teachers, unable to recognise the beauty and originality of what is happening, are driven into increasingly radical action.

school drama 2The writing isn’t so straight-forward as to suggest that Geoff, the maverick, has all the answers.  He’s a rounded character who carries ‘baggage’, and clearly hasn’t enough understanding of the real and wider importance of ‘safe-guarding’.

I don’t think Mulligan was claiming we should abandon the rules.  The problem with the teachers was that rules, and safety, have become everything to them.  Targets, academic and economic, mean that simplifying is standard.  In discussing his own experience, Mulligan writes:

One day I needed a copy of the play, “Romeo and Juliet”. The English Department taught it, but to my amazement, nobody had a full text. Why not? Because the exam would test three particular scenes, so those were the ones photocopied, annotated and taught into the ground. Why waste time reading the rest of it?

I  hope some teachers were listening to this production, and not focusing only on the dangers.  When I was at school we did the whole text of Macbeth.  At the point where we were introduced to it we went to see what, I think, must have been the 1971 Roman Polanski version. There was nudity, blood, and rude jokes from the gatekeeper to make us snigger.  But I remember that every teenager there was hooked.

school drama 3

Performers from Portsmouth Grammar school: Rory Greenwood, Rebecca Emerton, Finn Elliot and Rob Merriam


*Photos above from BBC, include actors, Tom Hollander, Divian Ladwa, Heather Craney, Tony Gardner & Sian Gibson

Radio Review: Lady Invincible

Are you still on the look-out for extra Christmas gifts?

Let me recommend something a little different, a great-value stocking filler: a downloadable radio play, by Lynda Kirby.

Lighthouse cover_cropped for cw jpg

Lady Invincible Illustration by Brigid Walshe


This is a well written, beautifully acted and produced atmospheric play, with the added bonus that all the proceeds go to a good cause.

The Lady Invincible, a lighthouse, is both the setting and the narrator for a narrative that dips back and forth through time.  The main strand shows us the interactions of the crew on the last day before the lighthouse is due to get automated, in 1996 as a storm breaks.  But lacing through that story are voices from the past and the future.

Don’t just take my word for it.  You can find it on Lynda’s blog at,

Prepare to be intrigued.