Last Saturday I saw a dramatic adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. The venue was the Rosemary Branch public house in London's East End, and the theatre was about as a big as a garage. Pint in hand, you went up a narrow staircase, sharp left through a gallery and over two steps to look down upon a darkened stage where six people in black were muttering and mourning while the steeply raked seats filled up and still the mutterings went on. It hadn't started yet but it had. One minute you were in the bar looking this way and that and wondering how the lads had done against Spurs and the next minute you were in the theatre where real life ended and real art began and there was only one way to look and that was down. Down upon Mr Dashwood's funeral.
I've read about pub music halls and 'penny gaffs' in Henry Mayhew's London Letters for the Morning Chronicle 1849-50 but here was one to behold. We all sat close, knee to knee, elbow to elbow. A twig signified Norland Park. A drape did service as a drawing room, a clothes line as Barton Cottage. And when the actors had to go up to London (for we are in Devonshire, Madam) they brushed past my right shoulder. At other times they headed off to Somerset only to dip behind a screen and come out again as somebody else. At one point a small Scottish dog invaded the county and sat there. When the lady next to me had to go to the loo, half the theatre stood up to let her past. It looked like a small standing ovation - and boy how the Company deserved it.
For the performance was stunning. I will never again doubt the raw theatricality of Miss Austen , 'A Lady'. I will never again mistake D'Arcy for Brandon, Emma for Elinor, or Bennet for Dashwood. Most of all, my faith in live theatre was restored by the sheer nearness of the players and what they represented in the human condition - which is my condition, and your condition - because it works best when it's near. As near as this. Like cinema gets near - but not this near. This is the Rosemary Branch Theatre. Helen Tennison directs. Roger Parsley and Andy Graham adapted. Ellen Parry designs. Cecilia Darker and Cleo Sylvestre are the artistic directors. James Burton, Jason Eddy, Emma Fenney, Bobbi O' Callaghan, Lainey Shaw and Francesca Wilding act. Act? They do more than that. They take you in, and take you out. You leave a different person. Talk about pop up theatre. This is pop up humanity. Elinor and the man who plays Edward Ferrars were particularly good. As good as Hugh and Emma that is - and they are probably paid about 3p each.
I name names because so much in theatre is fake. Especially the praise and the celebration of faux talent. So when it works for real you have to be grateful and shout it out for these players are not paid in money. And when it doesn't work you have to ask why.
I have been asking why for a while now about Leicester's shiny new theatre - the 'Curve'. It's big. It's exciting. It's award winning. It's cultural. And its crap.
I have seen some bad plays there but the last one, Buried Child by Sam Shepard was the worst. I can't begin to tell you how bad it was or what it was about except to say that it seemed to think it was Tennessee Williams but in fact it was Royle Family without the humour. Everything that is wrong about star cast, deliberately profound, procenium arch big theatre was wrong with Buried Child. If the Rosemary Branch is the size of a garage; Curve is as big as a car park. If the Rosemary Branch cost nothing; Curve cost millions. If the Rosemary Branch is going to go on and on giving local pleasure and support to thousands of people; Curve is going to be somebody's headache for years to come - Leicester City Council's probably. But here's the telling point. When the Rosemary Branch wanted to do a park - it fixed a few twigs to the wall and framed the scene 3' by 3'. When Curve wanted to do a field of corn - and my God Buried Child does go on about mid west fieldss of corn - guess what? It does a life size field of corn, right across the stage, up and down, green and yellow, twenty five miles of the stuff stretching right across Leicestershire almost to Birmingham. It was the star of the show.
And for what? Why did this excruciating bad play have a real field of corn? Because it can. I once saw an Arthur Miller at the Curve where at least the rain was real.