JANUARY 24 – DAY 11 – ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE
Having been unsuccessful yesterday, Julieanne arose once again at the crack of dawn, after a sleepless night, to try and score a WAR HORSE ticket for today’s matinee. She succeeded this time, largely because she had made friends with the staff. Not making the cut after waiting several hours, she lingered mournfully in the book shop and lobby, when a box office pal took pity and discreetly signaled her over. He had just gotten a return.
With her afternoon planned, I toyed with the possibility of seeing a matinee of VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE starring Ken Stott and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio…or taking in THE WOMAN IN BLACK. But first I headed up north off Tottenham Court Road and Marylebone to Sam French on Fitzroy to pick up several more plays...most notably Stoppard’s version of IVANOV that Branagh just did; THE LAST CONFESSION by Roger Crane, and PAUL & NEVER SO GOOD, both by Howard Brenton.
I then toddled over to my Bloomsbury Bookshops by Russell Square. At Skoob, a delightfully cluttered, but well-arranged bookshop, with a great theatre section, I sought a specific translation of an obscure play I wanted. I came up empty on that one, but happily found another translation of the same play that I did not know existed. I also found another Pratchett hardback I need and a volume of John Osborne one-acts.
Heading home, I stopped by THE VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE box-office to see about matinee tickets…the good tickets available were “special” house seats in the circle or stalls that provided no preview discount and were outrageous. One of the “special” seats would have cost 66pds/40. An absurdly high price. I think all the West End musicals are driving the prices of straight plays up…although I had yet to encounter anything this high.
But the price made me re-think what my goal was here. Though I’ve never seen VIEW and like Stott, I debated whether I was just trying to fill some arbitrary quota of having seen a dozen plays this trip. I realized that I had seen or booked all the plays that had initially caught my fancy…and while I love to discover surprises once here, VIEW had always been something of a low-priority alternative. And while I have no prejudice about Brits playing very American pieces like this, I’d prefer to see “English” theatre when in England. So I took a pass and decided to stand pat at eleven plays unless WOMAN IN BLACK intrigued me.
After lunch, I strolled to the South Bank Book Market once again, but found nothing. I crossed the Waterloo Bridge and traipsed through Covent Garden, reading the reviews outside the Fortune Theatre where WOMAN IN BLACK was playing.
I have avoided this play for years because it has run forever and one fears “MOUSETRAP malaise” would have set in by now – reducing it to a clapped-out hoary old vehicle. But most major critics had revisited the play since 2000 and it had respectable reviews from respectable critics. My main purpose in seeing it would be as a possible play for AGL. But a four o’clock matinee was too late. I’ll keep it bookmarked for a Monday possibility. I did pick up a copy of the play to read.
ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE that night was a hop-skip into the next street, venerable Whitehall…which used to also be the name of the theatre. They’ve chopped in it into two separate spaces and re-dubbed it the Trafalgar Studios #1 and #2. The last thing I saw there under its old incarnation was an interesting John Whiting play, A PENNY FOR A SONG, which starred Julian Glover and Jeremy Clyde (who used to be part of the old sixties rock group, Chad and Jeremy). In its new guise, we saw Frank McGuinness’ GATES OF GOLD in Studio Two where the actors were all but sitting in our laps.
Tonight Studio Two was serving as the theatre bar for Studio One where SLOANE was playing, which was arrived at through a stygian labyrinth of corridors and doors. Anything I hazily remembered of the old theatre, I did not recognize. Both the audience seats and the stage had steep rakes, but the whole thing had a cozy, dare I say shabby, intimacy that was probably appropriate for the play. We had good seats, three rows back.
The play was delightful. I’d not seen it on stage (only the film by Douggie Hickox, who had directed my HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES). I am now a confirmed Orton fan and need to read WHAT THE BUTLER SAW when I get home. The cast were all fine, particularly so Simon Paisley Day, who played Ed, the brother, and Imelda Staunton as Kath. During her seduction of Mr. Sloane, Ms. Staunton gets her kit off and flounces on in the sheerest nightie, exposing all her charms and fluffy bits. Cheeky lass!
(Ian Richardson as Holmes in my
Hound of the Baskervilles - 1983)
I read Brenton’s PAUL before I went to sleep…about Saul/Paul of Tarsus and “the extraordinary phenomenon of faith” as the book blurb proclaims. Man, I loved this play! I must research it; I suspect its premiere raised some hackles and some howls. Probably water off a duck’s back to Mr. Brenton; given his history with ROMANS IN BRITAIN.
JANUARY 25- DAY 12 – THE DUKES
Sunday and rain, which put the kibosh on any contemplated major expeditions. We’d considered re-visiting the Museum of London, a fav of ours. No matter. Julieanne is so sleep deprived… no wonder, restless nights and trudging down in the grey pre-dawn to queue at the National…she is finally sleeping in. Part of this trip was for her to laze and re-coup from having directed THE FANTASTICKS. I slipped around the corner to Villiers to get the Sunday papers.
(St. James at Dawn. I wasn't there.)
(All the London photos posted Julieanne took.)
(Pelican Island in St. James)
Once the sleeper awoke and the rain slackened, we ventured over to St. James…our favourite park…and fed the squirrels and fowl. We then crossed the Mall and made our way to the Dukes Hotel tucked down a quiet, dead-end mews off St. James’s St. for a couple of really expensive drinks.
This is a tradition. I spent my first month in London at The Dukes when I came over to shoot my Holmes’ films in ‘82. So we savour the serene environs of its elegant bar, sit by the window, have a couple of drinks, and put a pretty good dent in the bowl of mixed nuts. It’s a nice way to idle an afternoon, particularly a rainy one. The wait staff is charming and impeccable. The bar is known for its martinis, but we don’t drink martinis.
It was more crowded than usual and we amused ourselves eavesdropping on a business conversation between two Spanish gents (one looked like an aristocratic Anthony Quinn) and an American couple. What little we could make out seemed to involve internet porn.
We meandered home via Piccadilly, fixed some dinner (trying to eat up all the groceries we had stocked), read the papers, watched some telly, and had an early night.
JANUARY 26 – DAY 13 – PACKING
No theatre booked for today. I had considered WOMAN IN BLACK; but since we’re going to the theatre tomorrow night with Deanna, I decided it best to use the evening for packing. Our timing, in order to see Deanna’s play, has coincided with a transition when several shows have just closed and others not quite opened. If we had stretched it a few days either way we might have caught a few more things…like GETHSEMANE by David Hare, not in the National rotation the last two weeks or my buddy Pete Postlethwaite’s LEAR opening at the YOUNG VIC the day after we leave. Despite the fact, it got critically crucified earlier, I’d have loved to have seen him in it. They apparently have re-tooled it. Anyway, it’s not been our best theatre trip, certainly by no means our worst and we still have PITMEN PAINTERS tomorrow. But if it not been for the National, it might have been a bit grim. Five of our eleven plays we saw there. The West End, over-run with its musicals, is looking pretty bleak these days.
The morning was sunny and Julieanne went to see her squirrels in St. James Park and visit Westminster Abbey…one of her traditions. I embarked on an aimless wander down Fleet Street, cut up into High Holborn, past the Smithfield Market (closed by that time of day), past what was once Newgate Prison, down Holborn into Bloomsbury, and back to Skoob.
I found another volume of Osborne plays, TIME PRESENT & THE HOTEL IN AMSTERDAM (The immensely talented and immensely self-destructive Mr. Osborne intrigues me after reading John Heilpern’s fascinating bio of him). Instead of choosing a hardback copy, I opted for a worn and somewhat water-stained paperback edition, because someone had diligently clipped, folded, and taped several original newspaper reviews of the plays on the endpapers, as well as an article on Jill Bennett, the star of TIME PRESENT, and Osborne’s wife at the time…his fourth, I think. They make fascinating reading and a nice historical tip-ins.
That night, we indulged in our usual last night ritual of strolling up the South Bank to Westminster Bridge, past Bodicea’s statue, up Whitehall, and into Trafalgar. We stopped in a few souvenir shops sizing up shot glasses for a neighbour who collects them and who watched over things at home. Back at the hotel, we hauled the luggage out of the storage room and did some preliminary packing as well as totting up our expenditures for customs. Nothing to declare; well under the limit. Mostly books, which don’t count.
(View from Waterloo Bridge)
(London Eye from the South Bank)
JANUARY 27- DAY 14 –THE PITMEN PAINTERS
Tuesday was mostly packing. Since the hotel lobby computer has not been working the entire two weeks we’ve been here, Julieanne went out to an internet café in the afternoon and printed up our boarding passes. Oddly enough, neither of us has really missed the internet, email, or phone. But we are missing the critters and are ready to get home. We have been discussing that we should probably make theatre forays to places like Chicago; Stratford, Canada; the Shaw Festival. This would not necessarily preclude coming to London as well; which is still the greatest city in the world and has the greatest theatre.
I’m glad we were ending our sojourn tonight at the National. We met Deanna and a friend of hers who used to work at the Dallas Theater Center in the Lyttelton. Once again, Deanna had snared us excellent house seats.
THE PITMEN PAINTERS, based on a true story of coal miners learning to paint, was a moving play about art, artistic expression, and the elevating power of art. I wept. It may have been my favourite of all the things we’ve seen. We all seemed to enjoy it. Not surprisingly, this story of working class men transformed through the power of art was written by Lee Hall, who wrote BILLY ELLIOTT, both film and musical, which embraces the same themes.
One speech particularly resonated with me, spoken by the art teacher who taught the coal miners: “…there’s a chance we can actually do something, but only if the working classes get off their fat asses and their high horses and use their power, their intelligence, and their creativity…and reach for a better world. If they give up and accept the scraps thrown to them, then we’re all fucked. You can’t have a rich culture if three-quarters of the people are disenfranchised.”
We now live in world that embodies what I call the “Arrogance of Ignorance”. Too many people don’t know anything and they are proud that they don’t know anything. History, culture, world events are things they can’t be bothered to know. Our attention-deficient, instant gratification minds no longer seek knowledge but clutter themselves up with insignificant information instead. We fritter hours away twittering, texting, relaying the dreary details of our shallow mundane lives on our cell phones or facebook or myspace rather that filling our time with anything substantial or lasting. We magnify the trivial and diminish the important as being to complex to consider. Our entertainment, political discourse, news pander to the lowest common denominator rather than reaching for the highest common denominator or beyond.
We slash our Arts funding and, worse, our Arts Education funding…thereby disallowing our children any glimpse of greatness or hope of enriching their lives with the possibility of something more than just working eight hours and then passively slumping onto the couch at night and having the TV wash over them with bland, non-engaging, mind-deadening pap.
I do not believe the role of the artist is giving the public what it wants. His job (and his dilemma) is to make it want what he gives. If you programmed nothing but Shakespeare and the classics (Shaw, Ibsen, Chekov, the Greeks, etc.) on TV for a year, people would watch Shakespeare and the classics and they’d like them. But they can’t appreciate what they’ve never been exposed to or had nurtured in them.
My pal, Roger Lee Leasor, quotes an old Jewish saying: “If you have two pennies, spend one for bread and one for wine: bread so you can live, wine so you want to.” He goes on: “Arts are wine. We do the Arts not because it will make us live, but because it will make us want to live.”
Anyway, as seems obvious by the above rant, THE PITMEN PAINTERS hit home for me. Deanna was not feeling well, so we didn’t stay for drinks after the play, but just walked back to hotel. I know how this is: once you get through something as momentous as she has, your body just lets up and says, “Okay, I’ve stood by you through it all, now it’s time for me to break down a little.” They’ve even kept her on the go after the show closed. She had to give a talk at the Garrick Club last Friday. Of course, I envy her this. I’ve been trying to get inside this famous theatrical club for years…just for a look. I’ve always had to content myself with a glimpse through the door at the theatrical portraits that ascend the wall by the stairs to the second floor (or, what the Brits call the first floor; our “first” floor being their “ground” floor).
On the way back, we spoke of Larry Drake and Jim Daniels, but Deanna has mostly been disconnected from these theatrical comrades of our mutual past. But then we’ve all gone our own paths and, in truth, I’ve never known her all the well. During our summer Shakespeare and dinner theatre tours eons ago, we would all, as a cast, do a movie, dinner or poker night, but even then Deanna seemed a person who valued her privacy. It was great to see her again and enjoy her deserving triumph. Still the best actress I’ve ever worked with.
(Deanna & I in our salad days at The Globe of the Great Southwest)
JANUARY 28 – DAY 15 – DEPARTURE & HOME
Julieanne was up at four, unable to sleep. We got ready and checked out at ten. Good thing we had gotten an international cell phone. My one call from the hotel was the only extra on the bill -- eleven pounds. We arrived at the airport around eleven. The cab fare was 12pds less than it had been going into town. Julieanne said it had something to do with time of day. Beats me. Terminal Five is quite nice and easy to get around in. Lots of shops and amenities once past security.
Those who complain about air travel, I suspect just don’t do it right…mostly rushing in during the last hour or half-hour, trying to get through ticket lines and security, rushing down corridors to departure gates and just not allowing proper time. I always come early…way early…and also leave plenty of time for connecting flights in the event of delays. I bring a book with me. I’d rather be in the terminal, calmly reading than out on the road, stressing whether or not I’m going to make it. It saves a lot of panic.
The flight home was as uneventful. Premium Economy was only a third filled and First class seemed almost empty. I don’t know how an airline can operate like this…and I want to know how I can get bumped up to First. I watched APALOOSA on the way back. It was the only film I actually went to a theatre to see last year. I’m a sucker for westerns. I’ve often been tempted to get into collecting western fiction; but have always pulled myself back from the brink, not wishing to open that can of worms. I don’t have enough time to read the stuff I’ve got. The snack they served on the plane was possibly the worst sandwich I ever ate; some sort of suspect fish. I don’t eat good fish.
In Chicago, the computer had lost us on our connecting. Because we had the paperwork, our booking agent got us on it and a lucky thing too. Flights were being cancelled right and left…there had been a big ice storm a day or two earlier in our neck of the woods. Fortunately, the flight to Cincy went out as scheduled. We arrived about 12 that night to a sea of silvery white snow and ice covering everything. The shuttle took us to our car and we spent the next half hour, sliding snow off it and chipping ice away. The parking lot had a small bobcat bulldozer that cleared away the snow piled behind car.
(the frozen long-term parking lot at the Cincinnati airport)
The roads were relatively clear, but vehicles, including my own were dropping ice off their metal carcasses. The trees were bent with the weight of the ice. But they looked beautiful, save for those that had been shattered and cracked under the onslaught. We got in around two that night, left the suitcases by the door, and crashed.
The following day, we picked up the animals from the kennel and, two days later, after having thought we had dodged the ice bullet, the power in the house went out. Fortunately, for only fourteen hours. Some folks in the state endured no power for weeks.
A few days later, London had its first major snow storm in years, which paralyzed the city and even forced several show cancellations. So it seems our timing was pretty good. We were gratified to read that the critics mostly agreed with our opinions about the several previews we saw. I’ve been devouring the plays and books I bought and, as ready as I was to come home, I’m already dreaming of going back. Framed on the living-room wall behind the piano is a piece of sheet music we once found at the Portobello Road Market. It’s entitled LONDON, I CANNOT LEAVE YOU. Pretty much sums it up. It’s with us all the time.