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Audience member goes berserk

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Audience participation is all part of theatre fun, as long as the actors are in control of it. But when a guest, or paying customer, takes charge of proceedings, or the heckling gets too serious, things can turn nasty. Ask Mrs Abraham Lincoln, who had a dead husband on her hands when a fellow audience member, John Wilkes Booth, shot the president during a performance at Ford's Theatre in Washington.

Something less significant but no less terrifying happened at the Old Red Lion in Islington last Thursday night when an audience member rampaged madly across the acting area of Happy New by Brendan Cowell. He smashed up the set, threatened audience members with violence and then ran out of the theatre.

The auditorium was over half full at the time, and it seems that audience members initially thought the destruction was part of the performance, until some of them became an unwilling part of it.

Maybe one or two of them remembered Jonathan Pryce doubling Petruchio with Christopher Sly for the RSC in a production of The Taming of the Shrew by Michael Bogdanov; he entered the theatre through the stalls, climbed on to the stage and literally demolished the set.

The cast of the Old Red play includes Alfred Enoch (Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter movies) whose parents happen to live in my street, so I popped along at the weekend to ask for more details -- and to make sure Alfie himself was okay. His dad is the actor William Russell, an original cast member of Doctor Who and a fine RSC Claudius to Mark Rylance's pyjama-clad Hamlet.

Anyway, William says that the interloper was unknown to anyone in the pub theatre, and that he left the theatre after his scenographic assault and has not been seen, or apprehended, since.

The set's been repaired and the show continues this week. Happy New is a very rude and unsettling play, says William, but he thinks that if the play had riled, or got to, the unhappy customer, his reaction was slightly over the top.

Incidents like these are a reminder of how very fragile is the relationship between actors and audiences. Even people getting up and leaving a show for reasons beyond their control — a coughing fit, sudden illness, an urge to use a toilet — can severely disrupt the proceedings, and actors are invariably far more disturbed than are other members of the audience.

Sitting in the Orange Tree on Friday night, for Martin Crimp's return to the theatre that gave him his first break, reminded me of my own most embarrassing moment in this regard. It was in the old Orange Tree, the room above the pub across the road, which you could not leave, as in the new one, without crossing the stage.

This I was obliged to do in the middle of a performance — I never remember which play it was — when suddenly struck with an onset of food poisoning. I rushed across the action, tumbled down the stairs and vomited over a parked Volvo.

I'm half surprised that a similar crisis wasn't provoked on Friday night, as quite a few critics were having a pre-show supper in the neighbouring Carluccio's, where the food is easily the worst in any Carluccio's I've ever visited; the one by the Rose at Kingston, for instance, is infinitely superior to its poor Richmond relation.

I've gone there several times now and endured an equally bad experience every time — drably prepared pasta and fried fish, limp salads and lukewarm coffee — so I shall make sure on my next Orange Tree visit to arrive in Richmond in good time to go elsewhere, if only to Strada or Nando's in the town centre, or the average-to-middling fish and chippie at the other end of the green.

Crimp has written a new short play to celebrate Sam Walters' 40th anniversary year at the Orange Tree and paired it with Definitely the Bahamas, which Alec McCowen directed as part of a triple bill in the old Orange Tree in 1987 (it was played then by John Moffatt and Heather Canning, who are expertly matched by the present incumbents, Ian Gelder and Kate Fahy).

The actor Michael Gough, who looked like a bloodhound and sounded as though his voice was pickled in port, died aged 94 on 17 March last year, and his memorial in Wiltshire was held on Saturday on the first anniversary of his passing.

I was making my way on Saturday morning to the Young Writers Festival at the Royal Court — for "Saturday Shorts," new plays written by writers aged eight to fifteen and read by a professional cast of seven including the incisive comedienne Pandora Colin and the bustling little journalist from Floyd Collins at the Southwark Playhouse, Ryan Sampson — when I bumped into Jim Broadbent, who was meeting up with Kenneth Cranham at Waterloo and heading off to the Gough memorial.

It really was a weekend for bumping into people, probably because I had dinner on Thursday night with my friend Dame Liz Forgan, chair of the Arts Council, who went to the new Bush intending to see Snookered but potted the cue ball and went upstairs by mistake to see a work in progress about the Russian revolution.

Having bumped into Broadbent before I got on the tube, I found veteran showbiz writer David Wigg at the other end of it in a coffee shop near Sloane Square, fretting over what might happen at the Mail on Sunday under new editor Geordie Greig. And resuming my jogging regime after last week's short holiday in Spain (where I went in the sea, but not for too long!) the first Sunday morning family I bumped into by the tennis courts on Parliament Hill belonged to Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader, who lives on the other side of Highgate Road.

Ed himself looked like a mafioso on holiday, dressed in head to toe casual black and very cool sunglasses. I suppose he has to work on making it look as though he doesn't really mind missing out on all the pomp, circumstance, media attention and good guy brownie points that went with David Cameron's recent love-in with President Obama in Washington; they knew better than to risk life and limb by going to the theatre, settling for basketball instead.

One of the friends we met in Malaga last week was Adrian Morris, partner of the late Jack Tinker, who is nowadays mixing his writing and media career with an involvement in local politics in Spain and Brighton.

Over drinks in the town's oldest bar (delicious Malaga wine served from barrels at one or two euros a shot) and then dinner, we revisited several of our favourite Jack stories, including the one where he fell down a manhole while Adrian carried on back to their hotel in Torremolinos.

Adrian thought Jack had merely been diverted into a neighbouring bar and had decided to stay out and go freelance for the night. So he carried on without him, especially as it was a gala night back at the hotel with a special dinner and free wine. He sat grandly alone at his table cursing Jack under his breath.

Jack eventually turned up in the small hours, swaddled in bandages, chin sewn together, but still talking: "How dare you carry on without me," protested Jack through the side of his mouth, "I was in mid-sentence!" "Well, I'd suddenly gone deaf," replied Adrian. "Didn't you know I was in a manhole? I fell down a manhole!" "No, and I didn't care. I still don't. And please stop using that dreadful word."

Once again, and after all these years, we were in absolute hysterics. This, surely, was rough justice, but justice all the same, for all Jack's decades of non-stop name-dropping: when he came to that manhole, he was the name dropping.


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