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Bouncing all the tabs

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The sight of things going wrong on a stage is a source of both hilarity and reassurance. Nothing funnier than a doorknob coming away in an actor's hand, or a telephone ringing after the handset's been lifted.

But at least these mishaps remind you of the precarious, in-the-moment nature of theatre, and serve to cement, not dissolve, the special bond that forms every night between actors and audiences.

Mind you, things can get out of hand, and not just doorknobs. I once saw King Lear in Cardiff lose his beard while cradling a dead Cordelia. And an actor once entered in a raging blizzard at the Watermill, Newbury, with a few white flakes on one shoulder only. Wigs coming awry and sets wobbling are the mainstay of what the author Michael Green once termed Coarse Theatre.

And I was glad to see that the art has not been lost entirely when, in Chicken at the Trafalgar Studios this week, one character opened a beer bottle that was patently only half full. Shortly afterwards, another character arrived from the grocery store with a packet of cornflakes that was already open. Look out, there's a mouse about... 

Such examples of stage mismanagement are meat and drink to an old pro like Nick Bromley, one of the West End's most popular company stage managers, who has written a delightful short alphabetical compendium of insider information and everyday disaster titled Theatre Lore: A Dictionary of Backstage Language, Expressions and Useful Stage Knowledge for those Theatrically Bent or of a Curious Nature.

Well, I suppose it does help to be bent or curious to relish the news that "bounce the tabs" was a command to keep the curtain going up and down in advance of anything like actual applause in order to maximise the number of calls for the cast. Bromley laments that you don't hear the order much nowadays: "flymen aren't as strong as they used to be, and nor for that matter is the applause."

Perceptive chap, Bromley. He notes that Whatsonstage.com is one of the very best theatre websites and one "which stages an annual award ceremony every bit as good as the Oliviers," while grimly observing that glamour in the theatre ends at the pass door.

And have you ever heard of a shadowy organisation called SOBOM? They are the Society of Box Office Managers who hold a secret Christmas lunch each year, presumably to bemoan their lot and curse the unstoppable juggernaut of centralised and on-line booking facilities.

Another rare command, "Hang all the blacks," (which propels the dropping in of curtains, legs or borders on the stage) reminds me of the time Maggie Smith was doing battle on Broadway with a noisy hot gospel show in the adjacent theatre. She registered her complaint, in no uncertain terms, and the company stage manager took immediate "muffling" action and rushed backstage to declare, "It's all dealt with Maggie, we've hung all the blacks." To which she replied, "No need to have gone that far, surely."

At the other end of the coffee table scale, there's a handsomely illustrated history of the Chichester Festival Theatre just out, coinciding with last night's opening of Trevor Nunn's revival of Kiss Me Kate - can it possibly be as good as Michael Blakemore's? - and celebrating the theatre's fiftieth anniversary.

The text by novelist Kate Mosse mentions all the ups and downs, but lacks much in the way of critical spine, except when deploying the shrewd, analytical commentary of Michael Billington, who dates his "Chichester bug" to the great Uncle Vanya of Olivier, Redgrave, Joan Plowright and Sybil Thorndike right at the start. (Mosse's interviews were conducted for her by a local journalist, Tim Bouquet, and most of them are indeed nicely scented, inoffensive posies.)

Plowright herself, Dame Joan, has written the foreword and recalls the moment when a letter from an optician in Chichester arrived in New York where her new husband, Olivier, was appearing in Jean Anouilh's Becket and she herself in Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey.

The optician, Leslie Evershed-Martin, declared he was about to build a theatre and boldly asked Olivier to come and run it for him. Olivier was in the mood for a challenge and described this letter as God's gift from heaven. And of course he used the place as the launch pad for the National Theatre, too. 

While burrowing among the new publications pile I should also mention two neat little tomes by Peter Bowles and Janet Suzman. Bowles's Behind the Curtain: the Job of Acting is in some ways complementary to Bromley's book, full of witty asides and apercus, as well as the astounding admission that he would have given up his job altogther had he not been rescued by a review by John Peter in The Sunday Times. (But a review of what, for heaven's sake?)

This is comparable to the confession of Harold Pinter that he was saved as a playwright by Harold Hobson, Peter's great predecessor on the same paper, when everyone else had rubbished The Birthday Party.
Suzman, Dame Janet, launches Not Hamlet: Meditations on the Frail Position of Women in Drama with a spirited summary of the demolition arguments against the people who think Shakeapeare didn't write Shakespeare, reserving her irritation particularly for Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi because she admires them so much as actors. She's hilariously good on that stupid film Anonymous.
And no-one with any interest in the classical repertoire will not want to read what she has to say about Cleopatra (she's still the best I've ever seen), the two Joans (Shaw's, and Shakespeare's in Henry VI), Hedda Gabler, Gertrude and Ophelia, "two of the loneliest women in the whole canon of drama."


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