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Highjinks in 'appy 'Ackney

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There was a festival atmosphere along Mare Street and around the Hackney Empire on Saturday as the Isango Ensemble from Cape Town performed all three of their new productions in one day, starting at 10.30 in the morning. Such an epic sounds like a long haul, but in fact each production - Aesop's Fables, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and La boheme - is only around two hours long, including an interval. And what else would you be doing on a Saturday, anyway, towards the end of May - apart, that is, from going shopping, clearing up the garden or watching the Test Match at Lord's?

If Stephen Daldry could spare the whole day from his Olympic Games opening and closing ceremonies producing duties, so could we. Daldry is a huge fan of Isango, as are other notables who joined the very lively and appreciative local audience: director Sean Mathias (a member of Isango's international council), playwrights Martin Sherman and Lee Hall (who's preparing a version of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle for the company), actors Alan Rickman, Josie Lawrence and Selina Cadell, and producers Jenny Topper and Roger Chapman.

Half way through Ragged Trousered, the company sings (not too ironically) a wonderfully harmonised version of our National Anthem, and Daldry agreed it might make a good addition to the Olympic concert, but my tactic of suggesting this in order to draw some information about what is really on the cards failed miserably.

In the Old Ship Hotel next door to the theatre - a really nice gastro pub with a pleasant outdoor courtyard (well, an alleyway with chairs and tables) - Mathias updated me on plans to take his production of Breakfast at Tiffany's (a flop with Anna Friel at the Haymarket) onto Broadway, while Sherman chatted nervously about going to his house in panic-stricken Greece in order to get on with his script for a movie about the very early days of Noel Coward, who did not behave all that well as a socially ambitious showbiz tyro.

Why did Coward always speak with that slightly over-emphatic, clipped-cut glass accent? Because his mother was very deaf and the only way he could talk to her as a boy was to enunciate frantically and spit out his sentences as though talking to someone very young or very dim.

But who will play this infant phenomenon? Eddie Redmayne is already too old! There was a marvellous performance of Coward by his godson Daniel Massey in a film called Star (Julie Andrews was Gertrude Lawrence). And yesterday in Cannes, Colin Firth was announced as the next onscreen middle-aged Coward in a new movie about the reinvention of the Master as a cabaret performer, Mad Dogs and Englishmen.

At the Hackney lunch break, the theatre laid on some tasty vegetable soup and, in between Ragged Trousered and La boheme, a more than edible plate of rice and peas and spicy chicken. That still left plenty of time to explore the food market in a pleasant churchyard near the station (and pick up a delicious home-made cupcake for dessert), check on the menu in the Tre Viet (one of the best value Vietnamese restaurants in town) and exchange notes on recent theatre outings with Heather Neill, Paul Taylor and Robert Shore of Time Out.

The thing about these "all-dayers," and part of their appeal, is the suspension of reality in our daily lives, the communal concentration on an event, a location, an increasingly familiar group of people both on stage and off. The Hackney Empire is a few stops from where I live on the North London line, but I may as well have crossed continents and entered another world entirely.

It was a much more frenetic, run-of-the-mill theatrical atmosphere at the Wyndham's on Friday night for the West End transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory's revival of Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party, a wonderful play given the full satirical treatment in Lindsay Posner's mostly brown and beige production.

The audience - who included TV scientific pin-up Brian Cox (not to be confused with the rugged Scottish actor of the same name), Radio Five Live's Richard Bacon, quirky programme-maker Louis Theroux, new Renaissance man Mark Gatiss, his fellow League of Gentlemen star Reece Shearsmith, and Observer food critic Jay Rayner - rolled over with their legs waggling in the air at the kitsch fun of it all.

When the television version first went viral, there was an enormous fracas, with letters in The Times, about Beverly popping a little bottle of Beaujolais into the fridge, as though this was an act of gratuitous condescension in the class war. Julie Burchill even went so far as to say that anyone who knew about Beaujolais really would "pop" it in the fridge, and that Leigh was betraying his lack of working class credentials (not that he ever claimed any) by assuming that Beverly was committing a social gaffe.

Of course, he was merely playing on the general assumption that to pop any bottle of red wine in a fridge was undoubtedly, and beyond question, considered to be a social solecism in 1977; the Wyndham's Theatre audience were no longer hampered by such second thoughts, and brayed with laughter, proving that we've gone through that terrible PC barrier of thinking how "unfair" it is to laugh at characters when we really should, in an ideal world, be laughing with them.

There was once a curious assumption that in laughing at his characters, Mike Leigh was somehow patronising them, as if they had a life, and a set of rights, as characters, beyond what is allowed them in the play. Of course we laugh at them. They are funny and absurd and ridiculous. Just as we are.

And Abigail's Party is as much about perennnial sensitivities and assumptions in the class war as is Laura Wade's superb play Posh which opens at the Duke of York's later this week.


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