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Michael Coveney: Anyone here seen Roger?

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If Times critic Libby Purves had as voracious an appetite for theatrical trivia as I do, she might not have said in her review of Heartbreak House at Chichester this morning that director Richard Clifford "has done well to get the great Derek Jacobi..." as Captain Shotover, the octogenarian seadog who believes that England is running onto the rocks.

The wooing process was unlikely to have been that long, and more likely to have come from the other direction. For Clifford is the long-time civil partner of Sir Derek, and even less well-known in that capacity than he is as a director. Heartbreak House is a very difficult play to stage well, but the priority here, you imagine, was keeping Derek happy in Sussex for a few weeks.

Where and why actors pop up in the media is an endless source of amusement. When I got home last night from the Jermyn Street Theatre's opening of Ibsen's St John's Night, I sat down in front of the BBC local news programme and saw an actor called Roger Gartland protesting against the closure of a South London hospital.

"Go, Roger," I muttered under my breath, knowing of his radical tendencies as both an active Equity member and a former stalwart of the National Theatre who bared his bum as a repressed Druid alongside Greg Hicks in the world premiere of Howard Brenton's Romans in Britain.

And only the other day, a new book by another Roger, Roger Foss, late of this Whatsonstage.com parish, plopped through the post. But where will you find this Roger -- actor, broadcaster, presenter -- these days? Living in Manchester, that's where, apart from later this month, when he takes up his volunteer duties as an Olympic guide and one-man information centre in Trafalgar Square.

His handy new tome, May The Farce Be With You, is a highly informative, and informed, guide to farce, full of wisdom and bad jokes, a long interview with Ray Cooney and a summary of fifty farces to see before you die (laughing).

Roger also recounts his comedy of terrors at Worthing Rep, where he appeared in a disastrous version of Cooney and John Chapman's classic long-runner Not Now Darling: "We simply didn't know what we were doing and ended up underestimating the intelligence of the audience." In Worthing? Really?

Anyway, with a nod towards T E Lawrence, whom nobody reads nowadays, Roger lists his "Seven Pillars of Norman Wisdom" for farce playing: never think you are funny; be truthful; treasure teamwork; listen to the play, listen to the laughs; rewrites come with the territory; physical dexterity is as crucial as verbal agility; learn the art of timing.

Nice one, Rog. Now let's have a handbook on how not to do musicals and send it straight on to the Southwark Playhouse, where Mack and Mabel refuses to accept that it's being done in a small, intimate fringe venue and blasts the score out of the water with the same sort of distorting amplification that undermined last year's overrated Parade.

Jermyn Street, too, has ideas above its station, but at least the epic scenography in St John's Night is wittily conceived and the semi-amateurishness of the presentation (and acting) all part of the production's unlikely charm.

And the audience was a bit of a shock, too: not only fine actresses Gillian Hanna and Doreen Mantle gracing the old cinema seats, but also Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon, no doubt casing the joint before appearing in this cramped little parlour in October in Trevor Nunn's staging of Beckett's radio play All That Fall.

The interval was fun. First, Atkins shared a few words with me about the late Toby Robertson, buccaneering artistic director of the Prospect Theatre Company ("My Medea with him in Mold really wasn't very good, you know, even though it did transfer to the Young Vic"). And then the great Gambon stumbled on the stairs and nearly flattened a couple of critics, yours truly included.

How surreal is that? Not as surreal, perhaps, as these two great actors appearing in a Beckett squib directed by Nunn in a theatre nobody will be able to get into. This is the ultimate in elitist theatre chic, and the surest sign yet that fringe theatre, as I've long suspected, is really aimed now at very old people who can't afford the West End and are looking for somewhere warm to spend an hour or two and escape the tourists.

Ah, but what tourists? Producer Nica Burns tells me that all the Americans have gone to Oxford and Edinburgh, anything to avoid the chaos of the Olympic Games and public transport meltdown in the capital.

I now see why Derek and Richard have decided to work together in Chichester this summer. Anything for a quiet life. He didn't just "do well" to get Jacobi, the unknown director. He played a damned fine hand. Perhaps they've rented out their Primrose Hill villa (they live in the same street as Bob Hoskins and David Walliams) to some avid sports fans. Or elderly Ibsen freaks.


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