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Michael Coveney: Cold snap, hot teachers, warm theatres

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With snow falling in many parts of the country, getting to theatres is likely to prove difficult over the next few days. By the time I'd walked a couple of hundred yards from Brondesbury station to the Tricyle in Kilburn last night, my toes were freezing and I wasn't sure if I still had a nose on my face.

I'm sorry that, in the Tricycle make-over under Indhu Rubasingham, the cheerful little Greek cook has left the cafe; the jury is still out on his replacement team. But the jerk chicken and rice was at least hot and edible, and went down well before settling into the oddly named One Monkey Don't Stop No Show.

The title of Don Evans's play is explained en passant, but still didn't make much sense. Nor did Dawn Walton's production until it settled down in the second act and shook off the monkey on its own back of a spurious "TV sitcom" live recording framework.

Some of the acting is outstanding, including that of Karl Collins as a stuck-up Philadephia preacher who rejuvenates his marriage with the aid of a sex manual. As often happens, the chap next to me in the stalls started chatting, and let slip that he was Karl's best mate. He'd already asked me that dread question, banned between critics in any interval, "What do you think of it so far?" "Not much," I muttered. At least at the end we could agree that the thing had improved immeasurably.

The jerk chicken had been particularly welcome as I'd hot-footed (well, cold-footed it) it to Kilburn from Southgate towards the end of the Piccadilly line, where I'd attended an afternoon schools performance of Julius Caesar by the Young Shakespeare Company, who devise workshops for the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, and the Orange Tree in Richmond.

The nine and ten-year-olds at Walker Primary, situated close to Southgate's charming green (who knew how nice it was out there?), had been prepared in a workshop with their teachers, but knew little about the play beyond the fact that Caesar gets the chop. Five actors in black garb took them through it, involving them all as senators, shopkeepers, soothsayers and assassins.

This is a brilliant way of doing Julius Caesar in particular, because the mob is in many ways the main character, in the early stages at least, so the children could be shepherded and used as chanting plebeians ("We love you Caesar, we do....yes, Caesar we love you") and whispering conspirators.

Will Cartwright played a troubled Brutus and David Holmes a nasty, thin-lipped Cassius, while Jospehine Arden rushed nimbly around like a blue-arsed fly as the show's narrator, emcee, cheerleader -- and a hilariously vulgar Calpurnia, trying to prevent Michael Totton's earthily imposing Caesar from going out to get killed in the Capitol.

At which point, after an hour, and with a break ordered and a deadline calling me, I skedaddled back to town. But if the snow holds off (oh, it's just started again) and the roads stay open, I'm planning to go to a school up the road in Hampstead, Christ Church Primary, at lunchtime where the YSC are repeating the performance with a whole different bunch of kids. And anyway, I want to know how it all ends...

These school outings are part of my remit as drama adviser to the John Lyon's Charity, which supports educational and drama projects in nine London boroughs, many of them conducted through theatres such as the National, the RSC, the Donmar Warehouse and Tricycle, as well as Regent's Park and the Roundhouse.

The key factor in making all these projects work is always the teacher. And one of the best, and most inspirational, was Annie Williams, head teacher of Holy Trinity and St Silas primary school in Camden Town, who died of leukaemia shortly before Christmas.

She was a Welsh firebrand who even got the parents playing instruments in the school orchestras (there were several), but her passion was the Bard. With her colleague Luke Williams (no relation) she had pioneered a fantastic Shakespeare project in the school that was rolled out over recent years to embrace many other schools in the area.  

At Wednesday's memorial service in Holy Trinity church, the hymns and tributes were interspersed with songs, poems and prayers by the children themselves, their confidence and enthusiasm an exceptional testament to her spirit and insistence on never taking "No" for an answer; everything was possible, no speech or song beyond any child. One of them, a tiny little chap, even played "Softly Awakes My Heart" from Saint-Saens' Samson and Delilah on the trumpet.
I've seen worst shows in the theatre, but not this week, which has been a surprisingly good one for so early in the year, with The Silence of the Sea at the Trafalgar Studios and Polly Stenham's No Quarter at the Theatre Upstairs in the Royal Court.

No problem in keeping warm in those two venues. In the first, you feel as snug as a bug in a rug in what is, in effect, a rather large coffin, distinctly uncomfortable, but perfectly okay if you're half-way fit. And as the second is at the top of many stairs, you're nicely warmed up by the time you reach the theatre; unless, of course, you've copped out and joined the old folks and half the Critics' Circle in the lift.



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