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Michael Coveney: Crowding into the weekend lobby

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The postponement of the opening at the National Theatre of James Graham's This House - due to a close family bereavement in the cast; Phil Daniels' partner of almost thirty years, Jan Stevens, a record industry associate whom he refers to simply as his "missus" in his delightful autobiography, has sadly passed away - has contributed to an almighty pile-up in the first night fixture list, with critics invited to review the Graham play over the weekend as well as considering three openings on Friday night.

Of course, the National Theatre of Scotland's Enquirer, which turns out to be a deeply disappointing skim through a few facts and figures about journalism, has been reviewed elsewhere already, so a visit to the smart warehouse premises at the Liverpool Street end of St John Street was strictly optional; as indeed was the revival of Call Me Madam at the little Union in Southwark.

But I was anxious to see both shows, the first for its subject matter, the second for Irving Berlin's songs (not heard on the London stage since a slightly tacky revival at the Victoria Palace in 1983). So I committed the social heresy of skimping on Sunday lunch in order to catch the early matinee in Union Street (the 2pm performance was followed by another at 6pm) and proceeded, after a decent tea interval with the papers and my laptop - and a glance at the football game between Newcastle and Manchester United - to Islington.

(My route took me, poignantly, past the Old Red Lion at the Angel, where Phil Daniels could often be found in the old days playing bar billiards with his local mates and Anna Scher associates such as Kathy Burke and Peter-Hugo Daly.)

This plan had left Friday night free for The Second Mrs Tanqueray at the Rose, Kingston, and Saturday night for the National, where we crowded into a stunning replication of the House of Commons chamber in the Cottesloe. Without too much waving of their order papers, The Times was seated with the government while the Guardian naturally occupied the opposition benches.

There's an embargo on reviews until Wednesday, but I was intrigued to find out if Phil Daniels' role, that of the ebullient Labour whip Bob Mellish (the whole play is set in the 1970s, and mostly in the whips' offices, which are somehow spirited into the middle of the debating chamber), had been cut in order the more easily to accommodate his stand-in, Andrew Frame.

But no, it turns out that Bob Mellish only appears in the play's first half, which is one of several structural oddities about the piece. And Frame discharged his duties with considerable aplomb, though in truth he looks no more like Bob Mellish than Daniels does. Both actors are far too good-looking and skinny!

I was sitting next to a lady whose husband had been a political affiliate of one of the characters, and she agreed with me that nobody really looked like anyone they were portraying, which is absolutely fair enough, though there's a good back of the head shot of Michael Heseltine in the notorious incident of brandishing the mace in an unseemly fracas, and the actor playing Norman St John-Stevas rather goes to town on the silly ass member for Chelmsford and makes of him much more of a barathea-blazered Bertie than he was.

Nobody looks like anyone they are portraying in Enquirer, either, though John Bett does a very good job of capturing Roger Alton's sheer bounce and niceness in his interview scene with Deborah Orr, and Billy Riddoch could easily pass for any editor of the Scottish Daily Record, or indeed an amalgam of all of them, in his punchy, four-square physicality and braces.

What amazed me more than the show itself was the buzzing gastropub, The Well, next door, with its enticing menu and super quick service; they rustled me up a crab toasty snack in no time at all when I said I was going to the show. Most theatreland restaurants are reasonably good at this now, pushing your order to the top of a queue if you've only got half an hour or so.

That was certainly a highlight of my visit to the grisly O2 Centre to see Jesus Christ Superstar; the Cafe Rouge on the doorstep was wonderfully quick and helpful (the food was okay, too). And a place like Prezzo in St Martin's Lane is always a good bet if you're dashing to the ENO over the road or the Garrick or Duke of York's around the corner.

As for the Union, the foyer cafe is a well known institution in its own right, serving excellent sandwiches and very good coffee. Where the Union falls down badly is in its toilet facilities, which are spartan, to put it kindly.

But even that is tolerable, just about, for the welcome reminder that this is the fringe, not some wannabe West End outlet; and at least there are paper towels in the gents, which is more than could be said for the Harold Pinter stalls loo the other night.


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