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Michael Coveney: Death in the Afternoon

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I have only just learned of the bizarrely appropriate circumstances of the death of that notable theatrical historian and archivist, David Cheshire, earlier this year.

The author of countless articles on ‘Orrible ‘Appenings in Theatres and Theatre Ghosts dropped dead in the stalls of the Apollo shortly before the matinee of Jerusalem on 18 March.

Taking his place with his family, David spotted his old chum, Bernard Cribbins, and gave him a friendly wave. Whereupon, he slumped against the wall and  fell to the floor. The traditional cry of “Is there a doctor in the house?” went up; one duly arrived, and made a vain attempt at resuscitation.

The curtain was held for twenty minutes, and then the ambulance stopped the traffic on Shaftesbury Avenue. As David’s daughter, Ellen, remarked: “What an exit!” And of course they all sang “Jerusalem” at the funeral.

David, an owlish, fully-rounded figure, with a mane of flowing white hair, was research officer at the Theatres Trust, and one of those omniscient, but unpushy, theatre enthusiasts who knew far more about theatre and actors than most critics. He wrote authoritatively about the music hall, Ellen Terry, theatre architecture and design, publishing many books and pamphlets.

He retired to Chichester, where both his son and daughter, Henry and Ellen, worked at the Chichester Film Theatre, David hovering benignly in the background.

I was invited down to the Film Festival to give talks on the films of Mike Leigh and the Redgraves. Ellen would arrange the film clips, Henry would act as projectionist, while David was always ready with a gobbet of essential information or long forgotten movie lore.

I’m very sorry he died, aged 74, but very glad it was in a theatre. He couldn’t have chosen a better play, and I hope he now knows how it ended.

We are in a strange late summer interim period in the year’s theatre, with the Edinburgh Festival entering the home straight and the autumn schedules shaping up nicely.

And oddly…Simon Russell Beale opens next month in Deathtrap, the Ira Levin thriller, not seen in the West End since 1978; Graham Greene’s The Potting Shed, not seen in London since 1971, opens at the Finborough soon after; and there’s an even more unlikely, and unexpected, Edward Bond season at the little Cock Tavern in Kilburn.

If only David Cheshire was still around, we might not be at all surprised to find revivals of The Bells and Chu Chin Chow on the agenda. I suppose the nostalgists among us will simply have to settle for J B Priestley’s When We Are Married at the Garrick in late October… 


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