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Michael Coveney: Front of house welcome wanes

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A slight air of deflation attended the fizzing first night of Our Boys at the Duchess yesterday, as the longstanding front of house manager, Chris Ishermann, was conspicuously absent from his station; he retired at the weekend, and another blow to West End customer relations was complete.

Chris somehow seemed to take the audience by its collective hand and welcome them within his precious portals, nudging his subordinate staff here, ministering to an elderly lady whose face was faintly familair there, or simply exuding a sense of welcome, and occasion, as the evening began... the Duchess is a very cramped theatre, and I'm sure it was more cramped and confusing than usual last night.

Somehow, we didn't flow in and out of our seats as we should. Nor did we have the comforting sight of Chris checking the exit doors, the curtains, the circles and the ushers before giving the all-clear to the backstage team. No doubt these things were being done by somebody, but I wasn't aware of a guiding authority.

The theatre manager used to be billed as the licensee, an important function, but one that is now presumably absorbed into the theatre owners' brief. I didn't see any theatre owners around last night, either. The splendid throng included Lloyd Owen, who played the Laurence Fox role in the original cast, Fox's partner Billie Piper and, as Paul Taylor exclaimed on stepping out of his Tardis, two Doctor Whos - David Tennant and Matt Smith.

I'm sorry, but first nights have become shabby enough without having to lose the tuxedoed front of house guy. I felt a similar pang at the Harold Pinter (formerly the Comedy) the other night, when, as usual, the stalls were still closed to the public at the half.

The cast of A Chorus of Disapproval were still on the stage warming up. Audience members were not greeted by a decisive house manager, but a bevy of unkempt part-time teenage ushers, one or two of whom were listlessly cradling bottles of Veuve Cliquot - the atmosphere was hardly bubbling  - while one or two others muttered about a "happy hour" bar (two cocktails for a tenner) in the circle upstairs.

I think this overall sloppiness infects the work on the stage as much as the mood of the audience - who are already paying over the odds with booking fees and, I note at the Harold Comedy, a scandalous £1.50 restoration levy included in the price of their tickets.

I rather admired the stand taken the other day by comedienne Sarah Millican over not playing theatres that charged customers booking fees, a public stance that no doubt prompted the Ambassador Theatre Group (whom she targeted) to issue a boastful statement about a £15m investment in capital projects.

The Harold Comedy, they say, has had a £550,000 makeover and a "fabulous new Moonlight Bar" (presumably the one to which the slightly muddled early arrivals were making their way for cut-price martinis), though they seem to have run out of cash in the stalls bar; there were no paper towels in the gents loo. I told the barmaid about this sorry oversight and she promised to tell someone else. I returned in the interval: still no towels, despite ATG's "ambitious customer service programme" which they call (I kid you not) "Be A Star."  

ATG have now unveiled "five refurbished luxury bars" to capture some of the Group's unique theatre architecture -- though the unique interior art deco architecture of the Whitehall was refurbished to such an extent in the Trafalgar Studios makeover that it disappeared altogether. But I shall persist in the spirit of optimistic enquiry and make visits soon to the enticing "Elixir Bar" in the Apollo Victoria and the slightly less enticing "Piano Bar" at the New Wimbledon, probably at panto time.

You just wish that some of that £15m had been spent on not charging restoration levies and replenishing the loo's towel-holders.

Smaller financial figures were bandied about at the AGM of The Theatrical Guild yesterday afternoon in the Delfont Room of the Prince of Wales Theatre. The TTG (as opposed to the ATG) is an admirable charity that looks after impecunious, or retired, box office and backstage staff, and indeed front of house managers, all of whom usually work without promise of pensions, or health care, or even a free pass to the new luxury bars in their old theatres.

Chairman Jane How announced that the charity had two new patrons, Simon Russell Beale and Keira Knightley - "a wonderfully unlikely couple" - and that First Night Riders, a round Britain motorcycle tour, had raised £12,985.19, a result winning a very big cheer.

After parish notes and more accountancy reports, actor/director Ian Talbot, fresh from unveiling Charley's Aunt at the Menier Chocolate Factory, regaled the assembled worthies (including Phyllida Law, Belinda Lang, Isla Blair, Julian Glover, Iain Mackintosh, Adrian Brown, Hugh Sachs and Edwin Shaw) with some hilarious tales of his days in rep and at Regent's Park.

He signed up as artistic director for three years in the Park and stayed for 20. But his mentor and predecessor, David Conville, said that he had to wait a few years before he could direct a show. So he got his mate Roger Michell to accept a production of Love's Labour's Lost and withdraw at the last minute, leaving the board no choice but to accept Ian's generous offer of helping them all out of an awkward hole. The show was a success, and he directed many more, as well as giving his Bottom nine times over.

Ian has also worked for ATG, becoming an expert at handling (sic) Hollywood stars at panto time. He had to comfort Henry Winkler who came off as Captain Hook distressed that the audience were booing him. "They hate me," he cried, before being alerted to the time-honoured panto practice of hissing the villain.

The Hoff turned up several hours late for rehearsal with the cheerful apology: "I'm sorry I'm late, I just got laid": while Pamela Anderson, having been told that she had to do something - anything - between her first number and the finale, became a denizen of Weatherspoon's public bar over the road, to the astonishment of the locals.

But of course that was before the new Piano Bar was introduced in the New Wimbledon (where she was appearing) to enhance the customers' theatrical experience. Pamela draped over the piano would surely enhance it even further.


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