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Michael Coveney: Gay's the Word but Gill's the curse

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"Gay's the word, Ivor, and gay is how we shall always remember you," Noel Coward telegrammed on hearing of the death of Ivor Novello aged 58 in 1951.

The word "gay" had long acquired an underground currency, but the musical Gay's the Word, which opened at the Saville Theatre (now the Odeon Cinema at the dark end of Shaftesbury Avenue) just three weeks before he died in a flat at the top of what is now the Novello Theatre, is innocently camp; Gay Daventry, a role specifically written for Cicely Courtneidge, is a showbusiness trouper who loses her way in Manchester only to find it again by founding a drama school in Folkestone, of all places.

Hard to think of it now, but the public turn-out for Ivor's funeral on the streets of London was rivalled only by the masses who mourned George Robey ("the Prime Minister of Mirth") in 1954 and Winston Churchill - Prime Minister of Girth - ten years later. (Displays of popular affection for Princess Diana are too gruesome to contemplate in this context.)

Although Kenneth Tynan objected to the show on the grounds that it reminded him of an aunt "who did much the same sort of thing at church socials" and Michael Billington declares today that it can be safely recommended to anyone aged between 70 and 80, you can still relish the popular genius of Novello's music coursing through the veins of the songs, both romantic and comic, and relish the the style and verve of Sophie-Louise Dann in the Cicely Courtneidge role.

Casting aspersions on the age and dress code of audiences who go to this sort of thing, or indeed any sort of thing in the theatre, has always been a popular pastime. When young and hot-headed (oh yes I was) I was once reprimanded by an arts editor who suggested that the next time I went to the Chichester Festival Theatre I should review the play instead of the audience.

Actually, I thought those geriatric playgoers had long since passed on. Not according to A A Gill in the Sunday Times yesterday, who launched an astonishing attack on them by way of reviewing (badly) the food on offer at the Cafe Royal.

Wishing that theatre audiences would make more of an effort, and conceding that "they can't help being old and smelling faintly of wee," he declared that there really was no excuse for them all to have made their own clothes out of hessian sacks and Peruvian llama blankets... audiences should try to add a little glamour to the stalls and could start, he said, "by hoovering the dandruff so that their shoulders didn't sparkle like the tundra in moonlight."

Admittedly this spat was cleverly contrived to link a visit to the Oscar Wilde play, The Judas Kiss ("radio with knobs on"), with a bad news meal at Oscar's old hang out, the Cafe Royal. But I do hope grumpy old Gill - one of the few critics worth reading on absolutely anything for the energy, savvy and naughtiness in his writing - doesn't include his own mother in his sartorial strictures.

We bumped into his mum, actress and speech teacher Yvonne Gilan, as we debouched from Chalk Farm tube the other evening after some first night or other; she could hardly contain herself with excitement over her visit to Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse. She really is a game old girl, and her hessian sack looked jolly smart to me, and not smelly at all.

In fact, her bubbling enthusiasm was almost a prelude to Sophie-Louise Dann's in Gay's the Word, discharging the song made famous by Courtneidge in paying tribute to old stars: "Vitality! The stars who gained their immortality, knew with finality, the practicality of something that's lacking in us: they all had Vitality plus!"

When Gill mooched along to The Judas Kiss, he'd been spotted in the stalls by David Hare, who had asked his arts editor what he, Gill, was doing there (fearing a trenchant review, not unreasonably; you never know who you'll get reviewing your show in the Sunday Times these days). Mainly what he was doing there, says Gill, was adding a little style to the groundlings and lowering the average age. And he's pushing 60.

But, d'you know what? I'd rather sit with a crowd of retired teachers and social workers from Palmer's Green and the Surrey suburbs than a smart crowd of puffed up tarts from the society pages of the glossy magazines for whom Gill, a mincing mannequin with a gimlet eye, is chief cheerleader and Notting Hill trend-setter.

He alone among his own crowd would even know or care who David Hare, let alone Oscar Wilde, really was. My impression at The Judas Kiss was that the moth-eaten, elderly charity shop-dwellers, admirably represented as a type by Gill's own mother, had gone along to the theatre not just to be seen, or assessed by critical smart alecs, but to engage with the work of a leading playwright and the legend of a genius. Whiffy or well-dressed, the Judas Kiss audience is the most attentive in town.


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