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Michael Coveney: More stories on guarding bodies and minds

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It wasn't like Christmas at all last week and then, on the weekend, suddenly it was. A warning shot was fired on Thursday night when I emerged from the tube station at Sloane Square to see the lights in the trees on the square between the Royal Court and Peter Jones: you'd have to be a full-time misery, or Scrooge himself, not to think they were wonderful.

The play in the Theatre Upstairs, of course, soon put a stop to all that kind of mental merriment: E V Crowe's Hero features a pair of teachers, one gay, one straight, caught up in a homophobic witch-hunt very much in tune with this year's anxiety and retribution fever over paedophilia and other excesses in the Roman Catholic Church and then the Jimmy Savile affair. Do not miss the new movie, The Hunt, a definitive statement on victimisation.

A Chinese dinner at the Phoenix Palace in Baker Street on Friday night cheered me up, not least because my old friend Gyles Brandreth was on scintillating form with some of his best stories, invariably involving Cyril Fletcher (who remembers Cyril, now, he of the outsized horn-rimmed specs and "odd odes"?), John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.

Had we heard the one about Richardson waking up in a guest bedroom in the Hamptons to find the sheets and wallpaper covered in his own blue paw marks? We had not. He'd risen in the middle of the night to answer a call of nature and had tipped over what he assumed at the time was a decanter of water. It was not. It was a large inkwell.

Sir Ralph's hostess was one of the richest and mightiest women in New York. He dressed quickly, left the house and motor-biked pronto back to Manhattan, too ashamed to face the music.

Two or three years later, when appearing in New York with Gielgud, he was invited to the house once again and was assured that the hostess had entirely forgotten and forgiven the incident. Mightily relieved, he headed out to Long Island again one Sunday morning while the other houseguests were at church with the hostess. Feeling once more at home, he poured himself a large drink and sat down plumply on a sofa in the drawing room.

The sofa emitted a faint cry and then went quiet. Sir Ralph had sat on a chihuahua. The dog was dead. He gulped his drink and left the house for the second and last time in his life.

Unusually for such a master raconteur, Gyles himself was unable to continue with the story as he was consumed in guffaws and started breathing more heavily than a fat man running for a bus. So we never learned if the hostess discovered her deceased chihuahua, or whether Sir Ralph perhaps stowed it in his bike bag so that, eventually, the household realised the dog had gone missing... or had he replaced the mutt with another and an apology note?   
Stories of an alarming but less grisly nature featured in a delightful showcase I caught at the Barnet artsdepot on Saturday afternoon, featuring various groups in that venue's participation programme. One of the items, by the Youth Theatre, was an extract from Jim Cartwright's brilliant sounding Mobile Phone Show, which they will be performing next spring as part of the National Theatre's Connections Festival.

The young actors were remarkably well disciplined in a piece they describe as "a communication cacophony, a fully charged-up chorus line of chaos in a rhapsody of rap, text, tweet and gabble." We all have enough of that sort of thing at home nowadays, but I wonder if Cartwright is the first artist to make a full-length work of our current communications crisis/obsession? It could be the foundation of the next great new modern opera.

A couple of dance and physical theatre items showed the extraordinary work that goes on in places like the artsdepot up and down the country and why any further cuts to the national budget will make such a terrible difference in the lives of communities from Barnet to Barrow-in-Furness.

The showcase ended with an adults group, supervised by Peter Glanville of the Little Angel Theatre in Islington, "deconstructing" The Cherry Orchard with the angry intervention of Chekhov himself (played by an old woman) demanding they stick to their own stories.

Each actor then recounted a personal crisis or minor mishap in their lives, ending with the Ranevskaya actress lamenting the loss of a cherry orchard she recalls from her childhood in Enfield, a few miles away in North London.

This was curiously uplifting, and as the children and amateur actors mingled with parents and artsdepot staff in their "after-show" I headed back into the West End for a press preview of one of the year's big musicals, The Bodyguard.

You won't read reviews of this until Thursday as the producing management of Michael Harrison and David Ian (with about two dozen other partners) is staggering the press nights before their gala on Wednesday. It's a terrible idea and only those shows lacking total confidence in their product go in for it. I was stuck in the middle of a row surrounded by people asking me why I was taking notes, what did I think of it so far, did I ever go to the theatre to enjoy myself, not the sort of conversation I ever relish with strangers; not to mention the obligatory standing ovation and megamix dance-along at the end, no place for a critic. By silently protesting your independence by "not joining in" you are made to feel awkward and unwelcome, and it never happens at "proper" first nights.

There are some great things about The Bodyguard and some not so great. All I can say at the moment is that I am mystified as to why Thea Sharrock, the director, thought the film was so bad when her own stage show follows it so closely and indeed then fails to match the narrative and descriptive tension of the movie's second half.


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