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Michael Coveney: Up and down memory lane with Pam and Charley's Aunt

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Happy birthday this week to Pam Harris, former hostess at the actors' pub in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Dirty Duck, who is 80 on Tuesday. Nothing remarkable about that, you might think; except for the fact that Pam has become a medical marvel over the past few years, surviving no less than 23 surgical operations, as well as various hip and knee replacements.

She has become such a fixture in Birmingham and Warwick general hospitals that her medical notes fill a supermarket trolley and she is an example to students of what can be done on the National Health Service if there's a will and a lot of luck on both sides of the blue plastic curtain.

For a time I was deprived of my regular first night guest at RSC openings, but now she's almost back to normal (not that there was anything all that normal about Pam, our very own Mistress Quickly), not exactly up and running, but certainly fairly mobile, and looking very much like her elegant, silk-swathed, whole-hearted self.  

So her great friend the actor John Warnaby organised a dinner party for her on Saturday night in a modest trattoria off the Tottenham Court Road, after inviting us round to drinks in his apartment behind Selfridge's. Her other great friends, Greg Doran and Tony Sher, sent best wishes, and former RSC supremo Terry Hands sent a bunch of white roses.

And she was honoured in person by two of her favourite Duck habitues, Alun Armstrong and Guy Henry, both of whom are now household faces on television, Guy in Holby City (for the past two years) and Alun in New Tricks, with James Bolam and Amanda Redman (for the past ten).

Guy, who bears a startling resemblance to Dirk Bogarde, facially at least, is planning to return to the stage very soon, having been wonderful as Aguecheek, King John and Parolles at the RSC, while Alun, definitive as both Wackford Squeers and the publican Thenardier in the RSC's related blockbusters, Nicholas Nickleby and Les Miserables, is coming to the end of his retired cop stint, too.

It seemed like a watershed dinner, then, on several fronts. For John is also changing his life, planning to take up holy orders with the Catholic Church in Rome, and not just because all the roles he goes up for are snaffled by his friend and contemporary Hugh Bonneville. "Lovely chap, Hugh, " says John, "and such a good actor. But maybe this town's not big enough for both of us."

I think he does himself a disservice. He seems to be constantly employed on film sets (he'll be popping up in the movie of Les Miz before Christmas) and last made quite a deep impression on stage as both an ultra-conservative homophobic home secretary and a vicious old queeny theatre critic in Nicholas de Jongh's Plague over England.

Anyway, it was toasts all round to future plans. Pam's brother, the sports journalist Bob Harris, hot-foot from covering Charlton v Barnsley for The Sun in south London, sprung another wonderful surprise on us: he brought along David Bedford, the former 10,000 metre world record holder and race director of the London Marathon, who first knew Pam when Bob took him along to Pam's hostelry in Lutterworth in a former life.

At the peak of his athletics fame, David explained, it was useful to have a bolthole where he could enjoy a few beers without being pestered by fans or officials. And it was exactly this sort of service Pam provided for the RSC actors when she ran the Duck. The pub was closed at 11pm while the hard core of RSC regulars cowered in the back garden until the all-clear was given, the curtains drawn and the evening re-commenced. And on Saturday night we had a mini sing-song to celebrate those long gone days.

As if that wasn't enough nostalgia for one weekend, I beetled along to the Sunday matinee of Charley's Aunt at the Menier Chocolate Factory, having missed the opening when I was on holiday at the end of last month.

Ian Talbot's production is an absolute treat and really should be levered forthwith into the West End for Christmas. The play is a classic, stilted, old-fashioned, elegant and very funny farce, almost a dry run in so many ways for The Importance of Being Earnest which followed Charley onto the London stage three years after its premiere in 1892, over-loaded, I often think, with Wildean wit and aphorisms.

Mathew Horne, who plays Lord Fancourt Babberley - aka Charley's Aunt from Brazil, "where the nuts come from" - has improved out of sight since his West End stage debut in Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane, mixing the character's silly-ass exuberance with a tight physical control over his frantic movement and comic expression. He really is a hilariously animated version of Whistler's Mother, moving from chaotic outrage at being dragged up before his time to genuine outrage at being proposed to by a lascivious old skirt-chaser.

Designer Paul Farnsworth has provided three lavishly decorated sets that seem to scream "West End," even though no Oxford college rooms ever had net curtains in the windows, surely, not even in the late 19th century; and the Act Two cloisters look a bit too papier mache and "new" for Old College (they should be more weather-beaten and ivy-strewn; more "old" as in New College).

Otherwise, this is easily the best Charley's Aunt I've seen since a Young Vic version starring Andrew Robertson aeons ago. Dominic Tighe and Benjamin Askew are brilliantly cast as the young undergrads, Steven Pacey is outstanding as Colonel Sir Francis Chesney, Norman Pace (of comedy duo Hale and Pace) suitably splenetic as old Spettigue, Jane Asher wiltingly elegant as the real Donna Lucia, and Charles Kay a perfect picture of put-upon Brummy subservience as the discreet college scout Brassett. Forward to the past!


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