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Party Time Tinged with Tragedy

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It's only fair to give credit where credit is due. I've moaned in the past about the state of some West End theatres and their treatment of customers. Unfortunately we still have booking fees and an added restoration fee.

And in ATG's Duke of York's, where I caught the still riveting touring production of Journey's End over the weekend, the exterior of the circle bar still cries out for a coat of paint. But the circle itself is now offering a three-tier choice of wine -- at small, medium (£4.75, fair enough) and large -- instead of the former rip-off one price fits all service.

And no-one could have been more pleasantly surprised than me at the recently much improved new seating in the Trafalgar Studios, even though the theatre itself has been plastered unpleasantly over the beautiful art deco interior of the former Whitehall.

It was my birthday weekend, which may have brought on this unexpected surge of good will to all men; it was certainly an extra excuse for starting off on Friday with breakfast in the Covent Garden Hotel (the biggest bacon sandwich I've ever enjoyed), lunch in the Wolseley -- the day after they laid a black cloth on Lucian Freud's old table -- and supper in my new favourite Chinese canteen before Mongrel Island at the Soho.

I can't remember the last time I've eaten out three times in one day, and I'm not planning on doing it again very soon. But sometimes circumstances conspire. The breakfast was with a New York friend and editor, the lunch with the extraordinary Elisabeth Hayes, director of the French American Cultural Exchange in New York, and dinner -- well, that was a special treat.

I note in the Wolseley that they still follow the usual practice of adding 12 and a half per cent service charge to the bill, a practice campaigned against irrestistibly, you would have thought, by the Wolseley's own in-house historian, restaurant critic A A Gill. It's like the booking fee on West End tickets, and the even more indefensible restoration charge, and you wonder why people put up with it.

I didn't have a birthday party, just a quiet dinner last night with family and my old friend Gyles Brandreth in the Phoenix Palace near Baker Street, but I did attend the tenth birthday party of School of Night in the bar of the Soho Theatre on Saturday night after a preview of their new show for Edinburgh this year.

It's an enjoyable seventy minutes of word games and improvisations inspired by the late Ken Campbell, with Alan Cox taking on the Campbell role of the Goader of the Rhapsodes, and Dylan Emery, Adam Meggido and Sean McCann leading us a merry dance all the way to a cod Shakespean finale of the lost play Titus Bread.

We had a little roped off area in the corner afterwards, but all cheerfully bought our own drinks. One of new artistic director Steve Marmion's main innovations at the Soho is the reclaiming of the bar under his own aegis, and he's made an immediate difference with a couple of outstanding draught beers on tap, and a sensible pricing of the wines.

The celebrations were joined by some of Ken Campbell's nearest and dearest -- Prue Gee, Daisy Campbell, Claudia Boulton, Sylvester McCoy and Mitch Davies -- and absentee School of Nighter Oliver Senton hurried through the streets to join us after appearing in Mamma Mia!

All of this jollity came to a shuddering halt as, on the bus home with Prue Gee, I absorbed some of the shocking news about the Norwegian Massacre and picked up text messages about the apparent suicide, or accidental death, of Amy Winehouse. 

In a world of such misery and tragedy -- Charlie Brooker says in today's Guardian that he went to bed in a terrible world and woke in a worse one -- the little shafts of innocent pleasure we experience in theatres or on social occasions become all the more important to us.

Today, the sun is shining, there's a big opening in Chichester, an intriguing site specific Edinburgh preview in a private house in Peckham, and a potentially thrilling climax to the First Test at Lord's. Let's hope the bad news gremlins take a short break at last.


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