Tuesday 18 March 2008

Two chills, two plays and an outrageous doubt

14st 2lb; zero alcohol; 1,417; Moscow.

I always know when it’s a really cold night, as the dog gets into bed with me. I’ve never encouraged this. But somehow, without ever intending it to be so, this has become a household in which the dog’s needs and desires take precedence over my own. Given my hideous difficulties in finding any human being prepared to share my bed, I suppose I should be grateful for his condescension.

I experienced a further sharp chill when I listened to the one o’clock news bulletin on Radio 4, which baldly announced the death of film director Anthony Minghella at the age of 54, without providing any explanation. He was five months older than I am. Have I already reached an age when the deaths of my contemporaries are regarded simply as a matter of course? I did not think that happened to people until they reached their 80s. I was much relieved when the evening bulletin made it clear that he had expired unexpectedly, from complications after a routine operation. (“The procedure was a complete success, but unfortunately the patient died,” as surgeons like to say.)

This evening I trekked to Newcastle to see Alan Bennett’s Single Spies at the Theatre Royal with my aunt. (I really must crack on with my campaign to start doing some proper dating.) The house was almost full; the audience all white, mainly elderly (defined as anyone who appears older than I am), and clearly all aspiring to be middle class, if they did not already consider themselves to be so. The one obvious exception on the age front was a disgusting young man immediately behind me, who sniffed loudly and persistently throughout the performance. I think this was the result of a blocked nose and a catastrophic lack of consideration, rather than a critical commentary. Still, he was nothing like as irritating as the person seated immediately in front of me when I went to see the West End transfer of the original National Theatre production on 6 March 1989. He appeared to be suffering from some variant of St Vitus’s dance. In particular, his head swung from left to right with such maddening, metronymic frequency that I eventually gave up trying to watch the performance and just focused on the audio version of Prunella Scales’s definitive representation of Her Majesty the Queen.

I most confess that the point of this revival eluded me. Over and above the bleeding obvious point of raking in money from middle class punters keen to see Nigel Havers, TV heartthrob by appointment to the almost gaga, in the flesh. Not much flesh, it has to be said, so I found him unconvincing as Guy Burgess, whom I have always pictured as a rather chunkier individual. Perhaps because my mental image was fixed by the definitive 1983 TV version of An Englishman Abroad, in which he was played by Alan Bates. And who could possibly hope to play Coral Browne better than she herself did then, even if she was 25 years too old for the part? Havers did better in A Question of Attribution as Anthony Blunt, a role which Bennett himself had taken in the London version (while Simon Callow played Burgess), but Diana Quick did not measure up to my memories of Prunella.

I had not spotted the threat to my enjoyment from the rogue sniffer because I had been more concerned about a woman a couple of rows behind who, during the exchange of pre-performance pleasantries with her neighbours, gave vent to the loudest and dirtiest laugh I have ever heard. She must spend her working days laying down the soundtracks to Jim Davidson and Roy “Chubby” Brown DVDs. If she gets going, I thought, we won’t hear a bloody word. But I needed have worried, because there was only one decent laugh all evening, and I don’t think she got the joke.

While being an admirer of Bennett’s work in general, and of the original TV version of An Englishman Abroad in particular, I left the theatre pondering a truly dreadful thought: was this actually a fruitful or enjoyable way to pass an evening? The very short Burgess play is a true story, albeit deftly told; the slightly longer Blunt one is a work of imagination, but the allegory with the Titian painting concealing five men is clunkingly obvious. I felt unsatisfied, as after the sort of meal I have been eating of late to meet my dietary target. Of course, I kept these heretical opinions to myself since Alan Bennett is an unassailable national treasure. Criticizing him in any way would be like laying into her late majesty Queen Elizabeth. And if he reaches the age of 90 and is still capable of eating a boiled egg, not only will the English think that he deserves the Nobel Prize, they’ll probably make damn sure that he gets it.

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