Tuesday, 29 January 2008

It's not over till the fat lady sings

My invisibility last week was sadly not the result of an excessively successful diet. We encountered one of those tiresome glitches which can occur in the best-run organisations, by which I mean The Journal. My own office makes the Peter Hain deputy leadership campaign HQ look like a model of smooth-running efficiency.

As it turned out, the replacement column in this space by 14-year-old Olly Lennard made a most refreshing change. He is an infinitely better writer than I was at his age, and I await the emails pointing out that he is also a considerably better writer than I am now, almost 40 years later.

I agreed with him completely about the relative attractions of cinema and the theatre. I only saw one film on screen during 2007: The Flying Scotsman at Alnwick Playhouse. And I only went to that because it was written by a friend of mine. Oh dear, you will now think I am biased when I say that it was wonderful and you should all buy the DVD. (Note for anorak wearers: it’s about speed cycling, not steam trains.)

Theatres, on the other hand, were responsible for nearly all my most memorable moments of the last year (or at any rate the printable ones). I saw some truly great comedies including Spamalot, Boeing Boeing and Rafta Rafta (maybe a repetitive title is the key to hilarity); and much superb acting including Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe in Equus, Sir Ian McKellen in King Lear, and Simon Russell Beale in Much Ado About Nothing.

I also saw far too many excellent operas to list here, though Britten’s Death in Venice at English National Opera deserves a special mention, along with their production of Handel’s Agrippina and Macbeth at Glyndebourne.

Only two nights linger in my mind for the wrong reasons: an alleged comedy at the Hull Truck Theatre and Waiting for Gateaux, one of whose co-authors wrote to Voice of the North last week, taking Kevin Keegan to task for saying that Geordies went to the match like southerners went to the theatre. I’m sorry, I hate football, but give me a kick-about on a muddy recreation ground any day.

Having said that, it is only fair to concede that it played to a packed Theatre Royal and that everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves hugely. The bloke behind me had already seen it so often that he was able to shout out every punch line to his wife about ten seconds before it was delivered on stage, where it was drowned by his uproarious laughter.

It’s a sad fact that everything on my personal list of highlights, apart from the RSC’s King Lear, took place in London or Sussex. Even Olly recommended a London musical, the stage adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, which was brave given the appalling reviews it attracted. My personal favourite was the one from the Evening Standard, headlined “What on Middle Earth?” which began “They said it couldn’t be done – and they were right.”

This seems curiously reminiscent of the things that have been written on the sports pages about Newcastle United’s performance this season. I hope Kevin Keegan succeeds in turning that round, just as I sincerely hope that more of my top class performance memories in 2008 will be generated much nearer to home.

Luckily there is one imminent, world class theatrical event to which we can all look forward. Opera North return to the Theatre Royal in March with a programme that includes the best production of Peter Grimes I have ever seen anywhere, and a new version of Madam Butterfly that is, by all accounts, absolutely terrific. Please don’t be deterred by opera’s elitist image: if you like theatre or music, I can promise you an evening you won’t forget, for all the right reasons. You might even find it more gripping than a big match; I know I do.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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