Last weekend I went to the theatre with my Dad – it was a new comedy with Nigel Herman of former Eastenders fame (sorry, that’s what you get in Birmingham); nothing to write home about but an enjoyable evening all the same. The theatre has always been a part of my life – don’t get me wrong, I’m afraid acting certainly isn’t my calling (Liza Minnelli, stand down), but having been born to parents who met in an Amateur Dramatics society, I was only ever going to love the theatrical world myself. That quiet anticipation of the orchestra tuning up as the lights dim; the striking first bars of the overture, setting the tone for the musical journey to come; lights, colour, fantasy; the weird little box of Maltesers that you only ever buy at the theatre; that burning rage when you have the misfortune of a ‘whisperer’ sitting behind you…
Musicals are the soundtrack to my childhood – I vividly remember car journeys on holiday, with my Dad blasting out the soundtrack to Les Mis (when my brother and I really just wanted to listen to Westlife or Ronan Keating; don’t judge, we were small). It annoyed me at the time but now whenever I hear the first few notes of I Dreamed a Dream or One Day More (or any of those wonderful songs) I am filled with emotion. I’ll admit, they might just be a touch better than such Keating classics as ‘Life is a Rollercoaster’.
I think the first show I ever saw was Button Moon (yes, that children’s TV programme from the 80’s with characters who were spoons) at our local Library Theatre, and at this point, aged four, I used to name all my dresses; so I had a ‘Button Moon dress’ that was yellow with white flowers. Other memories include countless occasions with a coat stuffed at the back of my red velvet folding seat, trying to weigh it down so it wouldn’t swallow my little five year old self up; putting my coat on in the interval of Peter Pan because I thought it was over; and being allowed to sneak in and watch a dress rehearsal of The Sound of Music for which my Dad was working as stage crew (despite sounding exciting, it was actually heinously boring; in my distant memory it lasted at least four hundred hours thanks to them stopping and starting a million times).
As a hobby, my Dad worked as stage crew for a number of years and I used to think this was so cool; this was of course in the days before any fancy set design or automation – so as the lights dimmed between scenes, Dad and his friends – clothed head-to-toe in black – would creep onto the stage like burglars, removing and replacing scenery, pretending they weren’t really there. The excitement of spotting Dad up there in the darkness was probably more thrilling to my brother and I than the show itself at that time.
Through Dad’s connection to the theatre, we ended up with a variety of spare props and costumes at home. A giant safety pin from the stage version of The Borrowers sat on the sitting room hearth for many years, and we had a dressing up box bursting with costumes and potential – a furry tail and waistcoat from Fantastic Mr Fox, dresses and coats from a multitude of eras – as well as my Grandma’s silver dancing shoes and my Mum’s 1970s bridesmaid dress. I would coerce my brother into acting out plays, dramas and talent shows, filmed with our giant video camera and then played back to any family members who would watch.
Despite definitely not being made for it (that’s me, second from the left), I did also have a couple of dalliances with the stage myself, having participated in a number of shows with the local ballet school that I was part of – I vividly remember the thick greasy makeup; stripes of vivid blue across the eyelids, pots of lurid green hair gel dolloped onto the head with aplomb, bun nets, hair grips, brand new ballet shoes; girls of all shapes and sizes poured into unforgiving apricot leotards. Twenty eight year old girls packed into one dressing room; the main piece of excitement being what time you’d be allowed to eat your packed lunch.
I don’t go to the theatre as often as I should and unfortunately it’s the prices that put me off – I’m so lucky to live in London, half an hour from the West End bursting with shows. Cheap tickets are wonderful but there’s nothing more disappointing that getting a ‘bargain’ and being stuck behind a pillar, seriously considering paying a pound to use the tiny binoculars. My parents famously saw Phantom of the Opera from the very back row; the dramatic moment when the chandelier drops from above the audience made somewhat less dramatic by the fact that it was already hanging beneath them.
Nothing stirs the emotions like a good musical – whether that’s the raw passion of Evita belting out Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, the ridicolous joy of the Von Trapp children signing Do-Re-Mi, the gritty sadness of Billy Elliot, in the scene where his mother returns from the grave to sing about how she’ll always be there, the devastation of You’ll Never Walk Alone in Carousel (why did that ever get picked up by a football team?!) or the bursting love of Mamma Mia; escapism, drama, sadness, joy, ridiculous flamboyancy – some people don’t get the whole ‘bursting into song’ thing but I love it. In today’s world of uncertainty, why the hell not?!