It was a rainy Saturday afternoon, the celebrations were over and there was no reply from Phil’s telephone.
Presumably he had yet again nodded off at his Singer, the dressmaking pins between his lips gently vibrating in rhythm with the wheezy exhalations of his snores as he dreamed of happier (and entirely imagined) days when he was the toast of all New Orleans.
All of which would have made a wonderful introduction to a review of a Tennessee Williams but unfortunately life is not that tidy.
Anyway, Andrew – in need of a good whinge – set off alone to see a preview of All Mouth by Jonathan Lewis and Miranda Foster at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
In theatrical whinging circles this venue is noted for its churlish policy of unallocated seating and the Menier manages to work it up into an art form by (a) saying on the website that the doors open 20 minutes before the show (b) telling you when you get there that they open 15 minutes before and (c) opening the doors seven minutes before the curtain would rise were they to possess a curtain.
The result is an almighty scrum. Anyway, when in Rome, as they say: Andrew joined in the game with gusto by stepping on the toes of those who tried to surreptitiously introduce new queues at the auditorium door; elbowing his way through a dozen pensioners who were walking down the stairs far too slowly; deliberately obstructing the egress of three people who had mysteriously decided they needed to leave the auditorium less than a minute after they had gone in and thus achieving complete gridlock.
The Menier’s masterstroke in this game however lies in the fact that access to the seats is restricted to the centre aisle. This enables the first people in to occupy the most central seats (i.e. those by the aisle) thus forcing everyone else to clamber over them or vault over a succession of seat-backs to find a free place.
It was all going very well.
Then the play started. All Mouth is a comedy about four voiceover artists who out of convenience rent a flat in Soho as a base for their work. Former classical actor Digby (Christopher Benjamin) is due to be on Desert Island Discs and is rehearsing his conversation with Kirsty Young and planning his selection of records; American Greg (Nigel Whitmey) is on the verge of getting a regular part in EastEnders; the voice of Arial washing powder Mel (Caroline Harker) has family issues and the slightly creepy Paddy (Simon Chandler) has schemes on the side.
Into their lives comes the fresh young wannabee and apparent ingenue Rod (newcomer James Russell) fresh on the acting scene with an “awesome” winning smile and ambition to match. The rather senior Digby is smitten with him and one by one the others succumb to his puppy-like charms in different ways.
Much of it is amusing enough – perhaps very funny indeed if you happen to be a voiceover professional – but by the interval the various strands and sub-plots had failed to make much sense to Andrew and for some reason he found himself idly wondering whether he would be better off taking a trip to the nearby Borough Market to buy some vegetables and make a stew.
There were some pretty clumsy scene changes, a lack of pace to the action (yes, yes, we know: preview; tweaks; ironing out &c) and a very idiosyncratic door to the bathroom which seemed to only open half-way, causing the actors to put much effort in trying to make squeezing through it look effortless.
Although the door continued to make its mark during the second act, all the other elements of the play came together much more satisfyingly. The performers – all good from the start – got into their stride and the plot delivered more dramatic moments than the first half and in fact it became rather sweet and endearing by the end.
Phil would have enjoyed the thrill of witnessing live food on stage (toast on this occasion, which is unusual; not seen that before). There was other business too: wrapping a present (had it been Andrew’s present he would have given it straight back and insisted they to do it again) and the rather poor ironing of a shirt. This was almost unbearable to watch for Andrew (who is quite fastidious about ironing) and had he not been trapped at the end of the row he would have been up on the stage in an instant, snatching the iron out of the actor’s hand and snapping, “Oh, for goodness sake, I’ll do it,” as he is wont to do at home.
By one of those amazing coincidences (unlike the introduction to this review) one of the sub-plots turns out to be quite topical. The voiceover crowd are organising a strike in protest at plans to replace human voices with entirely digital voices, thus eliminating the need for actors altogether. Just the day before, the Evening Standard had reported that West End performers are seeking a 44 per cent pay rise and that “industry insiders are saying privately that tensions are so high there could be a strike in the autumn.”
There’s some debate in the play about how much public sympathy a bunch of striking actors would generate. “We’re not firemen!” exclaims one in exasperation. So think on.
Anyway, back to the important stuff: the unallocated seating. The West End Whingers hereby offer to put their money where there mouths are and – preferably with the consent of the Menier – purchase two permanent marker pens and proceed to inscribe a number on each seat in the auditorium. Their offer stops short of writing corresponding seat numbers on each ticket issued, but presumably computers can do that sort of thing these days.
For the record, this would have the benefits of:
- Enabling groups of people – or even couples – to actually sit together
- Rewarding the earliest bookers with the best seats
- Eliminating the frantic scrum at 7.53 each evening
- Ensuring more positive reviews from the West End Whingers
On the down-side, it would mean one less venue which can be relied upon when one is in need of a real whinge.
TV footnotes (for Phil, obviously)
- Although Christopher Benjamin is an RSC regular, he is most widely cited on the Internet with reference to his appearances in Dr Who and other cult television such as The Avengers and The Prisoner. Like all good actors, his CV includes Judge John Deed, Heartbeat and Midsommer Murders.
- Co-writer Miranda Foster is the daughter of Mr Van der Valk himself, Barry Foster.