Saturday, February 07, 2015

Looking back... days of Popup-toasters and pen-friends

Alexei Sayle, ex-anarchic-standup comedian, sees himself as a writer now but doesn't mind being asked about the old days. At the Merlin last week he read extracts from his (very funny) autobiography Stalin Ate My Homework  and from his upcoming one Thatcher Stole My Trousers, and then allowed us to take him back to the glory days of angry young comedians. "My generation were all nice men pretending to be nasty, the conventional ones were fucking horrible... but we're all soldiers in the same war ~ comedians are the lone wolves of the tundra."
An extreme communist upbringing made for a difficult childhood as well as a rich seam for bizarre anecdotes, but Alexei Sayle still has respect for those values. "It doesn't work if you turn a blind eye to mass murder, but was an attempt to make the world a better place, and that impulse is still a valid one, I still think." He remembers the '60s as I do: halcyon days of hope. "Everything was inspiration, it was great to be young in that brief moment when the gates of El Dorado were opened. They’re slammed shut now, a wonderful period all gone." He capers at the memory of the Pop Up Toaster but is visibly moved when he says the last time he met the Young Ones team was at Rik Mayalls's funeral. "To make that show was the most profound experience, there's still a core connection between us all." The past is another country, but it's clearly one this gentle and immensely entertaining man spends a lot of time visiting.

84 Charing Cross Road, adapted by director James Roose-Evans from the correspondence between New Yorker Helen Hanff and the bookshop at this address, premiered 33 years ago at Salisbury Playhouse and won awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Fittingly, the current revival is at the same theatre with the same director, demonstrating that a good human-interest story is never out of fashion for theatre audiences.  Helen herself was apparently mystified at the success of this tale of nothing-much happening in the lives of some perfectly-nice people for 20 years ~ she wrote scripts for Ellery Queen which was more of a Midsomer Murders kind of show ~ and it's certainly hard to put a finger on plot development here. Nice Mr Doel learns to say 'OK' the yankee way, Helen discovers that 'Madame' is an acceptable form of address in England and learns to love Jane Austen... but it's what's unsaid that engages us: the sense of family in the apparently drab bookshop as the staff crowd around to share Helen's hampers, the suggestion that she thrives by proxy inclusion in that connection. (photos Helen Maybanks)
And of course, there's a poignancy in the passing of years, both in the time-scale of the play and since ~ though costumes could have been more evocative: fine for quirky Helen but the time-standing-still look at the bookshop seemed oddly unconvincing ~ younger staff working in WC2, even in an old-fashioned establishment, might have kept their retro look throughout the '50s but by 1969 we'd all been buying cheap ersatz Mary Quant from Top Shop for years. That's a small quibble which didn't detract from the sharp direction, effectively using set and lighting, and strong performances: Clive Frances as the gentle bookseller and Janie Dee as the New York bibliophile with Dorothy Parkeresque tendancies were both excellent. Like Waiting for Godot, this is play where nothing happens except life, but it's warm as a mug of cocoa and sent us all out into the winter air smiling. Recommended. (Images Helen Maybanks)

Final footnote: Fans of the cafe with a pool at The Lighthouse in Tytherington ~ a pleasant 2 mile stroll from Frome ~ will be happy to hear that although Love In a Cup is no more, Cafe Nouveau will be providing the same ambience and appetising snacks, but with optional caffeine in the hot drinks. Opening on February 14th, why not go along?

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