Last Saturday I went to see a production of Brief Encounter from my local theatre group (The Bishopstoke Players). This is one of my favourite films so I was interested to see how it would work on stage. And my neighbour Adrian was playing the part of an ‘unruly soldier’.
Amateur dramatics have always been of interest to me as my mother directs brilliant shows for her own theatre group in Tipperary. I have always thought that they should have her picture in the dictionary beside the phrase ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’. Last year I got the call that everyone who lives away from their family dreads, ‘you’d better catch a flight today, Mammy isn’t well’. My mother had become seriously ill and wasn’t expected to make it. But through sheer determination and bloodymindedness she came through. Twelve months later she is working on a new show with her drama group. So my trip to the local hall had an element of homage to my mother and her love of theatre.
Now, would the concept of the tea break be as important in English amateur dramatics as it is in rural Ireland? Well, I am delighted to report that the tea break was one of the first matters to be addressed on arrival at the hall. This father and son team were front of house and after checking my ticket directed me to a ‘waitress’ who took my order so that all the teas and coffees would be ready for the interval. Such efficiency. And such lovely jackets.
Having been a raffle ticket seller from the age of four, I cast a professional ticket seller’s eye over the raffle team. No disappointment here either. These courteous and kindly ladies took my proffered pound within seconds and issued me with a pink strip of tickets. The raffle prizes though did differ from an Irish show: Lambrini rather than whiskey, a handbag instead of the Tipperary leg of lamb and a copy of Michael Palin’s Himalaya instead of the dreaded box of USA biscuits. Michael Palin, as we all know, is the nicest man in the world and was a fitting patron saint for the evening.
I sat with my school run buddies Dawn and Helen and they filled me in on past productions (most notably the tea break). At previous productions you were served tea in your seats! What magic is this? While pondering the tea efficiency again I took a look around at the rest of the audience. Most of them were older than me, all nicely dressed and the men wore check shirts. It was at this point that a lady patted me on the shoulder, apologised profusely and told me that I was wearing my jacket inside out.
And the play itself? I really enjoyed it: the look, the set design, the music, the many scene changes effortlessly conducted. The acting was superb (Doctor Andrew Harvey was fantastic). I am guessing that the woman I was sitting behind was his mother as she giggled helplessly at the kissing bits. What I really enjoyed the most was the actors in the smaller parts who were totally themselves, who were so at home on the stage. The wooing station master, the boring husband and the unruly soldiers. I suppose I enjoyed the soldiers that bit more because I knew one of them. And it was this transformation on the stage of people who you know from everyday life that reminded me so forcefully of all the plays my mother had directed. Her plays have all been drawn on people from the local community and the play takes on an extra layer when an audience sees the local farmer/teacher/shopkeeper change into a character that they can believe in.
My personal highlight however was the interval. As if by magic everyone stood up and queued patiently for the cups of tea and coffee that had been allocated at the beginning of the evening. That, I have to say, would not happen in Ireland. It was fabulous.