When Covid shut the theatres, I became my mother’s carer. Returning feels defiant

Me and my spouse got married in a movie theatre. Reader, I proposed to my girlfriend on a leap year by writing “Will you marry me?” in chalk on the local footbridge and spraying it with hairspray in case it rained. After falling to his knees in disbelief, he responded, “Yes.” We had the official proceedings at the Manchester city hall, celebrated with a curry (his choice), and then celebrated with a blessing and a party at a London theatre (mine). The theatre is the closest thing I have to a place of worship; at least, it has been from the time I was in diapers until now.

On Wednesday of last week, it had been two years since everything stopped. At the time, I was performing in a revival of Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love at the Lyric Hammersmith as Sandra, the boozy, cigarette-addled, unabashedly self-centered, morally dubious baby-boomer heroine. Audiences were captivated by her brutal honesty despite their shock at learning what a terrible mother she was. The show we gave on press night was hilarious. Sandra told her daughter, on her 16th birthday, that both parents have had relationships and will soon be getting a divorce, amidst delightful raucous mayhem and audible wincing, as she enthusiastically handed out slices of cake. There was an unmistakable vibe in the air that begged us to savor this moment while we could. There were four shows total.
In reality, my world had already been destroyed when I found out that my mother had cancer, so the show’s cancellation didn’t hit me particularly hard. Like the pro that she was, Mom decided to wait to fill me in until after the first night. She was a regular at the opening shows. She was a constant note-taker. The headline of my first newspaper review was, “No need to Rigg Rachael’s verdict,” and the story was primarily about how glamorous my mother looked in her leopardskin shawl when she arrived late to the play. The last play she attended was Love, Love, Love. No notes were taken by her. When I left my dressing room that day, I had no idea that I would soon be my mother’s full-time caretaker or that she would pass away six months later.

After a year, theatres, just like their patrons, were struggling to stay open. Others have been more fruitful than others. I had a TV gig in Cardiff, so I was there. Mike Bartlett texted me, “I’m writing a play and I appear to be writing a part for you in it.” Mike and I have worked together for almost a decade, but I still like to imagine that Sandra’s ghost pressured him into reincarnating as Susan Climber. She’s the kind of modern day heroine who just goes ahead and does what she thinks is right.

Scandaltown was the title of Mike’s latest play. He had emailed Love, Love, Love’s director Rachel O’Riordan, the artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith. Mike and Rachel had discussed how the Lyric’s design specifically catered to the needs of producing Restoration drama. In the year 2020, Mike’s son received a cardboard proscenium arch theatre complete with push-on/off cardboard performers as a gift for Christmas. I wish.

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Mike recalls that during the lockdown, “it reminded me of the Lyric Hammersmith, and that conversation, and the subject of those plays — façade and gossip and a corrupt elite in London.” This is the precise situation in which we find ourselves at the present time. The shape is right for the content.
Imagine, he thought, returning to the stage with a new play that captures the spirit of Love, Love, Love while also addressing contemporary issues. Mike says he hopes the evening will be memorable. There is still Covid even though we have fewer resources. In what ways is it as provocative as a new play should be without being overtly offensive? the fact that you came at all makes you happy.

I am back on the stage of this magnificent Frank Matcham gold’n’gilt theatre in March of 2022. Even if the gods are in the background, your whisper will carry. Everyone in the crowd is within a maximum of 64 feet. This is especially spicy because the audience-actor conspiracy is the breakthrough element of Restoration humour. That nonsense about a “fourth wall” is completely absent. I have full permission to interact with the crowd, have fun with the congregation, and be mischievous if I choose. In fact, you’re strongly encouraged to do so! The audience has the option to express their displeasure by heckling if they so want.

Scandaltown is a massive, sensual, intelligent, and occasionally rude rock opera. It’s a modern comedy with a Restoration aesthetic. The show pokes fun at the difference in online experience across different generations without passing judgement. Smiling kindly at our common human foolishness, it reflects the pretence of social media and the duplicity of politicians. It celebrates the contemporary era while subtly reminding us that we are all a little foolish.

After two decades of banishment under Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century, this is the kind of thing that brought audiences flooding back. The Church of the Outrageous was founded in Restoration theatre. Extravagant costumes were the icing on the already delicious cultural cake, which included real ladies performing alongside satire of the establishment, indecent behaviour, cross-dressing, sex of many types between sexes and social strata, and more. Everyone from royalty to commoners jammed the theatres, desperate for some happiness after the puritanical dryness.

Though it receives government funding, the Lyric Hammersmith belongs to the locals more than to the performers who perform there. Locals can see each show for free at its first preview showing. The volume is consistently high, and the content is constantly unexpected for the paying customers. Since the audience hasn’t paid anything to be there, their continued attendance in the second half is indicative of real interest on their part. If there’s a kid in the audience that night, my goal is to make them fall in love with the theatre.
The craziness of a live concert is something I’ve really missed. I have fallen in a pool of blood and lurched gusset-first into the front row over my 25-year career. I feel like the landscape has strangled me. Once, a fairy failed to place the brakes on the bower carrying a gaming dame, and she rolled slowly down a raked stage. Many times I have seen great actors forget the entire plot, or even fail to come on stage. Contrary to popular belief, filibustering in the style of Terence Rattigan is remarkably simple to pull off. When I was younger, I once smashed an actor over the head with a broken fan. We both burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the prop and were rendered speechless. After the spectators witnessed the incident, widespread panic set in. A wave of Mexican laughter swept the country. It was a perfect place to be.

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