I think it is fair to say that theatre struggles to survive in England today. But there are still, despite all the difficulties, a handful of big (c. 1,000-seater) theatres in some of the larger towns and cities: for example, Bath, Guildford, York, Brighton, and so forth.
These theatres survive by taking in touring productions of plays which are either already well known, or are judged to be on their way to the West End. Judged, that is, by their publicists, if not by anyone else.
Stand at the back of the stalls in any of these theatres, on an average night, and you are faced with an ocean of grey hair; plus some bald heads. The average age of this audience is about sixty. It is middle class to the core.
In other words, there is a certain well defined type of theatre audience which can cough up £20 or £25 a ticket without too much complaint. And it is an audience with fairly well defined tastes. It quite likes funny, and familiar, and eccentric. It can do serious once in a while: Shakespeare and so forth. It can even do foreign. But it is not at all keen on the shocking, the challenging, and the downright disgusting. Faced with such, the interval will be used as a departure point.
Bear all this in mind, if you kindly will, in the discussion of Richard Everett's (relatively) new play Entertaining Angels, which Mrs GOB and I saw at the Theatre Royal, Bath, yesterevening.
The play stars Penelope Keith, who is yet another Michael Barrymore-type name: i.e. huge in the UK but largely unknown elsewhere. Keith made her name in a TV sitcom, The Good Life, some thirty years ago. Then she was in another TV success, To the Manor Born. In both these she played an archetypal upper-class English lady, eccentric but loveable with it. Yes, Penelope Keith is a pretty good actress when she wants to be; but she made her name playing a certain kind of character, something not too far, one suspects, from her own real-life persona, and she has gone on playing that character ever since.
It is absolutely no surprise, therefore, that in Entertaining Angels Penelope Keith plays the 60-ish widow of a Church of England clergyman. She lives in (but, being widowed, is soon to move out of) a Georgian vicarage in some bucolic English village of the kind which barely exists any longer, at least outside the media.
The play is about the Keith character's adjustment to widowhood. She has a daughter, and a sister, and she talks to the ghost of her dead husband. Also hovering are the new Vicar (a woman! Intolerable!) and her husband.
This being the kind of play it is, there are Revelations. And Reconciliations. And Resolution. There is humour (Keith is good at spiky but funny), and there are tears. And quite a lot of talk about God and the Meaning of Life.
It is all absolutely tailor-made for Penelope Keith and her audience. The latter have come to see Keith do her star thing, and she does her star thing, and everyone is happy.
Except, of course, me. I found it all quite exceptionally tedious.
Now there is no reason at all why you should care about that. I hardly care myself, since it is yesterday's entertainment, and I hope for better next week. But there might, just conceivably, be something to be learnt from this situation/experience which is relevant to the art of writing -- an art about which I have been known to pontificate from time to time.
I am no enemy, as countless posts on this blog testify, to commercial anything: commercial fiction, TV, films, music, you name it. But there is, in my view, commercial and commercial. If the commercial becomes too blatant, too ruthless in its approach, then it becomes exploitation, and I do not care to be exploited. I do not care, either, to have my emotions manipulated in thoroughly unsubtle manners. And, on the whole, I prefer to read and see things which have at least some claim to freshness and originality.
The problem with Entertaining Angels, at least as far as I was concerned, was that, apart from a few references to mobile phones and the like, it could have been written in 1934 by Terence Rattigan. Nobody actually came on and said Anyone for tennis? But they could have done. And the audience would have continued to sit there, grinning inanely.
No, no. It was all just a little too obvious for me.
The TRB web site claims that this production is touring 'Prior to West End'. This is a common claim, designed to impress the punters with the idea that they are going to see a quality product. But I really find it very difficult to believe that anyone would have the steely nerve which would be required to expose this stuff to a West End audience -- not to mention critics. I really do.
The set, however, was pretty good. Designed by the experienced Paul Farnsworth, it provided a convincing backdrop to some far from convincing drama.