Sunday, 2 August 2009

Legends of London's West End theatres

Last week I went to the theatre. It is probably one of my favourite things to do in the city - better than television or the cinema. Real people in real time telling real stories of love and heartache, of fighting, winning and losing. And last night it was a tale of fear and sadness. Whilst I was at school there was a GCSE drama trip to see 'The Woman in Black', and almost ten years later some Accidental school-chums and I revisited the dramatisation of Susan Hill's chilling novel. The theatre jumped and screamed as one as empty chairs rocked, ghostly carriages were swallowed by marshes and a desperate old man shared a chilling secret with a rapt, and at times terrified, audience.

There is something so magical about the theatre, which a film simply fails to match. No special effects, no CGI; what you see is really happening before your eyes. There is one take - it must be perfect first time. Stage actors cannot mess up a line in front of an audience who have paid to see them perform word-perfect. World class performance venues such as the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre are famed icons of the city, as well as much loved public places and tourist destinations, the most popular and commercial being the West End. The West End is London's Broadway. In its approximately 40 theatres, it holds the greatest volume of stage make-up, frilly costumes, velvet-covered seats and tiny tubs of over-priced ice cream in the whole city. Theatres have been a part of London's architecture since the sixteenth century, and the city is proudly home to the world's longest running show, Agatha Christie's 'The Mousetrap' which has been performed constantly since 1952, and is famed for the twist ending and the cryptic manner in which the audience is instructed not to tell anyone outside the theatre what they have seen.

The theatrical twists and legends of the West End are what make this theatreland such a unique and fascinating place, and a necessary stop on any tourist schedule; books have been written about them, and real-life and fiction merge in and out of each other on the stage and behind it. The Fortune Theatre playing home to the Woman in Black is reputed to be haunted by a similar real-life ghost, also, somewhat surprisingly (or commercially convenient for the more sceptical) a woman in black. She has been sighted most frequently by the actors on stage, standing apart from the oblivious audience, watching the play. She is also reputed to hang around in the hospitality bar. We were slightly late for the production and were held in said bar (until the play reached a convenient spot for us to crash in to our seats, ruining the atmosphere for the already installed watchers) but she was nowhere to be seen...
Former actors or stage managers who couldn't leave their beloved theatres despite leaving their mortal bodies, stage-hands injured or killed in scenery shifting accidents and even a famous clog-dancer (who knew there even was one?!), still clacking away, are an everyday part of theatrical life in the West End; unwelcome visitors or lucky charms, they prove unlikely to ever be removed from their haunts.

Maybe a new plan by the actors' union Equity will rid the theatres of unwanted beings? Cats are to be reintroduced as crucial staff members in London theatres, in order to keep down mice and rats, and perhaps offer a little comfort to nervy actors before they tread the boards. First brought into theatres by ex-sailors who took to stage work on their return from sea, stage moggies were once almost as famous as the actors themselves. 'Beerbohm' lived at the Gielgud Theatre, until he retired to Kent with the stage carpenter, and was such a character he was even celebrated by an obituary in The Stage. Princess Margaret's bouquet was famously eaten during a gala performance by the imaginatively named 'Boy Cat' who lived at The Albery, with his feline friend, called, equally imaginatively, 'Girl Cat'. Maybe these furry souls will chase out the restless ones haunting London's theatres. More likely, they will continue to create their own legends and perpetuate the myths of the West End, ensuring its appeal for years to come.

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