Saturday, 23 August 2008

The curtain will rise...

One of the best examples of man's tendency to hold on to an ideal long after experience has rudely shattered it may be seen in our attitude to the theatre bar in the interval. In the practical daytime, when the anticipation of a night at the theatre flits into our minds, we see ourselves, like people in an advertisement, in some elegant foyer with palms and flowers and flunkeys; men are clean-cut, in beautifully tailored clothes, with that standard, young lieutenant-colonel kind of face, one hand in trousers-pocket. Girls are in ballet-length dresses, smiling up at escorts.

In this mental picture we have, there seem to be about twenty-five minutes for relaxed, sophisticated talk about the play. No rude bells sound in this dream, no-one ever has just beer, or coffee. And, most of all, there is no hint of the sordid struggle by which drinks are actually obtained in real life. The mind closes over this aspect of it like a self-sealing petrol tank.

Now I come to think about it, though, nobody else does seem to have this struggle except me, because all the other people in the bar are terrific personalities. It is only I who seem to be a normal, humdrum man, unable to attract the servers. Every time I try to get a drink in a theatre bar I make a resolution to come next time on stilts, making myself nine feet high, to wear a red beard, and to demand drink with Latvian oaths. I stand sideways on to the bar and gradually work forward until I have one elbow on it, and finally two. But before I can do this the man in front, holding two glasses, steps back from the counter. I politely make way for him and somebody on the other side of him immediately steps into his place.

When I do get to the front, I am always faced either by a large bowl of flowers or I am in a kind of no man's land between two servers who, if they ever hear my despairing cry, "two gin and—", hiss "Just a minute" crossly at me through teeth which are holding a twenty-pound note. Normally they don't say anything at all; they are too busy flying up and down whisking bottles open for people who seem to be ordering enough refreshment for a Watteau country picnic.

Yet the other people have such personality that they can get served simply by speaking in cool, authoritative voices from wherever they happen to be. "Six champagnes, please," says a plummy-voiced well-bathed man in a velvet jacket who is standing directly behind me. I have a strange feeling that I am getting smaller and smaller.

Sometimes, when I get a seat at the end of a row, the moment the curtain has come down on the first act I rush to what is sometimes called the saloon, which usually turns out to be on the other side of the theatre. Then after I have rushed up and down flights of stone steps so long and untheatrical that I am surprised not to find myself coming out under Blackfriars Bridge, the place is already full when I get there.

Acknowledgements to Paul Jennings

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