Brook, the buzz and the real McCoy

It is curious how certain theatre events are defined by their audiences. Last night’s crowd at the Young Vic seemed enthralled from the start, no doubt basking in the benign glow emanating from director Peter Brook’s apricot shirt.

Amazingly spry at 83, Brook twinkled like a star in that shirt, seated next to his wife actress Natasha Parry. People were having a good time before the show even started. And there was a marvellous moment when the audience collectively took a false cue and a sudden hush descended, reducing the sweet usherettes in their red shirts to a state of muffled giggles.

I’ve seen Brook do this sort of thing in demonstration of how an audience responds when that magical shared sense of concentration kicks in. It is a singular phenomenon of the “one room” theatres like the Young Vic, where there is no division between actors and audience in the same space.

The theatre can be as large as Epidaurus, or the Courtyard in Stratford-upon-Avon, or the Olivier: the audience bonds in a way that is impossible in the compartmentalised West End theatres. There’s always that moment in pantomime when the dame throws sweets into the auditorium, and only one or two of them ever get as far as the grand tier, let alone the upper circle.   

The Young Vic is as agreeable a theatre to visit in London as any nowadays. There’s a real buzz along the Cut, with all the bars and restaurants, the Young Vic’s own bar — where non theatre-goers chill in the dusk with their beers and cocktails both inside the foyer and upstairs on the terrace — and the sense of a venue that really is on a roll.

It was a little more strained at the Gate in Notting Hill the night before, but the transforming miracles of the theatre itself never cease to amaze me, with Hedda’s house near the entrance and the audience then dispelled into the further recesses of her unfinished interior. I feel a bit mean about the production itself, but the experience of going to it is not unpleasant.

Next door, though, the pub that was once so rackety and welcoming is now a rather off-putting “lounge-style” bar, with sofas and soda bread, bar staff in black shirts and music guaranteed to kill conversation and deepen your depression.

Still, my journey home was enlivened by a chance encounter with Sylvester McCoy, who lives nearby but is always away on tour or on film sets or at science fiction conventions for Doctor Who fans.

There was no uproar when he played the Fool to Ian McKellen’s Lear at the RSC, no cry of how dare they cast that man off the telly in such a great stage role. That’s because of course Sylvester is a man of genuine stage pedigree going back many years and is not, unlike David Tennant, I hope he doesn’t mind me saying so, a celebrity heart-throb.

He came in the house to have a cup of tea and regale us with his latest adventures and future plans, and explain how when fame came to his old friend Bob Hoskins, Bob clenched up in public, whereas he just sauntered along in the same old way.

Until he recently moved out of the district, Hoskins used to live in Steele’s Road off Haverstock Hill — home, too, of David Walliams and Derek Jacobi — but I never felt I could greet him in the old manner when he was knocking around the local shops; a social portcullis had descended.

In the Ken Campbell Road Show days, when Hoskins, McCoy and the married couple of Dave Hill and Jane Wood were firing on all cylinders, Hoskins lived for a time in a white van parked at the top of the road he later moved into with a family and a fleet of Audis. Dave and Jane still live in the same house on the hill, and Sylvester mooches happily around Gospel Oak and Hampstead. On one thing we are fervently agreed: why move anywhere else when you’ve got the heath on your doorstep?

McCoy was taken into the Road Show by Campbell when working as a box office assistant at the Roundhouse. He was a fearless gymnast, banging nails up his nose and pushing ferrets down his trousers; in fact, he entered the Guinness Book of Records for keeping those nibbly varmints  down his trews for minutes on end. They always lick before they bite, which is when you whip ‘em out, pronto.

I dare say the vaudeville sketches in La Clique, coming to the Hippodrome (the old Talk of the Town) after a sensational success in Edinburgh, are as brilliant and remarkable as some of the stuff Hoskins and McCoy got up to with Ken Campbell; but after catching a brief taster the other night on the deadly Culture Show, I somehow very much doubt it.

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