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Dry Rot


Presumably I’m not the only person who finds it difficult to dispose of theatre programmes (or ‘theater programs’ as it’s spelled in the US). In recent years, as my attendance at performances has increased I’ve become more ruthless in my attitude to these mementos. Thus, I have been able to dispose of them and put them in the recycling bin, even though it’s with a heavy heart and only after I’ve done my best to read almost every word before I do so.

 However, over the years the box containing the programmes I collected in my childhood and teenage years of concerts and plays I was taken to see has survived somehow. Until this year, that is, when exigencies of space in our overcrowded basement have forced me to face up to cruel reality and get rid of those precious – and by now ancient – objects.

 But not without a last, lingering look, I said, and so I have just spent an interesting few hours with those remnants of my lost youth, dredging up memories and in some cases wondering where on earth they came from. In some instances, to my shame, I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of the event, while others have occasioned a glow of happiness.

 How come that I have no memory whatsoever of what must have been a stellar performance of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear,’ with Charles Laughton and Albert Finney, amongst others? The play was given at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon, so presumably I was taken there in the framework of a school outing, and that admittedly was a long time ago (1959). There were other such school outings, mainly of Shakespeare’s plays or something else of a ‘classical’ nature, and I do remember our total puzzlement when we were taken to a performance of ‘The Antigone of Sophocles’ given at the Cambridge Arts Theatre in the original Greek, of all things – a language we did not study at school. In the programme, beside each student-actor’s name, stands the college to which he or she belonged, which I’m sure must have been very gratifying for the performers.

 As a teenager one of my boyfriends was interested mainly in musicals, and so I was fortunate enough to attend early performances of ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Oliver,’ and ‘My Fair Lady.’ I can credit my acquaintance with the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan to another past flame, as my parents’ taste was restricted to performances of serious choral music (Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ Verdi’s ‘Requiem,’ etc.). We also went on an annual family outing to something lighter, generally of a humourous nature. Among the crumbling programmes are those for something called ‘Share My Lettuce,’ featuring the now-forgotten British comedian Kenneth Williams, and a review entitled ‘At the Drop of a Hat,’ in which Michael Flanders and Donald Swann starred in what is described as an ‘After-Dinner Farrago.’ I can’t remember much about it and I still don’t know what a Farrago is, but the main thing was that we all enjoyed ourselves. Being taken to a performance by a boyfriend or one’s parents doesn’t give one much choice as to what to see, however.

 My own personal preference was for anything that would make me laugh, and so I remember trying to persuade unwilling schoolfriends to join me for the phenomenon known at the time (late 1950s and 1960s) as ‘a Whitehall Farce.’ These were light-hearted romps, often based on French bedroom farces, performed at London’s Whitehall Theatre (which no longer exists), in which a troupe of actors directed by and starring one Brian Rix performed on a more or less regular basis. The plays were all slightly racy and very entertaining, though I presumably missed half the innuendos. But the highlight for me came after the performance, when I would drag my friend round to the stage door and get the actors to sign our programmes as they left the building. I remember that they all seemed perfectly happy to do so, and this seemed to give me some kind of intimacy with the magical world of the theatre.

 Now all those memories are going to be deposited in the recycling receptacle, unless I manage to find an individual or institution which is interested in matters theatrical and would be prepared to take the dozens of programmes off my hands.