THEATRE / A month and a half in the country: For the past six weeks, Michael Palin has been chasing his first West End play around the provinces. Here he records his impressions

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The Weekend opens tomorrow night in Guildford. At last I can have a good clear out. Take all the old rewrites to the Jamestown Road Recycling Centre. The usual gaggle of playwrights hanging round the skips on the look-out for discarded plots, denouements and sub-texts - all of which, exasperatingly, have to go in different bins.

The playwright is a bit of a rogue figure in the production process. Theoretically his work is done when he hands over the script, but incuriosity has never been my strong point and, encouraged by our director Robin Lefevre, I have been present throughout the three- and-a-half-week rehearsal period, trying to make myself useful by making tea and playing with the dog. I know some writers won't have a word changed, but I quite enjoy the tailoring process. It's a pleasure to remove lines when the actor can convey their meaning with a look or a shrug.

Drive down to Guildford. By the time I arrive at the theatre I've merged into the character Jonathan Coy plays, whinging on unstoppably about routes and roadworks and cone hotlines. The A4, the M3, the M25 and the A3 are all being dug up in the name of progress. Feel sorry for people living in what remains of South-east England.

The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre is attractively set by the tumbling waters of the River Wey, with an all-day cafe and well-equipped in everything except actors' quarters. This is nothing new I'm told, but it's surprising in a modern theatre which seemed to get everthing else right that the actors are squeezed into rabbit hutches. However, the theatre management couldn't be nicer or more helpful - and the fact that they've already sold out for two weeks makes me inordinately and instantly fond of Guildford.


Dress rehearsal in front of a small audience of friends of people who work at the theatre. They're obviously bemused by a performance in which everything that can go wrong does. The only really big laugh comes from an intentionally bad joke delivered by Stephen Febble (played by Richard Wilson) which is followed in the script by the stage direction - 'He laughs. Alone.' Not in Guildford.

After the chaos of the dress rehearsal, the first night is a credit to all concerned. Pippa the dog, a Jack Russell, doesn't appear on cue but apart from that it's fine. Laughter seems spread over the whole play, which is a relief as I was worried that this might look like a comedy with a tragedy tacked on the end. A tribute to all, but especially the playing of Richard Wilson and Angela Thorne.


Any mood of premature elation punctured by the director's unsentimental assessment of our position. The ending of the play doesn't work, the first act needs rearranging and the producers want me to get rid of references to Michael Parkinson, Howard's Way and Brookside. Tonight the dog comes on, but jumps out of Joanna Forest's hands and makes an unscheduled exit stage left. Joanna runs after her, straight through the fireplace. Which is a pity as the local critics are in. Fortunately there's only one of them; I'm told she's also the gardening correspondent.


Have got rid of Howard's Way and Michael Parkinson but fight for Brookside on the Egrounds that it is a perfectly allowable modern cultural referenTHER write errorce. This cuts no ice at all so replace Brookside.

Tonight Joanna holds the dog with grim determination, but a little too high. Her bottom and back legs stick up in the air and from where I'm sitting she looks more like a set of bagpipes than a Jack Russell. Replacement for Brookside gets no reaction at all.


The review in the Surrey Advertiser calls the play 'funny and moving'. The gardening correspondent is clearly a deeply perceptive and well-informed judge of drama. My wife comes to see the show for the first time. Afterwards, I ask her if she can see anything of my late father in the aggressively cantankerous leading character. She says she can see a little of him, but an awful lot of me.

Drive back, thoughtfully, to London, through the cone-fields of north Surrey.


After 10 performances there are certain lines which don't work however good the audience. Interesting that we had been unable to spot them in our four-week

rehearsal period.

Comedy has to be so precise. There is nothing worse than setting up a laugh and just missing it. Tragedy's an absolute doddle by comparison. All you have to do is shut the audience up. To get them night after night 'to make explosive inarticulate sounds of voice' (Chambers Dictionary definition of 'laugh') requires a rare blend of intuition and concentration. Robin gives me a shopping list of re-writes.


At the handsome Theatre Royal in Brighton. Normally I slink in at the back as the lights go down, sprint for cover at the interval and generally behave like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but tonight I'm invited to share a box with the owner of the theatre. Comfortable and spacious though it is, I'm amazed how little of the production you can actually see from this lordly perch. Unless you've a neck like Nat Jackley, one quarter of the stage is practically invisible. Reinforces my prejudice that boxes are less about seeing than being seen.


At last] The Weekend is on Broadway. Wimbledon Broadway. A huge banner outside advertises the imminent arrival of Bernard Manning. Biggest house we've played so far. Cast asked to speak up with the result that the first act now sounds like the World Shouting Championships. The second is enlivened by Angela's new recipe for Shrimp Surprise - vhich, instead of containing the usual 'ginger and tarragon' comes out tonight as 'gin and tarragon'. Freudian slip?


Lurking happily at the back of the Circle when a couple get up and leave. Their footsteps echo down endless flights of concrete steps and the sound of massive doors opening and closing behind them goes on for about four and a half minutes.


The Hawth, Crawley. Near panic tonight as at 15 minutes to curtain up Richard W still hasn't arrived. Michael Medwin about to step into his shoes when Richard appears. He'd been stuck in a traffic jam on the M25 and phoned the theatre in desperation, but all he got was a prerecorded voice repeating: 'All performances of The Weekend are sold out.'


Tonight is our first preview in London. Massive publicity onslaught. It's an example of the broad church our producers hope to attract to the marbled and mirrored halls of the Strand Theatre that today I am giving two major interviews - one to the Times and the other, which the producers consider marginally the more important, to Zig and Zag, the two puppets on The Big Breakfast. Richard is with me and during the interview utters a word not considered suitable at this time of day. A production assistant holds up a piece of paper beneath the camera on which is scrawled 'Don't say 'bloody']'. Richard breaks off in mid-interview. 'Did I say bloody?'. Collapse of studio audience. Channel 4 loses licence.


Differences between London and the provinces: people arrive late in London. One party turns up 35 minutes after curtain up. A couple in the back row are snogging. This would be inconceivable at Guildford. A man from the Far East laughs loudly when no one else does and any drug reference works 10 times better.


First Night. None of the previous 42 are supposed to count any more. Forget the fun in Guildford and Brighton and Crawley and Sheffield. This is it. Last publicity blast. Richard has done an exclusive for Spoonbenders Weekly and I've been talked into having a leg off for the My Operation column at the back of one of the colour supplements. Now all we can do is sit and wait. Have ordered all the morning papers and provisionally booked a flight to Paraguay.

'The Weekend' is at the Strand Theatre, London WC2 (Box office: 071-240 0300)

(Photographs omitted)