I've never been able to work out why I have had to go through this baptism of fire with virtually every friend I've ever made, or why I'm so lily- livered about it. I think it's because I have this cross-looking face, and people interpret my common-or-garden sour nature - until they get to know it better - as evidence that I'm serious, or cultured, or something.
If I had a quid for every time someone has rung up and told me proudly that they had picked up tickets to the latest Ibsen, I'd probably be able to buy a ticket of my own by now. But instead of replying, "Darling, I'd honestly rather stay home and watch Blind Date while pushing superheated needles under my toenails," I meekly say, "Where did you say it was? Leytonstone? On Saturday night? Why, that would be lovely."
Here is an unequivocal statement just in case anyone has any doubts: I can't stand the theatre. I have nothing against luvvies, or playwrights, or directors, or lighting engineers, or anyone else in that noble profession, but hell for me would be an evening in the dress circle at a revolving performance of The Cherry Orchard.
A lot of theatre is ponce. Sure, it doesn't hold a candle to the kind of ponce you can find in modern dance circles, but it's ponce none the less. And because as an art form it has two ways to cock up - in the writing and in the interpretation - a lot of the time it's double-ponce with frilly bits.
My first brush with theatre should also have been my last. I just hadn't quite learned to trust my instincts at the age of eight. My class was taken to a rendition of The Tempest at the Oxford Playhouse. A three-and- a-half hour version without an interval. It was acted with such inspired monotony - everyone kept climbing up rigging and shouting - that when Miranda started droning on about brave new worlds, I was the only person in the auditorium who wasn't asleep. Insomnia can be a bitch like that. Two years later they took me, against my will, to see a play called Galileo. A man with a beard stood about on a virtually empty stage for several decades. Every now and then someone would come on and say something like "recant" or "please recant" in so many thousand words. A small tub of ice-cream and a wooden spatula just isn't recompense.
And, you see, there's more to the theatre experience than merely what goes on on stage: you've got the audience to deal with as well. Theatre audiences these days seem to treat everything - Starlight Express or Saint Joan - with wide-eyed respect. I blame the Leavises, myself. Before they got their dead hands on Eng Lit and stopped anyone being able just to tell a story for the sake of the story, the theatre was a bit of a gas. You went in when you wanted, popped out for a dozen oysters, and popped back in to join the booing at the end. Nowadays, the average theatre-goer looks as though they have never gone to the loo in their life. Step into a theatre and you shrug off all sense of irony. Why else is there always at least one woman in an off-the-shoulder taffeta ball gown in the stalls?
Anyway, tonight's trip with my serious American friend will involve several hours on a seat that stops at bra-level, is covered in prickly stuff and a thin veneer of chewing gum and is less than a foot away from the seats in front. On one side of me will be two children. Unhappy children in knee-socks and Alice bands. Children who will want to know how Ash is getting on with the PR girl in Casualty, just like I will. The woman behind will lean forward and go "shush" every time they move. I will offer them a Malteser and she will moan about the noise. The man to our right will, meanwhile, rustle the pages of his copy of the script far louder than any Malteser packet, but no one will mind.
The audience will laugh sycophantically at every line they perceive to have been intended to be a joke, regardless of whether it was funny or not. And they will go all solemn when someone dies despite the fact that no one could breathe their last and keep up that decibel level. In the interval we will be grateful for warm gin and tonics with a couple of grains gleaned from an ice-bucket filled with water. Theatre bars are different from other bars, as half the clientele would never set foot in a real bar for fear of being thought declasse and would be terrified that some bar-lizard would try to pick them up. They avoid everyone's eyes, talk in funeral parlour whispers and put their handbags on the spare chairs at their tables.
Janet and I will end up leaning against a pillar trying to find something to say about the play. And this is the point at which she will bump into her sales manager from Poughkeepsie. I kid you not: this has happened to me. The sales manager will be with his wife. We will buy them a warm gin and discuss relative ticket prices in London and on Broadway. And how much better the bars are on Broadway. And as the bell tolls for the second round, the sales manager will say "Say, you guys. What say we all meet up for dinner after the show?" And you know what? I'll hear myself saying something like "what a lovely idea"