pigging out on brighton rock

THE suzi feay COLUMN
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Sitting in an Italian restaurant in Brighton with some of the movers and shakers of the Brighton Festival, I suddenly notice something odd. There seem to be rather a lot of bald people dining here. I can count eight shaven heads dotted around at different tables. One bald female is particularly striking, with high cheekbones and wide, prominent eyes. The combination of chop-fallen gauntness with that round, shiny pate makes her look like a lightbulb. This quite puts me off my tortellini. Is she a supermodel?

"Oh no, they're all members of the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg," I am assured. Although I shall have no time on this flying visit to catch the Maly's mind-bending show, Gaudeamus, I have a funny feeling that I haven't seen the last of these bald art terrorists.

This sit-down over ciabatta is one of the rare breaks in a whistle-stop tour of the festival highlights. Festival helper Jim marches me briskly out of the station and warns: "People come here for a visit and end up staying." Everyone in Brighton, he tells me, is an artist or an actor. The latter all seem to be in the Pavilion Theatre, where Richard E Grant is convulsing the audience with a manic reading from his dirt-dishing film diaries. His account of singing the Swaziland national anthem at a panto audition appeals to me greatly, since I can still sing the Zambian national anthem. But any ideas of a pan-African anthem-singing session are dashed by Grant's frosty expression when I jump the book-signing queue and fish a copy out of my bag. He evidently thinks I'm a shoplifter. "You should do it as an audio-book," I chirrup. "I have done," he hisses, and this sudden blast of Withnail truculence is so disconcerting that I back swiftly away.

After a guided tour round the Royal Pavilion I fall into a taxi and head for my hotel. Gasp! My own sitting room with oblique view of the sea, chandeliers, gilt chairs, acres of polished wood and a bedroom suite soornate it would reduce a lust-crazed baboon to helpless mirth. Has the taxi driver taken me around the block and brought me back to the pavilion? Looking closer, it is the reassuring mix of scruffy and genteel which you find in even the poshest hotels: stains on the grand upholstery, cigarette burn on the dressing-table, bathroom suite a livid shade of tomato puree.

Out again to see Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who says he is "pieced off" with his publisher, slyly remarking over the ensuing laugh: "Did I say something wrong?" To start, he reads in his own charmingly accented English; then Sasha, Yevtushenko's stolid teenage son, reads with a surprising Estuary accent ("Oh, my dove-grey bruvver!") while dad broods and nods, then bounds up to deliver the original in high-octane, whooping, yipping, braying, cooing, spitting Russian. I can see a few shaven heads in the audience, but even the English are swept up in his amazing performance. At the end Yevtushenko disappears beneath a frenzied mob. "They bought everything!" marvels a jubilant Diana Reich, the literature organiser.

So frenzied is the session that Neil Bartlett is forced to begin his reading from Mr Clive and Mr Page 15 minutes late. "We had Russians in the building, and you know what they're like: a bit difficult to disperse," he explains. The theatre is almost empty, and the ziggurat of books hopefully built by Dillons will clearly not be needed, since the audience could buy two copies apiece and merely skim the top layer. Bartlett ignores the mike, makes us all shuffle closer and dims the lights. What follows is an enjoyably sinister tale, whisking us back to the Christmas of 1923: snowflakes are flocking, and there's something nasty happening behind the impassive facade of a house in Brooke Street. If you ever want a creepy Christmas storyteller, Bartlett's your man.

"Brighton was built on sex and folly," says Bartlett, a long-time resident, as we trot over to the Royal Albion Hotel after his reading. "People have always come here to get laid and go mad." He whisks through the foyer and into the room where Sheridan Morley is hosting a show for Radio 2. As the evening staggers towards midnight, various festival performers troop in, sing, play and talk about themselves. Bartlett delivers a few charming self-deprecations and flashes off into the night; the Carnival Collective street musicians brash along in their red T-shirts, bashing and crashing their carnival rhythms; musicians from the Chinese State Circus twang and plong; a baggy-suited charmer pulls a recorder out of his pocket and plays like a demon (large cheers), and we hear rather more than we expected from the show band as Yevtushenko has done a bunk and Reich seems to have collapsed in a chair in the foyer with the strain.

To my room, where moans and wails are emanating through the walls. I assume this is the porn channel until a burst of Russian tells me that the Maly theatre are laying their bald heads next door. Are they sampling Western decadence, or, as I suspect, merely enacting some strenuous, pre- bed thespian ritual? At early breakfast, the sight of all those aggressive bare heads makes boiled eggs an impossibility. The rest of the day I manage to avoid the gang, and next morning I miss them at breakfast; despite a long, intense, into-the-night discussion in Russian, which I heard through the wall, they are nowhere to be seen. Then, as I peer blearily out to sea, a coach whizzes past, filled with unmistakable light-bulb heads, silhouetted against the sky. Scary.

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