In the wings of love

More women than ever are signing up to dating agencies. But there is another way to find true love - if you don't mind starting your relationship on stage, that is.
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The Independent Online

Time was when a date meant a proper night out, not just a couple of pints of lager and a bag of chips. It was all about getting dressed up, going to dinner and a show. By that I don't mean that the bloke actually got his wallet out. It's just that you were given the time to formulate an opinion. If the conversation had run dry by the end of the evening, you knew that he wasn't the man for you.

Time was when a date meant a proper night out, not just a couple of pints of lager and a bag of chips. It was all about getting dressed up, going to dinner and a show. By that I don't mean that the bloke actually got his wallet out. It's just that you were given the time to formulate an opinion. If the conversation had run dry by the end of the evening, you knew that he wasn't the man for you.

Alas, nowadays it is our bodies that do the talking. Conversation has become a thing of the past. It's no wonder that people are turning to a third party to do the talking for them.

Luckily, an Oxford-based theatre company known as The Old Spontaneity Shop has found a new way to get people together - Dream Date, a strange hybrid of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Streetmate. In it, an enthusiastic group of actors scour the streets to find two willing strangers, before dragging them back to the theatre. Here they watch a fictional romance - starring them, as portrayed by two improvisers - played out in front of a live audience. After the show, the couple go out on a real date at a local restaurant - presumably to find out if life will imitate art.

Unlike Streetmate, Blind Date et al, Dream Date doesn't treat its protagonists like imbeciles. For a start, the couple get to choose who portrays them. They are then given the opportunity to intervene in the action - if either are unimpressed with the way their stage relationship is going, they have the power to order the actors on to a different track.

The show has been running for a week at this year's Edinburgh fringe and is already the talk of the town. One performance saw a middle-aged man set up with a zany American gallery owner named Zin Craig. Ms Craig insisted on setting up a contract with her prospective partner, stipulating that he should pay for dinner, the meal should take place in a quality restaurant and, most importantly, there would be no sex on the first date. With such stories doing the rounds, The Old Spontaneity Shop has been inundated with requests - mostly from male comics, or so I'm reliably told - to be the lovelorn guinea pig.

But it was, of course, in the interests of journalism that I volunteered to take part in this grand theatrical experiment. However, I was told I wouldn't be allowed to meet my prospective soulmate until the show was underway - and it was only then that I realised I had been stitched up. My partner for the evening was Brett - and he was an actor performing elsewhere at the Festival. Since I am in Edinburgh as a critic for this newspaper, there were bound to be fireworks, though perhaps not of the sexual kind.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable moment was when we were asked to reveal the best and worst things about ourselves. "I suppose I'm good at meeting people," I ventured weakly. My worst attribute, I said, was that I had a tendency to be aggressive - perhaps an unfortunate remark in light of my occupation. The audience drew a collective breath of disapproval.

Having chosen someone to play me, I sat down at the stage's edge to watch my love-life played out before me. To say that the experience was uncomfortable would be an understatement. Mine and Brett's first fictional meeting was at a film premiÿre. He was the star and I was the journalist who had written the most savage review of my career. For the first 20 minutes I could feel the the audience's baleful gaze boring into my left cheek. I was played as a neurotic bitch with a penchant for shooting down careers before they had barely begun.

"Honk on this hooter if you're not impressed," said Deborah, the Dream Date compÿre. I wanted to suggest a new job, but it was too late. Thankfully, the actors took pity on me and turned the plot around. On our second meeting - a chance encounter on a cruise ship - it transpired that Brett's movie had bombed. I had been right all along, but had given up journalism to concentrate on my novel. When my manuscript blew over the edge of the ship, Brett gallantly dived into the sea to retrieve it. Then came the dewy eyes, the I-liked-you-all-along sentiments and finally, to tumultuous applause, the kiss.

It was impossible to match such high drama when Brett and I went on our real date; but the show did, if nothing else, give us plenty to talk about. The improvising had been done for us. We had been provided with an unusual level of insight into one another's personalities before we had even exchanged pleasantries. And while there was little in the way of sexual chemistry, there was plenty of laughter and no awkward pauses. Hell, we might almost be friends.

So while it's true that my "Dream Date" didn't turn into a dream shag, it may have gone some way towards reviving the art of conversation.

'Dream Date' is at the Gilded Balloon (0131-226 2151), daily at 1.15pm until 28 Aug

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