A pretty stage set awash with criticism

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The Independent Online
Last Thursday, as I was saying yesterday, I was taken to a highly seditious evening of theatre at the Rondo in Larkhall. Larkhall is a small village just outside the city of Bath that has nearly but not quite been swallowed up by Bath. (Bath of course is a city that was once famous for its waters and is now notorious for having no spa facilities available or swimming pool open.)

The point of this play was that the central character was a medical officer working for a town that depended on its baths for its income. The medical officer was about to unveil a report showing that the spa water was contaminated, mostly by the effluent from an abattoir higher up the hill, but the mayor, instead of taking action, blackmailed him into silence. The mayor, his brother, thought that the matter of health was much less important than the profitability of the business community and the reputation of the city council, and refused to rock the boat. So did the local paper. So did everyone except the doctor ...

What came across was the picture of a smug town whose reputation was not backed up by performance. Small wonder that people in the audience were going round afterwards saying, "Hmm - not a million miles from our own dear Bath!" You might have thought, from what they were saying, that Bath City Council would consider suing the playwright for libel. This, however, would be difficult as the playwright, Ibsen, was long dead, and his play "An Enemy of the People", was written 100 years ago.

"You'd be surprised what resonances the play still has," one of the actors in this excellent Orchard Theatre production told me afterwards. "We started our tour in Taunton earlier in September, at the Brewhouse arts complex, which was just having a grand reopening, so they asked the mayor and some local bigwigs along to the evening of our performance. I don't think they quite realised that this particular Ibsen play is an attack on the complacency and corruption of so many small-town establishments ... What made it even more piquant was that one of the local bigwigs at Taunton owned a local abattoir, and he was incensed by the bad press that abattoirs got in the play. You should have heard him sounding off afterwards!"

Taunton may be sensitive, but the city of Bath is almost immune to criticism. This is partly because Bath's rugby team has made it feel invincible and partly because Bath has been nominated a World Heritage City, which makes it feel it is beyond reproach. Actually, all that being a World Heritage City means is looking like a grand stage set - 200 years ago Bath was turned into a pretty Georgian playground of a town, and although most subsequent building in the place, under the aegis of or with consent from the council, has been hideous, it is still a very pretty stage setting, though often more show than substance, as one look at the shoddy backside of the famous Pulteney Bridge will reveal.

I'll give you another example of how there is more polish than performance. A year or two back it was decided to hand over the running of the Bath public swimming pools to a private company. (There used to be several different public baths in Bath, but an all-wise council had closed almost all of them down.) It was awarded to the lowest tender, which came from a company trailing a bad record behind it - I met an employee of the council at the time who told me he had found out that this company was already in trouble elsewhere, but he could not make his council superiors listen to him.

The company with the not very good record took over the baths, ran them in a dissatisfactory fashion and finally, not so long ago, went into liquidation, as predicted by my source but not by the council. As a result, the swimming pool has been closed all summer while the council struggles to rectify the situation with their usual dynamism, and as Bath City Council had not kept any other baths open, there was nowhere for Bathonians to swim this hot summer. Except across the Wiltshire border in Chippenham or Bradford- on-Avon, near where I live, Bradford and Chippenham being two of the many towns to which local people now tend to go instead of Bath to do their shopping, eating, and swimming, because Bath is becoming so impossible, what with charging such greedy rents in the city, and having nowhere to park and...

Never mind. Bath is a World Heritage City. It is above criticism. And Ibsen would have a wonderful time here if he were still alive.