Thursday 15 April 2010
Brian Viner: As affectionate laughter rippled through the audience, we could relax
The world premiere of Tales of the Country – which, as I think I might have mentioned before, is a play based on the book inspired by my columns about moving out of London to rural Herefordshire – took place at the Severn Theatre in Shrewsbury last Thursday.
To get there in good time, Jane, the children and I took the 17.08 Arriva Trains Wales service from Leominster – which might not be how Agatha Christie arrived at the world premiere of The Mousetrap (just to pluck a random example of another stage adaptation of a book), but I bet she didn't enjoy her evening half as much as we enjoyed ours.
Admittedly, Shrewsbury is not the West End, and Arriva Trains Wales is definitely not to be confused with a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce Phantom; but then Tales of the Country isn't The Mousetrap. Mind you, I'm certain we've had more mice running amok in our house than Dame Agatha ever had in hers.
We were joined on the 17.08 by a gang of friends, and to make an occasion of it, took several bottles of champagne. Our mate Patrick had undertaken to provide nibbles, and took his duties very seriously, half-emptying the Marks & Spencer food hall in Hereford.
So, as there were too many of us to sit round the few tables that Arriva Trains Wales provide, I had to walk up and down the aisle, like a five-star trolley service, dispensing drinks, prawns, cocktail sausages and those hefty pieces of M&S sushi – only one of which rolled off my plastic tray and into the lap of a woman from Bridgend.
A party on a train brings out the best in people, as long as you're inclusive about it. The woman from Bridgend had a sausage, and a man from Penarth – who happened to be sitting at a table with me, my friend Stewart the local chicken farmer, and Stewart's wife Susie – had some crisps and champagne. I told him all about the play, and he told me all about the book he's writing, a biography of John Venn, the 19th-century inventor of the Venn diagram.
For a while it was like a Radio 4 arts programme at our table, at least until Stewart told us his latest politically incorrect joke, about a bald man who goes into a pub with a parrot on his shoulder.
The journey was such good fun that some of us were actually quite disappointed when we arrived at Shrewsbury, but also a little bit excited, while some were more excited than disappointed, and others were wholly excited – the sort of situation that would have driven John Venn to his drawing-board.
Anyway, we walked to the theatre from the station in glorious late-afternoon sunshine, and had dinner in the Theatre Severn's excellent restaurant, before it was finally time for curtains up.
I'd read the script and been to a couple of auditions, and Jane and I had met the final cast, but we hadn't been to any rehearsals, and really didn't have a clue what to expect. In truth, we were apprehensive. At least my book is my own account of our life in the country, whereas the script is the interpretation of Nick Warburton – to be sure a hugely experienced playwright, but I had wondered whether the self-deprecating tone of the book might, on stage, look like that of a man with plenty to be self-deprecating about.
However, as affectionate laughter rippled across the audience we began to relax; after just a few minutes it was clear that Nick and everyone at Pentabus had done a fantastic job, and the cast are superb. The company's visionary artistic director, Orla, received almost 600 CVs when she advertised the auditions, which makes me shudder for young people – including my own daughter, Eleanor – wondering whether to pursue an acting career. The profession has never been more competitive. But choosing a company of five from 600 hopefuls at least means that you end up with some class acts.
Even class acts, though, need classy audiences. Since last Thursday the play has moved into village halls, where I'm told it has been wonderfully received. They seem to love a scene about poultry-fancying, in particular. But this is the country. How will the chickens go down at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington? That's my new concern. Metropolitan readers can find out, let me insouciantly add, between May 11 and May 16.
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