Londoners don't know what they're missing

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The Independent Online

Last Thursday, at about the same time Sikh riots were brewing about a blasphemous play at the Birmingham Rep, I was sitting in a London theatre watching something also mildly unorthodox.

Last Thursday, at about the same time Sikh riots were brewing about a blasphemous play at the Birmingham Rep, I was sitting in a London theatre watching something also mildly unorthodox.

It was a young man doing a living statue of Jesus. He was standing in a niche, wearing nothing but a crown of thorns and a loincloth, in a semi-crucified pose. As he stood there, the main actor broke off from his monologue to light a spliff. Unable to find a light, he approached Jesus. Jesus sighed, reached inside his loincloth, took out a lighter, gave him a light, put it away and resumed his motionlessness.

Now, if this had been a play about Jesus, this might have been worrying. But it wasn't. You'd never guess that it was part of the Icelandic version of Romeo and Juliet at the Playhouse Theatre, and that this tableau of Jesus is just one of the fleeting visual ideas which crowd this glorious, intoxicating presentation by the group called Vesturport.

You know it's going to be different right from the start when a comic character undreamt of by Shakespeare comes on and starts hectoring the audience in Icelandic. He pauses. "Had you worried there," he then says in English. "You thought the whole thing was going to be in Icelandic, didn't you?" After that you know you are in safe hands.

From time to time the cast slip back into Icelandic, but there is always an off-stage shout of "In English! English!". There is a lot of slapstick and foolery, but there is also a lot of circus technique (characters enter by abseiling down drapes) and poetic imagery, some wonderfully kitsch, some just wonderful. It shouldn't have worked, but it did. The American couple next to me (middle-aged, from Philadelphia) said they had come over to see several shows, but that this was the one that made all the others worthwhile.

Does it all sound rather comic strip? Yet the amazing thing was that the tragedy was not submerged. The love scenes and the deaths of the lovers were heart-stoppingly poignant. And if you thought it was all over bar the curtain call, you would have been surprised when Joanna Lumley came on and spoke the epilogue. She and a group of other stars had been so upset by the less than full houses that they offered their services for free as epilogue-speakers. Jenny Seagrove, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, I noticed on the list of those to come.

My 17-year-old son Adam, dragged along very reluctantly, stayed to be bowled over (especially by Jesus and the Zippo lighter, I regret to say) but was equally overwhelmed when we went round to the local pub afterwards and found the cast there. Romeo offered Adam a pint and a cigarette. His joy was complete.

I found myself talking to two chaps of my age, and said I didn't think I had seen them on stage.

"No," said one. "I am Tybalt's father."

"I am Romeo's father," said the other.

A most unusual opening to a pub conversation, especially as one turned out to be the head of a software company, the other a professor of sociology. Later I found myself sitting with Romeo and Juliet and said it was surprising to see them friendly off-stage as well as on.

"Not at all," said Juliet. "After all, we are married."

"And it's our fourth anniversary this evening," said Romeo.

No wonder that, as we left the pub and headed for the Tube, Adam said, "That was my idea of heaven. Sitting in a pub with actors." On the other side of me I heard my wife groan. She has worked in theatre most of her life, and dreads the moment when her children want to follow in her footsteps. But after an evening like that, the siren call must seem horribly alluring.

Meanwhile, you stick-in-the-mud Londoners, get along to the Playhouse. If you won't take the word of a starry-eyed provincial, do it for Joanna Lumley. Better still, just do it.