One has taken to the stage; do be darlings and come

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The Independent Online
AS I WAS driving up to Edinburgh on Monday, I was listening to a Radio 4 programme I had taped the week before, a talk by veteran actor Charles Simon about what the theatre had been like before the talkies took over - indeed, before the radio arrived. It seems hard to imagine now that each weekend several hundred different theatre groups set out for a new week's destination, most of them, as far as I could make out, waving to each other as they changed at Crewe.

The thing that was quite new to me was Charles Simon's description of portables, the name given to theatres that could be erected wherever you wanted to play. Yes, the whole theatre - stalls, scenery, roof and everything - could be taken down and reassembled anywhere. Mr Simon says that the last 'portable' he saw was in a field in Gloucestershire, where, amid the clatter of wood panels and creaky carpentry, they did a farewell performance of East Lynne, the Victorian melodrama. How far away this all seemed, I mused, as I drove up the A7 across the Lowlands behind a small car which had in its back window a large, handwritten notice: 'French Tourists Driving A Rented Car - Please be Patient and Do Not Come Near'.

Arriving in Edinburgh I went straight to the Pleasance theatre, which is to be my place of work for a week or two, and found the place full of carpenters, builders and other artists, all carrying around panels of wood and new doors and complicated wiring systems. At first I thought I was quite wrong and the world of portables was still alive and that seven different productions of East Lynne were about to be staged. But on inquiry I found that this was not quite true. The fact is that with two or three days to go to the opening of the Edinburgh Festival, this was the normal rebuilding programme in its final throes. The last time I was at the Pleasance at festival time, it contained a mere five performance areas, but there is now an extra theatre space with 200 seats, to be called the Pleasance Above.

How can you find a new theatre in an old building? Well, according to Christopher Richardson, the Pleasance supremo, a man who conceals a will of iron, scaffolding and raked seats beneath his Panama hat, it was because his architect's eye spotted an area on the plans which did not seem to exist in real life. He investigated, and found a huge roof space which, his impresario's eye saw, could easily become another theatre space.

The result is that the Pleasance now combimes the improvised quality of an old portable theatre with the urgency of Crewe Station in its heyday, the only differences being that the theatre groups criss-crossed at Crewe, but they are here to stay. If you can imagine every group that arrived at Crewe Station staying there to put their show on actually in the station, you get some idea. 'The play just starting on Platform 8 . . .'

To put it another way, I can remember seeing an Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme for about 1965, which listed around 50 shows for the whole Fringe. That is fewer than the total of shows in a big venue like the Assembly Rooms, Gilded Balloon or Pleasance. Until the Seventies you could quite realistically hope to see almost everything on the Fringe - indeed, there used to be a contest, entered by the kind of speedy young men in trainers who also try to visit every station on the London Underground, to see who could be the first in any year to get to all the shows. That is no longer even conceivable. It would be next to impossible to even get to see all the shows at one venue.

Still, if you had to choose one show to go to out of them all, I think I would pick at random the one I am involved in, but that doesn't start till Friday, so I think I ought to mention the play called Answering Spirits which opens at the Pleasance today and which I note, from the programme, is directed by my wife. I think this is what they call 'declaring an interest', but I am sure she won't mind me mentioning that it is a chillingly good play about the early days of spiritualism in America.

She has been rehearsing it day and night since we got here, and I have only seen her once in the distance during that time. I may have to resort to communicating with her via this column. I just hope she reads it. If she does - yes, I got some coffee beans all right, dear.