Twirling in Berlin

To continue my series about touring with Natural Theatre Company in years gone by, here’s a report I wrote in 2000 for the Bath Chronicle:

It was several metres of vulgar, glittering purple and silver must-have brocade, in an otherwise staid selection in a Bath fabric shop. Our costume maker, one Olive de Frome as our elderly seamstress is known, would need sunglasses at her sewing machine.

‘The mind boggles as to when he’s going to wear it!’ commented someone behind me in the queue. Jaws dropped even further as I added a swathe of gold foil and an armful of encrusted braids for the frogging. ‘Actually,’ I said archly, addressing the whole shop full of ladies clutching dull lengths of beige serge, ‘I’m wearing it in a circus tent in Berlin.’ Cue chorus of ‘Oohs.’

I swept out, leaving, as intended, yet another impression that actors, especially the Natural Theatre variety, lead the most exotic of lives.

The horrid truth is somewhat more down to earth. Yes, it’s great to pop into The Bell on the way home, sporting a suitcase in airline stickers, to the cry of ‘Hi Ralph! Been anywhere exciting?’

‘Oh, just the camel and carpet market in Turkmenistan. The Flowerpot People went down really well!’ In fact, the suitcase is bulging with rancid washing, the market was unbelievably hot (especially with a flowerpot on one’s head), we missed the camels and mostly had to perform in a British pub in Ashgabat, complete with fake beams and frozen cheese and ham toasties. We got horrendous food poisoning and to top it all we were kidnapped by a loony bus driver. The most exciting thing was spotting that the British Vice Consul was wearing fishnet tights under his suit when he met us at the airport. (There is a logical explanation, really!)

In British Council-speak our street theatre is cutting-edge, language barrier breaking and quintessentially British. Which means, in simple terms, that people in identical shopping centres the world over love to take the Mickey out of the stupid Brits. We know this because we have performed in scores of countries on every continent. It’s the world seen through the tiny eyeholes of a flowerpot mask, and if we get a day off (rare) we‘re so flaked out by the long flight, the heat and strange food, we often spend it in our hotel rooms. A bit like airline cabin crew, I imagine. Holiday Inn rooms in Kunming look remarkably like those in Minsk. Indistinguishable in fact-though sometimes one has to turn left to breakfast, not right, which can be annoying.

Which brings me to the circus tent in Berlin…well almost, because I am actually writing this in the Holiday Inn, Stuttgart. If I half close my eyes, I could be in Minsk! We have just completed a season in said tent.

No, I should start at the beginning. We are two thirds through a 14-week tour of Germany with our classical music spoof, ‘Scarlatti’s Revenge’. We began the tour on Millennium Night with two shows in Hamlyn. Why, we ask would a thousand Germans want to spend their Millennium Moment with an English theatre troupe doing a show about a 17th century Spanish composer? Well, they did and many encores and a standing ovation ensued.

Since then we have done dozens of one-nighters all over the country in towns big and small. These towns range from the beamy Handsel and Gretel picturesque to the grey smoky industrial. But all have one thing in common. They all have a big Stadthalle (town hall) or theatre. Most of these were built post-war with reparation money but some are gloriously renovated baroque gems. All, it seems, have the ability to rustle up sizeable audiences.

In Viersen, a town not a lot bigger than Trowbridge, despite there not being a single poster in view (the banner outside the theatre read ‘Coca-Cola Women’s Festival’) over a thousand people of all ages turned up. They understood all the jokes, even though we perform in normal-speed English and the by now regulation standing ovation followed!

In another town, a mad lady in the stalls lit sparklers, and a 20ft Union Jack was amongst the hundreds of little ones being waved enthusiastically in our Last Night of the Proms sequence. Not bad for a town that was practically flattened by the RAF. Don’t mention the war? The hotel lift musak was playing ‘There’ll be blue birds over the White Cliffs of Dover’. Bizarre or what?

So…we did fourteen nights in the Berlin tent. We had to jet-set back to Chipping Norton for three performances halfway through, but that’s another story. The tent was one of those highly atmospheric spiegeltents featuring exquisite cut glass mirrors, wood panelling and swaying chandeliers. And sway they did, for the weather outside was dire. Sited as it was on a large Soviet-style piazza opposite the baroque cathedral in the former East Sector, it caught the full force of the wintry winds. It also leaked and creaked…and hardly anyone turned up to watch the shows. One night we gave away 60 free tickets and only 30 people turned up! The Last Night of the Proms resembled a sad coach party and when the houselights came up for any audience participation, the punters looked like a bunch of pale, scared rabbits caught in the headlights.

You see, Berlin, since unification, has two of everything, including a pair of full-size opera houses, and there’s not enough audience to go round.

At least, I thought, I’ll get hysterical applause for my glittering new costume. As Scarlatti, I get voted Composer of the Millennium and appear at the end of the show victorious in a laurel wreath and gold sash. My Miss World moment. Even though it’s a coat and I’m playing a bloke, in theatre terminology it’s called a ‘walk-down frock’, and although Olive de Frome doesn’t know it, I only wear it for about five glorious minutes, despite all her hard work.

When I popped it on and did a twirl for the British Airways check-in lady at Heathrow I almost got an upgrade. She phoned round the other desks and trolley dollies appeared on every balcony cheering and waving!

But I’m sorry, Olive, most nights in Berlin my triumphant and sparkling entrance was greeted by a stony silence. In fact, apart from the sound of creaking timbers and flapping canvas, you could have heard a dressmaker’s pin drop.

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