In 2010 the first series of The Trip, a comedy starring Steve Cogan and Rob Brydon in which both play semi-fictionalised versions of themselves, was released. Later made in to a film and succeeded by The Trip To Italy, the basic premise of the first series is that the two are on a tour of the Lake District reviewing the gourmet North for The Observer. The reason Brydon is on the trip is actually only because Cogan’s girlfriend dumped him pre-trip, so even before this narrative begins we know that the original reason for the trip was actually to have sex in various places Wordsworth once lurked rather than to answer a festering ambition to be the next Giles Coren.
As they make their way across the landscape we get tense arguments, endless impressions, pedantic route planning and, on the whole, an extremely funny show. However, what is missing – save for a few shots here and there of carefully placed gastro foam or veal being tossed artfully in a pan – is pretty much any comment on the food itself. They’re on a foodie tour, but the last thing anyone cares about is the food. And in the case of The Trip, this completely works as a conceit, mainly because both actors are entertaining and the plot is far more interesting than a close-up of avocado and quinoa could ever be.
Round the Footlights: The Unofficial Tour by Mick Escott is in many ways similar to The Trip, firstly in that it too involves, well yes, a trip. In this instance the trip is from Scotland to South West England in search of as many performance spaces as possible – most of which are conventional theatres but also includes some more bizarre ones such as some allotments. However, as with The Trip, this tour also neglects to say much about exactly the thing you expect it to: theatre. Instead it talks about theatres, which is to say the physical bricks and mortar constructions that plays are housed in but not what’s actually going on on stage.
In this respect it doesn’t at first live up to being something that people who like theatre – by which I mean texts written by a playwright and performed by actors – would enjoy, but it does nonetheless have something else to offer.
For in between endless tales of ordering more tea bags in a Premier Inn and eating at this or that pub whilst drinking this or that ale, Round the Footlights reminds the reader that going to the theatre is always a composite experience. Of course the best theatre, like the best music or literature has the specific ability to transcend anything to do with its earthly surrounds; it takes you to another place where you’re feet don’t hurt any more from walking miles to the venue or your stomach no longer feels empty from having rushed straight from work to the early start performance.
Truly great theatre has nothing to do with whether the press are given suspiciously generous-sized glasses of wine before the show, but let’s face it not everything you see is Great Theatre. A lot of what you see is fairly enjoyable and inoffensive, meaning that the over-all experience is in reality influenced by other events, such as the mood you came to the theatre in. Critics in particular would like to believe that their ability to review performances is based entirely on objective observations, yet a more honest appraisal would take in the fact that you arrived sweating and embarrassed after the tube got stuck at Hyde Park Corner (as it always does) and you over-thought October and wore a massive winter coat, you now not only regret but also can’t find space to put anywhere but over your own already too hot lap. Or, alternatively, there was actually a press night on a Saturday and you and the plus one had gone for dinner first, had a couple of beers and then, by some coincidence, the play waspretty amusing. Which isn’t to say that given the correct environment and even a little bribery, an awful production would seem good – I’d like to believe in my own judgment a little more than that – but it is to say that the time Kneehigh heatre gave out party bags with packets of love hearts in before Tristan and Yseult might have slightly predisposed them to a good review (in this example it helps when the show is also as good as T&Y actually was).
How you got to the theatre and what going to that particularly area of a city involves undoubtedly influences the audience’s whole experience and memory of going to see a play. The first section of Round the Footlights in Scotland includes quite a lot of information on sat nav trouble followed by the immortal search for a decent pub. By the By information for a normal theatre review but then this book isn’t a normal review platform. In actuality, the information presents a peculiarly honest view of theatre-going for many people. Indeed, I have often thought that the success of much of what is on in the West End despite its inherent crapness is attributable to the fact that people often go as part of a whole Day Out In London. It might be a birthday or an anniversary, they’ve been shopping on Oxford St, had an early dinner, glass of white and they go and enjoy it in part because they want to enjoy it. The whole day as a composite thing has been enjoyable and no one wants to leave the theatre saying “Actually I thought that was a bit pants”, they want to say “Thanks Derek, that was a really lovely evening. We must go again soon.” And they do. It’s normal to attach other things to a trip to the theatre and those things can then spread a veil of enjoyment over an otherwise less than pristine performance.
Round the Footlights is not exclusively a book for the theatre shelves of bookstores. Instead it is part of series of Round the… books, with the preceding two being Round the Cloisters (a tour of cathedrals) and Round the Turnstiles (a tour of football grounds). Interestingly, in the section in Scotland where Escott deviates into a discussion of football, his writing almost immediately lights up and achieves a fluency at times lacking in other parts of this book, suggesting that Round the Turnstiles is the book closest to Escott’s heart, despite having worked in theatre for a considerable time. I note that Round the Turnstiles is a compilation dating over 45 years, beginning with a first childhood match to Hove in 1963, giving it the feel of a more organic accumulation.
Going to see a football matches, much like going to the theatre, is also a composite event. One that, for me, used to start the minute we got on the train at Taunton and I ate a Chelsea bun as a superstitious lucky breakfast. The atmosphere for miles around the ground was all part of the day, including the excitement of spending lots of time in grown up pubs and restaurants as a school kid. Ultimately though, no lunch or post-match pint can make up for a shit result on the day (especially if you’re a Chelsea fan right now), in the same way that in the end it will be what is on stage that always swings it for me, rather than a commentary on under-stage storage areas. However, there is a place for this type of writing and this pleasingly pedantic (very English) collector’s mentality of ticking venues off a list. It reminds us of the wider place theatre has in entertainment, the decision to go to it instead of the football or to church and the enjoyment people get just from being in the buildings, from the historic beauty of ROH’s soaring glass windows to the Brutalism of the NT.
Round The Footlights – The Unofficial Theatre Tour, by Mick Escott, is available from Brown Dog Books.