Waspishness, whisky and gonorrhea: a good night in Croydon

Tea At Five

Meg Lloyd is, for an hour on stage above a Croydon pub, Katharine Hepburn

BELLA BARTOCK was out on the streets of Croydon again last night, to attend the opening of the town’s newest theatre and witness a star performance worthy of Hollywood

As we took our seats for the first performance in the new theatre above the Spread Eagle pub, a kind young lady handed us each a glass of free fizz to mark the occasion. Apparently, I was surrounded by D-listers. The deputy mayor turned up, and just to make sure we knew he was the deputy mayor, he arrived with his chain of office around his neck. Fortunately, I did not hear it clank through the performance.

Adrian Winchester, who in many ways had created the circumstances for the theatre opening, with the regular movie screenings in the same room for his Save The Stephen Spielberg Campaign, or whatever it is called, was also there, next to the deputy mayor. But Winchester cut me, for reasons best known to himself. Mind you, he didn’t say much to the deputy mayor, either.

This was supposed to be Tea At Five, but it felt more like Prosecco At Seven.

Once we had all gathered – and I was not the only one to struggle up the steep staircase; some of us are not as young as we once were – the first part of the first night’s transformation had been achieved: we were no longer in a room above a Croydon boozer: this really had been turned into a proper theatrical space.

The second transformation of the evening came when Meg Lloyd walked on to the stage. Stunning to look at, Lloyd as Katharine Hepburn owned the space for the next hour or so with what my luvvie friend, the late, great (if quite short) Jack Tinker, used to call a “spellbinding performance”.

The intimacy of the space worked well. Hepburn was talking to each one of us in the tight auditorium individually, especially when she ventured through the third wall.

All the glowing reviews of this piece from fringe performances at Stratford and Edinburgh can be relied upon. American writer Matthew Lombardo had drawn from Hepburn’s own memoirs, so had the benefit of lots of sharp-witted dialogue – the genuine voice of Hepburn comes through throughout – and was wonderfully played by Lloyd.

No, maybe Lloyd does not get Hepburn’s distinctive accent quite right, but this was a performance, not an impersonation, and the audience was soon rapt as we sat in the living room of a real legend of Hollywood.

Occasionally, though, we were reminded that this is still a pub. And last night was a Champions League night. So sometimes, when Lloyd really needed silence and stillness, some of the hub-bub from the bar below intruded. But such was the engaging nature of her performance that, for most of the play, you barely noticed the external sound.

IMG_0779[1]And like the football, this was a game of two halves.

The first act was set in Hepburn’s family home in 1938, with the Oscar-winning actress desperate to revive her by now failing career and waiting on an agent’s call to offer “the best role ever written for a woman”, of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind.

“Vivien who?!” Lloyd shrieked when the call came through, and finally she got some sort of reaction from my fellow audience members, who had been either too polite, or just asleep. “Tough crowd,” you imagined Hepburn might have said in her croaky, clipped Bostonian accent.

Hepburn’s Hollywood career saw her win four Oscars, the first in 1934, the last in 1982. In the black and white movies of the studio era, her cheek bones were described as “the greatest calcium deposits this side of Dover”, yet here she is washed-up, unwanted after a succession of box office flops. “I was fired for being unattractive,” she says at one point, though I felt that Lloyd was possibly too attractive to play the younger Kate.

The Hepburn biography – New England, old money – neatly dealt with, act one ends with her receiving the script for the role that would revive, and define, the rest of her career, The Philadelphia Story. After a brief interval, with the bar properly staffed, the piece resumes half a century later.

Now, there’s a picture of Spencer Tracey on the living room table, and Hepburn’s tea cup is filled not with tea, but with whisky. “It helps with the pain,” she says, with a palsied grasp of her walking stick. Lloyd’s hair is suitably greyed, but the anachronistic push-button phone is still there as a necessary plot device.

Act two is more poignant, with the bittersweet story of her 27-year secret affair, venereal disease – not the sort treated by her doctor father this time – her growing frailty, and her memories of her elder brother’s teenaged suicide. By this stage last night, the audience had relaxed into its role, too, and was more ready to respond to the gags (some well sign-posted or remembered, after all), as Lloyd slipped effortlessly into her part as the waspish spinster of Hollywood.

The piece is an exceptionally good choice to open Croydon’s newest theatre. The space was effectively discovered as an auditorium by supporters of Croydon’s own Oscar-winner, and Hepburn’s performance in the 1955 film Summertime – which was co-written and directed by David Lean – is widely regarded as among her best. Now, here she was being so well portrayed just yards away from the site of the cinema where Lean, as a movie-obsessed child, just as Kate Hepburn had been, had watched his first films.

Tea At Five continues tonight and Friday (October 4) at Croydon’s wonderful new theatre, one of three pieces being presented there over the coming weeks by the Old Stock Theatre Company of Birmingham, who had very kindly provided me with ticket No1 for their opening night. They clearly know what they are doing.

You are strongly recommended to see it while you can, since Ms Lloyd is definitely star material – it is just a pity that the splendidly put together season programme provided to the theatre patrons last night doesn’t list her by name.

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1 Response to Waspishness, whisky and gonorrhea: a good night in Croydon

  1. I agree it was an impressive production and Meg Lloyd deserved to be credited. To set the record straight, I didn’t “cut” Bella – I’m afraid I didn’t know she was there, although even if I had known, I wouldn’t have realised that she expected me to say hello to her! And it was Robin, the Spread Eagle manager who was sitting next to the deputy mayor, although I later moved into the same row.

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