Memories of UK theatre

 

When I say that I love the theatre, I really mean that. From the red carpet and the smell of popcorn or sweets to the intricate sets and the bright costumes, theatre is an experience. I grew up surrounded by theatre. I have been to the theatre every year since the age of six; 2020 was the first year that I did not manage to see a production. Call me dramatic, but it is devastating. I’m sure other theatre kids would agree.

“What musical would you like to see this year?” my grandma would ask me summer after summer, and she took joy in it. Year after year, we went to Birmingham to watch musicals, from Hairspray to Mary Poppins. My grandma has always inspired me in that way; she has seen Les Misérables at least six times, yet she still enjoys sitting and experiencing actors heighten emotions in a way that is astonishing, beautiful, and frightening all at once. The Birmingham Hippodrome, for this reason, forms the foundation of the love I have for theatre today. Since I grew up in Dubai, we didn’t get to see my grandparents too often, but we would stay with them every summer for two weeks. I will never forget how mesmerised I was by musical theatre and its hypnotic energy. My sister never understood it, but time flew in the theatre: three hours felt like a matter of minutes. At any other time that would be disorientating, but there that escape from reality, that whirlwind of emotions, was thrilling. It stuck with me and will stick with me for the rest of my life.

As I grew up, my love for the theatre just grew stronger. I auditioned for a musical theatre company and performed in every single show that my secondary school put on, from Grease to Romeo and Juliet. All of this goes back to those few precious hours each year at the Hippodrome with grandma.

The next pivotal moment in my experience of theatre was when I saw Miss Saigon in the West End. Miss Saigon is set during the Vietnam War. History is another passion of mine, so it is fitting that my favourite theatrical experience was this one. Shows like Miss Saigon have run for many years in the West End, making London renowned for the longest-running shows in the world, and I can see why. This particular musical did not strike me because of the score or the costumes. It was particularly pivotal because what the West End does so brilliantly is immerse the audience in the action. Even sitting in the Upper Circle, as I was, the atmosphere resonates and touches every member of the audience’s soul. I have seen many incredible shows, but none like that one. None that touched my soul and made me think about my existence and how lucky I am to be here and go to the theatre.

A couple of years later, I went to see Miss Saigon on Broadway in New York, and it was not the same. There is an atmosphere about UK theatre that I cannot quite describe. Broadway was impressive, but it was a whole different experience.

I also feel strongly attached to Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. However, my memories of – and love for – Stratford’s famous venues are not due to musical theatre. My love for theatre grew from a musical theatre root but blossomed into a love for all types of drama. There are three RSC theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the Swan Theatre, and The Other Place. My favourite is The Other Place (the mini-theatre), for it is unlike any other theatre I have ever known. Firstly, it is a café in the day where sixth-formers used to study. This introduced the theatre to students who might never have experienced it otherwise—what a way to integrate theatre into an already ‘Shakespearian’ community. Additionally, I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to perform there in an adaptation of the Arabian Nights. This particular theatre does not have a raised stage, and there are channels running down either side of the audience. This enables the actors to pull the audience into the world they are creating. Theatre at the Birmingham Hippodrome was already an experience of involvement; this was more so.

This atmosphere particularly worked for a minimalist, abstract piece I went to see. There was no set, lighting was minimal, and costumes were every-day clothes. The cast consisted of five actors and two actresses, and one of the actors remained on stage for the play’s duration. If the storyline of racism, Islamophobia, and terrorism was not enough to force the audience to listen, the use of high frequency and jarring music was. I will probably never experience that again. Although the play lasted just fifty minutes, it had a powerful effect. Feelings of confusion, unanswered questions, and a sense of unease gripped me, yet there was something beautiful about it all the same.

There is something incredible about theatre’s ability to provoke thought and harness the soul. Society wouldn’t be the same without it. Theatre is not just a story and talent: it is an escape of a person’s very existence into blissful hypnosis that everyone deserves to experience.

Image: Francesca Chaplin.

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