In writing about theatre over the past 30 years, I realise I’ve also been writing about myself – the things that matter to me, my prejudices and passions, my loves and hatreds. This past year has once again been no exception. If I single out Alone Together at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, as my play of the year, I freely concede it is an emotional choice.
I was on holiday on the south coast when the phone rang late last summer and it was the familiar voice of Bill Kenwright. The producer said he hadn’t seen me down on the list of reviewers coming to see the production and it’d mean a lot to him if I came. He’d never done this before and I instinctively agreed.
The play by Simon Williams focused on a seemingly conventional middle-aged married couple played by Jenny Seagrove and Martin Shaw, whose lives start to fascinate Josh Goulding’s budding young writer. He soon finds beneath the surface there’s a dark and tragic reality. It was so brilliantly written, acted and directed – take a bow, Sean Mathias – that I was gripped from start to finish.
In the interval I talked to Bill – one of the last great showmen, always visible and approachable on his first nights – and he told me with no sense of self-pity of an operation he was about to undergo for liver cancer and how he’d set his affairs in order as he wasn’t sure if he was going to make it. It was the last time I saw him alive.
Bill had been one of those people I had loved deeply without ever fully realising it. I’d assumed until the Daily Telegraph finally decided to dispense with my services as a theatre critic that ours had essentially been a very professional friendship, but he was the first on the phone that day to ask if there was anything he could do to help. Last year, when I told him I was having trouble raising money for my play Bloody Difficult Women, he unhesitatingly got in touch with my producer and made good the substantial shortfall. When my mother died around the same time as his, we talked for hours on the phone together.
After his death was announced in October, I returned to the Theatre Royal – I think his favourite theatre – and cried when, like theatres across the land that night, it was bathed in blue light in tribute to him and his beloved Everton Football Club, where he’d served as chairman.
Other shows that made a big impression upon me apart from Alone Together were Backstairs Billy, Marcelo Dos Santos’s new play directed by Michael Grandage that’s still playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London. As a defiant celebration of diversity under a government that seems to hate the very idea of it, I find the joyous La Cage aux Folles at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre sticks, too, in my mind.