Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats.
Canberra Theatre celebrated its 50th birthday recently, which got me thinking about our visits over the past 30 years. There’s been quite a few.
It started early, when the M&Ms were small and walked (or skipped) everywhere attached to my hands. A pantomine of unremembered name or subject, but with the requisite villains and heroes and crowd clapping and booing, had them engrossed. When they called for volunteers to sing a song for the large and, for many, intimidating audience, without hesitation, M2, at the tender age of 3, leapt out of her seat and ran up the stairs, unaccompanied and with not a backward glance to her mother in the audience, to the stage, there to produce a perfectly acceptable, in-pitch rendition of Happy Birthday (the only full song she knew) wearing a pale blue dress and a large, proud smile. The audience clapped, she beamed, and it began – the start of many years of her being on the high part of the stage as well as in front.
Soon after we discovered the marvellous company Skylark Puppet and Theatre Company that started up in Canberra in the ’80s, bringing European puppetry and magic to our stages. In 1994 their Almost a Dinosaur show lured us back to Canberra Theatre and we were mesmerised as those enormous but friendly creatures lolloped about the stage, lurching perilously close as they reached over the front rows. The girls were immersed deep into the instantaneous new world on the stage, and they were hooked, even though those dinosaurs were pretty scary just metres from our heads.
Skylark was back a couple of years later with a brilliant production of Charlotte’s Web in 1996. I loved that story as a child – I remembered fondly the story, the illustrations, the ‘marvellous’ and ‘some pig’ emblazoned in the web. It was an utterly delightful show, and for a couple of hours the little girls and I were part of life down on the farm – where there were straw bales, a clever spider and a gorgeous pink pig that went whizzing high around the stage with much glee and some squealing, and where stars sparkled in a black night sky. M1 and M2 were entranced, eyes wide throughout. These weren’t just farmyard uppets on stage – they were real.
And then – the spider died. (I hadn’t remembered that bit!) Oh, dear God – the howls! Total devastation. Not sneaky little tears that escape and dribble down your cheek, or a runny nose that needs to surreptitiously wiped, or even slightly audible sobs. I’m talking banshee screams here that sounded like someone was being tortured. The howls resounded through the whole theatre, and the girls were inconsolable. With an arm around each, pulling them in tight, I couldn’t stop the howling. Patrons turned and glared as they watched me subject these sensitive creatures to such an ordeal. The howls were terrible and the tears real, which despite the tears, meant the theatre must have been good, and for a while we were all part of that world, and we truly felt the pain.
Skylark were hitting their straps again with The Hobbit in 1997, the book of choice for Dad’s nightly reads to the children over the preceding years. M1 decided she didn’t want to see it as she already knew what all those characters looked like and didn’t want them spoiled by someone else’s interpretation. Sadly for us, Skylark disappeared then from Canberra and was reinvented somehow in Tasmania. They were a talented and professional crew, and hold a very warm place indeed in my theatre memories.
During the performance years, which featured M2 on a myriad of stages around the capital, we saw many shows – mostly musicals, and mostly in theatres other than the Canberra Theatre, ones that undoubtedly cost less to hire than the prestigious theatre in the city. The exception were performances by Free Rain Theatre at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre’s little cousin, where local theatre groups could put on intimate, professional shows without the big cost and risk of a larger venue. There it was M2’s turn to be transfigured on the ‘boards’- into a six old Scout Finch, with a killer Southern drawl, and a disabled Jo Egg, so often still and silent but interminably human and tragic. The former transfiguration led us back to the Canberra Theatre, this time to the glory of an evening at the Canberra Area Theatre (CAT) awards, where we relished in the ‘honour just to be nominated’.
There’s been lots of music too; in retrospect, much attempting to replay the sounds of our past – a quartet of old guys dragged out by APIA to sing our youthful memories; John Waters paying tribute to John Lennon; Neil Finn on his own; and of course a daggy tribute band paying homage to my teenage heroes, Queen – not the real thing but enough to have us on our feet and without voices for the next two days. And of course the inimitable, resonate Joan Armatrading – still padding around the stage, still killing those guitars.
You can’t remember Canberra Theatre without the dancing either, all the way from the dance school and school and choreographic triumphs to the dizzy heights of the Australian ballet. There was some serious Stomping and young men (not dogs) Tapping. And some dreadful modern abomination accompanied by discordant screeches posing as music and that saw us leave at half time and best forgotten. Sometimes you need to be wary of free tickets.
There have been concerts, dancing and dramas, a Tim Winton show for kids that somehow involved bottoms, Jon English prancing in tights with the Pirates of Penzance, with a spot of Agatha Christie and Shakespeare dropped in. But not even a Shakespearean tragedy could compete with the tragedy of the great Marcel Marceau.
He was a world legend, and he was coming to our little ‘ole Canberra. At his age (nearly 90 at the time), it was surely my last opportunity to see him live. Within minutes of tickets being on sale, I had four of them – right in the middle, Row E or F, months before the show. How great it would be. My burgeoning actress would be seeing the world’s greatest mime, in person.
The weeks passed and we bought a house, but it was another house, and we didn’t ask the bank first and they didn’t share our zeal. So that was a bad idea, and it was stressful and ludicrously busy, preparing our house to put on for the market and on display every weekend, cleaning, fixing, more housework than I’ve done in my life. I knew Marcel was on the Wednesday after the auction – I just had to get through that ordeal first. I dug out the tickets on the Thursday before to check the time – normally it would be in the diary, but it was busy, painting, fixing, banks, you know – only to discover he was on the Wednesday BEFORE the auction. Yes, good God, BEFORE the effing auction!
I missed him. He had been and gone the night before, we were just ten minutes away at home, probably doing housework, and there were four empty seats bang smack in the middle of the theatre, aching for our bottoms. It would be an understatement to say I was distraught! I still am – and it’s more than 10 years later. Of course, the grand old Frenchman died a couple of years after that, so the opportunity was lost forever. F-o-r-e-v-e-r. And we didn’t even sell the bloody house at auction.
2015 and we’re still there, this year joining the delightful albeit terribly rotund Miriam Margolyes in a personal retrospective, and a circus performance exposing astonishing human strength and marvels, as well as a plethora of pert bottoms that would make Kylie Minogue weep with jealously. Sometimes it was difficult to remember you were at the circus and not a strip club, and that all these marvellous entertainment was happening in circle just metres in diameter.
On New Year’s Eve I vowed to make theatre more prominent in our lives this year (so much more inventive than weight loss). Must buy me some more tickets.