A Love Letter To Theatre

Dear Theatre…

We do hope you read that title in a Welsh accent so that it rhymes…a la Emily in Paris in a French accent. The next post in our love letter series, inspired by Valentine’s Day, is L’s love letter to theatre. We hope you enjoy reading it.

The last time L stepped into a theatre, almost a year ago

Dear Theatre,

Where do I begin? What a year we’ve had. I suppose, rather than dwell on the present too much, I’ll think of fonder times. It began, as most of my best stories do, at my Nan’s house.

Growing up, I’d spend endless summers and half terms at my grandparent’s home in Wales. My favourite pastime was to watch Disney films in the conservatory while I doodled drawings and did my colouring-in. Once I’d grown out of princesses and talking animals (as if I ever have), Nanny Val pointed me in the direction of the great movie musicals. I devoured The Wizard of Oz, Calamity Jane and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, but then came the real lightbulb moment: Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. The version we had was taped from the telly by my lovely and much-missed grandfather, known to his grandchildren as Lloydie, which resulted in a lack of crispness in quality, wonky alignment in the credit sequences and the entire film having a slightly brown hue, but I didn’t mind in the slightest. Once I had the bug, that was it.

One of the more unusual venues I’ve worked in; a converted chapel in Merthyr Tydfil. My Land’s Shore, Theatr Soar, 2018

I became obsessed with cast recordings, thanks mainly to the musical, Annie. It was a childhood favourite and we played the cassette of the original Broadway cast recording every morning, literally every morning of Year 4, on the hour’s journey from home to my school in South London. It was around this time that I also started the heavy lobbying of my parents to send me to a performing arts boarding school. I also have a vague memory of announcing to my mother that I wanted to “become an orphan” (well, Annie, Anastasia and Harry Potter were, so why couldn’t I be?). The response from E? “Lily, do you know what an orphan is?” I remember replying along the lines that of course I did: orphans were children who lived in a house with all their friends and got to sing and dance and have adventures all day long.

E relented and off to a part-time stage school I went. This progressed to full-time performing arts education from the age of 14, and although I never wangled the boarding school bit, it was heaven. At the end of each term we got to perform in a theatre; my entire reason for being at this point. I remember walking through the rows of seats in the dark auditorium. Theatres were dangerous, our teachers warned, things could go wrong. For me though, theatres were exciting, terrifying, huge and beautiful. We were always chaperoned backstage, but once you were out in the warmth of the footlights, that was it – you were on your own. That sense of independence and control was palpable, and exhilarating, and wonderful!

The Opal Theatre, on board The Oasis of the Seas, where L performed in Cats 2017

Oh, my theatre. How I love your traditions. The opening night cards and flowers lining the corridor to the dressing rooms. The hunt for the “best spot” in the dressing room. Ideally this is at the end of the row, near the window, next to the coffee machine and as far away as humanly possibly from the door and showers. I love: the hushed whispers backstage when an understudy gets to step into the spotlight; the onstage physical and vocal warm-up, everyone bare-faced and wig-capped like an alien army; signing in and out at the stage door; getting post (and Amazon Prime) deliveries to the theatre because it is quite honestly our second home and where you’ll always find us; the rush to get on the road and home on the final night in a regional venue; the tiredness-induced delirium of a panto three-show Boxing day schedule; Facetime calls with other theatrical friends who are working as you prepare for “the half”; grabbing a “medicinal” wine – just the one – after the show; travelling home on the Tube with a full face of stage make-up; the bows and panto’s celebratory “walk down”; and the overture – oh how I love the overture!

Cats – can you spot Lily?

My love of the theatre doesn’t just exist as an actor, I am a passionate audience member too. Settling into those plush seats or having to lean forward in the Gods as the lights go dark. There is nothing like that feeling. Grabbing a drink at the interval and swapping thoughts, being moved to tears in Act 2 and trying to stifle a whimper (thank you Hamilton; as impressive on the small screen at home as it was on stage). I enjoy the moments of leaving the theatre after final curtain, having stayed to listen to the outro in full and having applauded the orchestra, obviously, and rejoining the real world in the frosty London air. The memorable moments of quickly orientating myself to whichever street the theatre exit has landed me on and from there finding my way to stage door to wait for the departure of the cast, crew and musicians, to cheer them and thank them for their work. A late evening train snack, while reading the production programme from cover to cover is a critical part of the routine, as is thinking and talking about the production over the following days and, ultimately, falling more in love with the show as you re-listen to and compare and contrast a variety of cast recordings. More magical than all of this though, is getting to share that experience with someone for the first time, whether it’s a little one’s first pantomime or seeing my Dad’s reaction to Billy Elliott; there is nothing quite like it.

The phenomenal Phantom of the Opera, at the Leicester Curve. Photography by Pamela Raith.

I’ve always known that this world is fragile. As an actor, your career is precarious. Growing older changes the roles you’re suitable to play and one injury, including vocal injuries for those of us who sing, can prematurely end that once-in-a-lifetime role. Jobs are lost, shows are closed and reviews can sting. I knew this age-old truth when I entered this industry. What I – what none of us – could have anticipated is what has happened in the last 12 months, and exactly how devastating it would feel.

The cast getting to meet their boss, Lord Lloyd Webber

In June of 2019, I booked a job in the new Cameron Mackintosh UK tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. It was a job I had dreamed of doing since I was a little girl. I had been auditioning for it since I graduated drama school in 2012. Finally, finally, I had done it! On 16 March 2020, the day my Nan had travelled to Leicester to watch the show, we were called on stage about an hour before curtain-up for the evening’s performance and advised to go home for the rest of the day. The pandemic was progressing at such a rate that the theatre and production company had no option but to suspend the show until further guidance could be obtained from the Government. That was it: despite exhaustive and, I’ve no doubt, exhausting work by the production company to try and save our show, we didn’t manage to reopen. The pandemic has been devastating for many thousands of people and this is no “woe is me” story, but the day our beloved show closed and the weeks following, I shared that sense of devastation. Actors are nothing if not resilient and in the year since Phantom had to close in Leicester, I’ve appeared in online concerts. I’ve also felt the security and excitement of having booked three more acting jobs – a commercial, an international tour and a pantomime – only to have all three delayed or cancelled entirely as Covid 19 has continued its rampage. But I’m not giving up and I have hope and optimism: I know theatre will return eventually and I promise to be there as an actor and, more importantly, as an member of the audience when it does. How could I not? It is at my very core and simply my favourite way to spend an evening.

Theatre, I’ve not forgotten you. I miss you. I can’t wait to see you soon. You have my heart ~L.

L in her most recent role: Sybil the Enchantress, in Godalming’s Pantomime, December 2020. Photography courtesy of The Guildford Fringe Theatrical Company.

Please, please do return to theatres once it is safe to do so; it will be curtains without you. In the meantime, here are some helpful ways you can support the arts industry:

A Love Letter to London

E’s love letter to the Big Smoke. Dear London…

E moved to London at the age of 20 and has lived there, or thereabouts, ever since. L is a Londoner, born and bred; she’s a Lambeth girl. Although both E and L have now moved to the countryside outside of London, the city continues to be a huge part of The de-la-Haye Girls’ lives. Hands down, it’s their favourite city, comprising many of their most beloved haunts. They are missing the Big Smoke and as Valentine’s Day is almost with us, E has penned a love letter to the city.

E and her mother explore a very wet Barbican complex in 1987. Can you spot them?

Dear London,

in the past 12 months, I have been into “town” (central London) once, on a gloriously sunny Monday morning in September, for a breakfast meeting with clients at the Four Seasons in Trinity Square, in that golden period in the late summer and autumn of 2020, when travel and socially-distanced meetings were permitted. I gave myself plenty of time, took the train to London Bridge station and walked across Tower Bridge to my meeting. I even had time for a lap of Tower Hill and Trinity Square Gardens before the meeting. This is the longest period I have been away from central London – from you – since 1987 and I miss you.

A rare London treat: Tower Bridge lifted. After waiting years to see this, E witnessed it twice in two days in 2016.

Chelsea to Westminster, the West End and the area around Fleet Street along to Monument and St Katharine Docks are those bits of you I know best, North of the river; South Bank, Brixton and Herne Hill, the spread around Borough Market and, of course, my beloved Dulwich (we never forget our first love) are your areas I’m most familiar with South of the river. Flat rentals, house-shares, work locations and favourite shops and pubs have given me a good working knowledge of your bustling centre. I’ve always enjoyed exploring you on foot, knackering though that is. Over the years, I’ve done walking tours, self-guided tours, those brilliant Sunday morning wanders in the City when it is deserted, the “hidden London” and “secret London” walks and, of course, the obligatory gangster tour, traipsing in the footsteps of Ronnie and Reggie, stopping for a pint in The Blind Beggar. I’ve enjoyed them all, unearthing gems and discovering secrets of the city that millions before me have also discovered – exclusivity hasn’t seemed to be important.

The Shard, Guy’s Hospital and the warren of Southwark streets around Borough Market in the foreground.

You contain thousands of streets. My two favourite weren’t discovered on walking tours, but were happened upon because they were on the route between my place of work and Victoria station, the terminus for my daily train journeys. Maunsel Street, in SW1, which runs from Horseferry Road towards Vauxhall Bridge Road, is only short, but so pretty. It comprises terraces of fine brick houses on either side of the road, the vast majority of which are still in residential use. There are no front gardens – front doors open straight from the pavement – and they have basements, the lightwells for which are guarded at street level by iron railings. I love walking along Maunsel Street in early autumn evenings, when residents are home from work, their lights on, but curtains not yet drawn. The glimpses of mirrors, paintings, architraves, bookcases and even the occasional marble bust on a plinth are moments to treasure after a long day at work. Occasionally I have passed a house just as a front door has opened and enjoyed a momentary look at an entrance hall or, most prized, looking down to basement level – the majority of which seem to have been converted to kitchens – catching the briefest view of a family preparing dinner. The flagstone paving of Maunsel Street is pitted and shiny and reflects the light from the houses beautifully, especially when it has been raining. The added pleasure of a wander along Maunsel Street is that it is just a few extra steps to the Regency Cafe at the top of Page Street and everyone knows this is the best greasy spoon caff in SW1. I read a report that suggested it may not open again after lockdown but I sincerely hope this proves untrue.

Jermyn Street runs parallel with Piccadilly, between the bottom end of Regent Street and St James’s Street. I walked Jermyn Street, on my daily work commute, for the best part of three years in the late 1990s and I adore it. At that time Jermyn Street was full of traditional shops and boutiques selling gentlemen’s clothing, apparel and accessories. I purchased my first leather Filofax in the Dunhill shop on the corner of Duke Street and Jermyn Street. It has a bottle-green leather cover with gold-coloured metal rings and clasp. I thought it was so swanky.

The Colonnade in St James’s

I have always considered Jermyn Street as quintessentially London. When I was travelling along it each day, gentlemen’s shirtmakers Turnbull and Asser, Hawes and Curtis, Hilditch & Key, Charles Tyrwhitt, T M Lewin and, of course, Thomas Pink were all found there, and many still are. Exquisite gentlemen’s boots and shoes could be spied in the windows of John Lobb and Foster and Sons; luxury gentlemen’s shaving brushes and accoutrements in the window of Geo F Trumper and displays of the finest cigars could be glimpsed in the always-dimly-lit interior of Davidoff. A quick right turn out of Jermyn Street, up to the covered walkway of the Ritz and a dash across the entrance of the park would see me safely, and relatively drily, into Green Park tube station on drizzly days, for the short hop down to Victoria.

The shop I adore most on Jermyn Street is not exclusive to a gentleman’s needs but is aimed at a wider, though no less exclusive, audience: Floris, the most beautifully fronted shop in the street. Scents of its perfumes escape each time its door opens. The window is topped by its timeless blue and gold sign above which sits Her Majesty’s Royal Warrant. I cannot pass Floris’ window without pausing to enjoy the display: alluring glass perfume bottles often presented amid red and gold backdrops and beautifully framed by the distinctive eight-paned window. The tiniest purchase from Floris was a very BIG treat all those years ago, and one I could afford only rarely.

Although not on Jermyn Street, but straddling the whole block between it and Piccadilly along Duke Street, I could not write about this little area of you without mentioning Fortum and Mason. What I particularly love about this corner of fabulous, decadent F&M is that it contains a door into the tearoom. While not exactly a secret entrance, I have always loved this more low key entrance to tea salon and have happy memories of several afternoons drinking tea and nibbling sandwiches on this corner of St James’s.

A teenage Lily and her brother at the memorial to the Crimean War, Waterloo Place. A quick walk down to Jermyn Street and tea at F&M followed shortly after this photo was taken.

Others of your streets and routes that I love and am missing so much include Birdcage Walk and the route through St James’s Park that takes in the bridge over the lake, the riverside walk from the London Eye to Shakespeare’s Globe across the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s, all the roads that make up Seven Dials, and the criss-cross of streets of grand white stucco houses that sit between Warwick Gardens and Sutherland Street in leafy Pimlico.

London Town, I will return to you, just as soon as lockdown lifts, to continue this love affair and to take tea once more at Fortum and Mason. That’s a promise. ~ E

Have you been missing a favourite city? Which one, and what is it you’ve been missing?