We’re in the Salberg tonight, Salisbury Playhouse’s theatre-in-the-round, tucked away behind the main house and used mainly for youth theatre productions, one-offs and experimental stuff. It’s functional and well-equipped but not exactly glamorous.
Tonight’s different, though. Basic theatre seating has been replaced by elegant chairs and tables with wine glasses and menus, each table bathed in subdued lighting. And we’re starting to feel just a bit self-conscious. I mean, this looks like a black tie affair, doesn’t it? Do we really belong here?
Then there’s the stage. The Salberg doesn’t normally go in for stages. It’s more a ‘use your imagination’ kind of space, but tonight they’ve really pushed the boat out—not just curved, carpeted steps leading to the curtained platform, but huge potted palms and the kind of geometric decoration that you always associate—if you’re old enough—with the exciting adventure that going to the cinema always was. There’s even an ice cream seller with an enormous tray to evoke memories.
We’ve been given a foretaste, before the curtains open, of what to expect—black and white glimpses of faces we think we vaguely recognise from DVD covers of old Hollywood films—to get us in the mood.
And yet it’s a one-man show, isn’t it? How can Michael Roberts, experienced and dedicated actor that he is, really deliver an overview of 40 years of the Hollywood film industry on his own?
I think the answer lies in his passion for cinema, whether it’s the sophisticated Astoria with its fountain or the more familiar seedy Corner with its fag-end strewn floor and regular back row torch patrols. From childhood it has been an obsession, colouring his whole outlook on life and fuelling his ambition to become an actor.
He doesn’t just demonstrate Groucho, Mae West, Marlon, Errol Flynn, Vincent Price, John Gielgud John Wayne and the rest. He becomes them. ‘War, war! That's all you ever think about, Dickie Plantagenet!’ he shouts as Virginia Mayo, from King Richard and the Crusaders and we are helpless with laughter. And so it continues, the scenes, the anecdotes and, above all, the fun.
So, should we feel as regretful as Michael Roberts does that the old days have gone? That only one out of the twenty cinemas he knew as a boy hasn’t been converted into a supermarket or bingo hall and is still actually showing films? Can we really empathise with his sense of loss, an ever-present twinkle in his eye, that although we are able to watch the old films on DVD, we miss out on the smell of stale cigarette smoke and the sensation of crunched peanut shells underfoot?
After this dazzling display of verbal and dramatic virtuosity, delivered with such humanity and grace, I think we can.
A joyous, laughter-filled event for everyone, then, through which the youngsters can discover and share what delighted their parents and grandparents in the days before DVDs and video games.
And if you’re old enough to have found it necessary some time in the distant past to lie your way into an A- or H- or even X-rated film, this show is most certainly not to be missed.
Reviewer: Anne Hill