The place, the play, the people: they could hardly have been more fitting for the return of live theatre.
On Monday, the Belgrade became the first venue outside London to host a professional touring production post-lockdown. Quite right too: it’s the sort of theatre that’s integral to British cultural life.
April in Paris was written by John Godber in 1992 but could have been penned for this very occasion. It tells of Bet and Al, a middle-aged couple who have been cooped up in their cramped home for too long. Bet dreams of exotic holidays, but her wanderlust is not shared by Al, who is unhappy where he is yet fears he would be even more unhappy abroad. They bicker and gripe away in the great comic tradition but the embers of their love still flicker; and when Bet wins a break in Paris, they begin to see themselves and each other in quite a different light.
Al is played by Joe Pasquale, who has beco me a stalwart of British touring theatre. It is easy to see why: he has a winning naivety, his warmth never far away, leavening what in lesser hands might be bitterness or cynicism. Sarah Earnshaw is just as impressive as Bet, a woman whose vibrancy has been smothered but never quite snuffed out.
The result is funny and affecting. Much has been made in the past year of the radical and world-changing potential of theatre, but pieces like this can often get closer to the heart of what it’s all about than any number of portentous and pretentious productions. As Al realises that life beyond these shores may bring fresh joys, Bet begins to appreciate the wonders that lie closer to home; these are truths told with lightness and joy. It all happens in the course of an hour and 15 minutes that fly by. The audience on opening night was distanced physically but never emotionally.
The coming months will see grander shows, ‘immersive’ this and ‘groundbreaking’ that. But nights like this too, in their light and entertaining and touching way, can help us reconnect with theatre, and each other.
* April in Paris runs until May 19. Visit belgrade.co.uk to book.