Tuesday 31 May 2016 saw the curtain fall on Darlington Civic Theatre. Rest assured the theatre will re-open in autumn 2017 as Darlington Hippodrome, the name reverting to a version of our original name as a nod to our roots as a variety theatre. Indeed, when the curtain was lowered by our fly-man Nick, with a show of considerable strength he was able to fix it so that the plush hem stopped short of touching the stage: a theatrical tradition passed down to us from former director Peter Tod. The curtain will rise again.
The gala had been planned by the minute. The whole team had pulled together to make it happen, performers from near and far had lent their talents, and loyal audiences had flocked to visit their theatre one final time before its restoration. But best laid plans often go astray…
Northern Echo journalist and local historian Chris Lloyd had agreed to give a version of his talk, Of Fish and Actors, focussing on Anna Pavlova and Signor Rino Pepi (for more on this, read this previous blog post). I had sourced him a Pavlova – a talented student from The Tiffany School of Dance. Their slot was early in the first half of the evening. Both are seasoned performers, but still, nerves jangled. I tried my best to offer reassurances, safe in the knowledge that they would both be wonderful; that I could watch the magic unfold from the safety of the wings and share vicariously in their tour de force.
The appointed time arrived. Through the tannoy, we heard the wonderful comedy magician Matt Edwards – Buttons in our 2016/2017 pantomime – sing a song ‘Tequila’ which he had told me signalled that the end of his act was near. After that, there was only one act keeping Pavlova and Chris from the stage.
We made our way to the wings, trying to assume an air of calm and professionalism to suit the hushed atmosphere awaiting us. Six minutes to spare. In a dark corner, Christopher Biggins sat on a stool, sparkling in his sequinned suit, watching intently as our ArtsSpark Youth Dance performed their moving piece ‘Chaplin’. Five minutes to spare. Then my state of tranquillity – already tenuous; put on like a costume – was put under threat. A colleague was at my shoulder. There was salt, she told me, on the stage.
I must have misheard her. ‘Salt?’
It turned out that the lovely Matt had performed a magic trick involving salt. A lot of salt. Which was now all over the stage, little mounds of it glowing white in the darkness and being spread still further, kicked and tramped as the tenacious dancers moved across the floor.
Our ArtsSpark dancers, barefoot, were coping admirably with this unexpected turn of events. But our Pavlova, gliding in her pointe shoes, would not fare so well. In my mind’s eye I could see her, skidding across the stage to land in the lap of someone in the front row of the stalls.
Abandoning my aura of calm, I ran to the cleaners’ cupboard. But the brushes and pans had been packed away ready for the next day’s move. There was a dustpan and brush, I knew, under the sink in the staff kitchen. But I also knew that the door would be locked, and that I couldn’t remember the code. So, parting the crowd of DarlingtonOS singers which had spilled out into the corridor, I hurried to our office in dressing room five, where I had the magic numbers written down. How many minutes left? Four? Three? Then back down the corridor, past the assembled singers, down the stairs, round the corner. I punched in the numbers. Miraculously, the door opened. And the brush was still there under the sink. Two minutes? One?
I ran back to the wings. The ArtsSpark dancers were leaving the stage. Chris Lloyd was making his entrance. The salt glared under the footlights.
I couldn’t do it alone. I would form a double act, or even a trio: another brush had been located and two colleagues were willing to take a turn with me. So it was as Chris Lloyd began to speak to his attentive audience that Julian Cound (also of DarlingtonOS; a man of many talents) and I made our own inauspicious entrance, creeping up behind him to get down on our knees and sweep. And with that, I made my own farewell appearance on the Civic Theatre stage.
Julian, it should be recorded, later returned to the spotlight in a more conventional manner, to dazzle the audience singing the songs from the shows. Pavlova performed sublimely and Chris, he later assured me, barely noticed the scrape of nylon bristles against the floor as he regaled the audience with tales of the theatre’s past.
Will my own impromptu ‘turn’ go down in the theatre’s history? Somehow I doubt it. But we all have our own unique memories of the Civic Theatre. And the evening of Tuesday 31 May will linger in the minds of many.
And when the curtain rises in autumn 2017? Who knows: perhaps you’ll see me on the stage again.