The Theatre Royal, in Stratford, East London, is the West Ham United of the theatre world. That’s not because of any comparison with the Theatre of Dreams, as another club’s stadium is known, but for reasons that I shall come to in a moment.
As someone who loves the drama of worship, I have always been interested in the theatre. In that business, London’s West End is where people pay big prices to watch the big names and the big, glitzy productions, in audiences packed with tourists and suburban coach parties. West London is also the home of Chelsea FC, where people pay big prices to watch Roman Abramovich’s team, expensively assembled and much-loved by a new generation of fans, if by no-one else. Older, wiser locals remember when Fulham were the local glamour club, back in the 50s.
East London might not have the glamour of Chelsea, but it has a more-than –respectable footballing tradition of its own. Before Hackney Marshes became the past of the Olympic site, it used to host hundreds of matches every weekend. Going up the scale, teams like Dagenham & Redbridge and Leyton FC are the descendants of countless clubs that have graced the game at various levels, while West Ham United and Leyton Orient are more widely-known.
Both the Hammers and the ‘O’s enjoyed something of a golden era in the 1960s, when Orient were promoted to the top flight, and West Ham were winning friends and trophies alike with their flowing football. But, to be honest, both clubs could do with a bit of that success now. Not every performance in recent years has been full of the flair and the excitement that the 1960s fans enjoyed. Sometimes, being a football fan is about disappointment.
The East End has its theatre traditions, too, and a few good theatres, too. There’s the Arcola, and the Hackney Empire, Stepney’s Half Moon theatre, and the historic Wilton’s Music Hall. Further out, Ilford has its Kenneth Moore and Hornchurch its Queen’s theatre.
For me, though, the pick of the bunch has long been the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. The West Ham United of the theatre world. It was here that, from the mid-50s to the mid-70s, Joan Littlewood, with her Theatre Workshop, was at the cutting edge of British drama. With shows like A taste of honey and Oh! what a lovely war, Littlewood tutored a generation of remarkable actors, including Yootha Joyce, Brian Murphy, Murray Melvin, Barbara Windsor and Harry H Corbett, among others.
I must have seen at least half the plays staged at Stratford since I first started going there the mid-70s. Five Guys names Moe started here, and recent highlights have included The harder they come, The Big Life, Marilyn and Ella, and Come Dancing, with Ray Davies and an excellent cast. I love the place, and love the people who have challenged and entertained me there over the years.
And so it was that last Friday I went along to see the latest production, Cosh Omar’s The Great Extension. Apparently, The Stage used the words ‘…entertaining multi-cultural hotchpotch’. Well, I agree with the word ‘hotchpotch’, at least, but -and maybe I have a low boredom threshold – I certainly wasn’t entertained. I found it simply offensive and boring. I left the theatre feeling as flat as a football fan who has just seen his favourite team lose without trying.
I should have noticed the signs, of course; that the theatre appeared half-empty on what should have been a busy night; that the management were giving tickets away on Facebook. Maybe others had read reviews that I missed? But at the time I was hugely disappointed about the theatre for which I have such affection.
In time, I shall probably return to the Theatre Royal, of course, just like the fans who follow their favourite football club, whatever the results. Everyone has their off days, I realise, and no theatre can guarantee non-stop hits. The point is that no-one died. It was just a bad night at the theatre. Nothing worse than that. I live in hope.
For me, being a follower of Jesus Christ is about hope. Hope that, even when things are bad, they can always get better. Hope that, even when people disappoint us, or when we disappoint others, there is always tomorrow, always something to be hopeful about. That where there is failure there is always the possibility of redemption.
When you understand that, you realise that neither football nor theatre is a matter of life and death in the great scheme of things, whatever Bill Shankly said. There are more important things in life.
In truth, not every one of my sermons is a cracker. So, if you have ever heard me speak and been disappointed, remember this. Nothing is as important as the love of God for you. God so loved the world that he sent his one-and-only son… You will find the rest of the story in John’s Gospel. It’s worth reading. You won’t be disappointed. I guarantee it.