The theater that inspired me to be a performer – and let me share my grief | Richard E Grant

OWhen I was 12, in 1969, my father decided that since Swaziland (now Eswatini) had only a cinema, an amateur drama club and no television, I would benefit from an injection of culture in the northern hemisphere.

We flew to London and the culture shock was immediate and unforgettable. Coming out of Piccadilly Circus tube station, I saw the Eros fountain crowded with hippies, smelling strongly of patchouli oil. As I walked through Soho and Carnaby Street, I saw women in miniskirts with see-through blouses. Until then, the only naked adults I had ever seen were in National Geographic magazine. We went to the Shaftesbury Theater to see the musical Hair, which featured the entire cast standing naked for a few seconds just before intermission. In other words, I got to see Elaine Paige’s butt. (We have since become friends and I can officially say that I have never seen him since.)

Then it was off to see Ginger Rogers in Mame at the Theater Royal on Drury Lane, which starred 15-year-old Gary Warren playing his nephew, a year before starring in The Railway Children. He convinced me that it was possible to become a child actor. This was confirmed the next day by seeing Mark Lester and Jack Wild in the movie version of Oliver! at the Odeon Leicester Square. It all capped off watching Adrian Hall and Heather Ripley onscreen as the Potts siblings in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Comedian and singer Max Bygraves. “I had never heard of him, but his easy-going charm and his relationship with the public were extraordinary.” Photography: David Redfern/Redferns

My father insisted that we go to the Palladium no matter who was playing because, according to him, it was the London’s iconic theatre. This is how we got to see the legendary Max Bygraves.

I had never heard of him, but his laid-back charm and his rapport with the public were extraordinary. He made impressions, jokes and sang his hit hit Tulips from Amsterdam, with the whole audience singing along with the chorus. The foyer contained photos of all the legendary singers who had performed there, including Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra.

My fiercely held secret dream of becoming an actor was ignited by seeing all those shows and movies. However, I never thought I would end up on the Palladium stage. So when producer Alex Fane suggested booking the theater this year for my solo show, A Pocketful of Happiness, based on my memoir, I was flabbergasted.

He replied calmly to my panic “But it’s more than 2,000 places, Alex. I can never fill it,” with a panto refrain of “Oh, but you will!

His faith prevailed and the performance on Sunday October 30 was packed. The acoustics were perfect and despite being on three levels and hosting so many people, it felt intimate. Despite the deep sorrow I have felt since my wife passed away last year, paying tribute to her and celebrating our lives together at this iconic location was truly extraordinary.

It’s one thing to dream of becoming an actor after growing up in one of the smallest countries in the southern hemisphere, but it’s quite another to see that fantasy come true, with a standing ovation. Pockets full of happiness, without measure.

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