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Joe Allen

One of my objections to the theatre is that it’s on at the time I like to eat dinner. Still, once a year, I buy a ticket to something that I hope will persuade me the theatre is worth eating supper early for. Last year was Gypsy with Imelda Saunton, and that was definitely worth it. This year it was Funny Girl’s turn.

As I remember the story from the film, Barbra Streisand marries Omar Sharif, but it doesn’t work out because he can’t sing. He might even have gone to prison for it, I’m a bit hazy on that. It’s interesting when non-singers are cast in singing roles, by which I mean “interesting”; see also Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon, Pierce Brosnan in Mama Mia, and practically the whole cast of Everyone Says I Love You. I remember reading that Hewyl Bennett was offered Michael York’s part in Cabaret but when he saw it was a musical turned it down without reading the script, knowing he can’t sing, but not knowing that the role doesn’t call for it. Hewyl could have had Michael’s career, but he wouldn’t have had my respect. There’s a lesson here, I’m sure, if only I could see it. Anyway.

This time Sheridan Smith was starring as Barbra, with Darius Danesh as Omar. Darius, famously, was thrown off Pop Stars some years ago for singing Hit Me Baby One More Time too slowly. Darius is now called Darius Campbell, I don’t know why, and was, radically, playing an Omar Sharif who can sing.

For my pre-theatre dinner I went to Joe Allen, where I haven’t been since, ohh, my 20th birthday. I was there with my first boyfriend and a group of his friends. They were all on the post-graduate theatre design course at the Slade, and Joe Allen was famous for being popular with theatre people. That night, I remember it clearly, I drank two White Russians, cocktails were big in the 70s, and ate a burger, thick for those days, when a Wimpy was what we thought burgers were. I was given Baltimore by Nina Simone for a present. I still listen to it and it’s still one of my favourite records. Everyone sang Happy Birthday to me and I don’t have many memories happier than those from that evening. I thought that was how the rest of my life was going to be. I thought it was going to be endless fabulosity. I was mistaken.

Last night Joe Allen was, for 6.30, quite busy. There was a nice atmosphere, and the maître’d took me to a table from where I could see everything. I don’t think it’s changed at all since I was first (and last) here. It’s dark and woody, quite exposed-bricky. The tables are close together. The burgers aren’t on the menu, you have to know to ask for them. Luckily I did ask, without knowing I had to. I find this ‘secret menu’ stuff a bit tiresome, but otherwise it was all fine; nicely quick, efficient and friendly. The menu you can read is very American; cajun prawns, hot dogs, baby back ribs. All quite fashionable again, in 2016 London. A table over there sang Happy Birthday and the rest of the restaurant applauded. I smiled. It still feels quite theatrical. A pianist started playing at 7. I’m sure the cast of Kinky Boots comes for dinner after their curtain. It would be a brilliant place to take a teen interested in the stage for their birthday.

My order arrived. How did you find your meat, sir? Well… it wasn’t the cow-pat sized patty you find at some places. Once I’d removed the top half of the bun there was the right ratio of burger to bread. It tasted good, though. I enjoyed it. The chips, which came in a sort of miniature champagne bucket, were less successful, too firm in the centre.

I had one large glass of ok Gavi and was quite surprised when I was given a bill for £28.97. Really. Yes, really. Including £3.22 for what the receipt calls a gratuity. In case I haven’t made myself clear, I thought it was quite expensive. Anyway.

I sat down just before curtain up. The lights went down and the orchestra started up, playing the notes that sing Nicky Arnstein, Nicky Arnstein. There was much fabulosity around. Funny Girl was fabulous. Sheridan was fabulous. Darius was fabulous. Goddammit, I was fabulous. As I always knew I would be.

Joe Allen, 13 Exeter St London WC2E 7TD

SONY DSC

Joe Allen. Photo by Simon Wilder

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