At Ronnie Scotts on Tuesday, the food was underdone and the band over-excited, particularly the drummer, a new chap I had not yet seen, who appeared to have ants in his pants. I went to war with a rib eye steak for supper. Unfortunately I ended up eating most the al dente mange tout during a quiet double base solo, which meant most of the room could hear me crunching, and I felt like it was a duet. That noise was nothing though when compared to the woman who sat two tables in front of me and who chose to have a row with her husband mid-way through the second set.
Don’t ask me what I was doing there because I am not quite sure. My days of having a semi-permanent table at my disposal are sort of over at Ronnies due to rather drastic management shifts a few years back, but I somehow ended up winning a competition for answering a question – or at least, Google answered it for me, the little darling – and then suddenly I was a competition winner and got two tickets. It was rather brazen for a Tuesday night, but me and my Jazz Buddy are somehow always up for a bucket of Ronnie’s mojitos with a series of drum solo chasers. So it was a short hop, skip and jump to musing over email whether we felt like going to Ronnie’s on a Tuesday to being congratulated by our waitress for breaking the record for the most mojitos ordered from a mid-week table for two. I think we both overdosed on sugar before we had a chance to enjoy the intoxicated effects of the rum. But what a heart-warming sight to see the place booked to the rafters on a Tuesday night on the eve of what the opposition benches would have us label Black Wednesday, and to see so many of the seats filled by the non-specific grey area between late middle aged and the elderly. I lost count of the amount of sixty-somethings out for a spot of jazz and a bottle of Chablis, who seemed truly delighted with the display of chamber jazz on offer, and who were wowed by the xylophone player’s antics. In the toilet, I breezed into a cluster of youngsters who were clearly dazzled by Jacqui Dankworth and who all thought they were SO not good at scat-singing.
Ronnie’s Mark II is a world away from Ronnie’s Mark I, which featured a carpet that was half gaffer tape and toilet facilities that hadn’t been updated since the blitz. The low-hanging brown lampshades had orange light bulbs and the kitchen was so close to the main floor that trumpet solos were interspersed by the sound of chefs hollering and plates being thrown into the dishwasher. There was a bar area at the side of the club which is sorely missed, and was rooted out like a bad tooth in order to accommodate extra seating. Ronnie’s Mark II has a smooth, high-quality finish where the formica, spit and gaffer tape used to be. It’s actually a fairly expensive night out but, you know, someone has got to pay the exorbitant Westminster business rates. It’s smoke-free, of course, and terribly smart. The food has got better and the drinks are ridiculously varied and excellent. It is, moreover, still about the music. It’s the ideal place to cleanse your jazz palate and start afresh if you have been away from the scene for a while. Failing that, it’s the perfect place to get drunk on a Tuesday whilst drifting off and listening to world class musicians.
It’s other people’s behaviour which is the curious thing. Apart from the lady who had a sort of row with her husband in the middle of the music, most people were impeccably behaved – even the table of smartly coiffeured City boys in expensive tailoring, who looked like they might rip the place up a bit once they’d had the first bottle of Verve Cliquot, gazed up at the stage like small boys in awe of the talented, confident Sixth Formers on the stage in an end of term play. Tomfoolery and general chattery is not tolerated at Ronnie Scotts. The mobile phone is the enemy. It’s the ENEMY I tell you! It is the demon bete noire of live music. Occasional, turquiose flashes of i-phone glitter under the table, but it’s strictly illegal. I think they put you in some sort of jazz detention. Make you listen to Ornette Coleman on a loop for 24 hours, or something, and then you are forced to have soprano saxophone lessons. But the no talking rule was adhered to throughout and the evening left me enlivened, musically invigorated and restored, as Ronnie’s always does.
How odd then, that the next evening, at the theatre, no one person in the audience could refrain from coughing, chatting, whispering and generally behaving badly for more than five minutes at a stretch. The play was the not-that-jolly-or-uplifting Ecstasy by Mike Leigh at the Hampstead Theatre, a strange, modern monolith that looms up over Swiss Cottage like an architect’s nightmare. High on octane emotion, with most of the truly excellent cast a snotty, weeping mess by the end of the show, this was not a play that encouraged flippant behaviour. But the constant coughing, shuffling, rings of i-phones that should have been switched off, and the chatting – particularly from the lady behind me who kept giggling and talking with her friend – was some of the worst I have ever heard. Many people say that theatregoers don’t know how to be quiet anymore – that television has dulled our sense of ourselves in the theatre space and that we forget we are not looking at a screen. We forget that the actors are in the same room – and we forget that they hear everything. They can see you pick your nose, they know what you’re wearing, they can feel you shuffling and when you have some sort of bronchial attack of racking cough in the middle of their line they will take it personally. Have we forgotten that there are 200 other theatregoers around us, who need to hear the play? Not that I am entirely blameless on this one, kids – I mean we’ve all done it by accident. I remember being in the theatre years ago in the pre i-pod era, when I still had a Discman. I hadn’t remembered to turn it off and the next thing you know, The Cardigans were blaring out whilst Diana Rigg was trying to have a nervous breakdown on stage. Well, blow me, if Zoe Wanamaker – who was sitting in front of me – started shooting me right evils and turning round and tutting. But still, it was only the once.
But at least Zoe Wanamaker wasn’t wearing a large hat. That would have put us evens, I suppose. I would have been infringing her right to hear and she would have been infringing my right to see. Until last night, I would have thought it simply astonishing that anyone would turn up to the theatre in an outlandish piece of head furniture, but strike me down with a feather, that’s exactly what happened. But unlike an i-phone or a troublesome cough, you can’t claim it was an accident. No one could leave the house without noticing that they are wearing something enormous on their heads. “Oh Sorry, I forgot to turn my hat off” doesn’t wash. “I thought I had my hat on silent but then it started vibrating” isn’t possible either. No sooner had we taken our seats than a man in what can only be termed a resplendent piece of headwear came and sat directly in front of us. It was in a eye-watering turquoise shade and it meant that the only way my friend would be able to see the production was to cut a square through his headwear and watch the play through it. Perhaps he thought he was at Ascot. He was such an alarming sight that my friend took a photograph forthwith and the two of us collapsed into giggles. I alerted management to the outrageous of what was going on on the head in front of us and they rapidly moved us. Have people not only remembered that other people around them are not only trying to hear the play, but see it as well?
Perhaps television has made us think that not only are the actors in front of us in a little box and can’t hear, but that we are in fact sitting on our sofa in our front room and no one is actually behind us. You can wear a top hat on your own sofa. You can wear a policeman’s helmet if it is what turns you on, but, dear readers, have you ever tried watching a Mike Leigh play through a hat shaped like a grapefruit? It was interesting that in Ronnie Scotts people were effortlessly behaved. This is probably because – unless you fall asleep in front of the telly and suddenly wake up at 2.30am in front of Sky Arts – you don’t see jazz on television. Ever. It’s not allowed or something. There’s some kind of Anti-Jazz clause in the BBC rules. And I never thought I would be grateful for that. But if it makes people shut up and take their hats off, I’m all for it.
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