I had never before seen anything like it in the theatre. The actors were close enough to touch. You could hear their breathing, smell their sweat (it was very hot down there), and peer into the cracks in their cakey make-up. The drama was underscored by the beat of the jukebox upstairs bleeding through the ceiling. The floor was sticky. Latecomers brought the stairway light with them. I loved it all. Everything was visceral, immediate, real. There was no slickness or fakery. Before that, I had only gazed down from the hushed darkness of an Upper Circle at a distant square of light with a collection of miniature mannequins on it. It had been more like TV than theatre.
For much of the next year or so, I got into the habit of going to the theatre every week if I could, usually on my own, sometimes with a friend of mine. I travelled out to unusual venues at the far end of the Piccadilly line. On more than one occasion, I was the only member of the audience, and I'd hang out with the actors afterwards. Sometimes I'd save up to see Ken Campbell at the Almeida or some bonkers performance art at the ICA.
Very few of those pub theatres that I went to in the 1990s are still operating (The Hope & Anchor is now a music venue). Before the Internet, it was necessary for plays in London to run for a minimum of three weeks, otherwise Time Out wouldn't review them, but the listings pages – divided into 'Off West End' and 'Fringe' – were extensive. For a multitude of reasons, however, it was becoming more expensive both to put on a play and to go and watch one, and it became clear that I had been lucky enough to catch the end of a Golden Age for London Fringe Theatre. Of course, if theatre has the ruthless persistence of a weed, it will always emerge from the cracks, making new cracks as it does so.
For me, improvisation has captured most fully that sense of excitement I first felt when I was sixteen; and in London and elsewhere, the scene is now growing. It is a form of theatre that has its roots in a tradition that is much, much older than the hushed, passive, cinematic form that emerged in the eighteenth century with the introduction of footlights and a fourth wall. (That's not to say that I never enjoy darkened auditoria. The vitality of the drama depends more on the complicity of the room than on any specific lighting decision.) The drama happens right in front of us, like close-up magic. Whether the audience shouts suggestions throughout, or only once at the beginning, or even not at all, we are all co-creators, co-conspirators, in an experience which belongs to us all and which nothing will disguise. Actors and audience alike hang on each character's words and actions, because they are of enhanced importance. 'Everything is an offer': that is my definition of reality, a reality that is greater than the dull, deaf world outside.