When I was 17, my mum took me to a prom concert at the Albert Hall. Being from Devon, we made a day of it; she took me to see where she went to college, bought me a t-shirt from some sort of brown paper bag, organically woven, rustic varnished floorboarded shop, you know, the sort that you only find in London (or on Gandy Street in Exeter). I wore it a year later, when I went to college. She’d got us seats, right at the front. I remember watching, fascinated, as the percussionist sweated through the soundtrack from a TV show, gaining a round of applause, all to himself. My uncle, a long standing friend of my dad’s, dashing off to get us drinks in the interval, the race to catch the last train home. A hot summer day that sits in my memory, part of my cultural upbringing.
I’m not quite such a fan of theatre as my parents, it must be said. While my childhood was full of visits to the Northcot, Plymouth Theatre Royal, the Haymarket, my own children are much more schooled in the way of the castle and cathedral, seasoned visitors to museums and Site of Historical Significance. This is not to say that theatre and musical culture isn’t something we deem to be unimportant; just that, for us, it is more difficult.
There’s something about the darkness, the tension, the are they pretending or are they real that turns what should be an enjoyable experience into something that…isn’t. Rather than pleasure, it so easily becomes struggle. An attempt to stay rather than participate. Apart from anything else, taking a family of five to the theatre or to a concert isn’t cheap, and certainly not if you add in the cost of transportation and time. For a long time, it hasn’t been worth it.
But last year there was a change in our circumstances. We moved house and suddenly, the idea of going to London for a show wasn’t quite such a pipe dream. For some reason, I can’t for the life of me think why, I made a discovery. A prom concert, something that was impossible for the likes of me and mine became something real. Relaxed. A lunchtime performance, lights on, a social story, break out spaces and hand dryers turned off. Even a short video to show us where to go and what to do. I spent much of the performance with the sort of lump in your throat and moisture in your eyes that won’t quite let you speak. I can’t have been the only one. The mother who chased her son across the stage; I recognised her quiet sense of determined desperation. The girl the conductor gave his baton to so that she could lead the orchestra from the pit, conducting a piece she knew well and loved, she still has the power to call an unfathomable emotion from the well-spring of my heart.
Without that experience, the rules relaxed, what was happening and what it meant spelled out clearly, in a straightforward, no nonsense way, even down to the musicians, wearing different coloured t-shirts according to which part of the orchestra they belonged, we would never have been able to go again. Because last week, that’s what we did. We gathered up an even larger number of family and off we went, access lines to railway and hall called, special seating arrangements for disabled guests made.
As I sat there quietly, lights dimming, waiting for a fantasy, an imaginative weaving of music and movement, words and song, to start I thought about how much it is assumed that we, the audience, will understand. How much it is assumed that we, with no preparation, no explanation, will be able to do, how we will be able to bring together, from the snippets of our experience, to make an evening at the Albert Hall a success. A children’s performance – and a very good one – a serious introduction to some serious classical music. An important addition to a cultural upbringing. A step on the road towards something with even less support for understanding.
I don’t know though. The one that went before. The bounce. The unpredictability of the audience. The love and joy at sharing their musicianship that came from the orchestra in waves as they swapped places during the Soul Bossa Nova, how we sang along to ‘Happy’ (sung by one of the Strictly singers). There was a real-ness to it, a raw power to the performance of disabled children from a special school who played alongside the professional orchestra. There it was, almost touchable in its intensity; the knowledge that music isn’t simply a matter of ‘the best’, but is an experience that should be shared, and that the sharing goes both ways.