Time Travel Theatre – The night I met Quentin Crisp

Quentin Crisp 1940s, Photo by Angus McBean and held at the National Portrait Gallery

In remembrance of a singular figure now, sadly, fading from memory, and in celebration of LGBTQI+ Pride, I thought that you might like to hear about an evening out I had almost forty years ago.

It was a chilly Friday evening in 1981 that a friend and I approached the Duke of York’s Theatre in St Martin’s Lane, full of anticipation and curiosity. An Evening with Quentin Crisp, the displays announced tastefully. We swept through the outer doors – into a thoroughly empty foyer. Let us remember that this was the end of a long and successful run, and an early house at that (Fridays, 6 and 8.30).

Quentin Crisp had shot to fame after John Hurt portrayed him to great acclaim on TV in a dramatised biography, The Naked Civil Servant, in 1975 and now, in his latter years he was an unexpected international celebrity, holding forth about everything under the sun in his stage show which ran, almost unchanged, for many years, across the UK and America. And now, he was back here finishing off a run in London- quietly, it seemed.

A rather subdued atmosphere hung over the theatre as we shuffled in to the early house. Seven of us in the stalls, a similar number in the dress circle. The auditorium was as cold and silent as at a wake.

The house lights dimmed and Crisp made his entrance to a hearty round of applause from the tiny throng. “Good evening”, he said. “Now before we get started, I’d like to do a little housekeeping. There’s a first time for everything…..Would you“, he said in his leisurely voice, swivelling a somewhat gnarled – but beautifully manicured – finger to the handful of people in the dress circle “…like to come down here and join us?” It was more of a requirement than an invitation, and those upstairs eagerly came and joined the handful of us in the front stalls. Crisp directed the new arrivals to their new seats, and made us into a single cosy group, and then the show began. Crisp snapped into his delivery like a seasoned pro, effortlessly slipping into the well-worn groove of his material.

He began: “I’ve been forbidden to describe this evening as a straight talk from a bent speaker. So instead, let’s say it’s like a consultation with a psychiatrist who is madder than you are.”

He proceeded to run the gamut, with advice, amusing anecdotes and shameless plugs for his book, which he would be signing in the foyer at the end of the show. After an interval, he answered written questions from the audience with his trademark dry wit and fun. And that oft-impersonated voice! A hint of a nasal drawl, like gravel mixed with glitter, was special to hear “live”. With one of the smallest audiences I have ever been with, I can say it was one of the most memorable nights in the theatre that I have ever had.

At the show’s conclusion, after a small hiatus, the man himself appeared in the foyer, with an Annapurna of paperbacks by his side, surreally out of proportion to the size of the attending group. For a moment I didn’t know if we were supposed to buy them or climb them.

I counted the group. Every single person had stayed.

He signed my book. His new Fontana paperback, entitled ‘How to Become A Virgin’. He signed everyone’s book. He was most polite, respectful and very grateful, and took time to inscribe the books clearly for each of us. And then he was gone, ushered back through the auditorium by the front of house team, who as I remember, looked unsettlingly like the gang in the 1955 Ealing film The Ladykillers.

1981. Or was it 1955? So hard to recall….

We went out into the night, warmed by the experience of having spent a couple of hours in the company of a person who had spent a lifetime standing up for who he was – although it attracted the wrong kind of attention – and won. A little part of us had changed forever; we would never forget the night that we met Quentin Crisp.

Quentin Crisp died in 1999, aged 90, having humorously decided to live for a century “with a decade off for good behaviour”. He left behind a string of books, stage appearances and media interviews. Never conveniently categorised in life or death, he remains an interesting figure for his often controversial views and his ability to turn a good one-liner, as well as his bravery in standing out and being himself. In his final writings, he came to the realisation that he was more a trans woman than a gay man, which revealed one final fascinating facet of the person we knew as Quentin Crisp.

Of the stage show, there was a sound recording made in New York in February 1979 which became a best-selling double LP (cover above) released by DRG, and the video recording below was made a little later, I think 1983/4.

I am delighted to say that I have tracked down this show on YouTube (below), so that you can take a trip back in time. Enjoy a slice of LGBTQ history! And Happy Pride!

With thanks to YouTube poster Sam Tichinoff

Anyone wanting to delve further into Mr Crisp’s doings may enjoy a visit to CRISPERANTO – All Things Quentin Crisp – here