Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: A bit-part in this street-theatre masterpiece was thrilling. Not

Colchester High Street

Colchester High Street - Credit: Su Anderson

They may have been “gentlemen of the road” – I couldn’t be sure. They looked rufty-tufty, shaven-headed, tattooed above the neck and, crucially, drunk. They were in fine end-of-week fettle, anyway: effing and jeffing, laughing uproariously and generally enjoining the wary public to share in their jocularity. It was just before 1pm in Colchester High Street, on the hottest day of the year so far.

The two men behaved for all the world as if their street cabaret had been auditioned, commissioned and passed as fit for the enjoyment of a captive bus queue and sundry passers-by. To them it was all hilarious. The bigger of the two strutted around the pavement tables in proprietorial fashion, like a method actor playing a comedy mâitre d’. There was a measure of cocksureness about his behaviour, which was what made me think he might have been a genuine gentleman of the road: the logic being that it was his street and his rules – a bravado born of long despair, bolstered by strong drink.

He pointed out various passers-by to his fellow performer, who was very good in the timeless support as “His Little Mate”. If a passer-by happened to be a woman, there’d be a comment about her physical assets – or not. If the passer-by was a man, there’d be a witticism concerning his dress-style. It was all terribly well-observed and authentically “edgy”. At one point I became the focus of his attention.

“Now E’s a dude, innee? Look ’ow ’ees dressed. Like summink aht the seven’ees.” I summed the situation up. It was a hot humid day. They’d probably been catapulting the Dame Elisabeth Frink down their necks since mid-morning. They were still in a good mood and hadn’t yet peaked. I might have walked to another bus stop or crossed the road. But some perverse obduracy made me stay. I was waiting for a bus. Why should I move? And anyway, it wasn’t personal; I was just another human prop in their imagined cabaret.

I’d been cast firmly in the role of man-at-bus-stop-dressed-slightly-eccentrically. I can see how that might be funny. If you’re going to premiere a major dramatic production when drunk at lunchtime in Colchester High Street, a walk-on sartorial anachronism is going to be a gift.

After all, most normal middle-aged men, upon discovering that it’s a hot day, immediately don a pair of shorts, trainers with socks, and an overly-large, short-sleeved checked shirt bought in a chain store. This is partly because most middle-aged men don’t wish to stand out from the crowd. Mostly, however, it’s because they simply have no imagination, Ducky. Now, I happen to think that an English gentleman past a certain age should use his ebbing years to dress as flamboyantly as he bloody well wants. I do exactly that.

Except, in this case, I wasn’t being particularly outrageous. I was wearing a white dress shirt with upturned collar and black cufflinks, a black waistcoat, purple jeggings, black Chelsea boots and a peaked Lennon cap. My appearance wouldn’t have given Adam Ant or David Sylvian any sleepless nights. It certainly paid off on this occasion, however, since it secured me a small bit- part in this street improv.

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These two chaps proved beyond doubt to the watching public the old overdog precept that if you get drunk early enough, even if you’re shirtless, tattooed, and ignorant, you’re still superior to anyone who’s not dressed exactly the same as you.

The two gentlemen outside the High Street bar, though, should feel lucky that I arrived at the time I did. I, after all, am a seasoned showbiz pro who knows the drill. It was not for me to upstage them by over-reacting or part-building.

So I played the straight-man: a Madge to their Barry Humphries, if you wish. I said nothing, stood on my marks and stared blankly as if I hadn’t even registered their presence. They liked that. There was more strutting around between the outside tables, the bar entrance and the spots from which they delivered their lines. Over the road, the newly-restored High Street market carried on as usual, oblivious to the Brechtian smorgasbord being offered up to the hapless bus-queue. I began to realise how lucky we were that the Government-before-last came up with the ingenious ideas of a) banning smoking in pubs and b) introducing a traditionally reserved British public to pavement drinking – “Continental Cafe Culture”, as some call it. Because had this not been the case, I and my fellow audience members could never have enjoyed the inaugural performance of an untitled dramatic masterpiece on this sultry lunchtime street.

It’s true that some may have felt cheated because there were no staged fights, and no arrests resulted. I feel it my duty to mention that where the whole production sagged slightly was in the fact that at no point did a comic bar-manager or street warden appear to remonstrate with the two actors. This was a minor niggle, however. Regrettably, I saw only the first act. I hope the play didn’t descend into the cliché where either an arrest was made or an even bigger thug walked onstage and felled the leading man with one roundhouse punch.

I shall never know, because unfortunately my bus arrived. But well done to our rulers for allowing this event to take its premiere here. It was lucky I was there to review it. A pity that it wasn’t better publicised.