The novelist Susie Boyt says that the boisterousness of the Players’ Theatre music hall set her up perfectly for a career in writing.
Words Lucy Jolin Portrait Julian Anderson
It was so luxurious to be somewhere where everyone was really excited, not jaded, by what they were reading
With its entrance tucked halfway down a dark alley, opposite legendary nightclub Heaven, you’d be forgiven for missing the Charing Cross Theatre (formerly the Players’ Theatre) as you go about your day – and night. But inside its doors, the history sings through the walls – as novelist Susie Boyt (Anglo-American Literary Relations 1994) recalls.
“You could have a very mixed night at the Players’,” says Boyt, who spent many happy hours as a UCL student at the theatre’s traditional music hall. “I liked being a person who could spend the first half of the evening steeped in Victoriana and have a crazy dance afterwards.
“There was hardly anyone who went to the Players’ under the age of 99 and they were desperate to get some youngsters in, so they offered us special rates,” Boyt remembers. “I’d meet people there. You could get a sausage in the interval for 50p. There were songs called things like ‘Are We To Part Like This, Bill?’ about lost love, and ‘It’s a Great Big Shame’ about a man who was furious that his best friend’s new wife wouldn’t let her husband come out to play. The costumes were wonderful – feathers, bustles and striped swimsuits with little legs for the seaside numbers.”
Boyt had always been fascinated by showbusiness. “I grew up thinking showbusiness was the highest calling,” she says. “I still do in a way. I had that feeling as a child of wanting to express something strongly inside me that was important but not being quite sure what it was. The theatre seemed the answer, but then I discovered writing.”
When Boyt came to UCL, she was looking for enthusiasm. “I’d been at Oxford where people would rather be eaten by sharks than talk about books. It was so luxurious to be somewhere where everyone was really excited by what they were reading, not jaded, cynical or arch.” She took a job in a bookshop on Saturdays and Sundays, and worked two mornings a week for a literary agent and one hour a day in an office, just about making ends meet. “I thought that if I also went to UCL two mornings a week, I would be able to write my book in the afternoon. That sounded like a life I wanted to live.”
It was a happy time. Her first novel, The Normal Man, came out during the course and there was much reading – and talking about reading. “We used to go to Sidoli’s Buttery on Store Street, which we rather inelegantly called Sid’s Butt. We spent hours championing the writers we loved over rock cakes – people such as Frank O’Hara, John Berryman and Henry James.”
From the sublimity of James to the ridiculousness of music hall, Boyt remembers her time at UCL with great fondness. “Going as deep as I could into texts was a great training for life,” she says. “I was taught how to look for the maximum that any text could yield. It was a way of getting the most out of everything – not just writing – and of seeing things, life at its sharpest and most complex. Acute reading is the best training for novelists.”
Since then, Boyt has published five other novels alongside her memoir, My Judy Garland Life, shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley Prize and serialised on Radio 4.
It was also staged as a musical. “It’s quite something having your life made into a musical! I had every single possible feeling.”
Her subjects as a novelist are still the things she first discovered in James as a student, such as “how to be good in the world without taking on the taint that the word ‘worldly’ carries,” she says. “And loss, and the attachments we form to our losses; the vast landscape of human feeling. But I like to make people laugh too.”
Susie Boyt is a novelist and columnist for the Financial Times. Her most recent novel, Love & Fame, is published by Virago.