THERE are moments in life when you know you are very lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
Elling at The Bush Theatre in west London was one of those moments last night.
Downstairs, TV coverage of Liverpool’s penalty shoot-out victory over Chelsea, to reach the Champions’ League Final, gripped a packed bar.
Upstairs, drama of a different kind entranced a sold out fringe theatre of 80 ticket holders.
Some 85 per cent of the audience was female. Many, no doubt, were attracted by the presence of Life On Mars star John Simm.
I went expecting him to be brilliant, astonishing and totally different to his last TV character – Sam Tyler.
John was all three and much more as Elling, one half of an odd couple released from a Norwegian mental asylum.
Together with roomate Kjell Bjarne, played by former Teachers star Adrian Bower, they were placed in a state apartment in Oslo.
The outside world sent mummy’s boy Elling dizzy.
Simple things like a trip to the shops to buy food or answering the phone were not for him.
Dressed in his buttoned-up raincoat, Simm reminded me in his look of Belgian comic book reporter Tintin in this illustration.
Both fussy Elling and his orang-utan friend Kjell faced returning to the asylum for the rest of their lives, unless they could re-integrate back into society.
Their journey of discovery, via pork with gravy, Gloria Gaynor and packets of sauerkraut, is both charming and touching.
Even in half shadow when the action is elsewhere on the small floor space, Simm acts with intense precision. He simply is Elling.
At over two hours, and with a front row so close they have to pull their legs in so the actors don’t trip over them, the concentration required must be immense.
There was, perhaps, a trace of that when Simm took two curtain calls with the rest of the excellent cast, including gentle giant Bowers.
Just for a moment, with his work done, he looked flushed and almost shy of the loud applause.
And there wasn’t much rest for the Lancashire-raised actor.
This morning at 9am he appeared as a guest on Radio 4’s Midweek programme.
Asked about Elling, he said: “It’s quite unnerving. The last time I was on stage was about 12 years ago.
“It was at The Bush, so it was kind of a comfort zone. There was no pressure then.
“I’ve become well-known since then, and it sold out very quickly, so I started to panic a little bit.
“And at The Bush it’s very small, so the audience are kind of in the play. They’re very, very near.”
He added: “It’s a charming play. It doesn’t take the mickey out of them, it’s not over-sentimental. It’s neither of those things.
“It’s just really charming and you laugh with them.”
He also agreed Elling was a change from his usual roles.
“It’s good to play somebody that’s fairly sweet.”
The first play I saw at The Bush Theatre was Hard Feelings in 1983.
Set against the backdrop of the Brixton riots in April 1981, it featured a young Frances Barber as Viv.
Ian Reddington – currently starring as Vernon Tomlin in Coronation Street – played Rusty.
The production was later recorded for TV and screened in 1984 in BBC1’s Play For Today series – I still have the video.
Elling, originally a novel and then an Oscar-nominated film, is right up there with the best in the long history of The Bush Theatre.
As John said, its entire run was sold out before the opening night and tickets were soon snapped up for a week-long extension to June 2.
Fans lined the corridor by the exit to the theatre last night waiting for Simm to leave, having seen something very special.
Some may have been there after dicovering him through Sam Tyler.
Now, somehow, I suspect sales of sauerkraut may be about to soar.
The Bush Theatre
First Night Photos
BBC Radio 4 Midweek
The Railway Arms