Last Wednesday evening finds Old Dive the Samuel Beckett fanboy sitting, tense with excited anticipation in the middle of the third row, around ten feet from the front of the stage at Norwich's beautifully refurbished Theatre Royal.
I am waiting for the start of one of my very favourite plays. I've seen eight productions since we made a mess of it in the sixth form at school, but this promises to be the dream team production and it doesn't disappoint.
Samuel Beckett's glorious Waiting For Godot, with Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and Sir Ian Mc.Kellen as Estragon.
I mean Holy crap! What's not to love? The most wonderful play ever written about the comedy and despair of the human condition, starring a couple who were born to play Vladimir and Estragon and who have just reached the perfect age to do so.
I won't bother going through these guys' stage, cinema and tv history; we all know and love them.
Suffice to say that Sir Ian Mc.Kellen and Patrick Stewart are both blessed with THE VOICE and at seventy and sixty-eight years old respectively at last have the gravitas and credibility to play these two fabulous rôles.
They are at the peak of their powers and - like Didi and Gogo - have been building a genuine relationship for fifty years in some truly wonderful plays.
So … The curtain rises …
How did they do?
Godot is a very easy play to get spectacularly wrong. All eight productions I have seen have been wildly different.
A lot of productions go for the easy option and play it for laughs.
Which is fine as far as it goes, as Beckett has written a gutbustingly hilarious script.
But that is only half of it.
From around 500BC and the first Greek theatre, the masks of comedy and tragedy have been inseparable and this play needs them both in perfect balance.
One particular production - and a very good one - eschewed the comedy altogether, making the funny lines bitter or wistful and omitting the slapstick routines Didi and Gogo have developed over fifty years of life on the road together.
The result was overpoweringly bleak. Hugely impressive, but not the most fun I've ever had in a theatre.
The Guardian theatre critic must have been a fan of that particular production as he criticised Mc.Kellen and Stewart (mildly in an otherwise rave review) for "playing it for laughs" in the first act.
I find their double act perfect.
To feel the full tragedy; the shock, horror and devastation of the latter parts of the play, you need to build up sympathy for Didi and Gogo and this production has, in my view, given us the perfect Godot.
The set is reassuringly dark and bleak, with the tree bare for the first half of the play … the pitiful display of leaves that bedeck its broken branches as the second act opens betokening the pathetic hope life gives us a moment before dashing it away.
But the first act …
Mc.Kellen clambers painfully and slowly - as befits a seventy year old man - over a pile of masonry rubble and enters the stage; sits, exhausted and tries forlornly - and with little success - to remove the remains of his boots from his swollen and bloody feet.
Enter Patrick Stewart as an only slightly more dapper Vladimir and we are off.
Their rapport is instant and marvellous to behold.
Like an old married couple who have long ago forgotten why they married in the first place they bicker, fight, make up and bicker again. They are the most believable and instantly lovable Didi and Gogo I have ever seen.
The audience erupts into gales of helpless laughter. Mc.Kellen and Stewart turn out to be a classic and wonderful comedy double act, yet through the sheer class of their acting the pain and despair of the two protagonists is constantly there, nagging at us as we roar with mirth, both with them and at their misfortune.
Being as close to the actors as if they are here in my living room with me is amazing. Although Vladimir and Estragon are completely alone in their desolation, some audience interaction is inevitable and there are several instances of eye contact with them both; one in particular, where Mc.Kellen sits musing and gazing out over "the fog" that is the audience, he catches my eye and keeps it for a long, long time. There is such an intensity, such a sparkle in the old charmer's gaze that I am transfixed. He's still a seductive old bugger at seventy!
There is indeed a magic about both of them; in the programme notes I had read over coffee in the upstairs restaurant beforehand while studying my old script, they had discussed how they approached the rôles. There was reverence there, but also a determination to make this Godot their own. Not as two individuals, Vladimir and Estragon, but as a cohesive and inseparable whole.
They succeeded spectacularly.
One passage in particular, shortly before the first arrival of Pozzo and Lucky is so tricky to get right and can often appear crass:
Vladimir: What do we do now?
Vladimir: Yes, but while we're waiting.
Estragon: What about hanging ourselves?
Vladimir: Hmm. It'd give us an erection!
Estragon: (highly excited) An erection!
Vladimir: With all that follows. Where it falls mandrakes grow. That's why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?
Estragon: Let's hang ourselves immediately!
Mc.Kellen and Stewart play this with such a rush of pure, innocent, childlike wonder it is marvellous to behold. A pair of old, old men, careworn and hopeless seeing a glimpse of light in the darkness; the opportunity for one last erection and then blissful oblivion …
But of course it - like all hope - fades …
I've seen that played straight, played for laughs, played cringe-inducingly badly, but with Mc.Kellen and Stewart at last I really believe it.
And they keep it up (no pun intended) for the full two and a half hours.
Of course even a top-drawer Vladimir and Estragon can see all their work ruined by a poor Pozzo and Lucky.
No so here.
The casting for this production is peerless.
Simon Callow plays the rôle of his life as Pozzo. He takes the part of the casually vicious, Stalinesque buffoon and plays it to the hilt as the monstrous ringmaster of his own hideous freak show.
An explosion of light and colour and noise and brutal violence against the grey but cheerful innocence of what's gone before; he is shockingly good.
And cowering, half-dead at the other end of the rope in mute submissive resignation is Ronald Pickup as Lucky.
I've seen him play Beckett before and I knew he would be good, but he is simply astonishing.
His breathless, rabid, bespittled and totally insane "in spite of the tennis" monologue/diatribe shakes the audience with its intensity; he starts stark raving mad and gets more psychotic by the second, building to such a frenzied climax that - as Vladimir siezes his "speaking hat", wrenching it from his head and Lucky freezes, wild-eyed and staring blindly out at us, drool running down his front - there are five long seconds of dead silence and stillness and then - as he collapses - the auditorium erupts in a thoroughly deserved and prolonged ovation while poor Ronald lays prostrate and exhausted at the front of the stage.
I am not usually a fan of spontaneous applause during a play, but this is the first of many on the night and every one brings a twinkle to the eye and the twitch of a grin to the corner of the mouth of the cast.
They are brilliant and they know it.
The first half is perfect, but the second even better.
Mc.Kellen and Stewart are just as funny, sparking off one another, totally believable as Didi and Gogo but suddenly the laughs are uncomfortable; the humour the deepest black.
The false hope of the leaves on the tree is about to be dashed and our whole world will tumble, crashing around us in bitter ruin.
They have indeed played it for laughs quite deliberately, but only to set us up for the fall.
The slow-dawning realisation of the hopelessness and despair of our heroes' purgatorial dilemma creeps like dread out over the audience and freezes our hearts.
When it comes to the climax it is shattering.
Pozzo's shocking blindness. The horror of knowing that there but for the grace of God-knows-what go Didi and Gogo; how close Vladimir might have come to the tyranny of Pozzo and Estragon to the Hellish hopelessness of Lucky.
As Lucky lays unconscious, with Mc.Kellen administering a shockingly violent and realistic kicking to his unresisting body we are aghast!
And then comes the truth …
The stage is quiet and dark; Pozzo and Lucky have once again departed as we wait for the inevitable appearance of the Boy with his never-changing message.
Estragon sits, nodding off in utterly exhausted despair and Vladimir wanders the stage, bereft; his soliloquy on the human condition made all the more poignant and heartbreaking by the laughter that has preceded it and set us up for this devastating sucker punch.
We knew it was coming and willingly walked right into it.
Tears sting my eyes and pour down my cheeks. As they do those of everyone present.
And at the last, just before Didi and Gogo turn to go but realise they never can, they try once again to hang themselves but - inevitably - the wretched piece of rope that had been Estragon's belt snaps in half and Mc.Kellen's trousers drop around his ankles.
But we do not laugh … We cannot laugh any more.
There they stand …
A huge standing ovation goes on and on, with three curtain calls for the cast, variously and all together (including a very fortunate local schoolboy as the Boy) and then Stewart and Mc.Kellen return once more and give us a music hall dance routine, juggle with their hats, strike a pose and are gone …
Like Vladimir and Estragon in their interminable and unreasoning wait for Godot I have waited fifty years to see this production.
However long I live I'll never see a better one.
It is still touring.
If you get the faintest chance of a ticket, take it!
You must see this production.
It truly deserves the classic review: "You'll laugh; you'll cry; it'll change your life".
Apologies to Sir. Ian Mc.Kellen for nicking some of these photos from his website.