Some more insights into my theatrically formative years!
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – Criterion Theatre, London, February 1976.
Not the original production, obviously – that was way back in 1966. This revival, produced by the Young Vic, starred Christopher Timothy and Richard O’Callaghan as Hamlet’s chums, and absolutely superb they were too. It was played very much for laughs, so it was a very funny production, but probably missed out on some of the play’s darker aspects. I note with pleasure that they observed the three-act structure, and that this had two intervals of twelve minutes each – wouldn’t happen today. This was a school trip, led by my Stoppard-mad English teacher, Bruce Ritchie. He was influential on us all becoming Stoppard fans, something that I’ve only had to question with his more recent output!
- Sacha Distel at the London Palladium, 19th April 1976.
I always liked Sacha Distel, and it’s impossible to sing Raindrops Keep Falling on my ‘Ead without adopting a faux-French accent. But the reason I jumped at the chance to attend this revue, scheduled for just one week, was the participation of the love of my life, Lynsey de Paul. It was a very good show, with great comedy compering from Kerry Jewel, a brilliant comedy music act from Marti Caine, and Sacha Distel doing his thing as only Sacha Distel could. But I was thrilled to see Lynsey, who sang about six or seven of her best songs, accompanying herself on the piano, and also joining M. Distel for a duet during his act. One of my most memorable nights in a theatre!
- Equus – Albery Theatre (now the Noel Coward, still hate theatre name changes!), London, May 1976.
One of the last occasions where I lost my programme – and what a shame to have lost this one! By this time, Peter Shaffer’s evergreen play had undergone several cast changes, and I saw Colin Blakely as Dysart and Gerry Sundquist as Strang. This was another school trip – quite a bold choice by our English teachers but they knew we’d take it seriously. The staging of this original production included having some of the audience seated on the stage, on steep (and uncomfortable) racks at the back, looking down on to the action from behind – cheap seats, so they put us there, and I found it mesmerising. The fame and success of Equus continues to this day, and I’m grateful to have had the experience of seeing this ground-breaking production.
- Hamlet – Lyttelton Theatre, National, London, June 1976.
This was the inaugural production at the new National Theatre, which had only opened on the South Bank in March 1976. This full, uncut Hamlet lasted almost four and a half hours – quite a feat for a school night (finishing just in time for me to get the midnight train home, but not getting to bed till 1.30 am) but as it was yet another school trip, I had the perfect excuse. The dual pleasure of seeing something that you already knew was going to be a master-achievement, together with one’s first time in the Lyttelton made this another unforgettable experience.
The extraordinary cast included Albert Finney as Hamlet, Denis Quilley as Claudius and the Ghost, Barbara Jefford as Gertrude, Susan Fleetwood as Ophelia, Simon Ward as Laertes, Philip Locke as Horatio and Roland Culver as Polonius. From then on, I wanted to see everything I could at the National – but there’s always been so much on offer that’s an impossible task! A magnificent, austere and awe-inspiring production.
- Tom Stoppard’s Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land – Arts Theatre, 28th June 1976.
Another Stoppard, another school trip, another school night. As a theatregoer, one particular breakthrough moment for me was having the sense to tuck my ticket stub in the spine of my programme, so that I would always know when I saw a show, where I sat and how much it cost. Stalls N1, the grand sum of £1. I didn’t always remember to do it from then on, but it became second nature before long.
Dirty Linen is a curious but funny play, 85 minutes long and split into two halves with the play within the play, New-Found-Land, being the cleverer and funnier of the two. I did, however, enormously enjoy the sense of occasion, the Arts Theatre at the time being delightfully seedy and clubby – you couldn’t get further from the National if you tried.
We were taken by two of our teachers – Bruce Ritchie, naturally, as it was a Stoppard, and Andy Wilson, who the world knows better as A. N. Wilson, writer, thinker, commentator and young fogey, who was my erudite and entertaining companion in seat N2. Excellent performances from Edward de Souza, Peter Bowles and especially Stephen Moore.
- Liza of Lambeth – Shaftesbury Theatre, London, 5th July 1976.
Mum really wanted to see this show as she was a big Somerset Maugham fan, and we went for her birthday, even though it was a school night. It was a bright-hearted, warm fun musical, with some great songs (several of which I still sing to myself) and a great cast. I didn’t know the story and wasn’t prepared for the hugely sad ending – Liza’s kicked to death by the wife of the man who made her pregnant – and I’d fallen in love with Angela Richards, who played Liza!
Patricia Hayes, Michael Robbins, Kate Williams, Tina Martin, Brian Hall and Christopher Neil also all gave sterling performances, and I for one would queue up to see a revival.
- Troilus and Cressida – Young Vic, London, 19th July 1976.
First theatre trip out during the school summer holidays, and the first show I saw on my own since the Sacha Distel Show. This production had originally been intended to open the new Cottesloe Theatre in the National Theatre development, but the theatre wasn’t ready yet, so it had to move to the Young Vic.
On paper it’s a great cast, but I didn’t like it much – primarily because I didn’t understand it. The direction made it hard to follow, and it was only Robert Eddison’s Pandarus that made the whole thing watchable. Maybe they just couldn’t get on with the last-minute switch of venue.
- Donkeys’ Years – Globe Theatre (now the Gielgud), London, 22nd July 1976.
I saw this with my schoolfriend Robin on a Thursday matinee, because we were both big fans of TV’s The Good Life and really wanted to see Penelope Keith perform in person. One of Michael Frayn’s early plays, it’s about a college Gaudy reunion that goes disastrously wrong in many ways. Slow to start, but then it gets pretty funny for Acts Two and Three. We enjoyed it very much, despite the fact that it was a very poor audience. But you’ll remember, gentle reader, how lovely the summer of 1976 was – only theatre nerds were attending matinees and not enjoying the sunshine.
The actors were all excellent. In addition to Penelope Keith, it starred Peter Barkworth, Peter Jeffrey, Julian Curry (Rumpole’s Claude Erskine-Brown) and Jeffry Wickham. Because we wanted to meet Penelope Keith, Robin and I went to the stage door after the show to collect autographs. Everyone who came out was very kind and chatty – but Miss Keith did not appear. The Stage Door Keeper very kindly offered to phone down to her and he reported that she could not come up (can’t remember why) but he would take our autograph books down to her and she would sign them. And so she did.
- Three Sisters – Cambridge Theatre, London, 29th July 1976.
One week later, another matinee, this time on my own. I knew of Chekhov and had already read most of his plays but had never seen one, so I thought I’d be intellectual and give this a try. It was fantastic. An amazing cast featured Janet Suzman as Masha and Nigel Davenport as Vershinin, with Peter Bayliss as a foolish, unpleasant Soliony, Peter Eyre as Toozenbach, John Shrapnel as Prozorov and June Ritchie as his awful wife. The other sisters were a wide-eyed innocent Angela Down as Irena and a mature and sensible Susan Engel as Olga.
Directed in a clear, pared-back and emotional style by Jonathan Miller, who was in the audience – I actually saw him in the Dress Circle bar during the interval but I didn’t speak to him because he looked like he wasn’t enjoying it much. He was the only one who wasn’t. From where I sat in the stalls, for the opening 90 seconds of the play Ms Down was looking directly into my eyes without moving an inch. I stared back. I’m sure that, 45 years later, she remembers that shared moment just as vividly as I do. (joke)
The production had transferred from the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford but only lasted about two months in the West End. Maybe that’s why Jonathan Miller wasn’t very happy.
- Banana Ridge – Savoy Theatre, London, 5th August 1976.
For some summer comedy, here was a revival of an old Ben Travers farce (old Ben Travers was the flavour of the month as his Bed Before Yesterday was in town – more of that soon) with a pleasing collection of comedy actors including Robert Morley, George Cole (pre-Minder), Joan Sanderson (post-Please Sir), Jan Holden and Vivienne Martin, who had been one of the prankish young ladies of the St Trinians’ films where Mr Cole had been Flash Harry. It was a very successful revival, running for a year.
I remember enjoying it very much; Robert Morley’s character was a hilariously bumbling old man and it was a brilliant portrayal. I also had a very enjoyable time at the stage door, meeting the cast and getting autographs. Mr Morley was gracious, Miss Sanderson was kind; Geoffrey Burridge mis-spelt my name and we had a good laugh about that. Vivienne Martin was very chatty and said that the naughty Mr Morley had spent the entire show trying to make the other cast members corpse – and had I noticed? I said it explained why Mr Cole got flummoxed, and was embarrassed about forgetting his lines.
It was an interesting insight into how a star like Robert Morley would get a bit of fun out of an otherwise dull matinee on a sunny afternoon.
That’s another ten shows in the bag! On Monday it’ll be another holiday snaps blog. B is also for Brazil, and some memories from our trip to Rio in 2011.