Carrying on with the theatre memories – October 1981 to April 1982

Come on in, the water’s lovely!

  1. The Killing Game – Apollo Theatre, London, 29th October 1981

image(1193)image(1194)image(1199)Thomas Muschamp’s The Killing Game was an intriguing thriller with a military air; it had something of the Conduct Unbecoming to it, if you remember that old play. Given the fact that he apparently wrote dozens of plays, Mr Muschamp’s oeuvre seems to be largely forgotten today. I remember this as being a riveting and exciting drama that kept me guessing throughout. An excellent cast but I particularly remember Hannah Gordon being superb.

  1. The Mitford Girls – Globe Theatre, London, 4th November 1981

image(1185)image(1186)image(1178)Another two-show day, this started off with Ned Sherrin and Caryl Brahms’ musical about the six Mitford sisters, the socialite, not socialist, family who got in with the Mosleys and the Hitlers and suchlike in the first half of the twentieth century. Nicely done, but it left me a bit cold – although, maybe that was the point? A great cast starred Patricia Hodge, with terrific stalwarts including Gay Soper and Julia Sutton – not to mention Oz Clarke. It even had “dances supervised” (whatever that means) by Anton Dolin. I remember feeling grateful that I had another show to go on to; and, indeed, it didn’t last long in the West End.

  1. Anyone for Denis – Whitehall Theatre, London, 4th November 1981

image(1181)John Wells’ Chequers-based farce was a complete hoot, with a fantastic central performance by Angela Thorne as Maggie Thatcher, although I always found John Wells’ own impersonation of Denis as rather over the top.

image(1182)I still cringe when I think of the publicity photo with Ms Thorne and Mr Wells and the real Thatchers – Denis obviously found it hilarious, but The Iron Lady had a smile full of individually gritted teeth.

A fascinating example of political satire that could never have been allowed whilst Theatre Censorship was in action. Creatively different programme, too!

  1. Children of a Lesser God – Albery Theatre, London, 5th November 1981

image(1171)image(1172)image(1175)On a second two-show day, I first saw Mark Medoff’s stunning play about a relationship between two members of staff at a school for the deaf, which garnered several awards on both sides of the Atlantic. The main roles were taken by the deaf actor Elizabeth Quinn and the hearing actor – and Shoestring himself – Trevor Eve. I remember it as a gripping and riveting watch, chock-full of terrific performances, and indeed it was later made into a very successful film.

  1. Roll on 4 O’clock – Palace Theatre, London, 5th November 1981

image(1162)image(1163)image(1168)The Palace Theatre is an awfully big place when there aren’t that many people in the audience so this third night performance of Colin Welland’s amusing but overwhelmingly alarming play about teachers coping with life as teachers and homophobic bullying amongst the boys felt a bit surreal. Primarily I went to see it because I wanted to see what Windsor Davies was like on stage – and he was brilliant. I remember him rousing up the first few rows of the stalls so that we all stood up to sing a hymn just before the curtain fell for the interval. Enjoyable, but I was expecting more. Also appearing as members of staff were Shaun Curry, Bernard Gallagher and Clive Swift, and amongst the boys, Nick Conway went on to have a very successful acting (and teaching) career.

  1. Pass the Butler – Globe Theatre, London, 6th February 1982

image(1156)image(1157)image(1149)A farce by Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle, and with a massive cast headed by William Rushton, John Fortune and Peter Jones, directed by Jonathan Lynn, should have been a thing of joy. But I remember it as being sadly shallow and full of horribly easy laughs, and, whilst it was certainly superficially funny at times, it didn’t have anything like enough oomph to become memorable. Can’t win them all – my next four shows were all sensational.

  1. On the Razzle – Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, 20th February 1982

image(1152)I saw this with my friend Ian – I’m not quite sure why he wanted to see it, but I’m glad he convinced me. Adapted by Tom Stoppard from Johann Nestroy’s 1842 comedy Einen Jux will er sich machen, which was also adapted into The Matchmaker and Hello Dolly, this was a brilliantly funny farce with maniacally lively characters, a superb script and some fantastic performances – Ray Brooks, Felicity Kendal, Dinsdale Landen, Joan Hickson, and above all, Michael Kitchen who was on fire for this show. image(1137)A farce of mistaken identities, romantic entanglements, an actress playing a boy and anything else Stoppard and Nestroy could chuck at it. I note that of the three child actors playing the Ragamuffin, one of them was Adam Woodyatt (aka Ian Beale). As Michael Kitchen said many times during this show: In a word, classic.


  1. Guys and Dolls – Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London, 4th March 1982

image(1138)image(1139)image(1140)A preview production of the show that has never really gone away since. Frank Loesser’s magnificent musical based on the writings and characters of Damon Runyon is full of the stuff of legend – and this incredible production by Richard Eyre quickly entered the annals of history as being Of The Best. I’ll never forget the audience erupting with ecstasy at David Healy’s finest career moment – his performance of Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat – so much so that Harry Towb, who had the next line as Lieutenant Branigan, simply gave up waiting to deliver it and joined the audience in demanding a reprise. With a dream team four main actors of Julia McKenzie, Julie Covington, Ian Charleson and Bob Hoskins, supporting cast including Barrie Rutter, John Normington and a young Imelda Staunton, this was always going to be one of the best shows anyone was ever likely to see. This production fired up some controversy along the lines of “should the subsidised theatre be creating commercial productions like this that could stand on their own two feet on Shaftesbury Avenue?” When it was a production of this quality, the answer was, unquestionably, yes.

  1. Another Country – Queen’s Theatre, London, 10th April 1982

image(1144)image(1129)image(1133)Julian Mitchell’s astonishing play about two social outsiders growing up in the public school system ran for ages and remains a landmark production, not only because it’s a riveting play, but because of the two young stars that were made from it – Rupert Everett in his first West End role and Kenneth Branagh, straight out of RADA. It wasn’t difficult to tell that these two would set the world on fire. Inspired by the real life story of Guy Burgess, the play went on to become a very successful film and is often revived. Another highly memorable and electric theatrical experience.

  1. Noises Off – Savoy Theatre, London, 15th April 1982

image(1135)image(1136)image(1125)Michael Frayn’s best known play had been running for just two weeks at the Savoy Theatre when I saw it, and since then I must have seen it at least another three or four times! A classic farce of backstage shenanigans with a hopeless cast rehearsing a dreadful sex comedy – and we see the first act of this awful play three times from three different perspectives and at three different points of its disastrous tour. One of the funniest plays around – and it still packs them in wherever it plays. With a superb original cast of Paul Eddington, Patricia Routledge, Nicky Henson, Roger Lloyd Pack and many more blistering names – just sensational.

Thanks for joining me down this theatrical memory lane. Next regular blog will probably be back to the holiday snaps and J is also for Jordan, and a week of exciting sightseeing in November 2008. Stay safe!

Theatre Censorship – 28: The portrayal of real people

Julian Mitchell

Julian Mitchell

The laws of libel and defamation remained largely unchanged from 1968 until 2013 – and this meant that dramatists still had to exercise caution if they wanted to incorporate a non-fictitious character into their work. Many represented real-life characters by implication. In Another Country (1981) Julian Mitchell took one aspect of each of his chief protagonists to create an amalgam of a real-life person. His character Guy Bennett, who is gay (and named Guy), and his character Tommy Judd, who is a Marxist, together add up to an implied portrayal of the spy Guy Burgess, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1951. As if to confirm this implication, Bennett at one stage announces: “I think perhaps I’ll be a spy when I grow up”; and at the end of the play both characters become outcasts as a result of those characteristics. Guy Burgess had actually died way back in 1963, so could not be libelled; but Julian Mitchell’s device of creating a non-fictional character out of two fictional characters is a fascinating piece of invention.

G F Newman

G F Newman

Another 1980s play took a much more hard-hitting and topical scandal for its basis. The Attorney-General was called upon to decide whether a production of G. F. Newman’s Operation Bad Apple should go ahead as planned at the Royal Court in February 1982. The author, known for his tough police fiction both in novels and dramatised on television, had based his play on “Operation Countryman” – an official investigation into corruption in the Metropolitan Police Force. The police lawyers were not deceived by the change of name from Countryman to Bad Apple. They requested that the Attorney-General should insist on its withdrawal because it could prejudice a fair hearing in the Operation Countryman trials which were taking place at the same time. Newman, naturally, insisted that all the characters in the play were totally fictitious, but the atmosphere of the play is one of intense realism with many contemporary references. For example, it included criticism of the Scarman report, which had been commissioned by the UK Government following the 1981 Brixton riots, and had been published on 25 November 1981. According to the lawyers it was the persuasive nature of the realism that could have influenced the trial.

Operation Bad AppleThe main theme of the play is that corruption in the force is not confined to just one bad apple, but that it is widespread; indeed, the play claims that the number of corrupt police exceeds 95% of the entire force. As if to prove the point, two of the play’s most crooked characters end up actually in control of Operation Bad Apple – nice work if you can get it. After consultations between the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions, both of whom feature in the play, it was decided to let it continue as planned. As the critic Charles Spencer remarked in the April 1982 issue of Plays and Players Magazine: “The opening… has brought a most welcome whiff of controversy back to the Royal Court. Merging from the underground station you can almost smell the smoke of battle wafting out of the theatre and over Sloane Square. It has been quite like old times… with the Attorney-General keeping an anxious beady eye on the production.”

Royce Ryton

Royce Ryton

The lifting of restrictions on presentations of members of the Royal Family on stage enabled Crown Matrimonial (1972) by Royce Ryton, a serious dramatization of Edward VIII’s abdication crisis, to enjoy a long and successful run. In 1981, however, the same author collaborated with Ray Cooney on Her Royal Highness?, a play which jumped on the bandwagon of the Royal Wedding between Charles and Diana. John Barber referred to it in the Daily Telegraph of 22nd February 1982 as “that tasteless farce about the Prince and Princess of Wales. The Lord Chamberlain would never have licensed that – but it didn’t last long.” According to Ray Cooney’s website, “owing to subsequent events in the tragic life of the real Diana, this play is not available for performance at the present time.”

Happy as a SandbagOne renowned personage who has been subjected to perhaps more than his fair share of satire and abuse is Sir Winston Churchill. It’s not hard to see why. He became synonymous for everything strong, patriotic and magnanimous; for the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” which made Britain great. His victorious cigar was an obvious choice for the centrepiece of the logo which advertised Ken Lee’s musical Happy as a Sandbag (1975). His influence and renown was so strong that to question his greatness was – or maybe still is – also to bring Britain’s greatness into question; especially in those early years after censorship was withdrawn. In Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, the successful search for Churchill’s missing penis at the end of the play acts as a blessing for the themes of sexual liberation that Orton examined so thoroughly in the rest of the play. This discovery is made when all the apparently unresolvable events of the play are, somehow, resolved; just as Nick and Geraldine are twins and Prentice and his wife are lovers, the missing part of Winston Churchill has been literally staring us in the face all along.

The Churchill PlayCast your mind back, if you can, to 1974. Britain in recession, the three-day week, power cuts, miners’ strikes, unstable governments, IRA bombings… it wasn’t the best of times. It was also the year that Howard Brenton wrote The Churchill Play, which opens with the surreal vision of Churchill, presumed dead, springing from his coffin, brandishing cigar and Union Jack. At first you might expect the embodiment of Churchill to represent a spirit of greatness, arriving like the cavalry to rescue Britain from the doldrums. However, as the play unfolds, you realise that Churchill shoulders the blame for everything wrong with the country. The play is set in a British Concentration Camp in 1984 – the Orwellian reference is by no means coincidental – where prisoners of conscience are sent. Their crime? To question the justice of the Con-Lab government which is, as Jonathan St. John (M.P., Chairman of the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Ways and Means) describes himself, “more Con than Lab. Very much more.” The camp is proudly referred to as the Churchill Camp; so the country has seen fit to pay tribute to its “great man” with an edifice that represents, symbolises and embodies fascism. You don’t need me to point out the irony that it was Churchill who successfully waged the 1939-45 war against the Nazis and their concentration camps. Gerald Morn, a representative of the last vestiges of socialism in Britain, calls the camp “the English Dachau”; to prove it, Colonel Ball, the military mastermind of the camp, and who appears to believe implicitly that “Winston Churchill saved this country from one thousand years of barbarism”, continues to implement this barbarism and taint Churchill’s reputation by naming it after him.

The internees of the camp look upon the production of the Churchill play (within a play) as a diversionary tactic, helping them to stage their planned escape, which shows that they see him in a different light from the Colonel and the politicians. They regard him as symbolising a possible salvation from fascism, rather than a justification for it. In the end, the security arrangements are tighter than they thought, and the prisoners’ rebellious spirit disintegrates as they realise that the strength of right-wing militancy sweeping the country. This new regime will not permit them any reintegration back into society. The probable result is that, after the curtain falls, they will either “be dumped”, or received Julia Redmond’s (a most suspicious PPS) white-box torture: “you are tied in a white room. The eye cannot focus. The white… an ionized paint… is infinite. Like the dark sky of a moonless night… in the end you become a white, three-D void… there are drugs. And surgery… You cut the brain… butchery… against the butchers.” Elsewhere in the play, when Churchill is not being used to represent this kind of savagery, he is ridiculed in an imaginary presentation of the 1945 Yalta Conference, where he met Stalin and Roosevelt to complete plans for the defeat of Germany and the foundation of the United Nations. Brenton has him taking a bath with Stalin, with the bath-water representing Europe, displaced in Archimedean fashion by their discussions. Churchill is the unifying thread which runs throughout the play, and a good example of the portrayal of a non-fictitious public figure on stage, with inventiveness and originality.

In my next post I’ll look at some more “real” people on stage and the use of national stereotypes.