Well? Are you ready to go??
- Educating Rita – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, 24th July 1981
I saw this with my friend Rob, and we both really enjoyed it. The original production – although not the original cast – of Willy Russell’s instant smash hit comedy that spawned a terrific film version and endless stage revivals, with many more to come I trust. If you only know the film, then you might be surprised to discover the play is a two-hander, with Mark Kingston’s lecturer Frank getting progressively more drunk and disorderly as the play progresses, whilst Shirin Taylor’s Rita gets progressively smarter. Two superb performances – although my memory tells me that Ms Taylor was on particularly cracking form.
- Barnum – London Palladium, 3rd August 1981
One of those shows that rewrote the history of the musical. I saw it with the Dowager Mrs C because we were both still carried away by Michael Crawford’s performance in Flowers for Algernon, so we wanted to see him in a show where he’d been incredibly successful too. Mr Crawford’s skill and showmanship have never been more delightfully expressed.
But this is a terrific show all round – with amazing songs, wonderful circus skills, memorable characters and sheer goodtime exhilaration. Deborah Grant was superb as Charity, but there was superb support throughout the entire cast, and I remember with particular fondness Jennie McGustie’s hilarious Joice Heth (Thank God I’m Old is one of my favourite showtunes) and Sarah Payne’s temptress Jenny Lind.
I even managed to get one of the flyers for Jenny Lind’s free concert. One helluva show.
- Childe Byron – Young Vic, London, 11th August 1981
From the heights of exhilaration to the depths of sheer awfulness in one fell swoop. I saw this with my friend Claire because she wanted to see how David Essex was in real life and this did, to be fair, sound like an interesting play, with fascinating controversies over the original American performance, and with terrific performers like Sara Kestelman and Simon Chandler in the cast, it couldn’t be all bad. Wrong. It was as bad as they get. To be honest, it wasn’t the play, although it was cumbersome and pretentious. It was David Essex. I’m afraid this was the worst performance I’ve ever seen from a star name. He simply had no variety to his speaking pattern, it was that Godspell-style sing-song intonation all the way through. And it wasn’t just me who found him awful. A sizeable chunk of the Young Vic audience was clearly appalled at what they were seeing. In that awful tense moment where an audience has to choose whether to react either by booing or laughing at it (believe me, silence was not an option), we decided on laughter. At one stage Mr Essex stopped the show and told us all that if we weren’t going to take it seriously he wasn’t going to carry on (at which we all had to suppressed a mock ooooh retort). For some bizarre reason we stayed until the end. But it was flat out dreadful, and Mr Essex did himself no favours that evening.
- Pygmalion – Young Vic, London, August 1981
I headed back to the Young Vic a couple of weeks later to see this revival of Shaw’s Pygmalion, directed by Denise Coffey, and with Richard Easton as Henry Higgins and Lorraine Chase as Eliza. It was very enjoyable and good-humoured. So much so that, when Stephen Lewis (Blakey in On The Buses) playing Alfred Doolittle, seriously mucked up a couple of lines, he stopped, turned to the audience and very politely asked “Shall I go off and come on again?” at which point we all cheered and good-naturedly let him go from the top again. All this and the redoubtable Betty Marsden as Mrs Higgins. Highly entertaining.
- Quartermaine’s Terms – Queen’s Theatre, London, 14th August 1981
Simon Gray’s new play was a charming and funny look at how teachers interact in the staff room at a Cambridge school for teaching English to foreign students, with an accent on how the good old days are on their way out. With a notable cast led by Edward Fox, including James Grout, Prunella Scales and Robin Bailey. Not too many other memories of this one, but I remember that it was good.
- Goose Pimples – Garrick Theatre, London, 19th August 1981
I have much stronger memories of this production, but not entirely for the right reasons. Devised by Mike Leigh – which will have meant that the cast basically wrote it themselves under his aegis – it’s a very tasteless play where a middle class party gets out of hand and they encourage a non-drinking Muslim to get blottoed so that they can laugh at him. Hilarious if you like poking fun at filthy foreigners, otherwise, even in those not especially PC days, buttock-clenchingly embarrassing at times. What’s most bizarre is that the sheikh was played by a young Antony Sher, in his pre-RSC days. The cast also included the splendid Jim Broadbent. I went to see this because I was hoping for another Abigail’s Party. I didn’t get it.
- One Big Blow – 7:84 Theatre Company England at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, 25th September 1981
Passing over 1981’s visit to the Pendley Festival (Merchant of Venice that year), I went with my friends Mike and Dave, whilst I was staying at their family home in Liverpool during the summer hols, to see John Burrows’ One Big Blow, a moving and beautifully performed story of the health and safety hazards faced by a group of coal miners, who also formed a brass band for their recreation when they were above ground. The actors performed the sounds of the brass band a capella and, yes, these were the actors who went on to become The Flying Pickets. Superb and emotional night at the theatre, and it was fascinating to see the beginning of what was to be a very successful musical career for these actors.
- Overheard – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, 28th October 1981
A new play by Peter Ustinov must have been a source of great joy, but I have to confess, I can’t remember a single thing about this. I even forgot that I had ever seen Ian Carmichael (whom I always admired) and the excellent Deborah Kerr on stage. I had just begun two years’ postgraduate studies at the University of London and I reckon I had enough on my plate. What I do remember, is that I started to blitz the West End now that I was living in London, so I saw a matinee of this play, then an evening performance of the next one – and then I repeated the same pattern the next day. And the same the following week. I crammed a lot of theatre into a short space of time that way!
- Steaming – Comedy Theatre, London, 28th October 1981
I remember much better Nell Dunn’s play about the women who used municipal steam baths and how they faced and dealt with its proposed closure. Hats off to Jenny Tiramani for her design which allowed the stage of the Comedy Theatre to be transformed into a real-life steam bath, which the naked ladies occasionally jumped into with total unalloyed abandon. The film that starred Diana Dors changed the emphasis of the original play somewhat, in order to accommodate its star, but the play was a delight, with Georgina Hale, Maria Charles and Brenda Blethyn all giving top rate performances.
- The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B – Duke of York’s Theatre, London, 29th October 1981
J P Donleavy adapted his own novel for the stage in this thoroughly entertaining romp starring Simon Callow and Patrick Ryecart. After a while the title was shortened to just Balthazar B, but I’m sure the audiences didn’t miss out on his beastly beatitudes too. Messrs Callow and Ryecart were a terrific duo in this rather salacious tale of women chasing men and marriages of convenience. I can’t remember too many details but I know I enjoyed it enormously. This was a matinee performance – and you’ll have to wait until my next theatre blog to discover what I saw in the evening!
Thanks for joining me on this little look at some old shows. Next regular blog will be back to the holiday snaps, and J is also for Jersey, and a fortnight in 1995 that coincided with 50 years since the end of the war, and, more important, 50 years since the liberation of Jersey. In the meantime, stay safe!