Let’s have some more theatre memories! June to December 1986

As Tier 3 grows into Tier 4, and the new Covid variant spreads like wildfire and the UK is shut into quarantine, let’s remember some better times!

  1. Chess – Prince Edward Theatre, London, 24th June 1986

Miss Duncansby and I were both looking forward to seeing Chess so much, because we were already in awe of the album – and the show was a total triumph. Designed by Robin Wagner to a truly grand effect, everything about it was marvellous. Elaine Paige was riveting as Florence, Murray Head a fantastically irritating Trumper, and Tommy Korberg an immensely dignified Anatoly. We bought the souvenir brochure, we bought the T-shirts, we bought the VHS of the hit singles; we bought the concept. A real ten-out-of-tenner. Those front stalls seats were £18.50 each, the most I’d ever spent on a theatre ticket at the time. I sure knew how to show a girl a good time.

  1. Time – Dominion Theatre, London, 28th June 1986

And from the sublime to the ridiculous. Miss D was always a big fan of Cliff Richard, as was one of my colleagues at the time and her brother, so the four of us went to see this overblown monstrosity by Dave Clark – he of the “Five”. A science fiction musical; and – for obvious reasons – it didn’t spawn a succession of future musicals following that genre. There’s no doubt that Cliff was very good; as was the hologram of Sir Laurence Olivier, hovering, God-like, over the top of the stage. But everything else about it was absolutely dire. Looking through the cast list I see great names such as Jeff Shankley and Dawn Hope. Our friends loved it. We hated it. For ages the joke went “I see Cliff Richard is doing Time in the West End – for crimes against musical theatre”.

  1. Les Miserables – Palace Theatre, London, 10th July 1986

Moving past taking Miss D to see Noises Off at the Savoy, which I had already seen but insisted that she saw too (we both loved it, but it was a hot night and I was wearing a really nice tie which I took off and then left behind, never to be seen again), our next show was another big one – Boublil and Schönberg’s immense Les Miserables, which has never really gone away since it opened. We had some problems with this production – we sat in the front row of the Dress Circle which, although it was top price, always has been a desperately uncomfortable place to be, with infinitesimally tiny leg room. Plus, I had really painful gout that night which made the whole thing rather trying. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the show, but Miss D didn’t. On reflection I think we were both too young to appreciate it fully, and it was quite a few decades before we saw it again! The strong cast included Roger Allam as Javert, Alun Armstrong as Thenardier, David Burt as Enjolras, Peter Polycarpou as Prouvaire, Frances Ruffelle as Eponine, Dave Willetts as Brujon and the original Jean Valjean himself, Colm Wilkinson.

  1. Lend Me a Tenor – Globe Theatre, London, 12th July 1986

Ken Ludwig’s brilliantly clever and innovative farce was given a smashing production by David Gilmore, with a cast led by Denis Lawson, and also starring Jan Francis, John Barron and American opera star Ronald Holgate. A comedy of mistaken identity with a twist, an overdramatic opera star is incapacitated and is replaced by the producer’s assistant in the hope that no one will notice – but they do. I remember that we both laughed our socks off at this show; and it also had a very clever curtain call routine where they basically replayed the action of the entire show in less than a minute. It brought the house down.

  1. A Chorus of Disapproval – Lyric Theatre, London, 30th August 1986

Our next show was (for me) a return visit and for Miss D her first exposure to the joys of Side by Side by Sondheim which David Kernan had brought back to the Donmar Warehouse for a tenth anniversary season – and we both loved it. Our next “new” show was Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval, the National Theatre production that had transferred to the Lyric. The story of a blundering widower who makes himself indispensable in an amateur production of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, this enormously successful play didn’t quite hit the mark with either of us – maybe you needed to be more au fait with Gay’s original. I remember Colin Blakely totally dominating the stage; I don’t have many other memories of it after that.

  1. Cats – New London Theatre, London, 9th October 1986

The longer you wait, the longer you’ll wait went the advertising strapline, and I had already waited about five years before finally booking to see a show that I was curious about but never really wanted to see. But it was our year of seeing The Big Shows, so we paid out the money and finally got it under our belts. My view of Cats has never really changed; as an audio/visual spectacle it’s immense, its choreography is startling, and it basically has a life of its own. It’s an exercise in excellence in many respects. However, it is also sadly quite boring. I really wish it wasn’t, but it is. Our cast featured Anita Harris as Grizabella, with Christopher Molloy as Victor and Richard Lloyd-King as Rum Tum Tugger. Way down the cast list in a teensy tiny role as a member of the Cats Chorus – one Stephen Mear, now famously the choreographer of Mary Poppins, Sunset Boulevard, Gypsy and many others.

  1. Double Double – Fortune Theatre, London, 10th October 1986

Rick Elice and Roger Rees’ comedy thriller was a little nugget of total entertainment, that started life at the Palace Theatre Watford and then moved to the Fortune for a deservedly successful stay. A two-hander starring Rula Lenska and Keith Drinkel, it kept us guessing all the way through, and just as you thought you knew precisely what was going on, a brilliant coup de theatre leaves you gobsmacked at the end. I’ve just bought the script online because I really want to understand how they put this play together! Some of the photos are of the original cast – Roger Rees and Jane Lapotaire.

  1. Phantom of the Opera – Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, 17th October 1986

Continuing the theme of 1986 being the year of The Big Shows, they don’t come much bigger than this. I leapt at the chance to get great seats as soon as the production was announced, and so it was that we had seats in the middle of Row B of the stalls for its third night. A very starry affair, with Irish comedian Dave Allen sitting behind us and Australian Premier Malcolm Fraser a few seats along our row.

You don’t need me to tell you what an extraordinary night at the theatre this was. Michael Crawford as the Phantom, Sarah Brightman as Christine, Steve Barton as Raoul, John Savident and David Firth as the two Messieurs who own the theatre. I was perhaps a little surprised at how blancmangy the falling chandelier appeared directly from below as it gently descended above our heads – but that would be my only quibble.

  1. Janet Smith and Dancers – Civic Centre, Aylesbury, 7th November 1986

Perhaps a much less glamorous night out, but still thoroughly entertaining, we saw the excellent Janet Smith and Dancers troupe at the Civic Centre for the princely sum of £3.50 for great seats. I’m surprised that Janet Smith and her husband Robert North didn’t make a longer lasting impact on the world of contemporary dance, but they created some fantastic dance pieces, some of which were on the bill that night. The programme was: Still No Word from Anton, One Fine Day at Court, Near and From Far and finally Fool’s Day.

  1. Woman in Mind – Vaudeville Theatre, London, 10th December 1986

Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play was a staggeringly brilliant examination of a woman’s descent into madness, played exquisitely by Julia McKenzie and with a superb supporting cast including Martin Jarvis and Josephine Tewson. This play impacted us very strongly (as I believe it did many people) and it’s without question one of Ayckbourn’s finest moments. We loved it; but it’s also incredibly upsetting.

Review – Cats, Milton Keynes Theatre, 7th July 2013

CatsBack in that dizzy summer of 1986 when the young Miss Duncansby and I set about seeing everything in London worth seeing, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/T S Eliot combo of Cats was hot on the list. “The longer you wait, the longer you’ll wait” was the smug advertising strapline, as it had been around for five years and you still had to book a good four months in advance to get decent seats. So we committed, and went, and our memories are that we really enjoyed it.

Joanna AmpilFast forward 27 years to the Milton Keynes Theatre and this current touring production; a Saturday matinee with barely a seat available. When you enter the theatre you realise the set is amazing: the grim detritus of everyday life stuck together to make platforms, rooms, doorways and so on; scraps and rubbish overspill into the seating area; lights suspend all around the auditorium. It’s quite something. When the orchestra starts, hundreds of cats’ eyes blink at you in the dark creating true theatrical magic. At the end of the show, when Old Deuteronomy and Grizabella ascend to the heavens, the stagecraft of their spaceship-like journey is stunning. The music is played strongly and vibrantly; that very recognisable Cats overture that always reminds me of TV sports themes sets you up and gets you ready for a really enjoyable show. Performers start emerging from the darkness, dressed in extraordinary cat costumes and make up, emulating precisely that delicate, wily, determined, languid behaviour of your average domestic moggy, and reminding me of why I’m more of a dog person. They’re great dancers and singers and the whole Prologue sequence is fantastic.

Joseph PoultonAnd then something rather strange happens – and I guess this may be controversial. You get presented with a parade of different cats, with musical numbers and dance routines to portray their different characters, but there’s hardly any link between them. Dramatic intensity ebbs away; a sense of aimlessness takes its place. There’s absolutely no connecting narrative between any of the scenes, apart from the occasional sighting of Grizabella slinking on stage, getting attacked by other cats, then slinking back off. You don’t get any sense of progression or plot development. It ends up feeling like a rather sterile episodic contemporary dance where you don’t quite get how the current piece relates to the one before or the one after. Much to our surprise, and disappointment, we both found it a really boring show.

Ross FinnieThe T S Eliotishness of it all is strangely disturbing too. I love a good bit of Eliot as much as the next man, but I don’t think this works for the stage. Old Possum’s Practical Cats are more or less what you would expect from someone grappling with constructing the Four Quartets on one hand and then writing something for his godchildren on the other. It’s non-contemporary – Bustopher Jones in white spats for goodness sake? It’s pretentious – Jellicle cats and Pollicle dogs? Sadly, it’s also amazingly tedious at times – the whole Gus the Theatre Cat and his Growltiger the pirate sequence had me numb with disbelief. Mrs Chrisparkle gave up and decided that sleep was a more constructive way to spend the afternoon from the Bustopher Jones number to the interval, and then nodded off again early in the second half but fortunately woke up for one of the better scenes, Mr Mistoffelees. I tried hard to stay awake throughout and largely managed it.

Melissa JamesIt’s a shame because the cast put their heart and soul into this show and give really good performances. There are at least two star turns. Joanna Ampil as Grizabella doesn’t have to do much but what she does is superb, and her two “Memory” sequences are outstanding. I could tell Joseph Poulton was a great dancer in his role as Quaxo but when he becomes Mr Mistoffelees he’s in another sphere – breathtakingly good. Other excellent performances came from Ross Finnie as Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, breathing life and humour into an otherwise rather tedious character; Melissa James, rather fabulously sexy throughout as Bombalurina; and Oliver Savile was good as the Rum Tum Tugger, even if his make up gave him a slightly off-putting resemblance to the Bruce Forsyth of the 1960s – but then he’s definitely In Charge.

Oliver SavileSo despite all those extraordinarily good elements I fear this is not the sum of its parts. I’m prepared to accept I’m in the minority as it went down very well with the audience and is, in any case, one of the most successful musicals of all time – so what do I know? It’s touring till January – go see it for yourself.