Omid Djalili – Oxford Playhouse, 17th January 2007
One of the very first stand-up comedy shows we ever saw, Omid Djalili was beginning to break through on TV comedy shows and I have to say that, live, he is sensational. A great night’s comedy.
Cabaret – Lyric Theatre, London, 27th January 2007
Rufus Norris’ amazing production of Kander and Ebb’s brilliant musical, that continues to tour and to influence other productions to this day. Anna Maxwell Martin proved her versatility as Miss Sally Bowles, and a very affectionate coupling of Sheila Hancock as Fraulein Schneider and Geoffrey Hutchings as Herr Schultz. James Dreyfus played Emcee and I expect he was terrific, but the night we saw it, his understudy was playing and I regret I have no note as to who that was. An excellent production.
Hay Fever – Oxford Playhouse, 24th February 2007
I had always wanted to see a production of one of Noel Coward’s earlier sparkling comedies, but sadly I have hardly any memories of this show, starring Christopher Timothy and Stephanie Beacham as the heads of the theatrical Bliss family. I’m sure it was good though!
Spiegel – Ultima Vez/Wim Vandekeybus at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 2nd March 2007
This show could have been called Wim Vandekeybus’ Greatest Hits, with excerpts from several of his previous shows forming a new work as a whole. Again, very few memories of this show, I’m afraid.
Guys and Dolls – Milton Keynes Theatre, 7th March 2007
Breaking my usual rule about not including shows I’ve seen before in these blogs, this was a very brash production of Guys and Dolls by Michael Grandage, but my memory is that it was a little underwhelming. The four big roles were played by Alex Ferns, Samantha Janus, Norman Bowman and Louise Dearman.
Equus – Gielgud Theatre, London, 17th March 2007
A really big ticket at the time – Richard Griffiths as Martin Dysart with Daniel Radcliffe as Alan Strang; and Jenny Agutter as Hesther. A terrific coupling of two amazing actors, one slowly reaching the end of his career, one blossoming at the start of his – and both known for their work on Harry Potter. Young Mr Radcliffe was still only 17 when he took on this brave role. And it was every bit the riveting show that you would imagine.
Madama Butterfly – Welsh National Opera at the Milton Keynes Theatre, March 2007
A beautiful, strong and sensitive production of Puccini’s opera – but mainly notable for me as it was the last time we took the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to the theatre, before her dementia sadly took over. I’m delighted to say that she loved it.
Boeing Boeing – Comedy Theatre, London, 6th April 2007
Marc Camoletti’s wonderful comedy from 1962 was given a completely fresh make-over and bounded back to life in this brilliant revival by Matthew Warchus. A dream team of a cast, with Roger Allam as the Lothario Bernard, Mark Rylance as his bemused friend Robert, Frances de la Tour as the bolshie maid Bertha, and Tamzin Outhwaite, Daisy Beaumont and Michelle Gomez as the three air hostesses whom Bernard is controlling through close following of the Boeing timetables. Incredibly funny, full of beautiful period detail, and a total joy.
The Sound of Music – London Palladium, 9th April 2007
The production that followed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s TV search for a new Maria – Connie Fisher – this was a tremendous show that at times transformed the innocent Palladium into a Nazi conference with swastikas all over the auditorium – very scary and extremely effective. We went on the one night of the week that Connie Fisher didn’t perform – it was the only night that tickets were readily available – but Sophie Bould, who normally played Liesl, played Maria and she was absolutely brilliant. All this plus Lesley Garrett as the Mother Superior and Alexander Hanson as von Trapp.
Can-Can – Lost Musicals at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London, 15th April 2007
Another of Ian Marshall Fisher’s delvings into the back catalogue of Lost Musicals, Can Can is an old Cole Porter show brought to life in the round by the usual crowd, including James Vaughan, Stewart Permutt, Myra Sands and Valerie Cutko. Great fun as always.
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.
There’s something about a Latin word that gives it more clout. Like when they create some expensive new cosmetic but 50% of it is tap water, the main ingredient majestically becomes Aqua. No one says aqua! Not since 55 BC. No surprise, therefore, that a 17-year-old mentally ill, sexually confused boy with a horse hang-up would scream “Eq… Eq…Equus!” from his hospital bed rather than the more traditional “Giddy up Neddy”.
Forgive me for that disrespectful introduction, because I actually have a ton of respect for this most significant 20th century play, first performed in 1973 – and I have no doubt it would have faced the wrath of the censor ten years earlier. It’s now been given a pared-down, imagination-filled production from the English Touring Theatre, starting its national tour appropriately enough at one of the most significant theatres of 20th century drama, the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It’s been a matter of personal shame that I have reached the grand old age of [insert grand old age here] and had never been to the Theatre Royal Stratford East. So when my friend the Squire of Sidcup announced that he wanted to see some “great plays”, and I saw that Peter Shaffer’s Equus was on at that self-same theatre, it was a no-brainer.
I’m sure you know – but in case you don’t, Magistrate Hesther Salomon refers the case of Alan Strang to psychiatrist Martin Dysart as his last chance before being locked up in prison. Strang has been found guilty of blinding six horses at a riding stable; a crime that, even today, stuns the audience into silence when they first hear it. Strang is obstructive, uncommunicative, confrontational, but clearly in need of some meaning to his life; in many ways, a typical teenager. As Dysart pushes and probes into Strang’s emotions and motivations, the truth is slowly revealed of the latter’s destructive obsession with the horse god Equus. But, in comparison, Dysart also considers his own dusty, crusty existence, where he merely observes outside life taking place without having any of his own; and, although comparisons are odious, he becomes jealous of Strang’s passionate and sensual self-expression. At the end of the play, you can draw your own conclusions as to which of them has the brighter future.
This is my third exposure to the dark recesses of Alan Strang’s mind and Martin Dysart’s own personal struggles as his psychiatrist. The first time was in a school group (that’s bold) in 1976, with Colin Blakely as Dysart and Gerry Sundquist as Strang, shortly before it closed – this was the tail end of the original production, I believe. There were bench seats at the back of the stage where we all perched, uncomfortably, but I remember it as a mesmeric experience. Then Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the celebrated 2007 production with Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe, which was probably the hottest ticket in town. However, this new production can easily hold its head up high in such prized company.
The simple, stark set adapts itself so well to represent a clinical hospital environment. Sheer white curtains drop down three sides of the stage suggesting those curtains that divide beds in a ward, but also just giving that hint of a white padded room that we associate with mental institutions. A few props, such as Strang’s hospital bed, a basic TV so loathed by his father, and an unexplained hospital trolley carrying six horses’ skulls, are all you need to fill in the gaps. The biggest and most effective prop is Jessica Hung Han Yun’s fantastic lighting design, which incorporates mysterious gloom and blood-red gore, and all moods in between. Giles Thomas’ subtle, disturbing music provides a near-constant undercurrent reflecting Dysart’s state of mind. That alone unsettles us in the audience, because it’s Strang who’s in mental torture, not Dysart, right?
Many of the actors double up their roles to represent the horses, which provides the creative team with the nice problem of how best to portray these strong, kindly equine beauties. Shaffer’s original stage directions required the actors, who wore tracksuits, to don see-through horse masks, putting them on in full view of the audience as part of a deliberate ceremonial procedure. Instead, director Ned Bennett has gone for greater realism in this production. The horse actors just wear shorts; you could consider that the equivalent of a horse’s saddle. The exposure of the strength of the actors’ limbs and torsos directly convey a more powerful impression of the unadorned strength of a horse.
Furthermore, movement director Shelley Maxwell has done an amazing job in enabling the actors to recreate a horse’s neck movements – angular but flowing, strong but vulnerable – and Ira Mandela Siobhan’s performance as Strang’s favourite horse, Nugget, physically blows your mind with its accurate suggestion of how a horse moves. He’s absolutely superb in the role. The climax scene where we see Strang’s attack on the horses also calls for incredibly expressive physical movement, with the agonising blinding of the five horses in the stable followed by Strang’s torturous, mocking, assault dance with Nugget before he too is blinded. It’s both the stuff of nightmares but also incredibly vivid and stunning to watch.
Ethan Kai gives a deeply expressive, no-holds-barred performance as the damaged Strang; initially insolent, gradually more trusting, extremely vulnerable and uncontrollably violent. It’s a brave and memorable performance. Norah Lopez Holden is also excellent as his girlfriend Jill, cheekily and excitedly suggesting a (literal) romp in the hay, and trying to smooth over the waters when it doesn’t go the way she hoped. She’s also extremely good in the hilarious scene set in the sex cinema (which ages the play somewhat). There’s excellent support from Robert Fitch as Strang’s principled-yet-hypocritical father and Syreeta Kumar as his well-meaning mother, Ruth Lass as the concerned Hesther and Keith Gilmore as the no-nonsense nurse and stable owner.
But it is Zubin Varla who stands out, as the professionally high-achieving and personally self-disappointing Dysart. We first see him, huddled in the corner of the stage. You think it’s going to be Strang, because that plays to our preconceptions of a mental health patient, but in fact it is Dysart, revealing from the start his discomfort in his own skin. Wretchedly dependent on his cigarettes, his analytical tactics may well pinpoint precisely Strang’s issues, but they also gapingly reveal his own. Constantly addressing the audience, you can hear the doubt and the essential sadness through both his voice and his body language. I’d be surprised if Dysart has ever been portrayed with greater eloquence or pain. It’s one of those performances where you can’t take your eyes off the actor; first rate throughout.
Equus plays at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 23rd March, and then goes on to Cambridge, Bath, Bristol, The Lowry in Salford, Northern Stage in Newcastle and Guildford. If you’ve never seen the play, this is a great opportunity to witness for yourself this ground-breaking work. If you have seen it before, I doubt whether you’d ever have peered so closely into Dysart’s soul, as Mr Varla allows us to see. Stonkingly good.
P. S. The Theatre Royal, Stratford East is a little island of Victorian delight in a sea of modern shopping centre. Extremely welcoming and friendly, it has a cool vibe, good toilets, and a trendy bar supporting its beautiful, intricate Victorian interior of red and gold. We sat in the middle of row D of the stalls, and, I must confess, I now know the definition of cramped. There’s not a lot of space there! And the stage is surprisingly high, so even from row D you can only just make out the floor level. But the prices are incredibly reasonable and the atmosphere is superb, even for a Thursday matinee. Very keen to go again!
P. P. S. The Squire of Sidcup was gobsmacked with the brilliance of Equus. It’s incredibly rewarding to introduce new minds to the wonders of the theatre!