Still the theatre memories keep coming – July to October 1981

Well? Are you ready to go??

  1. Educating Rita – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, 24th July 1981

image(1045)image(1046)image(1047)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.

  1. Barnum – London Palladium, 3rd August 1981

image(1058)image(1043)image(1044)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.


  1. Childe Byron – Young Vic, London, 11th August 1981

image(1060)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. image(1061)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.


  1. Pygmalion – Young Vic, London, August 1981

image(1074)image(1059)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.

  1. Quartermaine’s Terms – Queen’s Theatre, London, 14th August 1981

image(1080)image(1081)image(1073)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.

  1. Goose Pimples – Garrick Theatre, London, 19th August 1981

image(1086)image(1087)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.

  1. One Big Blow – 7:84 Theatre Company England at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, 25th September 1981

image(1084)image(1085)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.

  1. Overheard – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, 28th October 1981

image(1103)image(1104)image(1094)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!

  1. Steaming – Comedy Theatre, London, 28th October 1981

image(1112)image(1113)image(1100)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.

  1. The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B – Duke of York’s Theatre, London, 29th October 1981

image(1107)image(1108)image(1111)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!

Theatre Censorship – 30: Race Relations (or not)

I think it’s fair to warn you that there’s quite a lot of offensive racist language quoted in this blog, purely for illustrative purposes.

The 1968 Theatres Act created a new category of potential problems in drama – that of racial conflict. Now it would be wrong to suggest that any of the plays I’m going to discuss here goes as far as to “stir up hatred” against any minority distinguished by colour, race or ethnic origins. What these plays mainly achieve is either siding with a minority or condemning an oppressor. Occasionally they poke fun at the minority. Over the years, poking fun at a minority has become more and more unacceptable, as audiences now recognise it as the prejudicial banter that it is. An audience is now required either to detach themselves from the play and condemn those that ridicule minorities; or they can play along with this prejudicial type of humour. No question, this is a challenge for the modern audience.

Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh

Sometimes it’s not clear what a playwright intends. A good example is Goose Pimples (1980) devised by Mike Leigh. Four English characters of varying degrees of unsavoriness are confused by an Arab’s inability to speak English and his bewildered tones feed their prejudices to make an evening of diverting comedy for them and of abused misery for him. I remember seeing the play at the time, and, despite laughing occasionally, feeling thoroughly violated by it; two hours of relentless racism. With the benefit of hindsight, and knowing that it’s Mike Leigh, I presume the audience is meant to disapprove of the four English characters. But we certainly seem to be invited to laugh along with them. No wonder audiences felt uncomfortable, even in the early 80s. The play was far from being the box office success that the critics expected of it, which says more about the decency of the audiences than the critics.

Antony Sher in the 1980s

Antony Sher, who played the Sheikh in Goose Pimples, in the 1980s

In a comparison with Edward Bond’s Grandma Faust (1976), “Goose Pimples” comes across as the more unpleasant play, as it takes the respectable mantle of West End comedy, and insinuates its sordid content where you might not expect it. “Grandma Faust” is, at least, outwardly shocking from the start and doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. Set in a world where rich, white ladies and simple country folk alike enjoy the taste of “N***er Foot Pie”, Bond’s intention is to set the Faust legend in the Deep South of the United States. Faust is mingled with stereotype characters such as Uncle Sam and the well-to-do Southern Belles, and all of them are satirised by the character of Paul. He is the underdog, sold not as a slave but as pie ingredient, who tricks his captors with the strength of his soul. At the end of Grandma Faust, Paul survives, Bond leaving us with a tableau of him fishing, to create a hopeful note for the future. Nobody particularly “survives” at the end of “Goose Pimples”, where all the relationships are soured.

Michael Hastings

Michael Hastings, in the 1950s

Neither of these plays presents racial conflict in any kind of constructive or positive way. Michael Hastings’ Gloo Joo (1978), a comedy about the attempts of two immigration officers to return an illegal immigrant to Jamaica, won the Evening Standard’s Comedy of the Year award in 1979. Meadowlark – the aforementioned Jamaican – attempts to find loopholes in the law by arranging marriages and changing religion, so that he may remain in Britain; and the play deals not only with racial prejudices between the indigenous white people and the West Indians, but also between different sectors of the black community. When Meadowlark telephones Mr Brucknell to organise the wedding at the airport, he defends his “telephone voice” against the bewildered look of the immigration officers: “Haffta mekk as if yeh the telkin the Queen’s language with her Priestman, case is tinkin yeh some half bred bad ass Nigerian n***er juicing de palm wine craze an talkin red lobster sea food rubbish back the Africa roots, mon.” Meadlowlark assumes superiority over Nigerians without the slightest desire to conceal his prejudice against them, although he is very quick to hit upon racism against himself:

Gerry: “Mind your nose, son, I can put it out of joint.”
Meadowlark: “Threatening to beat me up and insult me on account racial hatred am hearin?”

Hastings gives Gerry, a keen and vindictive newcomer to the Immigration Office, a foreign surname, Radinski, so that Meadowlark, with his fine English surname Warner, can justify (as he thinks) some racial retaliation: “An what kind of name is dat? Radinski? Is Polish or am a Chinaman. Is bleddy not true blue British stake a woolly top on at”. You can see how much fun Hastings must have had creating this play.

Somewhere along the line, racism is always a consequence of ignorance, and Meadowlark gives us plenty of opportunities to recognise his own ignorance. Pretend fiancée Irene unleashes his racism when she tells him that they will be living in Dublin, where Irene was born. Meadowlark explodes: “Mon, heff yeh ev bin to Ireland? En noffin but streets full of potato eatin people wid big ears and green eyes mon, walkin along de pavemen talking dere tongues off drinkin dat warm black beer wid de white froth’n mon! Dat fockin Ireland for yeh.” Meadowlark picks on stereotypical Irish connections, like potatoes and Guinness, and exaggerates them into a nightmarish scene of zombie-like figures aimlessly walking along streets, eating and drinking. One can laugh at the picture he creates; but you are nevertheless laughing with a racist.

Elsewhere, Meadowlark shows himself to be a clever and quite well-educated person – perhaps best demonstrated when he answers all the questions put to him by Mr Brucknell about Judaism. So it is not merely his ignorance about the Irish that give him this perverse view of Ireland; it is chiefly his “gift of the gab” which lands him in so much trouble under normal circumstances, but which also enables him usually to outwit his opponents. When Irene tries to make him feel guilty about the way he has treated her – she has pleaded “I was a Catholic virgin when I first met you” which we do not really believe – he starts on a tirade against the Pakistanis from whom he says he “rescued” her: “Pakis just dog-an-cats Indian and day covered with lice heff yeh ever seen a Paki tekk a bath?”

Meadowlark uses his rhetorical gifts to heap blame and scorn on any sector of society but himself. By portraying Meadowlark as a lovable rogue – lovable chiefly because of his language – Hastings avoids falling into any didactic traps about presenting him as all good or all bad; he is as fallible a man as any, with as many foibles and prejudices as one would care to mention, making him both credible and human. His constant assertion: “am British thru an thru” makes us question our own understanding of what it is to be British, through humour and challenging stereotypes. Far from erecting racial barriers, this play broke them down.

Barrie Keeffe

Barrie Keeffe

In the 70s there were also some more serious plays which attempted to show how politics can change with a rise in racial tension and prejudice. They frequently harked back to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, and looked to the growth of the National Front in the 1970s as evidence of a resurgence of a similar mentality. No coincidence that the group at the other end of the political spectrum from the National Front called themselves the Anti-Nazi League. Karn, the mentally sadistic detective in Barrie Keeffe’s Sus (1979) looks forward to a Conservative victory in the General Election, hopeful for the day when he need no longer be (and I quote) “sick of civil fucking liberties, and Anti Fucking Nazi League having riots in our decent streets and thousands of honest cops having to be dragged out to stop fucking Yids and Pakis and Indians and God-Knows-Who bashing hell out of half a dozen stupid, inarticulate red-necked fascists.” His obvious racial hatred is never going to permit a fair treatment of the unfortunate Delroy, the totally innocent black suspect he is detaining. The character of Karn is a typical product of its time; he hates both socialists and fascists, both the oppressors and the oppressed. The only sector to receive his approval are his own kind, the “honest cops”, because that allows him to justify his misuse of his own power. Keeffe wrote the play partly to demonstrate the iniquity of the “sus” laws, and in 1981 they had been repealed.

In my next blog post I’ll be considering the political extremism depicted in David Edgar’s Destiny.