Belt up – we’re in for the long haul.
- Sextet – Criterion Theatre, London, 19th April 1977
Ignoring two further visits to see A Chorus Line, my next show was this yacht-based comedy by Michael Pertwee, which had to change its name to Six of One after a short time, as there already was another play called Sextet. It starred Leslie Phillips in one of his typically louche comic roles, and also featured Peter Blythe, Julia Lockwood, Carol Hawkins (of The Fenn Street Gang) and a young hopeful by name of Julian Fellowes in his second West End role – and a long time before his Downton Abbey success.
I saw this show with my schoolfriend Robin and can’t remember that much about it apart from a) we both enjoyed it and b) we spotted Richard Briers in the bar. We hummed and hahhed about whether we should go up to him and say how much we admired his work but he had a lot family and friends with him and so we thought that would have been a bit naff.
- Side by Side by Sondheim – Wyndham’s Theatre, London, 23rd April 1977.
This was the second time I had tickets to see Side by Side by Sondheim; the first time, a few months earlier, coincided with a London bomb campaign by the IRA – one of those times when every rubbish bin was potentially lethal – and the risk-averse Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle refused to let me leave the house. I was gutted. I didn’t know whether to be more furious with her or with the IRA. So it was with particular delight that I finally got to see this show, just having turned 17, an experience that left me feeling thoroughly sophisticated. Unfortunately, I missed the classic original cast, this performance starred Gay Soper, David Firth and Robin Ray. It should also have starred Maggie Fitzgibbon, but she was indisposed and I saw Jill Martin instead. What this show taught me was the desire to discover as much about Stephen Sondheim as I possibly could; a project that continues to this day. I saw it by myself, and loved every minute of it.
- Separate Tables – Apollo Theatre, London, 30th April 1977.
I took myself off to see this much-loved Terence Rattigan double bill for a Saturday night performance. Rattigan was considered very fusty in those days, when everything was about breaking down boundaries and pushing what was permissible on stage to the extreme.
But I really enjoyed these two stories, especially the tale of the unfortunate Major Pollock and his social scandal. An absolutely classic cast was led by John Mills (yes, THE John Mills) and Jill Bennett; it also featured the grand old actors Raymond Huntley, Margaret Courtenay and Ambrosine Phillpotts.
- Just Between Ourselves – Queen’s Theatre, London, 3rd June 1977.
Billed as a new play by Alan Ayckbourn, it was this production that alerted me to how perfect and agonising Ayckbourn’s humour can be. It’s the story of a bluffly happy man who spends his days tinkering with his car and cannot see how his wife is mentally falling apart, and he blunders from misjudgement to misunderstanding continually making things worse for her without meaning to. There was one particular moment – at the end of the penultimate scene I think – where he brings a lit birthday cake on to the stage and she goes into hysterics – and it was the first time ever that I’d laughed out loud in the theatre and then had to put my hand over my mouth to stop myself from laughing because what I was witnessing was so ghastly and cruel. Now that’s what I call Ayckbournian humour. Colin Blakely led the cast, supported by a brilliant performance from Rosemary Leach as his much misunderstood wife, Michael Gambon (yes really) and Stephanie Turner as their neighbours and Constance Chapman (another brilliant performance) as his grumpy and vengeful mother. A marvellous production of a marvellous play.
- Something’s Afoot – Ambassadors Theatre, London, 18th June 1977.
Before seeing this show I fitted in another trip to A Chorus Line, this time with three schoolfriends. Fortunately, they all really enjoyed it too. Something’s Afoot came to London as a cult Broadway hit, a musical whodunit loosely based on stock Christie characters, a glint in its eye and a spring in its step. I’ve never heard the songs since that day, but I still remember a couple of them, including the musical moment when Mr Dudley Stevens, who I always liked to watch on The Good Old Days, and who was in Liza of Lambeth, discovered with horror at the end of his song that he “was NOT the legal heir”. Top of the bill was TV favourite Sheila Bernette, an excellent cast also featured a young Ruth Madoc, Peter Rutherford, Robert Dorning and Peter Bayliss. It was fun. Update 27th October 2020: An album has been released, recorded by some of the best West End performers of our time, and I’ve just bought it – and this show is definitely worth a new production. I’d forgotten the brilliant showstopper “I owe it all (to Agatha Christie)”
- Oh Mr Porter – Mermaid Theatre, London, 5th July 1977.
To celebrate the Dowager Mrs C’s 56th birthday, we saw this delightful revue of Cole Porter songs at the quaint Mermaid Theatre; what Side by Side by Sondheim did for me regarding Sondheim, this did the same regarding Porter, and I still like to discover old Cole Porter classics. Mother’s favourite Porter song, Miss Otis Regrets, was given a moving rendition by Richard Denning; also in the cast were Jacqueline Clarke (still giving great performances today), a young Su Pollard (ditto), Tudor Davies, Don Fellows, Graham James, Eleanor McCready, Kenneth Nelson, Jeanette Ranger and Una Stubbs. A charming and extremely entertaining show.
- Godspell – Prince of Wales Theatre, London, 9th July 1977.
Not the original production, obviously, but a smart revival that I absolutely loved. I saw this by myself and felt really special during the interval moment when Jesus invites everyone up on stage to “take some wine”. I rushed out to buy the album as soon as possible afterwards. An excellent cast starred Allan Love as Jesus, the terrific Andrew C Wadsworth (always a favourite performer of mine) as Judas, and a cast of other talented performers including Tricia Deighton, Andrew Secombe (Harry’s son) and Paul “Twinks” Kerryson, who would later become Artistic Director of the Leicester Curve and is currently in charge of the Buxton Opera House. I wonder if he regrets that “Twinks” nickname today. You either love Godspell or you hate it; the crucifixion scene had me in absolute tears in a way that it didn’t in Jesus Christ Superstar, where it was visually stunning but less emotional. This show tickled my tear ducts in a very alarming way. I was very impressed with it.
- Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi – May Fair Theatre, London, 25th July 1977.
Perhaps a slightly wacky choice of play here, but it starred Brigit Forsyth, who I always enjoyed in TV’s The Likely Lads, and Alison Fiske who had been in The Roads to Freedom which I also liked. It was a strong production of this tale of the intertwining lives of four very different women, which had transferred from the Hampstead Theatre. The May Fair Theatre was part of the May Fair Hotel and was converted to a private cinema/conference room in 2005, which is a pity. Can’t remember too much about it, but I did enjoy it.
- Hedda Gabler – Duke of York’s Theatre, London, 29th July 1977.
My first experience of live Ibsen; I enjoyed it, but I have to confess I remember hardly anything about it. I expect I went because I had enjoyed Janet Suzman so much in Three Sisters the previous summer.
The excellent cast also featured Gwen Nelson as Aunt Juliana, John Shrapnel as Tesman, Ian Bannen as Brack and a young Jonathan Kent as Eilert. Mr Kent is now best known as having run the Almeida Theatre and for directing operas.
- The Glass Menagerie – Shaw Theatre, London, 5th August 1977.
Following my first live Ibsen, this was my first live Tennessee Williams. I remember feeling that the Shaw Theatre was a very municipal and un-atmospheric building which didn’t add to the overall enjoyment of the show, but the production itself was excellent, with Maxine Audley and Connie Booth, who was enjoying great success at the time as Polly in Fawlty Towers. It was directed by Jonathan Lynn who would prove himself to be a great writer and director. The ticket cost 95p. There’s food for thought!
Thanks for joining me in these reminiscences. Tomorrow it’s back to the holiday snaps, and we’re still on C – which is also for Czech Republic, and some old pictures of Prague in 1997.