I hope you’re finding these reminiscences strangely fascinating – I’m certainly enjoying them!
- Sweeney Todd – Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 8th July 1980.
I went with the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle for her birthday treat to see Stephen Sondheim’s fantastic musical Sweeney Todd, just a few days after it opened. Unbeknownst to us, the performance we saw was a Gala in aid of Children and Youth Aliyah and Shelter. To be honest, that element of it didn’t make much difference to the show. Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock were outstanding as the Demon Barber and his partner in crime, but two of my favourite performers were also in the cast – Michael Staniforth (whom I had rated very highly in A Chorus Line) as Tobias and Andrew C Wadsworth as Anthony. Further down the cast list came the excellent Myra Sands who we still see in shows today, and one Oz Clarke, before he jettisoned the acting in favour of the wine-tasting. A fantastic production of a fantastic show that still packs them in around the world.
- My Fair Lady – Adelphi Theatre, London, 9th July 1980.
This revival of My Fair Lady had good reviews and I thought it was high time that I saw a production of it. And thoroughly enjoyable it was too! Eliza Doolittle was played by Liz Robertson and she absolutely nailed it – Alan Jay Lerner liked her so much that the following year he married her. Tony Britton was a nicely irascible Henry Higgins, although I wasn’t so certain of Peter Bayliss as Doolittle – it’s such a difficult part to get right, and on retrospect I think his was a plucky attempt. Making a couple of entrances as Mrs Higgins was Dame Anna Neagle, and Richard Caldicot was perfect as Pickering. Looking down the cast list I see Mrs Higgins’ Butler was played by Arthur Tolcher, best known as the “not now, Arthur” character who always attempted to play his harmonica during a Morecambe and Wise TV programme. Grand spectacle and a very good show.
- Amadeus – Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London, 14th July 1980.
Here’s another memorably superb production, Peter Shaffer’s new play, Amadeus, about the rivalry between the acceptable face of Viennese music, Salieri, and the new upstart with too many notes, Mozart. This put together a dream team of Paul Scofield as Salieri, at his most stately and masterful, and that young scamp Simon Callow as Mozart, impishly brutal, horrifyingly irritating and devastatingly brilliant. With a supporting cast that included Felicity Kendal, Basil Henson and Andrew Cruickshank, this was the must-see play of the summer, and was as staggeringly good as you could imagine.
- Once in a Lifetime – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, 16th July 1980.
In rep with Piaf (see later) this RSC production of Moss Hart and George S Kaufman’s comedy classic was a hit from start to finish and the laughter never let up. This show had previously opened at the Aldwych in 1979 to splendid reviews, and the 1980 cast was stuffed with magical performers. In his first leading man role in the West End (at least I think it was his first) Richard Griffiths was completely hilarious as George Lewis, the hopeless wannabe film director. His partners in crime were played by Zoe Wanamaker and Paul Greenwood, who was best known as PC Penrose in TV’s Rosie. Elsewhere in the cast was a young Tony Robinson long before any of us had heard of Baldrick. A massive cast in a massive production that left you glowing with pleasure. “The legitimate theatre had better look to its laurels”.
- Holiday Showtime – Victoria Pavilion, Ilfracombe, 24th July 1980.
I accompanied the Dowager Mrs C on her summer holiday to the glamorous North Devon coast and whilst we were there, the only show we took in was Holiday Showtime – you know the kind of thing, designed to placate families and appeal to pensioners during a wet summer. I remember very little about this show, which featured ventriloquist Barbara Ray, song and dance duo Carlson and Baillie, and, top of the bill, Edmund Hockridge, a Canadian singer and actor who actually delivered a lot more than he promised – the only thing I do remember is that he was a terrific entertainer. Sadly the Victoria Pavilion was demolished after it was damaged in a gale in the 1990s.
- Tomfoolery – Criterion Theatre, London, 4th August 1980.
They did it with Side by Side by Sondheim; they did it with Songbook. The next episode in this style of revue show was Tomfoolery, an homage to the hilarious songs of Tom Lehrer. Sung by Jonathan Adams (the original narrator in Rocky Horror), Martin Connor (who now teaches drama at the Guildhall School in the City of London), Tricia George and narrated by the late Robin Ray, this was a superbly structured, delightfully performed and very very funny evening of musical nonsense, that I remember very fondly. I’m surprised this show isn’t revived more frequently.
- Before the Party – Apollo Theatre, London, 6th August 1980.
I was attracted to this production, which had transferred from the Oxford Playhouse, because of its terrific cast – Michael Gough, who had been brilliant in the original production of Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce; Jane Asher, whom I had always wanted to see on stage, and Phyllis Calvert who was one of the Dowager’s favourite actresses. Directed by Tom Conti, it’s an adaptation by Rodney Ackland of a short story by Somerset Maugham. With such a terrific pedigree, I think I was expecting something funnier, and was disappointed, because I found it quite a dull play, stuffy and dated. In retrospect I was probably too young to appreciate its finer points.
- On the Twentieth Century – Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, 8th August 1980.
The Twentieth Century – the luxury liner between NY and CHI – was a train, and this show takes place on the train as it travels from Chicago to New York. This brilliant musical was written by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Cy Coleman, with fantastic sets by Robin Wagner and masterful direction by Peter Coe. It’s the story of failed but never-giving-up musical writer Oscar Jaffee, constantly on the run from his creditors, trying to coerce the star Lily Garland into starring in his new show. Even if Lily decides to do it, her boyfriend Bruce is dead against it. And the money for the show is being put up by little old lady Letitia Primrose. What could possibly go wrong? A cast to die for was headed by Keith Michel, with Julia McKenzie, Mark Wynter, Ann Beach, David Healy, and song and dance supremo Fred Evans. Hilarious but incredibly musical songs, this is a show from which I quote all the time (which can be very embarrassing) and which I’d love to see again. I was only sorry that I didn’t know anyone else who wanted to see it! Their loss!
- The Elephant Man – Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, 13th August 1980.
And the big hitters keep on coming. Bernard Pomerance’s blistering play about John Merrick, which had no relationship with the film that came out in the same year, was given a strong and merciless production by Roland Rees, with David Schofield as the central character, a major attraction in a travelling Victorian freakshow. As well as an extraordinary physical representation by Mr Schofield, there was also a brilliant performance by Peter McEnery as Frederick Treves, the surgeon. Stunningly unsentimental.
- Piaf – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, 15th August 1980.
Having adored the brilliant Once in a Lifetime (see earlier) in the same RSC season at the same theatre, I had high hopes of Pam Gems’ (whose Dusa Fish Stas and Vi I had really enjoyed) latest play. Where this play really stood out was in the extraordinary portrayal of Edith Piaf by Jane Lapotaire – faultless, emotional, realistic, superb. However, outside of that, I found the play rather stodgy and (dare I say it) boring. With other members of the shared rep cast including Zoe Wanamaker, Paul Greenwood, and Tony Robinson, I admired it in part, but can’t say that I enjoyed it. I’m pretty sure I was a lone voice in that regard, as it was a highly plaudited production.
Thanks for accompanying me on this little souvenir of 1980 theatre. In my next blog, it’s back to the holiday snaps and I is for Israel, and a memorable, if sometimes disturbing day, in Jerusalem back in 2016. Stay safe!