Some More Theatre Memories – August to November 1977

Let’s roll up our sleeves and get stuck in!

  1. The Merry Wives of Windsor – St George’s Tufnell Park, London, 10th August 1977.

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image(420)In 1976 the actor George Murcell created St. George’s theatre from a disused church in Tufnell Park, north London, and for a few years it caused quite a stir with its excellent casts, superb acoustics and all-round great theatrical experiences. I went to see what all the fuss was about by attending this performance of Merry Wives, and I really enjoyed it. A great cast included George Murcell as Falstaff, his wife Elvi Hale as Mistress Quickly, plus David Horovitch, Ronnie Stevens, Bridget de Courcy and Anna Carteret. The theatre closed in 1989 and has gone back to its original use as a church. Sadly this was my only visit to this theatre, but I remember it fondly.

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  1. Relatively Speaking – Grand Theatre, Llandudno, 15th August 1977.

image(422)For our summer holiday that year Mum and I stayed in a charming hotel in Penmaenmawr, and did some driving tours around North Wales. For our theatre fix, we went to the Grand Theatre in Llandudno to see a couple of shows in repertory. It was a charmingly old-fashioned venue, which sadly closed in 1980, and reopened as a nightclub in 1987 – but apparently its internal décor and structure is still readily adaptable to becoming a theatre again.

image(423)Gentleman farmer and theatre addict John Creese-Parsons was the man in charge, and he directed Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking for performance in the first part of the week. It’s a simple but brilliant tale of marital misunderstanding and I remember enjoying it enormously. The cast were Brian Weston, Anita Kay, Alex Ward and Diana Bradbury.

 

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  1. On Approval – Grand Theatre, Llandudno, 17th August 1977.

image(425)And we returned again two nights later to see the same cast perform Frederick Londsdale’s old comedy, On Approval. I didn’t enjoy this half as much – it seemed to me a clunky old play that didn’t really merit revisiting. I might think differently today. I can’t find anything about cast members Alex Ward and Diana Bradbury, but Anita Kay had the dubious infamy of being the young starlet who had a relationship with Jess Yates over thirty years her senior, and Brian Weston described himself as a jobbing actor who sadly died in 2016 at the age of 72.

 

  1. Once A Catholic – Royal Court Theatre, London, 22nd August 1977.

image(426)Finally, a theatre in this blogpost that hasn’t been converted into something else! Mary O’Malley’s play about the unfortunately innocent schoolgirl Mary Mooney in a mid-1950s convent is a triumph of both hilarity and serious content, with its depiction of truly cruel nun teachers, wayward kids and a whole (holy) host of misunderstandings. Hugely successful, Mary O’Malley became the Royal Court’s writer-in-residence and the play enjoyed a two year transfer to Wyndham’s. Jane Carr was absolutely perfect as Mary Mooney, her wide-eyed innocence in a sea of sin was just brilliant. Also featuring Pat Heywood, Jeanne Watts, Daniel Gerroll and an excellent supporting cast, this was an absolute treat. I remember regretting not seeing this with anyone else because I wanted to talk about it a lot afterwards!

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  1. Oh! Calcutta! – Duchess Theatre, London, 27th August 1977.

image(412)I saw this with my friend Wayne because we were feeling bold and grown-up, and it had all sorts of reasons to recommend itself. In all seriousness, I’m very glad to have seen it. There were a couple of sketches that were very funny, with a joke about salami and a letter box that I still remember to this day, and I was full of admiration for the brave and game cast who, basically, took all their clothes off so that 500 people could gawp at their bodies. image(414)Oh yes, of course, primarily they were there in order to work out which sketches had been written by which people. #Yeahright. The opening Taking off the Robe sequence, performed to a lazily louche soundtrack, is quite a coup de theatre in itself, having all these people just baring themselves at you – not coyly either, but very proudly – and I remember some worthy dance duets. There were also a lot of very tedious moments, even for a 17-year-old with very firmly crossed legs.

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The cast were Jenny Cox, Vivienne Cox, Max Harvey, Anne Haydn, Peter Johnston, Richard Lindfield, Paul Mead, Catriona Nurse, Helen Sparks and Stephen Turner. To be in this show, I think you’d either have to be an exhibitionist or very hungry. Despite having a good look around the Internet, I can’t see that any of these performers went on to be given great theatrical roles.

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  1. State of Revolution – Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, 10th September 1977.

image(416)image(417)My memory of this play was that it was very grand, very meaty and substantial, and an absolutely fascinating account of the Russian Revolution. Terrific performances, with many of the actors uncannily appearing like the characters they portrayed – Michael Bryant as Lenin, Terence Rigby as Stalin, Michael Kitchen as Trotsky. I felt as though I was witnessing a great play and a great theatrical event, whose memory would live on and on. But surprisingly, it never seems to get mentioned in the history of 20th century drama – a serious omission, in my humble opinion!

  1. The Plough and the Stars – Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London, 13th October 1977.

image(406)From one revolution to another; here was another school trip to see this famous play by Sean O’Casey, set at the time of the Easter Rising, but at a time when I was bogged down with Oxbridge preparation and exams, and the stress gave me a permanent migraine which didn’t let up until the exams were over! So I probably wasn’t in the best mood to give this all the attention it required. I also discovered that row E of the Olivier circle is just far too far away from the stage to have any sort of contact with what’s going on, and I haven’t chosen to sit in the Olivier circle since. The cast looks strong on paper, but I’m afraid I didn’t get much out of this at all.

 

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  1. Bedroom Farce – Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, 29th October 1977.

image(408)Ignoring yet another trip to see A Chorus Line with my friend Paul, who was as keen on it as I was, my next play was Bedroom Farce, Alan Ayckbourn’s latest offering that had been written as part of a series of new works to be presented at the National Theatre and it was an instant hit. Extremely funny from start to finish, with terrific characterisations, inspired staging, this was a lot of fun. My favourite twosome was the wonderful older couple, Ernest and Delia, played by Michael Gough and Joan Hickson, whose comic timing was remarkable; Mr Gough in particular inspired gusts of ecstatic laughter from very modest pieces of comic business – it was a true masterclass.

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  1. Oliver – New Theatre, Oxford, 10th November 1977.

image(396)image(402)A schoolnight treat from the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, which ended up with me arriving very sleepy to school the next day. Mother was very keen to see this touring, Leicester Haymarket production of Oliver starring the late Roy Hudd. Spectacular and thoroughly entertaining, Mr Hudd was fantastic as Fagin, with a lot of knowing looks and cheeky asides. Joan Turner was a very redoubtable Widow Corney, and Robert Bridges was excellent as Mr Bumble. Musically very strong, I don’t think I’d seen the film before and we both really enjoyed it. The producer was a young hopeful by the name of Cameron Mackintosh. I wonder what happened to him?

  1. The Immortal Haydon – Mermaid Theatre, London, 24th November 1977.

image(392)I saw this with my friend Robin – we had seen Leonard Rossiter in The Frontiers of Farce the previous year, and so he was keen to come with me to see Mr Rossiter again in this one man play about Benjamin Robert Haydon, a self-aggrandising artist whom Dickens described as “quite marvellous in [his] badness”. It was the perfect vehicle for Leonard Rossiter image(394)who gave a terrific performance, but this production taught me that a one-person-play can get tedious even if it’s superb, simply through lack of variety in what you see on stage. So, for me, this was good but not great.

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Thanks for accompanying me on another trip down memory lane! Tomorrow, I’ll be back on the holiday trail, with some snaps from our trip to Cairo in 2010.

Theatre Censorship – 24: Oh, Quel Cul T’as

The 1909 guidelines make an interesting comparison with the provisions of the 1968 Theatres Act, whose chief points are below:

(a) There should be an abolition of the present system of pre-censorship.

(b) “A play shall be deemed to be obscene if, taken as a whole, its effect was such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who were likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to attend it.”

(c) “…if there is given a public performance of a play involving the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words, any person who… presented or directed that performance shall be guilty of an offence… if:

  • (i) he did so with intent to stir up hatred against any section of the public in Great Britain distinguished by colour, race, or ethnic or national origins; and
    (ii) that the performance, taken as a whole, is likely to stir up hatred against that section on grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins.”

(d) “…if there is given a public performance of a play involving the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words, any person who… presented or directed that performance shall be guilty of an offence… if:

  • (i) He did so with intent to provoke a breach of the peace; or
    (ii) the performance, taken as a whole, was likely to occasion a breach of the peace.”

In a nutshell, the chief difference introduced by the new Act is that, apart from the removal of the Lord Chamberlain as the pre-censor, before 1968 plays were liable to be censored if they were likely to offend, whereas after 1968, plays were liable to be prosecuted if they could be proved to have offended. Comparing the two highlights the different preoccupations of the two eras; in 1909 figures of authority were still on guard against immorality, a legacy of the Victorian period perhaps; strict “religious reverence” was still the order of the day; and governments were also keen to be on good terms with foreign powers because of the considerable political tension in Europe. 1968 saw the Swinging Sixties in full throttle, and self-expression and liberation was the name of the game. In 1968 there was, of course, tension as ever, but the new sensitive area was that of race. The 1909 guidelines give a good indication of how controlled life was in those days – there was very little scope for self-expression and the guidelines only served to keep artistic freedom at bay.

Kenneth Tynan

Kenneth Tynan

The chief effect of the lifting of the regulations against indecency was that free, expressive nudity became completely permissible. As has been mentioned, Hair included male and female nudes; after Kenneth Tynan’s Oh! Calcutta! (1970), it was totally acceptable to stage nudity for nudity’s sake. There had been so much pre-production publicity for the play – whose unusual name was derived from anglicising the French phrase “Oh, quel cul t’as” (Oh what an arse you’ve got) – which anticipated the threat (or promise, depending on your point of view) of so much corruption and on-stage degradation, that when it finally appeared at the Round House, its effect was something of an anti-climax. Peter Lewis remarked in his Daily Mail review on 28th July 1970 that “Oh! Calcutta! […] is five years too late to be the great liberating sensation it was obviously intended to be”; however, John Barber, reviewing it in the Daily Telegraph enjoyed its frankness: “there is poetry in its celebration of the human body, and much to laugh at in its mockery of sex. So far as I can judge, I was neither depraved nor corrupted by its impudent humanity.”

Oh Calcutta

Oh! Calcutta! Original Broadway cast

Both these reviews help explain why Oh! Calcutta! was a remarkable box office success, running nearly ten years, whereas Tynan’s 1976 follow-up, Carte Blanche, was a dismal failure, both financially and artistically. By this time “nudity for nudity’s sake” was outdated and Sandy Wilson’s savage review of the production in the December 1976 edition of Plays and Players Magazine summed up critical opinion: “Carte Blanche is billed as “an adult entertainment”, and in describing it thus the producers are guilty of gross misrepresentation, since it is about as adult as the Beano and a good deal less entertaining. They are also guilty, in my opinion, of greed, incompetence, complacency and a betrayal of every standard which… it is their duty to uphold.”

David Storey

David Storey

“Oh! Calcutta!” had heralded the arrival of many other similar revues: The Dirtiest Show in Town, Pyjama Tops, Let My People Come and so on. I am only aware of one show since 1968 that was withdrawn from performance owing to a successful prosecution; this was Manchester’s Dee Jay (1971), and it seems likely that this was because of the extreme youth of some of the performers. In her famous autobiography Spend, Spend, Spend, the late Vivian Nicholson noted that a sixteen-year-old boy took part in a scene involving a simulated rape.

However, titillation aside, the lifting of the ruling against nudity broadened the scope of the theatre to tackle interesting subjects which were not previously possible. A good example of this is David Storey’s The Changing Room (1971), which I’ll discuss in my next blog post.