Not many more old theatre memories to go now… May to July 2009

  1. Oliver! – Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 2nd May 2009

It was TV’s search for a new Nancy, if you’ll pardon the expression, that first brought Jodie Prenger into the public’s eye, heart and affections, and our nieces insisted that we took them to see the show – and how could we resist? It was a superb production, not only with the divine Ms Prenger who was happy to say hello at the Stage Door, but also with Rowan Atkinson as Fagin, and Burn Gorman as a very threatening and underplayed Bill Sikes. We all loved it.

  1. Little Shop of Horrors – Milton Keynes Theatre, 13th May 2009

This was the successful Menier Chocolate Factory production that we hadn’t seen first time around but which undertook a big UK tour. Clare Buckfield was brilliant as Audrey, with Sylvester McCoy as Mushnik, Damian Humbley as Seymour and Alex Ferns as the dentist and everyone else. Very enjoyable.

  1. Alphabetical Order – Oxford Playhouse, 22nd May 2009

Michael Frayn’s early comedy of office politics, set in the cuttings library of a provincial newspaper, was given a good production by Christopher Luscombe, and starred Imogen Stubbs, Gawn Grainger and Ian Talbot. Can’t remember too much about it, but I know it was pretty good.

  1. Ayckbourn at 70, A Celebration – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th May 2009

To celebrate Alan Ayckbourn’s 70th birthday, the Royal and Derngate had a big Ayckbourn summer season, which involved either performing or reading all of his plays. We (somehow) got an invitation to the gala night, which included an interview with the great man on stage by Artistic Director Laurie Sansom, who had worked with him at Scarborough in his younger days. I must say, it was distinctly an honour to be there! And the subsequent productions of the plays that we saw there were all excellent.

  1. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st June 2009

Like Oliver! (four shows earlier) this was another show that followed on from a TV search show, but this touring production starred Craig Chalmers, who was one of the finalists in the search, as opposed to the Proper Winner (who I think was Lee Mead). Enjoyable, of course; it’s tough to do a production of Joseph and for it not to work.

  1. Just Between Ourselves – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th June 2009

The first of the big three productions from the Alan Ayckbourn celebration season, I remember seeing Just Between Ourselves in London in 1977 and absolutely loving its bitter sweet cruel humour. Mark Rosenblatt’s excellent production showed how well the play has stood the test of time, with a brilliant performance by Kim Wall as the appallingly insensitive Dennis and Dorothy Atkinson as his deeply troubled wife Vera. A wonderful production.

  1. La Cage aux Folles – Playhouse Theatre, London, 13th June 2009

Breaking my usual rule of not discussing shows I’ve seen before, but this production was so very different from the original Palladium presentation. This was another successful Menier production, transferred to the West End, and starring Philip Quast as Georges (although we saw his understudy, Robert Maskell), and Roger Allam as Albin – as far from Endeavour’s Inspector Thursday as it is possible to be. Extremely good.

  1. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – Milton Keynes Theatre, 17th June 2009

I’d never seen the film but it was one of the staples of Mrs Chrisparkle’s childhood – and I remember it as being very refreshing and enjoyable, and with brilliant choreography from Chris Hocking. The cast was led by Steven Houghton and Susan McFadden.

  1. Private Fears in Public Places – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st July 2009

The second of the big Ayckbourn productions, Laurie Samson’s brilliantly inventive production had the audience sharing the Royal Theatre stage with the actors, seated on couches, or at a bar table, and so on. It made for an extraordinarily intimate theatrical event, and I found the whole thing completely thrilling. Sadly, from where we were sitting, we couldn’t see what monstrous videos Lucy Briers’ Charlotte was watching.


  1. The Winslow Boy – Milton Keynes Theatre, 8th July 2009

The Theatre Royal Bath’s touring production of Terence Rattigan’s timeless play starred Timothy West as Arthur Winslow in a role he was born to play. A very fine, moving production.

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.


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.


  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.



  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!


  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.


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.


  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.



  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.


  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.


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.

Review – Oliver! Sheffield Crucible, 4th January 2014

Oliver!“Oliver!” is another of those shows that’s been with me since I was a kid, although mainly in the film version, until 10th November 1977 when the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle insisted I accompanied her to Cameron Mackintosh’s pre-West End production at the New Theatre Oxford starring Roy Hudd as Fagin. I remember him being pretty good in a funny, avuncular way. Looking over that old cast list, not many names stand out as being active today, although we did enjoy the performance of Marilyn Cutts, who played the Sowerberrys’ daughter Charlotte, in High Society last year. Tom EddenThe late Michael Attwell was Bill Sikes, Mr Sowerberry was played by Graham Hamilton (Equity president 2008-2010); and I also remember Robert Bridges and Joan Turner being a formidable Mr Bumble and Widow Corney, alas neither of them are with us anymore. Many years later in 2009, Mrs Chrisparkle and I took our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra to see the Rowan Atkinson version at Drury Lane, primarily because we had all fallen in love with The Nation’s Nancy, Jodie Prenger. For Daniel Evans’ new production at the Crucible Theatre we were joined by Lady Duncansby and her butler William, who beat us all in terms of history with this show, having seen the original 1960 production in London, when he was but a mere trainee footman.

Hayley GallivanThis show comes as a worthy successor to the previous fin d’année spectaculars we’ve seen at the Crucible, last year’s My Fair Lady and 2011’s Company. One of the most enjoyable aspects of My Fair Lady was Alistair David’s superb group choreography and once again his skill at filling the Crucible stage with a huge ensemble of cavorting street traders and urchins is used to magnificent effect. The big feel-good numbers work incredibly well, especially “Consider Yourself”, led by a fantastically confident Dodger (Jack Armstrong in our performance) and “Oom-Pah-Pah”, which allows the character of Nancy to shine like the happy carefree girl she ought to be. Ben RichardsOliver! is of course, one of the country’s (maybe the world’s?) favourite shows and every production seems to run and run; it’s as though we the public can’t get enough of it. But, like Chicago, I do have some reservations about the show as a whole. For me, the first act is almost entirely scene-setting and episodic, the pace and structure slightly ploddy. You go from the workhouse, to the undertakers, to Fagin’s den, but I never get a sense of genuine plot development. That’s not a criticism of this production – I blame Lionel Bart. The second act, however, feels completely different. The story really takes over and each scene or song seems to grow organically out of the scene before.

Jack Skilbeck-DunnWhat makes this production stand out from the previous two I have seen, is the way it presents the genuine hardship and violence of the Oliver Twist story, and refrains from straying into loveable caricature. Sometimes I think Fagin can be portrayed like that – a villain, yes, but more sinned against than sinning, and with a heart of gold. Ron Moody, Roy Hudd, Rowan Atkinson are all thoroughly loveable performers. Tom Edden’s Fagin is very different from that, a very realistic creation; a manipulative, wheedling, sinister creature whose interest is pure self. You sense any affection he shows for the boys is just for profit, and his heart is made of stone. Jack ArmstrongMr Edden’s amazing ability for physical comedy, as shown supreme in One Man Two Guvnors, is still evident in this production but turned down a little to create a Fagin devoid of caricature. The highlight of Mr Edden’s performance is his performance of Reviewing the Situation; a showstopper combining comedy and egoism in equal measure.

David Phipps-DavisBut the most hard-hitting realistic presentation comes in the form of Hayley Gallivan’s Nancy, the tragedy victim supreme, singing a song of love and loyalty about Bill Sikes whilst still wiping the blood away from her mouth where he has socked her one. There’s nothing sentimental or sympathetic about this relationship; and when he finally murders her (sorry if that spoils it for you) it’s simply the inevitable outcome of domestic violence – not so much a horrific shock, more a blessed relief.Liza Sadovy and Chris Vincent Miss Gallivan gives a stunning performance (two in fact) of As Long As He Needs Me which absolutely raises the roof, and which contrasts beautifully with her enjoyably light-hearted Oom-Pah-Pah. Ben Richards’ Bill Sikes is a terrifyingly dark demon; quietly vicious, intimidatingly overbearing, totally pathological. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mr Richards on stage before, and I understand this is something of an unusual role for him. Well, he’s very convincing!

Rebecca LockThere are a couple of excellent partnerships – David Phipps-Davis and Rebecca Lock make a wonderfully squabbling Bumble and Corney, and their disintegrating relationship in Act Two is extremely funny to watch. They are both in very fine voice and sing “Oliver” with suitable vindictiveness. We loved the selfish and insensitive way Miss Lock sat on the recently deceased Old Sally; just one sit-down speaks volumes about the character. Equally fun are Chris Vincent and Liza Sadovy (brilliant in Alice in Wonderland a couple of years ago) as the ghoulish Mr and Mrs Sowerberry, Mr Vincent in particular conveying a really creepy demeanour, with a pallid face that looks like it’s never been within a mile of a vein. Their lovey-dovey routine provides a briliant comic juxtaposition with their ghostly otherworldliness. Georgie AshfordAndrew Bryant is an amusingly phlegmatic scouser Noah Claypole, and Bob Harms (superb in the Menier’s Pippin) is a cynically dour Dr Grimwig. The ensemble, who are bright and energetic and revel in inhabiting their various characters, include A Chorus Line’s Georgie Ashford and Barnum’s James O’Connell, both of whom are surely destined for Much Greater Things.

James O'ConnellBut Oliver! wouldn’t be Oliver! without a pure, vulnerable Oliver, and we certainly had one of these in the form of Jack Skilbeck-Dunn. Not knowing that asking for more was asking for trouble, and too honest to pick a pocket perfectly, he is the embodiment of innocence and sings like a dream. The whole staging of “Who Will Buy”, with his clear, optimistic voice and the wonderful accompaniment of the street traders, was sheer theatrical magic. The other workhouse and gang children are all incredibly gifted and blend seamlessly with the adult cast members, which must be an amazing feat of both rehearsal and performance. I don’t know if we saw the Red Team or the Blue Team, but the tall chap who played Charlie was full of attitude, and the two smallest boys in Fagin’s gang, dancing arm in arm, had us all in hysterics – hats off to you lads!

This is a really enjoyable production, with some great performances, lively choreography, a super band and a timeless story, all blended together with Daniel Evans’ master touch. Another triumph at the Crucible!

PS. Not sure what happened to Bullseye, but Daisy, Lola and Patches (as credited in the programme) must all have been washing their hair that night.

PPS. What do you do when you cast boys in a musical, they suddenly turn into men before your very eyes and their voices break? I think they got round it very nicely in this performance.

PPPS. Apparently it’s only Oliver! (the musical) if you put an exclamation mark after it. Otherwise it’s just a first name. Who knew?