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 – 27: The blasphemy of Edward Bond and Mary O’Malley

Narrow road to the Deep NorthIn the opening scene of Edward Bond’s Narrow Road to the Deep North (1968), Basho the poet watches a woman abandoning her baby by a river, prepared to sacrifice the weakest of her children so that the five others may live; an act that shows the harsh reality which governs their way of life. Basho’s attitude is clinical; but he feels no further responsibility towards the baby and does nothing to rescue it from its fate. Later, Shogo, the leader of the city, and indeed this abandoned baby now an adult – somehow it survived – entrusts Basho with the responsibility of looking after the son of the deposed and dead Emperor. Again, Basho attempts to shun the burden, but Shogo blackmails him into accepting the responsibility. Basho sets himself up as a pillar of the community only to be pilloried himself. As a responsible adult, he is later to come back from his search for enlightenment in the deep north thirty years later, having decided that “enlightenment is the awareness that there is “nothing to learn in the deep north”. Zen, or ridiculous? As a master of haiku, Bond’s version of his famous verse appears as: “Silent old pool, Frog jumps, Kdang!” Reprehensible or brilliantly comic? You choose.

In his 1977 book The Plays of Edward Bond, Tony Coult refers to how “terrified” the young Bond was “to think how God was love, and he killed His son for us and hung him up and tortured him and washed us in his blood”. Hardly surprising, then, to find so many anti-religious themes in his plays. Narrow Road to the Deep North contains good examples of the use of religion and freakish religious supporters towards attaining selfish material ends. These are all encapsulated in the horrifying character of Georgina. As an evangelising Christian she deprives the peasants of their own sacred religion and enforces hers, infected with hypocrisy, upon them. Bond quickly shows her insecurity and selfishness; when Basho verifies that the city is prosperous, Georgina’s tambourine trembles to show her sudden excitement at the whiff of money. Aware of the noise she is making, she apologises, thereby confirming her guilt all the more. Bond’s portrayal of her is that of a gross parody of a Salvation Army general, continuously banging her tambourine, her symbol of Christian joy, with a hearty meaninglessness that is comic in its tedium. When she permits warfare ostensibly in the name of Christ her stipulations are ridiculous: “We will give you soldiers and guns to kill your enemies – and in return you must love Jesus, give up bad language, forswear cards, refuse spicey foods, abandon women, forsake drink and – and stop singing on Sundays… except hymns and the authorised responses.” The phrase “guns to kill your enemies” is fairly unequivocal in its intentions; it does not even hide behind the easy excuse of self-defence. Loving Christ and forsaking drink are fairly conventional demands; “refuse spicy foods” is mere nonsense.

The character of Georgina is a good example of how to get comic mileage out of religion. Ossian Flint’s irreligious behaviour sparks off a great deal of humour based on deflating hypocrisy. The comic master of the 1960s, Joe Orton, recognised the potential in religious adherence to make people laugh – frequently with considerable savagery, and although it was never really a central theme in any of his plays, he incorporated it in many. For example, the opening conversation in his television play Funeral Games (1968) takes place between two ostensibly religious men, one a leader of a dubious sect called “The Brotherhood”, who wrote a brochure called “Blessings Abound” and who owns a hot water bottle in the shape of a cross; the other is a frequenter of the blue bookshop next to Tessa and McCorquodale’s “love nest”. Of course, these people have no relief belief in God or the scriptures at all. When faced with a tricky situation, Caulfield suggests “perhaps we could pray”; and Pringle replies: “I’d be obliged if you’d treat this matter with due seriousness.” I’m also personally fond of the line: “He’s a preacher of note. They sell the Bible on the strength of his name.”

Once A CatholicMary O’Malley’s Once a Catholic (1977) is a very funny satire poking fun at Catholicism – perhaps destructively so. The virtuous pupil Mary Mooney is the unfortunate product of a combination of a too-trusting, too-innocent imagination, foolish ignorant parents and hypocritical nuns. She does not suspect anything remotely evil of anyone, so she has no qualms about accompanying the mischievous Derek back to his rooms. However, after the “J Arthur Rank”, she is so terrified that she might go to hell, that she visits Father Mullarkey at home, where the father’s concern for her is overshadowed by comments such as “Help yourself to the Lot’s wife”, and “You can’t go to confession tonight. The church is all locked up and I have to get down to the Off Licence”. His attitude is comic, but is most unfeeling for poor Mary Mooney. O’Malley shows here how the church sets you up to be terrified of mortal sins but offers no practical assistance. Mary Mooney simply feels abandoned. The Church’s attitude to crime and vice is fascinating; there is a peculiar ranking of severity of different crimes such as the grouping of both eating meat on a Friday and murder as mortal sins, or: “A person who lies in bed and refuses to get up for Mass is committing a far more serious sin than a person who lashes out and murders his wife in a fit of fury”. How would that go down in a court of law?

The hypocrisy of the nuns is best shown in the biology lesson taken by Mother Basil, a violent and vengeful woman. She is dissecting a rabbit, but unfortunately, as soon as she mentions the vagina, the Angelus, like a psychological alarm bell, calls nuns and girls to prayers which are said at double-quick speed, totally lacking in any expression. Immediately after the prayers are over, they return to the vagina. This humorous juxtaposition prepares us for the end of the scene when the innocent Mary Mooney asks: “Please Mother Basil, could you tell us how the sperm from the male gets introduced into the vagina?” Her question is not designed to shame or embarrass or cause laughter, but nevertheless it does all these, and Mother Basil, not being one of God’s caring creatures, cannot believe her innocence can extend this far. Later Mary Mooney asks Father Mullarkey “what is the sin of Sodom?” Twice then she is punished for her unfortunate innocence, whilst the complacent nuns don’t do their job properly. Music teacher Mr Emanuelli’s attitude to them is straightforward enough: “I loathe and detest nuns. I despise every one of them in this building. They should be tied up with string, laid out in a line and raped by the local police.” This is law and order of Ortonesque sexual savagery.

A short break now from stage censorship blogs whilst we enjoy the Edinburgh Fringe! Back at the end of August, with another blog post where I’ll be looking at the representation of real-life characters on stage.