Yet More Theatre Reminiscences – November 1977 to February 1978

Not finished yet – decades still to go!

  1. Shut Your Eyes and Think of England – Apollo Theatre, London, 2nd December 1977.

image(443)image(444)With another of those classic sex comedy titles, I hoped this would be a rival to No Sex Please We’re British. But sadly it fell far short of that achievement. Written by No Sex Please’s Anthony Marriott and Ray Cooney’s writing partner John Chapman, this saucy but not-that-funny farce had much to commend it in the cast – Donald Sinden, Frank Thornton, Jan Holden, Madeline Smith, and many more – but you always know that when a comedy involves a Sheik you’re on dicey ground. Amusing, but distasteful in a way better examples of genre managed to avoid, and essentially disappointing.

  1. The Comedy of Errors – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theatre, London, 21st December 1977.

image(448)A very memorable theatrical experience for me and one I still frequently relive by watching the DVD that you can easily buy today! Trevor Nunn’s production featured music by Guy Woolfenden and had a cast to die for. Judi Dench, Roger Rees, Michael Williams, Mike Gwilym and John Woodvine all on cracking form, and a terrific supporting performance from a young Richard Griffiths, whom we would not let leave the stage at curtain call, until he made a I need a drink hand gesture to us all. The characterisations are spot-on, the vigour and dynamics are electric, the songs tuneful and memorable, and I still hold it as my second favourite theatre production of all time.

image(449)I saw this show by myself, shortly before Christmas, and I was anxious. Maybe it was because I had just left school, with my university place secured, so I told myself I was now an adult (although I was still 17), I don’t know. I was having panic attacks. I needed to go to the toilet about three times before it started, so that I knew I couldn’t possibly be caught short. I was breathing deliberately in case I forgot to breathe (yes, I know. It was teenage anxiety). I had a front row seat so I knew that if anything were to go wrong, like having a surprise heart attack, I would be very visible and everyone would look at me. But when the magic of the show kicked in, all my anxieties were forgotten, and I’ve never had that level of pre-theatre nerves since. Plus, at the end of the show, the cast shook hands with the front row! So I got to shake hands with Judi Dench and Mike Gwilym, whose early retirement from the stage remains a complete mystery to me – he was terrific. A profoundly wonderful show.

  1. The Guardsman – Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, 24th January 1978.

image(437) image(438)I stayed with my Nan in her flat in London, near Manor House tube station, for a week of independent London sightseeing, and during that week saw a couple of shows at the National, both with my friend Robin. First was this adaptation of Molnar’s The Guardsman by Frank Marcus. My prime reason for going was to see Diana Rigg on stage for the first time, but the production also had terrific names such as Richard Johnson, a young Brenda Blethyn, and David Schofield. Enormously entertaining, with the cast on great form.

  1. The Country Wife – Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London, 26th January 1978.

image(439)This was the first time I’d seen a professional production of a Restoration Comedy (at school they had done a production of Vanbrugh’s The Relapse which I enjoyed a lot) so I thought I should dip my toes further into the Restoration pool. And it was an excellent dipping. Horner was played by Albert Finney, in whom I was still in awe after his Hamlet from two years previously. image(440)The cast also included notables such as Robin Bailey, Kenneth Cranham and Ben Kingsley, would you believe. But the performance that both Rob and I enjoyed the most was from Elizabeth Spriggs as Lady Fidget, a delightfully pompous yet soft-centred and vulnerable characterisation. Another great night at the National.


  1. An Inspector Calls – Shaw Theatre, London, 1st February 1978.

image(441)J B Priestley’s enduring time play was given a heavy, portentous and thoroughly traditional production by James Roose-Evans in the atmosphere-less Shaw Theatre. I’d seen the play on TV before but was disappointed by how leaden this evening was. This was the first of four shows that I saw with my friend Sandra, in the hope that something might kindle from the experience. It didn’t.


  1. The Point – Mermaid Theatre, London, 8th February 1978.

image(427)image(428)Harry Nilsson’s children’s musical was given a fun and upbeat treatment, and starred two of my favourite people from my childhood, Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz from The Monkees. To be honest, the show was a bit of a slog at times, but its light-heartedness kept it afloat. The King was played by Noel Howlett who used to be Headmaster in TV’s Please Sir. Enjoyable, but essentially for kids.

  1. Privates on Parade – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, 10th February 1978.

image(431)A classic amongst productions. Peter Nichols’ brilliant comedy play mixed with Denis King’s fantastic musical pastiches remains one of the best nights out in the theatre you can get. Denis Quilley’s Acting Captain Terri Dennis was such an amazing characterisation, but you also had Nigel Hawthorne’s wonderfully stuffy Christian Major Flack for balance. Moving, hilarious, musical and thought-provoking, this show had/has it all. And I am still very likely to break out into some of the songs from this show. Mr Quilley’s Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward, Vera Lynn, Carmen Miranda and Bud Flanagan had to be seen to be believed, but the entire, sensational cast were on fire.


  1. The Lady from Maxim’s – Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, 17th February 1978.

image(433)This Feydeau farce was given a new translation and treatment by John Mortimer, image(434)and had a stonkingly good cast led by Stephen Moore, with Edward Hardwicke, Sara Kestelman, Michael Bryant and Ruth Kettlewell. I regret that I can’t remember that much about it, but I know I enjoyed it.



  1. An Evening with Quentin Crisp – Duke of York’s Theatre, London, February 1978.


I went to see this with my friend Mark who thought that in years to come it would be a talking-point that he had met The Naked Civil Servant himself. I have a few memories of the evening; the first half was Mr Crisp delivering a comedy lecture about himself, and then in the interval, audience members could write down any questions they had for him which he would answer in the second half. Also, during the interval, you could queue up to get his autograph in the bar – which we both duly did. It was all very civilised and gently amusing.


The only question I remember from the audience was “where did you get that shirt?” which Mr Crisp was rather nonplussed by. We were in the circle – it might even have been the upper circle – and I remember there was a large party of young men in the row behind us who were hooting with laughter at everything Mr Crisp said; they had a wonderful night. I looked at them a couple of times and recognised the man in the middle of the group, who was obviously the ringleader. It was a young Christopher Biggins.


  1. Cause Célèbre – Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, 27th February 1978.

image(454)There were two cause célèbres on offer; the first, the story of the trial of Alma Rattenbury for the murder of her lover, and the second, the fact that Terence Rattigan had penned a new play, but that he had died before it reached the stage. I remember this as a riveting play – the first time I had seen a courtroom drama and you should never underestimate how exciting they can be. image(456)Glynis Johns was superb as Alma Rattenbury, and Lee Montague and Bernard Archard were fantastic as the opposing barristers. Further down the cast list was a relatively unknown Sheila Grant. A gripping night at the theatre.


Thanks for joining me for these theatrical memories. On Monday, it’s back to the holiday snaps and F is for France, and a day in St Tropez in 2013. Stay safe!

Review – Privates on Parade, Noel Coward Theatre, 12th January 2013

Privates on ParadeThis is the first of the new Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward (which I still subversively think of as the Albery, formerly the New – I hate these theatre name changes!) and we’ve booked for four of the five shows, as they looked so tempting. That obviously implies that one of them didn’t quite so tempting – I wonder which! It was with some trepidation that we took our seats – F15 and F16 in the stalls – as we’ve chosen the same ones for all the shows. So we were relieved to discover that the view to the stage is fine, so long as you don’t have a huge Man Mountain sitting in front of you, as Mrs Chrisparkle did. Gallantly, I offered to swap seats with her. Coquettishly she declined. Manfully I insisted. This could have gone on some time, but sense prevailed, we swapped, and it was me who ended up peering past the Man Mountain at odd angles, dodging and weaving like a boxer from side to side as the action moved around on the stage. To be honest, it was only the scene with Sylvia and Flowers in bed together that was really difficult to see. But if Mrs C had stayed in her seat, she would have attempted to see past him for a while but eventually would have given up and tuned out.

Privates on Parade 1977Anyway – I’d been looking forward to seeing this show for ages. Not only since it was announced as part of the Grandage season, but actually I’ve been waiting for a revival of this play for years. I missed the Roger Allam version about ten years ago, much to my annoyance. I’ve been a great fan of this play ever since I saw it in 1978, at the Piccadilly Theatre I believe, with Denis Quilley as Terri Dennis, Nigel Hawthorne as Major Flack and Joe Melia as Bonny – three great performances, and sadly, none of them with us any more. The original soundtrack LP was one of the most frequent visitors to my turntable, and I know Denis King’s songs back to front and inside out. They are such a clever parody of those 1940s wartime performers, played in this show superbly by Jae Alexander’s combats-clad band. It’s an enormously funny play, dotted with moments of real sadness too; Peter Nichols’ semi-autobiographical account of his Malayan army days was obviously a labour of love.

If you don’t know the story, I’ll try not to ruin it for you. Young, inexperienced Private Steven Flowers – the Peter Nichols character – turns up in Malaya to be attached (“heaven!”) to Acting Captain Terri Dennis, who is in charge of entertaining the troops. Flowers joins his motley crew and we see his character develop and mature as he learns about life and love – very quickly – against the backdrop of the army shows and the Malayan Emergency of 1948. However, the text of the play has obviously undergone some changes. In my 1977 Faber edition, without giving the story away, a third character joins Lee and Cheng, the two Chinese attendants, which gives an additional dimension to the story. By the time I saw it in 1978, that element of the storyline had been dropped, and for the better I am sure. Nevertheless I was very disappointed at a story change in this production, which comes in the final scene, and which questions the motives of one of the major characters. I won’t say more on the subject, but not having seen the play since 1978 I wonder when this rather unfortunate change was introduced. If you’ve got the tiniest clue as to what I’m on about, I’d be interested to know.

Carmen MirandaThe only other changes I noted were that a couple of the songs got shortened a little, which was probably a sensible decision. The reference to Room 504 in the Noel Coward song has been dropped – it’s an old Vera Lynn song apparently – and 35 years on no one would get it. I didn’t get it the first time round. This highlights a slight problem with the play today, in that few people really remember Vera Lynn, Carmen Miranda and Flanagan and Allen any more. Mrs C had no idea why Bonny and Bishop were dressed as they were for “Sunnyside Lane” – Bud Flanagan’s fur coat was a new concept to her. I also thought it was interesting that in Simon Russell Beale’s interpretation of Vera Lynn singing “The Little Things We Used To Do” he didn’t really attempt a vocal impersonation of the Force’s Sweetheart, unlike Denis Quilley’s original performace. Mr Quilley did hilarious vowel stranglings, “singing all those little things we uuuuuused to doooooooo”. Everyone in the 1978 audience recognised Miss Lynn’s vocal tic, but today they probably wouldn’t appreciate it. People still recognise a Noel Coward delivery of course, and Mr Beale’s performance of that was much closer to an impersonation. I also noted that a change in the song “Privates on Parade” removed Major Flack’s impression of the Chinese saying “velly solly, no fight now, all lellow men back to land of lising sun”; no doubt trying to reduce the play’s potential for accusations of racism.

Noel CowardAnyway that’s enough of what’s not in the show. It’s still a very funny, very moving, life-enhancing production, contrasting glamour and war, art and life, youth and age, and with a great insight into the nature of relationships. At its heart – with heart being the operative word – is Acting Captain Terri Dennis, a queen amongst men, extraordinarily decent and kind, a hugely talented artiste, but probably not much of a soldier. He’s played, out loud and proud, by the great Simon Russell Beale, an actor whom we associate with Shakespeare and Chekhov, the RSC and the National Theatre; so if you haven’t seen the camper side of him before, you’re in for a surprise. He takes to the role with supreme comfort and confidence; he’s a natural female impersonator, and he gives a performance brimming with entertainment. The audience loves him, and you feel like it’s a mutual arrangement. He’s very funny and very serious, giving off all the showbiz sparks yet revealing the unglamorous truths beneath. Fantastic.

Joseph TimmsPrivate Steven Flowers is played superbly well by Joseph Timms, including using a really good Swindon accent. He’s infectious with enthusiasm, mixing the bravado of youth with inexperienced vulnerability. He’s excellent in his awkward first scene with Sylvia, very credibly not quite knowing how to stand or where to look as she changes her costume. Through the show, as he learns how to be a man his confidence comes on in leaps and bounds, and you can see it in his bearing during the “Privates on Parade” Davina Pereraroutine where he’s revelling in his promotion. We both really enjoyed his performance; my only slight quibble is that he does have a slight tendency to talk whilst the audience is still laughing at the line before, so that you can’t actually hear what he says. His Sylvia is played by Davina Perera, a very elegant Ginger Rogers, and warmly endearing as the Welsh/Indian musical performer who’s had to endure being used and abused sexually to maintain security but who longs for love to take her back to the valleys. I also enjoyed very much her interplay with the wicked Reg; moving, resentful, defeated.

Harry HeppleThe other members of the troupe are all played really well, revealing the humour and tragedy in their characters. Harry Hepple, excellent in Pippin at the Menier last year, is a quietly tender Charles Bishop and gives a super rendition of Sunnyside Lane. Sam SwainsburySam Swainsbury hits just the right note of brash but believable as Kevin Cartwright; he does a great performance with Mr Timms of The Movie To End Them All, and his final scene where he’s desperately trying to hang on to all his youthful hope and exuberance against all odds veryJohn Marquez nearly brought a tear to my eye. John Marquez gives a great comic performance of Len Bonny’s foul-mouthed warm-hearted hapless Brummie and his “Charlie Farnes-Barnes” scene brought the house down. Brodie Ross’ Eric Young-Love, besotted with a sense of status, priggishly Brodie Rossover confident in love and vacuously prepared for fisticuffs to prove his heterosexuality, is another perfectly pitched performance. As a contrast to all these likeable characters, Mark Lewis JonesMark Lewis Jones gives a brilliant performance as the vicious Sergeant Major Reg Drummond; brutish with Sylvia, despising the bum boys (his phrase), yet you can understand why he would appear strangely charismatic to the suggestible Flowers over a few gin-and-tonics.

Angus WrightThe other main member of the cast is Angus Wright as Major Flack. A beautifully funny role, written so cleverly by Mr Nichols, the Major is an essentially decent fuddy-duddy whose devotion to God blinds him from seeing everything else that’s staring him in the face. Now, maybe it’s because I remember Nigel Hawthorne’s performance so fondly, and because Mr Hawthorne’s voice for this role was so hilariously reminiscent of Colonel Hathi from the Jungle Book, that I have to say that I thought Angus Wright underplayed the role of Major Flack too much. Many of Flack’s funny lines simply got lost in the delivery – not enough emphasis, not enough volume, a little too rushed. Maybe the idea was to make Flack less cartoony and more realistic, but I’m not sure it worked. One other criticism relates to the significant scene towards the end, when all the lights go off during the magic show. The subsequent dramatic chaos that follows, for me, lacked an impact; and the tragic conclusion of that scene suffered as a result, so that it wasn’t as alarming or as sad as I expected.

Nevertheless, I still think it’s a fantastic play and there are some really superb performances to enjoy. I was 17 when I first saw it, and it was one of those great occasions when I came out of a show a different person from the one that went in. I hope that today it can still have that impact on its audience.

I would like to add how sorry I was to hear that Sophiya Haque, who played Sylvia for the first couple of weeks of the run, lost her fight against cancer only a few days ago. My condolences go out to her family and friends. I can only guess at the sadness that must have caused the rest of the company, and they are dedicating the remaining performances to her memory.

Just checking in

Greetings, dear reader. Thought I’d just drop by to see how you’re doing; well, I hope! That’s good. Oh, I’m fine too, thank you for asking.

Taj MahalIf you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that what you normally get here is a lot of theatre stuff, a bit of travel, the occasional Eurovision meanderings and the odd what-not. Well, I had planned a nice set of travel blogs for you about our fascinating trip to India, that should have been going on at this very moment in time. Unfortunately, owing to circumstances beyond our control, this trip has had to be postponed – probably until this time next year. So not only am I unable to bring you first hand experiences of Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Pushkar, I also haven’t got any theatre trips booked for the moment. Next planned theatrical extravaganza is for about three weeks time when we will be taking in the Menier’s Merrily We Roll Along – that should be excellent.

Privates on ParadeSo here’s a chance to look forward to some more great shows that will be coming our way – and by consequence yours once I’ve written about them – into December and the New Year. After Merrily, we’ve got some Christmas shows – the Northampton Derngate’s panto Cinderella, and their festive play, A Christmas Carol; we’ll be going up to Sheffield again to see their panto, Cinderella (again, shame), and their new production of My Fair Lady, which I expect will be brilliant. We’ll be going into London to see the first of the new Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward Theatre, Privates on Parade – that’s one of my favourite plays; Mrs Chrisparkle has never seen it, and I took my first girlfriend to see the original production back when I was 17, so that will be nice. Spymonkey are reviving their Cooped at the Royal Northampton, which should be a laugh; we’ve got the touring productions of The Ladykillers and Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty at Milton Keynes, as well as the next in the series of Royal Philharmonic Concerts at the Derngate. And that’s all in January!

A Chorus Line - poster obtained from Drury Lane on the last night 26th March 1979February sees the return of the Trocks to the Birmingham Hippodrome – we always have to see them, as their combination of skill and comedy is out of this world. We’ll be seeing Sheffield’s new Full Monty, the return of A Chorus Line to the Palladium (still my favourite show of all time), Ellen Kent’s production of Carmen, which boasts a real Andalucian Stallion – not sure if that’s simply “bigging up” the guy playing Escamillo; and the touring production of The 39 Steps at Northampton which will be a hoot. March brings the prospect of The Book of Mormon in London (can’t wait) plus a comedy gig from Harry Hill. So there’s definitely loads to look forward to. I think the Royal and Derngate announce their spring season next week, so no doubt the credit card will be working overtime again.

Annual Chrisparkle AwardsEarly January will also see the Third Annual Chrisparkle Awards, a star studded gala gathered on my desktop to select the finest contributions of the year. In 2010 The Big Fellah, Thomas Morrison, Tracie Bennett, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake and Paul Sinha won best new play, best actor, best actress, best dance, and best standup. Last year it was One Man Two Guvnors, Derek Jacobi, Gina McKee, The Trocks and Jason Byrne. Who will be festooned with plaudits this year? Only a few weeks till we find out.

Loreen in full flowAnd of course we are coming in to the Eurovision season. So early, you ask? Absolutely. Lithuania have already had three heats and (I think) five countries are choosing their songs in December. Preparations get earlier and earlier every year. Swedish Television have already made their mark on next year’s contest by shaking it up a bit. For the first time that all important running order will be decided by the show’s producers rather than by a random draw. The idea is that they can construct a more balanced programme by choosing a suitable order for the songs. That will probably work; but every fan knows that you can’t win from second position, and that every winner since 2004 has come from the 17th – 24th slot, so this is highly manipulative of the final outcome. Personally, I’m not happy about it. The fans who go to Malmo will also be largely standing in the centre of the stadium, which again will probably look lively on TV but will be a pain in the legs for some people, and anyone on the short side probably won’t get value for money for their €345. Still, it’s all good fun, isn’t it!

Work in progressSo please consider this meandering blogpost as representative of work in progress. It’s like one of those spacers you’re meant to put against the wall when you’re trying to do some tiling – not very attractive in itself but a tool to separate two more important items of décor. Or maybe like a red carpet; a glamorous conduit leading VIPs from one artistic event to another. Or just as a filler because I have nothing else to blog about at the moment.