Another bunch of theatre and dance memories? Who knew! August to December 2007

  1. Pygmalion – Oxford Playhouse, 31st August 2007

One of those calamitous occasions when you arrive at the theatre in good time for a Friday night performance and they’ve already run out of programmes for the entire week’s run – sigh. It makes it very hard to remember the finer details. But the photocopied cast list does remind me that this production performed Shaw’s original concise text, first published in 1916, excluding the extra scene he wrote for a film made in 1938. The late Tim Pigott-Smith was an excellent Henry Higgins, with Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery as Eliza, Tony Haygarth as Doolittle, grandes dames Barbara Jefford as Mrs Higgins and Una Stubbs as Mrs Pearce, and the excellent and up-and-coming Edward Bennett as Freddy. Directed by Peter Hall.

  1. Forgotten Voices – Oxford Playhouse, 7th September 2007

Based on the oral testimonies of First World War veterans and collected by the Sound Archive of the Imperial War Museum, this play by Malcolm McKay tells the story of five survivors – four men and one woman – whose memories provide a vivid and moving first and account of the Great War. An excellent endeavour, to capture these memories in a play so that they need never be forgotten. The superb cast included Rupert Frazer, Belinda Lang and Matthew Kelly.

  1. BBC Proms in the Park – Hyde Park, London, 8th September 2007

Another of those blissful assemblies in Hyde Park, and an excuse for picnics and champagne, whilst being entertained by the likes of Lesley Garrett, Dick and Dom, Chico, T-Rextasy (who are ace), opera star Juan Diego Florez and top of the bill, Will Young. All presented by Sir Terry Wogan. A great fun night.

  1. Donkeys’ Years – Milton Keynes Theatre, 28th September 2007

It’s always fun to see another production of Michael Frayn’s delightful Donkeys Years, a show that relies on the camaraderie of its actors playing the parts of old ex-students returning for their college Gaudy. But this production didn’t work that well because I thought it wasn’t very well cast – even though individually it was full of excellent actors. Ian Lavender came across as too young to play Birkett, the old porter, as did Mark Hadfield as Headingley. Snell is meant to be a wretched no-hoper but Norman Pace gave him too much smartness; and Sara Crowe just felt wrong as Lady Driver! Never mind!


  1. Visiting Mr Green – Oxford Playhouse, 5th October 2007

One of those nights at the theatre when you know you’re in the presence of a masterclass of perfection acting.  Warren Mitchell was absolutely stupendous as the old man in Jeff Baron’s brilliant play about the developing relationship between the young executive who nearly kills Mr Green in a car accident and then has to spend six months visiting him as a form of restorative justice. Every bit as good as you would imagine it was.

  1. Rambert Dance Company World View Tour – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 13th October 2007

Rambert’s tour for 2007 was called their World View Tour, because it featured the works of Australian, French Canadian, and American choreographers. The programme for the night started with L’eveil by company member Melanie Teall, then Gran Partita by Karole Armitage, a revival premiere of Christopher Bruce’s wonderful Swansong, and then finally Andrée Howard’s Lady into Fox, originally premiered in 1939. Wonderful as always.

  1. Half a Sixpence, Birmingham Hippodrome, 20th October 2007

Not the amazing Cameron Mackintosh production that wowed everyone about five years ago, but a Bill Kenwright production starring Gary Wilmot as Arthur Kipps, and full of joy and delight he was too – Kipps is the role for a true song-and-dance man to shine as Tommy Steele did originally, Gary Wilmot did in this production and Charlie Stemp would in due course. Elsewhere in the cast was the wonderful Gaye Brown as Mrs Walsingham. Always a fun and entertaining show, although the recent production has rather eclipsed the memory of this one.

  1. The Producers – Milton Keynes Theatre, 1st November 2007

I was expecting this big show to be an illustrious success but it rather left me cold, I’m afraid. I’m not a huge fan of Joe Pasquale, but he was excellent in the part of Leo; in fact, the best performance was from Russ Abbot as the flamboyant Roger DeBris. My main memory is spotting Joe Pasquale at the deli counter in the next-door Waitrose.

  1. Richard Alston Dance Company – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 27th November 2007

Never one to miss the annual visit of the Richard Alston Dance Company, this year’s show featured four excellent pieces: Fingerprint, Nigredo, Brink and Gypsy Mixture. The super company included Martin Lawrance, Pierre Tappon, Anneli Binder, a young Hannah Kidd and the great Jonathan Goddard.

  1. Aladdin – Birmingham Hippodrome, 23rd December 2007

Moving on past another trip to see the amazing Chichester production of Nicholas Nickleby in two parts, all on one day at the Milton Keynes Theatre, our next show was the panto for Christmas 2007, Aladdin, starring John Barrowman in the title role. Fun for all the family, of course, but I thought this Qdos panto lacked a little pizzazz. I wasn’t overkeen on the Grumbleweeds as the policemen (although our nieces loved them); I was looking forward to seeing Don Maclean as Widow Twankey and he certainly put on a good show. I actually think most laughs came from the wonderful facial expressions of Masashi Fujimoto as the Emperor. Good, but not great.

Still the theatre memories keep coming – July to October 1981

Well? Are you ready to go??

  1. Educating Rita – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, 24th July 1981

image(1045)image(1046)image(1047)I saw this with my friend Rob, and we both really enjoyed it. The original production – although not the original cast – of Willy Russell’s instant smash hit comedy that spawned a terrific film version and endless stage revivals, with many more to come I trust. If you only know the film, then you might be surprised to discover the play is a two-hander, with Mark Kingston’s lecturer Frank getting progressively more drunk and disorderly as the play progresses, whilst Shirin Taylor’s Rita gets progressively smarter. Two superb performances – although my memory tells me that Ms Taylor was on particularly cracking form.

  1. Barnum – London Palladium, 3rd August 1981

image(1058)image(1043)image(1044)One of those shows that rewrote the history of the musical. I saw it with the Dowager Mrs C because we were both still carried away by Michael Crawford’s performance in Flowers for Algernon, so we wanted to see him in a show where he’d been incredibly successful too. Mr Crawford’s skill and showmanship have never been more delightfully expressed.

But this is a terrific show all round – with amazing songs, wonderful circus skills, memorable characters and sheer goodtime exhilaration. Deborah Grant was superb as Charity, but there was superb support throughout the entire cast, and I remember with particular fondness Jennie McGustie’s hilarious Joice Heth (Thank God I’m Old is one of my favourite showtunes) and Sarah Payne’s temptress Jenny Lind.

I even managed to get one of the flyers for Jenny Lind’s free concert. One helluva show.


  1. Childe Byron – Young Vic, London, 11th August 1981

image(1060)From the heights of exhilaration to the depths of sheer awfulness in one fell swoop. I saw this with my friend Claire because she wanted to see how David Essex was in real life and this did, to be fair, sound like an interesting play, with fascinating controversies over the original American performance, and with terrific performers like Sara Kestelman and Simon Chandler in the cast, it couldn’t be all bad. Wrong. It was as bad as they get. To be honest, it wasn’t the play, although it was cumbersome and pretentious. It was David Essex. I’m afraid this was the worst performance I’ve ever seen from a star name. image(1061)He simply had no variety to his speaking pattern, it was that Godspell-style sing-song intonation all the way through. And it wasn’t just me who found him awful. A sizeable chunk of the Young Vic audience was clearly appalled at what they were seeing. In that awful tense moment where an audience has to choose whether to react either by booing or laughing at it (believe me, silence was not an option), we decided on laughter. At one stage Mr Essex stopped the show and told us all that if we weren’t going to take it seriously he wasn’t going to carry on (at which we all had to suppressed a mock ooooh retort). For some bizarre reason we stayed until the end. But it was flat out dreadful, and Mr Essex did himself no favours that evening.


  1. Pygmalion – Young Vic, London, August 1981

image(1074)image(1059)I headed back to the Young Vic a couple of weeks later to see this revival of Shaw’s Pygmalion, directed by Denise Coffey, and with Richard Easton as Henry Higgins and Lorraine Chase as Eliza. It was very enjoyable and good-humoured. So much so that, when Stephen Lewis (Blakey in On The Buses) playing Alfred Doolittle, seriously mucked up a couple of lines, he stopped, turned to the audience and very politely asked “Shall I go off and come on again?” at which point we all cheered and good-naturedly let him go from the top again. All this and the redoubtable Betty Marsden as Mrs Higgins. Highly entertaining.

  1. Quartermaine’s Terms – Queen’s Theatre, London, 14th August 1981

image(1080)image(1081)image(1073)Simon Gray’s new play was a charming and funny look at how teachers interact in the staff room at a Cambridge school for teaching English to foreign students, with an accent on how the good old days are on their way out. With a notable cast led by Edward Fox, including James Grout, Prunella Scales and Robin Bailey. Not too many other memories of this one, but I remember that it was good.

  1. Goose Pimples – Garrick Theatre, London, 19th August 1981

image(1086)image(1087)I have much stronger memories of this production, but not entirely for the right reasons. Devised by Mike Leigh – which will have meant that the cast basically wrote it themselves under his aegis – it’s a very tasteless play where a middle class party gets out of hand and they encourage a non-drinking Muslim to get blottoed so that they can laugh at him. Hilarious if you like poking fun at filthy foreigners, otherwise, even in those not especially PC days, buttock-clenchingly embarrassing at times. What’s most bizarre is that the sheikh was played by a young Antony Sher, in his pre-RSC days. The cast also included the splendid Jim Broadbent. I went to see this because I was hoping for another Abigail’s Party. I didn’t get it.

  1. One Big Blow – 7:84 Theatre Company England at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, 25th September 1981

image(1084)image(1085)Passing over 1981’s visit to the Pendley Festival (Merchant of Venice that year), I went with my friends Mike and Dave, whilst I was staying at their family home in Liverpool during the summer hols, to see John Burrows’ One Big Blow, a moving and beautifully performed story of the health and safety hazards faced by a group of coal miners, who also formed a brass band for their recreation when they were above ground. The actors performed the sounds of the brass band a capella and, yes, these were the actors who went on to become The Flying Pickets. Superb and emotional night at the theatre, and it was fascinating to see the beginning of what was to be a very successful musical career for these actors.

  1. Overheard – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, 28th October 1981

image(1103)image(1104)image(1094)A new play by Peter Ustinov must have been a source of great joy, but I have to confess, I can’t remember a single thing about this. I even forgot that I had ever seen Ian Carmichael (whom I always admired) and the excellent Deborah Kerr on stage. I had just begun two years’ postgraduate studies at the University of London and I reckon I had enough on my plate. What I do remember, is that I started to blitz the West End now that I was living in London, so I saw a matinee of this play, then an evening performance of the next one – and then I repeated the same pattern the next day. And the same the following week. I crammed a lot of theatre into a short space of time that way!

  1. Steaming – Comedy Theatre, London, 28th October 1981

image(1112)image(1113)image(1100)I remember much better Nell Dunn’s play about the women who used municipal steam baths and how they faced and dealt with its proposed closure. Hats off to Jenny Tiramani for her design which allowed the stage of the Comedy Theatre to be transformed into a real-life steam bath, which the naked ladies occasionally jumped into with total unalloyed abandon. The film that starred Diana Dors changed the emphasis of the original play somewhat, in order to accommodate its star, but the play was a delight, with Georgina Hale, Maria Charles and Brenda Blethyn all giving top rate performances.

  1. The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B – Duke of York’s Theatre, London, 29th October 1981

image(1107)image(1108)image(1111)J P Donleavy adapted his own novel for the stage in this thoroughly entertaining romp starring Simon Callow and Patrick Ryecart. After a while the title was shortened to just Balthazar B, but I’m sure the audiences didn’t miss out on his beastly beatitudes too. Messrs Callow and Ryecart were a terrific duo in this rather salacious tale of women chasing men and marriages of convenience. I can’t remember too many details but I know I enjoyed it enormously. This was a matinee performance – and you’ll have to wait until my next theatre blog to discover what I saw in the evening!

Thanks for joining me on this little look at some old shows. Next regular blog will be back to the holiday snaps, and J is also for Jersey, and a fortnight in 1995 that coincided with 50 years since the end of the war, and, more important, 50 years since the liberation of Jersey. In the meantime, stay safe!

Review – Pygmalion, Milton Keynes Theatre, 31st May 2014

PygmalionPerhaps one’s first reaction to the prospect of seeing a production of Pygmalion might be slightly jaded. That old play? My Fair Lady without the songs? Does it have any relevance today? Haven’t I seen it many times before? Those were among my sneaking suspicions before curtain up last Saturday afternoon. But this is a fresh, funny and very relevant production, born at the Theatre Royal Bath, that charmed and chuckled its way through two and half hours of 100 year old comedy, and Mrs Chrisparkle and I both loved it.

Alistair McGowanYou know the plot– Colonel Pickering bets that Professor Higgins can’t transform flower girl Eliza Doolittle from little cockney sparrer to eloquent beauty, the test being that no one suspects her true origins and identity at the ambassador’s garden party. Higgins works hard, Eliza works hard; he wins the bet, but only congratulates himself (and Pickering of course) on his own amazingness rather than recognising Eliza’s contribution and self-improvement; believing that he thinks nothing of her, she leaves. It doesn’t sound like that much of a story put that way. But Shaw created some fantastic characters, not only in Higgins and Eliza, but also Eliza’s dustman dad, and the sympathetic and extremely wise Mrs Higgins. The interplay between these characters still sparks off terrific comedy as well as thoughtful, emotional drama.

Jamie Foreman & Rachel BarryFor instance, Act Three, where Higgins and Pickering take Eliza to one of Mrs H’s “At Home”s, still has your toes tingling with its examination of class distinction and seemingly inappropriate behaviour. Although the word “bloody” no longer has the impact it did in 1912, you still get a frisson of naughtiness when Eliza exits with it triumphantly on her lips. The whole “Gin was Mother’s milk to her” and “what I say is, them that pinched it done her in” sequence is so beautifully constructed to juxtapose perfect enunciation with gutter language that its enormous powers to surprise and delight remain undiminished. I can still remember the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle reciting this speech word perfect, such was its notoriety early in the 20th century. This scene is performed beautifully, and had the audience in hysterics. Very charmingly, during a short pause in this scene, you could hear a young child in the audience – who had been very well behaved to that point – unable to contain herself as she laughed out loud “this is SO funny!” The rest of the audience laughed back in appreciation. It was a great reminder that these famous and regularly performed plays are always new to someone.

Alistair McG and the ladiesCasting Alistair McGowan as Henry Higgins is a stroke of genius. When I think of Higgins I think of Rex Harrison and then maybe some other younger versions of the same characterisation. But Mr McGowan is unmistakably Mr McGowan; and although he doesn’t stray into the impersonation field, it does mean he puts on some very good cockney voices when he’s throwing back people’s words at them, as he annotates their speech patterns at Covent Garden in the rain. It becomes a slightly “in-joke” – everyone knows he’s Alistair McGowan, renowned for his funny voices, and there he is doing them, but it’s all part of the play. But it’s not only the voices that impress, it’s his mannerisms and bearing. I’ve always thought of him as being a bit of a scruffy urchin, with a very bendy physicality to him which allows him to impersonate others so well. Here he uses that informality to great effect, coming across much more as an errant schoolboy than as an esteemed professor. When he’s under pressure, he hops from side to side, jiggles his hands in his pockets, can’t make eye contact with his mum – most unlike Rex Harrison. It’s a very different reading of the role from the norm – and it works really well.

Jamie Foreman & Alistair McGowanRachel Barry is a very fine Eliza, both as flower girl standing up to the toffs, and as heartbroken lady dealing with the fall-out of the wretched professor’s bet. Her comic timing is immaculate in the “At Home” scene, and her resilience at the end, when faced with her understanding of the truth, is admirable. Jamie Foreman steals every scene he is in as Doolittle, his huge cockney brashness wheedling to get some cash out of Higgins as he tries to “sell” Eliza, and then dismally accepting his new found richesse, which sees him ascend into the grand surroundings of Mrs Higgins’ drawing room. Rula Lenska gives a dignified, but twinkling-in-the-eye performance as Mrs H, accepting no nonsense from her disappointing son but trying to carry on with the established behaviour expected of her. There’s also excellent support from Charlotte Page as the rather scary but essentially kind Mrs Pearce, Anna O’Grady as the somewhat petulant but very modern Clara, Jane Lambert as a rather tragic Mrs Eynsford-Hill, confessing her relative poverty with embarrassment whilst still keeping up appearances with the trappings of wealth, and Lewis Collier as a splendidly nincompoop Freddy, laughing at anything and everything.

David Grindley’s straightforward production allows Shaw’s text to do all the talking and proves that it still has a lot to say about class and relationships. Lots of fun, and definitely worth catching, if you can get to Canterbury this week, with Plymouth and Norwich still to come.