Theatre Memories – Another Ten Shows – February to August 1976

Some more insights into my theatrically formative years!

  1. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – Criterion Theatre, London, February 1976.

image(226)Not the original production, obviously – that was way back in 1966. This revival, produced by the Young Vic, starred Christopher Timothy and Richard O’Callaghan as Hamlet’s chums, and absolutely superb they were too. It was played very much for laughs, so it was a very funny production, but probably missed out on some of the play’s darker aspects. I note with pleasure that they observed the three-act structure, and that this had two intervals of twelve minutes each – wouldn’t happen today.  This was a school trip, led by my Stoppard-mad English teacher, Bruce Ritchie. He was influential on us all becoming Stoppard fans, something that I’ve only had to question with his more recent output!

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  1. Sacha Distel at the London Palladium, 19th April 1976.

I always liked Sacha Distel, and it’s impossible to sing Raindrops Keep Falling on my ‘Ead without adopting a faux-French accent. But the reason I jumped at the chance to attend this revue, scheduled for just one week, was the participation of the love of my life, Lynsey de Paul. It was a very good show, with great comedy compering from Kerry Jewel, a brilliant comedy music act from Marti Caine, and Sacha Distel doing his thing as only Sacha Distel could. But I was thrilled to see Lynsey, who sang about six or seven of her best songs, accompanying herself on the piano, and also joining M. Distel for a duet during his act. One of my most memorable nights in a theatre!

 

  1. Equus – Albery Theatre (now the Noel Coward, still hate theatre name changes!), London, May 1976.

equusOne of the last occasions where I lost my programme – and what a shame to have lost this one! By this time, Peter Shaffer’s evergreen play had undergone several cast changes, and I saw Colin Blakely as Dysart and Gerry Sundquist as Strang. This was another school trip – quite a bold choice by our English teachers but they knew we’d take it seriously. The staging of this original production included having some of the audience seated on the stage, on steep (and uncomfortable) racks at the back, looking down on to the action from behind – cheap seats, so they put us there, and I found it mesmerising. The fame and success of Equus continues to this day, and I’m grateful to have had the experience of seeing this ground-breaking production.

 

  1. Hamlet – Lyttelton Theatre, National, London, June 1976.

image(216)This was the inaugural production at the new National Theatre, which had only opened on the South Bank in March 1976. This full, uncut Hamlet lasted almost four and a half hours – quite a feat for a school night (finishing just in time for me to get the midnight train home, but not getting to bed till 1.30 am) but as it was yet another school trip, I had the perfect excuse. The dual pleasure of seeing something that you already knew was going to be a master-achievement, together with one’s first time in the Lyttelton made this another unforgettable experience.

 

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The extraordinary cast included Albert Finney as Hamlet, Denis Quilley as Claudius and the Ghost, Barbara Jefford as Gertrude, Susan Fleetwood as Ophelia, Simon Ward as Laertes, Philip Locke as Horatio and Roland Culver as Polonius. From then on, I wanted to see everything I could at the National – but there’s always been so much on offer that’s an impossible task! A magnificent, austere and awe-inspiring production.

 

  1. Tom Stoppard’s Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land – Arts Theatre, 28th June 1976.

image(218)Another Stoppard, another school trip, another school night. As a theatregoer, one particular breakthrough moment for me was having the sense to tuck my ticket stub in the spine of my programme, so that I would always know when I saw a show, where I sat and how much it cost. Stalls N1, the grand sum of £1. I didn’t always remember to do it from then on, but it became second nature before long.

Dirty Linen is a curious but funny play, 85 minutes long and split into two halves with the play within the play, New-Found-Land, being the cleverer and funnier of the two. I did, however, enormously enjoy the sense of occasion, the Arts Theatre at the time being delightfully seedy and clubby – you couldn’t get further from the National if you tried.

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We were taken by two of our teachers – Bruce Ritchie, naturally, as it was a Stoppard, and Andy Wilson, who the world knows better as A. N. Wilson, writer, thinker, commentator and young fogey, who was my erudite and entertaining companion in seat N2. Excellent performances from Edward de Souza, Peter Bowles and especially Stephen Moore.

 

  1. Liza of Lambeth – Shaftesbury Theatre, London, 5th July 1976.

image(220)Mum really wanted to see this show as she was a big Somerset Maugham fan, and we went for her birthday, even though it was a school night. It was a bright-hearted, warm fun musical, with some great songs (several of which I still sing to myself) and a great cast. I didn’t know the story and wasn’t prepared for the hugely sad ending – Liza’s kicked to death by the wife of the man who made her pregnant – and I’d fallen in love with Angela Richards, who played Liza!

 

Patricia Hayes, Michael Robbins, Kate Williams, Tina Martin, Brian Hall and Christopher Neil also all gave sterling performances, and I for one would queue up to see a revival.

 

  1. Troilus and Cressida – Young Vic, London, 19th July 1976.

image(207)First theatre trip out during the school summer holidays, and the first show I saw on my own since the Sacha Distel Show. This production had originally been intended to open the new Cottesloe Theatre in the National Theatre development, but the theatre wasn’t ready yet, so it had to move to the Young Vic.

On paper it’s a great cast, but I didn’t like it much – primarily because I didn’t understand it. The direction made it hard to follow, and it was only Robert Eddison’s Pandarus that made the whole thing watchable. Maybe they just couldn’t get on with the last-minute switch of venue.

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  1. Donkeys’ Years – Globe Theatre (now the Gielgud), London, 22nd July 1976.

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I saw this with my schoolfriend Robin on a Thursday matinee, because we were both big fans of TV’s The Good Life and really wanted to see Penelope Keith perform in person. One of Michael Frayn’s early plays, it’s about a college Gaudy reunion that goes disastrously wrong in many ways. Slow to start, but then it gets pretty funny for Acts Two and Three. We enjoyed it very much, despite the fact that it was a very poor audience. But you’ll remember, gentle reader, how lovely the summer of 1976 was – only theatre nerds were attending matinees and not enjoying the sunshine.

The actors were all excellent. In addition to Penelope Keith, it starred Peter Barkworth, Peter Jeffrey, Julian Curry (Rumpole’s Claude Erskine-Brown) and Jeffry Wickham. Because we wanted to meet Penelope Keith, Robin and I went to the stage door after the show to collect autographs. Everyone who came out was very kind and chatty – but Miss Keith did not appear. The Stage Door Keeper very kindly offered to phone down to her and he reported that she could not come up (can’t remember why) but he would take our autograph books down to her and she would sign them. And so she did.

  1. Three Sisters – Cambridge Theatre, London, 29th July 1976.

image(200)One week later, another matinee, this time on my own. I knew of Chekhov and had already read most of his plays but had never seen one, so I thought I’d be intellectual and give this a try. It was fantastic. An amazing cast featured Janet Suzman as Masha and Nigel Davenport as Vershinin, with Peter Bayliss as a foolish, unpleasant Soliony, Peter Eyre as Toozenbach, John Shrapnel as Prozorov and June Ritchie as his awful wife. The other sisters were a wide-eyed innocent Angela Down as Irena and a mature and sensible Susan Engel as Olga.

Directed in a clear, pared-back and emotional style by Jonathan Miller, who was in the audience – I actually saw him in the Dress Circle bar during the interval but I didn’t speak to him because he looked like he wasn’t enjoying it much. He was the only one who wasn’t. From where I sat in the stalls, for the opening 90 seconds of the play Ms Down was looking directly into my eyes without moving an inch. I stared back. I’m sure that, 45 years later, she remembers that shared moment just as vividly as I do. (joke)

The production had transferred from the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford but only lasted about two months in the West End. Maybe that’s why Jonathan Miller wasn’t very happy.

 

  1. Banana Ridge – Savoy Theatre, London, 5th August 1976.

For some summer comedy, here was a revival of an old Ben Travers farce (old Ben Travers was the flavour of the month as his Bed Before Yesterday was in town – more of that soon) with a pleasing collection of comedy actors including Robert Morley, George Cole (pre-Minder), Joan Sanderson (post-Please Sir), Jan Holden and Vivienne Martin, who had been one of the prankish young ladies of the St Trinians’ films where Mr Cole had been Flash Harry. It was a very successful revival, running for a year.

I remember enjoying it very much; Robert Morley’s character was a hilariously bumbling old man and it was a brilliant portrayal. I also had a very enjoyable time at the stage door, meeting the cast and getting autographs. Mr Morley was gracious, Miss Sanderson was kind; Geoffrey Burridge mis-spelt my name and we had a good laugh about that. Vivienne Martin was very chatty and said that the naughty Mr Morley had spent the entire show trying to make the other cast members corpse – and had I noticed? I said it explained why Mr Cole got flummoxed, and was embarrassed about forgetting his lines.

It was an interesting insight into how a star like Robert Morley would get a bit of fun out of an otherwise dull matinee on a sunny afternoon.

 

That’s another ten shows in the bag! On Monday it’ll be another holiday snaps blog. B is also for Brazil, and some memories from our trip to Rio in 2011.

Review – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Old Vic, 22nd April 2017

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are DeadProposition: The works of Tom Stoppard become progressively more irritating the older you become – Discuss. And a syllogism: One) recently I’ve seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Travesties and Arcadia and they were all heavy going. Two) those plays were written by Tom Stoppard in the 60s, 70s and 90s. Conclusion: Stoppard is all mouth and no trousers.

Old VicIt’s a shame, really it is. I remember how I loved this play with a passion when I was 15. I saw it at the Criterion on a school jaunt, with Christopher Timothy and Richard O’Callaghan as the cipher courtiers. I read it avidly. I marvelled at the wordplay. I was fascinated by Stoppard’s refreshingly innovative themes. I adored (still do) the originality of its structure. What never struck me was the possibility that it was all just too clever-clever and lacked heart. Watching it today, that’s almost the only thing that does strike me. I’m a huge drama fan and I’ve fallen out of love with Tom Stoppard. Woe is me, I am undone. Ecce homo, ergo elk.

Daniel RadcliffeLet’s just dwell on that structure again. Somewhere in space and time, the play of Hamlet is taking place. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friends of Hamlet, although two of the most minor characters of the play, are offstage, because they haven’t had their first cue yet. They have no other purpose in life – not to the play, not to Hamlet (despite allegedly being “friends”), not to themselves. Basically, they just have to sit around, spinning coins, and waiting for something to happen. Eventually the play of Hamlet catches up with them, as Claudius and Gertrude welcome them to the court, with the whole Hamlet scene invading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s stage. They have their conversation about keeping an eye on how Hamlet’s behaving, and then the king and queen sweep off, signifying that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have left the action of Hamlet, and remain behind to inhabit their own lives for a little while until the next time their and Hamlet’s lives intersect.

Joshua McGuireMeanwhile the Player King, Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia and so on drift in and out of R & G’s world as Shakespeare’s plot develops, even though R & G’s involvement doesn’t. Eventually they get given a job to do – to accompany Hamlet to England (and to his intended death). Students of the Bard have argued for centuries whether Rosencrantz and Guildenstern knew that they were escorting Hamlet off this mortal coil, or whether they were also innocents abroad. Stoppard makes it crystal clear that R & G were the fall guys, as we see Hamlet return to Denmark, but they do not (dead, see.) It’s an incredibly clever piece of writing – the linguistic representation of some mathematic genius. And you do, indeed, feel sorry for our antiheroes, caught up in a web of international intrigue, when all they’re really any good for is spinning coins.

Player King and the TragediansFor the illusion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to work, you have to believe absolutely in the concept of the two parallel plays taking place at the same time and how they interweave at those dangerous corners. Therefore, it’s vital that you believe unquestioningly in the stage dominance of Claudius and Gertrude. In Hamlet, they control proceedings alongside the eponymous hero. Sadly, in this production, I found that Wil Johnson’s Claudius, in particular, had an element of pantomime about him, and I couldn’t see him as this strong, villainous, murdering king. Diminish the power of the Hamlet element to this play and you diminish the play as a whole. Similarly, Luke Mullins’ Hamlet was for me a little too jocular, a little too stagey. I didn’t get the sense of his troubled soul; and without it, R & G are even more pointless than they are in the first place.

R&G 2And then you have the Player King and his entourage: David Haig in full declamatory mode, puffing up the character’s already considerable sense of self-importance, mortally wounded to have lost their audience participation at their first encounter, idly taking mild sexual advantage of the young tragedian Alfred. It’s not an easy role to get the tone absolutely right; and I did find the character a little more monotonous than when I remembered it, or imagine it in my mind’s eye. It wasn’t helped by those travelling tragedians; although their performance was probably exactly how those roving casts used to appear, I still found the sight (and sound) of them rather wearing. I found it all rather laid on with a trowel and could have appreciated something a little subtler. As I said, I’ve fallen out of love with Stoppard.

Rosencrantz and GuildensternThat’s not to say there aren’t elements of the production that weren’t highly entertaining. The moment, for example, when our two courtiers attempt to force Hamlet to drag Polonius’ body into their “trap” is simple and extremely funny. Perhaps wisely, they don’t follow Stoppard’s original stage direction of having Rosencrantz’ trousers fall down whilst he’s removed his belt. The scene where it appears that Guildenstern has murdered the Player King is incredibly effective. But there aren’t many moments of physical humour to alleviate the burden of the cerebral nature of the nub of the play.

Player King and AlfredThat said, none of this prevents me from appreciating the two excellent performances from Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire. As Rosencrantz, Mr Radcliffe absolutely nails the introvert intensity of the character; slow to respond and react, keeping his own counsel, simply saying what he sees rather than what he thinks. As the complete opposite, Mr McGuire is perfect as Guildenstern’s extrovert loose cannon; flying off the handle, panicking loudly, trying to understand the whys and wherefores of the situation in which they find themselves. As the characters almost present themselves as two halves of one whole, the intricate dovetailing of their speeches and stage business is done with immaculate accuracy and a beautiful lightness of touch. This is the third time we’ve seen both actors on stage (Mr Radcliffe always as a troubled soul – Equus, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Mr McGuire always as a brash nincompoop – Amadeus, The Ruling Class) and they never fail to impress with their superb commitment and artistry. As an acting masterclass, they give a magnificent display.

R&G discover they're going to dieMrs Chrisparkle fell almost instantly asleep within the first few minutes of the play as she simply couldn’t keep up with Stoppard’s smartarseness. She awoke when the Player King and his entourage took control of the stage about an hour later. That was the point that I yielded to sleep because I found the characters so irritating. We both enjoyed the final act, after the interval, much more. But I think that all probably says much more about our own inability to put up with Stoppard than the production itself. So, if I return to my original proposition: yes he does. And my syllogism: well, it’s a syllogism, innit.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan