And here are the last lot of old theatre and dance memories! September to December 2009

  1. Separate Tables – Festival Theatre, Chichester, 26th September 2009

Rattigan’s masterpiece double bill of Table by the Window and Table Number Seven were brought to life by Philip Franks’ excellent production, starring Iain Glen as John Malcolm/Major Pollock and Gina McKee as Anne Shankland/Sybil Railton-Bell. The superb cast also included Stephanie Cole, Deborah Findlay, Josephine Tewson and John Nettleton. Traditional English theatre doesn’t get much more traditional or English!

  1. Mixed up North – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st October 2009

Out of Joint presented Robin Soans’ entertaining play: from the back of the playscript, “Trish leads a youth theatre group designed to bring Asian and white teenagers together. As the harassed and heavily pregnant director Bella struggles to share her artistic vision with a cast who thing acting is “gay”, the compelling stories of the young stars unfold.” I remember this as being an extremely good play and a great production.

 

 

  1. Mark Morris Dance Group – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st October 2009

It was always a delight to see the Mark Morris Dance Group, here with a UK tour that comprised of Italian Concerto, Going Away Party, Three Preludes, and Grand Duo; all dances choreographed by Mark Morris. Fantastic entertainment.

 

 

 

 

  1. Talent – Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 1st November 2009

Moving over two evenings of excellent stand-up on the Derngate stage, with Alistair McGowan on 26th and Julian Clary on 28th October, our next play was Victoria Wood’s Talent at the Menier. This was the play that Wood originally wrote for herself and Julie Walters set in the 70s. When I booked it, it hadn’t occurred to me that the production would have actors pretending to be Victoria Wood and Julie Walters playing the roles of Julie and Maureen. The result was a ghastly mix up that I absolutely hated! I’m still surprised that it was directed by Victoria Wood; the characters should have taken on a new life rather than simply being re-enactments of Wood and Walters. Awful!

  1. Spring Storm – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd November 2009

Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate, Laurie Sansom, launched a Young America season with two early plays by established and revered American dramatists, both performed by the same cast in repertory. First was Spring Storm, an early Tennessee Williams play, and it was magnificent.

 

 

 

  1. Prick Up Your Ears – Comedy Theatre, London, 8th November 2009

Simon Bent’s play about the relationship – fatal as it happens – between playwright Joe Orton and wannabe writer Kenneth Halliwell was based on John Lahr’s excellent biography of Orton (of the same name), and was brought to amazing life by most convincing performances by Chris New as Orton and Con O’Neill as Halliwell. Riveting throughout.

  1. Beyond the Horizon – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 13th November 2009

The second part of Laurie Sansom’s Young America season was Beyond the Horizon, an early play by one of my playwright heroes, Eugene O’Neill. Fascinating to get a chance to see a relatively lost play – I loved it.

 

 

  1. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 30th November 2009

Three more comedy nights followed, with Stephen K Amos on 16th November, Rob Brydon on 28th November and another Screaming Blue Murder on  26th November. After that, our next show was our first time seeing the RPO on one of their regular visits to Northampton, and this is another something that has become a regular feature of our theatre entertainment over the subsequent years. The RPO, under the baton of Nicolae Moldoveanu, and accompanied by the Northampton Bach Choir and the Daventry Choral Society, performed Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 and Beethoven’s Symphony No 9. Fantastic – and we were hooked.

  1. Rambert Dance Company, Comedy of Change Tour – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd December 2009

Rambert’s 2009 tour comprised Henri Oguike’s Tread Softly, Mark Baldwin’s Comedy of Change and Siobhan Davies’ Carnival of the Animals. A wonderful selection of challenging dance and crowd pleasers.

  1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th December 2009

We took our nieces, their parents and the inlaws to see Northampton’s big family panto which starred Linda Lusardi as Queen Lucrietia and Sam Kane as Prince Michael. Pete Hillier was Muddles, and Emily Shaw Snow White. A very enjoyable and glamorous panto. Great fun.

And from 1st January 2010 I started my blog, so if you want to catch up on any more old shows, simply go to the date index on the blog and read at your leisure!

Yet More Theatre Reminiscences – April to August 1977

Belt up – we’re in for the long haul.

  1. Sextet – Criterion Theatre, London, 19th April 1977

image(384)Ignoring two further visits to see A Chorus Line, my next show was this yacht-based comedy by Michael Pertwee, which had to change its name to Six of One after a short time, as there already was another play called Sextet. It starred Leslie Phillips in one of his typically louche comic roles, and also featured Peter Blythe, Julia Lockwood, Carol Hawkins (of The Fenn Street Gang) and a young hopeful by name of Julian Fellowes in his second West End role – and a long time before his Downton Abbey success.

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I saw this show with my schoolfriend Robin and can’t remember that much about it apart from a) we both enjoyed it and b) we spotted Richard Briers in the bar. We hummed and hahhed about whether we should go up to him and say how much we admired his work but he had a lot family and friends with him and so we thought that would have been a bit naff.

  1. Side by Side by Sondheim – Wyndham’s Theatre, London, 23rd April 1977.

image(375)This was the second time I had tickets to see Side by Side by Sondheim; the first time, a few months earlier, coincided with a London bomb campaign by the IRA – one of those times when every rubbish bin was potentially lethal – and the risk-averse Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle refused to let me leave the house. I was gutted. I didn’t know whether to be more furious with her or with the IRA. So it was with particular delight that I finally got to see this show, just having turned 17, an experience that left me feeling thoroughly sophisticated. image(376)Unfortunately, I missed the classic original cast, this performance starred Gay Soper, David Firth and Robin Ray. It should also have starred Maggie Fitzgibbon, but she was indisposed and I saw Jill Martin instead. What this show taught me was the desire to discover as much about Stephen Sondheim as I possibly could; a project that continues to this day. I saw it by myself, and loved every minute of it.

 

 

  1. Separate Tables – Apollo Theatre, London, 30th April 1977.

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I took myself off to see this much-loved Terence Rattigan double bill for a Saturday night performance. Rattigan was considered very fusty in those days, when everything was about breaking down boundaries and pushing what was permissible on stage to the extreme.

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But I really enjoyed these two stories, especially the tale of the unfortunate Major Pollock and his social scandal. An absolutely classic cast was led by John Mills (yes, THE John Mills) and Jill Bennett; it also featured the grand old actors Raymond Huntley, Margaret Courtenay and Ambrosine Phillpotts.

  1. Just Between Ourselves – Queen’s Theatre, London, 3rd June 1977.

image(381)Billed as a new play by Alan Ayckbourn, it was this production that alerted me to how perfect and agonising Ayckbourn’s humour can be. It’s the story of a bluffly happy man who spends his days tinkering with his car and cannot see how his wife is mentally falling apart, and he blunders from misjudgement to misunderstanding continually making things worse for her without meaning to. image(383)There was one particular moment – at the end of the penultimate scene I think – where he brings a lit birthday cake on to the stage and she goes into hysterics – and it was the first time ever that I’d laughed out loud in the theatre and then had to put my hand over my mouth to stop myself from laughing because what I was witnessing was so ghastly and cruel. Now that’s what I call Ayckbournian humour. Colin Blakely led the cast, supported by a brilliant performance from Rosemary Leach as his much misunderstood wife, Michael Gambon (yes really) and Stephanie Turner as their neighbours and Constance Chapman (another brilliant performance) as his grumpy and vengeful mother. A marvellous production of a marvellous play.

  1. Something’s Afoot – Ambassadors Theatre, London, 18th June 1977.

image(372)Before seeing this show I fitted in another trip to A Chorus Line, this time with three schoolfriends. Fortunately, they all really enjoyed it too. Something’s Afoot came to London as a cult Broadway hit, a musical whodunit loosely based on stock Christie characters, a glint in its eye and a spring in its step. I’ve never heard the songs since that day, but I still remember a couple of them, including the musical moment when Mr Dudley Stevens, who I always liked to watch on The Good Old Days, and who was in Liza of Lambeth, discovered with horror at the end of his song that he “was NOT the legal heir”. Top of the bill was TV favourite Sheila Bernette, an excellent cast also featured a young Ruth Madoc, Peter Rutherford, Robert Dorning and Peter Bayliss. It was fun. Update 27th October 2020: An album has been released, recorded by some of the best West End performers of our time, and I’ve just bought it – and this show is definitely worth a new production. I’d forgotten the brilliant showstopper “I owe it all (to Agatha Christie)”

  1. Oh Mr Porter – Mermaid Theatre, London, 5th July 1977.

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To celebrate the Dowager Mrs C’s 56th birthday, we saw this delightful revue of Cole Porter songs at the quaint Mermaid Theatre; what Side by Side by Sondheim did for me regarding Sondheim, this did the same regarding Porter, and I still like to discover old Cole Porter classics. Mother’s favourite Porter song, Miss Otis Regrets, was given a moving rendition by Richard Denning; also in the cast were Jacqueline Clarke (still giving great performances today), a young Su Pollard (ditto), Tudor Davies, Don Fellows, Graham James, Eleanor McCready, Kenneth Nelson, Jeanette Ranger and Una Stubbs. A charming and extremely entertaining show.

  1. Godspell – Prince of Wales Theatre, London, 9th July 1977.

image(351)image(352)Not the original production, obviously, but a smart revival that I absolutely loved. I saw this by myself and felt really special during the interval moment when Jesus invites everyone up on stage to “take some wine”. I rushed out to buy the album as soon as possible afterwards. An excellent cast starred Allan Love as Jesus, the terrific Andrew C Wadsworth (always a favourite performer of mine) as Judas, and a cast of other talented performers including Tricia Deighton, Andrew Secombe (Harry’s son) and Paul “Twinks” Kerryson, who would later become Artistic Director of the Leicester Curve and is currently in charge of the Buxton Opera House. I wonder if he regrets that “Twinks” nickname today. You either love Godspell or you hate it; the crucifixion scene had me in absolute tears in a way that it didn’t in Jesus Christ Superstar, where it was visually stunning but less emotional. This show tickled my tear ducts in a very alarming way. I was very impressed with it.

  1. Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi – May Fair Theatre, London, 25th July 1977.

image(357)image(358)Perhaps a slightly wacky choice of play here, but it starred Brigit Forsyth, who I always enjoyed in TV’s The Likely Lads, and Alison Fiske who had been in The Roads to Freedom which I also liked. It was a strong production of this tale of the intertwining lives of four very different women, which had transferred from the Hampstead Theatre. The May Fair Theatre was part of the May Fair Hotel and was converted to a private cinema/conference room in 2005, which is a pity. Can’t remember too  much about it, but I did enjoy it.

  1. Hedda Gabler – Duke of York’s Theatre, London, 29th July 1977.

image(347)My first experience of live Ibsen; I enjoyed it, but I have to confess I remember hardly anything about it. I expect I went because I had enjoyed Janet Suzman so much in Three Sisters the previous summer.

The excellent cast also featured Gwen Nelson as Aunt Juliana, John Shrapnel as Tesman, Ian Bannen as Brack and a young Jonathan Kent as Eilert. Mr Kent is now best known as having run the Almeida Theatre and for directing operas.

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  1. The Glass Menagerie – Shaw Theatre, London, 5th August 1977.

image(341)image(342)Following my first live Ibsen, this was my first live Tennessee Williams. I remember feeling that the Shaw Theatre was a very municipal and un-atmospheric building which didn’t add to the overall enjoyment of the show, but the production itself was excellent, with Maxine Audley and Connie Booth, who was enjoying great success at the time as Polly in Fawlty Towers. It was directed by Jonathan Lynn who would prove himself to be a great writer and director. The ticket cost 95p. There’s food for thought!

 

 

 

Thanks for joining me in these reminiscences. Tomorrow it’s back to the holiday snaps, and we’re still on C – which is also for Czech Republic, and some old pictures of Prague in 1997.

Theatre Censorship – 12: Homosexuality, Swearing and an Introduction to Violence

Separate Tables

John Mills and Jill Bennett, in the 1977 production

Another major “indecent” theme was homosexuality, which had been a prevalent topic in plays since about 1950. At first, references to it were very tentative; indeed, two of the three plays presented under the auspices of the New Watergate Theatre Club were concerned with young men who appeared to be homosexual but were not, and with the women who loved them, and stood by them during their ordeals. Terence Rattigan’s original intention in Separate Tables (1954) was that the respectable Major Pollock should have accosted men in public lavatories, but the management insisted that this should be changed, and Major Pollock became a heterosexual menace instead.

After the restrictions on plays about homosexuality were lifted in 1958 (please see Chapter 6 if you’d forgotten about this!), there was little positive or original use made of this liberty. Homosexual characters were mainly used for stereotypical camp fun, such as the fussy antiques dealer Harold Gorringe in Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy (1965). Christopher Hampton included homosexual characters in both When did you Last see my Mother? (1966) and Total Eclipse (1968), where he dramatised the relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine.

A Patriot for MeThe most notable play in the 1960s involving homosexuality was John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me (1965), based on the true story of Alfred Redl, who worked for the Austro-Hungarian intelligence service in the 1890s and was blackmailed for being gay. In the months immediately preceding the 1968 Theatres Act, this play became a popular weapon in the war against censorship. John Mortimer, for example, on behalf of the League of Dramatists, submitted the following memorandum to the Joint Committee on 22nd November 1966: “We are bewildered by the total banning of “A Patriot for Me” … which dealt with homosexuality in an adult and dramatic way; we can see no valid reason for this action.” The League of Dramatists were not entirely telling the truth, as the Lord Chamberlain’s Office did not ban the play; they did, however, demand swingeing cuts, such as “Act 3, Scene 1: The two men must not be in bed together”, “Act 3 Scene 2: the line “You were born with a silver sabre up your whatnot” was disallowed, as well as the total omission of Act 1 Scene 10, Act 2 Scene 1 (the celebrated drag ball), and Act 3 Scene 5, where Redl has an argument in bed with a naked Second Lieutentant. The sexual explicitness in these scenes would not have been acceptable even in a heterosexual context. It was no surprise that the censor considered them unsuitable; the 1958 statement had plainly read: “Embraces or practical demonstrations of love between homosexuals will not be allowed”. Osborne chose not to make those cuts and the production of the play went ahead as a club performance at the Royal Court; as a result, the censor troubled it no more, but the Royal Court made a large financial loss. The rest of Mortimer’s comment is totally justified: it is a mature, responsible and yet very exciting play, which involves the audience totally in Redl’s plight and creates an extraordinary atmosphere of sympathy.

Children's Hour - Lillian Hellman

Children’s Hour – Lillian Hellman

Lesbianism appears to have reached the stage much later than male homosexuality with the major exception of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, first performed in the US in 1934 and first officially performed in Britain in 1950, a painful study of the damaging repercussions of rumour in a girls’ school. The play is infused with bitterness and evil: the character of Mary Tilford, who starts spreading the malicious gossip, may be considered a fore-runner to Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). Hellman’s play is most skilfully written. The scandal is, by necessity, all expressed in insinuation and innuendo, but this feels appropriate because the characters are themselves so horrified by the notion of lesbianism that they could not bring themselves to utter the word anyway.

Killing of Sister GeorgeFrank Marcus’ The Killing of Sister George (1965) only just avoided being banned outright; the two reasons why this was avoided were that it was a respectable company – the Bristol Old Vic – who wanted to stage it, and because the word “lesbian” did not appear in the text. Had the word appeared, the play would surely have been rejected. I know this for a fact, as Mr Marcus told me himself during a phone conversation we had at the time. As it was, it became Marcus’ greatest success. Irving Wardle, writing in the Times newspaper on June 18th 1965, rhetorically questioned the suitability of the subject matter: “How would audiences a few years ago have responded to a lesbian marriage handled in earnest? The cheers of last night’s audience left no doubt of their response”. Times change.

Edward Bond

Edward Bond

The other major lesbian affair in 1960s drama, which certainly caused offence to the Lord Chamberlain’s office, as has been mentioned, was between Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale in Bond’s Early Morning. The play is full of very black humour, but primarily Victoria’s attentions to her son’s fiancée and her beseeching “Call me Victor”, were considered too offensive, especially coming from a member of the Royal Family. Despite the censor’s ban, every theatre critic in London was invited to a hastily called matinee, performed in total secrecy, on the afternoon before the intended first night. Had the show gone on, in the evening, it was the intention of the police to arrest every member of the audience, as could be guessed from the number of police vans parked along King’s Road.

One form of indecent material, which is perhaps today quite easy to overlook, is the use of swearing. The censor seemed to have evaluated all the different swear words as to their potential offensiveness, and this gave rise to the possibility of bargaining. The censor might object to the use of one of two “bad” words and, to appease the offended playwright, would permit a few extra “bloodies” in their place. The playwright Stephen Jeffreys told me in a letter dated 17th March 1982 (and from which I quote here) that he was told by the producer of one of his radio plays that “the level of language varied from channel to channel and from night to night. You could say “bugger” on Radio 4 except on Saturdays and you could only say “fuck” on Radio 3, and even then you couldn’t use it more than three or four times in one play”.

Saved - The Infamous Baby Stoning SceneAccording to Malcolm Hay & Philip Roberts’ book Bond – a study of his plays, George Devine, director of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, advised William Gaskill, the director of Edward Bond’s Saved (1965) to exclude “all the words we know will not be passed… before submission.” Indeed, in a letter Lindsay Anderson wrote me dated 1st February 1982, he remembered how Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s Billy Liar (1960) was very nearly banned outright simply because the father continually said “bloody”: “Since it was a character point, and indeed its very repetition illustrated the irredeemable coarseness of the character, no compromise was possible. In the end the censor gave in”.

Marat SadeStage violence was also considered an act of indecency. In Peter Weiss’ The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade (Marat/Sade) (1964) which appeared in the RSC’s Theatre of Cruelty season, there is a chilling violence mixed with sadism and insanity, at once both riveting and distasteful. Its challenge to the audience lies in assessing whether its disconcerting effect stems from the violence and suspense of the play or its universal lunacy. In Peter Shaffer’s Equus, insanity is again linked with violence, although this play is not as disconcerting, because of the deliberate lack of realism in the presentation; with actors playing horses, and, in the original 1970s production, the actors not involved in any one particular scene sat at the side of the stage, observing the proceedings in a disinterested manner, as actors rather than as characters. However, in the Marat/Sade, the characters are a group of lunatic actors who are sometimes impossible to control. The play ends in total anarchy with Coulmier, the Napoleonic director of the Clinic of Charenton, attempting to restore order, by striking his patients, much to the delight of the Marquis de Sade, who glows with pleasure at the mischief. Equus, on the other hand, by contrast, ends in quiet reflection.

In my next four posts I’m going to concentrate at some length on Edward Bond’s Saved. Put the four together and you’ve got a full essay on everything that I think and feel about the play, together with its relevance to the issue of censorship! The first post will contain an introduction, and then an analysis of the first few scenes. If you’ve got a copy of the script, please feel free to refresh your memory of it!