Curtain Up! Great Theatre Books
It’s hard to live in London and avoid theatre in all its myriad forms. I started going to Samuel French’s Theatre Bookshop when I was a kid and the store was in Covent Garden. It’s been going since 1830 and is now in Warren Street. It published its own play scripts, which was a good way of keeping up with the plays you missed or wanted to read again. As a consequence I ended up with thousands of editions collected over the decades which I eventually gave to my friend Amber, who was studying to be a drama teacher.
However, I still buy theatre books from time to time, and here are some goodies. The Sondheim volumes, ‘Finishing The Hat’ and ‘Look, I Made A Hat’ are exhaustive critical studies that anyone who is serious about writing should read, as they deal with the cadence, rhythm and control of language. Although I often disagree with Sondheim, he is brilliantly articulate about words, though often at the expense of more gut reaction to the stage.
‘Gielgoodies’ compiled by Jonathan Croall is a collection of the honest remarks and ghastly bricks dropped by Sir John Gielgud in the course of his career. I met him once backstage at a play where he had required a prompt. He complained; ‘The audience gasp these days. They’re all raised on television.’ Sample quote from book; ‘Most of my friends seem either to be dead, extremely deaf or living in the wrong part of Kent.’
‘Theatre Lore’ by Nick Bromley is a dictionary of slang, backstage language and stage knowledge that swings between obscure and obvious, but it’s pretty useful for research purposes.
Benedict Nightingale’s ‘Great Moments in the Theatre’ is a collection of astonishing in-the-moment nights in the theatre, from 548 BC to 2009, and perfectly catches the you-were-there sensation of great theatre. I recall being in the audience on the opening night of ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ during Alan Rickman’s predatory seduction scene when you could cut the audience tension with a knife. Where are the great plays since ‘Jerusalem’? Many are recalled here.
Peter Nichols is a great hero of mine, a thrilling writer who can make you laugh, wince and cry pretty much at the same time. His diaries, together with his biography ‘Feeling You’re Behind’, are brilliant on the subject of creativity, and make for compulsive reading.
Possibly my favourite of the bunch is ‘Exit Through The Fireplace’, assembled by Kate Dunn. It gathers together the memories of performing in the great days of rep and features a Who’s Who of acting talent telling laugh-out-loud tales about life in the run-down boarding houses and theatres of hellish seaside towns out of season. Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother fails to get the cottage door open and improvises; ‘Don’t worry about me, Cinders, you go to the ball, I’ll go out through the fireplace.’ Actors send flowers to themselves, and landladies watch for telltale signs of drunkenness or (gasp!) sexual shenanigans.
It still shocks me that London’s Theatre Museum received no subsidy from the Thatcher government and folded, leaving the city with the most theatres in the world bereft of a museum in which to tell its story