Thud & Blunder In The Theatre
Theatres have a unique place in British history and remain a sacrosanct and vital part of our culture, moreso than in any other country. There are 230 of them in London alone. Old buildings have been repurposed to create new places for fringe productions, but new large theatres also get built. The Other Palace opened not long ago and has been joined by the hit-making 900-seat Bridge Theatre. The West End thrives as never before (admittedly still on too many musicals) but there’s a lot of new writing to be found too.
I always admired the rep players who had to learn three plays every two weeks and rotate them, which led to all manner of complications, especially when alcohol as involved. At the Old Vic in 1954 Richard Burton and John Neville alternated the parts of Othello and Iago. One lunchtime they got plastered and returned to the theatre both playing Iago. Nobody appeared to notice. On another occasion Burton famously sat drunk in the stalls with a friend during a matinée and said, ‘You’ll like this bit. This is where I come on.’ The legendary drunk performer Robert Newton was out drinking with Wilfred Lawson when they suddenly remembered they had a matinee. Lawson staggered on as John of Gaunt with his codpiece around the wrong way. When a murmur went up in the audience he told them, ‘If you think I’m pissed wait till you see the Duke of York!’
Theatre was always rather rowdy, with audience members accidentally wandering onto the stage, missed cues, stalled scenery and in one alarming recent case a balcony collapse. Matinées were traditionally played different; the slapstick was pumped up, the dull bits were raced through, but as ticket prices soar shows have become slick and mechanical. I once met Sir John Gielgud and he told me that audiences were now made uncomfortable by actors asking for prompts, because they were used to the slickness of television.
I grew up in and around the West End theatres because if you got to know the scenery shifters and hung around the stage doors often enough they let you attend rehearsals. An entire subculture existed around them. In Aldwych The Green Room was a cavern-like club catering solely to West End performers and their guests (it’s now yet another media managers’ club), while The Phoenix Artists Club is probably the very last of its type to still exist in central London. The 70s and 80s were bad times for London theatre, with enfeebled old warhorses playing to dying audiences, and a lack of innovation and investment.
The best play about rep theatre and the things that can go wrong remains ‘Noises Off’ by Michael Frayn (although avoid the film version) and the book ‘Exit Through The Fireplace’, by Kate Dunn about the dying days of rep, is filled with grisly stories of life on the road. JB Priestley’s much-loved ‘The Good Companions’ chronicles the lives of the Dinky Doos as they tour the nation. It has been filmed numerous times and even turned into a musical by André Previn. Here’s a song from it.
Caryl Brahms and Ngaio Marsh both wrote murder mysteries set in the theatre. 1952’s ‘Curtain Up’ features a cast of British stalwarts squabbling as they produce a provincial play, but the best film catching the horrors of local performances is Ken Russell’s ‘The Boy Friend’, a real-time re-enactment of a provincial 1920s matinée fraught with backstage drama. ‘Let’s face it, darling,’ says one of the leading ladies, ‘the closest you got to the West End was Harrow-on-the-Hill.’ Brian Murphy, who appeared in the film, told me that the beautiful theatre where it was filmed (above) suffered vandalism and fires. Now it has risen again fully restored, but a great many theatres and music halls were lost for good before people realised they could be saved and made profitable once more.
One of the biggest problems facing smaller theatres is finding and affording popular repertoire. Many older plays were written for large casts. Plays by veterans like Charles Wood might have fifty parts and can no longer be staged. A friend of mine still involved in staging local rep explained the economics; ‘Three nights of The Nolan Sisters will pay for one night of a new play.’ But old playwrights can have their work repurposed for new generations. Somerset Maughan was out of fashion for decades before audiences rediscovered his erudite, moving plays. Noel Coward is currently out of favour, but it’s only a matter of time before he comes around again. And because Shakespeare is never very far away from any theatre, new productions continue to arrive that reinvent or highlight overlooked elements of the bard. Andrew Scott’s astonishing ‘Hamlet’ kept its language but sexed up the play, reminding us that the story is fired by an act of lust, and last year’s full-blooded ‘Tempest’ with Simon Russell Beale was beamed to cinemas around the world, deservedly so.
Political plays are back in fashion, too, with immersive works like ‘The Jungle’ and new treats from the ubiquitous and ludicrously prolific James Graham. So while we may have lost the collapsing sets and those inebriated performers missing their cues, we’ve gained a national theatre curriculum that remains surprisingly robust in spite of arts cuts – although local producers have had to become adept at finding new ways of keeping theatre alive. Immersive productions, gender-switched shows and digital recordings are all helping to bring in new audiences for an ancient art form.