Please, Spare Me Your Amateur Theatricals

The Arts

I have some friends who think they live in the 1930s. They are delightful companions until after a meal, when, suddenly imagining that they reside in Downton Abbey, they arrange impromptu post-dinner performances that suddenly involve a stage, instruments and costumes. To make matters worse they are all talented, having had the right education for this sort of thing. But when such a moment occurs I tend to melt away. A bawdy recital of ‘The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck’ is one thing, but vocal selections from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’Amore is a step too far.

There is a sense of imposition when someone at the party breaks out his Spanish guitar. You are required to show appreciation. Perhaps it’s more a matter of being too English about such things. The Welsh happily sing, the Scots are always up for a dance and you can’t shut the Irish up, but the English stand about awkwardly with their empty wineglasses, unsure what to do with themselves.

In Lockdown the press has turned with an air of desperation to the idea of amusez-vous bien with a vengeance. There are endless articles about Things To Make And Do. The New York Times has even suggested that pastime of last resort, the jigsaw.

Amateur theatricals are the absolut derrière as Molesworth would say, and a wonderfully awful selection can be found on YouTube. A friend of mine belonged to an amateur group called the Putney Players, who decided to stage ‘Abigail’s Party’ – a tricky play to pull off at the best of times – and performed it as a thigh-slapping farce, thus completely wrecking it.

There’s a wonderful book by Kate Dunn about touring in bad productions called ‘Exit Through The Fireplace’, including Polonius’s ad lib to cover for Ophelia’s no-show in a scene; ‘Where is that blasted girl? I bet she’s down by the river again.’

And the fairy godmother covering her inability to get the door of Cinderella’s cottage open: ‘You go off to the ball, Cinderella, I think I’ll stick around here for a while.’

I had a friend whose energetically directed amateur productions revealed his lack of aptitude for the theatre. His futuristic Gilbert & Sullivan opera ‘Starship Pinafore’ was a disaster partly because the hornpipe looks silly when danced in spacesuits.

Being a hunter-gatherer, I always collected press scraps. I found a yellowed newspaper clipping on the subject of amateur theatricals yesterday that’s worth reprinting in full;

‘A production of Hamlet by the Keswick Polytechnic includes the following changes: ‘The text has been cut to 15 minutes because there are several other things on the bill,’ and retitled Hamlette ‘because we could only get two male actors’ said Miss Joanna Ripe, the director. ‘The whole thing is set in a nunnery,’ she explained. ‘We gave Claudia, Hamlette’s aunt, most of Polonius’s lines because she learned his part by mistake.’

Miss Ripe has added several new parts to the play; Joyce, Hamlette’s sister, Dinah the Blackamore, whose part is made up of lines taken from the Nurse in Romeo & Juliet ‘with the dirt removed’, and Louise, a girl disguised as a male deaf mute who drowns herself ‘in a fit of pique’.

I think I’d have paid to see that.


13 comments on “Please, Spare Me Your Amateur Theatricals”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    In Kenneth More’s autobiog he refers to a rep production he was in when he and the leading lady were on stage together and the phone rang. It wasn’t meant to. The leading lady, in panic, answered the phone, then held the receiver out for Kenneth more with the words “It’s for you”

    Wilfred Hyde-White was well known for making lines up and ad-libbing. A friend of mine saw him in a play with Dinah Sheridan. He was ambling round the sofa, adding lots of his own dialogue, during which time Ms Sheridan’s face was freezing over in horror. He finally came to a stop. Silence. Hyde-White broke the silence: “Come on dear, it’s your go” You can’t help liking a man who said he learnt two things at Rada, “I can’t act, and it doesn’t matter”

    I have got “Exit Through the Fireplace”. It’s hilarious.

    Mr F, I say this more as an observation rather than a criticism, but do you have many friends left? You do seem to rather bad mouth them.

  2. Liz Thompson says:

    Honesty with one’s friends is one thing, honesty about them is another. Remembering who you can badmouth to whom, and who reads your blog/Twitter/Facebook pages, is essential. Arthur Bryant will have the necessary details in his rather erratic memory. Mr F probably checks with him first. If not, the answer to your enquiry may well be, not a lot.

  3. Ian Luck says:

    My instinctive reaction to people who spontaneously invoke the Thespian muse, is to head, with great purpose, in the general direction of ‘away’.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    OVER-EXCITED PERSON WITH DELUSIONS OF THEATRICALITY, AFTER A FEW ALES:”Let’s put on a musical, right here in this barn!”
    ME.AFTER A FEW ALES: “Let’s not.”

  5. Roger says:

    Michael Green – celebrated here recently – wrote “The Art of Coarse Acting” as a paean to the amateur tradition.
    Robert Altman’s “Cookie’s Fortune” features an amateur production of “Salome” where the director says “It’s Oscar Wilde’s play, except for a few improvements I’ve made.”

  6. Anna says:

    “that pastime of last resort” – love it! The Guardian’s devilish cryptic crossword is keeping me occupied, which I suspect is set by sadists who probably cause brain damage on a large scale every day.

  7. Brian Evans says:

    Actually, I like jigsaws, though haven’t done one for a while. Our neighbours always have one on the go on their dining room table.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Re-reading the description of ‘Hamlette’ (which, on reflection, should be on everywhere), I was reminded of an advertisement in a local paper somewhere, that was read out on, I believe, an episode of BBC Radio 4’s ‘The News Quiz’.
    ‘FOR SALE: A representation of the Last Supper, rendered in ‘Fuzzy Felt’. Please note, that, due to a lack of figures, one of the Disciples is represented by a tractor.’
    Now, I’m not religious, but had I seen the ad., I might have made the seller an offer.

  9. Peter Dixon says:

    My first boss was an amateur thesp. We used to crease up laughing when he got a new role because he would suddenly appear in the office with dyed black hair, a new beard or an unfeasible fake tan.
    Its almost impossible to take orders from a man who spends a fortnight trying to be Shylock, Abenaazer (during panto season), or Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof.
    We had another manager who was in the amateur operatic society in another town. Every other year he would dye his hair orange and play a Canadian mountie, singing ‘Rose Marie’. On the other year he would play The Red Shadow in ‘The Desert Song’ and dye his har blue-black.We called him The Red Bladder.
    He actually appeared on ‘Opportunity Knocks’ with Hughie Green, who he described as an absolute, obnoxious c**t. *
    Amazingly, one of the other staff had actually spent 5 years as a genuine Mountie, but wasn’t asked for details to improve the authenticity of the performance since most of the audience were already enthralled by a 6ft 2in ginger bloke in a Mountie uniform flashing a set of new false teeth and strangling vowels with surprising gusto.

    * the missing letters are u and n

  10. Ian Luck says:

    Hughie Green was a Danish King? Who would have thought?

  11. Helen Martin says:

    What’s wrong with some amateur theatricals. Suspend your critical faculty and your inhibitions and enjoy yourself. I’ve done all those things and danced the Charleston and the Can Can (both badly). If it isn’t fun, don’t do it. You have to work hard but still enjoy yourself. Don’t bother the uncooperative friends; you can trap them into something else.
    It took me a while to learn to relax in this stuff but it is so wonderful.
    Peter, I loved your Mountie manager but why did he dye his hair orange? I’ve never met a red headed Mountie and I’ve met quite a few since they are our municipal police as well as federal.

  12. Wayne Mook says:

    Jigsaws, that’s fighting talk. Actually I came across some worse. A paint by number app, the picture as usual has the number on it, below are small squares of colour with the corresponding number. You press the colour box and then the part of the picture with the same number. Looking at the pictures it is aimed at adults.

    We used to have a jigsaw on the go in the front room at home, passing friends would drop in and all have a go at it, we lived just near the main, local shops so we were ideal for people dropping in for a brew and a sit down after a tour of shopping. It is satisfying finding pieces to put in a large, many pieced puzzle.


  13. Ian Luck says:

    Wayne – that reminded me of a classic ‘Viz’ reader’s letter, which was on the lines of:
    “What a con these jigsaws are. We bought one for our six year old son, to keep him amused, but within ten minutes, he had managed to cut most of his fingers off.
    Yours sincerely,
    Derek Twatt.”

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