Noel Coward, Harold Pinter, Ivor Novello, John Gielgud – what do they all have in common?
Personally if I was in the business of naming West End theatres I’d have one called after Peter Nichols – one of the greatest playwrights living today, in my personal opinion.
His best known show, Privates on Parade, is back again. It’s never been my favourite Nichols play – a tad too much campery for me – but it’s still a lot of fun. It is memorable mostly for its ‘panto dame’: first it was Dennis Quilley, then Roger Allam and now Simon (cannot-put-a-foot-wrong) Russell (from-Timon-to-panto-dame-in-the-flick-of-an-eye) Beale. Personally (yet again) while SRB’s performance is obviously faultless and he puts his musical numbers over as if he’s been doing it all his life, I think it’s a shame the camper-than-a-row-of-tents Captain Terri Dennis tends to overshadow the other characters, and in particular the barking-mad, teetotal, God-fearing, Empire-loving Major, played unforgettably by Nigel Hawthorne in the original RSC, 1977 production and hilariously by Malcolm Sinclair at the Donmar in 2001 (also directed, as here, by Michael Grandage).
What Nichols is particularly good at is telling a serious story – whether it’s about a family coping with a badly disabled child (A Day in the Death of Joe Egg), the trials of growing-up with an impossible father (Forget-me-not Lane), life and death on the NHS (National Health) or the dying days of Empire (Privates on Parade) – always with a bit of vaudeville thrown in. And even the most tricky characters – the father in Forget-me-not-Lane or the Major in Privates – are drawn with humour, affection and compassion.
“They’ve partly rewritten it!” I boldly announced to my companion at the Noel Coward theatre on Saturday night. “Updated the swear words and changed ‘queer’ to ‘gay’.” But I was wrong. I didn’t think the ‘c’ word would have been acceptable in 1977 but there it is in the original script. What is more surprising is the ‘g’ word because I swear that didn’t come in till the seventies at the earliest. I first encountered homosexuality when I first entered the theatre – which was a while ago now but nothing like as long ago as 1948, when Privates is set – and my fellow actors were either called ‘queer’ or ‘camp’ (which means something slightly different now but we knew what we meant then) but never ever ‘gay’.
Still none of this matters except to see Peter Nichols back in the West End. Along with SRB as well of course.
On the other hand I couldn’t make head nor tail of the Royal Court’s latest, In the Republic of Happiness. It starts out conventionally enough: a family Christmas, three generations, granddaughter pregnant, father partly deaf, grandfather partly delusional, and then along comes Uncle Bob to verbally abuse them systematically one by one on behalf of his girlfriend, who then appears in a sack before metamorphosing into a shiny green frock. I had thought we might be in An Inspector Calls territory, but in the next scene there they all are lined up in the semi-circle as if at a conference, spouting abstracts, and they remain there more or less – with a few breaks for some songs – till the final scene, which takes place in a white box that appears by magic through the floor of the stage.
Confused? Totally. I wait to see what the critics make of it.