We Travelled, David Hare

I have great admiration for David Hare, not least for (still) being an angry old man. I’ve seen a lot of his plays and felt ambivalent about some of them – too many of his characters are mouthpieces for his views, political and otherwise, in my humble opinion – but as the man who wrote the mighty Racing Demons, one of the most powerful, thought-provoking and above all compassionate plays of last century, he has to be up there among the best.

His essays, written over a number of years on widely differing subjects and now collected together in a book called We Travelled, are a mixture of rant and astonishing insight. His excoriation of politics and politicians, Conservative ones particularly, Conservative, Oxford-educated ones in particular particular, is wide-ranging, fierce and, frankly, not particularly enlightening, to this reader anyway.  He is prone to broad statements along the lines of all bankers are greedy pigs, all (Tory) politicians are corrupt and only interested in themselves and their cronies, etc etc. While I don’t disagree with any of that, his rantings do become repetitive, not to say tediously dogmatic. I disagreed with a lot of what he says, particularly about Terence Rattigan. And the notion that the cheap-and-cheerful entertainment that takes place outside the National Theatre belittles the great work that goes on inside it is frankly baffling, and displays a certain snobbishness, not to say authoritarianism.

However when it comes to character-sketches of people he’s worked with, such as Louis Malle, or the writer Joan Didion, or ex-Archbishop Rowan Williams and others such as the photographer Lee Miller, Hare’s writing is utterly riveting. He shows himself to be an astute and often self-deprecating observer and understander of the weirdness and inconsistencies of human beings and how they work. It’s worth putting up with the rant for this alone.

I’m not sure I’d want to meet David Hare, I think he would terrify me out of my wits. And while I admire it in one way, at the same time I wonder whether it hasn’t been a bit of handicap for a writer to have such strong views on things. The wondrous thing about Racing Demon (one of a trilogy of plays on British institutions) is the way he shows every character to be both faulted yet sympathetic. In other words he is not obviously Making a Big Statement. Because while he rants about how politics is too much about issues and not enough about people, I can’t help also thinking that is also the problem with some of his plays.

© Patsy Trench
London, August

Jack Absolute Flies Again

(nationaltheatre.org.uk)

This wartime spoof on Sheridan’s The Rivals, by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris and playing at the National’s Olivier Theatre, seems to have mostly impressed the critics. It certainly impressed the audience on the preview performance I attended.

However I was disappointed. I love farce, I spent a good deal of my youth acting in plays by the likes of Ben Travers and I learned – mostly from the farce master, the (late) actor Ben Whitrow – that it must be played at speed, with deadly seriousness, and above all with a light touch.

Ben Whitrow (rottentomatoes.com)

It’s this last quality that is missing from the production, in my view. Here and there are the odd very funny lines, some but not all of which are well-delivered. Posh Lydia’s inept attempts at rhyming slang did not always hit the mark. And the Malapropisms are laboured and delivered with a sledge-hammer. On the other hand the scene between the maid Lucy, when she picks up on the fact that would-be poet Bikram, aka Tony, is nicking lines from Shakespeare and Keats, is as funny as it is unlikely.

But all in all there were only two performances I could properly believe in. Helena Melville, as Lydia’s friend Julia, plays her with a true sincerity that is straight out of the 1940s. And the star of the show, in my humble opinion, is Tim Steed, who unlike most of the rest of the cast brings a reality that is both hilarious and occasionally poignant to his character Brian Coventry, manager of the base, thanks to his underplaying and lightness of touch. A true successor to the late and great Ben Whitrow.

Ben Whitrow & yours truly in Happy the Bride, Bradford, 1960s
Ben perched on sofa, yours truly behind him,
Happy the Bride

Beckett or Balderdash? (revisited)

The trouble with Ibsen

I was reading an old blog post of 2016 about a play I had just seen and not understood. Was it, I wondered, my stupidity? Or was it a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? (The original is here.)

I came up against this conundrum time and again in my days as a script assessor. When confronted with what seemed like a cleverly-written play that made no sense I had to ask myself, Is it Beckett or is it Balderdash?

It’s not just plays. All creators – writers, painters, composers, architects – who genuinely break new ground are likely to have an uphill battle winning over the general public. Beckett himself – whose Waiting for Godot was received enthusiastically at its premier in France but got a definite thumbs-down in London – might not have become the icon he is had it not been for the critics Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan. The same applies to Harold Pinter’s Birthday Party and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. It takes a far-sighted person to recognise genius, and the rest of us have to run to catch up.


These thoughts were running through my mind while researching for my current novel, which is set in the theatre world in the early 20th century. The Norwegian playwright Ibsen, who is familiar to all of us now, was considered at best subversive and at worst obscene when Bernard Shaw first championed him to British audiences. A Doll’s House, about a cossetted and patronised wife and mother who walks out on her husband and children in order to be able to live the life she wants to live, was originally banned, and could only be performed with a changed ending.

Janet Achurch, the original British Nora in A Doll’s House

Hedda Gabler was likewise considered beyond the pale for featuring a disenchanted married woman who (spoiler alert) kills herself. It originally saw the light of day thanks to an actress called Elizabeth Robins, who hired the Vaudeville Theatre in the Strand in order to mount the play herself along with an actress colleague called Marion Lea, where it was a great success particularly with the Pit and Gallery audiences. (The Examiner of Plays, aka the Censor, eventually granted the play a license saying “all the characters looked as though they had escaped from a lunatic asylum.”)[1]

Elizabeth Robins, the original West End Hedda Gabler

Ghosts, which featured a young illegitimate man suffering from syphilis, could only be presented as a one-off performance by the private theatre company The Independent Theatre.

Censorship is not the same as Fear of the New of course, although they were definitely interconnected in the days of Edwardian theatre. The Examiner of Plays at that time was a former bank manager – “a man of strong convictions and limited intelligence”[2] apparently – who admitted he could or would not explain the principles behind his decisions except to say they generally followed “the code of a gentleman’s club”.

Which brings me back to my original topic: since theatre has by and large progressed in leaps rather than gentle steps, how is the humble script assessor, who is probably quite a lowly individual in the hierarchy of a theatre, to recognise the world’s new Ibsen, or Beckett or Pinter or Kane or Ravenhill, all of whom in different ways set out to challenge the status quo?

Would you recognise such a person? Would I?

© Patsy Trench
London June 2022


[1] Elizabeth Robins, Staging a Life, by Angela John

[2] The Edwardian Turn of Mind by Samuel Hynes

Peggy For You

Back in the Dark Ages when I was working as a playscout (scouting for new plays for possible production in Germany) I spent a good deal of my time talking to writers’ agents, and it seemed every other playwright was represented by Peggy Ramsay. I didn’t deal directly with her, thank goodness (foreign rights were handled by her assistant Tom Erhardt) – I was only too aware of her reputation and I was very easily intimidated.

According to reputation she was bombastic, domineering, opinionated and highly idiosyncratic. She also had an unerring ability to spot a good play and she would do absolutely anything for a writer she considered talented, whether he or she – it was almost invariably he – was a newcomer or an old hand. She was less interested in money than in the work itself and she loved  people such as Joe Orton, whom she championed despite – or maybe partly because of – his oddball personality.

Tamsin Greig (hampsteadtheatre.com)

Not all of these qualities are obvious in Alan Plater’s play Peggy For You, which is being revived at Hampstead Theatre with Tamsin Greig as Peggy. This ‘day-in-the-life’ features a fledgling playwright whose first play Peggy dismisses with a comment that it has two good scenes and an awful title – not exactly illuminating – a successful client who to her surprise and disapproval is about to get married, and an angry and jaundiced older Geordie playwright called Henry who is struggling to support his family.  

For me the play comes alive in the second act, when the wonderfully-written – and performed, by Trevor Fox – Henry (not Alan Plater himself, surely?) gives his agent a piece of his mind and threatens to leave, especially when she tells him off for being a happily married man who is ‘less interesting’ now than he was when she first took him on. He is unimpressed by her bombast and what he perceives to be her lack of attention to detail.

I could see his point. The problem was what I couldn’t see were Peggy’s unique abilities, her extraordinary insights into writing and writers, the reason why she attracted all these top-notch writers to her in the first place. Some of this may have been to do with Tamsin Greig’s slightly low-key performance. But anyone who didn’t know anything of Ms Ramsay beforehand might well have wondered what it was about her that set her apart from everyone else in her field.

It’s an entertaining evening, no doubt about it, but to me a less than penetrating study of a legendary woman.

Peggy For You runs until 29 January 2022. https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2021/peggy-for-you/

Romeo & Juliet: a production for our times

The NT has been busy since lockdown over a year ago now. First they streamed one of their archived shows weekly, for free; then they opened briefly to allow just a few people in to see an audience-distanced production of Death of England: Delroy, in a reconfigured Olivier Theatre – the final performance of which they hastily filmed and streamed when we locked down for a second time. Then again they opened up briefly, with Dick Whittington, which again was hastily filmed and streamed when lockdown three arrived.

Now we have a brand new production of Romeo and Juliet, filmed during lockdown on stage over seventeen days in an empty Lyttelton Theatre and transmitted in the UK on Sky Arts last Sunday.

R & J is a notoriously difficult play. Two young people meet at a masked ball, fall in love at first sight (still masked), meet briefly on Juliet’s balcony, get married, spend one night together and – spoiler alert – kill themselves.

Jessie Buckley, Lucian Msamati & Josh O’Connor (NT website)

One of the problems is casting. Romeo and Juliet were very young, but very young actors don’t always have the depth of experience to make such a preposterous story believable. Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley are not that young, and they have a wealth of experience between them. The result is miraculous. There is something so raw, so inevitable about their love for one another. It’s a long time since I’ve felt so moved by the play and so absorbed in its tragic inevitability. This was largely thanks to the central performances, and to those around them. Tamsin Grieg as Lady Capulet is given much of Lord Capulet’s speeches, making her the dominant – and icy cold – member of that family. Her subsequent grief at the death of her daughter is utterly heart-breaking. Deborah Findlay is a warm and flustered nurse whose divided loyalties are sharply accentuated. Mercutio and Benvolio are apparently an item. Lucian Msamati doubles as the Prologue and an emotionally conflicted Friar Lawrence.  Adrian Lester is an authoritative and angry Prince of Verona, even in a t shirt.

The production, heavily edited and directed by Simon Godwin, plays with its surroundings. First we are in rehearsal, on stage and backstage, then we are in Juliet’s bedroom or the Capulet’s living room. Juliet runs through empty rooms with huge doors. The iron safety curtain plays a major role, which traps the Friar and under which Mercutio and his friends crawl to escape their enemies. Romeo and Juliet play tag around a trolley containing stage props. (I believe I’ve seen this trolley on backstage tours.)  Towards the end we are back in rehearsal again, reminding us that this is very much a Romeo and Juliet in times of Covid.  

Fisayo Akinade (Mercutio) and Shubham Saraf (Benvolio) (nationaltheatre.org.uk)

To quote from the website: ‘Romeo & Juliet  premiered at 9pm on Sunday 4 April and will be repeated on Sky Arts on Thursday 8 April at 10pm. It is also available to watch online any time with a NOW TV entertainment pass or Sky subscription.’

It is showing in the US on PBS on 23 April (coincidentally – or not – Shakespeare’s birthday).

DON’T MISS IT.

Patsy Trench
April 2021

Theatre in lockdown part 4: The Original Theatre Company.

London’s theatres went into lockdown on 16 March 2020. (The date is stamped in my memory as it was the day before I was due to see Uncle Vanya.)

It was sudden, to say the least. Actors and audiences alike were given about an hour’s notice. The lockdown was also, initially, ‘advisory’ – which I believe was a way of avoiding insurance obligations. In a stroke, actors, designers, technicians and producers were rendered out of work, with no sign – for some time – of respite or financial help.

The NATIONAL THEATRE stepped in, with alacrity. For several months they streamed a play a week, free, from their archives. THE SHOWS MUST GO ON, set up by NBC Universal, did the same thing, beginning with Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals.

This was a life-saver, but there was a snag. Audiences got used to watching first-rate West End and Broadway productions for free (though donations were much needed and appreciated). The smaller theatre companies, left high and dry, could not compete.

One lesser-known touring company, THE ORIGINAL THEATRE COMPANY, is a case in point. Their production of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art was due to begin touring the UK. When the shutters closed they filmed it instead and streamed it, charging, as I remember, a ‘pay what you can’ token fee. Then, with no experience of filming they set up ORIGINAL THEATRE ONLINE and decided to mount a new version of an earlier production, Birdsong, on Zoom. As ambitions go it doesn’t get much braver than that. (See my review of it here: https://londontheatrevisits.com/2020/07/02/theatre-in-lockdown-part-two-birdsong/)

(theatreweekly.com)

They had huge problems: with sound, synchronisation, lighting and with rights. Having set a deadline of 1 July – the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme – and garnered a good deal of publicity, they had to stick to it. After a lot of experimentation they settled on actors filming themselves individually, in their homes, on their mobile phones, in full costume and makeup, in front of green screens. All this was put together by filmmaker Tristan Shephard in two weeks and resulted in a massive hit that deservedly won them five star reviews from the international press.

Since then they’ve produced three more plays written and filmed during lockdown: Watching Rosie, with Miriam Margolyes, Apollo 13 by Torben Betts and, currently, The Haunting of Alice Bowles, adapted by Philip Franks from an M R James short story.

(originaltheatrecompany.com)

They have also filmed a three-parter called Home Made: The Evolution of Original Theatre Online, in which the artistic director, Alistair Whatly, tells the full story of the company’s remarkable transformation.

It is the best example I have come across of remarkable innovation and sheer guts in the face of disaster.

The Haunting of Alice Bowles is streaming until 28 February, tickets £15.

The Habit of Art is also streaming until 28 February, tickets £10.

Next up is Good Grief, streaming from 15 Feb to 15 April, tickets £39.

Details of these productions and Home Made (free to watch, donations very welcome) can be found here: https://originaltheatreonline.com/productions

Patsy Trench
© January 2021

A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Old Vic

With London zipping from total lockdown to Tier 2 and now Tier 3, theatres have been opening and closing like malfunctioning automatic doors. Covid is proving hugely disruptive to everyone around the world, but possibly more so to theatre workers, most of whom are freelance.

As I posted before there were supposed to be three versions of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL running simultaneously in London. But with the Bridge and Dominion Theatres due to close tonight the only version available, albeit in streamed version, is courtesy of the Old Vic.

oldvic.com

Theatre makers are having to become film makers now. The Old Vic’s In Camera series, where actors perform live to an empty theatre and the play is streamed live to audiences around the globe, is one of the few innovations that has managed to keep going through this awful pandemic year.

A Christmas Carol is a story that never fails to tug at the heartstrings, and this version, by Jack Thorne, is no exception. Scrooge is a comparatively youthful chap and is ably, and movingly, played by Andrew Lincoln. He is well supported by a cast of actors, singers and glass ringers (making music with glasses, a lovely touch), a live band and some very fancy and ghostly special effects.

It is not the same as the live experience, not by a long chalk. I found the split screen distracting – it is often split into three, which means that two people talking to one another appear in different sections of the screen and it is difficult to visualise them, or to connect properly with them, especially when one actor jumps from one section to another. And the sound values were a bit all over the place (though that may well be my television). The modern additions – the appearance of Scrooge’s tyrannical father, to partly explain how Scrooge ended up as he did, and his meeting up with his old love Belle – fit in well without seeming overly ‘woke’. Despite the over-complicated camera work, I was utterly moved and engrossed throughout.

Covid has produced some wonderful innovations – as one would expect from creative people. Personally speaking I prefer my streamed plays plain, in full screen. The original was set in the round, and I can well imagine how wonderfully engaging that would have been. Nothing could replace that. But being able to watch a play ‘live’ on one’s television screen at home is the closest one can get now to the real thing.

The play is running until 24 December at 7pm each evening. Tickets are available here: https://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2020/old-vic-in-camera/a-christmas-carol-5

Uncle Vanya on screen

Sometimes a production comes together so completely and seamlessly you forget you are watching actors on a stage, or – in this case – on a screen.

I missed out on the stage production of Uncle Vanya by one day. The axe fell on the show, as on other West End shows, on 16 March. They re-scheduled it to open again in May (how optimistic was that), and I booked again, and it was cancelled again.

(unclevanyacinema.com)

But now here it is again, this time on screen, filmed during lockdown in an empty Harold Pinter theatre, and how lucky I feel to have been able to see it at long last. To say it is perfect is not an exaggeration. From the setting to the lighting to the adaptation (Conor McPherson), to the cast, every single one of them, we are right there in the room with the hapless Vanya (Toby Jones), his sweet niece Sonya (Aimee Lee Wood), the world-weary Dr Astrov (Richard Armitage), loyal Nana (the still beautiful Anna Calder-Marshall) and impoverished neighbour Telegin (Peter Wight) as they roll around their dilapidated farm somewhere in rural Russia.

I know the play well. A century ago in my acting days I played Sonya, the pure-hearted, stalwart niece of the title character, the most – the one – uncomplicated character in the whole piece. Plain and idealistic, she is hopelessly and heart-breakingly in love with Dr Astrov, and he only has eyes for the beautiful Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar), who is married to Sonya’s father, the Professor (Roger Allum). At the age of nineteen or so I empathised with her completely.

The adaptation is absolutely spot on. Edging close to anachronism but never overstepping the line. Bringing the play utterly up to date while retaining its late 19th century sensibilities. Astrov’s speech about the wrecking of the environment could have been written yesterday, by Richard Attenborough or Greta Thunberg.

Bravo to every single one of them, and especially to director Ian Rickson. An absolute marvel. Why this production didn’t sweep the boards of the Olivier Awards is beyond me.

The film premiered yesterday and is showing again in certain cinemas on Sunday. https://www.unclevanyacinema.com/ It’s also due to appear on the BBC as some point.

Here’s a lovely review by Sarah Crompton from whatsonstage. https://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/reviews/uncle-vanya-harold-pinter-armitage_50759.html.

Richard Armitage and Aimee Lee Wood (whatsonstage.com)

There are advantages to lockdown, and Uncle Vanya is one of them. We get to see the actors in close-up, we see the sweat, and the tears (no glycerine here I don’t think). As with Andrew Scott in Three Kings and Michael Sheen, David Threlfall and Indira Varma in Faith Healer – both productions streamed live from an empty Old Vic – this is acting in the raw. Acting so sublime it is not acting at all. A dazzling light in what is turning out to be a long, dark, Covid tunnel.

Patsy Trench
London, October 2020

London in Tier 2 lockdown

Wow, the rules change every minute. Tier 2 lockdown means we can only socialise with one other household in our ‘bubble’, and as far as I can tell we are allowed one bubble only.

However, the THEATRE goes on. I have so far come across THREE very different productions of A CHRISTMAS CAROL opening in the next month or so.

THE BRIDGE THEATRE is presenting a three-person version of the story devised and directed by Nicholas Hytner and featuring Simon Russell Beale, Patsy Ferran and Eben Figueiredo. It runs from 27 November to 16 January. Bookings open 20 October. https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/

THE OLD VIC’s version is part of their ‘In camera’ season, which means it will be performed in an empty theatre and streamed live all over the world. This is Matthew Warchus’ ‘big-hearted, smash hit production of Charles Dickens’ immortal classic’ adapted by Jack Thorne. Bookings open in November. https://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2020/old-vic-in-camera/a-christmas-carol-5

THE DOMINION THEATRE is presenting ‘a socially distanced production of Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent’s A Christmas Carol musical’ from the beginning of December 2020, with Brian Connelly as Scrooge. ‘The production will feature a symphonic 24 piece orchestra and an all-star West End cast, with over 50 artists set to be on stage.’ It sounds ambitious, though I’m not sure what a ‘symphonic 24 piece orchestra is’.  https://www.whatsonstage.com/shows/west-end-theatre/a-christmas-carol_235143 Tkts from £33.75.

It seems that theatres will keep running as long as they are able to, even if London goes into a fiercer lockdown. Light on the horizon perhaps.

Patsy Trench
October 2020

.

London still in (partial) lockdown

London is a strange and slightly sad place these days. The West End is virtually empty, and though pockets of it – the parks in particular – are pretty well-populated on a day when it’s not raining, there is none of the usual vibrancy, let alone the crowds that I and so many others usually complain about.

Piccadilly Circus

Art galleries are open, for the most part, though you have to book your visit online ahead of time, and then find an entrance that is actually open and then follow a one-way system. Cinemas likewise. At the BFI they have actually removed every other seat so even if you go with a friend you’re socially distanced from them. And there’s no point turning up early and having a nice meander around the building as most of it other than the cinemas themselves is closed. If you want to get a cup of tea you have to order and pay using a QR app. It’s all very Brave New World.

(That said, bearing in mind the difficulties, the staff in these places are exceptionally friendly and helpful.)

HOWEVER there are signs of life. The National Theatre is presenting a one-man play called The Death of England, Delroy, in a reconfigured – in the round, and again socially-distanced – Olivier Theatre, beginning October 21.

The Bridge Theatre is presenting Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues and An Evening With an Immigrant (performed by Barber Shop Chronicles writer Inua Ellams). Great for one-person plays, not so good for actors in general.

The National Theatre now

 Hampstead Theatre is re-presenting its cancelled-pre-Covid production of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter from 18 November to 19 December, socially-distanced, stating ‘the air in the main house auditorium is changed completely every 4 minutes and 45 seconds’. https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

Southwark Playhouse is already running its pre-Covid production of The Last Five Years. https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/the-last-five-years/

Meanwhile in the West End, according to the Evening Standard, Nimax Theatres are opening up some shows any minute now, viz.

This Is Going To Hurt, with Adam Kay (Apollo Theatre) October 22-November 8
Six the Musical (Lyric Theatre) from November 14
Jimmy Carr (Palace Theatre) November 16-21
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Apollo Theatre) from November 1
The Play That Goes Wrong (Duchess Theatre) from November 19
https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/theatre/london-theatre-reopen-coronavirus-lockdown-lifted-a4433986.html

I don’t know how the commercial West End can afford to run their shows with reduced capacity audiences, but good on Nimax Theatres for giving it a go. I’m sure local cafes and restaurants will be more than glad to see some life back in the West End – that’s if they’ve survived so far.

Fingers crossed more theatres will be opening up soon. Meanwhile actors are still having a very hard time and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, so if you able to send a donation no matter how small, the theatre world will SMILE on you and wish all your dreams will come true.

http://www.actingforothers.co.uk.

Patsy Trench
London, October 2020