Second To Nun

MISTRESS OF NOVICES at the Piccadilly Theatre, London W1.

The story of Bernadette Soubirous, the French peasant girl who saw the vision of the Virgin Mary in a grotto in Lourdes was brought to the screen in 1942. To the best of my knowledge, I can’t recall any previous play being written on this subject, and John Kerr the author is to be congratulated on tackling successfully what must have been a difficult subject to translate into stage terms.

His play tells the story of Bernadette from the time of her retreat into a nunnery until her death. He has used the device of placing a nun on either side of the stage, in the manner of a Greek chorus, standing at lecterns from which they read various dates and happenings to introduce each scene.

We are shown her arrival where she is introduced to the novices and staff by the Mother General of the Convent of Nevers.
Bernadette is requested to tell them about her visitations, and then is asked to answer questions from the women present. She is told that the subject of her visions need no longer be discussed, but as one had expected it is mentioned often during the course of the play.

Rita Tushingham in a traumatic scene from ‘Mistress of Novices’. Photograph: Morris Newcombe

The central plot deals with the inability of the Mistress of Novices to accept Bernadette’s visions as being truthful. Having devoted her entire life to the service of God, she cannot accept that an ignorant peasant girl would be chosen for this honour. In showing the emotional conflict between these two women, the author has drawn two perfect portraits. Bernadette, firm in her belief, manages to over come her physical ailments and conform to the harsh discipline of the nunnery. On the other hand, her antagonist is at times a soul in torment, beset by her doubts.

Rita Tushingham returns to the stage after too long an absence to give a most touching performance of natural humility as Bernadette. Her death scene is an exceptionally moving moment. Barbara Jefford makes a striking figure of the title role, whether handing out penances to the novices or demanding further proof from Bernadette on the subject of her visions. Another welcome appearance comes from Margaretta Scott as the Mother Superior. The clarity of her voice should serve as an object lesson to all aspiring young actresses.

Flotsam, Jetsam And Then Some

SMALL CRAFT WARNINGS at the Hampstead Theatre Club, Swiss Cottage.

Together with Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams must surely rate as one of the greatest contemporary American playwrights. Since the mid 40’s when his ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ burst upon the London stage, he has given us a wealth of compelling, soul-searching plays. Many of these have transferred successfully to the screen, and in most he has written particularly strong roles for the female leads. One publicity report in recent years claims that he wrote most of his leading roles with Anna Magnani and Marlon Brando in mind. The last play of his to appear in the West End several years ago was ‘Period Of Adjustment’. This was not a particularly successful venture, and since then, though he has had new plays produced on or off Broadway, none have reached our shores ’til now.

In SMALL CRAFT WARNINGS he makes a welcome return to the London theatre, explosive moments, but watch her in the setting his characters in a sleazy waterfront bar on the Californian coast. O’Neill used this setting to good effect in one of my favourite plays ‘The Iceman Cometh’, and William Saroyan also found himself a winner by using a barroom for his play ‘The Time Of Your Life’. Both these authors used a wide range of characters, and there were a good many well written cameo scenes involving two or more characters at a time. Unfortunately Williams only gives us 9 characters, and has not allowed much interplay between them.

The losers and boozers of life that use this bar are familiar to us from previous Williams plays, but once again he enlivens the proceedings by having them philosophise about their lives. His observance of human frailty and loneliness are once again pinpointed right on target.

The proceedings are dominated by Elaine Stritch, playing Leona, a middle-aged beautician who has reached the end of a 6 month affair with a worthless ageing stud. She is celebrating the anniversary of the death of her brother when the play commences, and makes her entrance flinging a deluge of abuse at her lover. Vivian Matelon’s direction of the play has allowed her to overstate in her quiet moments of the play as she observes the people around her. Particularly moving is the scene where she questions and talks to two homosexuals. Her expressive face as she listens to them is a story in itself. She has been to hell and back, and one can identify with her resilience towards the hardships of life.

The other inhabitants of the bar include an alcoholic doctor who has been barred from the profession but continues to perform the occasional operation, played by George Pravda, and a homosexual hack screen writer perceptively portrayed by Tony Beckley who delivers one of the author’s most telling speeches. Edward Judd as the insensitive stud gives another of his fine performances.

Perhaps the most typical of all Williams’ creations is the character of the half-wit derelict girl, who is ready to accept the first offer given to her. She is played to perfection by Frances de la Tour.

FOOTNOTE: Since this review was written we have heard that the production is to open at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London W1, on March 13.

Formula For A Play

DEAD EASYRecently playing at Richmond Theatre, Richmond.

Take one well known stage, film and TV personality – in this case Irene Handl – and cast her in the role of a friendly cockney charlady. Set the action in the offices of a London business firm, and have a murder committed within the opening moments of the play. Have the Detective Superintendent in charge of the case portrayed as a big, burly, miserable type to contrast with Irene’s lovable character. Then have her solve the case for him after sprinkling some red herrings along the way. The result was titled BUSYBODY and had quite a successful run a few years ago at the Duke of York’s Theatre.

Now let a few years elapse and present a play called DEAD EASY. Cast Irene Handl in the role of a friendly cockney charlady.

Set the scene in the offices of a London business firm, and let her discover a dead body early in the proceedings. Let the Detective Superintendent in charge of the case be a humourless man who can’t solve the three murders that ensue, and let Irene solve the case for him.

With the exception of the various murders the two plays are almost identical. DEAD EASY is touring around and might reach the West End. Irene Handl gives yet another of her lovable, friendly performances, but other than that there isn’t much to recommend it.

Theatre In The Round

MY FAT FRIEND at the Globe Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1.

Television writer Charles Laurence has used his experience in writing slick dialogue for such shows as ‘Now Take My Wife’, to good avail in this new stage comedy. He has provided Kenneth Williams with a deluge of sharp-edged remarks to fire at all and sundry – and admirers of Williams will know there is nobody around who can top him for acid-tongued delivery. I realise that a little of Mr Williams goes a long way (and here he is on stage almost throughout) but he is served well by the author, and manages to employ all of his many voices during the evening. At times the laughter of the audience began to sound like one of those dreary TV shows which use ‘canned laughter’ and there were moments when I wished the cast would pause just a moment longer, so that none of the dialogue was missed.

The play is set in the lounge and kitchen of a house in Hampstead. The owner is an overweight young woman who runs a bookshop adjoining the house. She has two tenants, one a young Scot who assists her in the shop, as well as doing most of the cooking in the house. Her other tenant is Kenneth Williams, playing (of all things) a civil servant. The bohemian atmosphere of the household is well established in the opening scenes, showing that none of the 3 characters are involved with each other sexually. However, the author has given Williams one extremely funny scene where he attempts a mock seduction of the other male tenant in the house.

After opening with a lavatory joke, I was relieved to find the humour improved by the minute with Williams berating the girl for being so fat, and going through every type of ‘fat joke’ in existence. She herself seems unconcerned about her appearance, but when a young man wanders into the shop in search of travel books and invites her out to dine, she has a change of heart.

An overnight romance begins before the man flies abroad for 4 months. It is then that Williams gets the idea for the girl to go on a crash diet and there follows some amusing moments involving a mobile sauna, as well as our heroine returning from a sprint on Hampstead Heath dressed in a ‘track suit’.

After an evening of such fast and witty dialogue, it was interesting to find a few quiet moments towards the close of the play that suddenly showed great insight into the main characters. Kenneth Williams is of course a delight, and it is a tribute to his talent that one never feels he is upstaging anyone else, as indeed the other 3 players are all allowed to make their presence felt. Jennie Linden is admirable in the title role, and two impressive West End debuts are made by John Harding as the serious young Scot, and Bernard Holley as Miss Linden’s admirer.

Bunny Ain’t Funny

BUNNY at the Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly Circus, London.

I have endured many of life’s disasters by holding on to the belief that ‘nothing is as bad as it seems’. However, this thought did not work for me as I sat watching this new Norman Krasna comedy titled BUNNY. The evening comprised two one-act plays about a high class call girl operating in New York.

I’ve grown so used to seeing Eartha Kitt over the years as that smouldering tigress that I was not ready for her giggling, at times almost hysterical portrayal of Bunny the call-girl. The play uses that device so popular in restoration comedy of having her walk stage centre and address the audience directly from time to time. This is usually a fun moment in a play providing the person doing the talking has some amusing comment to make. Alas, all Miss Kitt’s writers have given her is a prolonged chat about what will occur next. This style of theatre reaches a new low at interval time when our Eartha once again slips in front of the curtains to remind us not to smoke in the auditorium.

The second play was admittedly an improvement due to the fortunate casting of David Kossoff as an elderly Jewish business man who keets Miss Kitt and proceeds to have a platonic friendship with her. Their playing together is very good and both players are worthy of better material.

Having been an admirer of Eartha Kitt’s since the days when she was a dancer in the Katherine Dunham company (and she practically stopped the show with her one solo song) it saddens me to say that for once the magic doesn’t work. Come back soon, Eartha, in a better vehicle.

There’s Gold In Them Thar Hills


Can you imagine the excitement in the cinema industry when SOUND was first invented? Many productions awaiting release were hauled back and had sections of dialogue added, and soon the silent films were a thing of the past. With the advent of sound, Hollywood soon began a rush of musical pictures to fully utilise this new invention. Each of the studios had their own ideas about the musicals they produced, but the first really big success story began in March 1933 when Warners released 42nd STREET.

A few years earlier when Eddie Cantor moved from the Broadway stage to Hollywood to make some musicals for Sam Goldwyn, he persuaded a young dance director, Busby Berkeley to go with him. He made four films with Cantor before being signed by the Warner studio to assist on the dancing sequences of 42nd STREET. The rest is screen history. So successful was this first back-stage musical that Berkeley then continued as dance director on a further 3 successes with the studio before being assigned solo directing chore on GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935.

Through the years his brilliant, inventive ideas have graced many good musical sequences in films, but to this day it is the initial Warner Bros set of musicals that are remembered best by film buffs all over the world.

Good news therefore, that United Artists have now compiled an excellent package containing 8 of these sound track recordings. Having seen all these films several times over the years, I realise that these are shortened versions, as in the films themselves each number ran about half as long again. To anyone not fortunate enough to have seen even a brief clipping on TV from any of these beautifully staged productions, it is hard to describe the workmanship that went into them, and the end result was always a delight to the eye.

With the exception of ‘By A Waterfall’ all the songs featured were written by composer Harry Warren and lyricist A1 Dubin. Both went on through the years giving the public other long remembered songs such as ‘You’ll Never Know’ and ‘On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe’ among others.

DICK POWELL at the time was known only as a singer, and what one would describe as a juvenile lead. He later had a second career in the 40’s in crime films. Here he can be found singing ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, ‘The Shadow Waltz’ and ‘By A Waterfall’. RUBY KEELER who’s frantic tap dancing has remained a source of laughter to many was equally famous as the leading lady of many of these films as she was as the wife of Al Jolson. After many years of retirement she returned to Broadway with big success in NO, NO, NANETTE once more under the direction of Berkeley. She sings the title song ‘42nd Street’ here, as well as joining Powell in two of his songs. JAMES CAGNEY, famous for his tough guy portrayals began his career in Vaudeville and this record proves a souvenir of his first appearance in a musical, singing ‘Shanghai Lil’.

Pert and cuddly JOAN BLONDELL still makes the odd screen appearance, and in those days was mostly featured as the friend of the heroine, getting the best laugh lines and helping out now and again in the song department. On this record she sings ‘My Forgotten Man’ which was a dramatically staged production number inspired by the depression years. WINFRED SHAW, here singing ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ (which won an Oscar for Best song of that year), made other screen musicals, none of them well known, but she did get the chance to introduce two other long time favourites during her career, namely ‘Too Marvellous For Words’ and ‘The Lady In Red’.

I think the 8 songs featured here would be enjoyable whether you know them beforehand or not. There is an added introduction and conclusion by another of the screen’s tough guys, George Raft, and United Artists are to be congratulated on the attractive stand-up display the sleeve forms into, as well as their comprehensive line notes and many attractive pictures from these productions.

The Good Old, Good Old Days

THE GOOD OLD, BAD OLD DAYS at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Coventry Street.

I can’t understand the London critics. To a man they picked out adjectives like ‘pretentious’ and ‘mannered’ to use about this new show. Even those that praised it had their own share of misgivings.

Often I’ve felt that it depends on the mood you’re in as regards your enjoyment of a show, and the night in question I arrived very tired after a hard day’s work. Hardly the best frame of mind to fully enjoy a new musical. But as soon as the curtain rose on that brilliantly staged title song the show got my interest and held it throughout. The score, like previous works of Bricusse and Newley, was tuneful, the lyrics in turn intelligent and witty. The dancing, staged by Paddy Stone, inventive and full of flair.

The plot, a series of conversations between God and the Devil, has the latter defending mankind by telling the history of the world, in an effort to prove to God that man has not always been responsible for the bad things that have occurred on earth. God is enthroned on a glittering gold throne and makes several appearances descending from heaven, whilst Newley as the Devil, makes his first appearance from the floors of hell.

The score embodies many types of song. The 2nd act opener ‘It’s A Musical World’ and the tuneful ‘People Tree’ are both likely to become standards on a par with this teams’s other good songs. ‘Cotton Picking Moon’, performed by Newley (doing an Al Jolson) aided by black-faced minstrels armed with tambourines and banjoes during the American Civil War sequence is a riot of fun, and ‘Thanksgiving Day’ is a pretty tune sung by the Pilgrim Fathers on landing in America.

Of the other songs I feel that ‘The Good Things In Life’ and ‘The Fool Who Dares To Dream’ may not have the success they deserve, but they are lovely tunes nonetheless. Before the first act ends there are 3 very fine songs that form part of a trilogy ‘Today’ sung by Newley, ‘Tomorrow’ a song full of hope, sung by Terry Mitchell, and ‘Yesterday’ dramatically performed by Caroline Villiers. I’d be more than satisfied by any musical that merely had these 3 songs featured, so good are they in both melody and lyric.

Paul Bacon makes a dignified God, with a beautiful speaking voice and melodious singing one. Both Terry Mitchell and Caroline Villiers put over their songs ably, and Julia Sutton does a riotous Ruby Keeler take-off with Newley in the big Broadway finale.

There remains Newley who is on stage pretty much throughout the show. There are, as with all big personalities, two schools of thought about him, and I have met people who can’t stand him. Personally I think he’s always been one of our biggest talents, and right here and now in this show he’s at his performing peak, whether it be getting a laugh from a comedy item or wringing every ounce of emotion out of a song such as ‘The Good Things In Life’. Yes, you got the picture – I liked the show.

Deb’s Back In Town

THE DAY AFTER THE FAIR at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue.

Many years ago Deborah Kerr made her film debut in Shaw’s MAJOR BARABARA, and proceeded to become one of Britain’s biggest screen stars. She eventually went to Hollywood for a co-starring role with Clark Gable and for a time her career reached a standstill until somebody had the bright idea of casting her as the adulterous wife in the film FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. On this occasion I found her unconvincing, but as a result of this film she received an Oscar nomination and bigger roles followed. She went on to star in THE KING AND I, TEA AND SYMPATHY, and many other important films, receiving along the way 6 Oscar nominations.

Through the years her loveliness and grace has never diminished and it is good news that she is back with us again on the West End stage. The vehicle she has chosen to star in, THE DAY AFTER THE FAIR is based on a short story by Robert Hardy, and is the kind of play designed particularly for women audiences.

The plot tells of a servant girl’s seduction by a young barrister and her collusion with the mistress of the house in writing letters to him. When the girl finds herself pregnant he is summoned to the house, and it is soon apparent that he has fallen in love with the writer of the letters. Unknown to him it is Miss Kerr who has been busily writing them, and in an unconvincing scene earlier on she tells the maid that it is her letters that have retained his interest. However the girl persuades her mistress not to divulge the truth to him and the play reaches its sad but convincing conclusion. Julia Foster as the maid once again gives an excellent account of herself, though I always feel she lacks charm, a point made even more obvious whilst watching Miss Kerr’s graceful presence.

It may be unchivalrous to say this, but I felt at times that Miss Kerr has lost some of her stage technique, resorting as she does to comic bits of ‘stage business’ and facial grimaces to get her point across to the audience But for all that it is a joy to welcome her back to the London Theatre, and 1 hope this will lead to other stage appearances in the future.

All About Margo

APPLAUSE at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket.

The London critics to a man have sung the praises of Lauren Bacall for her appearance in the musical APPLAUSE, and I can but echo their comments. It is difficult to find any new adjectives not already showered on her, and I am grateful that for once the original star of a Broadway show has graced our shores. We’ve missed out in the past on seeing the original ‘Dolly’, and of course Merman in ‘Gypsy’, but here after a two year wait is the Margo Channing we’ve heard so much about.

Bacall first burst upon the screen in a Hemingway story titled TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and was instantly hailed as a promising new star. In those days everybody quite rightly ‘The Look’. With her provocative eyes and smouldering sexuality she delivered lines such as ‘If you want anything, just whistle’ to perfection.

In her earlier films she didn’t always get the chance to prove her worth as an actress, appearing more as a ‘personality’, but when Fox gave her the role of a cynical gold was tagged with a ‘nickname’ and hers was digger in HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE she came into her own, making a perfect contrast to those two dumb blondes Monroe and Grable. Later in Metro’s DESIGNING WOMAN she again had a role worthy of her talents, and I was hopeful that she might appear more often in this type of sophisticated comedy.

However, her appearances became less frequent, though her last one in THE MOVING TARGET (alias HARPER) proved that she had lost none of her talent for delivering witty dialogue. I bless whoever had the idea of bringing her to the stage to portray Margo Channing, as I truly can’t imagine anyone else doing the role as well as her.

The Mary Orr story THE WISDOM OF EVE is supposedly based on an incident in the life of Elizabeth Bergner, famous European star of the 30’s. When Fox purchased the story, Joseph L Manckiewicz re-worked the script, basing it on Tallulah Bankhead and incidents that occurred when she starred in a Broadway play.

Claudette Colbert was the original actress chosen to play Margo, but when she fell ill, Bette Davis replaced her and went on to score one of her greatest triumphs. ALL ABOUT EVE received a total of 14 Academy Award nominations and won seven Oscars. The film has become a favourite with movie buffs everywhere and is up there with the big money makers of all time.

I am surprised that it took so long for its conversion into a musical as the plot lends itself so well to musical numbers. Comden and Green are responsible for the book, and these clever writers have already given joy to theatre and cinemagoers with their writing. Their book incorporates a lot of the original film script plus many funny new lines. There is a noticeable effort to remind the audience that this is a NOW show. For example at one point we are treated to the sight of the derrieres of 3 of the chorus boys, and there’s even a mention of Screw magazine thrown in for good measure.

The character of Eve is a complex one, part Cinderella and part Wicked Witch. The one flaw I found with both film and show is that I felt these show business people would never be taken in by her for one moment. Ann Baxter’s subtle performance managed to overcome this fault admirably. I’ve met a few Eve Harringtons in my life (believe me you don’t have to be a Broadway star to come across them) and one can’t always spot them in the beginning. In this show Angela Richards is most believable in the role of Eve – she is all sweetness and light for just the right amount of time (perhaps a longer period than in the film) before she shows her true colours. In her last big scene near the end where she sings ‘One Halloween’ she really lets loose, and we see the tigress hidden just below the surface.

Ken Walsh as the hairdresser is the only one who is on to Eve’s tricks from the beginning, and he is a valuable asset to the show. Sheila O’Neill scores well, as she does in every show, with her vivacious singing and dancing of the title song, and later in ‘She’s No Longer A Gypsy’. I wasn’t too struck by the choreography, having to agree with a friend who remarked that each routine ended with ‘Good Friday arms’.

The music by Charles Strouse is unmemorable, but in several instances I was noticeably pleased with Lee Adam’s lyrics, especially in Bacall’s cynical first act closer, ‘Welcome To the Theatre’.

As for Lauren Bacall herself, I can only reiterate and borrow from Miss Stein – “A star is a star is a star” … Her curtain call at the finale was ‘something else’ – standing triumphantly on an empty stage in a shimmering black dress she looked like a million dollars — and rightly deserved the bravos from her audience.

Theatre For Christmas

Someone in the editorial collective decided it would be a nice idea if I would select what I thought were suitable shows for our readers to see at Christmas, as that’s the time of year a lot of folk take an occasional visit to the theatre. Firstly take into consideration that we go to press 3 weeks before the actual Christmas week so do check the daily papers to ensure the show you wish to see is still running.

Now it rather depends on the type of show you want to see, and who you are going to take along (if anybody) so I’ll try and categorise those that I consider the best ones.

If you are considering taking along a parent, aunt or anyone approaching middle age, settle for GONE WITH THE WIND at Drury Lane Theatre which has enough glamour to appeal to them, or if you feel a straight play would be preferable I suggest one of the following:

LLOYD GEORGE KNEW MY FATHER at the Savoy Theatre which is a light comedy not likely to offend anyone, and skilfully played by Celia Johnson and Sir Ralph Richardson. Another safe bet is CROWN MATRIMONIAL at the Haymarket Theatre which is the story of Edward VIII’s abdication and would especially appeal to people over 40 who can recall the era when this story took place, and THE DAY AFTER FAIR* at the Lyric Theatre stars the lovely Deborah Kerr in a charming romantic drama.

There are quite a few shows that you can take a child to and that won’t bore you in the process. TOAD OF TOAD HALL is playing at the Jeanette Cochran Theatre, ALICE IN WONDERLAND performed by 10 foot puppets at the Mercury Theatre, Notting Hill Gate sounds interesting, and a new musical version of THE WATER BABIES is due at the Cambridge Theatre, starring Neil Reid of ‘Opportunity Knocks’ fame, with music by John Taylor, the talented composer of ‘Charlie Girl’.

If just you are involved in this theatre trip then let me first mention what is still, in my opinion, the best straight play in town, THE PHILANTHROPIST at the Mayfair Theatre. This forerunner of ‘Butley’ is also set in a college and is likewise all about one of the ‘losers in life’ and it’s an extremely enjoyable evening. Certainly the next best production in town must be LONDON ASSURANCE* at the New Theatre. If you fancy a ‘period piece’ and enjoy first class ensemble playing, this cannot be bettered. My third choice for straight theatre is undoubtedly PRIVATE LIVES at the Queens Theatre, for its witty script and star performance by Maggie Smith, but whether or not you’ll be able to get a seat is another matter entirely.

Which leaves us with the musicals and one revue. HULLA BALOO* at the Criterion Theatre is a fun evening and Rogers and Starr with their blue tinged material will give you a lot of laughs. The two religious musicals are still with us: GODSPELL* at the Wyndhams which I found delightful, and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at the Palace Theatre, which I didn’t care for but everyone else did so I might be wrong. THE DIRTIEST SHOW IN TOWN* is still running at the Duchess Theatre and though I missed a few of the jokes along the way I found it at all times enjoyable. APPLAUSE at Her Majesty’s Theatre is hard to get tickets for, but worth the effort to enjoy Lauren Bacall’s star presence, and as we go to press Tony Newley’s latest musical THE GOOD OLD, BAD OLD DAYS is about to open at the Prince of Wales Theatre and if the score is anything to go by ought to be worth the visit.

One last word regarding theatre prices which are getting higher each year. If you really find front stalls too expensive, but don’t care to be sitting a mile away, I can recommend the back dress circle at those shows marked * as not being too expensive and not too far away. Also the back stalls at Mayfair Theatre for THE PHILANTHROPIST are inexpensive and of course both the Jeannetta Cochran Theatre and Mercury Theatre with their children’s shows are reasonably priced.