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.

Tap, Tap, Here Comes Nostalgia

DAMES AT SEA at the Hampstead Theatre Club, Swiss Cottage, NW3. With nostalgia a key word in entertainment these days it is not surprising that someone had the bright idea of reviving DAMES AT SEA. This delightful parody of all those Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930’s enjoyed a moderate success in London’s West End 3 years ago, and now it’s returned in a shortened version to the Hampstead Theatre Club, showing nightly at 11 pm, until early January.

This backstage musical has for its heroine a naive platinum blonde tap dancer who comes to a Broadway Theatre on the morning she arrives from out of town. She gets a job in the chorus line of a show due to open that night, and is immediately befriended by a tough wisecracking chorine. Our heroine falls in love with a young song writing sailor who momentarily gets involved with the star of the show being produced. The demolition squad arrive to pull down the theatre and somebody suggests that they open the show instead on board the sailor’s battleship. The star falls ill and the heroine goes on in her place that night, and of course, is an overnight success.

That’s the plot in a capsule, but there’s so much more. Firstly, the songs – many of them quite charming, and they rightly remind one of ‘Shuffle off to Buffalo’, ‘We’re In The Money’ and others of that era. Then there is the dancing – in those days no musical was complete without at least one tap dancing routine, and here there are several. How refreshing it is to hear again the clicking of tap shoes, reminding one of a bygone age. Gillian Gregory has done a fine job in arranging the choreography.

The intimate atmosphere of this theatre is admirably suited to this small show which features only 6 performers. Nicholas Bennett, Freddie Eldrett and Richard Owens are the male leads, and they all make their marks with their songs and dancing. As the dumb heroine who makes good, Debbie Bowen is very funny and in her song ‘Raining In My Heart’, is particularly touching. Barbara Young as her friend reminds one of both Joan Blondell and Ginger Rogers and uses her knowledge of revue work to good effect in her witty dialogue and in her singing of ‘Good Times Are Here To Stay’.

There remains Pip Hinton as the temperamental star of the show. I first saw her in INTIMACY AT 8.30 when she was an ingenue in support of the stars of that show, and even then she made her presence felt in every appearance. She has a great sense of humour and a bewitching smile and it delighted me to see her in a role that allows full scope for her fine singing voice and comedy playing.

Paul Ciani has ably directed this grand little show and a year’s membership is very reasonable, and as all seats are only 70p for the late night show I urge you to consider going along to enjoy the fun.

Long Title, Short Play

THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS at Hampstead Theatre Club, Swiss Cottage, NW3.

This is a strange play which unfortunately fails to live up to the promise of its early scenes. The character of Beatrice, an eccentric woman bringing up two teenage daughters and forced to look after an elderly invalid in order to earn money, is very reminiscent of the mother in Tennessee William’s play “The Glass Menagerie”. Similarly, her youngest daughter reminds one of the heroine in that same play. The mother, with her overwhelming burden of responsibility in life is never far away from a nervous breakdown, and her almost non-reaction to her daughter’s sudden success at college is understandable.

In the difficult role of the mother, all nerve ends and near hysteria, Sheila Hancock gives the finest performance of her career. Yvonne Antrobus is extremely moving as the shy and studious daughter, and her awkward stance and forlorn face are entirely in keeping with the role. In perfect contrast is Pamela Moiseiwitsch as her chatty epileptic sister.

Very little occurs on stage ana yet I felt throughout that any moment something special was about to occur. But in spite of its lengthy title the play ended within 2 hours (including a 15 minute interval) and I felt slightly cheated. I feel that I shall have to read the text of this play at a future date as in spite of its shortcomings it left an impression with me.

Old Myths & Prejudices

19720914-04In the Daily Express, on Tuesday Sth September, in an article entitled ‘No Colour in this Garden’, the critic, Ian Christie, fell foul of the old trap of calling homosexuals ‘unnatural’.

His exact words, used while reviewing the play, ‘The Garden’ (at Hampstead Theatre Club), were: ‘The householder (John Paul) is a chap on the brink of old age who is having a homosexual affair with his gardener. The revelation of this unnatural liaison causes grave disquiet to everyone else present on stage.”

Oh, come on Ian Christie, why don’t you look and think a little deeper before perpetuating such myths in your writing? You, being a critic, certainly should have the insight to know better.

Once and for all, to the majority of homosexuals, their sexual preferences are most definitely not ‘unnatural’; to be unnatural would be to deny what they are, no matter what a heterosexually dominated society may think.

The ‘grave disquiet’ from the characters in the play is most possibly due to their own limitations in coming to terms with what well over 4 million people find a perfectly reasonable state of being.

If only writers and critics would realise the damage they cause through forever passing on these old myths and prejudices. In a supposedly enlightened culture, isn’t it ridiculous that such non-understanding and ignorance should be perpetuated?

Just think for a moment the effect words like ‘unnatural’ have on young gays of both sexes, who may be in the middle of coming to terms with themselves and their sexual motivations, in a society that is all too often hostile to any form of behaviour that does not strictly conform to the accepted norm.

I of course know that nothing is going to change overnight, not after so many years of intolerance and persecution, but it would help the struggle of homosexuals everywhere if people in the various forms of media would try and be a little more aware.

I have very scantily touched on this subject of the misinterpretation of gays. In a future issue, I and Gay News hope to inform you considerably more on this unpleasant, continuing situation, with suggestions too of what we can do about it. We will carry on criticising and attacking, in the strongest possible ways, writers such as Ian Christie, for the grave errors they commit towards a sizable minority of the population, who have very little means of answering back.